The Role of Christians, Jews and Women in Establishing the Drama Industry in the Arab World
By Iqbal Tamimi
Very little is known by the western societies about the interlocking mosaics of the Arab societies from different backgrounds and faiths. The majority of western audiences see Arabs through recycled exaggerated scary images of aggressive people driven by sectarianism. For that reason, I thought of shedding some light on the respected roles and contributions of Arab minorities such as Jews and Christians to the drama and theatrical arts, before the creation of Israel that created a wedge in the heart of the Middle East. This article is only offering a glimpse of how respected and admired they are.
It started all with translation
The theatrical and performing arts were well known to ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and the Romans. The Arabs translated many of the ancient Greeks’ heritages of arts during the prosperous eras of the Arab-Islamic civilization, at a time the Greek heritage was threatened with annihilation in Europe because the church considered such arts as blasphemous and heretical. However, the Arab Muslims focused mainly on translating literature and philosophy neglecting ancient Greek theatre, which is considered the main source of all artistic theatrical and performing arts in modern civilizations. Muslims and Arabs in general, avoided and disliked the texts that were based on dialogues and struggles with fictional characters, i.e. gods, which were a basic characteristic of the ancient Roman and Greek theatres.
The translation of great works into Arabic started at the beginning of the Umayyad Rule from (666 – 750 AD). The project of translation was established by Khalid Ibn Yazid, who was interested in translating books from Greek into Arabic. The translation project continued during the reign of the Umayyad Caliph Omar bin Abdul Aziz who called for translating the medical books first of all because of the urgent need for such knowledge, but the translation activity in the Arab World reached its peak during the reign of the Abbasids and mainly between 786 and 833 A.D. during the governance of two Caliphs, Al-Rasheed and Al-Ma’mun.
A particular high point began when the Abbasid Caliph Harun al–Rashid established Bait al-Hikma (the House of Wisdom) in Baghdad in 809 A.D. This project is considered one of the most important cultural events in the history of Arab and Islamic civilizations. The gigantic library served as a centre for translation and dialogue between Eastern and Western civilizations, especially between Arab-Islamic civilizations and Greek, Persian and Hindi civilizations. The House of Wisdom comprised books of philosophy; at that time the term philosophy included a wide range of subjects such as mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, logic, medicine, natural sciences besides other specialities. The library contained many books of Greek philosophy that Al-Rasheed brought back with him from the Byzantine cities of Ankara and Amuriyah, and employed Arab Christian translators such as Yahya Bin Mosaweeh to translate books from Greek to Arabic language. He also employed Shiiat Persian scholars such as Al-Fadl Ben Nobakht to translate the Persian heritage to Arabic language.
The important step started from France
Much later, between 1805 and 1848, the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali, laid the foundations of the modern Arab renaissance. He sent a mission to Paris to study the different modern arts and sciences. One of the people who accompanied the mission was the Muslim scholar Rifa’a al–Tahtawi who later became the leading writer of the Egyptian renaissance, and the first to document everything about the theatres of Paris in Arabic language.
Prior to World War I there were some 25 magazines owned, published and distributed by Arab women, but still at that time, most Muslim scholars considered the theatre as profligacy and a waste of time, and believed that such art is of no benefit to anybody. For these reasons the first theatrical attempts in Damascus and Beirut in the mid-nineteenth century faced many obstacles. Most plays performed in public were not written by Arab scriptwriters and did not tackle local concerns; they were translated from other languages to Arabic, to overcome the difficulty of discussing controversial issues and to distant themselves from the content. And because of the ultra conservative nature of the Arab Muslim and Christian societies then, all female roles were played by men. No one thought of introducing women to play women’s roles. Such theatrical information were documented in the memories of European travellers such as the Danish traveller Carsten Niebuhr who described in 1761 the performance of a play he witnessed in the courtyard of the home of an Italian resident in Cairo. The actors, he tells us, were members of a ‘numerous company of players. Who played their pieces wherever they were invited, for a moderate hire’ (Travels in Arabia, Edinburgh, 1792, Vol.1 p. 143). Among them were Jews and Christians as well as Muslims, who performed in the open air, used costumes, and had a screen behind which they changed costumes. Their play-spoken in Arabic and witnessed only in part by Niebuhr since some of the audience demanded that it be curtailed because they considered it obscene-depicted the seduction and robbery and beating of travellers by a prostitute, of course, played by a male actor.
No one thought then of writing a script for the theatre. As a matter of fact, Yaqoub Raphael Sannoa, an Arab Jew, born 1839 in Egypt for a Syrian Jewish couple, was the first to write a contemporary theatrical script in Arabic for a modern Arab drama production. His father used to work for the Prince Yakan, the grand son of Mohammad Ali Pasha, who sponsored Sannoa’s education and sent him to Italy to study arts and literature and took care of all his educational expenses. Sannoa returned from Italy to Egypt in 1855 and worked as a teacher of languages, photography and music for the children of the Kedeve. He was encouraged to write for the theatre by the Khedive Ismail, the Ruler of Egypt himself, who ruled Egypt from 1863 to 1879. Sannoa continued to write through the Egyptian renaissance era during the reign of Muhammad Ali as well.
It wasn’t surprising to find out that during the Khedive Abbas Hilmi II’s era, (who ruled Egypt from 1892 to 1914) that the majority of actresses in Cairo and Alexandria were Arab Jews and Arab Christian Copts, and in Lebanon they were Christian Armenians. In 1907 the Coptic Egyptian, Mariam Simat, was the first Arab woman actress to play a role on the theatrical stage, but she was forced to abandon the stage in 1915 as a result of pressures by the Coptic Church in Egypt. During the same year, the first Arab Muslim actress, Mounira El Mahdia, filled her place. By 1917 there were 80 cinemas in Egypt and female actresses became an essential and a familiar part of the drama industry.
The Birth of the Arab Film Industry
During the reign of King Fouad, who ruled Egypt (1917 – 1936), Egypt witnessed in 1919 the first popular revolution in the Arab world. One of the fruits of that revolution was Egypt’s political independence in 1922, and the issuance of the first constitution in the Arab and Islamic worlds in 1923. During the same year, due to the efforts of two Muslim women, Huda Sharawi and Safeeah Zaghloul, the Federation of Women’s Union of Egypt was established. It was the first of its kind in the Arab and Islamic world. Following that change, it was no longer a major social problem for women to perform on the stage, especially after the establishment of the theatrical group Ramses, founded by the comedian actor Aziz Eid who was of Lebanese origins. Eid started performing with the Syrian group of the Christian artist, Eskandar Farah, in 1905 then he became the manager of Ramses theatrical group in 1923, following that, he left to join his wife’s theatrical group, the talented actress Fatma Rushdi.
The first filming productions in the Arab world were launched by Christian Europeans who were based in Alexandria. Italian companies sat up a number of film industry projects in Egypt during World War I, such as SITCIA. The first film to be shot in Egypt was the documentary film ‘Place des Consuls, à Alexandrie’ (1897) by Promio (Frenchman of Italian origins). Promio was employed by the Lumière Brothers to film some buildings and scenes in Egypt.
The first Arabic documentary film production started in Egypt in 1907, and it was the first genre of motion pictures projected on cinema screens. The film was directed by Alfizzi Orvanilli, an Italian based in Egypt. The film was about the renovation works of Al-Mursi Abul-Abbas Mosque in Alexandria and the visit of the Khedive Abbas Helmi to the Scientific Institute that was established as part of the Mosque. The script was handwritten in Italy by the Egyptian actress, Dawlat Bayoumi, and the film was produced by Aziz Bandarli and the shots were executed by the pioneering Italian photographers Umberto Dorés who were residents in Alexandria. The Germans, Italians and French who started filming in Egypt have chosen to shoot mostly in Alexandria because of its optimal lighting conditions.
The production of the first long Arabic feature film started in Egypt in 1923. And the first film to be financed by Egyptian money was named after a woman, Leila (1927), and was produced by a woman, the actress Aziza Amir (1901–1952), who also played a role in the film.
In 1932, the first Egyptian talking film, Awlad al-thhawat (The Children of the Aristocrats), was produced, starring the theatrical Muslim actress Amina Rizq.
In 1904 the Khedive saw the Lebanese born Christian actor George Abyad while he was playing a role in a translated political play in Cairo. He liked his performance and decided to send him on a mission to Paris to study acting. After his return from Paris, in 1932, Abyad played the leading role in the first Arab musical movie titled ‘Onshodatol Fuad’ (Song of the heart). In 1943 George Abyad was elected as the first Chairman for the Union of Actors in Egypt. George’s name was always twinned with his wife’s name the actress Dawlat Abyad.
Since that date, the Egyptian cinema represented the Arabic cinema in terms of the size of production and in terms of its influence on the Arab audiences of all faiths and its mosaic social backgrounds.