Qat Theater [Archives:1998/09/Culture]

March 2 1998

By: Fareed Al-Dhahiri

Every theater must have its audience, otherwise it becomes extinct. The audience gives life to the theatrical experience. It is a daily renewed meeting between two humans full of emotions and energy – the actor and the spectator. This characteristic is unique to the theater, and cannot be found in other art forms such as TV, radio, or the cinema.
To be nearer to the Yemeni audience, maqial (qat gathering) theater has emerged. Maqial theater means that the actors with all their props present their plays in qat-chewing sessions, instead of on a conventional theater. A relationship is thus struck up between the theatrical troupe and a potential audience which cannot leave its qat sessions to go to the ordinary theater.
Qat theater will hopefully solve another problem – lack of decent theaters in Yemen. In the capital Sanaa, there is only one good stage at the Zubairi Hall. Another theater auditorium was recently closed down by the Ministry of Culture itself.

So qat theater seems to be a magical solution. Experiments have already been conducted in the maqials of a number of prominent figures in the country. The actors who presented their shows in such qat sessions attest to the success of this novel experience. It was met with the approval of a number of Yemeni and foreign intellectuals who recommended that it should be continued and be given more attention. Such a unique experiment reflects a certain trait of the Yemeni people. It has even been suggested that qat theater, if continued, will gradually transform the traditional Yemeni qat sessions into cultural gatherings and forums for intellectual exchange.
However, theatrical performances will be the privilege of those who own huge “majlis” or qat-chewing rooms. Thus, an ancient Arab tradition of the court entertainers has been revived at the end of the 20th century.

This is quite wonderful. There are many influential people who own big palatial mansions and are more than willing to host theatrical plays, made to order. In this way, the conditions of Yemeni actors and stage technicians will widely improve. They will become like some of their Egyptian counterparts who perform in private functions and society weddings.
This is a golden opportunity for all Yemeni artists. They can now spiritually unite with the qat chewers “society.” The new association can even be named the “United Artists & Qat Chewers of Yemen.” To carry the creative experience to a more integrated level, bunches of qat can be sold with complimentary theater tickets. Every type of show will of course have its own kind of qat to accompany it.
Will the theater lose a lot of its unique character by going into qat-chewing sessions?
It is true that art cannot and must not be separated from the political, economic and social life in all its dimensions and influences. The task is not only to reflect reality, but also to try to change it for the better.

Will theater move from the stage to the qat majlis? Is this really the way to promote lofty values and all the bases for a developed and civilized society? Will the audience be created through the qat theater? The audience being the third factor in the aestheticism of the creative work. Have we really thought about the public who are committed to going to the theater? What about those who don’t chew qat?
Is the qat theater the answer to the theater crisis in Yemen.
Of course not. The answer is a theater that attacks that cursed plant, and thoroughly dissects the present in order to create a better future. An artist must be committed to his or her art to better serve the people. Then and only then can the theater become a force for justice and honesty in presenting human contradictions and frailties as well as society’s flaws and the people’s hopes and aspirations.
The only way to get the Yemeni audience back to the theater is by fighting the abominable qat.