Breaking through Barriers; Sharing Political Theater from the Middle East with the West: A Conversation with Robert Myers ’95 PhD & Nada Saab ’03 PhD
They overlapped in their time as doctoral candidates at Yale—Robert Myers ’95 PhD in the Spanish and Portuguese department, and Nada Saab ’92 MPhil ’03 PhD in the Departments of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures and Religious Studies—but they didn’t meet until they were five thousand, five hundred miles away, in Beirut. Teaching at American University in Beirut (AUB) and Lebanese American University (LAU), respectively, they were introduced by mutual acquaintances and began a professional collaboration on political theater from the Arab World whose ripple effect has reached around the globe and back to Yale.
With their work, they hope to increase the English-speaking world’s access to and appreciation for political theater from the Arab world, and to deepen Western audiences’ awareness of their countries’ complex historical and ongoing relationships with the Middle East, in the hopes of greater intercultural understanding.
In the fall of 2024, Nada and Robert plan to stage a new translation of Historical Miniatures by Sa’dallah Wannous, produced by the Council on Middle East Studies at Yale and AUB CASAR, at the MacMillan Center. The play, an acclaimed historical work that utilizes the structure of miniature painting, will be presented in conjunction with a panel of scholars from the fields of art history, theater studies, history, and Middle East studies.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Robert, you’re from Atlanta and you studied Spanish and Portuguese at Yale; how did you end up living in Lebanon and working on Middle Eastern texts and topics?
RM: I think it really is because of Yale. I went to Yale to study Brazil. I’d been writing about Brazilian music, culture, and theater. I received a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese and studied with the legendary professor María Rosa Menocal, who wrote a groundbreaking book, The Arabic Role in Medieval European Literary History, in 1987, which redrew the map in terms of literary history in Europe and pointed to the profound influence of Arabic sources in a lot of texts that were described as Western. So, I became much more interested in Al-Andalus and Islamic Spain as a hybrid space for the creation of culture than Brazil. That, coupled with the fact that my wife, Miriam, who also received her doctorate from Yale and is Lebanese from Brazil, and the fact that I had been sent by a theater in Chicago to Amman, Jordan, to do a play, in September 2001 and three days later, the 9/11 attack happened, paradoxically connected me to the region.
Lebanon is sui generis; it’s not comparable to anywhere else in the Arab world or to anything I’ve ever experienced before. But once I started working with Nada, and we had another collaborator, Sahar Assaf, who is a theater director, we achieved a kind of critical mass. We found an audience, and people in other countries started knowing about the work, and became very interested, because at that time, people in Europe and the US knew next to nothing about theater from the Arab world.
The two of you teach at different universities in Lebanon and were introduced through mutual acquaintances. What was your first project together?
RM: The first play that we worked on together, which was at the suggestion of my wife, Miriam, who knew both of us from Yale, was an English translation of Jawad Al Assadi’s 2005 play Baghdadi Bath. It is a play about two Iraqi brothers who meet at the bath where they used to go with their father. One is pro-American, and the other is pro-regime and sees the pro-American brother as a sell-out. That play ended up having quite a life and was staged off Broadway at La MaMa in 2009. We also wrote about it in the Performing Arts Journal, and then the translation of it appeared in the book Modern and Contemporary Political Theatre from the Levant.
What has been one of your favorite plays from the Arab world that you have worked on together?
RM: In 2011, we were approached by a theater in Chicago that specializes in plays from the Arab Muslim world, and they wanted us to apply for a MacArthur Grant with them, and Nada suggested a play by this absolutely extraordinary Syrian playwright. His name is Sa’dallah Wannous.
One of his plays was very Shakespearean; it’s called Rituals of Signs and Transformations, and we were incredibly pleased that people seemed enthralled with the play when it was done in Beirut. It was over two hours without an intermission, and it dealt with really raw subject matter and sexuality, so it provided a window into an Arab world that most people don’t know—or didn’t know before that.
NS: Sa’dallah Wannous had cancer the last five years of his life. So he was very prolific those last five years, and that’s when he became even more daring in his plays. Rituals is all about sexuality, gender, and religion, all sensitive, yet pressing cultural issues in the Middle East. Some of the very best plays he wrote belonged to that last stage of his life.
RM: Wannous has been an underappreciated playwright. Certainly, people in the field know him, but our attitude was, he should be as read and appreciated as the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka from Nigeria or Augusto Boal from Brazil or Athol Fugard from South Africa or Carol Churchill from Britain. The only reason he’s not is because he writes in Arabic.
Our translation of Rituals was one of four plays that was published by Yale University Press in Sentence to Hope in 2019, and that book was selected by Al Jazeera as the number one book of translation that year. It also won the Sheikh Hamad Award, which is a major translation award in the Arab world, and it got a wonderful review in the New York Review of Books. So, it allowed us to reach a much larger audience and took this theater that was seen to be marginal and put it very much at the center of what’s interesting in terms of theater and literature, which was incredibly gratifying.
Ironically, as a result of the American/British invasion of Iraq, there was intense Western interest in the Middle East, and the whole relationship between East and West that ensued in the post 9/11 period. For me it was a gift to be working with such significant material because my work has always been very historical and very political. This has always been my area of interest—how theater is an arena for dramatizing these vexed issues and questions. Rituals was produced during the Arab Spring in Cairo, and it was chosen because it’s about a kind of cultural liberation and not simply about individual identity. That’s how people read it, that it’s about imagining a different kind of future in a society that has these traditional strictures.
What is your process for translating these dramatic texts?
NS: First, I transform the text from Arabic to English. Robert reviews my text and makes some modifications. Then we meet together, and we work on the text together. The plays we work on are very complex literary texts written by dramatists highly versed in the Arabic literary tradition, both medieval and modern.
In our meetings we discuss how these texts address the present moment they’re written in, and how they are in dialogue with the Arabic literary tradition. The playwrights are also skillful craftsmen of the Arabic language which has a very distinct character in etymology, derivation of words, and how verbs, nouns, grammatical structures work. The dramatists make choices about the language to manifest the characters. In our discussions, we try to come up with an English text which is faithful to the literary complexity of the original, yet one that feels generic and alive in English.
Rituals of Signs and Transformations by Sa’dallah Wannous, for example, invests heavily in Sufism, both as religious practice and as a literary tradition that has distinct language features. One of its characters, Abdallah, finds his spiritual enlightenment and appears to be a modern re-enactment of Sufis who lived in ninth and tenth century Sufi circles of Baghdad. Another character, Mu’mina, who is a high-ranking woman with a religious background, finds her emancipation from rigid gender roles through divorce. She shoves aside her position and social norms and turns into a high-end prostitute. Her transformation, though profane, is very similar to that of Abdallah and is evident in her speech and actions. Wannous used Sufi diction, emptied it of its religious aspect, and invested in its ritualism to manifest the myriad of transformations that many characters in the play undergo to embrace and reveal their true selves.
The discussions Robert and I have as we come up with the final version of the translation address ways in which the texts work internally. Robert, who has a profound knowledge of the Western literary tradition, finds similar connections that may resonate well with the English-speaking audience and mirror the complexity of the Arabic text. The characters in Rituals are Shakespearean. They are also tragic characters which, in some cases, led Robert to use loftier, Shakespearean language in the dialogue used by some characters. But in the end, we try to make sure that the text, as it is translated to English, is translated into a living language.
RM: In general, translations of plays from the Arab world have tended to be more for scholarly purposes, and, therefore, to be more literal. Nada and I go through what texts literally mean, and then a lot of our translation process is figuring out when and in what ways to diverge from the literal meanings of words and try to find what’s embedded in the language, with an eye towards production. Since I’ve been a playwright for about 40 years, I’m constantly trying to figure out what will play on a stage. Actors will have to say these lines. So that’s something we do, and to a certain extent, because Nada can establish the syntactical parameters, I’ll say, Could it be this? She’ll say, No. I’ll say, How about this? She’ll say, Yes, that’s closer. We are desacralizing the Arabic. A lot of people, by virtue of the fact that Arabic is literally the language of God in the Quran, insist that you must maintain word order. But one of the first things we do is syntactically start moving things around, because in English, you want to stress the last thing you say, to emphasize it. So we do a lot of moving words and phrases around, and then also trying to find some poetic equivalent, through assonance or alliteration, to the poetry which is embedded in the Arabic. So we bring together our genuinely complementary skills, and focus very intensely on texts to make them live in another language.
When did your collaboration with the MacMillan Center’s Council on Middle East Studies at Yale begin?
RM: When I met Marcia Inhorn, Yale Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Council on Middle East Studies, in 2010 in Beirut, she approached me about doing a play related to that part of the world. I told her I had written a play, Mesopotamia, about Gertrude Bell’s final couple of years in Iraq, which was very much an allegory about the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Marcia Inhorn and María Rosa Menocal, who was then the director of the Whitney Humanities Center, invited me to Yale in 2011 to stage Mesopotamia alongside an exhibition of Gertrude Bell’s letters, photographs, and maps. That was my first staging of a play at Yale and with Marcia, and it cemented our collaboration.
When I was in the Newcastle archives researching the play, I was stunned to realize how much the British knew about Arabic, the language, the culture, the history. They were really invested. For example, most people don’t know that Lawrence of Arabia did a dissertation at Oxford on crusader castles. These were not just colonial administrators. Obviously, they were doing their work for colonial control, but they were seduced by how beautiful the culture and the language were. Their imperial project was a failure, so I was convinced that the Americans, who knew almost nothing about the region, would almost certainly create a catastrophe, which they did.
At Yale, we had a gallery show with all of these photographs of Gertrude Bell’s, and her books, letters, maps, and then the play. It was a workshop production, and Evan Yionoulis ‘82 BA ‘85 MFA, who is now the director of Juilliard’s Drama Division, and was at Yale Drama School at the time, directed it, and Kathleen Chalfant, a renowned stage actor, played Gertrude Bell. So it allowed this extraordinary dialogue between the scholarly, the political, and the dramatic worlds. And inevitably, it was about the U.S., which was still heavily involved in Iraq at the time. That’s much of what my work has always been about: to force people to look at what they may be avoiding but need to see.
Will you tell me about your collaboration on A Thousand Strange Places: Anthony Shadid and the Middle East, about the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning American foreign correspondent, which was performed at Yale in 2022?
NS: The play was written by Robert in English, but it has a few sections that are spoken in Arabic, because Shadid is in Lebanon, or in Iraq, or in Syria, or in Libya. The text is unique in that way, and it’s a beautiful experience to hear it because you have these immediate shifts and changes between languages and between various Arabic dialects. The life of Anthony Shadid brings many worlds together, and I think we also tried to do that linguistically.
We went through various stages in terms of the translation for Arabic. The first stage was finding one common register of Arabic. The second stage was finding registers for shifting dialects. Anthony Shadid was in Palestine, in Syria, and in Lebanon, and all these variations belong to Levantine Arabic which I’m a native of. I’m also familiar with Egyptian dialect, which is familiar to most Arabic speakers because of Egyptian music and films.
But when I translated the text, I did not translate it into full Egyptian dialect or full Lebanese, or Palestinian, or Syrian. I tried to find some markers which would let the listener feel that whatever is spoken has the flavor of the Egyptian or Levantine, Palestinian, Lebanese, Libyan or Iraqi. I wanted to make the text understandable to any Arab who is hearing that speech. Since I do not really know the Iraqi or Libyan dialects, I sought the assistance of some of my students at LAU who are actually Iraqi or Libyan, and we worked together on those parts of the text. It’s a different kind of literary dramatic text, and it was quite exciting for me to work on it from that perspective.
RM: From 2003-2009, Shadid wrote for the Washington Post, and he was one of the only Western reporters who, as the Americans prepared to invade, didn’t leave Iraq; he talked to families, to regular people on the street, and they were overwhelmingly against the invasion. They didn’t believe the American narrative. And if you go back and read his articles, you’ll realize it was a catastrophe unfolding. He fell in love with that part of the world, but unlike the British colonialists, he had a stake in it. As a Lebanese American, he saw himself as Lebanese, he saw himself as an Arab, and so easy labels like ‘Orientalism’ disappear, and he becomes a figure that is of both East and West.
The staged reading and panel discussion at Yale allowed us to bring together scholars, including an Iraqi visiting scholar and many journalists who knew Shadid, including Anne Barnard, who was the New York Times correspondent in Beirut, and Leila Fadel, the NPR Morning Edition correspondent. Shadid’s daughter, Laila Shadid, was there. At the end of the play, one of the actors, playing the role of Laila, reads the opening of The Travels of Ibn Battuta. Ibn Battuta was kind of a Marco Polo in the Arab world, and it’s a book that she and her father both loved, and in the play they talk about it over the phone. At the Macmillan Center production, his daughter started crying, and the actress playing her started crying. Shadid’s mother was also there. She’s from the American South, and I’m from the American South. It allowed these extraordinary conversations between members of the Yale community—people who know about the Middle East, people who are interested in theater, journalists, people who are Arab American artists—it gave them a platform. It has provided an unbelievable forum and a wonderful transcontinental relationship.
Also, at AUB, I direct the Center for American Studies and Research that’s funded by Alwaleed bin Talal, and this was his dream: that post 9/11, East and West could quote-unquote come to understand each other. I don’t think it can ever happen in a direct way, but I think through culture, people can at least begin the conversation.
How do your personal backgrounds inform your work?
RM: I’ve been a playwright for forty years. My work has always been very political and historical. My first produced play is about George H. W. Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, who ran the most racist presidential campaign of the twentieth century. I’m very much a product of apartheid in the American South. I grew up during Jim Crow, and so for me, race is the original sin of the U.S. And I see connections in the questions raised by playwrights like Wannous when he grapples with the complexity of identity.
NS: These dramatic works speak a lot to our personal backgrounds. It’s very personal for me to read Sa’dallah Wannous, because I see myself in those texts. Yes, the texts speak of a very gloomy present, but they also talk about hopes for a better future. I come from a city right next to Beirut, and Robert comes from the American South, and somehow, we’ve found this connection, and it has translated into these multiple works we’ve done not just on the individual level, but on the academic, and cultural levels as well. So this kind of communication has a ripple effect. We are friends. We do this work because we love it, but there is a bigger reason for it.
RM: We weren’t even in the same field. We weren’t close. And yet you begin to see how our worlds come together. And now it seems organic to us, yet one wouldn’t necessarily have seen that from what we were each studying. But I think at the core of our work together is the idea of culture and stories that speak to people and the centrality of theater as the best expression of what’s human.
Robert Myers is Professor of English at American University in Beirut (AUB), director of the Alwaleed Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) and co-director of AUB’s Theatre Initiative. He is a playwright and cultural historian whose areas of interest include modern and contemporary literature, theatre and arts from the U.S., Latin America, Europe, and the Arab world. He is originally from Atlanta, Georgia.
Nada Saab is Associate Professor of Arabic Studies in the Department of Communication, Arts and Languages at Lebanese American University (LAU). Her research on medieval Arabic literature centers on Sufi literature, while her research on modern Arabic literature focuses on the translation and study of modern dramatic works written mostly in the Levant area. Her interest in Arabic literature seeks to find intersections between the medieval Arabic adab (belles-lettres) tradition and modern Arabic literature. She is from Lebanon.