On May 11, 2013, armed tribesmen stormed the Cultural Center in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, demanding that the activity in progress immediately cease. A minister of the Yemeni government was whisked away by underlings from his front-row seat and out a side door; the assembled crowd quickly dispersed, some nervous, others titillated by the unexpected disruption. The tribesmen exited in triumph, leaving the central participants in the evening’s presentation stunned, angry and bereft of an audience.
Was it an act of terrorism? A reprisal for a drone strike? An attempt to derail a high-level cabinet meeting?
What the tribesmen had stopped was the performance of a Yemeni play. The plot was drawn from an actual occurrence nearly a century ago: a love story between two young people from squabbling branches of the Dawdahi clan, a Yemeni Romeo and Juliet celebrated in a series of songs and poems known as the Dawdahiyya. The play should have been the final performance of the 2013 World Theater Day festival in Sanaa, but as a result of the Dawdahis’ intervention, the audience saw only the first scene, and the festival concluded with a thud.
Why would anyone storm a cultural center to stop young actors from performing a play? The Dawdahis’ explanation was straightforward: They believed that the portrayal of the love story and family feud besmirched their collective reputation. Yet the Dawdahiyya has been a major part of Yemeni music and literature for nearly a century. So why the demand, backed by a show of force, that this iteration of the tradition be halted?
The answer lies in the power of theater as a medium for attracting, informing and galvanizing the Yemeni populace. Actors speak truths that others are reluctant to voice. The stage provides a rare public forum for unfettered self-expression, for stark criticism of the bewildering range of challenges confronting contemporary Yemeni society. The Dawdahis understood the power of this performance, or any Yemeni performance, to shape popular perceptions, to construct — or obliterate — a public image.
Communal Debate, Societal Barometer
The century-long history of theater in Yemen is replete with examples of courageous and controversial productions. Yet one need look no further back than five years to find plays that give powerful voice to a collective sense of outrage at just about everything: from abject failures of presidential leadership to petty injustices endured by ordinary citizens; from oppression of women to terrorist exploitation of ignorance and desperation. Southern separatism, child marriage, the trauma of rape — whatever the issue, the odds are good that Yemenis have written and performed a play about it.
And Yemeni theater reaches people. Though scant funding means that performances open with little to no advance billing, crowds flock to the theater by the hundreds, often knowing nothing about a performance other than the fact that it will take place. Theater unites all segments of Yemeni society, from the intelligentsia to the functionally illiterate, in a country where illiteracy remains deplorably common. Young people and women predominate in theater audiences; children are welcome, and can often be seen sitting, wide-eyed, as close to the stage as their legs will carry them. Many of the actors have devoted fans who applaud wildly the moment they step on stage. Indeed, Yemeni plays are raucous, rough-and-tumble events: One hears uproarious laughter at clever lines, and deafening cheers for the victorious hero, but also occasional shouts of disagreement, cries of shock when an actor or actress breaks a taboo or expresses a controversial opinion. Yemen offers its audiences theater as communal debate, performance as societal barometer.
It would be difficult to overstate the degree to which this phenomenon is peculiar to Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula. Over the past decade, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have all invested staggering sums in designing and constructing state-of-the-art performing arts venues, but these facilities showcase foreign megastars to the near exclusion of local talent. With the possible exception of Kuwait, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries have little history of theater, and contemporary performances by GCC citizens are often subjected to a degree of gender segregation that makes plays difficult to cast and audiences complicated to assemble. In May 2009, for example, Qatar University performed Antigone with an all-female cast — not because the students themselves were unwilling to perform with members of the opposite sex, but because faculty and administrators feared the ire of parents had the students done so. In Saudi Arabia, male actors routinely take on female roles, with women in the audience expected to watch the performance from a screened-off section.
Theater in Yemen is the polar opposite in every respect. Performance spaces in Yemen have none of the Gulf’s elaborate resources and equipment. The Cultural Center in Sanaa, where most of the capital’s performances take place, was designed as an auditorium rather than a theater; it possesses only the most basic of lighting and sound equipment, and the smallest of wings. With no off-stage space in which to keep props or backdrops, set changes are reduced considerably in scale; when advanced sound equipment is necessary, it is common for the soundboard to be set next to the stage, the sound technician working in full view of the audience, a baseball-sized wad of qat bulging in his cheek. The cliché that there is no money in theater takes on new dimensions in Yemen, where actors are sometimes paid only enough to cover the cost of transportation to and from rehearsal.
Despite the difficulties, dramatic talent and creativity abound to a degree unknown elsewhere on the Peninsula. Playwrights are constantly writing, actors consistently finding new depth to bring to their roles, cognizant of their nation’s proud theatrical history. Men and women — often from younger age cohorts — act together on stage, on a footing of mutual respect. Yemeni women write and direct plays, and come to the theater, often bringing their children with them, exposing the newest generation to this ambience of free and creative expression.
Yet the dramatic genre is traversing a period of difficulties not seen in recent memory. The years leading up to 2011 witnessed a proliferation of funding for Yemeni theater from a variety of sources. The French and German Cultural Centers in Sanaa, the US and Dutch embassies, the Social Fund for Development and a range of international NGOs and their local partners all sponsored performances, rightly perceiving theater’s effectiveness in igniting discussion about politics — and also, of course, channeling that discussion in directions favorable to a more liberal, democratic agenda. From 2006 to 2010, Yemeni plays became increasingly pointed in their condemnation of the very problems that would drive the populace to street protest during the Arab uprisings. Theater acted as an incubator for the debates that spilled out into public in early 2011, while reminding Yemeni citizens of the power of a different type of weaponry: dialogue, satire, collective action, intelligent critique.
Ironically, however, Yemen’s demonstrations resulted in a drawdown of activity by foreign organizations, many of which in 2014 are still operating with a skeleton staff whose movements are drastically restricted. One lamentable result is the withdrawal of non-governmental financial support for arts and culture in Yemen, effectively leaving the Yemeni Ministry of Culture as the lone source of funding. To understand the problems that government money causes for Yemeni actors and directors, one need look no further than the 2014 World Theater Day festival, in which off-stage drama greatly diluted the impact of on-stage dialogue.
The Yemeni government has sponsored national theater festivals for the last quarter-century. Originally conceived as a means of promoting pan-Yemeni understanding after the hurried unification of north and south, in the early 1990s these festivals brought together troupes from every province to compete for awards for best director, best acting and the like. Audiences could see a different performance each evening over the course of one to two weeks. Civil war in 1994 derailed this mission, but in the early years of the twenty-first century, in particular under the active leadership of former Culture Minister Khalid al-Ruwayshan, the theater festival regained momentum. It now draws primarily on talent based in Sanaa, albeit with significant participation from southern actors and directors. Ideally, the festival is scheduled to coincide with World Theater Day on March 27.
The 2014 festival began promisingly. By the beginning of March, ten plays had been selected for performance from a pool of proposals submitted by Yemeni directors. The list demonstrated an impressive range of form and content, and no small dose of acerbic political commentary.
In The King Is the King, penned by the late Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous and directed by Muhammad al-Rakhm, Yemeni audiences were to see the self-indulgent title character appoint a commoner to sit on the throne in his place, as an amusing little joke that the real king is sure his officials and his people will instantly see through. The trick backfires, however, when the commoner flawlessly assumes the imperious manners of royalty, so that no one, not even the vizier who knows the truth, questions his right to rule.
Al-Rakhm is the youngest of three siblings, all of whom have worked as actors and directors. Together they constitute something of a theatrical dynasty in Yemen, and none has shied away from raising contentious political issues on the stage. In the wake of the GCC-brokered initiative to transfer power from ‘Ali Abdallah Salih to his vice president ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, Salih’s controversial decision to remain in the country, and the postponement of presidential elections scheduled for early 2014, the production of the Wannous play was set to raise significant questions about the fraught relationship between Hadi and Salih, as well as about the nature of political power and leadership in contemporary Yemen.
Director Ha’il al-Salwi was slated to direct The Child, by twentieth-century Egyptian author Fawzi Miladi. Though Salwi changed the setting from the banks of the Nile to a Yemeni village, the play’s characters remain as in the original: a mother, worn out from caring for her husband and their daughters, who sells her newborn son to the childless local landowner and his wife; a father, overjoyed at the birth of the baby boy and devastated by his wife’s announcement that their pride and joy has died in the hospital; a daughter, who reveals the mother’s ruse and spirits the baby away from the landowner’s house, setting in motion an ultimately fatal chain of events.
The father’s conscience is riven by the knowledge that his family’s debts have forced his wife to this pass. He accepts responsibility for his insufficient efforts to provide for the family, and vows to work day and night to earn the money necessary to support them. Yet there is a limit to what he can achieve even with the most noble of intentions in the face of a social system skewed against him. It is a play that mirrors the dire economic straits of many Yemeni parents, who face an increasingly hard quotidian struggle to feed and clothe their children, while an elite subset of society remains immune to such preoccupations.
‘Abbad, one of Yemen’s foremost female actors and directors, proposed an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Like Salwi, ‘Abbad changed the setting, from northern Europe during the Thirty Years’ War to southern Yemen in the early 1960s during the British occupation. As a southerner herself, ‘Abbad is intimately familiar with that history. Yet rather than merely recreating a moment in Yemen’s past, ‘Abbad’s play urges Yemenis to reflect on the fractures of the present, in particular the increasingly tenuous unity between north and south. A mass movement in the south has for years accused the northern-based government of authoritarianism, corruption and neglect of the southern economy. The wily, long-suffering Mother Courage, played by ‘Abbad, and the domineering British colonel who summarily executes her eldest son, are characters meant to personify the opposing sides of south and north. Similarly, Mother Courage’s mute daughter, who can communicate only by hand gestures, embodies protesters’ laments that the government in Sanaa refuses to “hear,” or meaningfully respond to, the widespread anger and frustration that they have expressed since 2007.
Throughout the month of March, rehearsals took place for these and other plays selected for the festival, which was scheduled to commence on March 27 and run for the next ten days. Directors were told they would receive a budget of approximately 700,00o Yemeni riyals (around $3,250) per production, to cover all the costs involved, from sets, costumes and equipment to remuneration of the actors and technicians. This sum would be absurdly small for a US or European production, but in Yemen, small amounts can be made to go a long way, and the directors planned accordingly.
Then, around mid-March, word spread that the Culture Ministry had decided to move the festival from Sanaa to the city of Ta‘izz. The actors, directors and crew would all be provided with accommodations and transportation, and the festival would help to emphasize Ta‘izz’s designation as the “cultural capital” of Yemen.
A week later, the news had changed again: Only certain plays would premiere in Ta‘izz, with the others to remain in Sanaa. Only a few days before March 27, there seemed to be no firm plans for the festival’s opening. Nervousness set in: Where and when would the performances take place? And when would the Ministry release the funding that it had promised to the directors, who needed it for costumes and sets?
World Theater Day came and went; the festival did not.
At last, on March 30, the opening ceremony took place at the Cultural Center in Sanaa. After speeches by the festival organizers and Huda Ablan, deputy minister of culture, audiences saw the festival’s first performance: Marzouq in the Role of Terrorist, written and directed by ‘Umar ‘Abdallah Salih. More extended sketch than play, the performance drew upon Yemen’s extensive tradition of improvisational comedy, and featured Khalid al-Bahri, Sulayman Daoud and ‘Abd al-Nasir al-Arasi, three actors beloved by Yemeni audiences for their sharp wit.
Al-Bahri played Hammoud, a theater director who has written a play about a terrorist and who alternately begs and bullies an actor, Marzouq, played by Daoud, to take up the starring role. But Hammoud’s script, which calls for the terrorist to detonate himself in the midst of a group of dancers, horrifies Marzouq. All of Hammoud’s attempts to explain the psychology of a terrorist on a suicide mission comedically backfire, and in the end Marzouq delivers a rousing speech in which he avers, to enthusiastic cheers from the audience, that no true Yemeni could commit or condone an act of terrorism. He refuses to represent one on the stage, striding out of the theater through the audience, winning over the startled Hammoud in the process.
This play had a cast of three actors and a dance troupe, a talented group that performs traditional Yemeni choreography, some of which features male and female performers dancing in pairs and holding hands. The troupe has existed for several years and provided its own costumes and music; the actors performed in their own clothes rather than in costume. It was, in short, one of the festival’s least expensive plays to produce, and the director received a disbursement from the Culture Ministry shortly before the performance.
The other directors waited for more than a week, wondering when the Culture Ministry would release their subsidies, whether they would be chosen to perform in Ta‘izz and whether that plan would be scrapped entirely, thereby making additional funds available for the productions. Actors and directors visited the Ministry in delegations, pleading for the money to be disbursed so that they might begin executing costumes and sets. The delay, they were told, originated at the Ministry of Finance, which had yet to send over the funds in question.
In mid-April, the Culture Ministry finally distributed production funding — but a mere 300,000 riyals ($1,395) per play. At this point, for some of those concerned, the announcement that any funds were forthcoming was a relief; others were aghast at the minuscule sums, especially if they had planned a more elaborate production. ‘Abbad’s play, for example, had a cast of 25; if divided equally her disbursement would give each cast member $55, leaving aside all of the necessities of production. It was, frankly, an insult to a group of highly talented and creative people who had dedicated time and energy to writing, designing and rehearsing their plays, as well as to audiences thirsty for the combination of entertainment and intellectual engagement that Yemeni theater offers.
In the wake of this disappointment, directors scrambled to adjust their budgets. Several completely changed their scripts, substituting plays they deemed less expensive to produce. Al-Rakhm’s production of The King Is the King was one of the casualties. He opted instead to stage a Yemeni play about terrorism, which had none of the structure or philosophical resonance of Wannous’ script. ‘Abbad pulled her production from the festival altogether.
Given these chaotic circumstances, when it finally recommenced at the very end of April, the festival did produce some startling successes. Overall, however, one can only wonder at the lack of interest in the festival, and in Yemeni theater generally, shown by those organizations that rushed to fund Yemeni productions before 2011. The lack of clarity and competence at the ministerial level, which left the actors unsure when, where and on what budget they were to perform, is appalling. Yet by continuing to fund, even at insufficient levels, a genre that thrives on satiric criticism of the state of the nation, the Yemeni government is at least acting in accordance with the democratic principles it professes.
More perplexing is the absence of international organizations from the Yemeni theater scene. Having encouraged the creative activity that flowed into the Arab revolts, these organizations seem to have lost interest in the genre and directed their funding toward projects with less mobilizing impact, some no doubt hoping to address the immediate material crises of fuel and food, and others perhaps fearing that more performances could contribute to additional undesirable unrest and instability. Yet the work of sociopolitical transformation begun in 2011 in Yemen is far from over. Now more than ever, Yemen needs the freedom of expression and creativity that the stage can offer.
Theater is a vibrant, historic and unique aspect of Yemen’s culture. It is a place — perhaps the only place at the moment — where Yemenis are proposing considered solutions to the myriad problems on the national horizon. Anyone seriously interested in a brighter future for Yemen, and who wonders where to find Yemenis who have the energy and passion to bring such a future into being, need look no further than the theater. With even minor encouragement and support from sources in addition to the Yemeni government, this genre and those who create it will flourish, challenging audiences in the process to imagine a less corrupt, more egalitarian, more harmonious society. Without theater, however, Yemen’s next revolution may well adhere less to principles of dialogue and collaboration, and more to those of intimidation and brute force.