Although stage plays didn’t really come to the region until the 1800s, Arab theatre history goes back hundreds of years. In fact, the history of Arab theater includes puppetry, storytelling and religious plays.
Still, theater has never really been a famous art form in the region for a number of reasons. As a result, you’ll find few theaters in the Arab world. With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper and see what we can find out about the Arab playhouse.
In Cairo during the middle ages, khayal al-zill (or “shadows of the imagination”) was a famous form of puppetry. The rich and poor alike enjoyed these sometimes simple, sometimes complex, sometimes serious sometimes funny plays.
Perhaps no one was more famous in the world of khayal al-zill than 13th century poet and playwright Ibn Daniyal. Born in Iraq, this eye doctor cum playwright found his way to Cairo and became quite a major figure in shadow puppetry. Today, three of his works have survived as fine examples of Arabic drama in the Middle Ages.
Another vital part of Arab theater history is the passion play that started in Iraq known as ta’ziyah. Performed the month of Muharram, Shi’as observe the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein in 680A.D. at Karbala. During the first nine days of the month, sheikhs and imams recite the details Hussein’s life with great feeling.
At the same time, you’ll find groups of men dancing like crazy through the streets in acts of wild self-flagellation. A parade of bloodied men and horses follow on the 10th day. One of the horses, a steed, stands for the war-horse of Hussein. Men cry chants of sorrow, answered by wails of mourning females. The play takes 40 or 50 scenes to complete, ending at sunset on the 10th day of Muharram.
In the Middle east of today, censorship and conflict have maintained a strong presence. As a result, growth in theatre arts has been little. Today’s Arab theater is swayed by Western theater, versions of which can be found in early 20th century Egypt. In Cairo’s theater of the late 1800s and early 1900s, you’ll find plays that sent messages of nationalism. Along with them, you’d also find messages of freedom from British and French colonialism.
Modern Arab theater has since branched out from Cairo, however. For instance, you’ll find the Arab Theater Institute – an Arab theater training center in Sharjah, UAE – training young actors and playwrights in the fine art of theater.
Do you enjoy just watching plays? Then head to Palestine where you’ll find The Arab-Hebrew Theater, Jaffa’s only multilingual theater.
What’s more, there are other places outside of the Middle East that you’ll find young Arab thespians honing their craft. Start with the New Arab American Theater Works in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can also visit the Arab High School Musical Theater. It really has nothing to do with Arabs except the name. (It’s located on Arabian Drive in Arab, Alabama.) However, they put on some classic shows including the new Legally Blonde – The Musical which sounds like a fun time.
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