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Laughing Through the Tears: Satirical Theatre From the Peninsula

[Screenshot from Bye Bye London (1981), taken from Youtube.] [Screenshot from Bye Bye London (1981), taken from Youtube.]

There is a genre of satirical theatre from the Arab world that is correctly presumed dead. Famous among millions, Egyptian plays like Madrasat al-Mushaghibeen [The School of Criminals], Shahed Ma Shafsh Haga [A Witness Who Saw Nothing], and Al ‘Eyal Kebret [The Kids Have Grown Up] retain iconic, if “vintage” status in popular culture throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Their witticisms still grace daily conversations decades after they were first performed. And while the popularity of their jibes and cutting reversals can easily rest on the comedic—almost poetic—genius of their performers’ rendition, it was the seething political critique that surged out of their scripts that guaranteed their popularity. As cultural products, their longevity rests on deriding an Arab political establishment considered as fatuous today as it was then. As ordinary people use a variety of media in increasingly creative ways to mock authority across the Arab world, it is in the peninsula that online satire has become particularly voluminous given the closure on protesting in public spaces and the general level of censorship. Even with this resurgence of online satire of both an outwardly political, and broadly social variety, it might be fitting to reflect on a satirical arsenal in which the stage was always a fundamental part, but has since been in retreat.

These plays were largely performed in Sadat’s Egypt, the so-called Infitah era [“Open Door” policy]: a dull mixture of Reagano-Thatcherite free market dogma and political capitulation that occasionally still masquerades as a form of sagacity. Predictably, the themes of selfish individualism, social dislocation, familial disintegration, political helplessness, and moral degeneracy appear repeatedly in them. A cluster of plays of this satirical order was consistently produced in Kuwait in the decade after the third Arab-Israeli war and the subsequent, and most infamous, oil boom of 1973-1974. The peninsula’s rulers touted the oil boycott of the 1970s as a brave moment of Arab solidarity. Ironically, it was also the moment when all but the most nominal commitments to a previously popular, if not dominant (among people not governments), politics of Arab nationalism in the Gulf Arab states were severed. The ideological reversal was so swift that only humor could express that bizarre experience of simultaneous economic abundance and political enfeeblement. It is toward that singular irony that satirists in Kuwait aimed their critical voice at the time.

Of these plays, one in particular struck a deep chord with the wider public. Bye Bye London (1981) was a performance with a cast that collectively retains the status of household legend: Intisar Al Sharrah, the late Maryam Al-Ghadhban, and most famous of all, Abdulhussain Abdulredha, among others. The play presciently introduced its characters as a set of well-fed and politically anaesthetized stereotypes. These were clichés that were popularized only much later in the imaginary of other Arabs and Westerners, such as the immensely wealthy Kuwaiti businessman checking his cholesterol in a London hotel lobby, Shaared; the Saudi camel herder turned international arms dealer, Nahhash; the conniving and opportunistic (and Zionist) hotel manager, Adam; the overweight and jealous Kuwaiti housewife masquerading as an African rubber merchant, Sabeeka; the Moroccan immigrant, L’arbi, trying to make ends meet in Europe. Through them, the play derides the spendthrift, the glutton, and the sycophant where the extravagance of the Gulf has always reached, as it still does, its most uninhibited heights: London. 

Reveling in Charades

The play’s plot is circuitous, but the theme is clear. London is a city of vultures eager and waiting to feed off the naiveté of its wealthy new visitors who have come to indulge their desires. Smiling into a deep, dark glass of whiskey at his hotel bar, a contented Shaared gets to know his Arab brethren “in estrangement” [fil ghurba]. He commiserates with his new Saudi friend Nahhash, with the two comparing their wives in a frenzy of chauvinism. “I don’t take her out at night,” says Nahhash. When asked why, he replies, “the moon saw her once and eclipsed instantly.” Shaared contends that his wife, “that tent without pegs,” is the “root of my high blood pressure,” and the reason he is in London, to relieve himself amongst its “escaped gazelles.” Chests out and wallets flapping, they congratulate themselves, practically martyrs for living so long with those “thirsty goats.”

But as they gamble away huge sums, revel in alcohol, prostitutes, and each other’s good company, their self-satisfied amusement episodically breaks down and things start to go wrong. Adam, the hotel manager, conspires with pretty escorts to blackmail the Arab hotel guests into paying increasingly absurd prices to keep the police quiet. The two guests look at each, knowing exactly why their advances are gleefully received by the ladies. The fig leaf of Arab male prowess falls off to expose two lonely middle-aged men at a bar. They realize that as individuals, they are but tolerated discharges of a faraway bonanza, their wealth endured despite themselves, wealth that is mostly not theirs to command beyond the odd frolic abroad and a few expensive cars. Throughout all of this Shaared maintains an uneasy tension between his desire to enjoy himself and the delusion of actual enjoyment. He is, in essence, a simple man who is old enough to read folly in excess, and expresses that by puncturing his fellow travellers’ plans for self-amusement at every turn, such as the wholesale purchase of Piccadilly Circus. I cannot help but read an early Michael Moore in the play’s author; it is Stupid Arab Men, their mental habits and privilege, that is the true target of derision here.

Heroines in Disguise

With the recently enriched middle-aged man established as the play’s target, the plot turns toward their potential saviors: their wives. Without him knowing, Sabeeka, Shaared’s wife, who he had left in Kuwait, is angry and hot on his heels. Loud and rotund, she arrives looking for him with her wide-eyed daughter. She throws off her black abaya [cloak] upon arriving at the hotel, orders a drink at the bar, and starts giggling contentedly. She dismisses her daughter’s moralizing disapproval as nonsensical claptrap and starts plotting her revenge. The generational divide between what is portrayed as a more worldly older generation and a righteous new one reaches its height when Sabeeka, to the horror of her daughter, strikes up a conversation with a strange man at the bar who she validates as her “Arab brother.” Despite the play’s few misogynistic moments, its women are fearless, undaunted by men or the vast foreign city. They share none of the male characters’ naiveté.

To save her husband from himself, she must catch him red-handed, and so proceeds to disguise herself as an African rubber trader visiting London for business. Braiding and beading her hair in a tight weave, Sabeeka becomes “Sabkahaawa” and now looks “like the lady on the imported chick-pea tins.” Her encounters with other women are fraught, yet she trundles along, unlike Shaared, with purpose, eventually finding her husband who has gotten himself into even more trouble. Her daughter, however, has gone shopping on Oxford Street. 

Facing the Tragedy, Mocking the Farce

But trickery and inequity do not begin and end with the libidinous escapades of Arab men. They take on more colossal proportions during perhaps the most telling scene in the play that inevitably, as any expression of Arab defeat must, involves Palestine. Nahhash, the Bedouin arms dealer (dressed in banana yellow robes) is sold a shipment of weapons (ostensibly also arranged by their intrepid hotel manager, Adam), a sample of which arrives at his hotel in a briefcase. The arms consist of hand guns that trigger ballistic missiles through an electronic guidance system, and a map: a weapon where you do almost nothing and get everything (somewhat like a drone or a banker’s bonus.) The “spectacularly advanced system,” Nahhash explains, allows its possessor to aim anywhere on the accompanying map, pull the trigger, and guarantee the total obliteration of that particular geographic spot. Meanwhile, the prototype gun mockingly waved around the stage is a harmless plastic children’s toy that makes sharp bleeping noises—an allusion to the bogus weapons sold to and used by Arab armies during the Nakba in 1948. Nevertheless, Nahhash takes out the map, and shows it to a skeptical Shaared. They sit ruminating on the most appropriate target to destroy. After considering several countries, Shaared turns to Nahhash with a knowing, almost lustful look and exclaims: “If you want to free us all, aim here and shoot!” “You will destroy that country, that maker of orphans and widows, you know it!” With their hands on the gun, they both stand up, take aim on the map, close their eyes, and pull—and the result is a long, loud, fart! Nothing mixes tragedy and comedy in the Arab world as much as the hot air of political promise.

It is perhaps the clearest expression of the desire to defeat the ultimate enemy, Israel, but also their complete impotence to the task. It was an acknowledgement that limitless wealth is nothing more than a cruel joke in the form of a phallus-shaped plastic toy. It is not surprising that the trope of impotent weaponry came from Arabs who were at the time, in the 1970s, perceived to possess that most potent of “Arab” weapons, petroleum. As economics became the most successful of the social sciences, so did the perceived political power of the commodity on which economic life rested most fundamentally.

A Lighthearted Lament

The play’s most forceful critique, one diffused throughout, is reserved for what Arabs have always loathed the most about themselves: their divisiveness. As a political condition, political disunity and sectarianism enjoy the unnerving status of universal panacea/explanation of all political ills. At the same time, the specter of political unity among Arabs acts as a re-assuring palliative that soothes collective consciousness between an “if only,” a “one day,” and a “for sure.” There was a time when oil, and the oil producing heartlands of the Arab world, were central to such reassuring political futures. However, as an ideologically charged commodity, oil remains a socially invisible force beyond its effects on “political outcomes” and “regime types.”

Bye Bye London’s take on Arab division and disunity is achieved by signifying the ideological crack between the Gulf and the rest of the Arab world that has now evolved into a gaping chasm, best exemplified in the prevailing attitude in the peninsula of “revolution abroad but never at home.” As a more cynical, almost ridiculous view of radical or revisionist politics crept in throughout the Gulf after 1974, the region’s equivalent of America’s baby boomers had experienced poverty, the hopes of “Third World” nationalism, and First World apathy in a single generation. Such repeated political metamorphosis was, however, often interrupted by rare moments of self-reflection—expressed by few artists unwilling to indulge the political tides. Rather than revel in nostalgia, or indeed in romanticized notions of Arab nationalism, a few of them took on the task of critique forcefully by asking: How do you comport yourself toward political failure? How do you express the political reality of “unreal” wealth? Is it perhaps a wealth that is not even yours? Never amalgamated into a successful anti-colonial nationalist tradition, what is left of a collective political project in which the Gulf Arab states could be part of less than a decade after their independence? Apart from the novel, the most famous of which is Munif’s Cities of Salt, satirical theatre was one conduit through which that reflexive moment could reach audiences. A political stab on stage could deviate from a script at an irresistibly opportune moment, and often lead to raucous applause from spectators eager to recognize even fleeting instants of political bravery. The combined subtlety and bombast of these theatrical scripts were so incisive that even censors may have resigned themselves to a chuckle as they sat, as they must have, diligently watching these plays.

Before the flag-waving bonanza that followed the 1990 Gulf War, when popular culture was soaked in a jingoistic patriotism still with us today, it was not unusual to hear the remnants of more radical politics in the peninsula. The beauty of this play is that if it cannot revive that tradition, it can at least flirt with it. It sabotages the cherished vocabularies of tradition and unquestioning commitment to the status quo. Its beauty lies in its unsentimentality, the combination of crudity and elegance, as well as that seamless double take: to present the ridiculous, and then ridicule it instantly, leaving the audience somehow perturbed and reassured at the same time. Its characters go back and forth between the two tenors with an ease and eloquence that forces even the actors themselves to laugh off-script in unintended moments of total dramatic nudity. But it is the ability to wield a sense of humor combined with the political potency of mocking Arab governments and rulers that made Bye Bye London’s a cast so loved in households from Kuwait to Jeddah. Humor is highly prized in the peninsula, perhaps because of its likeness to poetry in its alliterative and revelatory powers. That is perhaps why joke-makers have always been another elite invested with a mild, but nonetheless prophetic power. After all, there is much poetry and thrill in the well-rendered jibe, particularly if it is directed at someone far more powerful than oneself.

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