A revolutionary playwright: Saadallah Wannous

Posted January 12th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Steve Wakeem, as Sheikh Qassim, the Mufti, delivers a religious decree. Photo: ALEXY FRANGIEH

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]


Citizens in Damascus were up in arms. An autocrat’s impetuous power grabs and flagrant infidelity had split the city’s ruling clans, while fundamentalist clerics issued blanket fatwas against “immoral behavior.”

The year was 1880. The contretemps quickly subsided, a footnote in Ottoman history. But in December it formed the backbone of a gripping play that delivered a stark critique of power and conservative social mores in the Arab world.

Staged for the first time in English by the American University of Beirut, “Rituals of Signs and Transformations,” a 1994 play by the late Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous, made a splash even in a city known for its relatively freewheeling culture. In literary circles, Wannous has long been considered a giant of Arab literature, but his work has rarely been performed in the region where he lived and worked.

Before his death in 1997, Wannous achieved renown not just as a Syrian dissident writer, but as a playwright on a par with Bertolt Brecht and Wole Soyinka. Politically, his plays in Arabic were akin to Vaclav Havel’s in Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia: They used the thin fictions of the theater to offer social criticism that would be otherwise unthinkable.

Like Havel, Wannous always saw himself as more than a playwright: He spent his life articulating a critique of authoritarianism, religious hypocrisy, and social repression. Up until his death, he was convinced that his plays were laying the groundwork for a complete reinvention of Arab society.

Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous reads a message at UNESCO’s World Theatre Day.

Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous reads a message at UNESCO’s World Theatre Day. 



Today, something of a rediscovery of Wannous’s work is underway: “Rituals” has been performed recently in Cairo and Paris, and a collection of his plays has just been published by the City University of New York. Despite it being in English translation, every performance of the play “Rituals” this month played to a full house of people eager to see Wannous’s ribald skewering of official sanctimony and social rigidity.

But the social revolution the playwright hoped for is still far off—and the eager audience for his rarely performed work is evidence of the immense hunger for an honest intellectual dialogue about the crisis in Arab society. Today, even in the arts, dissent like Wannous’s remains unusual here. And that work like his is so compelling, and yet hard to find, is a testament to just how narrow the scope of the region’s political dialogue has become.


WANNOUS WAS BORN in a poor rural village in 1941, a member of the Alawite minority whose members would come to control the Syrian government, and came of age during the 1960s, the peak years of both the Cold War and Arab nationalism. Syria tried to solve its domestic problems by uniting with Egypt, part of a doomed project to create single “pan-Arab” government for the Middle East and North Africa. It failed, leaving Syria and the rest of the Arab world to seek protection as clients of the Cold War powers. Damascus fell squarely in the Soviet camp, and the authoritarian state it created was modeled directly on those of its Eastern bloc counterparts.

In an irony that many in those Communist states would have recognized, Wannous drew a paycheck for much of his life from the very regime that he excoriated in his plays. After studying journalism in Cairo, he held jobs as a critic and a government bureaucrat, while writing plays on his own time. He edited cultural coverage for government newspapers, and established his own journals when his critical views made that impossible. During a stint in Paris as a cultural journalist, he met key writers of his time, including Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco. Wannous ended up in charge of the Syrian government’s theater administration, which followed a Soviet model, generously supporting an arts scene that buttressed the regime’s values.

By the 1970s, the Assad regime had consolidated power and was fomenting anti-Israel militants around the region while avoiding direct conflict on its own border. Wannous rejected wholesale the primacy of the ruling Alawite minority, and his moral stances, presented in unusually vital dialogue and characters drawn as human beings rather than archetypes, established him as a major Arab writer of his generation.

Wannous’s work shares themes with other global dissident literature: In his play “The King is the King,” for example, a beggar successfully takes the place of the monarch, putting the lie to the claim that there’s anything unique about a divine ruler—or the dictator of Syria, for that matter. Every night at curtain call during its Damascus run, the director placed the stage-prop crown on Wannous’s head, to thundering applause.

“To this day, I don’t understand why it was allowed,” his daughter Dima said in an interview.

During his lifetime, Wannous himself said that he was allowed to write and live in Syria only so that the regime could pretend to the world that it tolerated free speech. He took full advantage of that liberty, savaging the failures of Arab nationalism and the autocrats who spawned it. He broke several taboos in “The Rape,” which as an epilogue featured a character named Wannous discussing the prospects for healing with an Israeli psychiatrist—a conversation that in real life would have been illegal.

As a body of work, his plays amounted to an argument that Arab society needed to break out of the political and social constraints that kept it locked in place. Confronted by his region’s stagnation and powerlessness, Wannous preserved a kind of optimism: The solution, he believed, lay within the Arab world and its citizens. He chafed at the convention of writing in classical Arabic, and wished writers felt free to reach more people by addressing their audience in colloquial language. He himself wrote his first drafts in the colloquial and then translated them into classical Arabic.

He bucked convention in other ways, too. In “Rape,” he depicts an Israeli soldier whose crimes against Palestinians distort his own psyche. But, crucially, he portrays other Israeli characters with empathy—not everyone is a villain—and he suggests there is value in engagement between Arabs and their Israeli enemies.

In “Rituals of Signs and Transformations,” which many critics consider his masterpiece, Wannous took aim at all the Arab world’s sacred cows in one shot. In the play, the mufti of Damascus—the city’s top religious official—feuds with a local rival, the naqib, leader of the nobility. But then the naqib is arrested cavorting with a prostitute, threatening the authority of all the religious leaders. The mufti sets aside his religious principles and schemes to save his erstwhile enemy. The only completely honorable characters are the naqib’s wife, who divorces him and chooses to work as a prostitute herself, and a local tough who’s dumped by his male lover when he decides he wants to be open about his love. A policeman who tries to enforce the law and tell the truth is thrown in jail and branded insane.

The play was never performed in Syria during Wannous’s lifetime. The official excuse was that the sets were too bulky to import from Beirut, where a truncated version had been staged, but it couldn’t have helped that the real-life mufti of Aleppo issued a fatwa against the play. Even in Beirut, the director avoided state censorship by calling the mufti by another name.

That might sound like an evasion from another era, but little has changed. The director of last month’s production also changed the title of the mufti, using the less-religious “sheikh.” Lebanon’s censor regularly shuts down plays, concerts, and other performances; to reduce the likelihood of censorship, the AUB producers didn’t charge for tickets. During the final performance, emboldened by the show’s success, some of the actors reverted to Wannous’ original language, calling the character “mufti.”

“I told them that if we got fined, they would have to pay it,” said the director, Sahar Assaf.


SEEN TODAY, “Rituals” still falls afoul of numerous taboos in the Middle East, from its attack on authority and religious hypocrisy to its unvarnished portrayal of child abuse, rape, and the persecution of gay people and women who seek equal rights. The audiences squirmed as much during the tender love scene between two men as during the soliloquies that reveal the mufti as a power-hungry schemer and another vaunted religious scholar as a serial child molester.

The continued power of Wannous’s work illustrates both his success as an artist and his failure, at least so far, to unleash the societal transformation for which he yearned. He aspired for a society where individuals could live free from tyranny, including the tyranny of his own Alawite sect. These are still not opinions that establishment Syrians are expected to discuss aloud. His daughter Dima, a journalist and fiction writer, last summer wrote approvingly about the spread of the war to Alawite areas. “Now they too will know what it means to be Syrian,” she said. She drew death threats from her father’s relatives.

“He thought his plays would transform Arab society, and all his life he was disappointed that they did not,” said Robert Myers, the playwright and AUB professor who cotranslated “Rituals.” “He thought his plays would ignite a revolution in thinking.”

One of the Wannous’s best-known lines comes not from a play but from the speech he delivered for UNESCO’s World Theater Day in 1996. It was the first time an Arab had been granted the honor, and it’s fair to assume Wannous knew he was speaking for posterity. “We are condemned to hope,” he said, “and what is taking place today cannot be the end of history.” At the time, he was speaking of the decrepit state of theater in the Arab world, but the phrase has lived on as a wider slogan.

Today the tradition Wannous embodied—the high-profile artist-intellectual driving a national conversation—is almost vanished itself. Throughout the Arab world, the publishing business has long been in decline. Millions watch high-end Arabic television serials, but only a few thousand attend theater productions. Most of the great dissident intellectuals are dead, and none in the new generation have achieved political influence. “Today’s intellectuals didn’t start the revolutions. That’s why they have to follow the people instead of leading them,” said Dima Wannous. She finds it particularly galling that sectarian religious fundamentalists have come to dominate the uprising in Syria, which she has been forced to flee because of threats.

Yet it’s also possible to see in Syria a testament to the staying power of Wannous’s ideas. The dream of a secular democratic state, the local initiatives to deliver food and health care, and especially, the early days of the revolt that pitted nonviolent citizens against a pitiless regime, all hark back to the ideals of Wannous—namely, his rejection of received authority and belief that if something better happens, it will arise from within. In 2011, when demonstrators first marched demanding the resignation of Bashar Assad, the signs some brandished read: “We are condemned to hope.”

Non-violence vs. Violence

Posted August 5th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

There’s been some interesting criticism of my piece in The Boston Globe on Sunday about the increasing calls for violence among revolutionaries in Egypt. The best-known scholars of nonviolence, whose research I cite in my column, take exception to my analysis and raise some valid objections to the way I framed some of the other research. Other writers have gone further, accusing me of advocating violence. Briefly: the question is not whether nonviolent revolt is preferable – of course it is, and when successful it leads to more liberal, stable political transitions than violent revolt. The pertinent question is, in what situations are nonviolent revolts doomed to fail? And against recalcitrant regimes that will use all possible force to suppress dissent, what avenues are open to the revolutionary? In short, what works against the most oppressive and violent regimes? This inquiry is more topical than ever today, as revolts have failed, are fizzling, or are headed toward full-scale war in countries including China, Iran, Syria, Yemen and Libya. It’s not a question of averages (what works most of the time?), but one of specifics – what works against the most brutal states?

Scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan have studied more than a century of uprisings and found that nonviolence is twice as likely to succeed as violence. In a post on Rational Insurgent, Chenoweth says I misread the literature. She’s right that I somewhat sloppily described the work of Robert Pape and Ivan Arreguín-Toft; their research argues that violence works and makes strategic sense, but doesn’t explicitly compare it to nonviolence. I know that Chenowith and Stephan’s work followed the research of Pape and Arreguín-Toft, but the Globe essay makes it sound the other way around. Chenowith goes on to write:

Contrary to Cambanis’s argument, the historical record reveals rather dramatically that nonviolent resistance is strategically superior, and, in the end, often leads to much more democratic and stable societies than violent insurgency. Although Egyptians may be rightly frustrated with the pace and direction of the transition, they need only look to other recent cases—such as Libya or Yemen—to see the risks of using violence to attempt to improve their strategic positions. Our research indicates that if Egyptians resort to violence, their chances of success will drop by about half, the risk of civil war will steeply rise, and the chances for democracy in the foreseeable future will be considerably reduced.

Other writers take up a related form of argument. Tom H. Hastings writes that nonviolence is more likely to overturn a repressive government than violent revolt, which might well replace one tyranny with another. I think he has a good point, and I personally don’t think a violent revolt in Egypt is more likely than a peaceful one to lead to a liberal state; nowhere in my Globe piece do I make this contention. Hastings also nastily suggests that I must be a fan of mass killings in the name of revolution, a pointless and unfounded slander which merits no response but says something about the low standards to which people hold themselves in public writing these days.

Eric Stoner asks whether The Boston Globe “would prefer violence in Egypt.” Speaking for myself, again, I would not. But I’m a journalist, not an ideologue, so I’m asking questions like what actually works, and what is actually happening. If frustrated Egyptians start taking out hits on police officers, it won’t be because of my column. And if Egypt’s admirable nonviolent revolutionaries manage finally to push the ruling military out of power and install an elected, accountable, civilian government in its place, without widespread violence, it won’t be because of our essays. Although it will be an outcome to cheer.

The genesis of my Globe essay was entirely organic. In more than a dozen interviews, Egyptian activists told me without my even raising the subject that they were considering adopting violent resistance (mostly vigilante killings of police officers who had killed civilians) because non-violent protest hadn’t accomplished as much as they would like. This widespread organic sentiment prompted me to explore the idea as a story. None of the strategic organizers of the protests in Tahrir Square advocated a turn to violence, although several of them told me that they thought some limited violence might prompt further concessions from the military junta presently ruling Egypt.

The phenomenon of arguing for violence led me to history and political science. Historically, had successful revolutions employed violence? And what had political scientists found?

The record, of course, is mixed. The French Revolution became increasingly violent and radical, and of course, led to a backlash and an illiberal century. The Russian Revolution began comparatively peacefully, toppled the czar, and then was overtaken by a violent Bolshevik coup that created a brutal police state. Eastern Europe in the late twentieth century offered up a cast of “Velvet Revolutions,” in which violent states were quickly overturned by peaceful protest.

A few scholars I contacted offered very thoughtful comments that were sadly edited out of the published piece for length.

Mark Kramer, director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, said that proponents of violence often misunderstood the legacy of the Russian Revolution.

First of all, the real Russian Revolution was in March 1917, and it was peaceful.  The Tsar’s regime collapsed in the face of escalating protests and mutinies in the army, and a new, democratic government (the provisional government headed by Aleksandr Kerensky) came to power.  What happened in November 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power, was really a coup d’etat and not a revolution. … The real revolution (in March 1917 with the overthrow of the Tsar’s regime) was a good case in which peaceful protests worked.  The Bolsheviks’ subsequent willingness to rely on mass violent terror to seize power was a disaster for Russia.  I have no doubt at all that Russia would be a much better country nowadays if it had not been forced to endure seven decades of rule under one of the most violent dictatorships that ever existed.

About the research of Chenoweth and Stephan he says:

I find their argument very intriguing, but one clear problem is that their database unavoidably omits countless non-violent resistance campaigns that never begin (because they are deterred) or that are crushed at a very early stage before they become widely known.   Hence, the database is biased toward successful cases of non-violence, leaving ample room for debate about the authors’ conclusions.  Moreover, even if Stephan and Chenoweth are correct in their aggregate analysis of non-violent resistance campaigns unadjusted for size, the existence of crucial outliers — China in June 1989, Burma in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2005 and 2008, and Iran in June-July 2009 — raises further questions about the validity of their argument.  Suffice to say that more research will be needed.

For now, the question of whether the use of violence by a protest movement is likely to contribute to the ouster of a regime remains open.  The downfall of regimes in numerous countries after non-violent protests over the past 35 years, most recently this year in the Arab world, is extremely important to bear in mind, but in many instances, including China, Uzbekistan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Iran, and Belarus among others, autocratic governments have been willing to rely on ruthless violence to crush mass non-violent protests and prevent further challenges.

On the other hand, the inefficacy of non-violence in many cases does not necessarily mean that the use of violence would have been more conducive to success.  Clearly in some cases the use of violence has simply made things worse.  The Chechens’ resumption of violent attacks in August 1999, rather than proceeding with non-violent negotiations to settle the final status of Chechnya as called for under the August 1996 Khasavyurt accords, ended what was arguably the best chance Chechnya has ever had (or will ever have) to achieve independence.  The Chechen guerrillas’ decision to resort to violence proved disastrous.

Personally, I don’t advocate violence, torture, or extrajudicial killing, whether by states or insurgents. It’s still worth asking though – and the research of Chenowith and Stephan in no way ends the debate – whether nonviolent protest works against a regime truly determined to stay in power at all costs (cf. China, Iran, Syria, and Libya).

Terrorist Talkers

Posted June 30th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

It’s a banner day for the topic I’ve been researching all spring : What tools beyond direct force can Western government use to engage, modulate or otherwise shape the behavior of listed terrorist groups? I’ve been studying in particular the use of intelligence community contacts, diplomacy, creative government engagement through aid and trade, and Track Two diplomacy (which we might as well call secret negotiations, since almost all of the important initiatives take place with the full knowledge of the governments involved).

In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court ruling on the material support statute, which holds that political advice amounts to assistance for terrorist groups, several advocates of off-line diplomacy have reiterated their arguments for engagement.

First comes Mark Perry, author of the book Talking to Terrorists published earlier this year. He argues that the United States, Europe and Israel gain nothing by boycotting groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, because those groups are here to stay and represent large and growing constituencies. Perry broke the story in March that General David Petraeus had told the White House that America’s pro-Israel stance was harming core national interests in the Islamic world. Now, he’s gotten his hands on another CentCom document in which he reports that some military propose that Hamas should be integrated into the Palestinian Authority security forces and Hezbollah into the Lebanese Army. Both groups, the authors of the military memo argue, should receive American military training, even though they’re defined as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. (The officers were on a so-called “Red Team” tasked with challenging assumptions and considering alternative ideas.)

The CENTCOM team directly repudiates Israel’s publicly stated view — that the two movements [Hamas and Hezbollah] are incapable of change and must be confronted with force. The report says that “failing to recognize their separate grievances and objectives will result in continued failure in moderating their behavior.”

Meanwhile, on the op-ed page of The New York Times today, the academics Scott Atran and Robert Axelrod write that informal diplomacy has played a crucial role in convincing terrorist groups to renounce violence and enter politics. They cite historical Track Two negotiations begun by private citizens in the transformation of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Real Irish Republican Army. They also cite their own back-channel conversations with Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which they said have yielded important insights.

Private citizens can talk to leaders who are off limits to policy-makers, and can report their findings; in this instance, Atran and Axelrod write, Islamic Jihad reveals itself as recalcitrant and committed to fighting Israel, whereas a Hamas leader suggested he would consider not just a truce (hudna) but peace (salaam). Atran and Axelrod caution that off-line private diplomacy requires expertise and discretion: “Accuracy requires both skill in listening and exploring, some degree of cultural understanding and, wherever possible, the intellectual distance that scientific data and research afford.”

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but direct interaction with terrorist groups is sometimes indispensable. And even if it turns out that negotiation gets us nowhere with a particular group, talking and listening can help us to better understand why the group wants to fight us, so that we may better fight it. Congress should clarify its counterterrorism laws with an understanding that hindering all informed interaction with terrorist groups will harm both our national security and the prospects for peace in the world’s seemingly intractable conflicts.

Advocates of such talks usually take care not to oversell their potential, given that talking to terrorists rarely yields quick results and frequently yields none at all, except for political fallout when secret talks are leaked. All three of these authors have written publicly about their private conversations with leaders of listed terrorist groups. Their conversations were conceived as part of a concerted effort to convince the groups in question to renounce terrorism and violence and pursue their grievances in a legitimate political forum.

It’s unclear whether the Supreme Court ruling would affect these freelance diplomats, who tend to report their foreign terrorist contacts to the government and conduct their diplomatic experiments more or less with their government’s blessing. But for now American law – and grand strategy – have perhaps intentionally left in a fuzzily defined gray area the question of what kind of engagement best complements national counter-terrorism efforts.

Can You Tell a Terrorist to Abandon Violence?

Posted June 25th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, it appears that Americans aren’t allowed to interact with listed terrorist groups, even to provide them the kind of assistance that on its face would appear to conform precisely to American policy aims. In the case of Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project, a group of American activists sought permission in advance before holding workshops to teach nonviolent political negotiation to a group listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. In this case, the groups involved were the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, the militant Kurdish separatist group, and the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, in Sri Lanka. The court ruled 6-3 that such assistance would violate American laws that prohibit providing material assistance to terrorists.

I will write at greater length about this case later, and the many complicated questions that it raises. But right off the bat, it makes me wonder:

  • Are the go-betweens who take messages to listed terrorist groups and report on their meetings to U.S. diplomats now legally liable?
  • What happens if a listed terrorist group wants to abandon violence and learn politics? Who is allowed to advise them?
  • Do journalists violate the material support law when they interview members of listed terrorist groups and publish their statements?
  • When the U.S. government sends out feelers to listed terrorist groups, using intelligence operatives or other means, are they violating the law? Or is the government itself exempt? Or is a secret presidential finding necessary?
  • If teaching terrorists about human rights law is equivalent in the eyes of the law to giving money to terrorists, what are the implications for free speech? Have words and money, political speech and military donations, become indistinguishable in the eyes of the law? What further avenues of prosecution would be opened such a finding?

The Supreme Court decision is here. Read the news story and the editorial in The New York Times, and other links on the homepage of the Humanitarian Law Project.

Nonviolence, Hamas Style

Posted June 21st, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Salah al-Bardaweel

Civil disobedience has enjoyed a renaissance among Palestinians, most vividly with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s call for a boycott against Israel rather than armed resistance. (Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss describe the “Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement” in this long essay in The Nation. Matt McAllester theorizes in The Daily Beast about why non-violence has failed to win Palestinian hearts.)

It remains possible that civic and political action will replace rockets and suicide bombings as the weapon of choice for Palestinian activists. So far, though, Hamas doesn’t seem too interested. In conversations I had with Hamas officials during a reporting trip to Gaza in January, I encountered glib jokes and incomprehension rather than any serious engagement with the idea of non-violence.

Hamas had suspended support for suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, but only, officials told me, because such attacks were failing to produce the desired effects – not because they were wrong, illegal or counter-productive.

“There are two paths: the path of Gandhi and the path of Al Qaeda,” Hamas parliamentarian and spokesman Salah al-Bardaweel told me.  When I asked him which one Hamas would take he paused and then said: “Al Q-andhi!” He bellowed with laughter at his joke.

He did add more seriously that “there are many types of resistance,” and that Hamas promoted social, political, and cultural efforts along with its military wing. He pointed out that some groups have splintered from Hamas because they didn’t consider it militant enough. Historically, Bardaweel argued, Palestinian organizations that focused exclusively on politics and culture at the expense of armed struggle lost popular support. “We are a resistance group, but we can’t let military actions spoil our entire political plan,” he said.

At a seminar for junior Hamas officials at the House of Wisdom, a think tank chaired by Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, a group of men in their twenties and thirties scoffed when I asked if they could imagine Hamas adhering to the Geneva Conventions and using the tools of non-violent protest.

One, a mid-level Hamas bureaucrat named Ahmed al-Najjar, didn’t even understand the concept. “Non-violence?” he said to me. “What have we ever accomplished by the throwing stones?”

An American colleague described the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. As the American talked, Najjar leaned over to me and chuckled. “Non-violence in this part of the world is nonsense. What do you want? We should stand in front of the Israelis shouting ‘No, no occupation, go, go, occupation’? Non-violence is nothing. It does not work.”