The people’s theater of Yusuf al-Ani – Modern Iraqi Literature in English Translation
Drama as it is known in the west (a mimetic performance set on stage, requiring conflict, plot, and dialogue exchanged by actors impersonating characters) appeared in Iraq in the closing decades of the Nineteenth Century, some thirty years after its appearance in Lebanon and Egypt. Between 1880-1920, drama in Iraq was confined to parochial and public schools, its purpose being the edification of moral character. Performances were infrequent, consisting mainly of historical and religious plays, with a comedy or a social play occasionally. In addition to local and a few Lebanese plays, the school theater availed itself of translated plays from French and occasionally from Turkish or English. In the 1920s the theater ventured into the public sphere, thanks to literary and nationalist clubs that put on historical plays glorifying the Arab and Muslim past. It was not until the end of the decade, however, that professional companies began to emerge. The Egyptian troupes of George Abyad, Fatima Rushdi, and Yusuf Wahbi, which visited Iraq in the 1920s and 1930s, played a significant role in generating interest in the theater. Haqqi al-Shibli (1913-1985), an Iraqi amateur actor, spent a year with Fatima Rushdi’s troupe in Cairo to polish his acting skills; upon his return to Iraq he formed his own troupe. During its next phase of development in 1920-1950, the Iraqi theater drew inspiration from the Egyptian theater. Plays by Egyptian poets and playwrights like Ahmed Shawqi and Tewfiq al-Hakim provided models for Iraqi playwrights. Moreover, the Egyptian actor Yusuf Wahbi gained popularity in Iraq; his bent for melodrama was to dominate the Iraqi theater well into the 1950s.
During the 1930s and 1940s the Iraqi theater was taking root: local texts became more available (though most writers produced just one play), interest in the theater grew, numerous plays were published and many plays performed, and the Iraqi government provided financial incentives for troupes and established a theater department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad in 1940, headed by Haqqi al-Shibli, who had just spent four years studying dramatic art in France. However, the Iraqi theater made only modest headway, and then only among a limited section of the educated strata in the major cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Basrah. There were several reasons why, despite half a century of existence, the Iraqi theater lagged behind that of Egypt or Lebanon. In addition to high illiteracy, limited contacts with the West, and the fact that Iraq caught up with modern ideas and the Nahdha (Arab Renaissance) later than Egypt and Syria/Lebanon, the conservatism prevailing in Iraqi society at the time was not conducive to a flourishing theater. Put simply, the acting profession was not viewed with much respect, and theatrical activity was all but closed to female participation. There was also competition from the movies, which gained an immense popularity among the Iraqi public.(1) Moreover, Iraqi theater by and large was a theater of amateurs who not only lacked adequate training in dramatic art, but who also were grappling with a new genre whose techniques they were not acquainted with. Acting during the period basically meant a show of one’s skill in oratory. The mise-en-scene was rudimentary; indeed, there was hardly any director from the first half of the Twentieth Century whose name is mentioned in the annals of Iraqi drama, let alone remembered today. Local plays were generally mediocre and suffered from structural defects and inadequate characterization, with many of them written essentially for reading by writers who viewed the play as a literary text rather than as a dramatic one to be performed on stage. More often than not ornate language and flights of rhetoric characterized the dialogue, sometimes with long poems interspersed infelicitously in between. Lastly, playwrights had to confront the thorny issue of the language medium, their compromises between classical and spoken Arabic were not always satisfactory.
Perhaps one major factor for the slow growth of the Iraqi theater was the absence of eminent playwrights and actors during the period. Indeed, the Iraqi theater lacked powerful figures of the caliber of Marun al-Naqqash (Lebanon), Abu Khalil al-Qabbani (Syria), and Yaqub Sanua and Tewfiq al-Hakim (Egypt), icons who contributed immensely to making the theater an integral and salient part of the cultural scene, especially in Egypt. It was only by the mid-twentieth century that comparable figures began to emerge in Iraq. The playwright-actor-director Yusuf al-Ani is one such figure. In him the Iraqi theater found a dedicated professional who, for over three decades, contributed immensely to the rise of a modern Iraqi theater in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Al-Ani acquired fame as one of Iraq’s premier playwrights and stage actors. His play al-Miftah (The Key) is the only Iraqi play to be translated into English; it is included in Modern Arabic Drama: An Anthology, which appeared in 1995.(2)
Yusuf al-Ani was born in 1927 and grew up in one of Baghdad’s working class quarters. Al-Ani’s love for acting, as he explains in his collection of articles on the theater entitled al-Tajriba al-Masrahiyyah (The Theater Experience), dates back to his childhood years. When he was young, he played games with his peers, creating situations and impersonating people.(3) As a young student, the performances he saw at school or by famous Egyptian actors in the movies nourished his passion for the theater. He was particularly inspired by the Egyptian actors Yusuf Wahbi and Najib al-Rihani, and to a certain extent by Charlie Chaplin in his silent movies. Al-Ani relates an interesting episode that took place at his junior high school. Haqqi al-Shibli, Iraq’s foremost theater personality at the time, visited the school in order to conduct auditions to select members for the school’s Theater and Oratory Committee. Al-Ani, as expected, was excited about the opportunity. His performance (he chose to recite a poem), however, did not impress al-Shibli, who advised him to channel his energies away from the theater.(4) Fortunately, al-Ani was not dissuaded from his course. His persistence paid off when in 1944, while still in al-Markaziyyah High School, he composed a short play, al-Muqamirun (The Gamblers), which he acted on the school stage.(5) The play dealt with the social vice of gambling, exposing it in a manner that was both lively and humorous. Significantly, the characters were ordinary people, speaking the common dialect of the people and not the fusha or literary Arabic. In both content and style The Gamblers set the tone for al-Ani’s early plays. The success of his first appearance in public gave al-Ani the boost that he needed to persevere in his love affair with the theater.
Al-Ani finished high school and went on to major in law, but he attended concurrently the Institute of Fine Arts to study drama. During his college years, al-Ani was active in college theater troupes as an actor and a director, acquiring valuable practical experience and polishing his theatrical skills in the process. Along with a number of theater students and enthusiasts, al-Ani formed a theater group called Jama’at Jabr al-Khawatir (The Goodwill Reconciliation Group), which staged its shows at the various colleges at the University of Baghdad. It was during this formative period that his long association with the actors-directors Ibrahim Jalal and Sami Abdul-Hamid began. Both Jalal and Abdul-Hamid were young and enthusiastic theater professionals who had studied theater arts under the direction of Haqqi al-Shibli at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad and pursued their studies abroad. The collaboration between the three figures, which was to last for some three decades, marked the beginning of a new phase for the Iraqi theater. Indeed, the rise of the Iraqi theater in the 1950s cannot be envisioned without the contributions of all three: they pooled their talents and established al-Masrah al-Hadith (The Modern Theater) troupe. Formed in 1952 by Ibrahim Jalal (192491), with the collaboration of Sami Abdul-Hamid and Yusuf al-Ani, who became the troupe’s secretary (i.e., manager), The Modern Theater troupe (renamed later as The Modern Artistic Theater troupe) was the first Iraqi troupe established by professionals who had actually studied dramatic art and had academic training in stagecraft. The Modern Theater troupe not only acquired a following but also became a veritable school for the Iraqi theater for the next generation, truly one of the cultural landmarks of Iraq. Its three founding members became Iraq’s towering theatrical figures for decades to come.
The rise of al-Ani and the Modern Theater troupe can only be understood within a historical and cultural context. The post-World War II years in Iraq were marked by political turmoil and cultural struggle. Worker strikes, student demonstrations, and popular uprisings against the British-supported monarchical regime were the order of the day. A restive Iraqi intelligentsia, left-leaning and militant, was on the rise, determined to forge a new and more equitable society. Change and progress were the buzzwords of the day, and the cultural ambiance was conducive to fresh ideas.(6)
In this climate which was marked by discontent, literature and the arts developed with a clear orientation toward works of social realism and local color. The theater, in particular, was invigorated by the graduates from the Institute of Fine Arts and drama institutes abroad. Egyptian plays and translations by Egyptians and Lebanese of masterpieces of Western drama helped arouse the interest of a growing number of literate Iraqis. And, of course, Egypt was an example to emulate how an Arab country could build a successful theater. Newly graduated Ph.D.s who were rising stars in letters and literary criticism, like Safa Khalusi and Safa Khalis, translated Western plays and wrote about the theater in the literary press. New theater troupes were formed, and the fact that dramatic art was instituted as an academic field of study helped the theater gain respect. In short, the theater profession began to lose its stigma; in fact, female actresses, such as Nahida al-Rammah, who made their debut on the stage in the mid-Fifties gained the accolades and respect of society. This shift in people’s perceptions of the theatrical profession was not unrelated to the political and cultural struggles at the time. The success and popularity of the theater in the 1950s was largely due to its preoccupation with themes that touched on people’s immediate concerns. In short, the Iraqi theater which was to take shape in the 1950s and dominate the scene thereafter was a people’s theater. The Modern Theater troupe and Yusuf al-Ani in particular played a major role in the construction of this theater.
Yusuf al-Ani first wrote short, one-act plays, similar to The Gamblers, using colloquial language and simplistic theme and structure. But the plays were poignant in their criticism of prevailing conditions and were anchored in the texture of the daily life of the common people. An example is Ra’s al-Shilila (The End of the Thread, 1951), a comic sketch exposing the corruption of the civil servants and the workings of the bureaucracy.(7) The play follows the trials of a poor old man who visits a state directorate in order to get an official seal on a document. Despite his long wait and constant pleas, he is given the cold shoulder and ignored by the civil servants, who idly spend their time gossiping and taking care of people who offer to bribe them. When the poor man accidentally chances upon a card commending its bearer to the Director, he presents it to the officials who become apologetic and immediately hand him the document with the seal. The poor man thus gets the last laugh. Similar in vein, the play Sittat Datahim (Six Dirhams, 1954) exposes in a humorous manner greedy physicians who have no qualms about squeezing every penny from their destitute patients. A doctor who works at a free state clinic pressures his patients to visit him at his private clinic in the evening in order to charge them for the visit. Not only does he come late to his private clinic, he is also rude to the patients and keeps them waiting even longer while he is on the phone with friends congratulating himself on his success in obtaining a ticket to an exclusive social party. The doctor insists that one of his poor patients pay in full for the visit, although the fee is exorbitant and the patient had already visited him at the state clinic in the morning. The patient pays him all he has and promises to return with the remaining six dirhams. He returns, throws the six coins on the floor, but he also seizes the precious party ticket and tears it into pieces to the chagrin of the physician. Here again, the underdog gets the last laugh. The little man once again triumphs in an unjust situation, though his triumph remains at the individual level and is exacted with a measure of justifiable vengeance.
Ra’s al-Shilila and Sittat Datahim are perhaps the best examples of a series of comic sketches al-Ani produced in the early 1950s in which he exposed social injustices and hinted at negative aspects in the social and political system. Al-Ani imparted the same message in a number of short plays that departed from the comic mode. In Fulus al-Diwa (The Cost of Medicine, 1952), for example, al-Ani presents a heartbreaking melodrama which highlights the plight of the needy and the inhumanity and greed of those who exploit them. This one-act play, directed by Sami Abdul-Hamid with both the playwright and the director acting the major roles, was first performed, appropriately, at the Medical College theater. Here the focus is on a poverty-stricken working-class family urgently needing an expensive medicine to save the life of their critically ill son. The young man used to work at a factory, but the factory proprietor refuses to pay the wages he owes him. Things get bleaker when instead of lending them money as they had hoped, the landlord wants an advance payment on the rent to give it to his idle, squandering son. Finally, the dying man’s brother, a worker dismissed from work presumably for his political activity, manages to collect the prescription money from his co-workers. He comes back with the medicine, but it is too late. His brother has just died. While the father is still in shock and disbelief, security agents break into the house and arrest his second son on the charge of instigating the workers to go on strike as he was seen conferring with them, although he had been dismissed from work. The bereaved father is thus left with an added calamity. Such are the tragic events of this good-versus-evil melodrama. What was new in this play was a clear delineation of the disparities between the social classes and a brief allusion to the social and political struggle that was raging in Iraq at the time, reflected by the arrest of the worker and by the references to a workers’ strike.
In this vein al-Ani produced several comical sketches and melodramas which proved to be highly popular, especially for his daring and willingness to criticize government practices and stifling social traditions. In this first stage of his theater career, al-Ani’s repertoire consisted of short, one-act plays, with a setting that is constant throughout the play and a style that is markedly naturalistic. His qualities as a playwright can be summarized as follows: a social topic viewed from the critical perspective of what may be characterized as critical realism, a penchant for humor that enlivens the situations and the dialogue, and the successful use of the colloquial to indicate his sympathy with lower classes. Al-Ani’s dialogues were as lively as they were unaffected. In the preface to his selected plays published in 1981, al-Ani explains his choice of the al-‘Amia (colloquial) over the fusha by saying that he considered the dialect essential and integral to the characters and their credibility, for “the theater which [he] started was a popular theater, addressing the simple folk and reflecting their lives.”(8) Perhaps for the same reason, his desire to give shape to a people’s theater to which the simple folk would relate and patronize, his early plays featured protagonists from the downtrodden. Not insignificantly, they enhanced the popularity of his plays. Further, al-Ani’s appeal is also attributable to his masterly performance on stage, for he acted in his plays, as he also did in other plays staged by the Modern Theater troupe. In this regard, al-Ani’s practical experiences as an actor and a director helped him as a playwright, for it enabled him to envision the play as a performance. As he himself puts it, “Fundamentally, my plays were not written for reading. I wrote them for the theater, to be performed. I often took into consideration the conditions and possibilities of our theater.”(9)
The conditions and possibilities of the Iraqi theater at the time notwithstanding, al-Ani’s early plays suffered from a number of dramatic flaws. For one thing, his characters were not drawn in depth; there was no inner conflict or psychological probing, only outer action. The treatment of the theme often consisted of focusing on a negative aspect in society by depicting a simple situation in a somewhat exaggerated manner. In such situations the characters immediately appear as identifiable types, drawn from the onset as either good or evil, and remain so throughout the play. The absence of character development and the subordination of character to theme meant that the playwright essentially depended on the situation, whether tragic or comic, to propel the action and to elicit laughter or sympathy on the part of the audience. The plays merely reinforced what the audience already knew and felt, with little attempt made to generate reflection instead of mere approval or disapproval of a certain trait or behavior. In short, simplicity characterized al-Ani’s early plays, a common factor in the comic sketches and social plays. But the plays, for reasons, which were stated earlier, proved popular, and al-Ani developed a reputation for depicting the tribulations of the common people. His popularity became well established, as attested by the following episode, which is often cited with pride in the annals of Iraqi drama: When in 1953 the Military Governor ordered the cancellation of scheduled performances of al-Ani’s plays Mou Khoush ‘Isha (Not a Good Life, 1952) and Ra’s al-Shilila (The End of the Thread), the Modern Theater troupe announced that it would refund the cost of tickets. Due to the public support for al-Ani and his troupe, no one came forward to claim a refund.(10) Al-Ani’s popularity increased when he played the leading role in one of the first and most successful Iraqi movies, Sa’id Effendi (Mr. Sa’id, 1957), which dealt with the life of a petit bourgeois intellectual and contained some veiled criticism of the regime.
In 1954 the Marxist review Al-Thaqafa al-Jadida (New Culture) published three of al-Ani’s one-act plays: Harmal wa Habbet Soda (Incense and Spices), Tu’mur Beg (At Your Command, Beg), and the afore-mentioned Ra’s al-Shilila. In his introduction to these plays, the editor Safa Khalis hailed them as a valuable contribution to the establishment of a constructive Iraqi theater. Al-Ani, he predicted, would rise to the challenge of giving shape to such a theater.(11) The publication of his plays by Al-Thaqafa al-Jadida made it clear that al-Ani’s sympathies lay with the Marxist trend. Yusuf al-Ani was not unaware of the consequences of his politically leftist inclinations. His plays were sometimes censored, forcing him to cancel the shows or to submit them under a pseudonym when that option was possible. Owing to its direct political nature, his play Ana Ummak Ya Shakir (I’m Your Mother, O Shakir), written in 1955, had to wait until the 1958 Revolution to be performed on stage. Al-Ani was harassed constantly by the authorities. In 1954 he was inducted, along with some four hundred poets, artists, academics, and other intellectuals into military camps designed specifically for the leftist intelligentsia in an attempt to intimidate them and dissuade them from political activity.
The final blow came in 1957, when the license of the Modern Theater troupe was revoked. Yusuf al-Ani went into exile abroad, visiting Syria and the Soviet Union and spending several months in Berlin, Bonn, and Vienna. During his exile al-Ani produced Maku Shughul (No Job) and Fulus al-Diwa (The Cost of Medicine) for Arab students in Vienna. He also composed Juha wa al-Hamama (Juha and the Pigeon), a quasi-pantomime tableau that he performed at the Stanislavsky Theater in Moscow in 1957 during the World Festival of Youth which he attended.(12) Al-Ani’s exile did not last long, for in July 1958 a popular revolution overthrew the monarchical regime in Iraq. Al-Ani returned to the country and resumed his theater activity with a vengeance.
I’m Your Mother, O Shakir was al-Ani’s first play after the Revolution and his crowning achievement in the 1950s. The play was political through and through, modeling Gorky with the steadfastness of a mother facing the death of her two imprisoned militant sons and the arrest of her daughter. The conflict in the play is between the people, represented by the militant family of Umm Shakir, and the monarchical government, represented by its prisons, police, and agents, including Umm Shakir’s own brother, who tries to persuade her to make her children renounce their political affiliation and activity. The play emphasizes the theme of sacrifice for the sake of the common good: the mother is proud of her eldest son, Shakir, who was killed in prison because of his political activity and beliefs. She does not waver when her second son, Sa’di, is put in prison, and her daughter, Kawthar, goes into hiding to escape arrest. As the play draws to an end, Umm Shakir learns that Sa’di went on a hunger strike and consequently died and that Kawthar was arrested by the police as she came out of hiding to inform her mother of Sa’di’s death. Instead of breaking down at the enormity of her tragic loss, Umm Shakir declares that she is a mother worthy of her militant children, cut out from the same material as they were. She may be destroyed, but not defeated. The play ends with Umm Shakir embracing the political cause of her children and calling upon the people to continue the struggle and to avenge their martyred sons.
I’m Your Mother, O Shakir was directed by Ibrahim Jalal, and featured Iraq’s premier actresses Zainab and Nahida al-Rammah in the lead roles. Staged in December 1958 at the height of the revolutionary fervor, the play was a great hit, setting a record in Iraqi theater as it ran for three weeks. Although we may tend to think that a mother like Umm Shakir is romanticized, the play was actually based on a real life situation.(13) Symbolic of Iraqi mothers as well as of the motherland, Umm Shakir became a household name. Some thirty years after the opening of the play, the actress Zainab was still greeted and addressed by the name Umm Shakir, the name of the character whose role she acted in the play.(14) One suspects that she is addressed likewise even today, some forty years after the play premiered. It is rare that an Iraqi play is performed after its first season, but in 1994 this play was staged in Denmark by Sumer Troupe, a company of exiled Iraqi theater professionals, and presented to an audience of exiled Iraqis.
Because of its overriding melodramatic mold, the play belongs to al-Ani’s first phase. Slight innovations, however, are to be noted. First, the play is longer than his short one-act plays. It consists of two acts, with two scenes in the second, keeping the same setting throughout. Second, the theme is not focused on simple folks, the poor and the working class. Rather, the focus is on the revolutionary intellectuals from the lower middle class, men and women alike (Kawthar has a collection of politically censored books, which she manages to hide from the police with the assistance of a neighbor, Umm Sadiq). Third and foremost, the play highlights the role of women in the national struggle, for it features three positive and powerful women, Umm Shakir, her daughter Kawthar, and her good neighbor, Umm Sadiq, who are cast in the leading roles. The play struck a strong cord among the public as it acknowledged and glorified the role of women in the national struggle, a role that was increasingly visible during the struggle which preceded the 1958 Revolution and more so during the political strife which accompanied and followed the Revolution. The play, in other words, was timely, staged in a period characterized by a triumphant and festive mood, a period, moreover, which saw more women venturing into the political and public spheres. Powerful in patriotic content and rich in homespun dialogues, I’m Your Mother, 0 Shakir sealed Yusuf al-Ani’s name as the most popular theater figure in Iraq.
Al-Ani’s return to Iraq in 1958 marked a period of incessant activity, not wholly devoted to the theater. He published a book entitled Sh’abuna (Our People), which traced the national struggle of the Iraqi people, culminating in the 1958 Revolution. As a newly appointed Program Director for the Iraqi Radio and Television stations, he produced programs and political plays in support of the Revolution, for the task now as he saw it was to solidify the populist orientation of the national government rather than criticize it. His plays, therefore, centered on the struggle between the new and the old, with the old portrayed as stagnating and undesirable. Al-Ani also used the radio and television media to produce plays about the anti-colonial struggle; for example, he composed three short plays on the liberation struggle in Algeria. Moreover, al-Ani became active in literary journalism, contributing film and play reviews. He published Masrahiati (My Plays), a two-volume collection of his plays. And he acted in the plays staged by the Modern Theater troupe, which dominated the theater scene. He also produced plays, which exemplified his ideas for social reform in a post-revolutionary era, in line with his view of the theater as a school for the people.
In 1960 the Modern Theater troupe staged Ahlan bi al-Hayat (Welcome to Life), a play which al-Ani wrote in 1957 in Leipzig during his exile, and to which he added a final act after the Revolution. The play begins in the few months preceding the Revolution. Its central focus is on the struggle between the old and the new. It tells of a father who agrees to the marriage of his daughter to his nephew because this type of marriage accords with tradition, even though it is against the will of his daughter. The daughter dislikes her cousin, who is not only despicable but also an informant. She actually is inclined toward her brother’s friend, who shares with her brother oppositional politics. But she cannot disobey or defy her father’s decision. Her brother does, however, determined not to let the marriage go through. When one evening the cousin, drunk and rude, forces his way into the house and threatens that he will marry the young woman by force if necessary, the father gets angry and dismisses him, swearing that he will never consent to the marriage now. The spiteful cousin informs on the political activity of the brother, and the latter is consequently detained in prison. Just as the sister declares her intention to consent to the marriage in exchange for her brother’s freedom, the 1958 Revolution breaks out, and the political prisoners are set free. The young woman marries her brother’s friend, and her cousin is exposed as the worthless person he is.
In Welcome to Life, al-Ani hammers his favorite theme of the abuses of the previous regime, and the final act of the play, which was added after 1958, duly celebrates the Revolution for freeing the citizens from such abuses. Despite the play’s political rhetoric, the main focus seems to be on stifling traditions and patriarchy, on the need for fathers to respect the independence of their sons and daughters. In its structure, Welcome to Life consists of five acts, its action taking place in two settings. It thus signals al-Ani’s move to employ a more complex structure for his plays. In style and characterization, however, the play is consistent with al-Ani’s familiar method in his early work.
In his next play, Al-Masyada (The Trap, 1961), al-Ani reverted to his thematic and early style of the one-act play, but he introduced a measure of character development and inner conflict in the protagonist. The play treats the subject of embezzling public funds. The protagonist, who needs money to buy some expensive medicine for his sick daughter, is tempted by two of his colleagues at work to embezzle money by approving the sale and distribution of adulterated wheat. He gives some thought to the scam but ultimately denounces it, especially since he has just discovered that the few prescription pills he managed to obtain for his sick daughter were themselves spurious. The character development of the father here, just as in the previous play, seems to have been occasioned by external forces rather than arising from within, but in this play one at least senses that the father was consciously debating the moral implications of the proposal and resisting the temptation of getting tainted money to save his daughter. Like his other plays at the time, this play imparted a didactic message, for al-Ani, as was stated earlier, viewed the theater as a school for the people.
In 1960 the General Foundation for Cinema and Theater was formed and attached to the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance. Al-Ani became its General Director. One of his first acts was to launch in 1961 the first theater festival in Iraq. Three troupes participated, including the Modern Theater troupe, which presented Anton Chekov’s play Uncle Vanya with great success. It must be noted that the Revolution gave new impetus to the Iraqi theater, which, under the direction of Yusuf al-Ani, made impressive strides. Several acting companies were formed, and the period witnessed the increased popularity of local and international plays. However, in 1963 the Iraqi theater suffered a setback when a coup d’etat brought a Ba’th-dominated regime that clamped down hard on the leftist intelligentsia. Some theater professionals were detained, including the actress Nahida al-Rammah, who was incarcerated in a prison ward for prostitutes; others, like the actress Zainab, managed to flee to the Kurdish area or out of the country. A new law disbanding all theater troupes was decreed. Theatrical activity, in a word, came to a halt,(15) and with it the theatrical career of Yusuf al-Ani.
In mid-1964 a new law regulated the formation of theatrical troupes. The following year the Modern Theater troupe regrouped under the direction of Ibrahim Jalal, who had just returned from the United States after pursuing drama studies there. The troupe resurfaced under the name The Modern Artistic Theater troupe. During the years 1964 and 1965, however, only a handful of plays were performed. With the relative easing of political repression in the second half of the 1960s, there occurred a slow but steady resumption of publications and theatrical activity. In 1967 The Modern Artistic Theater troupe staged in Baghdad and Kuwait Taha Salem’s play Fawanis (Lanterns), Adel Kadhim’s play ‘Ikdat Himar (A Donkey’s Complex), and Abdul-Jabbar Wali’s comic play Mas’alat Sharaf (A Matter of Honor). The actress Zainab appeared in these plays, and it was the first time that an Iraqi troupe performed outside the country.
Sura Jadida (A New Image) marked Yusuf al-Ani’s return to the theater after nearly a five-year absence. Although the play was staged by the Modern Artistic Theater troupe in 1967, it was written in 1964. A New Image deals with the successful attempts of a well-to-do family to dissuade their elderly father from marrying a second wife forty years his junior. In addition to the moral implications and the issue of sexual politics it raises, the proposed marriage smacks of exploitation in the sense that it is conducted like a business transaction, for the father uses his wealth and social status as a merchant to secure the consent of the girl’s poor parents, especially since the girl’s father is one of his employees. Just as in Welcome to Life, the proposed marriage goes against the young woman’s will, for she is actually in love with a young worker who has been her friend since childhood. When attempts by friends and relatives fail to dissuade the father from his intended course, his own daughter encourages the girl to elope with her sweetheart and get married without parental consent. Faced with this turn of events, the elderly merchant accepts the new situation and even shows some remorse. In the end he wishes to be reconciled with his wife and children.
The play deals with domestic and social problems pertaining to patriarchy, male domination, sexual politics, and unsavory traditions. It is one more text by al-Ani in which he champions women’s and workers’ rights, imparting the message that exploitation of women in all its forms is but a manifestation of the economic disparity between men and women as well as between classes. Significantly, it is through action and plot development that al-Ani imparts this message and not by proselytizing to the audience. The playwright implicitly but skillfully delineates gender and class conflicts without recourse to political jargon. He thus trusts the audience to figure out for themselves the implications of the play.
A New Image had neither the political sparkle nor the lively humor that characterized most of al-Ani’s previous plays. Its political message was subdued because of the new political landscape. But in both theme and structure it marked a development in his dramatic techniques. The play is divided into seven tableaux set in different locations. The term tableau, as used in al-Ani’s plays, seems to refer to a dramatic unit, more like a scene. In any case, the tableaux were a departure from the shorter one-act plays of earlier years. Additionally, characterization and especially plot were more developed than in his previous plays. The whole play is cast in a naturalistic, Ibsenian mode. A New Image, most Iraqi critics agree, may be considered a transitional play in al-Ani’s repertoire, leading to his second and more mature phase, which began in 1968.
During the last years of the 1960s, the Iraqi theater showed increased vitality and promise, becoming a laboratory for bold experimentation, open to innovative approaches and styles, but not infrequently to a blending of styles and methods. Theater activity flourished due to several factors, foremost among them was a resurgent Iraqi left and a new political climate which offered a measure of qualified tolerance for Marxist cultural practices. Moreover, in Iraq as in most of the Arab world, the defeat in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war caused agonizing questions and led dramatists to sharpen their critique of the Arab condition and to experiment with new styles. Several local and Arab plays occasioned by the 1967 setback were produced in Baghdad. In addition, Iraqi dramatists followed with keen interest the innovative works of the Syrian playwright Sa’dallah Wannous, the Egyptians Alfred Faraj and Nu’man ‘Ashur, and the Moroccan al-Tayeb al-Siddiqi.
In an attempt to build a theater rooted in the cultural tradition, while at the same time exploiting the potential of that tradition, Arab dramatists and directors alike borrowed elements from the semi-dramatic classical Arab forms, especially the Maqamah (Assembly) genre. They incorporated a storyteller, poetry and saja’ (rhymed prose), and an entertainment dimension, which marked many a play produced at the time. Concurrently, they reconstructed and dramatized texts from the Turath (cultural heritage or tradition, including belles letters, history, folklore, and the fairy tale). In its best manifestations this trend, known as the Revival (or Revivification) of the Turath, sought to interrogate and activate the cultural heritage in ways which spoke to current issues and contemporary reality. More often than not, dramatic works presented a provocative and subversive reading of the Turath, a demystification of it, similar to Brecht. Alongside the Turath trend, and sometimes fused with it, a new type of political theater, innovative and sophisticated, came to the fore, drawing upon the methods of Erwin Piscator, Peter Weiss, and especially Bertold Brecht in their documentary, political, and epic theaters. The Iraqi theater, almost a monopoly of the left at the time, embraced the new trends and methods, perhaps with a zeal that was unparalleled in other Arab countries.
In this completely new phase of development in the Iraqi theater, the Modern Artistic Theater troupe once again took the lead. In 1968 it staged Yusuf al-Ani’s play Al-Miftah (The Key) to critical and popular acclaim. In its theme and style, The Key exemplifies the use of both the Turath and the new political theater. The play uses a nonsensical nursery rhyme,(16) known in slightly different forms in other parts of the Arab World, to impart a moral, namely the need to strive toward a goal and to live without illusions. The plot is simple. A young couple, Hairan and Haira, set out on a quest for a key that will provide security for a baby which Hairan refuses to father in a world governed by injustice and insecurity. Though not convinced of the endeavor, Hairan’s brother, Nouar, accompanies them anyway. As the myth requires, they first meet their seven grandfathers to request guarantees for a secure future for their child-to-be. The grandfathers grant them a robe and a cake that will last for generations; they place the gifts inside a trunk. There is one provision, though, namely that they lock the trunk and open it only when the child is born. The quest for the key leads the three characters to several people and places: a blacksmith, a bride, a well, a herdsman, and an orchard – each one leading them to the next. Just as the nursery rhyme that is sung many times during the performance revolves in circles, the couple’s journey, in spite of their heroic and oftentimes frantic efforts, leads nowhere. Ultimately, when they fail to obtain the money from the bride, the blacksmith takes pity on them and makes the key without charging them a fee. Happy back at home, they try the key on the lock only to find that the trunk is empty. The magical solution, it turns out, is a chimera. At the end of the journey, as they listen to Nouar, who drives the lesson home, the couple realize the absurdity of their quest. For the journey, as its core motif suggests, is a double journey, a process of maturation as well. Though it fails in its declared purpose, it succeeds in making the characters shed their illusions, becoming aware that the future belongs to those who strive toward a goal, rather than merely waiting for miracles.
At the start of the play, an empty cradle is seen in the middle of the stage. At the end, Haira reveals a secret she has kept for sometime now – she is pregnant with a child. The future, symbolized by the child, does not depend on the superstitions of the past. Nouar urges a new course of action:
We’ve all got to run. You’ve got to run. Leave the story, forget about the trunk, run so you’ll catch up with those who’ve already beaten you in the race for the real key…. Come on. (288)
The Key marks a new development in al-Ani’s career as a dramatist, signaling the beginning of a mature, second phase in which he experimented with new techniques and heightened the political resonance of his work. In The Key, for example, al-Ani deployed a combination of Turath elements and Brechtian epic devices. The Key was the first Iraqi play to make use of the folk tradition. Al-Ani transformed a simple nursery tale into a dramatic text consisting of two long parts or acts,(17) called The Journey and The Return, of several scenes each, with a brief introduction or prelude preceding each part. Besides the folkloric aspect of the nursery rhyme, al-Ani deploys other Turath elements such as a storyteller, rhymed prose in the two prologues, children songs throughout the play, and occasionally song and dance. Moreover, he peppers his dialogue with popular proverbs and expressions and folk chants, as the following examples illustrate:
Some have to struggle all the lifelong day, And others get it on a silver tray. (287)
God! Send, please, the fruitful rain So the crops can grow again; Cheat the cheats who hoard the grain. (273)
Finally, the whole thing is presented in an entertaining fashion.
Al-Ani basically employs the Turath elements in a Brechtian mode, whereby a simple nonsensical tale is demystified and transformed into a parable. Among the Brechtian devices used is a children chorus, which sings the nursery rhyme several times in the course of the play. The choice of children for the chorus serves as a distancing device, calling attention to the immature nature of the song and thereby to the disparity between the world of the song and the real world. The blending of Turath and epic devices is likewise seen in the opening prologue, in the double function of the storyteller, who starts with the traditional “Once upon a time” but immediately proceeds to inform the audience about the nature of the play:
“The Key” is based on an old folk [tale] everyone’s familiar with, an ancient fable that everyone knows by heart. It [the play] starts with several rapid repetitions of the same idea, and it ends with questions and sincere appeals and prayers. (256)
Immediately after this statement the stage lights focus on a group of children, who, as they play on their swings, sing the nursery rhyme which starts with the line: “Swing me, swing me to and fro.”
To urge the audience to think about the real world, alienation devices are deployed. For example, in the second encounter with the herdsman, the three main characters learn that his land and cattle have been destroyed by an invading force. Here, the stage directions suggest that imperialist atrocities in Palestine and elsewhere “could be shown as a background to this scene, as a film projected on the back of the stage” (276). The dispossessed herdsman who is determined to stay on the land and to restore his rights obviously stands for the Palestinian people. The Key, of course, is a didactic drama: its whole edifice is subordinated to a social message with obvious political overtones. In small touches here and there, the play makes references to exploitation, the role of the United States as an imperialist power, and the liberation struggle in the Third World. For example, in the scene with the seven grandfathers, Nouar informs them about the changes that have taken place in the world:
Nouar: Guevara has shaken the regimes of two entire continents. He’s become a symbol like the sun…. And women in a faraway country called Vietnam plow the earth and reap the crops with one hand and carry a gun with the other…. Algeria’s offered up a million martyrs. Systems of oppression are collapsing everywhere. The sun shall never set. They’ve planted the heart of one man in the chest of another. They’ll find a cure for cancer…. Black Africa has become as white as snow…. The world has changed. In spite of all the stains and pain and bloodshed, the world will be a better place.
When Hairan retorts:
Except that so far we don’t know when it will be better.
Nouar offers the following rejoinder:
Grandfathers, we’re simply a new phenomenon, a different generation which looks ahead all the time. But there are others among us who care only for themselves and their immediate surroundings, and remain utterly involved in themselves alone. (262-63)
Thus, whereas Nouar preaches the gospel of commitment and social action, Hairan, on the other hand, while cognizant of injustices, remains wrapped up in his own individual shell. Even the names of the characters are symbolic of their outlook: both the names Hairan and Haira mean “bewildered,” whereas the name Nouar means “one radiating light.” As set forth by al-Ani, the characters of Hairan and Haira pass from idealism and aloofness to realism as a result of their journey and the lessons explained by Nouar. Nouar presents a new outlook on life, one which rejects superstitions and apathy; his role as the voice of reason stresses the point that one has no right to what one has not earned.
If, in the dialogue above, Nouar’s statements may sound tendentious, his speeches overall are more subtle in conveying his social message, as in the dialogue which takes place near the end of the play:
Nouar: All our troubles were in vain! We walked the road to nowhere, the story turned imagination into reality, it was no more than a delusion. Hairan, the secret isn’t how much you try.
Hairan: What is the secret, then?
Nouar: It’s the motive with which one’s trying.
Hairan: And what was the motive? To deceive people, and cheat them?
Nouar: It was to obtain something that didn’t exist.
Nouar: We imagined it. What isn’t obtained by work and effort remains valueless, nonexistent. And we remain worthless as well if we don’t look for what’s rightfully ours, and for the ingredient that completes our life and makes it beautiful, and settled, and luminous…. We can start again, start by changing ourselves from within. Not keep clinging to the story and following its course, and believing it. Not keep going round and round following nothing greater than a delusion. (287)
Despite its effective subversion of the folk tale and its lively dialogue, The Key is far from perfect. The play makes excessive use of folk and children songs, and the repetition of the nursery rhyme verges on the overkill. Brechtian devices are not always executed with skill. The didacticism of the play, that is, the critique of superstition and social apathy, is in a few instances marred by political commentary that comes out as extraneous to the text. Also, at the beginning of Scene 7, Part I, the device of having the storyteller indulge in a rather long speech on the bull’s services to humanity is superfluous and least effective as a transitional device to the scene. One may also question the wisdom of having the well talk (Act I, Scene 6) and listing it in the dramatis personae.
Paul Shawool, a Lebanese drama critic who saw a Syrian performance of The Key, praised the mise-en-scene but thought the text to be substantially flawed. He described it as “simplistic, poor, weak, literary, and essayistic,” and its characters as being flat.(18) Though there may be an element of truth to this criticism, especially with characterization, Shawool does not substantiate his points and hence his assertions seem to be unfair in the main; one suspects that his cavalier dismissal of the play is not unrelated to his aversion to the vogue of the didactic theater among Brecht’s Arab imitators. In a more sympathetic vein, the Egyptian critic M. M. Badawi commented on the play thus: “The Key is more akin to musical drama with a simple unilinear structure than to drama proper. It constitutes an attempt to make the theater more accessible to the people, serving as a popular and entertaining dramatic spectacle with an obvious social message.”(19) Both Shawool and Badawi seem to have as the dramatic model the classical Western play, thereby losing sight not only of the Brechtian departure from that model but, perhaps more importantly, and especially in the case of Shawool, of the attempts by the Turath playwrights to create a theater that is more analogous to the traditional semi-dramatic Arab forms than to Western drama with its Aristotelian plot and its adherence to the three unities of time, place, and action.
Unlike Shawool and Badawi, the Egyptian drama critic Ali al-Ra’i thinks highly of the play: “The play fascinates by a delightful reinterpretation of folklore which is both sympathetic and clear-sighted.”(20) He regards The Key as a play of “universal appeal, which can be performed easily not only in the Arab world, but on the world stage.”(21) Indeed, some fifteen years after its first production in Iraq, the play was staged by the Syrian National Theater to compete during the First Carthage (Tunisia) Festival in 1983, proof enough that its appeal went beyond Iraq. In the mid-1980s the play was also staged by a Jordanian theater company in Amman. In addition, during the third Baghdad Festival for the Arab Theater, held in 1992, The Key was staged by the Modern Artistic Theater troupe and directed by Ghanim Hamid. For this performance al-Ani rewrote parts of the text to incorporate the new realities arising from the Second Gulf War and its aftermath. The noted Moroccan theater critic Abdul-Haqq al-Zirwali wrote a laudatory review of the performance in which he commented on the symbolic title of the play, explaining that the word “key” suggests locked doors, locked windows, and locked horizons, and the desperate search to find the key to unlock them.(22)
Al-Ani immediately followed The Key with a different but equally popular and innovative play, Al-Kharaba (The Ruin), which was staged by the Modern Artistic Theater troupe in 1970. Like its predecessor The Key, The Ruin is both didactic and entertaining. The play bears Brecht’s influence even to a larger degree. Instead of resorting to the Turath, it is semi-documentary in style and rather blatant in its political message. The Ruin is more like a discussion play, consisting of a short introductory scene and two acts that are bound together by ideas rather than by plot. The performance is meant to start even before the curtain is drawn. A sign at the entrance of the theater house announces: “The Play Starts From Here.” The hallway leading to the auditorium showcases an exhibition of photographs, posters, and documents illustrating the crimes of imperialism worldwide, particularly in the Middle East and Vietnam. The captions under the posters and photographs read: “Sections from The Ruin.” The exhibition extends into the auditorium, even the curtain is turned into a collage of photographs, posters and newspaper clippings on the theme of the exhibition. The exhibition, al-Ani points out, forms part of the play’s text and is to be viewed as one of its main characters.(23) The play itself elaborates on the theme of the exhibition by delineating the conflict between good and evil, the exploited and the exploiters, the liberation movements and world imperialism.
Before the curtain is raised, the lights dim with a beam of light gradually focusing on one of the “spectators,” who rises up from his seat among the audience and stands at one side of the stage. He addresses the audience with what turns out to be lines from the play’s script. When a female character appears on the other side of the stage, he reveals to her his intention of lifting up the fourth wall and entering “The Ruin” in order to silence those inside and make them the butt of the audience’s laughter. These two characters, called al-Wahid and al-Wahida or the Male One and Female One, then draw the curtain, signaling the collapse of the fourth wall and the beginning of the first act of the play.
The setting throughout the play is a place that looks like a coffeehouse and is known as The Ruin. The place is white, very clean, and sparsely decorated, with a raised platform where some of the play’s scenes are enacted. In The Ruin live three characters, called the First, the Second, and the Third, who wear identical masks and represent all that is good and decent in humanity. They are abstractions of figures who embody these qualities – a grocer, a coolie, a rural teacher, an actor, a “fool,” a peasant and his wife, a maid, a mother, all from Iraq; the Russian poet Pushkin; the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda; the Iraqi poets Abdulla Goran and Ma’ruf al-Rusafi; the African American Paul Robeson; a political prisoner; Palestinian fedayeen and Vietcong guerrillas; and the Mesopotamian epic figures Gilgamesh and Enkido. Opposed to the three good characters are the Male One and the Female One, who represent the dark, evil side of the universe. The Female One, it is clear in the play, is symbolic of United States imperialism, while the Male One is one of her hirelings.(24)
The Ruin, it turns out, is the place of truth. The Male One enters The Ruin in order to destroy it. He soon finds out that he cannot leave the place without saying the truth first. There ensues a question and answer session between the Male One and. the three good characters, in which the three characters remove their masks and enact the roles of the good figures, the wretched in the earth as well as literary personalities and revolutionary figures, mentioned above. They are joined in this reenactment by a female Fourth. In the debate between the two sides, the Male One becomes at a loss as he is confronted with one truth and one accusation after another. In short, he is exposed for what he really is, an exploiter and a pro-imperialist. Unable to leave The Ruin, he calls for an Intermission. During the Intermission, the Male One is seen smoking a cigarette on the stage, while the other actors drink tea, take a rest, or leave the stage and come back as they choose. This all seems to enhance the ultimate effect of shattering the dramatic illusion.
The second act of the play presents more of the same, as the court of truth reconvenes, and the Male One stands accused. When the Male One insists on his right to a lawyer to defend the charges leveled against him, the Female One, wearing a mask, literally descends from above, brandishing two pistols with which she shoots right and left as in a Western movie. Her descent, as the stage directions explain, resembles a military landing or invasion. She is dressed as a cowgirl, and displays an image of the Statue of Liberty on the front of her shirt and skulls and human bones on the back. She leads three men, of white, black, and yellow complexion respectively, who move like puppets at her behest as she manipulates them with threads in her hand. As this lawyer proceeds to advocate “freedom” and “the pursuit of happiness,” documentary footage or slides are shown on a screen to ironically juxtapose and contradict her very words. In a short dramatic unit in this scene, the Female One also assumes the role of the Mesopotamian deity Astrate, who tries to seduce Gilgamesh and lead him astray. This short scene, a kind of a play within a play, is enacted on the raised platform. Some other scenes are presented in this manner as well.
Throughout the play, the dialogue between the two sides is conducted as in a courthouse. The three good figures, along with a maid, who becomes the Fourth, disclose that they are people who have suffered from and stood up against oppression and exploitation. Several examples of injustice are displayed in the course of the play and are enacted on the platform as dramatic units: a maid who is raped by the master of the house; a peasant wife who resists the sexual assaults of a feudal lord and is therefore beaten, along with her husband, and consequently she dies; an actor who practices his profession under severe conditions because of his belief in art for people’s sake; a clergyman who is thrown into prison because he preaches social change; two mothers, the first from Palestine and the second from Vietnam, who expose the crimes committed against their people; the figure of Paul Robeson, singing and holding a placard which reads “Freedom.” When the Female One is confronted with all those accusatory figures whose voices rise up in a crescendo of revolutionary song, she withdraws in disgrace, taking her three lackeys along with her.
Abandoned by the Female One, the Male One pleads to the audience that the fourth wall must be restored. Whereupon the three good characters, along with the maid, step forward and address the Male One thus:
We will restore the fourth wall, But it will not hide the truth. The truth is eternal, stronger than you are. The truth knows no barriers. (476)
They then force the Male One out of The Ruin, denouncing him with the words: “You are the Ruin, the real Ruin.” The curtain falls, but the play is not over yet. When the actors reappear to greet the audience, they all unite, except for the characters of the Male One and Female One and the three puppet-like men, in reciting resistance verse by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Then the Third steps forward and addresses the audience:
You have seen the play, and before it the exhibition. When you leave the auditorium now, we hope you will take another look at the exhibition. View it carefully. Good night. (477)
A second look at the exhibition is meant to reinforce the political theme of the play, a theme so prevalent that it occurs in almost every line of the play. The First character makes this point clear when he addresses the Male One, saying:
Everything in this world is politics: food is politics, drink is politics, work is politics, tea is also politics! Even this talk of yours which you do not call politics is politics, but politics of a special type! (425)
And The Ruin, of course, is politics. The play suggests that what is outside “The Ruin” is actually the Ruin, for it is the outside world that is fraught with injustice and evil.
This all sounds fine, except that the play’s indictment of class exploitation and imperialism is cast in too simplistic and melodramatic a vein for a text that is constructed as debate and that, further, deploys Brechtian “distancing” devices purportedly to shatter the dramatic illusion. There is something disquieting about The Ruin as a discussion play, for it lacks some measure of the force, the dramatic tension, and the robustness of characters that typify the plays of a Bertolt Brecht or a George Bernard Shaw, playwrights who successfully turned the theater into a platform for radical ideas.
The play suffers from other shortcomings, too. As al-Ra’i suggests, whereas the play’s fusion of fantasy and reality, of acting and storytelling, of performance and oratory, of myth and reality, of prose and poetry, is to be commended, such blending risks being excessive: the Astrate episode, for example, seems superfluous, and there is too much use of poetry, sometimes long poems.(25) One may add that the actor’s reproduction of Brutus’ famous speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is quite irrelevant. Moreover, the large cast of characters precludes in-depth characterization, which is vital even in a discussion play displaying points of view. The characters, drawn as good or evil from the outset, experience no inner conflict, growth, or flashes of recognition, and thus remain as stereotypes.
These deficiencies notwithstanding, there is no doubt that The Ruin is an important and significant play, not the least for its probing of the problem of good and evil in its social and political manifestations. The play’s stylistic pastiche, which includes elements from the documentary, the epic, and the popular theater, heightens the thematic effect. Its integration of highly charged popular proverbs and chants provides referential points to revolutionary episodes in the national struggle of the Iraqi people and hence reinforces the political atmosphere of the play. Its use of Brechtian epic devices (the masks, placards, documentary footage, courtroom atmosphere, narration and song, the raised platform or stage within a stage, the shifting roles of the actors, and references to the fourth wall) introduces a lively novelty to the Iraqi theater and generates interest for experimentation among Iraqi theater professionals. Moreover, the use of the exhibition and slides is certainly innovative and fits elegantly with the play’s theme and documentary nature. As the first Iraqi play in the genre of the documentary, The Ruin was a tremendous success. Besides, the play, as its author states, marked the first time in Iraqi theater that pantomime as well as background music were used.(26) In addition to being the first Iraqi documentary play, The Ruin introduced yet another novelty into the Iraqi theater: co-direction. It was directed jointly by Qassim Muhammed and Sami Abdul-Hamid, two well-known Iraqi actors and directors. The directors were also part of an impressive cast that featured Yusuf al-Ani, Zainab, and Nahida al-Rammah, among others. Finally, the sets and costumes were designed by the prominent Iraqi artist Dhia al-Azzawi. All these factors contributed to making The Ruin lively political theater.
After The Ruin, al-Ani concentrated on recent Iraqi history, exploring themes of political and social struggle. This phase culminated in a political trilogy, al-Shari’a (The Moorings, 1970-71), al-Khan (The Inn, 1976), and al-Juma (The Loom, 1976), which takes as its context the tumultuous late Forties and early Fifties, years of the greatest storm and stress for Iraq. True to its nature as political theater on the left, the trilogy highlights the class and national struggle and the role of the left in that struggle. Since the plays, as far as I can ascertain, were not published and the last one was actually banned after its premier production, the comments that follow are essentially based on brief reviews of the first two plays by the critics Banyan Salih and Ali al-Ra’i respectively.(27) All three plays depict the general conflict between the people and the regime. They are peopled with a wide array of characters whose interactions are vividly captured in tableaux or scenes. The reviews suggest that the plays lived up to al-Ani’s reputation for using lively dialogue sprinkled with touches of humor. Al-Ani also integrates well-known political poems from the period into the dialogue. Stylistically, the trilogy marks al-Ani’s return to the socio-political play in a more realistic rather than epic vein, or rather it is a blend of the two methods.
The Moorings refers to the moorings on the bank of the river Tigris in Baghdad. The setting is symbolic as it suggests the traffic of people and ideas between the two sides of the capital. Moreover, the river invokes images of freedom, movement, and life. Consisting of twenty tableaux, the play deals with the political turmoil that was sparked by the Treaty of Portsmouth between Great Britain and the Iraqi monarchy. The play’s main setting, the moorings at the bank of the river, provides a forum for the boatmen and their clientele to discuss their work, fears and aspirations, and, of course, the political situation. Against the backdrop of the 1948 uprising against the Treaty and the ruling oligarchy, the wretched daily lives of the boatmen are brought into relief. We see how some of the boatmen develop class consciousness and participate in the political struggle. We hear them react to the news that the introduction of modern means of transportation between the two banks of the river will render their profession obsolete. We also follow the anxiety of a boatman and his wife as they struggle to have a baby, who symbolizes the birth of a new era. Although people from other walks of life, especially civil servants, are represented in the play, the working-class boatmen take center stage. Not only is their struggle to eke out a living under harsh working conditions vividly drawn, but the process of their politicization is also delineated. The Moorings opened to laudable reviews in 1970. It was staged again in Baghdad in 1987.
The second play of the trilogy, The Inn, continues the theme of the rise of political and social consciousness during this tumultuous period. This time the focus is on the intelligentsia, although the canvas includes all social classes: sections of the bourgeoisie, petite-bourgeoisie, and the working class. The Inn, which functions as the main setting for the play, becomes a microcosm of Iraqi society, where representative types interact. There is the revolutionary militant who is willing to sacrifice for his beliefs; there is the law student who devotes as much time to politics as to his studies; there is the disgruntled young man who flirts with politics only to abandon the cause once he secures a share in the Inn business; there is the opportunist poet who writes poems for any and all occasions and is not above blackmail to get a wife younger than his own daughter; and there are the poor folk, a coolie and a street vendor woman, who display what is good in humanity and whose belief in the national cause is simple and unshakable. There is also the honest proprietor of the Inn, who naively believes that politics should best be left to the politicians. All these characters interact among themselves as well as with the political situation in the country. One of the characters, the law student, doubles as an actor and a narrator through the device of reading entries from his diary. The use of a narrator who recounts some of the play’s events, along with documentary slides showing important political figures and events during the period, is meant to enhance the realism of the play as well as to break the dramatic illusion. For all intents and purposes, The Inn seems to have succeeded at the levels of characterization as well as at the level of providing an organic link between the characters and the national scene, that is, between inner action and outer action, or internal conflict and external conflict. “Al-Khan … is an impressive dramatic mural of national events,” says the prominent Egyptian critic Ali al-Ra’i, “It contains some powerfully created popular characters.”(28) Thus, one may conclude that The Inn is one of al-Ani’s best plays.
The last play in the trilogy, The Loom, is perhaps more explicit in its left-leaning politics than the previous two plays. There is little we can say about the play for reasons that were explained earlier. But the fact that the government revoked the play’s license makes it safe to conclude that it dealt with the role of Marxist ideology in the national and social struggle in Iraq.(29) It is regrettable that this and the other two plays of the trilogy are not available in book form, for all indications suggest that they are among al-Ani’s finest, displaying a moment in his career when he managed to co-opt judiciously and use to good effect elements of the epic and documentary theater rather than be overwhelmed by them.
Al-Ani seems to have pursued his dramatization of Iraq’s political history in a fourth play, Al-Jisr (The Bridge), which covers the period of the mid-1950s. The play is so titled, we assume, to refer to the famous bridge where some four hundred Iraqi demonstrators were gunned down by police in one of the bloodiest episodes in Iraq’s modern history. The events took place during the Wathba (The Leap or Uprising), which was spearheaded by the communists to protest the Portsmouth Treaty. It is regrettable that this play, which al-Ani finished writing in 1979, has been neither produced nor published. The political regime in the late 1970s in Iraq was simply hostile to such texts, especially in light of its campaign to re-write modern Iraqi history and fit it into a Ba’thist straight jacket.
The politicization and, indeed, leftist orientation of the Iraqi theater in the 1970s did not please the regime, which often intervened to censor and ban plays or withdraw its license just a few days or even hours before the scheduled performance. For example, The Baghdadi Chalk Circle, an Iraqization of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle directed by Ibrahim Jalal, was banned after the opening performance. Another Iraqization of Brecht, Al-Beg wa-l Sa’iq (The Master and the Chauffeur) from Puntilla and Matti: His Hired Man, in which al-Ani acted the lead role, ran for two weeks before it was banned, although it was produced by the official National Theater troupe. In yet another case, the entire cast of the play Inhadh Ayyuha al-Qarmati (Arise, Thou Qarmatian) was taken into custody for interrogation. As the official campaign against the left intensified in the late 1970s, theater professionals were imprisoned, troupes disbanded, and theater houses closed.
With the clamp down on the leftist intelligentsia and the resulting flight of dramatic talents, the Iraqi theater, despite the fact that leading professionals like Yusuf al-Ani, Sami Abdul-Hamid, Ibrahim Jalal, Qasim Muhammed, and Awni Karoumi remained in Iraq, began a phase of decline. Some important local and international plays were, of course, produced, but they were infrequent. The state lavished large sums of money on the theater, giving rise to a commercial type theater dominated by two genres: plays glorifying the war against Iran, and slapstick comedies.(30) Yusuf al-Ani toed the line, producing a comedy or two in the 1980s. These comedies, however, were neither popular nor successful. They were, so to speak, at odds with his familiar style. And the public realized this, as it also did the constraints under which he worked. Even a more serious play like Al-Ams A’da Jadidan (Yesterday Came Back as New, 1981) fared miserably.(31) In sum, al-Ani produced no important work after the 1970s. His fame as an actor-dramatist rests solidly on his earlier works, especially the plays produced between 1968 and 1978. Thus ended the theater career of Iraq’s most prominent actor-dramatist.
Al-Ani, however, did not disappear from the limelight. During the 1980s he represented Iraq in theater festivals in Arab capitals. In one such festival in 1985, the prestigious International Carthage Theater Festival in Tunisia, al-Ani was recognized (literally crowned) for his significant contribution to modern Arabic theater. In 1987 al-Ani was appointed as the director of the Iraqi Center for the Theater. He also served on the committee for the Baghdad Festival for the Arab Theater (first festival in 1988; second in 1990, third in 1992) and wrote reviews of the Arab and Iraqi plays performed during the three festivals.
In the mid-1980s, al-Ani wrote a weekly column on the theater in Al-Thawra newspaper. The last piece of literary journalism by al-Ani that I came across was published in October 1996 in Al-Iraq newspaper.(32) It was written after he had made the long and arduous journey across the desert to Amman, Jordan, in order to deliver an invited lecture requested by the Jordanian Shouman Cultural Foundation. In moving words, al-Ani described how he took his watch to Amman to have it repaired there (its glass was broken and the battery was dead) since the parts were not available in Baghdad because of the severe sanctions imposed upon the country. Sanctions, al-Ani says, “which closed time on us.” Al-Ani goes on to recount how the watchmaker in Amman refused to charge him any money for fixing his watch because he recognized him and considered it an honor to provide him with service, especially since this encounter with al-Ani reminded the watchmaker, who had spent some time in Baghdad, of the Iraqi theater and the many good plays by al-Ani that he had attended. Al-Ani was choked with emotion and embraced the watchmaker. Tellingly, when he published this piece, he chose as its title a symbolic phrase that not only captures the particular experience but also invests it with a larger significance concerning his whole theater experience. For this title, “The Time That has not Passed in Vain,” suggests that al-Ani has looked back at his contribution to the Iraqi theater and judged it to have been worthy. This assessment is undoubtedly right. Indeed, Yusuf al-Ani has become a cultural icon in Iraq. His name is often invoked in Iraqi journals today as the guru of the Iraqi theater, an inspiration to redress the current sad state of the Iraqi theater.
A truly gifted and dedicated actor and playwright, al-Ani will be remembered as one of Iraq’s leading and most popular and respected theater professionals. He left his imprint on Iraqi theater and succeeded in making it popular by producing social comedies and political plays. From its modest beginnings as comical sketches and one-act melodramas and social plays, the dramatic art of Yusuf al-Ani embodied naturalistic and realistic elements and later developed to blend Turath elements and integrate Brechtian epic devices in long plays consisting of acts or tableaux. Neither commercial nor elitist, while serious and committed to social progress, al-Ani’s theater was highly popular. No wonder that al-Ani earned the reputation, rightly deserved, of being Iraq’s premier dramatist and actor. He was the first Iraqi dramatist to gain recognition abroad. His was a political theater on the left, but it was one that in its best examples struck a balance between the didactic and the entertaining, the content and the form, and the inner and outer struggles. If he was not always successful in delineating the depth of characters, especially in his early phase, he compensated for that by lively themes, emphasis on action, and dialogues that sparkle with wit and which capture the rhythms of Iraqi speech. His themes were clear to the minds and hearts of the Iraqi people, his dialogues homespun and authentic, and his humor was as timely as it was spirited. There is no doubt that al-Ani’s plays can be regarded as cultural landmarks in modern Iraqi theater. Such plays as The Key, The Moorings and The Inn compare well with the best drama in the Arab World.
Al-Ani’s impact on the Iraqi theater was also great. Many playwrights, actors, and even directors graduated from his school. His name was intertwined with the Iraqi theater since the early 1950s. He was intimately linked with the Modern Theater troupe, whose remarkable success in no small measure is attributable to his presence. Further, his preoccupation with social and national themes, his enthusiasm for the theater, and his patronage of promising theater talents contributed to the rise of an Iraqi theater that was closely linked to the concerns and aspirations of the people, a people’s theater that in the 1970s was in the vanguard of the Arab theater.
In his plays, al-Ani always advanced his vision of a humane and just society, promoting social reform, women’s emancipation, and the rights of the common people. His was a theater of social and political context, using the vernacular as medium and wholly concerned with Iraqi themes and with the cause of freedom and socialism. Aware of the theater’s function in educating the public, al-Ani criticized petrified social conventions and repressive political conditions. Focusing on the conflict between the old and the new, and between the people and their oppressors, whether the government or world imperialism, al-Ani sought to convey his belief in the eventual triumph of the little man and to celebrate the integrity and heroism of those who forge ahead to build a just society. In the course of his career as a theater professional, al-Ani brought a national style to the Iraqi theater that became its hallmark. Perhaps no other Iraqi dramatist has done that much to present the common people as heroes on the stage, as agents of political and social change and actors on the theater of history. His was truly a people’s theater.
1. The first movie halls were established in Baghdad in the second decade of the Twentieth Century, when drama was still in its infancy. On the enormous popularity of the cinema among Iraqis, see Jacob M. Landau, Studies in the Arab Theater and Cinema (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1958), 175.
2. Yusuf al-Ani, al-Miftah (The Key), trans. Salwa Jabsheh and Alan Brownjohn, in Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Roger Allen, eds., Modern Arabic Drama: An Anthology (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1995), 253-288. Of the many plays by al-Ani, only al-Miftah has been translated into English. Tu’mur Beg (At Your Command, Beg), a play written in the early 1950s, was translated into Kurdish and staged in Sulaymaniyyah, Iraq. As far as I can ascertain, there is hardly any study of al-Ani’s theater in English. There are only a couple of entries, select reproductions from articles by Iraqi critics: The first entry appears in Roger Allen, Modern Arabic Literature (A Library of Literary Criticism Series) (New York: Ungar, 1980), 42-45, and the second in Issa J. Boullata, ed., Critical Perspectives on Modern Iraqi Literature (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1987), 364-68. Ali al-Ra’i devotes two pages to al-Ani in his chapter on “Arabic Drama Since the Thirties,” in M. M. Badawl, ed., Modern Arabic Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992), 39496. Likewise, in his “Introduction” to Jayyusi and Allen, Modern Arabic Drama: An Anthology, Badawi presents a brief, two-page discussion of al-Ani’s works, 18-19. As far back as 1958, Landau’s three-paragraph survey of the Iraqi theater recognizes al-Ani as “One of the best living playwrights and actors” in Iraq, Studies in the Arab Theater and Cinema, 96. It is worth noting that the discussion of Iraqi drama in surveys of Arabic drama in English focuses exclusively on Yusuf al-Ani.
3. Yusuf al-Ani, Al-Tajribah al-Masrahiyya (The Theater Experience) (Beirut: Al-Farabi, 1979), 15-16.
4. Yusuf al-Ani, Al-Tajribah al-Masrahiyya (The Theater Experience), 16-17.
5. Yusuf al-Ani, Al-Tajribah al-Masrahiyya (The Theater Experience), 18-19.
6. For a detailed discussion of the cultural climate at the time, see my chapter on “The Struggle for Cultural Hegemony During the Iraqi Revolution,” in Robert Fernea and Roger Louis, eds., The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: The Old Social Classes Revisited (London: I. B. Tauris, 1991), 172-96.
7. The play is published in Yusuf al-Ani, ‘Ashr Masrahiyyat min Yusuf al-Ani (Ten Plays from Yusuf al-Ani) (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-‘Arabiyyah li al-Dirasat wa al-Nashr, 1981). Except for Lita (later published as Jamil), a 1962 television play, these plays are generally discussed in this article. Citations from these plays appear within the text and refer to this edition.
8. Al-Ani, ‘Ashr Masrahiyyat, 26.
9. Al-Ani, ‘Ashr Masrahiyyat. 26.
10. See, for example, Hadi Tu’ma, Al-Masrah fi al-Iraq wa-Istiqtab al-Jumhur (The Theater in Iraq: Attracting the Public). (Baghdad: Ministry of Culture and Information, 1988), 93; and Abdul-Latif Hasan, “Observations on the Beginnings of Yusuf al-Ani’s Theater, 1945-65,” Tariq al-Sha’b, 1566 (5 December 1978): 3.
11. Safa Khalis, “Muqqadima hawl al-Adab al-Masrahi” (Introduction on Dramatic Literature) in al-Ani, ‘Ashr Masrahiyyat, 14-15.
12. Al-Ani, Al-Tajribah al-Masrahiyya, 96.
13. Interview with the Actress Zainab entitled, “Tammuz fi Dhakirat al-Masrah” (July in the Memory of the Theater), Al-Thaqafa al-Jadida, 187 (July 1987): 112.
14. Interview with the Actress Zainab entitled, “Tammuz fi Dhakirat al-Masrah” (July in the Memory of the Theater), Al-Thaqafa al-Jadida, 113.
15. Interview with the Actress Zainab entitled, “Tammuz fi Dhakirat al-Masrah” (July in the Memory of the Theater), Al-Thaqafa al-Jadida, 115-16, on the flourishing of the Iraqi theater after the 1958 Revolution and the persecution of theater professionals after the 1963 coup d’etat; see also, the interview with the actress Nahida al-Rammah entitled, “Hikayat Nahaida al-Rammah ma’a-1 Masrah al-‘Iraqi” (The Story of Nahida al-Rammah with the Iraqi Theater), alThaqafa al-Jadida, 127 (January 1981): 111, and 114-15.
16. The nursery rhyme is rendered wonderfully into English by the British poet Alan Brownjohn:
Swing me, swing me to and fro, Take me where I long to go, Where my grandfathers live still, On the outskirts of Erbil [Acca in the Arabic text]. They’ll give me a robe and cake, Both of which I’ll proudly take, And store the cake in – store the cake – ? I know! I know! Inside the trunk! But! – the trunk will need a key Which the blacksmith makes for me, And the blacksmith must be paid, And the young bride, I’m afraid, Has the money he will want, And she’s in the bath and can’t Find the money in the dark, Without a lamp to throw a spark Of light, the lamp which fell, Through some mishap, down the well, And the rope has gone! The rope Is tied up tightly round (I hope!) The horns of the bull, and alas, The bull must have some grass, And the garden where it grows Is parched and dry, and no one knows How to bring the rain but God, But God himself and only God, No God but the one God. (256-57)
All quotations from The Key are taken from Modern Arabic Drama: An Anthology, eds. Jayyusi and Allen, and references appear parenthetically in the text.
17. Al-Ani uses the term “part” to designate the two major divisions of the play. The English translation, however, is not consistent, for it uses “First Section” (257) to designate the first part and “Second Part” (275) to designate the second.
18. Paul Shawool, Al-Masrah al-‘Arabi al-Hadith (Arab Modern Theater) (London: Riad El-Rayyes, 1989), 278.
19. Badawi, “Introduction,” in Jayyusi and Allen, eds. Modern Arabic Drama, 19.
20. Al-Ra’i, “Arabic Drama,” 395.
21. Quoted in Jayyusi and Allen, eds. Modern Arabic Drama, 354. Likewise, Allan Brownjohn, co-translator of the play, says: “The story is an ancient one, and the themes eternal. Yusuf al-Ani employs vividly modern images … in this haunting fable about human hope and fulfillment.” Quoted in Jayyusi and Allen, 354.
22. Ahmed Fayyadh al-Mafraji, Mahrajan Baghdad li al-Masrah al-Arabi al-Thalith (The Third Baghdad Festival for the Arabic Theater). (Baghdad: Ministry of Culture and Information, 1994), 121.
23. Al-Ani, Al-Tajribah al-Masrahiyya, 48. See also, al-Ani, Al-Kharabah (The Ruin), in ‘Ashr Masrahiyyat, 397. All quotations from the play are from this text and will be cited parenthetically; translations are mine.
24. Al-Ani, Al-Tajribah al-Masrahiyya, 46.
25. Ali al-Ra’i, Al-Masrah fi al-Watan al-‘Arabi (Theater in the Arab Homeland) (Kuwait: Al-Majlis al-Watani li al-Thaqafa wa al-Funun wa al-Adaab, 1980), 368.
26. Al-Ani, Al-Tajribah al-Masrahiyya, 49-50.
27. Excerpts from Banyan Salih’s review of Al-Shari’a (The Moorings) appear in English translation in Boullata, ed., Critical Perspectives, 36468. Al-Khan (The Inn) is discussed by al-Ra’i in Al-Masrah, 368-72, and briefly mentioned in his “Arabic Drama since the Thirties,” 396.
28. Al-Ra’i, “Arabic Drama,” 396.
29. Nahida al-Rammah (Interview, 119) relates that when al-Ani protested the ban, Tariq Aziz, Minister of Information at the time, declared in a meeting of Ministry employees that he forced al-Ani to withdraw the protest, threatening that he would “make the audience break the stage over his head” if he did not. Such a strong reaction on the part of Minister Aziz indicates clearly the leftist orientation of the play.
30. On the rise of the commercial theater in the 1980s, see Yasin al-Nussayir’s excellent article, “Al-Masrah al-Iraqi al-Yawm: Waq’un wa Ittijahat” (Iraqi Theater Today: Facts and Trends), Nsus 1 (1994): 79-93.
31. In 1982, the Iraqi drama critic Ali Muzahim Abbas wrote that despite al-Ani’s renown as “the most prominent, successful, and famous [playwright], some of his adapted works and original compositions failed to a phenomenal degree.” Quoted in Hadi Tu’ma, Al-Masrah fi al-Iraq, 104.
32. Yusuf al-Ani, “The Time that has not Passed in Vain,” Al-Iraq, 24 October, 1996:4
Al-Ani, Yusuf. Al-Miftah (The Key). Trans. Salwa Jabsheh and Alan Brownjohn. Modern Arabic Drama: An Anthology. Ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Roger Allen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. 253-288.
—–. Al-Tajribah al-Masrahiyya (The Theater Experience). Beirut: Al-Farabi, 1979.
—–. “Al-Waqt al-ladhi lam Yadhab Suda” (The Time That Has Not Passed in Vain). Al-Iraq, 24 Oct. 1996: 4.
—–. ‘Ashr Masrahiyyat min Yusuf al-‘Ani (Ten Plays from Yusuf al-Ani). Beirut: al-Mu’ assasah al-‘Arabiyya lil-Dirasat wa-1 Nashr, 1981.
Al-Mafraji, Ahmed Fayyadh. Mahrajan Bagdad lil-Masrah al-Arabi, al-Thalith (The “Third” Baghdad Festival for the Arabic Theater). Baghdad: Ministry of Culture and Information, 1994.
Al-Nussayir, Yasin. “Al-Masrah al-Iraqi al-Yawm: Waq’un wa-Ittijahat” (Iraqi Theater Today: Facts and Trends). Nsus 1 (1994): 79-93.
Al-Ra’i, Ali. Al-Masrah fi al-Watan al-‘Arabi (Theater in the Arab Homeland). Kuwait: Al-Majlis al-Watani li al-Thaqafa wa al-Funun wa al-Adaab, 1980.
—–. “Arabic Drama Since the Thirties.” The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Modern Arabic Literature. Ed. M.M. Badawi, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 358-403.
Al-Rammah, Nahida. Interview. “Hikayat Nahida al-Rammah ma’a al-Masrah al-Iraqi” (The Story of Nahida al-Rammah with the Iraqi Theater). AlThaqafa al-Jadida 127 (January 1981): 111-120.
Allen, Roger. Modern Arabic Literature (A Library of Literary Criticism Series). New York: Ungar, 1987.
Badawi, M.M. Introduction. Modern Arabic Drama. Ed. Jayyusi and Allen. 1-20.
Hasan, Abdul-Latif. “Mulahadhat fi Bidayat Masrah Yusuf al-Ani, 1945-1965” (Observations on the Beginnings of Yusuf al-Ani’s Theater, 1945-65). Tariq al-Sha’b, 5 Dec. 1978: 3.
Jayyusi, Salma Khadra, and Roger Allen, eds. Modern Arabic Drama: An Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Khalis, Safa “Muqqadima hawl al-Adab al-Masrahi” (Introduction on Dramatic Literature) ‘Ashr Masrahiyyat. By al-Ani. 5-15.
Landau, Jacob M. Studies in the Arab Theater and Cinema. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958.
Salih, Banyan. Review of Al-Shari’a (The Moorings), by al-Ani. Critical Perspectives on Modern Arabic Literature. Ed. Issa J. Boullata, Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980. 364-68.
Shawool, Paul. Al-Masrah al-Arabi al-Hadith (Modern Arab Theater). London: Riad El-Rayyes, 1989.
Tu’ma, Hadi. Al-Masrah fi-l Iraq wa-Istiqtab al-Jumhur (The Theater in Iraq: Attracting the Public). Baghdad: Ministry of Culture and Information, 1988.
Yousif, Abdul-Salaam. “The Struggle for Cultural Hegemony During the Iraqi Revolution.” The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: The Old Social Classes Revisited. Eds. Robert Fernea and Roger Louis. London: T.B. Tauris, 1991. 172-96.
Zainab (Fakhria Abd al-Karim). Interview. “Tammuz fi Dhakirat al-Masrah” (July in the Memory of the Theater). Al-Thaqafa al-Jadida 187 (July 1987): 109-22.
Salaam Yousif is an associate professor of English at California State University, San Bernardino. He received his doctorate from the University of Iowa and has published articles on Iraqi literature and culture.
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