The Jerusalem Manifesto: For a Decolonial Approach to Arab Theatre and Theatre in Arabic

We, young researchers from the academic fields of the Arab Studies, Theatre Studies and Political Science, share a common research topic –Arab theatre / theatre in Arabic– and a common position: we have all been educated in the European and French academic system.

In the context of our research, we have employed a necessary empirical method, which has interrogated the limits of our methodological frames. We have considered different forms of theatre produced in different Arab countries and their presentation in their local context as well as abroad –in France particularly. Doing so, we paid attention to the issue of cultural circulation.

The reality of fieldwork forced us to move from our initial positions, to change our approach and to sometimes question the assumptions that had first sparked our desire and driven our choice to study this topic. The empirical work of collecting materials, documents and other sources enabled us to challenge our disciplinary concepts and habits through an inductive method. Some of them appeared ineffective when confronted in the field.

Thus, working in a context different from the one in which we had been educated has enabled us to observe and question our academic culture from the outside. We sought to understand what is at stake. We noticed blind spots, colonial epistemological residues which pervade Arab theatre and theatre in Arabic: in academic and historiographical study (existing but marginalized) as well as in choices of translation, in publishing, and on European stage programming. We now note that institutions look at this production through linguistic, aesthetical and political lenses, which define a priori a certain representation of these countries through their theatre.

At the end of these first years of research, it appeared that it was necessary for us to take a step back to consider the situation, as others have done before us:

“Researching elsewhere is productive only if it is and remains dialectical, averse to immobility and refractory to oblivion and beyond. The return is as valuable as the departure. They are equally necessary… Only this move permits the avoidance of any definitive alignment with one’s own culture as much as with the other chosen one.”

(Banu 2011: 81)

Despite our different fields, we made similar observations.

In the initial stage of our research, when looking at the historiography of theatre, we have been confronted with the scarcity of written productions about Arab theatre. The most accessible of them in French have mostly been published before the 1980s (Aziza 1970a; Aziza 1970b; Ben Halima 1974; Bencheneb 1969, 1970; Khaznadar et Tomiche 1969; Landau 1965; Roth 1967; Salamé 1974). Moreover, for the most part, they position Western theatre as the primary point of reference in the study Arab theatre –a pitfall that the sociologist Jean Duvignaud has noted (Duvignaud 1969). Yet, doctoral works have been produced in France over these last three decades (Abdelmajid 1978; Ben Halima 1969; Cheniki 1993; El Hallak 1988; Haddad 1975; Hamzé 1987; Jannoun 1991; Kalache 1987). These works have sometimes been published (Haddad 1982), but are most of the time forgotten: their authors didn’t find their place in the academic institution. These works could have opened the way to new approaches which have not been taken into account by the dominant scientific practices. Today, these works are valued in reviews that don’t belong to the field of performance studies, such as Horizons maghrébins (founded in 1984) et Horizons/Théâtre (founded in 2012).

Therefore, the study of both Arab theatre and theatre in Arabic suffers from various prejudices. The first one is an irreducible gap between the text and the stage, which has long limited the study of artistic production to specific disciplines. This gap is linked to a historiographical bias which only considered Arab production as theatre when it started to fit into the model of Western dramaturgies imported via colonisation (mid 19th century). In these models, text is of first importance as opposed to performance. It is to be noted that still, today, practitioners, academic institutions and theorists in Arab countries take up and propagate this hegemonic conception of what theatre should be (Feuillebois-Pierunek 2012; Assaf 2016).

The first consequence of this approach is the valorisation of theatre exclusively as literary material. In this perspective, Western studies of Arab theatre first appeared in the academic fields of Literature and Arabic Studies (Toelle et Zakharia 2005; Deheuvels et Ruocco 2007; Langone 2017). They were thus focused on textual production, ­particularly those written in classical Arabic and considered as quality productions, such as Marroun Naqqash (Khoueiri 1984; Moosa 2012), Tawfiq Al-Hakim (Deheuvels 1995a, 1995b; Denooz 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2010, 2015; Starkey 1977) and Saadallah Wannous (Allen 1979). In some cases, they even focused only on productions written in a foreign and colonial language, such as Ksentini’s (Hadj Ali 1963), Mohamed Boudia’s (Assouane 2010) or Henri Kréa’s (Sénac 1957). Thus, whole parts of theatrical production have been neglected. One of them is when, in the post-colonial context of the 1960s, playwrights began writing in dialectal Arabic (again) or stopped producing texts altogether in order to focus on performative practices and refuse Western approaches to theatre.

The second consequence is that much of traditional and popular cultural patrimony existing before the 19th century has been reduced to folklore and at best considered as “pre-theatre” (Bencheneb 1965; Guillaume 2011; Feuillebois-Pierunek 2012). This practice was to consider the text as a support for oral transmission and a social practice that could be considered as a ritual performance (Turner 1986). Then, the theatrical dimension of these different traditions has been neglected by theatre studies: orality has mostly been studied by linguists, performance by anthropologists or to a lesser extent by sociologists, and the manuscripts have mostly been used as a source by historians.

From the perspective of theatre studies and aesthetics, Arab theatre and theatre in Arabic have long been considered as an ersatz of a European theatre which Arab playwrights merely emulated. Their ability to copy this foreign model was the condition of their acknowledgment. When playwrights and stage directors started introducing elements taken from their own culture in their practices (shadow theatre, storytelling, songs, dance, interactive performances, etc.), historiography mentions an “hybridisation” or “adaptation” of the Western model –when they didn’t simply inscribe them in their own European conceptions of “avant-garde”. The example of Tawfiq El-Hakim is thus interesting because his theatre has been successively presented as a theatre of ideas, theatre of the absurd or social realism following categories of modern European theatre (Badawi 1987). More generally, the use of storytelling sequences and integration of music on stage has been seen as an influence of Brecht’s epic theatre; audience participation has been interpreted as a feature of performance as developed by Performance Studies in the USA since the 1960s; and improvisation on stage has been considered as a process of stage-writing such as those found in contemporary European dramaturgies. Henceforth, this ethnocentric perspective didn’t permit recognition of any value in Arab theatre based in its formal innovations, which have all been considered through the prism of theoretical concepts that appeared later in the West.

Still today, European institutions don’t seem to imagine that Arab artists are able to propose formal innovations: they expect them to produce speech, narratives, testimonies. In a word, they have to produce human-interest theatre (Neveux 2019: 28).

In Europe, distribution of Arab theatre and theatre in Arabic (including translation, publishing and theatre programming) has increased in recent years but still remains very limited. It is constrained by institutional expectations, activist biases and distorted approaches.

In practice, political reality always defines a reading grid and triggers Westerner’s attention toward artistic productions. They are thus perceived as alternative way to inform and sensitise to political issues while at the same time they have to fit into the dominant representations of political conflict. For instance, we can notice an increase in the number of Arab artists and plays on the European stage (and particularly in the national institutions and festivals) after 2011. Undoubtedly this trend is linked to the revolutionary movements that crossed the Middle East and has been mediatized in the West under the name of “Arab Spring”: these political events provoked a new interest in the societies of the region, their political status and their cultural productions.

This phenomenon has both a positive and a negative side. On the one hand, it has opened European networks of distribution to artists from these countries. But, on the other hand, their creations have had to fit into certain political expectations. Artists were invited to talk – before anything else– about what was happening in their home countries. Their cases had to be exemplary, their speeches clear: documentary theatre and testimonies had to be privileged. Of course, the topic had to be the Revolution, or, later on, the war or their own condition as refugees (Soliman et Malzacher 2011). What interests European programmers and institutions seems to be, before all, the thematic and discursive dimension of the proposals. Aesthetics are relegated to an after-thought. It is nothing more than forcing new speeches to fit into well-known forms.

Apart from rare cases, today Arab artists are not invited to the European stages to talk about universal topics or how they could propose new aesthetical forms. When they reconnect with traditional forms of Arab culture, they are sent back to anthropology. To the European eye, they illustrate a cause; they can testify to a geopolitical situation; they reassure institutions and audiences. In a nutshell, we have most of the time considered their productions as a gateway to a foreign political situation as well as an otherness that provokes interest without any real will to encounter it. This production corresponds to specific expectations within the European cultural and political context more that they reveal a real desire of intercultural circulation. These expectations have also had consequences on Arab artists’ creative processes when they try to develop their work in Europe. While confronted with specific requirements, they are more and more tempted to answer to what is expected from them. And so, they multiply the descriptive, informative and testimonial forms, involving their personal experiences to be considered as edifying, all in order to seduce institutions. Arab contemporary theatre thus appears on European stages as quite uniform. This reinforces an essentializing lens which doesn’t reflect the multiplicity of artistic creations or political and aesthetical transformations in Arab countries.

We are not the first to make these observations. Theatre still doesn’t have its proper place in the field of Cultural Studies. Since 2015, some syntheses and epistemological reflections have, however, been produced; and they can help us find a place for culture in the field of post-colonial studies (Cervulle et Quemener, 2018 [2015]). Present circumstances invite us to pay new attention to the perspective that blends a cultural approach to artistic creations with an analysis of material conditions (e.g., production, circulation, and socio-economics). 

Such rigid positions often go hand in hand with a specific terminology and, first of all, with the terms “East” and “West”. In Edward Said’s work, the “East” refers to an imaginary entity produced and amended if needed by the “West.” The “East” hence denotes the industrial and imperialist nations that overlook the geopolitical chessboard. Thus “West” and “East” can be alternately used to refer to fantasies one could have regarding an “other” culture or to the geopolitical situation of a country or a group of countries in respect of others. The media use of these terms tends to erase the materialist approach and replace it with a monolithic and abusive one. These terms are therefore extremely problematic because they amalgamate political positions and socio-economical conditions. Their use tends to essentialise objects and perspectives. It is a “blind to itself” ideological discourse (Morin, 1981: 166-167).  Nevertheless, we still use these terms (and will probably use them in the future) while constantly seeking to interrogate and deconstruct them.

In the same way, we prefer to employ the phrase “theatre in Arabic” rather “Arab theatre” only to avoid the suggestion that all the societies of such a wide area would create the same theatre. This choice offers us the opportunity to consider common traditions shared by theatres produced in the diverse countries of the Middle East and North Africa. It lays stress on the Arabic language that is common to all these experiences. Language is actually a major issue. Its use has political, cultural and social stakes in countries where various Arabic registers intertwine together: a literary register, on the one hand, often considered as reserved for educated circles yet understood by all the populations of the area; and regional or dialectal languages, on the other hand, which vary across areas and were often despised by intellectuals and colonials elites or used for purposes of political domination; besides, finally, colonial languages to be found precisely in countries which suffered colonization and still maintain direct links with the former foreign occupant.

Thus, the production of knowledge of theatre in Arabic, as much as its circulation abroad, is profoundly marked by a colonial approach inside the academy and the theatrical institutions.  This occurs as much on an aesthetic level as on the level of political expectations or language. We can, though, note that recent scholarship propose a renewed approach, such as Khaled Amine’s work, which studies the Moroccan contemporary stage with a postcolonial perspective (Amine 2010) or Brinda J. Mehta’s work, which invokes Gender Studies to approach contemporary Arab dramaturgies (Mehta 2014), or even Le Gallic’s work, which proposes a cultural history of Algerian theatre produced in France since the 1970’s (Le Gallic 2014).

Gathered in Jerusalem, while confronted by the challenges of both the representations and the concrete incarnations of colonisation, we hold this position to be self-evident that a decolonial approach to theatre in Arabic and theatre in general is necessary. We have adopted this approach and strive to keep implementing it.

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Pour citer cet article : collectif PØØLPE, "The Jerusalem Manifesto: For a Decolonial Approach to Arab Theatre and Theatre in Arabic", Les carnets de l’Ifpo. La recherche en train de se faire à l’Institut français du Proche-Orient, https://ifpo.hypotheses.org/10922, le 28 décembre 2020. [En  ligne sur hypotheses.org]


PØØLPE [Project Ørient/Øccident: Language Politics and Theatre Aesthetics] is a multidisciplinary collective whose objective is to develop a reflection on (Arabic) theater and to contribute to the renewal of approaches to this topic. It is composed of Luc Chauvin, Pauline Donizeau, Najla Nakhlé-Cerruti and Emmanuelle Thiébot.


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