The ‘1979 Moment’ in Syrian Theatre: From Politicization to an ‘Inward Turn’?
By Friederike Pannewick
In fall 1979, Egyptian President Sadat became the first Arab politician to travel to Israel on official business, where he outlined his plans for peace in a speech to the Israeli parliament. In doing so, the world came crashing down for a whole generation of leftwing intellectuals in the Arab world. This unilateral peace offering, which led to the Camp David Accords in 1978 and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, left the key issues of the situation of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and the occupied territories unanswered. Thus, a comprehensive and coherent solution to the Middle East conflict seemed to recede into the distance.
This day also became a decisive turning point in the literary career and personal life of Syrian playwright Sa’dallah Wannous. He tried to take his own life on the night of this momentous event. He stopped writing plays for more than ten years.
In what follows, I reflect on 1979 as turning point in Arab theatre, taking Syrian playwright Sa’dallah Wannous as case study. The internationally acclaimed author belonged to a generation of Arab intellectuals and artists whose political and artistic self-understanding was strongly molded by the Palestine conflict. Wannous’ initial works reveal an intense social engagement which he characterized as a “theatre of politicization/ masraḥ al-tasyīs “(Wannous Bayānāt 38/ Al-Aʿmāl al-kāmila 1:131). But his self-positioning as a committed artist transformed throughout the later part of his life, which was cut short by illness and ended in 1997, when he was only 56 years old.
The following pages demonstrate how the plays he published after this self-imposed silence turned away from a didactic theatre of politicization to psychological studies focusing on the individual, as well as minority and gender issues, which might be considered part of what Fadi Bardawil has described as an “inward turn.” This new literary style is as politically engaged as the former was, but the way this political commitment is conveyed is different, focusing on individual concerns rather than collective ones.
In a Syrian documentary film by the director Omar Amiralay (1944-2011), broadcast by La Sept/Arte in 1997, entitled There Are So Many Things Still to Say, Wannous speaks about this crucial turning point in his life and work:
When Sadat visited Israel, I can’t describe my feelings. There was some astonishment although I can’t say the visit surprised me. The sun was bright that day, even though I was shut up in this very room behind the desk. I closed all the inner and outer windows. I felt the sun was entering through the cracks in the windows and entering the sitting room, like a foreign aggression against my inner peace. I sat and wrote “The Coffin and the Mourners Together”. It was the last thing I wrote before a long period of silence. After I finished writing it, I said “I’m tired” and I should go rest for a few weeks, some place, in Lattakia or Aleppo. But I was very nervous and knew I couldn’t control myself. It was around sunset, I took a sleeping pill, trying to escape through sleep. Two hours later, I woke up, even more nervous and troubled. The darkness was total. That night, I made a serious attempt to commit suicide.
(Wannous in Amiralay, min. 25:14 – 28:50, [sic])
This poignant testimony of one of the most important dramatists of modern Arabic theatre tells us about an individual and political turning-point in the late 1970s. If we assume that something essential changed at this time, we might simply ask, then: What was this change about? And what about the notion of the political in the arts? Did it remain the same after this turning-point in 1979 and then later, in the 1980s and 1990s, as Wannous and others of his generation changed their literary style, abandoning an aesthetic of politicization in favor of a call for ”critical humanism?”
Politicization and Commitment in the Wake of 1967
Internationally orientated, Wannous was an intellectual who saw himself as part of a worldwide avant-garde movement. The early phase of his writing, from the beginning of the 1960s to the late 1970s, was formatively influenced by Erwin Piscator’s political theatre, but above all by Bertold Brecht’s didactic theatre. Wannous’ initial works reveal an intense social engagement, which he described in 1969 in the foreword to his play The Adventures of Mamluk Jabir’s Head (Mughamarat ra’s al-mamluk Jabir) and the following year in Manifesto (or Statements) on a New Arab Theater (Bayānāt li-masraḥ ʿarabī jadīd), as the “theater of politicization” (masraḥ al-tasyīs). In a phase marked by significant social developments triggered by national defeat at the hands of Israel, Wannous provocatively formulated the lineaments of a “politicizing” aesthetic which transformed Arab theatre into a vehicle of hope, instigating political reforms and driving processes of democratization:
“We perform theatre to develop and change consciousness. We want to deepen the grasp of our collective consciousness for our shared historical consciousness.”
(Wannous Bayānāt 38; Aʿmāl kāmila 3:24)
It is interesting to note that the June war of 1967 did not trigger off resignation or despair in this dramatist’s work, but rather the opposite: in the wake of the all-embracing hazīma, he conceptualized his theatre of politicization.
Between Commitment and Despair
The rather optimistic and somewhat idealistic perspective changed significantly due to the gloomy political circumstances in the Middle East.
After his suicide attempt in December 1977, Wannous did not write a single play for the next eleven years. He first broke his silence in fall 1989 with a play that was as celebrated as it was controversial – a play that attempted to relate to the Palestinian conflict from an Israeli viewpoint: al-Ightiṣāb (The Rape. Beirut, Dār al-Ādāb 1990). The Rape marks a turning point in Wannous’ dramatic writings. For the first time, the focus was put on the individual, instead of collective, physical and psychological consequences and the implications of political oppression. This drama deals with interpersonal problems, provides psychological studies of personas, and achieves the multidimensional characterization of both Israelis and the Palestinians. The enemy that had been represented for decades as a dehumanized monster and as “a united, homogenous block” in Syrian literature was now depicted as an individual suffering from Israeli state violence like his victims.
It is important to note that exactly at this period in history, a second turning-point after the first one in the late 1970s occurred in this dramatist’s life and work: Wannous was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1991. His terminal illness, which broke out shortly after the Gulf War, lent his bleak words even greater weight. For his own part, Wannous stylized himself into a victim of the political history of his age, portraying his illness and imminent death as the result of unsolved political problems:
I have the impression that our life is an endless series of setbacks. The last setback was especially painful. I believe that it caused the cancer I’m suffering from. By setback I mean the Gulf War. It killed our last hope. It is no coincidence that my first tumor appeared at the time. To be more precise: as the US was bombing Iraq.
(Interview with Amiralay, 1997)
In the following years, from 1991 to his death on May 15, 1997, he wrote, as he put it, against death. The perspective evident in his writing shifted after the outbreak of his illness, and, along with it, his literary techniques and characterization of figures.
From Didactic Theatre to Psychological Studies
From the parable-like style of his politically-accentuated didactic theatre, where the figures were examples, in the final phase of his creative life, Wannous addressed specific individual themes, exploring interpersonal problems, furnishing psychological studies, and achieving multidimensional characterization.
In an interview with Mari Elias in 1992 (Wannous 1992, 101), Wannous explained a crucial turnaround in his work as stemming from the realization that, within the 1980s and early 1990s, political involvement in the Arab world was hopeless. The opposition groups in society were marginalized, the established political forces rotten to the core and hopelessly factionalized. Belief in being able to change the world through struggle, heroic acts, and martyrdom was suddenly revealed to be an illusion. During these years, in which he also witnessed the first years of the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli invasion of 1982, Wannous bid farewell to the idea that had hitherto guided him: that the problems of the Arab world could be traced back to simple power relations in society.
The literary form and thematic content changed accordingly in Wannous’ work. From a consciously simplifying representation, aiming to ignite political change and restructure power relations, he now turned to an approach that was to generate insights into problems of the individual in society, as well as minority and gender issues. More difficult than instigating a change of regime, Wannous in 1995 aimed “to stir up a society that adheres to—and is petrified by—superstition.” (Wannous 1992, 101) This new style of drama led Wannous to a kind of aesthetic liberation and self-discovery:
For the first time I have a sense of how writing can be a liberating act. Previously, I had certain ideas: I imposed a kind of self-censorship. An inner censorship which, as I imagined it, consisted of repressing everything that was of secondary importance, and left me to deal exclusively with the purportedly big questions. For the first time, I feel that writing is enjoyable.
I was of the view that personal worries or individual problems were bourgeois, were superficial, unimportant affairs which one can put to one side. My whole interest was focused on grappling with and understanding history, and I thought – wrongly – that I had to avoid the traps of petit-bourgeois literature and go beyond all that was individual and personal. For this reason, I never felt entirely at one with myself in my work as playwright.
(Wannous 1992, 101.)
This quotation brings Wannous close to Fadi Bardawil’s description of the disenchantment of the 1960s militant intellectuals in post-1967 discourse, who “focused their analytical gaze inwards toward the social structures and culture of their societies” (Bardawil 92). Bardawil rereads the critical literature written after 1967 by the Marxist Syrian thinkers Yasin al-Hafiz (1930–1978) and Saddiq Jalal al-ʿAzm (1934-2016), showing how their writings reveal a kind of “turning of the critical gaze inwards, focusing on the level of social structures, culture, and values, while seeking to move beyond analyses restricted to the political surface, such as those which theorized the defeat as a result of imperialism or through the ‘shortcomings of the Soviet Union’” (95).
This inward turn implied an essential transformation of the leftist intellectual’s self-understanding. Wannous’ turn away from the theatre of politicization within these Arab leftist discourses of political disenchantment can be read in this context, triggered only 10 years later, after Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977. The Arab leftist intellectuals who shifted the critical gaze inwards towards a harsh critique of the backwardness of Arab society in the aftermath of 1967 did not at the same time lose their solidarity with the masses. The “quest for social justice, national liberation and the building of a modern society under the banner of emancipation from economic exploitation, colonialism and the yoke of tradition” continued to be central for them (Bardawil, 2010). It was, rather, the way to reach these ideals that changed significantly in the 1970s and 1980s.
Succeeding al-Ightiṣāb as a first endeavor of a new psychological approach, the five plays Wannous wrote in the 1990s before his death in 1997 reflect the new self-understanding of this author. These dramas no longer contain a simple and clear political message or ideology which addresses “the people” or “the masses;” the addressee here, rather, is the individual, or a limited group of open-minded and attentive persons who are astute enough to understand the veiled articulation of harsh political and social criticism.
Wannous, in the context of an endless series of political setbacks in the Arab world, renounced in the last phase of his writing the idea that a change in power relations would automatically change society from within. And this disenchantment of a committed leftist intellectual clearly reflects the new socio-political reality in 1979 and the two decades that followed.
 Munamnamāt tārīkhīya (Cairo 1994; Beirut 1996), Ṭuqūs al-ishārāt wa-l-taḥawwulāt (Beirut 1994), Yaum min zamāninā (Beirut 1995), Aḥlām shaqqiyya (Beirut 1995), Malḥamat al-sirāb (Beirut 1996).
Al-Saleh, Asaad. “The Legacy of Saadallah Wannous and Soirée for the 5th of June Amidst the Arab Revolts.” Hussami 2012: 77-91.
Amiralay, Omar. Interview with Saʿdallāh Wannūs, “There Are so Many Things Still to Say”. La Sept/ARTE, 1997.
Bardawil, Fadi. When All This Revolution Melts Into Air: The Disenchantment of Levantine Marxist Intellectuals, Ph.D. dissertation. New York: Columbia University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 2010.
Bardawil, Fadi, “The Inward Turn and Its Vicissitudes: Culture, Society, and Politics in Post-1967 Arab Leftist Critiques.” Local Politics and Contemporary Transformations in the Arab World: Governance Beyond the Center. Eds. Malika Bouziane, Cilja Haders, Anja Hoffmann. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013: 91-109.
Hussami, Eyad, ed. Doomed by Hope. Essays on Arab Theatre. London: Pluto Press, 2012.
Pannewick, Friederike. “Saʿdallāh Wannūs“. Kritisches Lexikon zur fremdsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur. Ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold. 55. Nachlieferung. Juni 2001.
Wannūs, Saʿdallāh. Al-Aʿmāl al-kāmila. Damaskus: al-Ahālī, 1996. Vol. 1-3.
_. Bayānāt li-masraḥ ʿarabī jadīd. Beirut: Dār al-Ādāb, 1970 (reprint in Wannūs 1996:3).
_. Interview (with Mari Elias). Al-Ṭarīq (Jan – Feb 1992): 101.
_. Institut International du Théâtre (Ed.): “World Theatre Day, 27th March 1996: International Message, Saadalla Wannous, playwright“. Paris: Maison de l´UNESCO, 1996.
Ziter, Edward. “Refugees on the Syrian Stage: Soirée for the 5th of June.” Hussami 2012: 11-27.
_. Political Performance in Syria. From the Six-Day War to the Syrian Uprising. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Friederike Pannewick is University Professor at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS), in the Department of Arabic Literature and Culture of the Philipps University Marburg. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin.
Further articles in the series “The ‘1979 Moment’ in the Middle East” on TRAFO:
Amir Moosavi (2018), Looking Back at the “1979 Moment” in the Middle East
Behrooz Moazami (2018), The Making and Unmaking of the Moments: From the 1979 Revolution to the Arab Spring
Yvonne Albers (2018), Turning the Page: Reading 1979 in and through the Cultural Journal Mawaqif
Jihane Sfeir (2018), The Disenchantment of the Left: Two Memories of the Palestinian Struggle
Shervin Malekzadeh (2018), The Forlorn Arab as Foil in the Curriculum of Postrevolutionary Iran
Joseph Ben Prestel (2018), When Threads Wear Thin: The West German Radical Left and Palestinian Groups at the End of the 1970s
Jan-Markus Vömel (2019), Green was the Name of my Civilization: Turkish Islamism in the Late 1970s
Arash Davari (2019), Covering Iran: Leftist Continuities and Discontinuities, from Propaganda to PR
Alp Yenen (2019), “Turkey Is Not Iran”: Middle East Experts in the 1979 Moment
Citation: Friederike Pannewick, The ‘1979 Moment’ in Syrian Theatre: From Politicization to an ‘Inward Turn’?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.04.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23665.