We are in the midst of a new era in Arab theatre which began in Tunisia. This realisation was shaped over twenty years of watching plays like ‘al Awwada’ (The Guitarist) by Fadel al Jaayibi and Fadel al Jaza’iri, and during the same season, Rajaa’ bin Ammar’s ‘Saken Fi Hay al Sayedah’ (Residing in the Lady’s Quarter), as well as the play entitled ‘Ya’eeshu Shakespeare’ (Long Live Shakespeare) by Mohamed Idriss.
This era can be described as aesthetically dazzling, with brilliant theatrical direction, revolutionary technique and performance, in a world that is seeking to reintroduce drama into public life, in order to allow it to regain its usual function.
Within Tunisian dramatic arts, the theatre has once again become a cultural authority. As a mediator, it is capable of involvement and considerable influence in the city life, just as it began: a space for ethical, political, and artistic dialogue.
During the early nineties, Tunisian theatre found an enthusiastic echo in Beirut, where it was received critically but passionately. Beirut welcomed the breathtaking dramatic horizon offered by Tawfic al Jabali, Fadel al Jaayibi, Jalila Bakkar, Mohamed Idriss, Rajaa’ Ammar, Iman Samawi, Kamal al Tawati, and Nawal Iskandarani. It was as if the city that had risen from the rubble of war had found in Tunisian drama what it had missed out in theatrical experiences and rituals. Perhaps it was also able to find in them the future path of Lebanese theatre that had been shelled during the war, besieged by poverty and neglect, and the collapse of the entire city and with it, its society. In that meeting, the relation between Beirut and Tunisian drama was discovered and rooted in the uninterrupted shows and the impact it had on cultural memory, which is evident in the choices of the Lebanese stage.
From al-Madina Theatre, to Beirut Theatre then Shams Theatre, important political and cultural transformations were occurring in the Lebanese capital for over fifteen years, whilst Tunisian performances continuously took place. In addition, the seasonal festivals of Carthage and Damascus were helping to keep the Lebanese dramaturges in a constant and intimate relation with the varied and inspiring Tunisian theatre.
In this theatrical season, Fadel al-Jaayibi’s play ‘Khamsoon’ (Fifty), written by Jalila Bakkar, is running in Beirut. The story begins when a young veiled woman blows herself up in the square of the university campus where she works as a teacher. A young emigrant student, returning from Paris, she had given up on her secular beliefs and embraced Islamic ideology. She seemed to have been involved with young Islamists in arranging the suicide bombing operation for her teacher friend. Police Secret Intelligence begins its investigations.
The father of the young woman who committed the bombing was an ex-left wing activist, and as soon as he found out about the attack, suffered a nervous break-down. While her mother, a lawyer and also an activist, struggles to understand the reasons for which her daughter chose the veil and let go of her parents’ values. She couldn’t imagine how her own offspring decided to oppose the path of resistance, and the history of her own society, as well as to challenge authority. In a moment of clarity, she sadly realised that the new generation has deliberately thrown itself into the grips of fundamentalism and Salafism.
The narrative takes place on the fiftieth anniversary of Tunisia’s national independence. An occasion for questioning the reasons behind what had happened to Tunisia: what was founded, and what was wrecked? Had we reached a dead-end or, perhaps, a final break before a new start?
The new generation is heading towards fundamentalism and jihadism. Parents are losing their nationalism and leftist activism, diving into despair, defeat and cancer. Authority remains unchanged: an inventory of oppression, detainment, and dead language that numbs society, and devours its own citizens. This is a biography of communities living their destruction, thinking it their only prospect.
By this narrative, ‘Khamsoon’ tries to recount the experience of fifty years of national independence - and what is true of Tunisia is also true of most Arab states - proving that cultural, political an social vision of the writer-director duo Bakkar/al-Jaayibi, remains unchanged. Their style consists in one theme but many different narratives that vary with each new play.
This time, with ‘Khamsoon’, the meaning explodes, expands, progresses and dominates. The text ceases being a mere internal structure, material for the dialogue, nor a dramatic horizon for the play. This time, the meaning is the play. The drama reigns the stage with an experience through which the couple Bakkar/al-Jaayibi slips into what can be seen as a risky adventure in contemporary Beiruti theatre. Though not so in Tunisia: the difference resides in temporal and political juxtaposition, for what could be expressed in the language of the nineties in Beirut and Tunis, is no longer valid in the 2008 Beirut.
On another purely artistic level, ‘Khamsoon’ can no longer be described as representative of Beiruti theatre, at least not to the same extent as plays like: ‘Sahra Khassa’ (Special Evening, 1997), ‘Osh-shak al Mak-ha al Mahjoor’ (Lovers of the Abandoned Café), and ‘Familia’. Conclusions about al-Jaayibi’s style in dramaturgy are based on a close analysis of his long experience in this field.
He constantly restrains all tendencies to lecturing and chatter, and pays considerable attention to details, including the quality of performance, set design, symbolism, props, and visual effects. The variety of elements he uses helps the progression of the text without twisting its meaning, representing it without recounting it, and embodying it scenically. His text is never neglected and abandoned like a tenor’s voice, left to echo in empty space.
‘Khamsoon’ confirms the continuity in al-Jaayibi’s works, and the recurrence of the same dramatic experience. This repetition doesn’t necessarily harm his plays so long as they retain their vividness, depth, and professionalism. In spite of the fact that his theatre, like any other, consists of two elements that are usually considered inseparable - dialogue and direction - in ‘Khamsoon’, we can easily isolate each of them. We could even cover our ears and just watch. It is also possible to exclusively limit our viewing to the sensory symbols, visual effects, and creative choreography.
What made that separation between these two elements possible in ‘Khamsoon’? We can’t help but notice how the script, abundant with dialogue, monologue, and voice-overs, tries to dominate the stage, attempting to take control over it. So we force ourselves to tolerate it, so long as we can still watch the rich, full, and breathtaking scene.
The polemic in the text isn’t about exposing the problematic of Islamic fundamentalism, nor is it about trying to understand it. It is not a series of accusations against Ariel Sharon and all the Zionists. Nor is it an emotional glorification of the second Palestinian Intifada, nor does it concern the underestimation of the September 11th attack on the Twin Towers, and with it the constant rejection of Americans and colonisation - in the popular and enthusiastic communist reading. Nor does it concern itself with the obvious shallowness of authority and its corruption, criminality, blind violence, and organised destruction of the society…The textual dialectic lies in its identification with the common Arab narrative, its emotive storyline and rhetoric. It deals with the cliché of the Arab jail and its many jailors, as told since the times of Abd el Rahman Muneef, up until Jalila Bakkar, which has by now become, dramatically speaking, redundant and unbearable.
This stimulating attempt to combine protest and rhetoric in ‘Khamsoon’, occurs within a peculiar visual composition of the scenery. This leads the viewer to occasionally face the choice of either focusing on the cause recounted in the play, or truly enjoying the very sophisticated performance. Whatever he chooses to do, the spectator will still be tempted by the other alternative.
It seems tolerable to ignore the script, for it may be considered as a mere Tunisian requirement. But as long as the theatre remains a mediator between the elite and the audience regarding its cultural and political core, it can be an obvious marker of the nature of the relation that these elite have with themselves, with authority, and with the audience.
There is an important main asset in al-Jaayibi’s works that is worth mentioning: the actor. The latter is considered as part of the condensed artistic unity, not only as a bare individual. The play bio-mechanically frames the performer both in body and sound in a precise manner, passionately engineering details, symbols, and expressions.
Professional actors go through difficult and demanding preparations in order to reach the advanced level in performance and improvisations required by al-Jaayibi. This training aims to compose a unit that can perform a homogenous, rich, and well organised play. A character in the play doesn’t only depend on its performer; it is part of a structure based on a sum of delicate and calculated moves of narrative engineering. It is also built according to a global artistic vision.
We might have thought, in the past, that the importance of the actor was only paramount in the works of Jalila Bakkar, Fatimah Bin Soaydan, Kamal al-Tawati (Familia), and Zuheira Bin Ammar (Private Evening, Lovers of the Abandoned Café), Fet’hee al Hadawi (al Awwada). But it seems, nevertheless, to be the case with ‘Khamsoon’ (Jalila Bakkar, Fatimah Bin Soaydan, Basma al-Ashee, Waffa’ al-Taboobi, Lubna Maleekah, Intithar al-Majiri, Jamal Madani, Mouezz al-Murabet, Riad al-Hamdi, Khaled Bu Zeid, Hassan al Akrimi)…More than any other play, the addition of Nawal Iskandarani’s high-quality choreography was able to dominate the harsh and violent expressions on al-Jaayibi’s stage, turning them into a solid economy of movements, in symbolic and communicative dancing.
The choreography not only supplemented the text and carried many suggestions for the director, along with solutions and colours from the experience of Familia, but took this to another dimension. This formed a crucial asset for Fadel al-Jaayibi, for – we think – he found in this choreography the element he required to develop beyond Lovers of the Abandoned Café.
Talking about choreography reminds us of another theatre director who works at the same level of professionalism as al-Jaayibi, Tawfic al-Jabali, specifically when the latter worked with the Tunisian choreographer Iman Samawi. We mention this in order to highlight an essential characteristic in the Tunisian dramatic oeuvre: the body/actor unity.
This combination requires strength, stamina and a high level of physical fitness, which is a must when we deal with tension and escalation, then calm, followed by an explosion, over the duration of the performance…Whether they were old people in Familia, or young ones in Lovers of the Abandoned Café, this is required mental and physical level for the rhythm that resembles a tightened hang-rope set between the director’s hand and the actor’s throat…there can be no space, nor loosening, nor spontaneity outside the narrative knot, which necessitates improvisation, rehearsals, and preliminary experiences.
There is something about al-Jaayibi’s art that I particularly admire: the manner in which the actor comes on stage, and how he leaves it. These have always been considered the most difficult moments in theatre. It is the director’s sparkling moment which al-Jaayibi masters. In spite of being a secondary detail for many, with al-Jaayibi, these moments thrive, and in a way, constitute a central element, not only as aesthetic ingredients, but as essential characteristics of his work.
It doesn’t really matter whether Fadel al-Jaayibi is a Chekhov- or Brecht-style dramatist. His theatre is rich with American, French, and Polish influence, along with memories of Peter Brook and Stanislavski, as well as the experiences he shares with his Tunisian siblings…Through hard work, al-Jaayibi amalgamate all this diversity - cinematography, popular performance arts, and fine arts - in a theatrical panorama that is constantly realistic and at the same time exceptionally imaginative.
Translated by Chimène Eid