Citizens in Damascus were up in arms. An autocrat’s impetuous power grabs and flagrant infidelity had split the city’s ruling clans, while fundamentalist clerics issued blanket fatwas against “immoral behavior.”
The year was 1880. The contretemps quickly subsided, a footnote in Ottoman history. But in December it formed the backbone of a gripping play that delivered a stark critique of power and conservative social mores in the Arab world.
Staged for the first time in English by the American University of Beirut, “Rituals of Signs and Transformations,” a 1994 play by the late Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous, made a splash even in a city known for its relatively freewheeling culture. In literary circles, Wannous has long been considered a giant of Arab literature, but his work has rarely been performed in the region where he lived and worked.
Before his death in 1997, Wannous achieved renown not just as a Syrian dissident writer, but as a playwright on a par with Bertolt Brecht and Wole Soyinka. Politically, his plays in Arabic were akin to Vaclav Havel’s in Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia: They used the thin fictions of the theater to offer social criticism that would be otherwise unthinkable.
Like Havel, Wannous always saw himself as more than a playwright: He spent his life articulating a critique of authoritarianism, religious hypocrisy, and social repression. Up until his death, he was convinced that his plays were laying the groundwork for a complete reinvention of Arab society.
Today, something of a rediscovery of Wannous’s work is underway: “Rituals” has been performed recently in Cairo and Paris, and a collection of his plays has just been published by the City University of New York. Despite it being in English translation, every performance of the play “Rituals” this month played to a full house of people eager to see Wannous’s ribald skewering of official sanctimony and social rigidity.
But the social revolution the playwright hoped for is still far off—and the eager audience for his rarely performed work is evidence of the immense hunger for an honest intellectual dialogue about the crisis in Arab society. Today, even in the arts, dissent like Wannous’s remains unusual here. And that work like his is so compelling, and yet hard to find, is a testament to just how narrow the scope of the region’s political dialogue has become.
Wannous was born in a poor rural village in 1941, a member of the Alawite minority whose members would come to control the Syrian government, and came of age during the 1960s, the peak years of both the Cold War and Arab nationalism. Syria tried to solve its domestic problems by uniting with Egypt, part of a doomed project to create single “pan-Arab” government for the Middle East and North Africa. It failed, leaving Syria and the rest of the Arab world to seek protection as clients of the Cold War powers. Damascus fell squarely in the Soviet camp, and the authoritarian state it created was modeled directly on those of its Eastern bloc counterparts.
In an irony that many in those Communist states would have recognized, Wannous drew a paycheck for much of his life from the very regime that he excoriated in his plays. After studying journalism in Cairo, he held jobs as a critic and a government bureaucrat, while writing plays on his own time. He edited cultural coverage for government newspapers, and established his own journals when his critical views made that impossible. During a stint in Paris as a cultural journalist, he met key writers of his time, including Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco. Wannous ended up in charge of the Syrian government’s theater administration, which followed a Soviet model, generously supporting an arts scene that buttressed the regime’s values.
By the 1970s, the Assad regime had consolidated power and was fomenting anti-Israel militants around the region while avoiding direct conflict on its own border. Wannous rejected wholesale the primacy of the ruling Alawite minority, and his moral stances, presented in unusually vital dialogue and characters drawn as human beings rather than archetypes, established him as a major Arab writer of his generation.
Wannous’s work shares themes with other global dissident literature: In his play “The King is the King,” for example, a beggar successfully takes the place of the monarch, putting the lie to the claim that there’s anything unique about a divine ruler—or the dictator of Syria, for that matter. Every night at curtain call during its Damascus run, the director placed the stage-prop crown on Wannous’s head, to thundering applause.
“To this day, I don’t understand why it was allowed,” his daughter Dima said in an interview.
During his lifetime, Wannous himself said that he was allowed to write and live in Syria only so that the regime could pretend to the world that it tolerated free speech. He took full advantage of that liberty, savaging the failures of Arab nationalism and the autocrats who spawned it. He broke several taboos in “The Rape,” which as an epilogue featured a character named Wannous discussing the prospects for healing with an Israeli psychiatrist—a conversation that in real life would have been illegal.
As a body of work, his plays amounted to an argument that Arab society needed to break out of the political and social constraints that kept it locked in place. Confronted by his region’s stagnation and powerlessness, Wannous preserved a kind of optimism: The solution, he believed, lay within the Arab world and its citizens. He chafed at the convention of writing in classical Arabic, and wished writers felt free to reach more people by addressing their audience in colloquial language. He himself wrote his first drafts in the colloquial and then translated them into classical Arabic.
He bucked convention in other ways, too. In “Rape,” he depicts an Israeli soldier whose crimes against Palestinians distort his own psyche. But, crucially, he portrays other Israeli characters with empathy—not everyone is a villain—and he suggests there is value in engagement between Arabs and their Israeli enemies.
In “Rituals of Signs and Transformations,” which many critics consider his masterpiece, Wannous took aim at all the Arab world’s sacred cows in one shot. In the play, the mufti of Damascus—the city’s top religious official—feuds with a local rival, the naqib, leader of the nobility. But then the naqib is arrested cavorting with a prostitute, threatening the authority of all the religious leaders. The mufti sets aside his religious principles and schemes to save his erstwhile enemy. The only completely honorable characters are the naqib’s wife, who divorces him and chooses to work as a prostitute herself, and a local tough who’s dumped by his male lover when he decides he wants to be open about his love. A policeman who tries to enforce the law and tell the truth is thrown in jail and branded insane.
The play was never performed in Syria during Wannous’s lifetime. The official excuse was that the sets were too bulky to import from Beirut, where a truncated version had been staged, but it couldn’t have helped that the real-life mufti of Aleppo issued a fatwa against the play. Even in Beirut, the director avoided state censorship by calling the mufti by another name.
That might sound like an evasion from another era, but little has changed. The director of last month’s production also changed the title of the mufti, using the less-religious “sheikh.” Lebanon’s censor regularly shuts down plays, concerts, and other performances; to reduce the likelihood of censorship, the AUB producers didn’t charge for tickets. During the final performance, emboldened by the show’s success, some of the actors reverted to Wannous’ original language, calling the character “mufti.”
“I told them that if we got fined, they would have to pay it,” said the director, Sahar Assaf.
Seen today, “Rituals” still falls afoul of numerous taboos in the Middle East, from its attack on authority and religious hypocrisy to its unvarnished portrayal of child abuse, rape, and the persecution of gay people and women who seek equal rights. The audiences squirmed as much during the tender love scene between two men as during the soliloquies that reveal the mufti as a power-hungry schemer and another vaunted religious scholar as a serial child molester.
The continued power of Wannous’s work illustrates both his success as an artist and his failure, at least so far, to unleash the societal transformation for which he yearned. He aspired for a society where individuals could live free from tyranny, including the tyranny of his own Alawite sect. These are still not opinions that establishment Syrians are expected to discuss aloud. His daughter Dima, a journalist and fiction writer, last summer wrote approvingly about the spread of the war to Alawite areas. “Now they too will know what it means to be Syrian,” she said. She drew death threats from her father’s relatives.
“He thought his plays would transform Arab society, and all his life he was disappointed that they did not,” said Robert Myers, the playwright and AUB professor who cotranslated “Rituals.” “He thought his plays would ignite a revolution in thinking.”
One of the Wannous’s best-known lines comes not from a play but from the speech he delivered for UNESCO’s World Theater Day in 1996. It was the first time an Arab had been granted the honor, and it’s fair to assume Wannous knew he was speaking for posterity. “We are condemned to hope,” he said, “and what is taking place today cannot be the end of history.” At the time, he was speaking of the decrepit state of theater in the Arab world, but the phrase has lived on as a wider slogan.
Today the tradition Wannous embodied—the high-profile artist-intellectual driving a national conversation—is almost vanished itself. Throughout the Arab world, the publishing business has long been in decline. Millions watch high-end Arabic television serials, but only a few thousand attend theater productions. Most of the great dissident intellectuals are dead, and none in the new generation have achieved political influence. “Today’s intellectuals didn’t start the revolutions. That’s why they have to follow the people instead of leading them,” said Dima Wannous. She finds it particularly galling that sectarian religious fundamentalists have come to dominate the uprising in Syria, which she has been forced to flee because of threats.
Yet it’s also possible to see in Syria a testament to the staying power of Wannous’s ideas. The dream of a secular democratic state, the local initiatives to deliver food and health care, and especially, the early days of the revolt that pitted nonviolent citizens against a pitiless regime, all hark back to the ideals of Wannous—namely, his rejection of received authority and belief that if something better happens, it will arise from within. In 2011, when demonstrators first marched demanding the resignation of Bashar Assad, the signs some brandished read: “We are condemned to hope.”
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.