deutsche Version
Contemporary Arab Artists from the Middle East
Imagining a Different Future
Tarek Abou El-Fetouh
Intifada, Islam, desert, identity, remembrance, violence
Picture Gallery
Writing as an autobiography of the soul
Is writing an adequate alternative to despair?

Procreation and Ambivalence
A Sky so Close
The Jordanian Desert
Bedouin, satellite dishes and mirrors of stone

Paths through Literature and Exile
Thoughts on Music from the Orient
A Diary of Disorientation: Part 1
A Diary of Disorientation: Part 2
Ahmet El Attar
Sherif El Azma
Sherif El Azma
Looking at the Arab world from the outside, there is a great temptation to view its cultural scene as a homogeneous entity. Especially over the last fifty years, though, artistic expression and the performing arts scene in each country have been affected differently by the dramatic and repetitive shifts in the political and economic systems in Iraq, Egypt and Syria, the civil war in Lebanon, and the occupation in Palestine with its effects on Jordan.

In most Arab counties, the revolutionary regimes in the early 1960s oversaw a state-run and state-funded theater working almost exclusively under a policy that imposed rigid control on the media and all cultural areas. For many years, in this simplistic, non-marginal division, talking of the public arts sector was almost equivalent to using a quasi-respected term for praise of the highest order, almost synonymous with what was considered as revolutionary thought, progressive ideas and serious, committed art. In contrast, the term 'private sector' was usually reserved for lucrative commercial farces.
Although some of the governments in the region have recently adopted policies of general liberalization–appearing all too anxious to relinquish direct control over the economy and encourage the privatization of the public sector–nonetheless, their control of the performing arts and the mass media is still non-negotiable.
Fortunately, the situation in Lebanon was shaped by different factors as the political circumstances and years of civil war resulted in a unique atmosphere of freedom, paradoxically deriving from the diversity of political powers struggling for supremacy during the civil war. The absence of a long-term monolithic, centralized political system also meant the absence of a stultifying, bureaucratic 'public-sector' model.
Palestine's situation is peculiar, indeed somewhat unique, due to its artists living under occupation, with all the day-to-day problems and frustrations this entails. If circumstances allow them to go to rehearsals and make theatre at all, their work is dominated by one pressing and essential concern, relating to creativity under the shadow of political oppression. Hence, the creative drive of Palestinian artists is mainly channeled into political plays that can, for the most part, be considered agit-prop resistance theater.
Nonetheless, during the nineties, voices were heard, here and there, calling for more subsidy systems and less state control, basically asking for more freedom and more breathing space. The term ‘independent theater’ emerged during that period, used to cover shows of all genres, put on by quality-conscious, non-profit companies, mostly formed in the 1990s, that were struggling for a share of audiences and exposure and working under the pressure of legacies that had hardly changed.
At the same time, the end of the Lebanese war witnessed many young people from many different parts of the world returning to a tradition of freedom and a highly competitive education system with more than four universities offering media, film and theatre departments. A few years later, the return of many Palestinian families from the diaspora to their homeland after the Oslo accord combined with an optimism for a better future to cause a shift within society, leading to new theatre projects and the establishment of new theatre companies.
Despite the various positive aspects present in the Arab world’s cultural scene of the nineties, artists are still confronting a number of problems. Virtually all artists share the twin difficulties of censorship and lack of funding: state subsidies are hard to come by, and if granted, they entail state control. Information is also hard to find on other funding sources and business sponsorship of the independent arts has almost no tradition, guaranteeing that the problem of sparse financial funds and lack of spaces, etc., will continue in future, without even considering the implications of the danger posed by religious fundamentalism.
We have focused on presenting the work of emerging artists dealing with pressing and urgent social, economic, and political questions and feature two of these artists on the following pages:
Ahmed El Attar's Life is Beautiful, or Waiting for my Uncle from America, from Egypt, questions a number of established beliefs. In the play, his middle-class bourgeois family is constantly presenting the audience with questions relating to patriarchal authority, commercialism, the notion of family, etc. The unusual use of repetitive dialogue and the special structure of the play establish Ahmed El Attar as one of the promising playwrights/directors in Egypt.
Sherif El-Azma, the Egyptian video artist whose work has been concerned with the issues of class distinction, gender and sexuality, is staging his first performance from his recent video creation, in collaboration with the Egyptian singer Donia Massoud. His clever use of Donia’s voice as a live element, together with his video work projected simultaneously on three screens, is a new experience to Arab performances, which for decades have relied on the use of verbal language and dialogue.

Tarek Abou El-Fetouh heads the Young Arab Theatre Fund and curates the performance program of DisORIENTation

Author: Tarek Abou El-Fetouh