Coup de Théâtre

Comédie-Française performing Sa‘dallah Wannous’s Rituals of Signs and Transformations, Paris, 2013
Raphaël Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
The Comédie-Française performing Sa‘dallah Wannous’s Rituals of Signs and Transformations, Paris, May 2013

In the spring of 1967, Sa‘dallah Wannous, a young Syrian journalist and playwright, was studying theater at the Sorbonne in Paris. That June, after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, it gained control of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Sinai; about 100,000 Syrians were driven from the Golan Heights, which Israel still holds today. It is hard to overstate the psychic and political shock of this turn of events in Arab countries. “The defeat of 1967 was the defining moment of our history as a people and our personal history,” Wannous told his friend the filmmaker Omar Amiralay, who interviewed him at the end of his life for an elegiac documentary entitled There Are Many Things Still to Say (1997).

Like many Syrians, Wannous had been led by years of propaganda to expect the Arab armies to win handily. Even as Israeli forces were advancing across the Sinai peninsula, Egypt’s Voice of the Arab radio station, listened to across the region, continued to boast of Israel’s imminent rout. The postcolonial regimes in the region had staked their legitimacy on their ability to confront Israel and had used the struggle against “the Zionist entity” to justify repression at home. “In the name of Israel, the Arab regimes ruled us,” Wannous told Amiralay. “In the name of protecting the nation…. But they only piled up the defeats.”

In June 1967, in the face of a loss that shook all his convictions and hopes, Wannous asked himself: Why do we write? Twenty-one years later, in the essay “The Dream Falls Apart,” he remembered:

Asking myself that question made me feel as if I were swallowing a handful of razor blades. It was a harmful, excruciating question for which there was no answer. Words were defeated and language had collapsed. One might say that, in one sense, there had never been a defeat in which words played such a large role as they had in the June defeat…. I remember the speeches, radio broadcasts, declarations, announcements, slogans, boastful statements, and vituperations and then language falling apart as if it were composed solely of sand and foam.

Wannous’s response was to write the play An Evening’s Entertainment for the Fifth of June, a furious and clever assault on official propaganda, censorship, and denial. Along with “The Dream Falls Apart,” it is included in Sentence to Hope: A Sa‘dallah Wannous Reader, which for the first time presents the work of this major playwright to an English-speaking audience. Four plays and a selection of essays, speeches, and interviews have been translated by Robert Myers and Nada Saab, two academics who live and teach in Beirut. Their thoughtful selection builds a picture of…

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