Many significant things related to the Middle East and its relations with Western societies happened on Monday of this week, some more significant than others. Benjamin Netanyahu squaring off with Barack Obama. Egyptian policemen sentenced to jail for torturing to death Khalid Saeed three and a half years ago. The ageing Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika officially filing papers to run for a fourth consecutive term of office. Confirmation that Israeli settlements doubled last year to reach a 13-year high, and a dozen other significant news items from that day.
Well, yes, these are all newsworthy developments, but I was able Monday to step back from the day-to-day political news and experience an event in New York City whose consequences must be measured by a very different set of criteria than these political issues. I was fortunate to be able to attend the excerpted readings of the first English translation of the late Syrian writer Saadallah Wannous’ play Rituals of Signs and Transformations. Not an earth-shaking event, you might comment, but as I watched with fascination the 45-minute performance, followed by a discussion among key people involved in translating, directing and hosting the play, I was struck by the tremendous power that cultural performances can have in creating appreciation and respect among Americans and Arabs who otherwise spend much time mocking, abusing and killing each other.
The themes of the play largely, but not totally, explain my fascination for the power of cultural performances. Set in 1880s Damascus, the play batters the hypocritical and scheming political and religious leaderships of society, alongside moving episodes of sexual affirmation and transformation by both straight and gay men and women, held together by the common thread of the power of liberating oneself from the constraints of oppressive social rules. This play written by a Syrian author in the 1990s captures human emotions and hypocrisy, social constraints, and political power relations that are reflected in very similar manners in perhaps every country in the world. But this cultural and creative power that affirms universal human attributes, and that emanates from modern Syria in this case, is virtually unknown outside the Arab world.
Beyond the thrill of the play and the wonderful performance by the Noor Theater, I was equally impressed by how several quality institutions came together to offer the public this reading and the illuminating discussion that followed. The Martin Segal Theater Center at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York hosted the event, under the able leadership of executive director Frank Hentschker. The English translation of the play and its first production in Beirut a few months ago largely reflected the work of two professors at the American University of Beirut—Robert Myers and Sahar Assaf—along with Nada Saab at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.
The result—especially amidst the ugly news of wars, terrorism, starvation sieges, bombs, and widespread political criminality across the Arab world—was a powerful reminder of the deep and textured humanity that defines the Arab world that I know, love and encounter every day. Only art and culture can reflect this reality to other societies.
This play and three others were published Monday in English in the book Four Plays from Syria: Saadallah Wannous (edited by Marvin Carlson and Safi Mahfouz, published by the Martin E. Segal Theater Center Publications). They remind us again of the importance of both translation and theater arts as potentially immense forces in the transmission of culture and human values across continents.
On a freezing Monday evening in midtown Manhattan, I emerged from this 90-minute spectacle with heightened respect and appreciation for the phenomenon that underlies all of this—urbanism, with its grandeur, productivity and endless joys. It is in cities that hypocritical leaders in all spheres of society operate, and cities also are where ordinary citizens perform extraordinary deeds as they assert their common humanity, their enticing individualism, and their determination to live in freedom and dignity. Cities also allow great universities to thrive.
Damascus, Beirut and New York combined across time and geography to give us this captivating display of the best they have to offer us, and each other. For this moment in time, the killing, castigating and bombing could wait; this Monday evening in New York, Americans, Arabs and people from a dozen other lands touched and marveled at their shared humanity. They walked away richer, wiser and warmer. We need more of this, flowing in both directions.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global
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