- Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre Edited by Eyad Houssami
To say that Arabic drama has been understudied and insufficiently taught in the Western academy is at best an understatement. For years, stereotypes about where performance occurs and the relationship between Islam and live theatre, as well as a lack of basic language skills and cultural knowledge, have worked to leave a blank space in scholarly endeavors, with northern Africa left out of studies of African drama and southwest Asia ignored in many books about Asian performance. Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre comes as a welcome work addressing this critical area at a time when the Arab world, in general, and Syria, in particular, are receiving increased global attention.
The collection is not alone in its attempt to bring more scholarly attention to Arab drama, but what separates Eyad Houssami’s edited work from recent studies by his peers is the effort to bring scholarly and artistic voices together to [End Page 291] reconstruct an archive of Arab performance from Cairo to Damascus to Kuwait. Additionally, as the title of the book indicates, the collection also represents a desire to bring greater attention to the late Syrian dramatist Saadallah Wannous, who stated of theatre and politics: “We are doomed by hope, and come what may, today cannot be the end of history” (4).
The focus on Wannous is the more straightforward part of the project, with Edward Ziter and Asaad al-Saleh writing about Soirée for the 5th of June, Rania Jawad writing about The Elephant, the King of All Time, Rabih Mroué discussing The Rape, and Sulayman al Bassam previewing his impending French production of Ritual for a Metamorphosis. Notable in all of these discussions is the consistency with which artists and scholars continue to turn to Wannous for his theatrical innovations and challenges to the Syrian state, both before and after Hafez al-Assad came to power in the early 1970s. Toward this end, Ziter notes that Soirée, a play about Syria’s crushing defeat in the 1967 Six Day War, “is remarkable for its insistence that the event be taken as an opportunity to define a Syrian identity in defiance of a state that had rendered its population deaf and dumb” (11). Similarly, Mroué, when discussing a conversation between Syrian and Israeli characters in The Rape—a conversation that could land one in jail outside of the theatre—argues: “I posit that the theatre is a space of probability, a space in which one can play with the law, a space to break taboos and destabilize rigid beliefs in order to hold accountable ourselves and others” (115).
Of course, such idealistic proclamations are not new in critical writing about theatre. However, one of the strengths of Doomed by Hope is the breadth of performance activities that are used to support such claims. These include Dalia Basiouny discussing her documentary performance Tahrir Stories, Katherine Hennessey overviewing emerging artists in Yemen, Meisoun Ali looking at new theatre in Syria, Zein Daccache describing her experience with prison drama in Lebanon, and Joseph Shahadi and Margaret Litvin expanding the frame of Arab drama by looking at performances in the Palestinian diaspora and Arab and Muslim arts festivals in the United States, respectively.
These chapters represent a broad range of materials and styles and at times create a desire for more careful citations, contextualizing, and theorizing by the authors. For those who are not specialists in the Middle East, it may be frustrating to find claims about literacy rates in Egypt or historical events in Syria sometimes referenced without a source that can be consulted, either for fact-checking or increased understanding of the varied local contexts. Additionally, many of the contributors exhibit a comfort with the phrase “Arab Spring” that Syria’s multiyear civil war would seem to undermine.
Despite this, what the diversity of perspectives does allow for is a sense of [End Page 292] the breadth and depth of contemporary Arabic drama that challenges many stereotypes about predominantly Arab...