Claire Pamment and Hesam Sharifian
The necessity to facilitate scholarship on Theatre and Performance in Muslim Worlds has never felt stronger than today. The dominant political discourse, the fringe ideological pseudo-thoughts, and the omnipresent Islamophobia of the west, it seems, have all converged in a pivotal historical moment—a historical moment that marks Donald Trump’s presidency, Neo-Nazis’ anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim gatherings, Brexit, the rise of the far-right in Eastern Europe, and radical (and at times even genocidal) rhetoric from the mainstream media. However, even though this historical moment makes the urgency of this issue more conspicuous, the lack of plurality and resorting to monolithic generalizations of different cultures have been the grounds on which this historical moment was built and nourished. Hence, the need to scholarly probe theatre and performance of Muslim worlds, with an accentuated emphasis on plurality of the word “worlds.”
Theatre and performance in Muslim worlds are not necessarily “Islamic,” nor take place only in the Middle East or the Arab World. These performances are not exclusive to Islamic countries, nor do they only engage with Muslims. We discussed, at length, how focusing on Islam, as an aspect of religiosity in performance, could be reductive and exclusive in defining the boundaries of this sub-discipline with which this issue is concerned. Instead, by welcoming scholarly submissions of theatre and performance in, from, and about Muslim cultures, societies, and experiences in geographically diverse sites, this special issue is an attempt in bringing together subject matters that are often excluded from general anthologies and edited volumes that focus on theatre and performance in the Arab World, the Middle East, or Islamic countries.
Our conversations about this specific need began during a lunch break at Harvard University’s 2016 session of the Mellon School of Theatre and Performance Research, dedicated to the subject of “Theaters Sacred and Profane.” We discussed the inadequacies of reducing a vibrant and diverse body of work to only two discursive categories of “secular” and “religious,” a frame in which scholarship on theatre and performances in Muslim worlds is often placed. For decades, a narrowly defined “Islamic theatre” has rendered the theatrical and performance traditions of Muslim worlds silent, non-existent, deformed, and marginalized, or absent. Whereas these historiographical and methodological problems have been named by several prominent scholars of the field (such as Marvin Carlson, John Bell, and Shmuel Moreh, to name a few), the issue at large requires major attention.
In 2016 we inaugurated a new working group at the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR)—a research group that was meant to fill an urgent gap and bring together scholars to discuss their findings at an annual conference. The fate of this working group, however, was emblematic of the structural, political, and institutional problems that have created the issue to begin with: two of our participants were barred from entering the United States (even though the official “travel ban” was halted by several federal courts at the time, the general restrictions from the previous administrations were the grounds on which the applications were denied) to remind us of the tangible political obstacles of venturing in such endeavor. Moreover, the life of the working group was limited to only one year, as the conference planners cited the fact that there were already two working groups focused on “Muslim performance” to suggest that the quota had been met and there was no need for a sustained long-term conversation about the issue.
As the structural and institutional obstacles continue to prevent sustained efforts to generate minoritarian scholarship, we believe edited volumes, special issues, and scholarly research groups are ways in which scholars of marginalized knowledge should resist this status quo. The last decade has seen an energizing rise of publications devoted to Muslim societies and popular culture, music, visual art, architecture, and cinema, but theatre has received comparatively less attention. A recent upsurge in conference panels and working groups in theatre and performance in Muslim contexts expresses a longing for comparative analytical dialogue, rigorous methodological enquiry, and scholarly exchange.
This special issue of Ecumenica is an attempt to provide a context in which different methodological and historiographical approaches could be applied to an array of subject matters with geographical, cultural, and temporal diversity. Notwithstanding the fact that limited space in a special issue cannot address the perpetual negative effects of decades-long institutional shortcomings of a discipline, the editors believe that the works presented here provide a step forward, albeit small, in recognizing neglected problems.
In this issue, Marjan Moosavi’s article entitled “B for Badan, Blessed, and (B)othered: The Counter-Sacred in the Iranian Theatre of War” examines two case studies from the Iranian contemporary stage and scrutinizes the ways in which these two works, while sharing the same historical event as their context, take divergent approaches in embodiment, ideology, and representation. By treating her subject as micro-historical events, the author argues that the differences between these two case studies reflect a larger societal, generational, and ideological shift that occurred during the four decades after the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Karima Borni’s “Black Table: Choreographic Interventions in Moroccan Contemporary Dance” offers a provocative window into the role of contemporary dance—a vibrant composition of breakdance, Berber and Islamic rituals, and avant-garde performance art—amidst Morocco’s moral and political conflicts. Foregrounding analysis of Cie 2k_far’s Black Table (2015) with its unusual use of Islamic prayer sequences, Borni’s ethnography shows dancers performing a spiritualised struggle against extremist forces of the Islamic State, Daeesh. Black Table is representative of a rising trend for politically charged work, which with European interests and funding have been on the rise since the “Arab Spring” events of 2011-13. While these productions often feature Muslim bodies either succumbing to chaos or attaining political emancipation, Black Table offers a more expansive vocabulary, reckoning artistic exploration with religious practice.
In a special section entitled “Reflections” we solicited two short pieces from contemporary American directors whose groundbreaking works are often ignored when the theatre and performance of Muslim worlds are represented. Hamid Ehya, a veteran Iranian-American stage director, outlines his more than forty years of artistic activities in the San Francisco Bay Area, during which time he has tirelessly produced stage works for the Iranian émigré. Rachel Bowditch’s reflection gives the reader an insider’s look at an artistic journey: from her decades-long obsession with Attar’s Conference of the Birds, to seeing her dream materialize in a production at the Arizona State University, to an unexpected reception by the audience in light of the presidential proclamation regarding the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. These two reflections, albeit in different ways, speak to how boundaries between personal and political spheres are often blurred in the diaspora. Both artists outline the omnipresent politics in the reception of their works, especially by Iranian diasporic societies— whereas Ehya has faced artistic and financial challenges in his attempts to distance his work from immediate political demands of his audience, Bowditch recounts a heartwarming story of the reception of a work that had not foreseen the potential political layers of meaning.
Our performance reviews include Jaclyn Michael’s “Religion and Representation in the ‘New Brown America’ of Muslim Comedy.” Through the Muslim and South Asian backgrounds that link a new cohort of comedians, including Hasan Mihaj (Homecoming King/The Daily Show) and Aziz Ansari (Master of None), Michael explores the prevalent theme of second-generation impiety that is prevalent in their work, and assesses their commentary on injustice in contemporary America as an important window on cultural discourse over being and belonging. Our second review is Daniella Vinitski Mooney’s “The Annual Children’s Play at the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship.” This Sufi lodge in Philadelphia, founded by Sri Lankan Sufi mystic Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen in the 1970s, offers an eclectic range of children’s activities, including “baby Zikr” prayer and the yearly “Children’s Play,” dramatizing Bawa’s many children’s stories. Mooney explores how these theatrical productions reflect Bawa’s teachings and the culture of the lodge, with its emphasis on the familial, on building relationships across faiths, and encouraging levity in theological vision.
In the book review section, editor Alan Sikes has gathered a small sampling of publications of the last three years that exemplify the diversity of the field. Karin van Nieuwkerk, Mark Levine, and Martin Stokes’ edited volume Islam and Popular Culture (2016), as reviewed by Edward Ziter, examines Islamic elements within popular dance, theatre, song, chant, iconography, fine arts, and television in regions stretching from Ghana to Indonesia. Juju Masunah’s review of Laurie Margor Ross’s The Encoded Cirebon Mask: Materiality, Flow, and Meaning along Java’s Islamic Northwest Coast (2016) remarks on the work’s in-depth analysis of Topeng Cirebon, where masks change their meanings fluidly through history. Arab American Drama, Film and Performance: A Critical Study, 1908 to the Present by Michael Malek Najjar (2015), as Roaa Ali argues, is distinct from most treatments, which tend to focus on post-9/11 Arab American drama. Ali asserts that Najjar importantly explores the earlier generation (1908-1967) of playwrights, poets, and activists who created a historical trajectory and momentum for contemporary (1967-present) Arab American artists.
We are grateful for the unconditional support and trust that was granted to us by Ecumenica, especially by its editor-in-chief, David Mason. The journal has always been welcoming to scholarship of Muslim worlds. In fact, this issue is the second special issue dedicated to the subject in the last decade. The Fall 2008 issue on Muslim performance was edited by Marvin Carlson and the late Hazem Azmy. While preparing the current issue, we received the sad news of Hazem’s passing in his hotel room during the International Federation for Theatre Research annual meeting in Belgrade. Hazem, a champion of facilitating scholarship on Muslim worlds and a vigorous scholar of Egyptian theatre, was a great force of support throughout our preparation for the ASTR working group and this special issue. Hazem’s service to the field is truly invaluable. We wish to dedicate this issue to him and his commitment to expanding the arena of scholarship on theatre and performance in Muslim worlds.