9

Drama: early experiments

As already suggested elsewhere,1 the existence of an indigenous dramatic tradition in the Arab world, and the implications that this may have for an account of the development of Arabic drama during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has been the subject of considerable controversy in recent years. Although proponents of different viewpoints have on occasion been vociferous in proclaiming their own interpretations, the essential facts are hardly in doubt: for while, on the one hand, it is impossible to deny the existence of numerous dramatic elements in Muslim culture and Arabic literature, it is equally clear that until the mid-nineteenth century the Arab world had not been home to a theatrical tradition of the type found, for example, in the classical civilisations of Greece or Rome, or in Elizabethan England.

To a far greater extent than modern Arabic poetry or prose writing, modern Arabic drama–as M. M. Badawi has suggested–is 'an importation from the West'.2 However, it is not solely an importation from the West, and some understanding of the local historical antecedents is essential, both because without it, it is impossible to understand the way in which the imported forms were received and regarded by the local population, and because echoes of the local tradition can be found in the work of even the most serious dramatists (e.g. Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm)3 up to the present day. Although most Islamic scholars considered the theatre unworthy of scholarly attention, or indeed, of the status of 'literature' (adab) at all, the eastern, Shi‛ite, Islamic world had had a tradition of the 'passion play' (ta‛ziya) from at least the eighteenth century, and probably considerably earlier. Still older and more widespread was the phenomenon of the 'shadow-play' (khayāl al-ẓill),4 an importation from the Far East, mainly China and India, which was carried westward by Muslim merchants and reached as far as Muslim Spain.

The earliest accounts of the shadow play date from the eleventh century AD, and the three shadow plays composed by the oculist Ibn Dāniyāl (d. 1310) in particular have excited much scholarly interest.5 Composed in a blend of classical and colloquial Arabic, and a mixture of verse and rhymed prose that suggests a development from the maqāma form,6 they present a graphic picture of

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