Silence and Radical Rethinking in Syrian Theatre of the Long 1980s
By Friederike Pannewick
This essay focuses on a Syrian author who spent most of the 1980s in self-imposed silence: the dramatist Saadallah Wannous (1941-1997). This internationally acclaimed author belonged to a generation of Arab intellectuals and artists whose artistic self-understanding was strongly molded by the Palestine conflict. Deeply concerned about the political consequences of the Israel-Egypt unilateral peace treaty on Palestinians, Wannous stopped writing literature for a whole decade after Egyptian president Sadat’s visit to Israel in fall 1977, which subsequently led to the Camp David Accords in 1978 and eventually resulted in the signing of the peace treaty in 1979.
The first two plays that Wannous wrote after his long silence end with two epilogues that serve strikingly similar functions. In each one a person speaking from outside the primary dramatic action taking place on stage enters the scene and utters lines that signal a departure from the community consensus that had been established on stage. In what follows, I will connect these two quotations with a statement the author himself made in a documentary film directed by his close friend – Omar Amiralay (1944-2011):
There are still so many things to say.
(هناك أشياء كثيرة كان يمكن أن يتحدث عنها المرء , La Sept/Arte, 1997)
The film was based on a long interview with Wannous at the very end of his life. This stepping out of the dramatic illusion and leaving the community consensus in the first play after his long silence allows the author to think across the structuring political and conceptual boundaries of Syrian discourse to diagnose the presence of Zionism in the Arab national body. In the second play, the figure of the philosopher who is leaving the consensus of his community as well is represented as a martyr on the cross being punished for speaking truth to power. And in the interview, the fragility of the intellectual’s body running as a red thread through all three documents, is imagined as ominous, creeping, unseen incursion of politics into the body. It is interesting to note that Wannous’ harsh criticism of inner-Arab censorship and authoritarianism seems to be a kind of result of his long silence in the 1980s. Only then, he formulated his critique as outspoken as possible so that it becomes part of a host of diverse, pluralistic, multivalent, and anti-hegemonic counter-narratives which were developed in the 1980s by several postcolonial authors against the essentializing, totalizing, and monolithic thrust of the ideological ‘official` narrative in the Middle East.
My argument for using these three quotations is the following: this statement from the interview in 1997 – some months before his tragic early death – is a kind of final comment or framing of the two quotes from his plays, one from 1989, the other from 1992. It is as if the author in this long intimate interview with his friend Amiralay, on his whole life as playwright and public intellectual in Syria from the 1960s to the 1990s, is critically reflecting on his position as a key figure in debates on literary engagement and the politicization of art.
The first quote is from Wannous’ play The Rape (al-Iġtiṣāb), written in the wake of the first Intifada in the late 1980s. It is a drama about the Near East conflict; a harrowing analysis of violence in a state where the rule of law is being flouted. The Rape ends with the aforementioned epilogue, which in my mind is unique in Arabic theatre up to now. In this final scene, the Israeli psychoanalyst, Dr. Menuhin, enters the stage and asks the audience if the author, Sa’dallah Wannous, is among them. An actor playing the author comes up on the stage and they start a highly astonishing conversation. The author-character ends his words with a radical rejection of the profound ramifications of the conflict:
SAʿD ALLAH: I hesitated for a long time before I wrote this play because I was worried it would be nothing but a charade. Yes, being ethical must be mutual.
And I have to admit that prisons on our side are neither more merciful nor less brutal. But do you think these regimes and their prisons represent us or care one whit about our struggle with Israel? No, they don’t. Our problem isn’t just Israel. Zionism has extended into the entrails of the Arab regimes. Those who surrendered to Meir’s Israel and those preparing to surrender, those who suppress their own people and trample upon them, who steal the riches of their lands and squander them … All of these are extensions of Zionism within the body of the Arabs.
(Wannous al-Āʿmāl al-kāmila. Vol. 2, 166-7; Engl. translation, Myers and Saab, 2018, 296)
This outspoken and harsh denunciation of Arab realpolitik – of what could be characterized as the Zionification of the Arab regimes and Zionism’s expansion “within the bodies of the Arabs” –unleashed a wave of impassioned criticism from Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian literary commentaries. Wannous’ uncompromising position towards Arab governmental elites – including the Syrian one – led, besides other factors, to the play being censored in Syria. What is interesting in this context is the astonishing fact that here – in 1989, in the wake of the first Intifada – a fictive author-character enters the stage together with an anti-Zionist Israeli and denounces Arab realpolitik. It is a moment when solidarity between radical critical voices – be they from Syria or Israel – seems to be an option to imagine a substantial re-thinking of the political situation.
A few years later, I would say at the end of the “long 1980s,” Wannous published a new play entitled Historical Miniatures (Munamnamāt tārīkhiyya) in the journal al-Ṭarīq (1992; publication as book with Dār al-Ādāb 1996). It is another harsh critique of oppressive power structures, but this time he used a more indirect literary form of expression, the historical drama. After having attacked “Arab Zionism” blatantly in his play The Rape, Wannous now created a fictionalized historical setting in the early 15th century with a Mamluk sultan from faraway Cairo who betrays the citizens of the city of Damascus and leaves them undefended against the onslaught of the Mongolian troops under Timur Lang. In my understanding, both plays could be understood as a harsh critique of Arab state elites and authoritarian regimes neglecting the concerns of the population.
Whereas the epilogue in The Rape points at the fact “that prisons on our side are neither more merciful nor less brutal” than on the side of Israel and thus incriminates oppressive power structures in Arab countries, Historical Miniatures shows again how an Arab community (the citizens and ruling elite of Damascus) is failing utterly in the face of existential threat from outside enemies. And again, just like in The Rape, there is a highly interesting figure in the final scene of this historical play: this time, it is not a psychoanalyst, but a philosopher called Jamāl al-Dīn al-Sharāˈijī.
In his writings, al-Sharāˈijī propagated the idea of rationality and the doctrine of free will. This non-deterministic position (qadariyya) and his assertions that human reason should take precedence over dogma (al-ʿaql khayr min al-naql) caused his conviction by all authorities, be they religious, scientific or political ones. His writings are condemned and publicly burned, and he is being tortured and put to prison. In the final scene of the play, we see the philosopher on stage, alone, hanging on a cross. He narrates what has happened to him because of his firm conviction that “reason is greater than dogma and that God’s justice could not be the source of human poverty and humiliation.”
The crucified man utters his astonishment that all four representatives of power — the sultan from Cairo,the governor of Damascus, Timur Lang (the Mongol invader), and the Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun — unanimously condemned him, even if they are otherwise fierce enemies of each other. “I was bewildered by their unity despite the war and bloodshed that divided them,” he says. These are the final words of the play, which are followed only by horrified and frightened screams of a mental patient who happens to witness the crucifixion.
Having said this about the final scenes of Wannous’ plays from the late 1980s and early 1990s, I would now like to frame these examples within the dramatist’s self-fashioning of the documentary film “There are still so many things to say” directed by Omar Amiralay. As I alluded to above, I argue that this statement in the interview appears as final comment and framing of the two quotes from his plays of the long 1980s.
The film sequence begins with drops of liquid flowing very slowly, one after the other, from an infusion drip. This image fits into the overall setting of the interview, which takes place in a hospital where the playwright spent his final months. Then Wannous starts to comment on illegitimate and authoritarian Arab regimes that leave the population no other choice than resignation and submission. The next scene shows historical US media footage of the 1991 Gulf War, the bombing of Iraq by US military forces. The scenes are accompanied by a beep sound, reminiscent of an intensive care unit, alongside the sound of a heartbeat. On the one hand, the beep corresponds to the sound of the heartbeat, on the other to the images projected on the screen: When a man is rescued from the rubble after a bomb attack, a long-drawn tone sounds like after the death of a patient in the intensive care unit and the heartbeat tone also dies out. Thus, it is shown visually and acoustically that the man has just been killed by the US bombing of his city. Then there is a direct transition to the interview with Wannous. First you see – for a long 13 seconds – the drops of the hospital infusion. Then the author talks about how this war will not end without radical change in the socio-political structure of Israel and of the Arab countries. Wannous notes that each situation is different, “although the despair is the same.” He goes on to say,
I think that history will oblige us under the weight of despair to think seriously about changing the way we think and try to show the historical necessity for change, renewal and progress.
Again, what we have here, is the urgent call for categorical rethinking and radical self-criticism – an argument already quite prominent in The Rape’s epilogue and the final act of Historical Miniatures. But whereas in 1989, in the wake of the First Intifada, a moment of solidarity between radical critical voices – be it from Syria or Israel – seems still to be an option to imagine a substantial re-thinking of the political situation, three years later, in Historical Miniatures, a fraternization of radical political critics on all sides of the conflict seems unimaginable and hopeless. The play ends with a thinker on the cross, silenced by those in power, and mourned only by a marginalized madman.
Hearing Saadallah Wannous’s words in the interview, I can’t help seeing him in that moment as speaker himself here, uttering his last words on the cross. His terminal illness, which broke out shortly after the Gulf War, lent his bleak words an even greater weight. For his own part, Wannous stylized himself into a victim of the political landscape of his age, portraying his illness and imminent death as the result of unsolved political problems. Earlier in the documentary he had said the following:
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 this interview at the end of his life, Wannous identifies the lethal illness in his tormented body with a political turning point, a crucial historical event. The body of the artist is imagined here as the battlefield of political conflicts. The author’s identification with his nation is so strong that traumatic political events cause corporal suffering and even death. It is interesting to note that earlier in his life, 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 which was a leading topic in his work until the 1970s. But his rather optimistic and somewhat idealistic perspective changed significantly due to the gloomy political circumstances in the Middle East during the 1980s. In an interview with Mari Elias in 1992 , 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. Opposition groups in society were marginalized, and the already 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.
Friederike Pannewick is professor for Arabic Literature at the Philipps-Universität Marburg/ CNMS, and member of the board of directors at the Forum Transregionale Studien, as well as co-director of the research program “Europe in the Middle East – the Middle East in Europe” (EUME). She is member of the Executive Council in MECAM, Merian Institute for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb, Tunis. Recent (co-)edited volumes include Martyrdom and Literature: Visions of Death and Meaningful Suffering in Europe and the Middle East from Antiquity to Modernity, 2004; Conflicting Narratives: War, Violence and Memory in Iraqi Culture, 2012; Commitment and Beyond. Reflections on/ of the Political in Arabic Literature since the 1940s, 2015; Entanglements of the Maghreb. Cultural and Political Aspects of a Region in Motion, 2021.
 In my blog post, The ‘1979 Moment’ in Syrian Theatre: From Politicization to an ‘Inward Turn’?,I show how the plays Wannous 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”.
 Cf. Muhammad Siddiq, The Making of a Counter-Narrative: Two Examples from Contemporary Arabic and Hebrew Fiction, in: Michigan Quarterly Review 31/4 (fall 1992), pp. 649-662.
 Translation quoted by Edward Ziter in Political Performance in Syria. From the Six-Day War to the Syrian Uprising. Palgrave Macmillan 2015, pp. 172-3.
 English translation quoted acc. to Ziter, Political Performance in Syria, p. 173; Wannous, al-Aʿ māl al-kāmila. Damascus, Dār al-Ahālī 1996, vol. 3, p. 466.
 عد الله ونوس: هذه الحرب التي أعود أن أكرر قائلًا إنها لن تنتهي إلا إذا تم تغيرًا جوهري وجذري في البنى الاجتماعي والسياسي في إسرائيل من جهة وفي البلاد العربية من جهة أخرى. ومع إننا الآن جميعًا على أرضية متفاوتة وإنما أرضية واحدة من اليأس فإنني أعتقد أن التاريخ قد يجبر وتحت وطأة هذا اليأس على التفكير جديًا بأن نغير نمط تفكير وأن نحاول تبين هذه الضرورة التاريخية بالتغير والتجدد والتقدم.
 Wannous, Interview (with Mari Elias). Al-Ṭarīq (Jan – Feb 1992), p. 101.
Further articles in the TRAFO series The Literary 1980s in the Middle East and North Africa:
Anne-Marie McManus, Trauma and the 1980s in Arabic Literary Studies, 09 June 2022
Samad Alavi, Against Remembering: The Fictional Truth of a Massacre, 10 November 2022
Idriss Jebari, Memory and the Repressed: The Possibility of Therapeutic Histories of the 1980s, 23 November 2022
Citation: Friederike Pannewick, Silence and Radical Rethinking in Syrian Theatre of the Long 1980s, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.01.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/44395
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Forum Transregionale Studien (2022, 22. Dezember). Silence and Radical Rethinking in Syrian Theatre of the Long 1980s. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 25. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut5v