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Salma S. Zohdi introducing symposium panelists. Photo Credit: Jackie Spaventa.
Volume 10

A Step Towards Arab Dramaturgies

In a time where Arabs are at the forefront of news cycles worldwide, theatre plays a vital role not only in recognizing, but also in presenting and creating narratives for Arabs, about Arabs, by Arabs. In an effort towards identifying Arab dramaturgy, and stirring conversations about Arab theatre history and contemporary practices, the Martin E. Segal Theater Center, the Ph.D. Program in Theatre and Performance at The Graduate Center CUNY, and the Theater Initiative at the American University of Beirut (AUB) partnered to bring scholars, artists, researchers and theatre practitioners from all over the world to discuss Arab theatre and its dramaturgy.

During my years as a dramaturgy student and a professional dramaturg, I’ve been invested in the origins of Arab dramaturgy and how the western and Aristotelian form of theatrical storytelling played a major role in the formal staging of a theatre in the Arab world starting in the late 19th Century, especially during colonization. Yet, it is rather important to recognize that long before the spread of western dramaturgy on Arab stages, indigenous and folk storytelling played an imperative role in Arab storytelling. In turn, post colonization, many Arab playwrights have denounced the western/Aristotelian traditional theatre form, and ventured on to write works that utilize folk and indigenous Arab traditions and practices, such as Al-Samir, Halqa, shadow puppets, etc., aiming to create a culturally faithful theatre alternative specifically for Arabs. What is intriguing and worth noticing, is that most of them could not separate from the Western influence, and still followed the footsteps of Western, yet, non-Aristotelian playwrights, such as Ionesco, Beckett, Brecht, and Pirandello. A byproduct of a post-colonial society, Arab playwrights responded to the Western theatrical form, as opposed to just focus on telling indigenous stories. Ultimately, this created a tension that may have affected their efforts of theorizing contemporary Arabic theatre. Perhaps that tension was created because not many of them delved into the theorization of ancient and classical Arabic storytelling, recognizing indigenous narrative as a type of “theatre” – one that is not necessarily Aristotelian.

As a Next Generation Fellow at the Martin Segal center last year, and an Egyptian freelance dramaturg in New York City, I was honored to have been given the opportunity to support curating and organizing the 2018 symposium Towards Arab Dramaturgies, namely because this provided a platform to explore the nature and core of the theatrical conversation between Western and Arab theatre scholars and practitioners. Additionally, It was an honor to work alongside renowned academic minds like that of Professor Marvin Carlson, whose expertise in the Arab theatre was vital to my graduate studies both in Egypt and in the US.

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