Redefining Theater: Yusuf Idris's al-Farafir and the Work of Cultural Decolonization.
This article explores Yusuf Idris's thought in "Towards an Egyptian Theater" and his play al-Farafir in light of broader discourse on cultural decolonization. Idris advocates decolonization through returning to Egyptian and Arab forms of theatricality and diminished affiliation with European aesthetics. The author argues that the contradictions between his goals and al-Farafir' s realization can be resolved through the premises of adab in its premodern modalities and its contemporaneous demands for political commitment. The emphasis on inclusive participation and radically open textuality creates a horizon of possibility for the decolonized stage, where the renegotiation of socio-political relations invokes the shattering of the play itself.
To date, inquiries into the transnational elements of Arab theater have largely been framed as questions of influence, which have hung over it since its inception as a literary art form produced for the stage. Literary critics often ascribe influence to European playwrights, leaning on the history of translation and adaptation of material from Moliere, Shakespeare, Racine, and others. Alongside the issue of influence arises the concomitant question of what counts as theater--whether it must be in the recognizable form of stage acting that flows from ancient Greek models of tragedy and comedy, or whether performative genres indigenous to Arab culture provide a set of dramatic origins and practices (see Badawi; Ouyang). (1) In the wake of decolonization and the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, such questions gained particular momentum. Playwrights who sought to imbue their dramatic practice with a distinctly Arab identity refuted claims of influence in no uncertain terms, insisting that their inspiration arose from local dramatic forms. (2)
Key among them was Yusuf Idris, who published his "Nahw masrah misri" ("Towards an Egyptian Theater") as a series of articles in the January, February, and March 1964 issues of the journal al-Katib. In the article, Idris presents a critical matrix for rethinking the very concept of theater itself as participation in a shared dramatic experience, coining the term tamasruh (dramatization). The neologism stands as both a destabilization of the received forms of theater, masrah, as well as an invitation to rethink its basic premises. The form of the verb that Idris utilizes with tamasruh is used to make an activity reflexive or intensified. With tamasruh, Idris suggests that theater should be self-reflexive, engaging critically with its own structures and formal presumptions. The intensification further intimates that theater requires dynamic engagement, gathering its participants into collective activity. He went on to explore this theoretical model with the play al-Farafir, first performed in the same year in Cairo. In his articles, which were then republished as the introduction to the play, Idris insists that the dramatic techniques found in al-Farafir are rooted in Egyptian theatrical forms--the folk entertainment known as the samir, the karagoz puppet theater, the khayal al-zill shadow play. While these forms have not usually been counted within the tradition of Arab literary culture known as adab, I argue that the theories undergirding the production, maintenance, and social values of premodern adab are disclosed in Idris's engagement with performative traditions both Arab and European. Such critical engagement and (re)appropriations contribute to the work of cultural decolonization of the stage.
Cultural Decolonization: Local Discourse and Transnational Connections
While scholars have at times argued against a postcolonial reading of Arab theater and literary modernity (see Litvin), pointing to the complex intercultural connections in the history of Arab letters, debates surrounding the development of an "authentic" Arab theater parallel much of the contemporaneous discourse in other former colonies of the Global South. Current scholarship of postcolonial theater in English has predominantly focused on playwrights from the former British colonies; however, these cross-cultural comparisons of critical and performative work by authors as varied as Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Herbert Dhlomo (South Africa), Rabindranath Tagore (India), and Derek Walcott (Saint Lucia/West Indies) reveal a markedly similar set of critical preoccupations and performative strategies for decolonizing the stage as those that Idris puts forward in "Towards an Egyptian Theater" (see Ampka; Balme; Crow and Banfield; and Gilbert and Tompkins). What Awam Ampka terms hybridity--drawing on the model developed by Homi Bhabha--and what Christopher Balme names theatrical syncretism together point to strategies of cultural decolonization that rethink the nature of theater as a cultural form. The playwrights' reconsideration of theater's values and formal properties occurs alongside the affirmation and integration of local performative traditions. Ampka's study points to the importance of theater in the formulation and assertion of local identities, identifying it as necessarily democratic and reform-oriented. The theater of decolonization reflects a space of subjectivity and agency, opposing representations of the (post)colonial subject as "dominated objects of history" (10). These cross-cultural comparisons speak to the exchange of ideas and political alignments among members of the Global South during the 1950s and 1960s. While full analysis of such connections is outside the scope of this article, they point to cultural decolonization as a transnational affair whose connections have yet to be fully explored and which will further illuminate the work of Arab dramatists.
As a theorist of decolonization par excellence, Frantz Fanon's discussions of dialectical historical processes of decolonization and national emergence are intimately related to the debates on cultural production. Yoav Di-Capua describes how the first translations of Les damnes de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) were "read with Sartre in mind," given the presence of Sartre's thought in Arab intellectual debates of the time (178); his introduction to the text was translated and published in the Beirut-based journal al-Adab in February 1962, one year prior to Sami al-Durubi and Jamal al-Atassi's translation of Les damnes de la terre. According to Di-Capua, Sartre's introduction brought the justification for armed revolution to the forefront of Arab interpretations of Fanon. While the legacy of Fanon's direct influence in Arabic is often most clearly tied to the Palestinian struggle and, moreover, has been contested (see Harding), his thought on cultural decolonization clearly belongs to the circulation of ideas among actors in the Middle East and other parts of the Global South.
Fanon's analysis of historical re-appropriations and re-presentations of cultural forms in "On National Culture" was first delivered as a lecture at the Second Congress of Black Artists and Writers in Rome, in 1959, and in it, a portion of his remarks directly invoke Arab experience. Fanon reads pan-Arabism as a postcolonial response to European occupations describing the drive to exalt Arab history, including its political, philosophical, and cultural forms, as the logical consequence of the devaluation of that history under imperialism. While scholarship re-investigating the Nahda points to a more expansive understanding of the Arab encounter with Western modernity (see Allan; El-Ariss; Rastegar; and Tageldin), Fanon rightly notes the anxiety that often pervaded these encounters. European humanism's claims concerning modern civilization necessarily rendered other cultures subhuman, barbaric, and uncivilized, creating the need for Arab intellectuals to proclaim the values of Arab-Islamic civilization in turn. However, Fanon asserts that in reality "every culture is first and foremost national" (216), where the history tied to specific geographic regions predominates; local histories of different trade partners, politics, and cultural formations leave their mark on each Arab nation. His critique of pan-Arabism identifies it as a self-contradicting movement that attempts to establish a unified Arab culture while at the same time individual members assert their own national privilege and local specificities.
For Fanon, the process of cultural decolonization can therefore go astray when an immersion in past cultural forms ignores historical change and specificity. In this reading, pan-Arabism attempts to excavate an imagined community through a catalogue of "greats" in literature, philosophy, and political orders, meanwhile turning away from current events and the "[dialectical reorganization of] the people's intelligences" under Western imperialism (225). Cultural decolonization, therefore, requires not only a reinvestment in one's own traditions and history, but also the recognition of the present and of the people's place within that historical moment--a recognition that is necessarily national. As Fanon writes, "the colonized man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope" (232). National culture is that which shapes a national consciousness, a democratic process intended to form national subjects who actively participate in, and take responsibility for, the concrete operational structures of the newly independent nation. The artist must reflect and encourage that process, for "the first duty of the native poet is to see clearly the people he has chosen as the subject of his work of art" (226). Moreover, Fanon asserts that any intellectual or creative artist must be committed to revolutionary struggle not only through cultural representation, but also in physical presence and activity.
In the Arab world, such aspects of cultural decolonization became central to the project of adab itself, forming part of the matrix of what it meant to be a politically engaged writer and intellectual. The debates over iltizam and committed literature (al-adab al-multazim) that would reflect sociopolitical reality and serve as a vehicle for societal change emerged in the 1950s, making adab a cultural form valued not only--or perhaps even primarily--for aesthetic merit, but for its political endeavors. The concept of iltizam emerged following Taha Hussayn's summarization of Sartre's Qu'est-ce que la litterature ? for the journal al-Katib almisri in 1947, wherein he discussed the debates taking place in Les temps modernes and interpreted Sartre's arguments for Arab readers. In Qu 'est-ce que la litterature ?, Sartre argues for the necessity of a "committed" literature (la litterature engagee) where authors acknowledge their political situatedness and the moral responsibilities that inhere in the activity of writing. Arab writers appropriated the concept and made it their own, pairing the idea of al-adab al-multazim with contemporaneous social and political revolutions and the Palestinian cause. Prominent literary journals of the 1950s and 1960s such as al-Adab and al-Katib bear this understanding of adab, discussing cultural production alongside political theory and ideology. These journals did not restrict themselves to a narrow definition of adab as literature; the novel, short stories, poetry, theater, cinema, and visual arts all fell under its purview, along with essays engaging with philosophical and political thought.
Such essays point to the resonance of global liberation struggles with political causes in the Arab world and the uptake of critical thought on decolonization as a transnational historical process. Mohammad 'Awda introduces his three-part essay in the January, February, and March 1963 issues of al-Katib, "Concerning the Search for a Theory," with just such a transnational sentiment:
The search for a theory is a problem faced by Afro-Asian liberated peoples, whether during their liberation or after it. During the battles for liberation, getting rid of colonialism was "theory" enough to live and die for. After liberation, the problem emerged: What should peoples do with this freedom? (39) (3)
The self-reflective thought that would give rise to such a "theory"--in other words, the processes of self-definition central to decolonization--are thus presented as a challenge that the Arab world shares with other countries of the Global South.
Echoing this set of priorities, al-Farafir presents itself as both thoroughly Egyptian and representative of global history writ large. On the one hand, culturally specific stock characters, references, and use of the Egyptian dialect mark the play as one intended to resonate with a local audience. However, the two main characters, the Farfur and the Master, also explicitly stand in for any set of relations primarily defined by domination and subservience, and the appeal to global history is brought to the fore at the beginning of the second act when the Master's children are named after despots and mass-murderers (Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini) while the Farfur's children are their nameless victims. The relationship suggests the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave, which also informs Fanon's thought on the relationship between colonizer and colonized; mutual recognition and mutual dependence characterize the relationship, with the Master ultimately dependent on (in Hegelian terms, enslaved by) the slave. In al-Farafir, the Farfur and the Master come to presence through their relationship, attempting to define who they are and what they do vis-a-vis the other. However, these definitions are unsatisfactory, relying as they do on tautologies handed down to them by the Author, who states, "When it says you're a Master, it means you're a Master. A Farfoor is a Farfoor with his feet over his head" (The Farfoors 382). The central tension of the play is the Farfur's questioning of the role assigned to him. He refuses it at the end of the first act, and this leads to ensuing attempts by both him and the Master to establish a new relationship--all of which fail. It is easy, then, to read Idris's play as a pessimistic commentary on the inescapability of asymmetrical power relations in a postcolonial world, both on the global and the local scale.
Hanita Brand has noted the tendency of both Idris's Arab contemporaries and present-day scholars alike to commit an intentional fallacy with an overreliance on statements of authorial intention set forth in "Towards an Egyptian Theater." While her critique is certainly merited, Idris's essay cannot be overlooked. It functions as part of the paratextual material known as the didascalia, which, as Christopher Balme asserts, provides a particularly important resource for postcolonial playwrights in the production of culturally relevant theater that varies from the aesthetic norms of the Western form (7). Through the didascalia, including stage directions, glossaries, and introductions, these dramatists call attention to the strategies through which they adapt European theater and integrate local material and performative structures. It is therefore crucial to consider that the essay that announced al-Farafir became its preface upon the text's publication, and commented on the play's first staging. A reading that sets the essay to one side can, in fact, reproduce a distinctly Western form of scholarship and literary criticism that asserts that there is nothing outside the text. The intentional fallacy, where information is "read in" to the text, points to the overarching concern for the creation of a distinctly Egyptian theater by those watching, participating in, and critiquing the production of al-Farafir. If interpretations of the play become overly optimistic, as Brand asserts, then this should be seen not as a failure on the part of those critics, but of a play in dialogue with the essay that announces it. The tension between the theses of the essay and the "meaning" of the theater when it is considered in isolation can only be resolved when read as Idris's ongoing effort to generate and perform cultural decolonization. While the play may fail to provide a "way out" from inequitable power relations as it is written, the alternative possibilities for its staging that Idris explicates in the paratextual material and evokes within the play itself suggest a horizon of potentiality for that exit. This can only occur through the complete decolonization that returns to a fully participatory framework rooted in local reality, where the audience becomes the critically conscious subjects who no longer watch history unfold, but participate in its making.
"Towards an Egyptian Theater": The Global vs. Local Debate and the Question of Influence
The question of influence has long been contentious in the realm of the arts (al-adab, plural of adab), tied as it is to the concern with identity in the wake of European imperialism. It is especially concentrated in theater, as its very form as a production for the stage is of European provenance. As a physical space and cultural form, the theater regularly stood as a sign of colonial modernity, and the construction of European-style performance venues heralded the arrival of civilization in the colonies (Gilbert and Tompkins 7-8). In the Egyptian context, the origins of modern theater are traced to Napoleon's expedition, the companies set up and frequented by European communities in Alexandria and Cairo, and, finally, Khedive Isma'il's construction of the Theatre de la Comedie and Cairo Opera House for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. In both its physical and cultural forms, Egyptian modernity in the era of the colonial encounter was meant to be recognizable to--and in turn, recognized by--Europeans. Early playwrights who adapted European plays for the Egyptian stage or wrote their own would later be condemned as imitative, despite their own concerns with the creation of a distinctly Egyptian theater. Even M. M. Badawi, who decisively states that "Modern Arabic drama is an importation from the West" (7) and that it "can be said to have begun to make its distinct and valuable contribution only in the 1960s" (2), discusses how playwrights of the early twentieth century such as Farah Antun, Ibrahim Ramzi, and Muhammad Taymur stipulated the need for Egyptian settings, themes, and social issues alongside their forays into the use of colloquial language.
Yet even as they sought to produce drama that would appeal to a local audience and reflect national conditions, Egyptian theater circles of the 1960s remained engaged with the work of their European counterparts. This is clear from a glance through the pages of al-Katib, where Yusuf Idris served as an editor. Alongside the work of Naguib Mahfouz, Bahaa' Taher, and Ahmed Hijazi, one finds translations of Ionesco, Brecht, and Shaffer; critical essays on avant-gardism and absurdism; and monthly reviews of cultural occurrences in Belgrade, Paris, Algiers, and Cairo. (4) This journal clearly demonstrates the global reach of avant-garde theater and its interest for the Egyptian literary scene, especially as many of these ideas and techniques mirrored the experimental strategies for decolonizing national culture circulating at the time.
This interest in global theater contradicts how Idris frames the return to forms of popular culture as a distinctly Egyptian phenomenon untouched by the influence of the Western avant-garde. Idris's choice to largely ignore his similarities to the Western avant-garde is governed by a resistance to a debt of influence, stated or unstated. Instead of affiliation with the global avant-garde, Idris asserts lines of filiation to premodern Egyptian sources. This is a reversal of the priorities of Western high modernism, which according to Edward Said is marked by "the transition from a failed idea or possibility of filiation to a kind of compensatory order that, whether it is a party, an institution, a culture, a set of beliefs, or even a world vision, provides men and women with a new form of relationship" (234). Said describes how Western affiliation in fact reproduces the generational hierarchies of filiation through its prism of a politically neutral humanism, where the classics of Western culture are made to represent global culture and its values. The response of cultural producers such as Idris who, then, insist on localized filial relations instead of seeking affiliation with a "global" avant-garde is an act of resistance and a decolonizing impulse to remove oneself from the hierarchies of value that affiliation obscures. The truth of it--the degree to which Idris may have been influenced by Brecht, Pirandello, and the Theater of the Absurd--ultimately matters less than the "truth" that Idris proclaims, for it reveals his set of priorities and political agenda in the sphere of cultural production.
A contemporaneous review by Louis Awad, also published in al-Katib, offers further consideration of this tension between the declared autonomy of Egyptian cultural production and the visible presence of Western theater. Even as he praises al-Farafir as a mature accomplishment, Awad contends:
There is no doubt that they [contemporary Egyptian playwrights] are still exposed to the influence of world literature. However, this is not a matter of imitation, but one of assimilation. The author no longer derives his inspiration from abroad, but contemplates the Egyptian spirit and makes the Egyptian character shine. He invents his own story, or "his myth" in the Aristotelian sense, as he reads everything, from the Greeks to Brecht, Beckett, and Ionesco, then forgets it all. He may even boast that he has not read anything by these authors, the outcome becoming a truly Egyptian drama. The boast here is a healthy phenomenon, however exaggerated it may be, the important point being continued interaction with world literature. (54)
Awad points to the traffic in international literary and theatrical trends as an ongoing phenomenon in Egypt at the time of al-Farafir's production, attesting to their influence despite playwrights' arguments to the contrary. As he observes, the claim to avoid all external influence is disingenuous, and he affirms the influence of world literature on Egyptian playwrights, including Idris. However, Awad's article also asserts that the key factor in the birth of a true Egyptian theater is that which is local: the 1952 Revolution. For Awad, Egyptian theatrical innovation is a phenomenon springing from the processes of decolonization in the political sphere with the Free Officers' Movement, the dissolution of the monarchy, and the creation of the modern Egyptian state. In this formulation, cultural modernity is intimately tied to political will, where self-determination in the political sphere is echoed in a creative consciousness that no longer relies upon adaptation (iqtibas) and imitation (taqlid).
Awad resolves the contradiction between the stated influence of world literature and the affirmation of national consciousness reflected in the arts through his allusion to the practice of forgetting, grounded in the Arab poetic tradition. An anecdote tied to the eighth-century poet Abu Nuwas exemplifies this practice. As a student, Abu Nuwas is said to have sought permission from his teacher to compose poetry, which was not granted until he had fulfilled his teacher's instructions: to memorize a thousand lines of poetry, then to forget them all (Kilito, The Author 14). Only after this dual process, memorization of the old masters and the ensuing erasure of that poetry from his consciousness, was Abu Nuwas allowed to begin his own compositions. Invoking this trope for inspiration stages the modern encounter with European literature and theater not as inimical to cultural authenticity, but as a creative process negotiating the relation between self and other, individual talent and the voices of a canonical tradition. This work of negotiation and self-invention, Awad implies, is completely in line with modes of authorship and creative undertaking as understood within the Arab literary tradition. Instead of assuming another's likeness as one does with imitation or mimicry (taqlTd), one literally drinks in the other (tasharrub), absorbing the other into one's own self-reckoning. This absorption/assimilation enhances one's creative consciousness, while the act of "forgetting" ensures that aesthetic production is wholly one's own. For Awad, Egyptian playwrights participate in world literature through the conceit of forgetting, which allows them to assert their own creative prerogatives.
This model provides a new way of considering the imitation/originality binary that has long dominated debates over Arab theater. It allows for transnational and cross-cultural exchange of ideas, texts, and theatrical techniques without categorizing such exchange as influence, which carries the implication of a greater and a lesser, the original and the copy. Agency returns to the playwright as he or she chooses what to digest, and the resulting work of art is wholly one's own. As an act of liberation from past masters, the anecdote further taps into a decolonizing imaginary in which the authority of the European form and text is overturned. This "drinking in" echoes the concept of literary cannibalism as a model for a decolonized national literature, as celebrated in the 1928 Manifesto Antropofago (Cannibalist Manifesto) by Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade. Absorption becomes a mark not of cultural weakness or anxiety, but of strength and self-determination.
Moreover, this demands that theater and literature be interpreted according to the Arab literary tradition's own theories and practices of authorship. The anecdote concerning Abu Nuwas grounds modern Egyptian theater in the tradition of premodern adab, implicitly comparing the playwright to the poet. In doing so, it brings together genres that have traditionally been considered "low" (theatrical performance)--and thus not eligible for inclusion in adab--and "high" (poetry), perhaps the most exemplary genre in adab. Awad sets up a matrix through which the encounter with Western theater can be processed through the lens of premodern poetic practices. Nor is Awad the only voice to bring theatrical performance into the fold of adab. One of Idris's critics, Muhammad Mandur, objects to the consideration of shadow plays as either a "dramatic art" (fann al-adab al-tamthili) or a "theater art" (fann al-masrah) on the basis of their "artistic primitivism" (qtd. in Brand 60). This judgment of artistic merit is certainly open to question--Marvin Carlson, for instance, draws attention to the sophistication of the Ibn Daniyal texts in his consideration of the shadow plays as a possible source for al-Farafir ("The Contribution" 226-27)--but more importantly for my point, Mandur's remarks acknowledge the presence and possibility of an adab tamthili, a performative literature.
Reading modern Arabic theater in relation to premodern traditions of performative adab restores forms of the dramatic to the main body of literary experience. In its classical form, adab constitutes a tremendous range of genres including poetry (sh'ir) and narrative reports (khabar, pi. akhbar) that in turn subdivide into topics and forms such as biography (sTra), proverbs (amthal), and history (tarikh) (Ali 35-36). In addition to a collection of texts and genres, adab signifies certain manners, mores, and customs. It therefore constitutes both a body of knowledge and a set of qualities that mark one as a refined, companionable, and educated social being. Salim Kemal suggests that pre-Islamic poetic conventions exert a centripetal force that creates a community of feeling, leading to a "collective poetry" that both maintains the consciousness of group identity and expresses individual contributions to that group's virtue (6-8); the same might be said of adab writ large, given how it consisted of a set of literary practices based in collective presence and participation. As Samer Ali has decisively argued, performance was central to adab as it was practiced in the Abbasid period as a form of entertainment and edification found in evening gatherings (the mujalasa or majlis). A litterateur (adab) would recite pieces of adab, performing for those gathered. Written texts that collated adab often functioned as a kind of script. Manuscripts from this period include marginalia that adjust the text and indicate breath marks and pauses meant to amplify the recitation (53-57). The adab adjusted according to the desires and demands of his audience, creating a relationship based in participation and communication. These performative practices foreground an ethos of relationality in textual reception, transmission, and authorship.
These relational and performative aspects of adab were deemphasized in the modern consolidation of adab as "literature" (see Allan; Mitchell). The inscription of adab in the institutions governing the disciplines and practices of literature such as the university formed a prescriptive set of pedagogies on how to read the literary canon, and this didacticism diminished the possibilities for a relational interpretation of adab. The canonization of adab in the development of modern school curricula pushed much of this flexibility to the side, instead emphasizing the solitary pursuit of silent reading and the emergence of the modern Arab novel as a vector for reflections on the modern nation-state and the formation of the national subject (see Jacquemond; Selim).
Authors such as Yusuf Idris seeking indigenous sources for modern theater implicitly contest this consolidation of adab, for they suggest that the boundaries should once again be widened to admit performative forms. Several such forms have not formerly been counted as adab; I refer again to Mandur's protest regarding the shadow play, along with the contention that the storyteller (hakawati or rawi) is considered a marginal, non-literary figure within Arab culture itself (Ouyang 388). However, other forms that have been the subject of renewed interest do lie within a canonical study of adab. This is particularly true of the classical genre known as the maqamat, which has been recuperated as a proto-dramatic source for theater (see Badawi; Berque; al-Khozai; Prendergast; and al-Ra'i). These short, anecdotal pieces lie between narrative and dialogue, and in Badi' al-Zaman al-Hamadhani's original, the maqamat offer representations of play-acting with the character of Abu al-Fath al-Iskandari. Al-Iskandari combines the figure of the itinerant scholar and trickster, frequently taking on new identities throughout the individual "scenes." He is invariably recognized at the end of each maqama, and his true identity revealed. The maqamat mark a point of interaction between high and low literary forms, staging theatrical, often comedic dialogues among everyday folk within the medium of an elite literary form that came to be known for its erudition. Furthermore, the maqamat have been theorized to be the primary source of the shadow plays present in popular culture (al-Khozai 19-21). The (re)turn to such forms for inspiration and the revisionist lens reevaluating literary genres demonstrates that cultural decolonization occurs not only through the reassessment of the modern, but also implicates the reception and interpretation of the past. Excavating these traditions serves as a means of combating the identification of theater as a European product, bound by Western norms and ultimately alienated from local realities. This rejection of norms is not a wholesale rejection of European theatrical performance, however, but rather a destabilization of received practice. It is exactly such destabilization that Arab practices of poesis promote with the productive absorption and "forgetting" of former models. We witness not only the restoration of performative elements to adab, but also a reformulation that is intensely political, tied as it is to debates over what constitutes cultural traditions worth celebrating on the local stage--and even in the global arena, as Arab culture's contribution and "answer" to world literature.
Idris attempts to destabilize the normative assumptions inherent in the term masrah (theater) by pointing to the variety that masrah ignores or rejects. As Dina Amin notes, charting the terms used for theatrical performance traces the development of Arab theater itself, moving from the premodern lu'ba, the playlet or skit, to riwaya, the narrative or story, and finally to the contemporary use of masrahiyya, the drama or play (80-81). Idris's redefinition of theater from masrah to tamasruh is a purposeful move that recuperates what is "outside" masrah. English-language critics have variously glossed tamasruh as theaterizing (see Brand), immersion in the theatrical/dramatic condition (see Ouyang), and "a state of spiritual elation ... in which actor and spectator [become] fused into one" (Carlson, "Avant-Garde" 135). Tamasruh communicates a universal impulse to live theatrically, indicating a participatory ethos rooted in shared experience. The term first appears as a provocation in one of the opening statements of "Towards an Egyptian Theater," where Idris asserts:
Wherever there is a people, then it is a vital characteristic and necessity of its existence to eat, drink, dance, and laugh--also to live theatrically [yatamasrah] (if I may use this term), under any condition, at any time, and as long as there is life. (5) (5)
Idris presents tamasruh as a self-evident term, part of what it means to be human. The neologism is explicated by way of example as the dramatic, performative, immersive experiences that accompany celebration, ritual occurrences, and other moments of social gathering. In Idris's theorization, the social instinct for community allows the individual to set aside personal fears, troubles, anxieties, achieving a temporary shedding of the self for immersion in the whole:
Here in the encounter, each individual is able to look at his own person without fear and to make fun of it, becoming liberated from the grip of his own fear and becoming more free. Other qualities become apparent to him, and so his hospitality increases, along with his desire to be more generous towards his brothers, and he becomes more prepared for altruism, self-sacrifice, etc. (6) (6)
Here, Idris argues for the need to re-connect modern theater with tamasruh on the basis of its social functions. To be theatrical is to be human, and instead of putting forward the universality of a specific theatrical form, Idris posits the universality of a certain kind of experience.
This claim to universality is held in tension with his subsequent declaration in the second installation of the essay, where Idris states that there is no such thing as a world or global art (ial-fann al-'alami) or a world language (al-lugha al-'alamiyya). When Idris writes against the concept of a global art, he places the term 'alamiyya against mahaliyya, meaning "local." More precisely, mahaliyya indicates belonging to a specific place. World, then, implies a universal belonging that transcends the specificities of any given location. To belong to world theater, a given piece must belong to no place at all. As Idris argues, this is a false proposition and a category that is impossible to produce. The claim of a "world" theater hides the true structures of power behind its assertion of universal relevance through non-belonging. Instead of the global/local binary, Idris posits the model of greater or lesser diffusion. That diffusion, whether it be of language, art, or theater, is grounded in the political conditions that facilitate or hinder the spread of cultural forms. As Idris writes:
Just as we do not believe that there is a world language and a local language, but rather that there are widespread languages and languages of limited diffusion, we also do not believe that there is a world art and a local art. There are European arts that are widespread and Eastern, Arab, or Chinese arts that are limited in their diffusion. "Limited" not because of artistic reasons, but rather because of purely political causes and the spread of European languages and arts due to the expansion of European civilization and its tyranny, its colonization of most parts of the world, and its attempt to endow those parts with its own Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, or American character. (24) (7)
Idris's critique pinpoints how the Enlightenment humanism mobilized for imperial and neo-colonial purposes infiltrates the moniker "world." That which purports to be global and equally relevant to all people takes pains to hide the assignment of value and who determines what is considered universal, worldly, and human. Idris identifies European norms for theater as but one form among many, pointing to the violence implicit in the adoption of those norms. In his account, aesthetic forms develop to support the artistic vision of a given people and their mode of understanding the world; thus, while transnational exchange is beneficial for the exchange of ideas, it must not impose the dominance of a form that is not locally derived. The destabilizations of tamasruh attempt to shake Egyptian theater loose from an adherence to European theatrical forms--namely, Greco-Roman tragedy and dramas of social realism--and renegotiate Egyptians' relationship to the theater of the stage.
For Idris, one of the principal functions of tamasruh is to provoke the kind of laughter that leads to critical self-examination. Satire is an essential component for his vision of the theater, making use of sukhriyya (sarcasm), mufaraqa (irony), and hija' (invective) (see al-Shibaneh; van Gelder). Its function is to reshape social relations, making satire a moral and educational tool. Instead of tamasruh conveying a socially conservative didacticism, however, it generates an open critique that the community explores together, returning to an adab based in communicative relationality. In Idris's words, self-critique moves one towards the giving of oneself, going beyond hospitable generosity to a self-abnegating form of openness to and defense of the other. (8) Tamasruh is thus presented as an experience that moves in the direction of radical possibility, initiated through satire and farce.
The local source that Idris claims for precedent makes no pretensions of high literary value, yet according to Idris's presentation of the samir, its social functions align with those of adab in both its premodern valences and contemporary commitments. The Egyptian samir, a largely improvised village production that includes musicians, dancers, and actors, is Idris's model for a culturally authentic Egyptian theater that merges high and low cultures, elite and popular forms of entertainment. Key to its constitution is the farfur, a harlequinesque persona whose role is to lampoon figures of authority and engage in bawdy banter with the onlookers. As a figure who both entertains and satirizes, the farfur functions as the gadfly who serves a social function for the community engaged in the performance. His satirical representations are educative, ultimately advocating moral conduct, heightening awareness of social responsibilities, and drawing attention to instances of failure among members of the community. While satire's capacity to provoke shifts in behavior is a subject of open debate among literary theorists of the Western canon (see Gilmore), Idris's remarks on the functions of satire mark his ambition to both decolonize Egyptian theater and perform an important critique of operative structures of power. The Farfur of his play propels the action forward through his exaggerated irreverence and outsized stage presence, deriding the presumed sources of authority before questioning his own presence and assigned role as the farfur--a word that rapidly takes on the meaning of servant--to a designated master, al-sayyid. When the Farfur questions why he must adhere to the given narrative (al-riwaya), it echoes beyond the structure of the theater to put pressure on the structure of the world writ large.
The Open Text: Decolonization's Deconstructions
In al-Farafir, destabilization occurs around each term initially purporting a guarantee of identity: al-riwaya, al-sayyid, alfarfur. The participatory ethos signified by tamasruh is at the same time a radically open textuality, disturbing the "text" of European modernity. In Idris's own description of the samir, the riwaya is a structure that is open-ended and malleable, intended to provide support and guidance without rigidity. This allows the farfur to adapt his performance according to the audience's responses, creating a truly communicative experience of theater:
The dramatic narrative [al-riwaya] in the sdmir (or as it is called, the act [al-fasl]) is not a single script but rather many acts, some of which rely on laughter and others on extending wisdom or spiritual exhortation. This latter type is of little bearing given the low value of its artistry, for the artistry of this theater in truth only comes to light in the humorous scripts. These scripts do not have a written text, but rather have texts or subjects in equilibrium, and before the beginning of each act all the actors quickly agree on the general plan or set it out. This is not exactly corn-media dell'arte because the roles of this type of theater are evenly distributed among the actors, while in our comedies, the roles are not distributed evenly, as there is one principal role, the farfur (or, in other plays and countries, the zarzur). He is the main axis around which the script turns, making people laugh through his postures, opinions, and movements. It is clear to us in the end that the other roles are only occasions that lay out for the farfur the base of his dialogue or his sarcasm, and that they are not true theatrical roles in the given meaning of the term. (36-37) (9)
Through irony, use of the grotesque, and exaggeration, structures of power and the persons that operate within them become the subject of laughter, dulling their capacity to intimidate and opening them to critique. As Achille Mbembe observes, the postcolonial state establishes itself as sacrosanct, where to challenge it is to challenge the natural order or a divine mandate (102-41). It is intended to be unthinkable, and thus the offense given is not only to a given person or institution, but to the very structure of society and the polity. Vulgar exaggeration is a definitional characteristic, both in the conceits of the state and in the people's relations to it as they turn to ribald satire. Satire's barbs puncture the inflated vision of the postcolonial state, and it becomes a means of envisioning a world differently by assailing that which would set itself up as unassailable. This form of satire is made possible through the structural openness of the samir's riwaya, for it allows the farfur as the initiator of satirical representation to adjust his performance to his audience's needs. The riwaya serves only as an aid to the farfur's ends.
The comedy of social critique that Idris envisions is related to the vision of theater as it was initially communicated by Arab observers and interlocutors as a morally educative endeavor. Anxiety over theater's propriety led some of the earliest modern writers to appeal to its moral qualities, where right action is commended and wrong behavior condemned. This appeal echoes the Qur'anic injunction commanding what is right and forbidding what is wrong ('amr bi-l-ma'rufwa nahi 'an al-munkar) (7:157). For instance, Rifa'a al-Tahtawi describes Parisian entertainment as a wholly educative endeavor:
Among the gatherings for amusement they have, we find places called the theatre and spectacles. Here, they re-enact everything that has happened. In truth, these playlets deal with serious things through jest, and thus a person takes wonderful lessons from them. Indeed, one sees good and bad acts, where the former are praised and the latter condemned, so that the French say that it [the theater] improves [tu'addib] human morals and cultivates them. Although it contains many things that are amusing, there are also many things that bring one to tears. On the curtain that comes down at the end of the play, there is a Latin saying that may be translated as follows: "amusement improves the morals". (225-26, trans, modified)
However, the claims of moral improvement in classic French theater that al-Tahtawi rehearses are fundamentally conservative and meant to uphold the social order instead of issuing challenges against it, as in Idris's conception of theater. The French comedy of manners, for instance, satirizes individuals who fail to uphold the moral values and behavioral norms associated with their societal stations. Tartuffe offers a particularly suitable example, especially given how it was adapted to immense popularity by the Egyptian translator Muhammad 'Uthman Jalal in 1873 as Al-Shaykh Matluf. In the final version of Tartuffe as it became a mainstay of the French theatrical canon, the portrayal of a fraudulent man of religion satirizes the hypocrisies of the church and the gullibility of those who look to them for guidance. While the play supports a reading that targets Oragon, the familial head, for the strongest critique--thus questioning patriarchal and religious norms that allow his unjust treatment of his family, while motivated by genuine piety--the play also ends with a restoration of order, as the intervention of a benevolent king restores Oragon and punishes Tartuffe. Justice is meted out to the man of a lower social status, Tartuffe, while mercy prevails for Oragon, the nobleman who supported the king during a time of civil war; Oragon's own crime of holding seditious material for a friend is forgiven, based as it is in chivalrous behavior towards one's peers. On its surface, then, the socio-political order and its hierarchies remain undisturbed. It is this form of stage drama that first gained a following in the Arab world, establishing the baseline for what a modern theater would look like.
The social conservatism inscribed in the riwaya of modernity extends from the moral lessons offered by the narrative to the physical experience of theater-going. It dictates an order where everything is in its place. Spectators remain silent in the darkened auditorium while professionals act out an alternate world on the stage, and order is restored when the lights go up, with all returning to life as it was prior to the play. Delineating an imaginary world of the stage and a real world outside of the theater keeps one from transgressing into the other, ensuring the neat separation between any upsets that may occur onstage and the stability of life outside the theater. In contrast, tamasruh and the meta-theatrical questioning of the indeterminate riwaya break these protocols wide open, creating a theatrical experience where the ultimate ends must be negotiated by all those present. The action on stage is the catalyst for this process, but bears no prescriptive force.
Critics have often overlooked the extent to which Idris aims to mobilize the alternative understanding of riwaya located in both the samir and premodern adab. While they have pointed to the breaking of the fourth wall instituted by Idris's suggestion that actors be placed among the audience and assume the roles of onlookers joining the action, they have not fully engaged with Idris's remarks on the script itself--or, when noting the possible reversals of its first and second part, concentrate on how that would change the "meaning" of the play (see Brand; Ouyang). This, I contend, is precisely the point. Idris stipulates its openness, and in the expanded version of "Towards an Egyptian Theater" that serves as the play's introduction, he expresses his dissatisfaction with the initial director opting to squarely stick to the text, enjoining:
It is necessary to abolish the prepared script that they are used to, instead making the audience feel that the narrative is being created before them, so that they are able to contribute to its composition, change, and amend it. We must abolish playacting and spectating, the player and the spectator; all must cast off their external selves and bring out their hidden human natures, joining together to become the single collective being that will enjoy tamasruh. (60) (10)
Staging actors among the audience is thus to be a temporary measure, one which encourages the dissolution of the audience's isolation from the action. In contrast, the first production of al-Farafir, wherein those roles were assigned to a chorus, only reinforced the norm of spectating.
There is no prescriptive framework for al-Farafir, but rather several possibilities for its staging. The introductory notes stipulate the place and time of the first act as "any place" and "any time," while in the second act the place is "the same place" and the time is "any time after the events of the first act, or even before its events" (64). The observation that then follows provides even further provisions: "Despite this, the narrative can be staged continuously from its beginning to its end without the fall of the curtain, or it can be cut into parts." Stage directions and dialogue in al-Farafir echo the provisional status that the script is meant to carry. At the opening of the second act, the Farfur offers a self-referential reflection upon his reunion with the Master, refuting the latter's remark ("I've been looking for you for the last thousand years .. no, not one thousand, say five thousand years") with the words, "This man's such an incurable liar! It's not five minutes since we left each other in front of everybody" (al-Farafir 151; The Farfoors 442). (11) Commenting on this passage of time draws attention to the contingency of the riwaya, marking the incongruity between an official narrative and lived experience.
Within al-Farafir, the Author personifies the enforcement of this narrative, whether it be by state, party, code of norms, or even religious doctrine. Through the use of an open-ended symbol, Idris creates enough ambiguity to escape the repercussions of a direct attack, but the play's implications have not escaped notice--nor are they meant to. Ambiguity draws the audience into collusion, making interpretation an insider's game of coded reference and inference. The most transgressive critiques are veiled and therefore deniable. The Author is clearly identifiable with religious authority, especially in light of statements on writing in Islam and the theological inferences that can be drawn from them. Views of predestination, for instance, hold that each individual's deeds are written on a heavenly tablet, giving rise to the phrase "everything is written" (kul shay' maktub). Ouyang interprets the Author in this light, stating that al-Farafir points to the erosion of religious certainty and the questioning of "the power structure imposed by the religious framework" (405). In the political realm, the Author represents authoritarian leadership, which can easily be mapped onto a critique of the Nasserist state (see Burt); others such as Mahmud Amin al-'Alim focus on the level of international geopolitics, noting the critique of Israel and America as neo-colonial actors (117). As a figure of satire, the Author credibly conforms to each of these readings, serving as the open-ended manifestation of different forms of authoritative regimes. He relies upon the threat of physical violence, invoking the presence of his thugs to get the Farfur to "behave." As a representation of the intellectual, the Author further appears as an elitist with an inflated opinion of self-worth. He is oblivious to his own ridiculousness, made visible in the combination of his tuxedo jacket and short pants, and he diminishes as the play proceeds, appearing first as either a dwarf or child, then finally reduced to the atomic level and lost in swaddling cloth. These representative figures of power become an absent presence, having their being only through the continuing force of the invocation of threat, and progressively removed from the concerns of everyday life.
The dynamic between the Farfur and the riwaya becomes a central conflict, for as the Author has written it, the riwaya is no longer the flexible framework of the samir, but a document that is hard, fast, and unforgiving. This riwaya, indicative of a modernity formed by imperialism, delineates the exact positionality of each subject in a structure of domination. The Author's narrative stipulates the presence of a master (al-Sayyid) and a servant (the Farfur), gesturing explicitly to the way in which geopolitical realities of colonization and capitalism impose and then naturalize relations of power. However, the Farfur is not the servant or slave that this riwaya envisions him to be. He remains the farfur of the samir, and as such, he finds this narrative mode incomprehensible, subjecting it to question. The Author finds this intolerable, a form of personal attack that undermines his authority in a way that recalls Mbembe's comments on the nature of postcolonial power. The Farfur's questions are met by a series of commands as the Author stipulates the "correct" performance of his given role:
Author: What is it? What happened? Was there any deviation from the text of my play?
Master: Farfoor did, sir. He didn't like this talk about me being his Master.
Author: How so? Is it any of his business? What's he got to do with it? When it says you're a Master, it means you're a Master. A Farfoor is a Farfoor with his feet over his head. Do you hear?
Farfoor: (His feet over his head) I hear! I hear!
Author: And the next time you disturb me like this, you'll be out at once. Understand?
Farfoor: If only you wouldn't be so uptight.
Author: And don't you say one syllable on your own. "Do that." Yes, sir." "Speak." "Yes, sir." "Go." "Yes, sir." "Come." "Yes, sir." (Al-Farafir 108; The Farfoors 382, trans, modified) (12)
The FarfOr "performs" his role in response with the prompt "Yes, sir" (hadir) that the Author demands, only to turn aside to the Master with a further remark that makes clear his disdain, suggesting that he and the Master will continue their conversation--and their criticism--behind the Author's back, once he has exited. With the physical act of putting his legs over his head, the Farfur demonstrates that his exaggerated performance is just that: the excessive kowtowing that authority requires, for the authority invested in the state is, in itself, exaggerated. For the Farfur, the riwaya remains open to question, and when the Author fails to provide satisfactory answers and then disappears, the Farfur dismisses the riwaya altogether.
Interpretations of the play grapple with its presentation of the inescapability of power relations, weighing its ending against the vision of cultural renewal set forth in Idris's articles. While al-Sayyid and the Farfur experiment with different roles in the second act, farcically evoking different systems of government, they are driven to suicide in their shared effort to escape the unsolvable problem of how to successfully move beyond the relations of master and slave. Even this fails, for the play ends with the Farfur as an electron bound to revolve around the nucleus even in death. Critics have thus proclaimed Idris the purveyor of a nihilistic vision and a "theater of anger" (Raja' al-Naqqash, qtd. in Ouyang 379). Others suggest that this ending may be less nihilistic than it appears at first glance. For instance, Ramsis Yunan's analysis draws attention to the Farfur's individual self as the expression of authentic freedom, locating freedom in his continued questioning and refusals of a given order (319). Instead of locating freedom in this formulation of radical individuality, it is the focus on social dynamics that are a constant throughout the play, making the emphasis one of relationality. Al-'Alim draws attention to this dynamic in his own reading of al-Farafir, describing the play's binaries not as those of diametric opposition, but rather as "overlapping, wrangling, and interacting" (115); as he observes, the relation between the Master and the Farfur is governed by familiarity (117). While the two characters are positioned as master and servant according to the script, these are relationships that must be negotiated and interrogated as the two attempt to determine what mastery and servitude mean. The Author's tautological answers provide no true insight, and thus the text must be abandoned for them to determine such meaning.
As it is written, the end of the play does indeed reinforce the structural relations of power. Death is no leveler, for Farfur is doomed to endlessly revolve around the Master as the relation is atomized. However, the play's very instructions posit the possibility of another ending, wherein the flexibility of a structure founded in tamasruh opens itself to alternative possibilities. The Farfur recalls this in his final words, appealing to the people with the cry "ya nasi" As he revolves, he cries out for the ethos of engagement, reminding the audience that this is the means of discovering a solution to the forms of inequality that have been naturalized until they appear as elemental and unchanging principles. "It's YOU who are revolving," the Farfur tells his audience, drawing a direct relation between himself and the people (The Farfoors 493; Al-Farafir 231). It is the people, recognizing themselves as the Farfur--and, conversely, the Farfur in themselves--that will make possible the alternative ending. Idris's vision of tamasruh must come into being for this possibility to occur; it is the other, unwritten, unscripted ending that ultimately gestures towards the completely decolonized relationship between equals.
The radical potential of al-Farafir lies precisely in its call to deviate from its own script, recalling the forms of adab where the text is but a guide, intended to serve the needs of the community and contribute to its self-conception, its continual processes of becoming. Yet there is a double bind in the literary devices of adab that is recognizable in the concept of tasharrub: It signals not only absorption but intoxication, and likewise, the "healthy phenomenon" of Egyptian self-assertion can turn to an unhealthy national chauvinism. Idris remonstrates against just such a phenomenon in the second installation of his essay, calling isolationism the most dangerous error that can arise out of these debates surrounding the creation of a decolonized Egyptian theater. (13) Processes of becoming necessarily involve engagement with one's other, as al-Farafir makes visible in the constant wrangling of the Farfur and the Master. Fanon points to this too, remarking as he does on the necessity of considering modern history in all processes of decolonization, for the subject is remade through the imperial encounter. However, while as Idris calls for an openness to forms of European knowledge, science, and cultural production (mentioning 'dm, fann, and thaqafa), he also insists on the particularity of the arts, linking them to the specificities of a given people and place. Another premodern echo resounds here, this time al-Jahiz's Kitab al-hayawan, where in a debate on the merits of translation, the particularity and un-translatability of Arab poetry is placed in contrast with the universality and translatability of Greek philosophy (see Kilito, Thou Shalt 21-37). Both al-Jahiz and Idris propose that universality is only applicable to certain forms of knowledge that exclude artistic cultural production. As modernity ties the claims of universality to the threat of cultural imperialism, decolonization requires this return to the particular, provided it does not slide into the conceit that it is possible to achieve an autonomous understanding of the self in a globalized world. A balancing act between engagement with the world and renewed immersion in one's own cultural tradition is what is ultimately demanded. This ethos of relationality, providing movement, flexibility, and open textualities, is the guiding principle of adab that helps chart the path of cultural decolonization.
[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article]
(1) Awad asserts that this line of questioning began with studies on Phar aonic theater by L'Abbe Driton and Kurt Zethe (49).
(2) Another example of an Egyptian playwright who makes this argu ment is Tawfiq al-Hakim. In his introduction to the 1960 play Yd tali' al-shajara, he discusses both his experience of European theater and his exploration of Egyptian dramatic forms for inspiration.
(3) All translation from Arabic are my own, unless otherwise indicated.
(4) This overview of al-Katib''s contents corresponds with the same is sues in which Yusuf Idris's articles were originally published, January-March 1964. The article on the avant-garde and the theater of the absurd (see Fam) is from the prior issue of December 1963, and its inclusion draws further attention to how the interest in contemporary theater styles and concerns animated the critical literature in Arabic.
(5) The original reads:
(6) The original reads:
(7) The original reads:
(8) This echoes Derrida's vision of hospitality as discussed in Of Hospitality.
(9) The original reads:
(10) The original reads:
(11) The original reads:
(12) The original reads:
(13) I refer to the following passage :
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|Publication:||Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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