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  You are in: Home > Theatre & Drama > Poetics, Politics and Protest in Arab Theatre  

Poetics, Politics and Protest in Arab Theatre
The Bitter Cup and the Holy Rain

Mas’ud Hamdan

Mas’ud Hamdan is a writer and lecturer at the University of Haifa (Theatre and Arabic Literature departments). He is the recipient of The Landau Fund Prize & The Yitzhak Rabin Prize. He has published numerous articles on Arabic and Hebrew Literature and Theatre, a novelette, a collection of short stories, three poetry anthologies, three plays and a film.


Syrians have always revelled in political theatre, which has flourished in Damascus since 1967. But to date there has been very little research on the protest plays written by the Syrians Durayd Lahham (b. 1934) and Muhammad al-Maghout (b. 1934). This book highlights the so far unappreciated merit of these plays, which for so long have been unexplored by the world theatre community, and which are representative of the new wave of Arab theatrical realization.

The author surveys the semi-theatrical phenomena – their popular orientation and their Eastern carnivalesque folk sources – in the Arab world from the Hellenic period to the beginning of the twenty-first century. A primary focus is to explain the reasons behind the tendency towards comedy rather than tragedy, an issue long neglected by scholars. The plays are discussed in terms of former plebeian Arabic theatrical manifestations, and as an aesthetic medium for alternative mass communication. “Ghawwar”, the famous character type created by Lahham symbolizes a poetical link between the “bitter cup” of a miserable present and the “holy rain” of a better future.


1 Theatrical Genres and the Carnivalesque: Art of the Theatre
Socio-Cultural Sources and Functions
Ritual, Festival, Carnival, Play, Satire and Theatre: Common Elements among Universal Phenomena
The First Genres: Tragedy and Comedy
Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian Art: The Bakhtinian Source?
Bakhtin’s Historical Poetics and Theory of Genres
The Grotesque and “Grotesque Realism”
Carnivalesque Satire

2 Theatre in the Arab World: The Historical Background
Semi-Theatrical and Semi-Carnivalesque Phenomena: From the Hellenistic Period until the Beginning of the 20th Century
Shadow Theatre, the Karagoz (Kara Gyooz), and the Texts of Ibn Daniyal (1248–1311?)
Marun al-Naqqash (1817–1855): Father of the Modern Arabic Theatre
The Musical Theatre of Ahmad Abu Khalil al-Qabbani (1835–1902): The Father of Syrian Theatre
Al-Shawk: Arabic Political Theatre in Syria after 1967

3 The Early Comedies of Durayd Lahham and Nihad Qal‘i: Birth Pangs of Late Satire

Maqalib Ghawwar and Sah al-Num

4 When a Gay Rogue Grows to be a Tragic Fool: The Carnivalesque Satires
The Medium of the People: The Collective Spirit as Heroine
The Eccentric “Soldiers” of the Satiric Attack: The Naïve Fool, the Lunatic, the Drunk, and the Dead Man
Familiarity as a Satirical Tool: Misalliance of Types and Unity of Opposites
Mundus Inversus (World Upside-down): Mock Crowning and De-crowning
The Carnivalesque Chronotope in the Plays of Lahham and al-Maghout

Appendix I: The Films of Lahham and al-Maghout: Al-Hudud and Al-Taqrir

Appendix II: Dialogic Strategies in “Al-Tasyees”: The Theatre of Sa‘dallah Wannus


“Drawing on the historical poetics of Nietzsche and particularly his Apollonian/Dionysian formulations and Bakhtin’s dialogic carnivalesque element, the book makes an important contribution to the field of Performance Studies not only in the Arab World but elsewhere. If the religion of Islam is claimed to be diametrically opposed to conflict, representation, and mimesis, does it mean that the Arabo-Islamic civilization was devoid of performance phenomena, particularly festive theatricality? Indeed, Hamdan provides ample evidence that despite the circulation of ideas that oppose theatrical representation in an Islamic context, many theatrical aspects remained eclipsed in the spheres of Arabo-Islamic popular forms of entertainment and festivities. However, dramatic literature was left as one of the least developed forms of literary expressions in the Arabo-Islamic heritage.” Digest of Middle East Studies

“This is an excellent contribution to the study of the dynamics of the Arab cultural system in modern times, especially against the background of the current limited research in the field. Arab and Western scholars have generally ignored the non-canonized texts and activities in Arab society although it has been proven that the study of such texts and activities and their relationships and interactions with the canonical cultural circles are essential if we want to arrive at an adequate understanding of the historical development of Arab culture and to truly perceive the general literary taste of the present period and the horizons of native readers.

By adopting a socio-historical approach this study is the first major attempt to highlight the unappreciated merit of the non-canonized protest plays jointly written by the Syrian artists Durayd Lahham and Muhammad al-Maghout. As illustrated by the complicated and multi-layered personality of Ghawwar – the famous and popular character created by Lahham – Hamdan's study combines art with politics, the heritage of the past with the innovations of the present, East with West and lower class-consciousness with Pan-Arab nationalism.” Professor Reuven Snir, Dept. of Arabic Language & Literature, University of Haifa

“An important addition to the current debate on Arabo-Islamic theatre.” Digest of Middle East Studies


Publication Details

Hardback ISBN:
Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
272 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
Hardback December 2005; paperback September 2103
  Illustrated:   No
Hardback Price:
£49.50 / $67.50
Paperback Price:
£25.00 / $34.95

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