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Sufism and Shakespeare: The Poetics of Personal and Political Transformation in Sa'dallah Wannus's Tuqus al-Isharat wa-l-Tahawwulat


Tuqus al-Isharat wa-l-Tahawwulat, one of the last major plays by the Syrian Sa'dallah Wannus, published in 1994, is one of the most innovative plays from the Arab world in the twentieth century. Based on a historical incident, it dramatizes the story of the fall of the Naqib of Damascus when he is arrested with his mistress Warda. The Naqib's enemy, the Mufti, saves him from disgrace by substituting the Naqib's wife, Mu'mina, for Warda, although Mu'mina leaves the Naqib and becomes a notorious prostitute. The play also overtly treats male homosexuality. Previous analyses of Wannus's plays have focused on the influence of Brecht and the Thousand and One Nights, and criticism of this play's feminist theme. This article argues that much of the play's novelty and aesthetic power derive from aspects of Shakespeare, principally Measure for Measure, and from motifs, lexicon and ritual theatricality derived from Sufism as aesthetic form and religious practice.

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1 Gilman, Richard, Chekhov's Plays: An Opening to Eternity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 214.

2 The play, as Wannus says in his prologue to it, is loosely based on a story in al-Barudi, Fakhri, Mudhakkirat al-Barudi (al-Barudi's Memoirs) (Beirut: Dar al-Hayat, 1951). However, Wannus radically alters numerous elements from al-Barudi's historical account.

3 The official title of his position is ‘Naqib al-Ashraf’, the Dean of the Syndicate of Nobles.

4 A mufti is an official expounder of Islamic law. Here the position is the Grand Mufti of Damascus.

5 ‘Abbas is a common Arabic name derived etymologically from a verb that means ‘scowl’, ‘have austerity or severity’. ‘Afsa is derived from a verb that means ‘to overcome’, such as to be able to bend one's arm.

6 Wannus, Sa'dallah, Tuqus al-Isharat wa-l-Tahawwulat (Beirut: Dar Al-Adab, 2005), p. 32. All translations are by the authors unless otherwise indicated.

7 Ibid., p. 32.

8 Ibid., p. 78.

9 Ibid., p. 82.

10 The Sufis attempt to demonstrate their claim to be spiritual heirs of the Prophet through the creation of lineages of disciple–Sufi sheikh chains that reach back to the Prophet.

11 Wannus, Tuqus, p. 36.

12 Ibid., p. 150.

13 Allen, Roger, ‘Arabic Drama in Theory and Practice: The Writings of Sa'dallah Wannus’, Journal of Arabic Literature, 15 (1984), pp. 94113, here p. 94.

14 For a further discussion of the play see ibid., pp. 99–102; and Waheeb Nima, ‘A Study of the Dramatic Art of Sa'adallah Wannous and Bertolt Brecht with a Translation of Six Plays by Wannous into English’, doctoral dissertation, Lancaster University, 1993. Also see Abu-Deeb, Kamal, ‘The Collapse of Totalizing Discourse and the Rise of Marginalized/Minority Discourses’, in Abdel-Malek, Kamal and Hallaq, Wael B., eds., Tradition, Modernity, and Postmodernity in Arabic Literature: Essays in Honor of Professor Issa J. Boullata (Leiden: Brill, 2000), pp. 335–55.

15 Wannus, Sa'adallah, ‘Theater and the Thirst for Dialogue’, in Lebanon and Syria: The Geopolitics of Change, Middle East Report, 203 (Spring 1997), pp. 1415, here p. 14. Wannus's complete works, which were collected in three volumes, contain this address as an introduction to his plays. See Wannus, Sa'dallah, al-A'mal al-Kamila, 3 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2004), Vol. I, pp. 3944.

16 Nima, A Study of the Dramatic Art of Wannous and Brecht, p. 187.

17 Ibid., p. 192.

19 Wannus, Tuqus, pp. 5–6.

20 Wannus, ‘Theater and the Thirst for Dialogue’, p. 15.

21 Brecht, Bertolt, Brecht on Theatre, trans. Willet, John (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), pp. 100–1.

22 Ibid., p. 103. Another clear connection between Tuqus and Measure for Measure is Peter Brook's extended discussion of the play in his book The Empty Space, which Wannus obviously read. Brook's 1950 version of Shakespeare's play at Stratford ‘was the production that did most to establish the play in the current repertory’, according to Bawcutt (Shakespeare, William, Measure for Measure, ed. Bawcutt, N. W. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 34). Brook reprised the play at Bouffes-du-Nord in 1978. Brecht produced a version in 1952 at the Berliner Ensemble in which the play ‘became an attack on a corrupt and class-ridden society’ (Ibid., p. 42). Another possible source for Tuqus is Buñuel's film Belle de jour, also a story about a woman of status who consciously chooses to become a prostitute, which premiered in 1967, in or around the time Wannus was living in Paris.

23 Massad, Joseph, Desiring Arabs (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 353.

24 Measure for Measure, ed. Bawcutt, pp. 45–6.

25 Kahf, Mohja, ‘The Silences of Contemporary Syrian Literature’, World Literature Today, 75, 2 (Spring 2001), pp. 224–36, here pp. 203 and 232.

26 Abu Deeb, ‘The Collapse of Totalizing Discourse’, p. 353.

27 Ibid., p. 354.

28 Wannus, al-A'mal al-Kamila, Vol. III, p. 102.

29 In Tuqus, Wannus appropriates Sufi motifs as a means of exploring transgression. Other contemporary appropriations and projections of Sufism find it to be an especially liberating source of linguistic–poetic expression. The poet Adonis, for example, compared Sufism to the Surrealist movement in poetry.

30 Wannus's concern with the individual ‘I’ clearly becomes more pronounced in his later writings. Tuqus, as he says in the prologue to the play, dramatizes issues that he believes are ‘current and ever-recurrent’ (Tuqus, p. 6). In an interview given around the time when Tuqus was first staged, he said, ‘The national project, in as much as it entails liberty, progress and modernity, does not require that we annul ourselves as individuals with our desires and urgent needs for freedom’. Interview in Al-Tariq, 1, 1 (January–February 1996), p. 104.

31 Wannus, Tuqus, p. 36.

32 Ibid., p. 37.

33 Ibid., p. 39.

34 Ibid. pp. 46–7.

35 Anything that hints at a woman's sexuality is deemed an ‘awra.

36 Maqam literally means ‘place’. It is an essential Sufi technical term that refers to a ‘station’ or a specific state of single-minded awareness of a spiritual experience in which one indulges.

37 Wannus, Tuqus, p. 100.

39 Ibid., p. 47.

40 Ibid., pp. 48–9.

41 Ibid., p. 48.

42 Cited in Massad, Desiring Arabs, p. 374. Emphasis in Wannus's original.

43 Ibid., p. 375.

44 Al Jazeera English, 27 August 2012, available at

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Theatre Research International
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