Explosions and Ill Omens

On the Stage at World Theater Day in Yemen

by Katherine Hennessey
published in MER273

On October 9, 2014, a suicide bomber detonated himself in central Sanaa, killing dozens of innocent people. Upon reading the news coverage of this terrible event my thoughts leapt back to a series of plays that I had seen performed in Sanaa in the spring. Most of these performances took place under the aegis of the annual celebration of World Theater Day, known locally as the Festival of Yemeni Theater. Five months prior to the explosion in Sanaa, a surprising number of the festival’s plays had made references to suicide bombing.

The festival’s opening production, Marzouq in the Role of the Terrorist, directed by ‘Umar ‘Abdallah Salih and performed on March 30, is a play within a play. It features an inept actor named Marzouq who is assigned a role as a suicide bomber but struggles to comprehend the motivations of his character. At one point during the performance, Marzouq enters “in character,” so far as he understands it: He is masked and carrying a rifle, which he points in the air, baffling his director. Marzouq explains that he is playing the kind of terrorist who attacks the power station and shoots at the power lines. The director responds furiously that Marzouq must follow the script: “The character wears a suicide belt. That’s so you can blow yourself up, and everyone around you!”

The subsequent night’s performance, Wa al-Hall? (What’s the Solution?), written and directed by Salih al-Salih, portrayed a neighborhood of ordinary Yemenis -- a bookseller, an egg and potato vendor, an owner of a tea and sandwich shop -- all trying to eke out a living in an atmosphere of deteriorating economic conditions and fragmenting social relations. Consumed by their own quotidian problems, they fail to recognize the danger in their midst, in the person of a long-bearded youth who accuses them, one by one, of having strayed from the true path of the faith. Though his verbal attacks escalate and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic, the others dismiss him as histrionic but harmless. In the last few moments of the play, to the horror of the other characters, he reappears wearing a suicide vest, at which the stage lights go dark.

Al-Tawhan, directed by Muhammad al-Rakhm, followed a remarkably similar plot, with a group of Yemeni characters going about their daily affairs, oblivious to the dangers of extremism until it is too late. A sinister, shadowy figure who lurks at the margins of the neighborhood eventually turns out to be a suicide bomber who has been biding his time so as to inflict the maximum possible damage with his lethal act.

Still another performance, Irhab ya Nas! (It’s Terrorism, People!), depicted a suicide bombing as one incident in a destructive chain of extremist violence that wreaks havoc on social relations. Here the central group of characters -- once again, a set of “average” Yemenis, though this time predominantly young people -- are gradually dehumanized by the fear and loss that mount inexorably with every explosion, every slaughter. In a stark departure from the social realism of the two aforementioned plays, this performance experimented with tableau scenes and stylized, symbolic action. At one point, the characters descended into animalistic fury, shrieking wordlessly at each other like monkeys, then snarling and snapping like a pack of stray dogs.

In May, as I watched the festival unfold on the stage of the Cultural Center night after night, the repeated focus on the issue of suicide bombing struck me as odd. Yemeni theater has not shied away from grappling with the issue of terrorism in the past. There are numerous Yemeni plays that show, for example, the aftermath of an explosion, or an act of mass violence, just as there is a subset of Yemeni plays that portray war and revolution. But contemporary theater in Yemen treats a remarkably diverse range of social issues. That four plays in a series of 13 at the Cultural Center would select the selfsame issue as a central theme was surprising, especially given the sadly broad range of threats and challenges facing Yemeni society.

More startling, though, was the repeated implication that suicide bombing was a serious threat facing the average Yemeni in Sanaa. Certainly, the capital had seen its share of violence during the 2011 uprising, and had grown increasingly unstable in the subsequent years. Politicians and military figures ran the risk of assassination; the frequency of extrajudicial executions carried out by teams of two men on motorbikes, a driver and a gunman, even led to a ban on civilian motorbike traffic in the capital in September 2013. Indeed, as the festival ran its course this type of violence continued, most dramatically on May 5, when a French security guard was shot and killed in his car in broad daylight at a busy intersection in the heart of the capital. Yet this murderous violence, by and large, targeted particular individuals, and in that respect differed from a bomber detonating his belt in a crowded public square.

Residents of Sanaa would of course have known about the gruesome violence of suicide bombing in other Yemeni cities, like the attack on South Korean tourists in Shibam in 2009. But this type of violence had rarely occurred in Sanaa: One of the attackers killed in the 2008 attack on the US Embassy apparently wore an explosive vest; another in 2009 targeted the South Korean convoy that had come to repatriate the victims of the Shibam attacks, but that time the bomber killed only himself. In May 2012 the deadliest suicide attack in Yemen to date killed nearly 100 Yemeni soldiers as they rehearsed a parade for the annual celebration of Yemeni unification. Yet as frightening as that event was, many Yemenis continued to think of suicide bombing as being directed at particular targets -- foreigners, the US Embassy, the military -- rather than Yemeni society or the Yemeni everyman.

Clearly, Yemeni theater practitioners viewed the issue in a different light. Despite the fact that various other types of terrorist violence were making headlines and could conceivably have served as material for a play, all four of the plays described above focused on the issue of suicide bombing, as a clear and present danger to all citizens, about which residents of Sanaa needed to be warned.

Monsters, Murders and Mayhem

Yemeni actors and directors often describe themselves as educators. In Yemen, theater imparts essential information to a populace that still struggles with basic literacy; it strives to fill in some of the massive gaps left by a failed educational system. Theater is also both a means of and a forum for free and creative expression and for public debate about the myriad challenges facing the nation. To attend a theatrical performance in Yemen is, almost invariably, to witness a particular issue or perspective held up to public scrutiny on stage, embodied with careful consideration and in rich detail, with the aim of provoking social change -- political reform, for example, or greater rights for women, or improvements to health care and education.

To attend the annual festival of Yemeni theater, then, with ten or 12 plays staged in the course of a fortnight, is akin to peering at a cross-section of the social problems that Yemenis judge so pressing as to warrant the time and intellectual energy required to write, rehearse and stage a play. Suicide bombing was strikingly prominent as a theme, but the 2014 theater festival also provided audiences with a further assortment of thought-provoking topics running the gamut from human trafficking to preventive medicine.

Yet where in previous years the festival brought an exhilarating range of comedy, tragedy, farce, satire and melodrama to the stage, the 2014 festival instead struck a series of darkly pessimistic notes. Rather than enthusiastic calls to action, the 2014 performances repeatedly staged corruption and stagnation, violence and destruction. And where in the past the Yemeni stage tended toward utopian, wish-fulfilling conclusions in which the honest but downtrodden hero or heroine eventually triumphs and the evildoer is unmasked and punished, the 2014 plays predominantly portrayed villains who escape justice and suffering protagonists powerless to change their fate.

One of the festival’s first performances, al-Tifl (The Child) directed by Ha’il al-Salwi, reads very clearly as a parable about the imminent dangers that violence poses to the innocent. The performance culminates in a chilling scene in which a frantic father grabs a rifle and shoots at the ruffian who has been ordered to spirit away his only son -- but the bullet strikes and kills the infant instead of the thug. I had attended several rehearsals of the play in the weeks before the festival, but found myself unprepared for the disconcerting experience of watching the portrayal of the shooting death of an infant in a theater filled with Yemeni families and small children (parents may well have assumed from the title that the play was meant for children).

Al-Tifl was not the only festival play that startled its audience with its subject matter. Barakash wa al-Kash (Barakash and the Cash), written and directed by Luna Yafa‘i, took up the issue of human trafficking in Sa‘ada, a northwestern province on the Saudi Arabian border, as perpetrated by the greedy and utterly unscrupulous Barakash, who at one point in the play promises a prospective client “whatever you want, a Somali, an Ethiopian, a Djibouti.” Barakash targets the isolated and marginalized, kidnapping a young Yemeni woman, orphaned and with no adult male relatives, as she travels without a chaperone to take up a job to support her brood of small siblings. Barakash and his assistant repeatedly comment on the young woman’s beauty, implying that the captive is not merely a commodity for sale but also a potential sex slave.

Even more controversial was Yafa‘i's decision to portray Barakash and his cronies as members of the Yemeni armed forces stationed in Sa‘ada. The portrayal of the army is somewhat redeemed by the play’s ending, in which an officer shocked by Barakash’s excesses blows the whistle, and a crack commando unit -- whose captain is female -- storms in and arrests Barakash’s henchmen. But the title character himself gleefully escapes, dressed Saudi-style in a thawb, a red-and-white kaffiyya and sunglasses, and carrying a briefcase stuffed with the profits of his trade. This conclusion seemed to sit poorly with certain members of the audience, particularly the armed, camouflage-uniformed guards who entered the theater during the final act to break up a scuffle between two rowdy groups of teenagers in the audience, and who remained stationed in the aisles, stone-faced, until the play’s conclusion. Yafa‘i has since complained that the administration of the Cultural Center refuses to provide her with a copy of its video footage of the production, which they allege insults the armed forces.

Yafa‘i was one of three female directors slated to produce their work at the 2014 festival. Unfortunately, one of the other female directors, Nargis ‘Abbad, withdrew Dab‘ al-Maydan (The Hyena in the Square), her creative adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, after eleventh-hour cuts to the budgets that the Ministry of Culture had offered the directors threw the festival into turmoil. It was a real loss for the audience: ‘Abbad had a grand, ambitious vision for her production, which meditated on the history of South Yemen and its fragile union with the north.

The festival’s other female director, Insaf ‘Alawi, struggled with her production, al-‘Ushaq Yamutun Kull Yawm (The Passionate Die Every Day). ‘Alawi intended the performance of this classic Yemeni play as a tribute to its author, the well-loved and recently deceased poet and playwright Muhammad al-Sharafi, and it began well: The opening scene shows the audience the head of a morgue, who must decide whether the bodies of those killed in a recent conflict deserve the honor of interment in the Martyrs’ Cemetery, after their souls appear before him to plead their cases. Yemeni actor Muhammad al-Daybani gave a particularly powerful performance as a paraplegic in a wheelchair who recounts a tale of unjust suffering, including having his hand cut off as punishment for a theft that he did not commit. He cackles eerily at the end of his monologue that he should not be interred in any cemetery, since he is “the living dead.”

After this promising start, however, the production careened downhill. ‘Alawi inexplicably elected to replace the remainder of al-Sharafi’s script with an acrobatic performance followed by a video montage that included a filmed scene of various characters rising from their graves to perform a musical number and a series of images of world landmarks, and finally, a patriotic salute to a photo of al-Sharafi projected onto the back wall of the stage. All were perplexing choices, and most were executed in such deplorably amateurish fashion that one of the actors took to the stage afterwards to apologize for the faults in the production. The general consensus from stunned audience members was that the performance was a travesty of al-Sharafi’s script.

From teetering on the edge of disaster, the festival came storming back the following night with Man Anta? (Who Are You?), written and directed by ‘Abdallah Yahya Ibrahim. Its opening featured a laser light show set to thunderous techno music, and an actor in a monster mask skillfully breakdancing through a mist of dry ice, against a backdrop of black cloth, with irregular holes backlit in green, blue and purple, all of which was carried out with a unexpected degree of technical precision. It riveted the children and enthralled the teenagers in the audience -- a crucial achievement, since the play revolves around a mystery and must hold viewers’ attention, no easy feat in the chaotic atmosphere of a Yemeni playhouse.

The plot features a monster that terrorizes a Yemeni neighborhood, kidnapping victims and dragging them off to his lair. An old man who escapes recounts that the monster’s hideout is filled with piteous crowds of captives -- men and women, children and the elderly, Yemenis of every social status and description. The frightening scenes are interspersed with slapstick hilarity: Two chain-smoking, card-playing neighborhood youths keep up a rapid-fire series of jokes at the other characters’ expense, and the monster deftly inserts himself into two very funny dance numbers. The characters repeatedly but fruitlessly speculate about the monster’s identity, and eventually a courageous father vows to kill the monster and free his son from the dungeon.

After a thrilling fight scene the father stabs the monster with his jambiya, the curved dagger worn by many Yemeni men. The monster slumps to the ground -- only to rise again, horror-movie fashion, startling the other characters (and some members of the audience). At this point a fearful character calls out, “Who are you?” The monster picks up a placard from a table on the set and brandishes it at the audience. On it is written a single word: al-saratan, Arabic for cancer.

The point of this production, as it turned out, was to educate Yemeni audiences about the disease and about the benefits of screening and early detection. At the conclusion of the play the actors addressed the audience from the stage, explaining that like the monster, cancer is a disease that can afflict Yemenis of all ages and classes. Volunteers passed out pamphlets including lists of risk factors and symptoms, as well as contact information for local clinics equipped to screen patients for various forms of cancer. In addition to its utility as a public service announcement, Man Anta? was technically sophisticated, visually appealing and cleverly written; it was an excellent piece of theater, the best in the 2014 festival. Moreover, despite the sobering material it was one of the few festival plays to pinpoint both a problem and a potential solution—a “call to action” in the typical tradition of Yemeni theater.

In contrast, al-Hafila (The Bus), which depicts the struggles, fears and petty quarrels of a group of passengers who are stranded in a wasteland when their bus breaks down, seemed like its characters to lack direction and purpose. Written and directed by Yahya Suhayl, it provided some colorful moments -- the opening scene, for example, featured a wedding procession with both male and female characters in full regalia, accompanied by a group of musicians playing at earsplitting volume, no doubt titillating spectators accustomed to gender-segregated celebrations -- but offered little of deeper significance.

Hikayat Amal (Amal’s Tale), written by ‘Adil al-‘Amri and directed by Nabhan al-Shami, achieved a more sophisticated level of character development than Suhayl’s play, then squandered it on a pat ending. The play dramatizes a piece of Yemeni folklore about the wahsh al-jabal, the mountain monster, whose lascivious attempts to prey on a young woman are thwarted when her friends and her teacher (all female) and their bus driver (male) band together to save her. They encircle the monster, accusing him of embodying all the social ills that they have endured in their lives (“You are corruption! Fear! Unemployment! Backwardness!”), then beat and execute him. A salutary message of strength in unity, certainly -- if only “kill the monster” were a viable step toward a more stable and prosperous Yemen.

Mukafahat Nihayat Khidma (End-of-Service Payment), a one-woman show written by Munir Talal and capably acted by Amani al-Dhamari, searchingly explored the struggles of single women in Yemeni society -- the pressure to accede to early or arranged marriages, the difficulties of pursuing higher education, the oft-frustrated desire to participate in society beyond the protective walls of the domestic sphere. The protagonist harbors hidden artistic talent, which she expresses by sculpting with her fingers a series of images in a thin layer of sand, constantly rearranging the grains on her makeshift canvas to create new forms out of the previous ones -- each as beautiful, fragile and ephemeral as her hopes for happiness.

The festival's final play, al-Masir al-Ghamid (Destination Unknown), written and directed by Adam Sayf, was widely expected to be a rollicking musical comedy, the genre for which Sayf is best known. Yet rather than for the dances and the elaborate jokes, audiences will remember this performance for the moment that Sayf, in the midst of dialogue with another actor, turned to the minister of culture in his front-row VIP seat, and proceeded to mock the Ministry for the funding debacle that had thrown the festival into chaos.

The jokes were arch rather than devastating, and delivered with the sort of teasing tone one might take when ribbing a long-time friend. Nevertheless, it was clearly a moment in which a Yemeni artist had chosen to take his government to task -- and the audience joined in, gleefully applauding Sayf’s every line. The lighting technicians even brought up the house lights, allowing the crowd to see plainly that the minister had been caught completely off guard at becoming a part of the play. While amusing, this interlude was also rather disquieting for those concerned about Yemeni government officials’ ability to respond adroitly to the unexpected.

Thus, even in its most bracing and memorable moments, the festival presented a grave, sobering assessment of the state of Yemeni society, and precious little hope for its future. Some of this pessimism no doubt stemmed from the shambolic administration of the festival. Disenchantment with the transitional government and the National Dialogue may have also contributed to the atmosphere of sardonic depression. Yet in hindsight, and in the wake of the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September and the suicide bombing in the capital in October, the performances also seem strangely prescient, as though, rather than portrayals of the current state of Yemeni society, they were in fact portents of its impending disintegration.

Images: Sulayman Dawud and Khalid al-Bahri in Marzouq in the Role of the Terrorist; Nargis ‘Abbad (right) and Marwa Khalid rehearsing the Yemeni Mother Courage. (Benjamin Wiacek)

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