Rituals of Signs and Transformations

Sa‘dallah Wannous

Illustration by Shuxian Lee


In the first volume of his memoirs, the freedom fighter Fakhri al-Barudi offers a brief account of how conflict erupted between the Mufti of Damascus and the Naqib al-Ashraf during the rule of Rashid Nashid Basha, and how the Mufti was able to overcome his personal conflict with the Naqib and lend him a supporting hand when the Naqib was set up by the chief of police and arrested while frolicking with his mistress.

This story is the nucleus from which I built the play. I drew most of its characters from this story, even though I disagree with al-Barudi's understanding and interpretation of its moral.

It may be necessary for me to state that both the setting of the play, which is Damascus, and its time, which is the second half of the nineteenth century, serve as the hypothetical time and place of the play. They are neither intended to render that environment nor address the social and historical realities of the nineteenth century.

The same can be said about the characters' ranks, since they are not intended for their own sake. Rather, they are relevant only to the extent to which they contribute to the cultural and psychological make-up of the characters.

The characters in this work are individuals who are torn by desires and inclinations and are burdened by the choices they must make. These characters will be profoundly misunderstood if they are perceived as simplistic symbols of the institutions they represent instead of individuals with complex psyches. The characters of this play are not symbols and do not represent functional institutions but are rather individuals with personal, unique forms of suffering.

It goes without saying that my intention in writing this work, whether I have succeeded or failed, was to raise questions and problems which, I believe, are current and ever recurrent.




(A private garden planted with fruit trees in the Ghuta region of Damascus. An apricot tree is full of white blossoms. Rugs are laid out on the ground and on top of them plush mattresses and small, colored pillows. 'ABD ALLAH HAMZA, the Naqib al-Ashraf, the Leader of the Notables, and WARDA, a prostitute, who is 'ABD ALLAH'S mistress, are shamelessly frolicking. Between them is a large plate with several kinds of maza and drinks on it. Further away, the servants, HARIM and BASMA, are busy grilling and preparing food. WARDA holds a lute and strikes its chords.)

WARDA (singing in a soft, seductive voice):
If it's my hair you yearn for
Then I'll not depart
I'll let you sleep on my belly
And teach you to love, light of my eye
If it's my breasts you yearn for
Then go fetch the lute and drum
I'll let you sleep in my arms
And teach you to love, light of my eye
If it's my body you yearn for
Then fetch me a fine-fitting dress
I'll let you sleep on my body
And teach you to love, light of my eye

'ABD ALLAH:  Oh, Lord, have mercy.

WARDA (answers with fake coquettishness and continues to strike the chords of the lute):  Oh, poor dear. My cheeks are the apples of Damascus.

'ABD ALLAH:  Mercy, Warda.

WARDA:  Oh, poor dear. My breasts are ivory and pomegranates.

'ABD ALLAH:  Quench my thirst and give me a kiss. (Raises a glass of 'araq to her.) Take a sip and let me drink it from your mouth.

WARDA:  First remove the barrier.

'ABD ALLAH:  Which barrier, my darling?

WARDA:  The barrier of your exalted rank. (Singing coquettishly.) Your waistcoat, sweet 'Abd.

'ABD ALLAH:  You want me to take off my waistcoat? Done. (Takes off his waistcoat.)

WARDA:  And your vest, sweet 'Abd.

'ABD ALLAH:  Here's the vest.

WARDA:  And your sash, sweet 'Abd.

'ABD ALLAH:  I'll untie the sash. May God never tie us to sorrow or worry!

WARDA:  Your gown, sweet 'Abd.

'ABD ALLAH:  Here is the gown. (Attempts, like a drunken man, to lift the gown over his head, but it becomes stuck.) Get me out of this cursed . . .

WARDA:  Prestige is suffocating, darling. (Laughs. The servants hide their laughter.) My goodness, it looks better inside out. (Approaches him and tickles his tummy. He rises, laughing hysterically.) What an abundant waist! (Tickles him.) What sweet-smelling armpits!

'ABD ALLAH (unable to catch his breath as he laughs and bends over):  No . . . no . . . you're killing me . . . I'm dying . . . please . . . I can't stand tickling . . . stop . . . stop. (WARDA helps him remove his garment, pulling it over his head. Then he breathes comfortably, his eyes tearing with laughter.) Damn you, I almost died. I can't stand being tickled. Now give me my due. (Places her in his lap and embraces her.)

WARDA (coquettishly slips away):  You already took what was duly yours and more.

'ABD ALLAH:   Don't deny water to a person who's thirsting.

WARDA:  Everything in due time.

'ABD ALLAH:  Fine. It's my time now. (Claps his hands, swinging and dancing.) Your panties, dear Warda.

WARDA:  The moon doesn't come out during the day.

'ABD ALLAH (takes a sip from his glass):  Today the stars and moon will come out at high noon.

WARDA:  Then give me a sip. (Fills her glass with 'araq and adds water to it. He raises it to her lips. She sips it seductively.) Where is the drum?

'ABD ALLAH (calling out to the servant):  Heat the drum and bring it to me. (WARDA picks up 'ABD ALLAH's sash from among the scattered clothes and begins to put it on.) Wait, I'll tie it for you myself. (Rises, staggering, and pats her on the buttocks.) Pillows of paradise. You might as well be dead if you haven't rested on pillows like these.

WARDA:  Where's your green turban?

'ABD ALLAH:  That's the insignia of my rank, Warda.

WARDA:  I'll put your insignia on my head and use it to embellish my dance.

'ABD ALLAH:  Put it wherever you'd like. Let me tell you something serious, Warda. 'Abd Allah never allows anyone to share with him the water that gives him life. If I ever find out that another man is touching these treasures . . .

WARDA:  What will my jealous man do if another man touches these treasures?

'ABD ALLAH:  What will I do? The skies will erupt with thunder and lightning. You can count on it, all hell will break loose.

WARDA:  How delicious you are! How I love to see you light up, my silly darling. A woman who knows 'Abd Allah has no need of another man.

'ABD ALLAH:  God is Great. Come here. (Bends down and gets on the floor on his hands and knees.) Come here, ride on my back. Do whatever you want with me. (WARDA rides on his back, laughing.) My God, how light you are! Sensuous silk floating on my back. Pinch me so I know it's a body and not a cloud.

(HARIM, the male servant, approaches holding the drum and tries hard to hide his laughter.)

HARIM:  The drum is ready, Sir.

'ABD ALLAH:  Did you warm it well?

HARIM:  Yes.

'ABD ALLAH:  Hurry up with the barbecue.

('ABD ALLAH sits, drinks what's in the glass in one gulp, puts the drum on his lap, and tests it with a few taps, then adjusts his beat until it becomes a dance beat. WARDA begins to dance. Every once and a while she comes closer to 'ABD ALLAH, bending backwards towards him, causing the turban to drop. He puts the turban back on her head. The music makes him ecstatic. He rises and continues to beat on the drum and sways in front of her. She puts her scarf around his buttocks and leads his movements, laughing, ecstatic and drunk. 'IZZAT BEK, the chief of police, charges in with a few policemen. 'ABD ALLAH and WARDA freeze and look at him astounded.)

'IZZAT:  Good heavens, what have we here? What an intimate atmosphere, music and love!

'ABD ALLAH:  What is this? I'm in my own garden. How did you get in without permission?

'IZZAT:  The government does not need permission.

'ABD ALLAH:  Do you know who I am?

(WARDA tries to cover herself and takes the turban off her head.)

'IZZAT:  No, my lady, keep it on your head. It appears that Sir 'Abd Allah has given you the gift of the leadership of the notables. You should accept the gift.

'ABD ALLAH:  What's happened? Is there a new Wali ? A new Sultan?

'IZZAT:  By my mother, neither the great Sultan nor the Wali has changed.

'ABD ALLAH:  Then how dare you? Don't you know who I am? I am the leader of the notables.

'IZZAT:  All I see in front of me is a leader of pleasure and fornication. (To the POLICEMEN.) Look! Do you recognize the Naqib in this attire? Come along, dear lady. We'll continue the affairs and frolicking of Sir 'Abd Allah elsewhere. Put some clothes on.

WARDA (embarrassed):  For the sake of our honor, sir.

'ABD ALLAH:  You overstep all bounds, 'Izzat Bek.

'IZZAT:  What about you? Haven't you overstepped all bounds? (To WARDA.) Come. Do as you're told.

WARDA:  Please!

'IZZAT (to WARDA):  I said, come! What do you care? All of Damascus will see you as you are, prancing and parading in the clothes of the Naqib. (Drags her and forces her to put on the Naqib's clothes.)

'ABD ALLAH:  Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the repercussions will be? You're insulting all of the notables. You'll ignite a crisis in the city.

'IZZAT:  Are you threatening the government? We'll see if the notables condone this drinking, fornication, and immorality. Lady, you're beautiful in these clothes. They fit you better than they do him.

'ABD ALLAH:  The Mufti's behind this. I know it. You're involving yourself in something that's none of your business, 'Izzat Bek. It's a grave mistake for which you'll pay dearly, you and that speckled snake.

'IZZAT:  When the 'araq evaporates from your head you'll realize who committed the mistakes and vile deeds. (To the POLICEMAN.) Cuff him.

'ABD ALLAH:  You're handcuffing me too?

'IZZAT:  You're going on a grand parade through the streets of Damascus. (To the POLICEMAN.) Bring the mule of Sir 'Abd Allah.

'ABD ALLAH (collapses):  No . . . please . . . I beg you, 'Izzat Bek. You can't do this to me. (Whispering.) Listen, do this good deed for me, and you'll be generously rewarded.

'IZZAT:  A while ago you were threatening me, now you're bribing me?

WARDA (kneels, as if to kiss his foot):  I beg you.

'ABD ALLAH:  Please spare us this humiliation. Allow me to give you some sincere advice. Do not join hands with that snake. Don't trust him. He'll bite you the first chance he gets. If he's provided incentives to meddle in our feud, I'll give you many times more. As everyone knows, my hand is extended.

'IZZAT:  I don't know what you're talking about. I couldn't care less about your quarrel with the Mufti. My duty is to pursue people who break the law. I'm performing my duty now and nothing else.

WARDA (sobbing):  'Abd Allah is a man of lofty rank. Leave him and take me. I'm the daughter of sin. You have nothing against him.

'IZZAT:  The lady is in love. You're lucky with beautiful damsels, 'Abd Allah. (HARIM brings the mule.) Let's go. Make him ride and have his mistress ride behind him.

'ABD ALLAH:  You're taking me in these clothes?

'IZZAT:  I'm taking you as I found you.

'ABD ALLAH (begging):  I'll give you whatever you wish. Have mercy on us.

'IZZAT:  Move! On with the procession!

'ABD ALLAH (infuriated as the procession moves. To 'IZZAT):  You're putting your hand in fire, and you'll get burned. You think you're destroying me, but you're actually destroying yourself. We'll see how well you stand up to the fury of my followers and the notables. You're starting a fire, a revolution.

(The procession moves away. 'IZZAT and his men ride on horses with 'ABD ALLAH among them, handcuffed and riding on a mule. WARDA is seated behind him, wearing his clothes.)

HARIM (with tears in his eyes):  What a shame! The Naqib's reign is over.

BASMA:  Does this mean we're not getting married?

HARIM:  We'll see what the future brings.

BASMA:  Then you've changed your mind.

HARIM:  I haven't changed my mind, but now with what's happened . . .

BASMA:  What does what's happened have to do with us?

HARIM:  You're right. What does it have to do with us? At least we can eat until we're full, and, look, the mattress is still laid out. (Embraces her and steals a kiss.)

BASMA (runs away from him):  No. Stay away from me.

HARIM (runs after her, singing):
If it's my breasts you yearn for
Then go fetch the lute and the drum

(Lights fade.)

Scene II

(The reception room in the house of the MUFTI MUHAMMAD QASIM-AL MURADI. The MUFTI is with two guests, HAMID AL-'AJAMI and IBRAHIM DAQQAQ AL-DUDA.)

IBRAHIM:  This feud between you and the Naqib has divided the city and worn everyone out.

HAMID:  I swear to God, Sheikh. This enmity has affected our businesses and undermined our interests. Those who side with the Naqib won't even buy a needle from the merchants who are loyal to you. Thankfully, your supporters are the majority, but the friction has now turned to deep-seated hatred.

MUFTI:  You think I'm happy with the situation? It grieves me greatly. We used to be like a family, loving and supportive of one another. No stranger could come between us until they chose this Naqib who doesn't have the slightest qualifications. I didn't say anything. They chose him to be the Naqib, and so be it. Fine, I said. But it was he who started this feud. He attacked me.

IBRAHIM:  But we speak to you because you are the larger vessel and the larger must contain the smaller.

MUFTI:  I tried my best, and I'm still trying. I overlooked many of his indiscretions. I disregarded his frivolity and transgressions. He closed all doors to reconciliation. If I told you about my efforts it would take me all day long. Even so, tell me what you think I should do? If any of the notables or aristocrats have a way to solve this conflict I'll cooperate.

HAMID:  God bless you, Sheikh. We've always thought so highly of you. People like you can never be a source of disappointment.

MUFTI:  May God forgive me. The best interests of the country are dearer to me than my own life.

(One of the Mufti's men, 'ABDU AL-DAKKAK, enters. Two men, 'AFSA and 'ABBAS AL-SURUJI, from among the common people, walk in, pushing one another. 'ABDU attempts to speak, but the others speak first.)

'AFSA:  We bring you good news, our Mufti, worthy of a reward.

'ABBAS:  Damascus saw a scene today that one would never have dreamed of.

'AFSA:  We saw your enemy, the Naqib, shackled and near naked beside his bitch, who was wearing his turban and clothes.

MUFTI:  What delusion is this?

'AFSA:  We're telling you what we saw. 'Izzat Bek made them ride on a mule and drove them through the streets for the people to see.

'ABBAS:  They were so astounded they took refuge in God. They hissed at your enemy. They showered him with spit and curses.

'AFSA:  The two of them are now in prison carrying on with their lovemaking, and . . . you know.

MUFTI (angrily):  Shut your mouth! May God cut both your tongues out.

'AFSA:  That's how you reward us? Doesn't it make you happy that your enemy has fallen so low? All of Damascus is still in an uproar. Many people will no doubt be coming to tell you what you've just heard from us. But we rushed right over to deliver the glad tidings and receive the reward.

MUFTI (looks angrily at 'ABDU):  How did these people get in? Why did you allow them to enter?

'ABDU:  They came running in and said they had good news they needed to tell you urgently.

MUFTI:  This is good news? Does it please you to see your noblemen dishonored by mercenary policemen, to see their honor dragged through the mud? How dare you speak about the Naqib of the Ashraf using this foul and irreverent language?

'ABBAS:  But . . . Sir? That's what we saw.

'AFSA:  We thought you'd be happy to hear about your enemy's misfortune.

MUFTI:  The Naqib is not my enemy. We may have differences of opinion, but they don't amount to hostility. Our enemies now, the enemies of the notables, and yours too, are those who degrade your noblemen and disgrace them. They want to bow our heads, to allow humble men to insult our nobles. Does that please you?

'AFSA:  It's not our fault if the Naqib degraded himself.

MUFTI:  Silence! I don't want anyone to speak of this incident. Spread the word: No one in the city is to talk about what happened. Anyone who utters a word about the Naqib will have to answer to me.

'AFSA:  Then, there's no reward for us, Sheikh?

MUFTI (to 'ABDU):  Throw them out of here, immediately. Woe unto anyone who speaks of this story.

('ABDU roughly pushes the two men out.)

HAMID (rushing to the MUFTI, taking his hand and kissing it):  Allow me to receive your grace!

MUFTI:  God forbid.

HAMID:  It's in situations such as these that the true nature of a man becomes clear. What you did just has made you even nobler in our eyes.

MUFTI:  One does what's in one's nature. But now that we've heard this story, do you still think my previous harshness with the Naqib unwarranted or due simply to rivalry? Does the Naqib have the right to act so recklessly and frivolously?

IBRAHIM:  By God, no! If what we've heard is true, such behavior would tarnish even the lowliest person.

MUFTI:  That which a noble does will harm not only himself, but all other ranks as well. He harms us all. I don't know how people can still respect the position of Naqib, or any other rank for that matter. He is squandering our dignity and making us the talk of the lowly.

HAMID:  What do you suggest, our Mufti?

MUFTI:  What should I suggest? He shits and we wipe it up. This stench should not spread among the people of the city. Go now and ask the notables to meet me at my house this evening. We should speak with one voice about this. They must help me find a way to deal with this that will save their honor and ours.

HAMID:  God bless you, Sheikh. We'll seek them out immediately.

IBRAHIM:  They will never forget this good deed.

MUFTI:  What matters is that God guide us to a beneficial solution in which all hearts attain serenity.

(HAMID and IBRAHIM bid the SHEIKH farewell.)

MUFTI (to himself):  This is your final chapter, 'Abd Allah, and I promise you, it will be a boisterous one.

('ABDU enters.)

'ABDU:  You were harsh with 'Afsa and 'Abbas, Sir.

MUFTI:  What else could I have done? Better to be harsh with them than have people say the Mufti showed malicious joy.

'ABDU:  I did what I could to placate them.

MUFTI:  You did well. Caution them and all men who support us not to exceed the limit. They must not forget that social rank is sanctified. Beware lest they think that now is their chance to disregard hierarchy and smear the aristocrats and notables with their foulness.

'ABDU:  Exactly, this is what I told 'Abbas and 'Afsa. Many came after them who wanted to give you the good news, but I reprimanded them and would not allow them to enter.

(They hear knocking on the door.)

MUFTI:  See who's at the door.

('ABDU leaves quickly then returns with 'IZZAT BEK, whom he is welcoming.)

'IZZAT:  Peace be with you, Sheikh.

MUFTI:  Welcome. You honor us with your visit.

'IZZAT:  At last, I've caused him to fall like stunned prey for your sake.

MUFTI:  For my sake, 'Izzat Bek?

'IZZAT:  Your sake and mine, if you so wish.

MUFTI:  No . . . no. Don't involve me in this affair. The prize you caught today will create more problems than it solves.

'IZZAT:  Are you washing your hands of this?

MUFTI:  My hands are clean.

'IZZAT:  Who do you think told us about the garden?

MUFTI:  How would I know?

'IZZAT:  It was one of your men.

MUFTI:  My men? You must be mistaken, 'Izzat Bek.

'IZZAT:  Who's 'Afsa then?

MUFTI:  'Afsa? You do my men an injustice to consider him one of them. A short while ago he came to inform me about the scandal with the Naqib, and I threw him out of my house. 'Afsa is a hyena who lives off intrigue and slander. I'd never allow someone like him to be one of my aides.

'IZZAT:  You're absolving yourself, Mufti? The enmity between you and the Naqib is over?

MUFTI:  I thought you were more judicious, 'Izzat Bek. Don't you know what you've done? You've thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

'IZZAT:  On my mother's grave, I've no idea what you mean.

MUFTI:  I mean you went too far. You were imprudent. It would've been enough for him to be shamed in front of you. But to shame him in front of the common people, to sully the position of leader of the notables is irresponsible.

'IZZAT:  How strange. Instead of thanking me, I see you've turned against me. What's changed that's making you defend him?

MUFTI:  I haven't turned against you, and don't think I'm defending him. However, order in this city is based on rank and order. What maintains harmony are the many positions that evoke respect, which must be defended. Just as the awe-inspiring state should be unified and tightly interwoven, so things should be in Damascus. For example, if someone insults the position of Wali, does this insult not also fall upon the position of grand vizier, the Sublime Porte, the entire state?

'IZZAT:  I'm thoroughly confused. How can an insult that fell upon your worst enemy fall upon you?

MUFTI:  True, the man is my enemy, but the position of leader of the notables supports my own. The awe it evokes adds to mine. When you put the green turban on a whore's head, you insult the notables and my own turban as well. Whoever acts toward the Naqib with such disrespect may do so with the Mufti at a moment's notice.

'IZZAT:  Spoon-feed me your meaning, Mufti. What are you saying?

MUFTI:  I'm saying the situation is complicated. I wish you'd consulted me first.

'IZZAT:  I thought no consultation was required. I assumed you knew. Why are you displeased?

MUFTI:  Your insult went too far. It spoiled our pleasure. What do we do if the notables are so furious they incite the people against us?

'IZZAT:  Why would the notables be furious? Did I falsely accuse him? I caught him in the act of debauchery . . . drinking and committing adultery.

MUFTI:  You know better than anyone that drinking, adultery, and debauchery are hardly rarities in our city. You've habitually turned a blind eye unless the harm was general . . . except if there was another agenda.

'IZZAT:  Say it clearly, are we allies or not?

MUFTI:  Of course we're allies.

'IZZAT:  Then why are you reproaching me? I expected a warm welcome. I thought we were going to celebrate.

MUFTI:  My expression of welcome will arrive at your house before you do. And we'll celebrate in due time. But, please understand, I may have to pretend, to play along.

'IZZAT:  Are you taking their side against me?

MUFTI:  How could I possibly be against you? I'd never harm you. However, if I'm forced to take certain actions, don't be concerned. I know the people of Damascus better than you do. If things get complicated, I'll solve them.

'IZZAT:  I'm the government, Mufti, and in the end the decision will be mine.

MUFTI:  I know. But the government doesn't want chaos and headaches. I'm telling you, don't worry. Let me settle things.

'IZZAT:  Fine. I hope you remember what we have in common. Conflict between us would not be beneficial.

MUFTI:  God forbid that any conflict should arise between us.

'IZZAT:  That's what I'm hoping. I'll follow up on things and try to get to the bottom of this.

MUFTI:  You'll find your reward at home, and we'll celebrate later.

'IZZAT:  Save yourself the trouble, Sheikh. I didn't come here to be rewarded.

MUFTI:  Of course not. Rewards are not necessary between friends.

'IZZAT (leaving):  We'll see.

MUFTI (to himself):  I didn't allay his concerns. (Calling.) 'Abdu. 'Abdu.

('ABDU enters hurriedly.)

'ABDU:  Yes, sir.

MUFTI:  I have a delicate mission for you. Have you appeased 'Afsa and 'Abbas?

'ABDU:  I tried my best.

MUFTI:  Good. Now go to the prison warden and tell him when night falls and everyone's asleep we'll exchange the woman who's imprisoned with the Naqib for another woman. Tell him if he objects, he's dead.

'ABDU:  He wouldn't dare object.

MUFTI:  If he does, he'll be eliminated. This is all confidential.

'ABDU:  There's no need to admonish the careful.

MUFTI:  Then go and hurry back with the news.

('ABDU leaves. Lights fade.)

translated from the Arabic by Robert Myers and Nada Saab

This extract is re-printed with permission from CUNY Graduate Center and Martin E. Segal Theater Center Publications from the collection Four Plays from Syria: Sadallah Wannous, edited by Marvin Carlson and Safi Mahfouz. The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center presented the first reading of this translation.

In addition the translators wish to thank Frank Hentschker, Jamil Khoury, Malik Gillani, Silk Road Rising Theatre in Chicago, Illinois (US), and the MacArthur Foundation.