- Arab Theatre Festival
During the question period at the conference on "Authority and Knowledge in the Theatre" that was part of the tenth annual Arab Theatre Festival in Tunis in January 2018, one of the delegates paraphrased Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's 2008 address to the Arab League. "The only thing that brings us together [as Arabs]," the delegate [End Page 220]insisted, "is this room," together with political and cultural organizations such as the Arab Theatre Institute (ATI) that work to producean Arab identity and Arab political solidarities. The comment drew attention to the lack of ethnic, cultural, religious, national, historical, or geographical commonalities across an "Arab world" that extends geographically across artificial borders from the Levant to Sudan and Somalia and from Mauritania to Oman. It extends culturally, moreover, from historic Syria to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates, united only by a language many of whose spoken dialects are virtually inscrutable to one another. But in spite of considerable fractious debate at the conference, in theatre lobbies, and at meals about everything from the role of digital technology to the influence of Western practices and traditions and the distribution of authority in Arab theatre, the performances at the festival itself—and the festival itself asperformance—evinced a surprising degree of unity.
The Arab Theatre Festival, the leading festival in the Arab world, is not like other international festivals with which I am familiar, in that its primary purpose is not to peddle shows to Western presenters in hopes of reaching markets in New York, Edinburgh, Adelaide, or Avignon (although there were producers and presenters in attendance from the Arab diaspora), nor was it to showcase masterpieces of Western theatre. Indeed, even the familiar goals of tourism and festival city branding were not much in evidence in Tunis, as the festival and its conference, operating entirely in Arabic with no accommodation for non-Arab speakers, made very little effort at publicity beyond its 600 invited delegates, and although it was widely distributed through live video feeds in the Arab world, it had virtually no web presence in English or other European languages. It existed, it seemed, to enable the (sometimes brutally) frank exchange of views and performances among practitioners and scholars within the Arab world. Apart from Arab identity, the main focus of this festival, whose delegates shared a hotel, meals, and attendance at thirty-six performances of twenty-seven plays from twenty-three countries over the course of its seven days, was on the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The shows ranged in form from clown and puppetry through productions of Western classics to testimonial performance, dance, and physical theatre. What they shared was a sense of loss, outrage, or despair at the hijacking of the hope that had been generated by the Arab Spring, as, in the wake of the European colonizer and the authoritarian regimes, the "third colonialism," as one conference delegate called it—radical Islam—rushed in to fill the power vacuum in the wake of the 2010–12 revolutions.
Each year, work from the host country is featured at the festival, which is curated by an anonymous committee assembled by the ATI, and in 2018 the Tunisian shows set the tone. The festival coincided with the seventh anniversary of the overthrow of the Tunisian government on January 14, 2011, the first major success of the Arab Spring, and the anniversary was marked in the streets outside the theatres amid protests against the current regime's newly instituted austerity measures. Onstage at the festival, the protests took a variety of forms and tones ranging from the near despair of the festival's opening show, Fear(s), by Fadhel Jaibi, the director of Tunisia's National Theatre, to the angry but buoyant rebelliousness of Groups; or, Exercises in Citizenship, by Tunisia's Bivalo Art Productions, written and directed by Emad Mai.
Fear(s)was unrelenting. Coproduced with Germany's Theater an der Ruhr and created by Jaibi working with the actors and script-writer Jalila Bakar, the show centered on a scouting troupe lost during a desert sandstorm and trapped...