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Alternative Views of Islam and Performance?

Thirty-four years after Studies in the Arab Theatre and Cinema, Shmuel Moreh’s Live Theatre and Dramatic Literature in the Medieval Arab World (1992) attempted to counter Landau’s lack-of-drama critique by pointedly noting the wide variety of pre-Napoleonic Arab theatre forms outside the strictures of Western drama.  And throughout the second half of the twentieth century, modern Middle East dramatists such as Sa’dallah Wannous, Tawfiq Al-Hakim, Samia Qazmouz Bakri, and Alfred Farag (among others) developed Western-style representational actors’ drama as a specific movement of Arabic literary theatre.  However, the “problem” of  Middle Eastern drama persists; in the introduction to her 2003 anthology Short Arabic Plays, editor Salma Khadra Jayyusi writes that Arabic drama “was little attempted and remained in darkness” for centuries, developing “as a major genre in Arabic” only in the latter twentieth century (viii).

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How can alternative means of considering Arab and Islamic performance be articulated?    Such means do exist in the analysis of Islamic performance forms from South, Southeast, and Central Asia, based importantly on an understanding of local aesthetics.[i]  I think it must be possible to develop a Western sense of Arab and Middle Eastern performance aesthetics, especially if that sense could connect to performance traditions (solo performance, shadow theatre and puppet theatre, for example) which are pervasive and persistent features of Middle Eastern cultures.

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For example, what would it be like to analyze Karam’s 1980s and 90s experiments with projected images, giant puppets and masks, not only in terms of the influences he mentions (Brecht, Artaud, Balinese theatre, and Meyerhold, among others), but also in the context of Lebanese forms of al-hakawatikhayal al-zhil, or the Lebanese Shi’i ritual theatre ‘Ashourah (akin to Ta’ziyeh)?  Wouldn’t this be a means of breaking away from a sense of Arabic theatre as a history of absence?  I think so, but also could imagine how a better understanding of Middle Eastern traditions in a performance studies perspective might help us understand the following developments:

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– The underground distribution of cassette tapes of Ayatollah Khomeini’s sermons as an essential performance element leading to the Iranian revolution of 1979, and as a moment in the continuing history of solo performance as Islamic rhetorical tradition.

– The emergence of Islamic fundamentalist websites as a new chapter in the history of Islamic performance of the projected image.

–  The re-emergence of Ta’ziyeh in the Shi’i areas of Iraq during the 2005 observance of Muharram as an important moment in Iraqi theatre history.

– Contemporary rituals of martyrdom, such as suicide bombings attributed to Sunni-dominated groups in Iraq, as a cultural counterpoint to Shi’i dramaturgies of sacrifice.

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– The continuing development of Arabic literary drama, street theatre, and other modern performance forms not as a variation on Western traditions, but as aspects of indigenous, ancient, modern, postmodern, and global cultures.

[i] See, for example, Brandon, Long, Emigh.

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