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Theatre in the Arab world



Although Arab theatre - in the sense of stage plays - did not develop until the 19th century, the region has other dramatic traditions dating back hundreds of years. These include puppetry, storytelling and Ta'ziyah - a type of religious passion play performed in Shi'a communities.

For a variety of reasons, including censorship, theatre has never become an especially popular art form in the Arab countries and the limited number of theatres has led to the development of theatrical troupes who travel in search of audiences.

Probably the best on-line history of Arab theatre is by Roger Allen, extracted from "An Introduction to Arabic Literature" (Cambridge University Press, 2000).


Khayal al-zill ( "shadows of the imagination" or "shadows of fancy") was a popular form of puppetry in medieval Cairo. The plays could be simple or elaborate, serious or farcical, and were appreciated by all classes.

Khayal al-zill was probably similar to the Turkish shadow puppetry known as karagoz (see Karagoz, the traditional shadow theatre of Turkey; Turkish shadow theatre and karagoz.net).

One of the key figures in shadow puppetry was the Iraqi-born poet/playwright Ibn Daniyal (died 1311), three of whose plays survive.

Shadows of fancy 
Shadow theatre in old Cairo, and a modern revival. By John Feeney (Saudi Aramco World, March-April, 1999).

Of Muppets and puppets 
By Caroline Stone (Saudi Aramco World, Sept-Oct, 1979).


Widespread illiteracy led to the development of oral folk literature throughout the Middle East in which professional storytellers recounted popular tales - often adding individual touches in the hope of collecting more money from their audience. Some story-tellers would accompany themselves on musical instruments or make dramatic gestures at appropriate points in the tale.

The last hakawati 
Barbara Nimri Aziz visits a surviving storyteller in old Damascus

Oral narrating and performing traditions   
By Deborah Folaron


Ta'ziyah (or Ta'ziyeh) is usually described as a passion play. It is performed in Shi'a communities during the month of Muharram to commemorate the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussain, at the battle of Karbala in AD 680. 

"During the first nine days, religious notables recite, with great emotion, details from Hussain's life, while groups of men dance wildly in the streets inflicting wounds upon themselves with chains. On the tenth day, a symbolic coffin is carried in procession, followed by horses, bloodied men, and a steed representing Hussain's war-horse. The long performance, consisting of some forty to fifty scenes, is introduced by lamentations chanted by a male choir, answered by the mourning wail of a female choir." - The Mewar Encyclopedia

Ta'ziyah has not always been regarded favourably by the authorities, since Hussain ccan be regarded as the spiritual leader of the dispossessed.

People watching 
Report on a modern version of Ta'ziyeh staged in Rome (The Guardian, 14 July, 2003)

Birth of Arab theatre

Beginnings in Syria and Egypt 
By Roger Allen

Beginnings elsewhere in the Arab world 
By Roger Allen

Tawfiq al-Hakim 
Playwright extraordinaire (al-Bab)

Contemporary theatre

Egyptian drama after the revolution 
By Roger Allen

Recent trends elsewhere in the Arab world 
By Roger Allen

Cultures and Cockroaches 
A review of Tawfiq Hakim's Fate of a Cockroach by Pat McDonnell Twair

Theater traditions of the desert lands 
"The stage play is almost a newcomer to the Middle East, but a rich theatrical tradition is not." (Saudi Aramco World, May/June 1964)

Sadallah Wannous: his last five years, his greatest as playwright 
A tribute to the Syrian playwright who died in 1996,
by Ali Alsouleman (al-Jadid magazine)

Sadallah Wannous' approach to theater  
By Fatme Sharafeddine Hassan

Sa'dallah Wannous calls for restoration of theater, the "ideal forum" for human dialogue (al-Jadid magazine)

Sa'dallah Wannous: a life in theater 
By Manal A. Swairjo (al-Jadid magazine)

Farewell to Sadallah Wannous  
By Elie Chalala (al-Jadid magazine)

Ali al-Rai exits stage 
Obituary of Ali al-Rai, a champion of the Egyptian theatre, who died in 1999 (al-Jadid magazine)

Creative Acts 
The Ashtar School for Theater Education and Training in East Jerusalem. By Annette Kramer (Saudi Aramco World, July/August 1995)

Under the Big Top in Cairo 
The Egyptian National Circus, by John Feeney 

The oldest independent theatrical group in Egypt

Article about the Palestinian theatrical group by Hadani Ditmars (New Middle East magazine)

al-Hakawati on stage 
Story of the Palestinian theatre troupe, by John Christie


In the theatre section


In the arts and culture section


"The play which I have written is composed from the chapter of jests, and from high-class literature – not from low-class literature. And when you cut out its figures, divide its material into scenes, and you stand alone before your audience and set up your candle to illuminate the screen, you will see that this is not just a shadow-play. It is more than that. It is a parable. And what's more, it is most original …"

Ibn Daniyal (Cairo, 1310)

"The curtain went up to reveal a group of actors and actresses on stage. They started performing something best described as halfway between chanting and singing. Whatever it was, human nature revolted against it ... Nothing in the Islamic faith permits women to participate in this art form ... It's no part of Islamic literature to have plays dealing with Islamic history, its caliphs and devout men, acted out in public in a fashion which makes use of love and singing as its basic attractions."

Muhammad al-Muwaylihi (d. 1930), quoted from Allen, A Period of Time (1992), p 369)


The Islamic Drama: Taziyah 
by Jamshid Malikpur. Order from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

Modern Arabic Drama: An Anthology 
by Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Roger Allen (editors). Order from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

Short Arabic Plays: An Anthology 
by Salma Khadra Jayyusi (editor). Order from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

Ibn Daniyal: The Arabic Medieval Shadow Plays  
by Paule Kahle and Derek Hopwood (editors). Order from amazon.co.uk




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Last revised on 05 August, 2015