Tragedy turned into threnody

December 1, 2013

Tragedy turned into threnody

Anees’s purpose was to stir the hearts and emotions of a committed Shia audience. It is said that he had a powerful voice, and from all accounts that I have read, he could ‘wrench the soul out of an audience’. Let us not forget that after he established himself as a major poet, he only recited his own work, which he probably knew by heart. He could have carried any audience with mediocre verse simply on the strength of his rendition, but Anees’s inherent taste would not allow that. He had a superb command over his language and he created his marsiya with true poetic genius.

Of all his marsiyas ‘The Battle of Karbala’ stands out because of its restraint and its avoidance of hyperbole. In his translation, David Mathews has taken great care not only to convey the sense of the original, but the grandeur of Anees’s writing as well.

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Tragedies end badly; tragedy is irreparable. Tragic personages are broken by forces which cannot be fully understood. Tragedy, as a form of drama, exists in the West but not in the East. The representation of personal suffering and heroism which is known as tragic drama is distinctive of the Western tradition. ‘Oresteia’ and ‘Agamemnon’, ‘Iphigenia’ and ‘Antigone’, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ are deeply ingrained in the fabric of Western dramaturgy.

I do not mean to suggest that grief and anguish, violence and cataclysm have no place in the dramatic literature of the East; it is the dramatisation in the Hellenic mode which is absent. Classical tragedy is based on the assumption that man does not necessarily, get rewarded for suffering. The Greek notion was that ‘Furies’ which shape or destroy our lives lie outside the governance of reason or justice. ‘Furies’ prey upon man’s soul and can so poison his will that he inflicts unmitigated outrage upon himself or those he loves.

This concept of tragedy is alien to the Islamic world. "The ways of God are neither wanton nor absurd" is a belief as firmly held in the Muslim world as the conviction in the Hellenic world that individuals can be swotted as wanton flies by the gods. The Islamic belief is that He is just; we may not understand His reasons at times, but they will become apparent if we continue, in an unflinching manner, our obedience to Him. This is one reason why tragedy, as we understand it in the western classical sense, is not to be found in the Muslim world.

In the early 1970s, I went to the Shiraz Theatre Festival. It was to be the last of its kind. It was held in the open air in Persepolis where the Shah of Iran had staged an ostentatious extravaganza to celebrate the 25th year of his monarchy. Apart from a handful of elite Iranians -- their ladies all dressed in haute-couture outfits -- the spectators were mostly foreigners.

There were avant-garde groups from France, Germany and Egypt such as I had seen in different international theatre festivals. The most engrossing offering was a play about Karbala presented by a theatre group from Tehran. The modern-day theme as well as the dilemma could not have been more unorthodox. One of Imam Husain’s trusted lieutenants was caught up in a personal, rather than religious, anguish -- this related to an issue -- homosexuality -- which has been a taboo in literature, dramatic or otherwise, not only in the Islamic world, but throughout the East. It was an exceptional event; it was a modern-day tragedy.

I sat through the play wondering how they could have been allowed to present such a daring theme. The writer seemed to have been much impressed by Anouilh, in so far as he tried to create a classic theme in the spirit of his own age and temperament. This was a time when the clergy had been greatly suppressed, and citified Iranians were openly contemptuous of the Mullah.

I asked some friends if there had been other plays about Karbala and I was informed that there had been a few, though none so daring, and this was the first to have a public airing, as it were.

I do not know whether that company was lined up and shot after the revolution or not, but I did hear that the playwright escaped to France where he died of consumption some years later.

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Muharram is the first month in the Arabic calendar. It is in this month that Shias commemorate in grief the martyrdom of Imam Husain at Karbala. The most salient aspect of the Karbala event is that a handful of men, women and children lay down their lives in defence of their faith and belief. That they were deprived of water adds poignancy to the tragedy. They remained steadfast and fought bravely with the courage of their convictions. The events of Karbala have had a powerful effect on the sensibilities of Muslims. It is a passion play which has not graced the theatre.

In medieval times, in Europe, the theatre was the meeting ground for God and Man. "The striking feature of the medieval theatre is that it began as a communion in church and ended as a communal fiesta," writes George Steiner. This was a time of barbarism, of the savagery of inquisitions. And yet the theatre emerged as a forceful organ for the aspiration of humanity. It gave people an untyrannised sense of belonging to something higher than priests and noblemen. It produced a mixture of bondage and release -- the seed of tragic drama.

In Persia, the marsiya reached its peak during the reign of the Saffavids; in Urdu, in the times of the rulers of Oudh in Northern India a little under 200 years ago. The Nawab patronised this form with official pomp. In their eyes no event was more important than the ten days that led to the martyrdom of the Imam. They built lavish Imambargahs in which official mourning could be held. Poets vied with each other about their diction, about the chiselled expression in which they described the sorrowful scenes. A marsiya was meant not just to move people to tears, but to make them want to wail and weep and beat their breasts until they were exhausted.

Kings, prophets and heroes have always spoken in verse to suggest to us that their purpose is nobler than that assigned to common men. Verse captures our senses; it heightens our emotions. The great marsiya writers knew that the notion of verse has been inseparable from that of drama. Our ritual of expiation is performed on the street, not on the stage. Tragedy has been turned into a repetitive rhetoric, followed by threnody.


Tragedy turned into threnody