Rebels and Revels: Exhibit Curation as Pedagogy in the Study of Theatre of the Middle East

Marjan Moosavi*, Q-mars Haeri** and Kelley Holley***


Rebels and Revels, the pioneering photo exhibit on the theatre of the Middle East, came to life as a physical exhibit in Toronto in 2019 and traveled globally in a digitally curated space in 2021. This article will describe the vision and process involved in curating and exhibiting a collection of photos of the traditional performances (evolving over the centuries) and theatrical productions (the 1950s and 1960s) from six countries in the region. During these decades, while “traditional” forms of theatre such as shadow plays and improvisatory comedy performances were still very popular, a new class of experimental theatre emerged. Experiencing new forms of theatrical expressions became possible not despite the heavyweight of “traditional” performances at the time, but precisely by relying on older forms of theatrical expression in the Middle East. For example, experimental theatre practitioners in Syria, Iraq and Iran emphasized “traditional” techniques that were known to westerners as Brechtian. Similarly, by revisiting folk stories like A Thousand and One Nights, they experimented with new ways of dramatic narrative; ones that do not follow western ways of character development and dramatic action. Because of this remarkable interconnection between traditional and experimental theatre in shaping the theatre of the Middle East, the exhibit showcases photos in two sections of traditional performances and experimental theatre. The article discusses the challenges and prospects of both curating a physical photo exhibit on this under-represented subject and re-curating that exhibit on the digital space during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Bringing together these two forms of Middle Eastern Theatre in our exhibit participates in a historiographic practice that attends to through-lines. As we introduce under-represented voices to a public largely unfamiliar with the theatrical history of the region, our emphasis on a through-line becomes a pedagogical tool by illustrating a dynamic historical trajectory. As such, in this article, we attend to the politics of reclaiming a space, whether digital or physical, for absent topics as a means of reconstructing or replacing the current image of the theatre of the Middle East.

Keywords: digital exhibit, curation, pedagogy, Middle East


If the Middle East has an image problem (as we often hear), for most in the West, the theatre of the Middle East has no image at all! Rebels and Revels, the pioneering photo exhibit on the theatre of the Middle East, was first curated in the spring of 2019 at the University of Toronto by Marjan Moosavi. A second iteration was presented digitally in 2021, curated by Moosavi, Q-mars Haeri and Kelley Holley, at the University of Maryland. In both its physical and digital versions, the exhibit has been a venture to share the image of Middle Eastern artists’ visions and practices. The exhibit demonstrates the selected artists’ pursuit of creating theatres of their own based on restoring their “traditional” performances while re-fashioning their avant-garde sensibilities in new forms and spaces.

This article describes the vision and process involved in curating and exhibiting a collection of photos of the traditional performances (evolving over the centuries) and theatrical productions (the 1950s and 1960s) from six countries in the region. It also discusses the challenges and prospects of both curating a physical photo exhibit on this under-represented subject and re-curating that exhibit on the digital space during the global COVID-19 pandemic. We situate the exhibit, and the curatorial strategies employed in its construction, as an intervention into how the Theatre of the Middle East is studied. As such, our project is inherently concerned with the theatre, though less as a creative practice and more in how its scholarly discourses are crafted, replicated and interpreted. To this we ask, how can an exhibit explicate and challenge the dominant Euro-American narrative that plagues Middle Eastern performance studies? How can the use of public scholarship serve as an instrument to recenter marginalized voices in theatre historiography? How are the strategies of curation inherently tied to the politics of representation, critical analysis, and pedagogy?

As a creative medium, theatre can create meaningful dialogues to challenge authority, direct social conversations and push back against those in power. We assert that an exhibit, as a pedagogical tool, can employ a similar power. It can critique the distorted image of the theatre of the Middle East that emerges from the dominant discourse and serve as a corrective. In this article, we discuss the curatorial strategies and processes surrounding Rebels and Revels in order to promote and advance the study of performance histories in Middle Eastern theatre.

In sharing our collective curatorial vision and process, we include substantial details on both the range of performances and what makes the exhibit an interventionist step, a critical stage in the field. However, we limit our descriptions to the performative trends and trajectories that have animated the history of theatre-making in the selected countries to the parts that explain the rationale behind the exhibit’s scope and categorization. The reason is that the intention here is less to share the panels’ content and captions than to explain the processes involved in selecting, organizing and preserving the selected images in their physical and digital locality. The article is composed of the following parts: methodological and curatorial reflections, digital curation and its engagement with a global audience. The article concludes by reflecting on the pedagogical applications and the audience’s take-away.

The exhibit was curated by Marjan Moosavi, an Iranian-Canadian, Q-mars Haeri, an Iranian-American, and Kelley Holley, a white American. Our varied backgrounds both helped and limited us as we developed the scope of the project. We defined a two-fold objective for the digital version of the exhibit: to enhance the digital capacity of English scholarship about Middle Eastern theatre for research and education and to make digital archiving of Middle Eastern theatre more sustainable and accessible to the public. As such, we also ask, how is the exhibit situated with(in) digital theatre historiography, and how can we as curators formulate the vocabulary and framework for a critical appraisal of Middle Eastern performance?

The repertoires of Arab, Persian and Turkish plays and performances are marked with the dramatists’ ethical vision to give visibility to the complexity of everyday life grounded in people’s aspirations, relations, patterns of pleasure-seeking and consumption, as well as their aesthetic taste and ideological (re)positionings. The media coverage and general perception of the Middle East (West Asia and parts of North Africa) are tainted with erroneous ideas and wrong images about these tastes and repositionings. For example, there is an assumption that iconography is not practiced in the Muslim world. In particular, people believe that for the artists in the Muslim world depicting figural representations of the prophet and other holy personalities crosses a consequential red line. This assumption has continued right up until the fairly recent controversies with regard to depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Media outlets like CNN and The Economist have approached it with titles like “Why Islam Forbids Images of Mohammed?” and “Why Islam Prohibits Images of Muhammad?” Some media were more moderate about it and had asked “How did images of the prophet Muhammad become ‘forbidden’?”(See BBC interview with Christiane Gruber.) Yet, in our exhibit, not only do we show numerous works of representational performance, but we also showcase a traditional form of performance, known as Ta’ziyeh in which actors perform holy characters such as the prophet Muhammad.

This article refers to the term “traditional” as it has been used by scholars of Middle Eastern theatre to address a body of works that were passed on for generations. For example, both Edward Ziter and Marvin Carlson (Theatre and Islam) use the term traditional in the context of various puppet theatre forms of the region. Additionally, the term is used to describe more non-Euro-American theatrical works than Euro-American practices. For example, in Nicola Savarese and Eugenio Barba’s book The Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology, the term is used 25 times for non-Euro-American (mostly Asian) and only 7 times for Euro-American theatre practices.

In the context of the Middle Eastern theatre, the term traditional has another connotation in which traditional theatrical practices refer to those before the colonial period, or—in the case of Iran and Turkey—the westernization period (the period in which Atatürk in Turkey and Reza Shah in Iran implemented vast policies to practice European culture). When Willem Floor writes about twentieth-century theatre of Iran, he refers to comic performances that originated in the nineteenth century as traditional. All these different connotations of traditional performances bring forth an assumption that the body of theatrical work that is referred to as traditional is from and for the past and, therefore, is not evolving, breathing and live forms of performance. Yet, many of these performances were popular and constantly evolving during the 1950s and 1960s—the scope of our exhibition. It is therefore that in this article we imagine the term traditional as if it were in quotation marks.

Another assumption that Euro-American media has toward Middle Eastern art is that it is about censorship. Since the political climate in the Middle East is not the same as liberal democracies in the West, the media undermines artists’ creative and ethical agency greatly because they assume censorship in that region is subjugating artists to an extent to which artists’ agency cannot be expressed. Yet, we showcase numerous works of theatre practitioners who not only found their ways to bypass censorship but also put on performances that were extremely critical of their government and society.

Similarly, when it comes to the theatre of the Middle East, the scholarship and historiographical literature are deeply entrenched in erasure and distortion. Scholars like Marvin Carlson (Theatre and Islam) and John Bell have critiqued the common essentialization of Islamic theatre history by Euro-American scholars. The most notable examples are anthologies and theatre history books. For instance, while talking about theatre in North Africa, Oscar Brockett writes “Because these cultures disliked theatrical performance, it was not until the nineteenth century (when Egypt was under English domination) that theatrical companies began to appear” (Brockett et al. 324).

This piece of writing or media articles mentioned above did not come to their assumptions in an academic vacuum. They are based on numerous studies on the Middle East by Euro-American scholars who characterized the art of the region as “aniconism” (Burckhardt) and simply chose to dismiss a great body of artworks such as miniatures and performing arts. Moreover, underneath these studies, there is an essentialization that synonymizes Middle Easterners with Muslims. But Christian and Jewish artists were not only part of the creators of the region, in some cases, but they were also central to performance cultures that appealed to a vast number of spectators (including Muslims).

Recently, however, digital platforms such as, the most comprehensive news website devoted to the global theatre scene, and, a website focusing on broadening the “understanding” of theatre culture and products in the “Arab-Islamic world,” have made remarkable efforts to compensate for such a lack. Scholarly journals including The Drama Review, Asian Theatre Journal and Theatre Journal also are getting more alert to the need to facilitate scholarship on theatre made in the region and its diaspora. In 2018, for instance, Ecumenica devoted one special issue (vol. 11, no. 2) to performance in Muslim Worlds.

In line with such publications, we have been hoping to increase visibility, access, equity and inclusion of Middle Eastern theatre in scholarship, curricula and on stage by introducing and sharing an illustrated representative collection. We believe the practice of sharing historicized and contextualized photos of selected theatrical performances is a crucial step in decolonizing the existing knowledge systems that have been operating within networks of knowledge production and reception. 

Stephanie Moser reminds us, “. . . Exhibitions create knowledge about the subjects they seek to represent” (22). Due to the poor representation of Middle Eastern Theatre in Europe and America, in Rebels and Revels, this felt doubly true. Our curatorial process engaged what Nicholas Thomas has called “the museum as method,” in which a museum (or in our case, an exhibit) is not simply a collection but a set of strategies for engagement and interpretation between the curator and the audience (7). Thomas identifies three key moments in this methodology: the discovery, the caption and the juxtaposition. In these moments, he productively turns to the ways in which interpretation, whether done by the curator or the audience, is driven by curiosity and determined by context. Here, the discovery refers not only to the acquisition of objects, the captions refer not only to the descriptive text and the juxtaposition refers not only to the exhibit layouts but also the charged and varied contexts in which the audience would encounter the exhibit. In Rebels and Revels, there were numerous, shifting, contextual frames, including the digital platform, its international reach and the legacy of Euro-American interpretation of Middle Eastern performance.

How does this exhibit participate in the movement to reclaim a space (physical or digital) for absent topics and correct bad images of the Middle East in our academic and virtual world? In the most recent iteration, the collection presented 58 photos organized into 22 panels. These photos represent performance traditions from Egypt, Iran and Turkey, along with 16 original plays from the countries mentioned above plus works from Iraq, Palestine and Syria. Each section contained an introductory panel that frames and historicizes the trends and themes in their respective context. To create a visual rhetoric that is in harmony with the content, Haeri used visual icons inspired by the tiles used in the exterior facade of Tehran City Theatre (TCT) and placed them on a textured backdrop. Together, these icons and the use of Arabic and Persian script on each panel created a recognizable aesthetic for an audience who is familiar with the visual culture of the region.

Thematically, the exhibit layout was constructed so that an audience member walking (virtually) can recognize a through-line between the two performance categories. Broadly, the through-line is aligned with “macro-history,” a historiographical approach that attends to the “shaping forces that push at the event[s] and hold it together” (Postlewait 240). Macro-history operates on a large scale to contend with cultural, social and political movements across significant periods of time. Similarly, the through-line looks not just at how these events are framed, but also at how they are connected to one another. In this, we recall Viv Gardner’s assertion that “macro-histories are made up of [such] micro-histories” (63). The exhibit offers the audience a means of understanding two performance categories in relation to one another, while simultaneously attending to the individual case studies contained within. Here, the two performance categories serve as macro-histories, and the performances as individual case studies are the micro-histories that compose them.

Here is an overview of the exhibit as it was structured in its digital form. First, the audience is introduced to traditional works. These include distinct storytelling styles (as in Naqqali, Meddah and al-hakawati), diverse comic improvisatory genres (Ru-howzi and Orta oyunu), religious commemorative plays, such as Ta’ziyeh, and different instances of shadow puppetry in the region—all still popular during the 1950s and 1960s.

The audience is next introduced to examples of the experimental theatre of the era. Positioned after the section on traditional performances, the audience can trace the impact of traditional performance strategies on this work. This section also demonstrates how Middle Eastern experimental theatre engaged in similar aesthetics and forms to those used in contemporary Euro-American theatre. The experimental section is divided thematically into four subsections: Refashioning Folklore, Reorienting Brecht, Rebelling against Conventions and Reflecting the Real. The first three subsections contain pictures and captions that in terms of aesthetic experimentation have marked overlaps but differ in the artistic intentions and creative process. Narrative-wise, Refashioning Folklore features plays that are more indebted to folk literature and heritage. Rebelling against Conventions showcases plays that push forward the boundaries of experimentation to the extent that neither familiar conventions of traditional performances nor the borrowed conventions from Euro-American theatre are easily traceable in the avant-garde dramaturgy and aesthetics of the selected plays. In the last subsection, Reflecting the Real, the case studies demonstrate the prevalent use of realism, which relays compelling references to the actual reality of artists and greater emotional characterization.

We hope that with the subsections mentioned above, our audience would grasp some of the nuances of the culture and practice of theatre-making in the Middle East of the 1950s and 1960s while going through the whole collection and its sections. Having said that, in what follows we address the following questions: How did this collection come to be? What types of planning needed to be taken? What methodologies were used in the collecting and displaying of artifacts? Lastly, how did the digital version reach its audience? These parts are followed by a discussion of the possible pedagogical impacts and reception of the exhibit.

Panel Containing Map from the Second Iteration of the Exhibit entitled Rebels and Revels, Virtual, 2021
Call to Adventure: Methodological and Curatorial Reflections

The idea and intention behind the research and digital projects stem from the previous pioneering academic and curatorial activities of the principal investigator of the physical exhibit, Marjan Moosavi. In 2018, witnessing the absence of the Middle Eastern Theatre in the undergraduate curricula, she designed the course “Middle Eastern Theatre and Its Diaspora.” She taught it twice at two campuses of the University of Toronto. The course inspired the curation of The Photo Exhibition of the Middle Eastern Theatre, the first iteration of Rebels and Revels. The exhibit was hosted and financially supported by the University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies (CDTPS) and the Hart House Good Ideas Fund.[[i]] Since it migrated to the digital platform, the exhibit has been supported by the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland and the School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland.[[ii]]

The lack of historical documents and loss of cultural archives make research and historiography of the Middle Eastern theatre challenging and even puzzling, particularly when conducted remotely. The biggest challenges that Moosavi faced in the first phase were the scarcity of resources and the low quality of the original materials. As she highlights in an interview with the University of Toronto’s A&S News, “Many of the photos were low resolution and even damaged. And more than half a century ago, theatrical activities in the region were not extensively or even accurately documented” (qtd. in Jankovic).

Despite having a very minimal budget (about $1000) and working individually, Moosavi benefited from a growing network of collaborations across the Middle East and North America. Through this network, she collected a treasure of approximately 100 photos from a variety of resources, from the artists’ personal albums and collections to the local theatres’ archives, and several reference books in English, Arabic and Persian. The contributing entities who shared parts of their archives with Moosavi were: Director of Theatre Research Centre, Ministry of Culture, Iraq; Theatre Department, College of Fine Arts, University of Baghdad; Centre for Dramatic Arts, Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Iran; Theatre Department, College of Fine Arts, University of Tehran; and Higher Institute for Theatre Arts, Damascus, Syria. The contributors and donors provided Moosavi with the copyright permission of the photos. In a few cases, the copyright permission was purchased from the publisher of one of the anthologies. All the photos were reproductions/reprints of the originals followed by five to eight descriptive sentences about the year, place, creators, theme and significance of every staged production.

“Women Pioneers” Panel from the First Iteration of the Exhibit, University of Toronto, 2019

In addition to budget limitations which led to minimizing the cost of display design and material, Moosavi had to deal with spatial limitations. The lobby of the CDTPS was not specifically designed for photo exhibits. Except for two glass boxes and two large cork boards, there was no space to display this huge number of photos. In addition, she had to comply with the guidelines about installations on the walls particularly by avoiding the use of push pins, nails, screws or adhesives on the walls or ceilings. To develop the display panels, Moosavi hired an immigrant graphic designer, Yasser Qorashi (Journey Photography), who at that time was new to the graphic design and printing business. Given the modest funding, using foam board panels of 210 x 297 mm (8-1/4 x 11-3/4 in) was a safe bet. Each foam board featured at least two photos and a short caption (approximately thirty words). The selected books were displayed in secured glass boxes at the venue of the exhibit. The CDTPS director of the time Dr. Tamara Trojanowska generously allowed the exhibit to run at the lobby for four months between January and April 2019.

Display Case in the First Iteration of the Exhibit, University of Toronto, 2019

Despite these financial and spatial constraints, the exhibit showcased 85 photos, portraits and playbills, as well as ten books from the theatre scene of seven countries in four sections: traditional performances, women pioneers, original plays and adaptations (1950–70). The inclusion of a section featuring traditional performances was an attempt to show the long and rich history of dramatic and mimetic performances in the region, a history that is often overlooked in theatre scholarship and anthologies due to the limited scope of the way “theatre” and “drama” are defined. To this end, recurring theatrical devices were identified and highlighted, including the preference of using a narrator over an actor, role-playing and the close relationship between the audience and the performer.

The section on women pioneers was a long-overdue inclusion of women practitioners, educators and translators in the region’s theatrical and scholarly creations. Many of these women have been absent even in the historiography and scholarship produced in the region. The inclusion of a section of adapted plays indicated the substantial and enduring dialogue that had developed during the first half of the twentieth century in the practice of theatre-making in the Middle East. The photos and existing performance reviews show that, in several instances, the adaptors’ revisioning of the translated script led to gaining autonomy over the narrative and style of the adapted play. Lastly, the section on original plays, which happened to be the biggest one, is a testament to the originality and creativity of local playwrights, dramaturgs and directors who, instead of limiting their theatrical practice to translation or adaptation of the Euro-American repertoire, developed a deeper and multi-layered engagement with their cultural heritage as well as their everyday experiences in their respective society. In addition to the political and historical context of productions, the audience would become familiar with the thematic diversity of the featured plays by witnessing the way themes such as women’s emancipation, social ills, anti-colonialist positionings, nationhood and heroism are dramatized in these original productions. 

The main criterion for selecting the photos was, firstly, the plays’ status as the most celebrated works in the selected repertoires. Secondly, the availability of photos in good quality, and thirdly, the availability of information about their theme, aesthetics, staging, creative team and their context. In almost all cases, the name of the photographer could not be found. In several cases, for instance, about Iraqi and Syrian productions, the information gathered from the creative team or even family members of the directors were minimal and fragmentary. The fourth criterion was selecting photos that were featuring live stage performances rather than televised or cinematic productions. For example, in the case of Egypt, several highly acclaimed performances in the mid-twentieth century had televised versions too, but, in selecting the photos, Moosavi preferred the photos that were taken directly from the live, staged productions. To write the captions, Moosavi benefited from the valuable consultation of the following theatre scholars: Dr. Dina Amin (Egypt), Dr. Amir Al-Azraki and Sa’d Aziz Abdol-Saheb (Iraq), Dr. Deniz Başar (Turkey), Dr. Meisoun Ali (Syria), Machhour Mustapha and Majdi Bou-Matar (Lebanon), and Dr. Samer Al-Saber and Kamel El-Basha (Palestine). The project also benefited from the unconditional support of two undergraduate volunteers, Rahaf Fasheh and Alyson Doyle, who helped with publicity and editing, respectively.

Given this vast network of communication, the exhibit was not only an ambitious labor of love but also a remarkable step in constructing the infrastructure of transnational collaboration between North American and Middle Eastern theatre and academic communities. In the view of Ahlam Hassan, a student at CDTPS who attended the exhibit, it was “so dense with historical knowledge” and made “connections between artistic practice, politics and culture across communities.” Hassan added that the exhibit “expands what students are taught about what theatre histories are worth knowing about and it confronts what most are led to believe about the Middle East and its values. It’s incredible what we can learn from spending such a short amount of time.”

The first edition of the exhibit attracted international media attention in the U.S., Iran, Egypt, the U.K. and Turkey. Describing the exhibit as “revolutionary,” in her review of the exhibit published on, Rahaf Fasheh writes, “The images are truly remarkable: not only do they give us a glimpse into the history of performance art in the Middle East; they also display the unspoken artistic and cultural practices of these countries to a Canadian audience–something often disregarded and forgotten by Westerners.” When news of the exhibit was featured in Mimesis, one of the most important online theatre journals of Turkey, many theatre scholars of Turkey, in Dr. Deniz Başar’s words, “were happy to see some coverage of the theatre of Turkey abroad, and claimed that they hope to see more in the near future.”[[iii]] This view is echoed in the Iranian news outlet Etemad Online, which also observes that such public sites of exhibitions are pivotal in recentering unheard voices in Middle Eastern theatre historiography (“Visual Poverty”).

The Quest for Aesthetic Connections and Experimentations: Finding Parallels

Following the success of the first iteration, in the spring of 2020, Moosavi began a collaboration with Q-mars Haeri and Kelley Holley, colleagues at the School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland, in order to bring a new version to the School. This endeavor was supported by the International Project for Creative Collaboration and Research at the School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies. As the exhibit migrated from Canada to the United States of America, the curators utilized the opportunity to refine the scope and aims of the project. In particular, we considered how the exhibit would likely play a formative role in shaping the image of Middle Eastern theatre in the eyes of its audience. In a sense, Rebels and Revels may be viewed as a place to represent the under-represented rebels who reveled in artistic experimentation and critical examination of their art and society. In parallel, in embarking on our journey toward a digital destination, we became keen to find the aesthetic connections between traditional and innovative trends.

Of course, it is impossible to truly represent Middle Eastern theatre within the confines of an exhibit. The complexities of the region and the diversity of artistic aesthetics cannot be contained nor fully expressed within a single exhibit. Our concerns were shared by Dr. Başar. Even regarding Turkey alone, she worried about the possibility of doing justice to the entire vision and practice of theatre-making within the country (Başar). Başar is correct: exhibits are inherently selective, and curators must make difficult decisions that shape a given narrative for the sake of reaching their intended audience. Within the limits of what representation could be achieved, we selected two categories, traditional performance and original plays, as a means of analyzing the influence of historical aesthetics on contemporary performance. By setting this goal, our efforts looked less to survey the entirety of Middle Eastern theatre but, instead, to offer a glimpse on the genealogical transformation of artistic practices across the region. In a way, we hope to animate Başar’s remark, “But then, this was why this exhibit was an intervention: both to the lack of space within the Anglophone theatre academia for contemporary Middle Eastern theatre cultures, and against the North American cultural bias about what Middle East (which by the way, is another loaded term) is and is not.” In this sense, the exhibit presses against a Euro-American lens and focuses on performance traditions that originate in the Middle East itself.

Politically speaking, the 1950s and 1960s saw the widespread interest in building national identities, political independence and anti-colonialist agendas in the Middle East cultures and societies leading to the expression of national identities through theatre in many countries, including Egypt and Iran in the 1950s. Many theatre artists had a passionate attachment to their historical past as well as to their political present. In their pursuit of creating “authentic” language and style, theatre artists tried to re-fashion traditional performances and restore colloquial languages, re-own conventions received from European avant-garde and experimental theatre and respond to their current realities and issues. They used a variety of styles— from realistic well-made plays to symbolist and avant-garde works, from folk-inspired pieces to meditative works dealing with profound philosophical issues. Panels in the digital exhibit showcase original attempts to reflect, retell and reorient the received existing narratives and conventions in the region.

During these decades, while traditional forms of dramatic performance such as shadow plays and improvisatory comic performances were still very popular, a new class of experimental theatre emerged. Experiencing new forms of theatrical expressions became possible not despite the heavyweight of traditional performances at the time but precisely by relying on older forms of theatrical expression in the Middle East. For example, experimental theatre practitioners in Syria, Iraq and Iran emphasized traditional techniques that were known to Euro-Americans as Brechtian. Similarly, by revisiting folk stories like A Thousand and One Nights, they experimented with new ways of dramatic narrative; ones that do not follow Euro-American Aristotelian ways of narrative structure, character development and dramatic action.

Experimental theatre-makers borrowed more than just traditional narratives, they also transformed traditional aesthetics. In a panel under the traditional performance section, we present different forms of storytelling. Al-hakawatis, Maddahs and Naqqalls were storytellers in Syria (and other Arab societies), Turkey and Iran respectively. We showcase these artists whose work had similarities while they were performed in different geographies and societies. For example, all of these storytellers did solo shows in informal settings such as coffeehouses and public squares. Moreover, their performances narrated folklore epic, romantic and mythical stories. Later, under the experimental section, we showcase an experimental work staged in Syria in 1968: Evening Party for the Fifth of June by Sa’adallah Wannus. Similar to Al-hakawati, the content of this play is historical and political. Yet, the artists utilized strategies of performance directly from Al-hakawati form in that in a play-within-a-play scene, actors seated among the audience replicated a dialogical performance setting that happened in Al-hakawati.

Wannus’s intention to draw from Al-hakawati was to break the “silence” in a theatre, to get dialectical engagement from the audience through physical and epistemic closeness and their improvised responses. While artists and scholars like Edward Ziter, Jawad Al-Asadi and Roger Allen have argued that Wannus’s work has been engaged with Brecht, we are particularly interested in Wannus’s experimental blending of traditional aesthetics and Brechtian techniques for the sake of pressing on contemporary politics. Wannus identified in Brechtian technique a set of strategies that resembled those found in traditional performance. The familiar conventions that Wannus used from traditional performances (mainly storytelling, role-playing, oral rhymed narration and intimate relationship between performers and audience) stem from various local aesthetic or epistemic understandings, but Wannus charged them with his ethical and political intention. This line of experimentation with form and narrative is easily traceable in theatre by practitioners in Iran (Bahram Beyzaei, Abbas Javanmard, Ali Nassirian) and Egypt (Tawfiq al-Hakim, Yusif Idris), too. Iranian artists, for instance, have learned from their old philosophical and aesthetic wisdom (hikmat) that every work of art, especially a mimetic performance, must present a universal and perennial truth and a didactic message through certain anti-illusionist presentational conventions and with the aim of reforming the whole society. Undoubtedly, their experimentation within theatrical practice is inherently influenced by these hikmats. Our attempt was for our audience to confront these experimental works while understanding the traditional context of it through the exhibit’s through-line.

Panels from the Second Iteration of the Exhibit entitled Rebels and Revels, Virtual, 2021

Bringing together these two forms of Middle Eastern dramaturgy in our exhibit attends to the cultural and artistic through-lines that run through the region’s performance history. Furthermore, in their attempt to reconnect with their literary heritage as well as relate to their immediate surroundings, many of these artists went beyond being simply inspired by classics of their own or of European literature and theatre. For instance, in writing his play The Secret of Shahrzad in 1953, the Iraqi playwright Ali Ahmed Bakthir based his character and main plotline on One Thousand and One Nights but went beyond by addressing the urgent subject matters in their own era. Bakthir’s iteration of Shahrzad’s character, who is an educated, strong-willed woman capable of reforming his community, highlights the role of women in the 1952 revolution that happened a year before writing the play. Therefore, another significant through-line traceable in the showcased panels was artists’ vision in theatricalizing their societies’ stories and voices.

As we introduce under-represented voices to a public largely unfamiliar with the theatrical history of the region, our emphasis on a through-line becomes a pedagogical tool by illustrating a dynamic historical trajectory. As such, in this article, we attend to the politics of reclaiming space, whether digital or physical, for absent topics as a means of reconstructing or replacing the current image of the theatre of the Middle East and filling the gap in the rhetorical history and rhetorical record of/about theatre in the Middle East. Furthermore, reclaiming such a space is a means to decolonize the Euro-American methodology of Middle Eastern Theatre Studies. This methodology is not only critical and ethical but also reflexive and participatory. But above all, it must be localized, drawing on a particular society’s knowledge and experiences and recognizing their histories and testimonies. Thus, a marked characteristic of curatorial research for the exhibit was to recover forgotten and under-represented figures whose rhetorical significance is often found in not only local and national archives but also personal archives and family photo albums. In the case of Iraqi theatre, for instance, Moosavi’s connection with Dr. Sa’d Aziz Abdol-Saheb during the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre encouraged Abdol-Saheb to revisit the photo albums of his late father Aziz Abdol-Saheb, an active member of Iraqi theatre in the 1960s and 1970s. Several of the photos sent by Abdol-Saheb, as seen here, were taken by his cell phone from the pages of the albums and lacked scannable quality, thus only a few of them were used in the physical exhibit.

Images Captured by Dr. Sa’d Aziz Abdol-Saheb from his Family Album

While curation necessitates choices be made, those choices are not without fault. In our exhibit, we focused on traditional performance and original plays, by curatorial necessity. We endeavored to not overgeneralize the relationship between the two for the sake of a legible exhibit. However, by linking the two, we also limit the discussion of Euro-American influences. In the early stages of our archival research, we found a great wealth of documentation of adaptations, performances based on Euro-American source material. This section included adaptations of Greek tragedies, European naturalistic plays of the nineteenth and early twentieth century and Russian satirical drama. Despite the quantity of archival material, we did not include this category in the final exhibit in order to focus on performance that originated in the Middle East. The consequences of that, however, are that we narrow the aesthetic types and sources presented to the audience. Another consequence of this curatorial choice is that it situated the Middle East in isolation to dramatic practices happening elsewhere. As such, though we draw productive comparisons between the different countries included in the exhibit, the exhibit fails in situating these practices as part of a global theatre history.

Our positionality, as theatre scholars in North America, two of whom have a background in the Middle East, has both helped us and limited us in creating this collection. Given our geographical location, our access was limited to the archives and individuals who had access to the internet and digital media. As primarily Persian and English speakers, with some Arabic training, our access to Persian source materials was more than others. In conversations that Moosavi had with various Arab source holders, the conversation had to be facilitated by online translation apps. Although we intended to have a balanced representation between the countries we focused on, in the original plays section we have more work represented from Iran. Despite such constraints, to the testimony of our audience who contacted us via emails, some are thrilled to find rare photos of performances that have never been featured in any other theatre sources. One example is the photo of the Palestinian play Al-Baramekah’s Nakba, which is a historical play produced by the Catholic Labor Club in Nazareth in 1951. Notwithstanding the rarity of the most presented photos, our hope is to have a more inclusive collection in the next stages of this project.

Digital Curation and Global Audience

In 2020, due to COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibit had to migrate to digital space. This coincided with Moosavi’s migration to the U.S. when she began to collaborate with Kelley Holley and Q-mars Haeri in curating the virtual version of the exhibit. The digitized version of this exhibit, known as Rebels and Revels: A Virtual Photo Exhibit on the Theatre of the Middle East, was accessible from August to December 2021. Moving from physical to digital expanded and broadened access to theatrical trends and traditions of the Middle East.

One significant advantage to a digital exhibit was, of course, being able to access a wider audience. Where the original exhibit was able to reach an audience limited to the CDTPS lobby and the remounted exhibit was conceived as reaching the audience of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, the digital exhibit was able to reach a global audience. On, Rebels and Revels had visitors from the U.S., Canada, Iran, and India, as well as the U.K, Australia and Germany, among others. Beyond reaching a larger audience, in terms of geography, the digital exhibit allows us to have a double audience. No longer was Rebels and Revels simply exposing a lay audience to Middle Eastern performance, but it also rendered the archive accessible to people in the Middle Eastern theatre community, many of whom face difficulty in obtaining an entry visa to the U.S. To visit the exhibit and move around its virtual space, the Middle Eastern audience did not have to go through the draconian process of visa application. 

Spectators have responded positively to the exhibit. Many remarked that they found the materials and content accessible, and they commented on how the exhibit showcased materials they had not seen previously. One spectator said, “I’m so excited by this, I’m so energized . . . I love [this], this push, not only to create bodies of knowledge about Middle Eastern theater, but for [it] to be as accessible as possible, right” (ATHE Panel Recording[[iv]]). This response highlights one of our fundamental goals: to introduce an accessible tool to challenge the marginalization of Middle Eastern theatre in Euro-American theatre historiography. Commenting on the exhibit structure, a spectator remarked that the “photo exhibition really lends itself to both talking about indigenous performance, and . . . folk traditions, as well as the journey that Middle Eastern theater goes on, as . . . Western styles of Theater, with a capital ‘T’ become more present in what you see” (ATHE Panel Recording). The exhibit “creates bodies of knowledge” by simultaneously addressing performance traditions and histories that originate in the region and cultivating a digital archive (ATHE Panel Recording). In crafting a macro-history, we endeavored to approach the study and display of Middle Eastern Theatre performances on their own terms, investing in the traditions that undergird later experimentation.

Virtual Exhibit Space for Rebels and Revels, 2021

New digital media impacts the study of history immensely because it reorganizes the relations between historians, their objects of study and their readers. The digital requires rethinking the acts of transferring knowledge, and it needs rethinking the ways in which history is created. Therefore, a new historiographical method is needed for presenting history in online digital platforms considering the rearrangement of the roles involved in a history project (that is, archivists, historians, teachers and so on) and how those roles relate to each other. The confusion between the new “archives” (that is, web “archives” which present history to users) and the traditional archives (the “place/thing/practice” that gathers pieces of evidence) urges us to rethink critically and ask rigorous questions about the meanings of the tasks of archiving, historicizing and presenting the history in the new digital era. As Joshua Sternfeld reminds us “digital history holds the potential to raise complex questions of representation, epistemology, and narrative” (266). As a digital history practice, the exhibit can reshape our perception of theatre history, instigate new lines of inquiry, challenge entrenched understandings by offering illustrated sets of data and metadata, drawing comparisons that span wide geographic and temporal landscapes.

We are aware that digital archiving can be useful, especially because digital media has the capacity to capture and preserve unique data about textual, visual and spatial materials simultaneously. However, there are a number of limitations presented by digital historiography that are worth acknowledging. While a digital exhibit allows for an expanded audience, this audience’s access is still limited by the infrastructure, meaning the speed of their internet, internet regulations created by their country and access to technology altogether.

Similarly, there is a wide perception that digital space is expansive and limitless. In reality, digital space is ultimately tied to a physical counterpart: where the data is housed. Similarly, digital space is limited by the interface through which the user experiences it. For instance,, the site used to host Rebels and Revels, provides a 3-D model of a physical space, limiting the amount of digital content that can be displayed. Lastly, all digital media needs to contend with what Jo Robinson has called “the challenge of sustainability” (273). No digital exhibit can claim preservation of its digital data and even digital interface: technology becomes outdated, hosting sites go out of business and physical data centers may grow obsolete. These are all challenges that must be contended with in any digital project. Rebels and Revels is no exception. Because of these challenges, Rebels and Revels was always conceived as a temporary exhibit, even in its digital form. As such, our challenges turned from long-term sustainability to effective engagement, including its pedagogical applications.

The Return: Pedagogical Applications

We believe the journey offered by this photo collection provides theatre students in our audience with the methodological means to interrogate the existing historical works and resources and evaluate the respective scholarship. Students’ academic productivity in theatre history courses relies on a combination of methodological approaches that link textual to non-textual historical information. In line with Sternfeld’s argument about the pedagogical use of digital historiography, the exhibit enables students to remain cognizant and critical about the narratives and representations of theatre in “othered” nations and traditions. Instructors can use photos and some subsets of data related to the dramatic trends and traditions in the Middle East to develop a learning activity in which students analyze, corroborate and synthesize primary sources. Students are reminded that textual and digital resources on theatre history are not absolute and indeed work in Sternfeld’s words “as representations” (268), which have been built upon a series of subjective selection, design and interpretation (268). Thus, these representations should always go under revision through the application of new methods and practices.

The exhibit quickly was put into use as a pedagogical tool. One spectator, a theatre professor, noted that he would be “absolutely” using the exhibit in his upcoming Middle Eastern Theatre and History of Dramatic Literature courses. Likewise, Holley assigned the exhibit in her History of Theatre II course in the summer of 2021. The course was a survey course on global theatre from 1650. The assignment was part of a unit entitled “Experiments With and Against Realism in the Mid-20th Century.” Students engaged with the exhibit as a public scholarship project. This mirrored the summative assessment in which students created their own public scholarship. In this course, students are regularly prompted to ask, “how do we know what we know?” This question directs their attention towards how evidence is gathered and how historical narratives are constructed. Holley’s students approached the exhibit as both a means to learn more about the subject matter, but also to develop skills in critically evaluating historiographic processes. The exhibit served as a model for how public scholarship can do more than simply inform; it can also apply pressure to existing narratives, offer new evidence, and amplify marginalized voices.

As such, our students must learn that curatorial intention and process (whether for digital or non-digital spaces) that leads to representing the photos as historical data are inherently subjective. They also need to learn how to analyze contemporary historical representations. If we expect our students to analyze a digital historical representation and its accuracy and coherence of narrative, we need to equip them with new methodologies and media that in turn enable them to work on their historical perception and historiographic knowledge. Digital history practices like Rebels and Revels enhance students’ critical, inquisitive eye towards the past and presence of the stories and stages they are studying. The need for digital history to communicate broader humanistic significance is more urgent than ever. The inclusion of such collections in the course syllabi and students’ immediate engagement with the photos provide a nuanced understanding of the artistic desires and decisions as well as the plays’ socio-cultural contexts. Such nuanced understandings are vital for the readers and the audience to question their biases and misconceptions and foster empathetic and cosmopolitan views about citizens and communities in the Middle East.

Our commitment to mobilizing this nuanced understanding led to our active presence in scholarly conferences and journals including the 2021 annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) and the current article. In order to further enhance the digital capacity of English scholarship about Middle East theatre, we also hope that this exhibit could be part of larger digital curatorial projects and encyclopedic guides. Joining a larger digital project would allow us to focus on the sustainability of a collection like this. More importantly, our biggest hope and challenge remains to find means and methods that bring us as close as possible to the inclusivity and equity in the representation of theatrical creations that are not included in the exhibit as well as in the distribution of resources among varied users.


[1] The first round of the exhibition received private donations from Moosavi’s doctoral advisor Professor Stephen Johnson of the CDTPS and Bahman Koosha.

[2] The authors would like to thank Professors Frank Hildy and Fatemeh Keshvarz for their generous support since the inception of the digital edition of the exhibit.

[3] The news of the exhibit has been broadcast on several news agencies:

[4] ATHE, short for Association for Theatre in Higher Education.


“ATHE Panel Recording, Rebels and Revels: The Photo Exhibit on the Theatre of the Middle East.” Association for Theatre in Higher Education Annual Conference 2021, Session ID: 1173, 6 Aug. 2021.

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*Marjan Moosavi is an educator, researcher, digital curator, and dramaturg, presently based in Washington DC, by way of Canada and Iran. Her work, whether academic or artistic, examines the dynamics of theatre-making in Middle Eastern countries, particularly Iran, and its intersection with gender, history and politics. She is the Roshan Lecturer in Persian Studies and Performing Arts at the University of Maryland and the Associate Director of the Roshan Initiative in Persian Digital Humanities, where she pursues her transnational projects in Digital Humanities, including working as the Principal Investigator on the First Digital Guide to Theatre of the Middle East. Marjan’s scholarly articles and interviews are published in essay collections and journals including The Drama Review (TDR), New Theatre Quarterly, Ecumenica, Modern Drama, Asian Theatre Journal, and Routledge Companion to Dramaturgy. 

**Q-mars Haeri is a PhD candidate in the Theatre and Performance Studies program at the University of Maryland. His work is on nineteenth- and twentieth-century performances and performance spaces of Tehran. His MA thesis, completed in 2015, was on the significant role that religious passion plays (ta’zieh) have played in the development of other genres of theatre in Iran. At the University of Maryland, he investigates popular theatre of mid-century Tehran and the Lalehzar entertainment district. In 2018, he worked on a collaborative project between the University of Maryland and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, bringing the seventeenth-century Triumph of Isabella paintings to life utilizing digital tools. His works as a theatre practitioner have been awarded in national festivals in Iran and were performed in Iran and the United States. 

***Kelley Holley is a PhD candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland. Her dissertation “Experiencing Place: Dramaturgies of Site-specific Performance” examines the creative strategies employed by a performance used to construct, alter, and dramatize the audience’s experience of place, along with the impact of site-specific performance upon a place. As a professional dramaturg, she has developed new plays, curated exhibits, and served as a literary manager across the United States.

Copyright © 2022 Marjan Moosavi, Q-mars Haeri, Kelley Holley
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