Tunisian Theatre Behind the Iron Curtain

3 Jul

This is an article that appeared at the back of the June 1965 issue of Egyptian theatre journal al-Masra7. It is written by an anonymous Tunisian critics and is reacting against a recent published decision by the Theatre Union. As far as I can tell the decision was spearheaded by Abdel Aziz al-Arwi  and banned the production of plays from elsewhere in the Arab World in Tunisia, ostensibly to encourage local talent. This writer, though, thinks that it is to eliminate the Arabic nature of Tunisian society and Europeanise it. There is also to be a prize to the man who writes a play which corresponds with Borguiba’s position on Palestine (two-state solution). This also enrages the writer who thinks that writers are being bribed to go along with the party-line.

The Arabic in this article was at times rather odd. I have rendered it into as readable English as I could. Sometimes I have altered sentence structures etc. to help with the English but hope that I have retained the inner meaning of everything.

Finally, despite the title this is not about Tunisian Theatre in the USSR.

Tunisian Theatre behind the Iron Curtain

By an anonymous Tunisian critic

            All you theatre-lovers and writers of the East – artists, top playwrights and critics – in the name of free ideas, in which the Tunisian people are strong believers and in the name of thought that cannot be put in chains “Stand against this decision”

The decision was announced on the night of 30/4/1965 by the Tunisian Theatre Union: It imposed a ban on performing any Eastern plays on the Tunisian stage.  The government has also incompetently set up a prize that is, so they claim, important and goes to the person who writes a play about Palestine that follows Habib Borguiba’s planned solution to the problem. The decision is part of a programme that works towards self-sufficiency in field of theatre and those who passed this resolution claim Tunisian writers are capable of creativity and originality – even in the field of translation, where rights of the author should be preserved and their name faithfully recorded.

The truth is that this decision could only mean one of two things: either it’s creators are mad or they are trying, as usual, to fabricate a false image of greatness. In both of these cases the resolution is not just a passing assault on mere words. We will settle this issue within a year not after five.

In actuality, though, what local organisations are refusing to follow this resolution and who will be the person to challenge it? People in the East always support empty claims once they have been made. Its men, writers, and leaders always work behind a curtain of silence. The ones who will challenge this resolution are those who believe in open-door politics and who embrace world cultures, whatever their source even if it comes from Abdel Aziz al-‘Arwi. And those who consider civilization to be a mix of different cultures and that culture comes above all considerations and above events … and that ideas cannot be put under a siege which denies them freedom and places them in the chains of force or obligation. For ideas are free and are not expressed unless they have freedom. It’s these people or nothing and with nothing we won’t get very far.

The question before us is this: why did the venerable union [the Tunisian Theatre Union] not think about taking the same decision with French writers. They participated with both their weapons and their pens in destroying Tunisian national identity. With their writings and their plays they have frequently put a knife in Tunisian identity and Arab identity too. Just as they took part with the pens of their historians and critics and their theatrical and political writers in eradicating the essence of Tunisia and melting away its values with shameful literature which has been acted thousands of times of Tunisian stages. You and your stages have been the stages and trumpets that praise European character at the expense of the Arabic. You and history have washed away those who struggled for Tunisia – but still nothing like this decision has been enacted before. This decision is against Oriental writers and against the Arabic language itself – against the great writers and artists, the theatre and those who shared in the creation of the first seeds of Arabic theatre in Tunisia like Zaki Tleimat, Youssef Wahby, Tawfiq al-Hakim as a writer, Mohammed Mandur as a critic and many more people who taught us about the theatre. No problem! We’ve got used to this kind of thing from you – Our chests will always be wider than those trivial decisions which enflame them. But what we must say, what we must point out is this – have those people thought about how useful their decision really is: what is its relationship to politics, what good will it be to the generations who come after this reckless decision, what limit will it set upon the theatre, which is consider the sturdiest base and strongest fortress for the community’s political discussion. This decree may be strong one day but it will be weak the next.

What relationship is there between the tragedy of Palestine and your writings and the theatres you have bribed. Is the truth of Arab-Palestinian issue now in so much doubt that we are buying writers for it with Dinars, just so that they can write about it. The hypocrite does not mind changing or altering the truth and, for him, belief in the justice of the issue is just an obstacle. He takes his money and works to serve himself, without experiencing any of the circumstances [the Palestinians do]. The Palestinian issue does not need mercenary pens. It doesn’t need us to write a lot or a little about it … it already has a glut. As for facts, it has documents written in the blood of free martyrs to certify them because, truly, this is the greatest tragedy the human race has ever seen.

Enough deception theatre writers and then may God thank you … up to this point.

This decision contains some ridiculous articles and some steps towards realising the great colonial plan which the Tunisian President [Borguiba] has already started. That’s how we the people see it and we are innocent before God and the Palestinians.

Since, really, the decision came to give voice to the superficiality of certain people and their inability to benefit, even in the simplest ways, from the experiences of others. These people think that the decision allows them to arrest freedom itself and throw ideas in prison at the blink of an eye. With this decision they are playing the parts of destroyers but they are on a shaky stage; their audience: monkeys.

They deliberately ignored the fact that prizes, grants and gifts cannot create free thought – in any case one cannot buy and sell free thought like onions in the marketplaces of Tunis.

The writer in the East who believes in his message and won’t give it up for any decision. The man whom these petty decrees provoke is the man with the deepest and strongest freedom. These published decisions will not hold people back from engaging with Eastern thought which is the property of all Arabs in Arab countries and across the world. This thought is itself the result of free and successful artistic experimentation. The people of the East believed in it and it is a cocktail of human experience and global culture. In any case it is not possible to remove Arabic thought from the shelves in the offices of this generation of Tunisian intellectuals or to take it form their minds. For Arabic and Eastern thought and literature in all their parts live in the hearts and minds of all Tunisians. Because it is art and literature which, across the centuries, have safeguarded Arabic identity in Tunisia and across the Arab World. It has also, across the centuries, safeguarded its distinguishing feature as a kind of literature that is able to express the thoughts and feelings of the Arabs in the truest manner … and their emotions too.

This Eastern art and literature represents a strong bridge which links the East and West [of the Arab world] in a union of hope, life, struggle and steadfastness.

The Tunisian theatre community should have said no… we won’t give ourselves death sentences. This should not be thought of as disobedience but as the simplest expression of freedom of thought. A thing sanctified by the Tunisian people. There is no shame in saying “No … we will not implement this decision”. The shame is in saying “Yes we are happy with this death sentence which locks the doors in front of the Tunisian people unjustly makes them prisoners in their own homes and then in this injustice they will only hear the idle prattle [of foreign plays].

Doctor Abdel Aziz al-Arwi is constrained by being a on his way to senility. He is trying to impose self-sufficiency and an isolation from global ideas on the today’s youth.

We say to Abdel Aziz al-Arwi: have you ever heard of a community that didn’t react against a siege like this on its people especially when it is in the most important areas of life? You who first welcome this decision… you believed that the intellectual generation would forgive you for playing with the ideological issues they hold most dear. One day you will pay for your simplistic, restricted outlook. This generation will always believe that those who published this decision will perish but what will live on is the free thought that the pens of free men have recorded, men who have always asserted that they can say No… No… No to decisions like this.

This decision is not an unknown move either to the intellectual or to and ordinary people. They published a decree before banning people from listening to the radio broadcasts of the United Arab Republic [Nasser’s short-lived unification of Egypt with Syria]. I myself was punished for listening to it once.

There was another decree that forbid hanging pictures of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

But neither these decrees nor their authors can keep a tyrant standing before waves of revolution not can they place a police in the house of every free man to put their radio under surveillance and it’s the radio that always opens the door to treason, and opens eyes to the truth and to the slaughter which is carried out in secret without trail by that gang of lying tramps – just think of those who participated in the demonstrations against the Embassies of other Arab countries in Tunis.

If I thought that their trembling hands would ever be able to take down the picture of Nasser from my wall they would still never be able to take it from our hearts nor could they remove Nasserism from our thought as a model, principle and creed that free men in the Arabs countries and the whole world profess to.


Anonymous Tunisian Critic


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