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Jordan Political Satire Packs 'Em In With Lampooning of Arab Leaders


THE two actors bound onto the stage as if they have just been freed from captivity.

And in a way, they have.

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Nabil Sawalha and Hisham Yanis have been freed from censorship. More accurately, they themselves and their wildly popular, trail-blazing political satire shows, have freed the Jordanian theater from censorship.

``Welcome, Arab Summit'' is the ironic title for a series of sketches that add up to a savage attack on the ineptitude, mendacity, greed, and overweening ambition of Arab leaders over the past three decades.

The glee with which Mr. Sawalha and Mr. Yanis lampoon rulers ranging from former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to Saddam Hussein, including Jordan's own King Hussein, is packing audiences in. And they have never seen anything like it.

``People are always looking for somebody to stand in the front line and say what they cannot say,'' Sawalha explains. ``So Hisham and I basically are doing that.''

They do it by imitating Arab rulers for the first time ever on an Arab stage, portraying them in fictional scenes from the various summit meetings that have been called over the years, leading their peoples from one disaster to another.

Switching costumes constantly to appear now as a robed King Saud, now as Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in olive drab uniform, now as stubble-cheeked Yasser Arafat, Sawalha and Yanis keep the wordplay flying all evening, leavening their show with satirical songs sung in the Arab style by an actress.

A small supporting cast, dressed to represent the general public in different Arab countries, act as a sort of Greek chorus.

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Jordan, where parliamentary elections were held earlier this month and where political life has been opening up for several years, is the only Arab country where a show like this could even be imagined. And the play's message fits the newly democratic times.

``We Arabs have always tied ourselves to our leaders, who led us into stupidities while we watched,'' Sawalha says. ``The time has come for us to stop watching and do something.'' Acting is second job

Sawalha, who runs a cultural center for children and manages a hotel when he is not on stage, and Yanis, a scriptwriter, first got together to do a comedy show for Jordan Television, before deciding to write something for the theater.

What they came up with, in the aftermath of the Gulf war, was ``Welcome, New World Order,'' which took a fairly jaundiced look, from an Arab perspective, at what this new order promised, and broke all the rules in the book as it did so.

``We talked about sex, we talked about religion, and we talked about politics,'' Yanis recalls. ``Those were still three taboos that were not allowed by the censor.''

Yanis and Sawalha also tested the limits of tolerance, as Jordan began to liberalize, by doing away with symbolism, and being ``blunt and Jordanian and rough and rude, not hiding behind any theater cliches,'' Yanis adds.

``In the Arab world, because we always lived in fear of the censor, we always tended to go into symbolism,'' Sawalha explains. ``You would never say the word `king,' for example; you would say `sultan.'

``It meant that our scripts were always a bit like old washing water,'' he goes on. ``They lacked courage, and they lacked clarity.''

Their new, no-holds-barred approach was an instant hit, attracting full houses night after night. It also attracted King Hussein, whose attendance one night sealed the show's success and made it impossible for the censor to interfere.

``Welcome, New World Order'' ran for 20 months, ``and then the censor said that censorship in the theater was cancelled,'' Yanis recalls. ``That's an achievement, but now we hope they will cancel it in TV.''

Censorship is also heavily imposed, of course, elsewhere in the Arab world, which makes foreign visitors hungry for the sort of fare Sawalha and Yanis serve up.

``An incredible number of Arabs come to see our plays,'' says Sawalha, including a senior official from a Gulf country, who tried to bribe him to cut out one scene, and the head of the Iraqi Air Force.

The show pokes fun at all the Arab world's leaders, irrespective of their ideology, but it also pokes fun at ordinary Arabs, making audiences laugh at themselves. The sketches dealing with the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, for example, and the Gulf war, do not just send up Arab governments' illusions of their superiority over Israel, but also their peoples' desperate desire to believe in those illusions.

Some might see this as unduly negative, but Sawalha says not. ``The subtext is not defeatist, it is angry,'' he argues. And the final gesture of the show, when Yanis shoves a cucumber into the radio, which has been spouting nonsense all evening, symbolizes his attitude to the official Arab media's complicity in fostering illusions.

While it is angry, the show is not bitter, and it is careful not to get personal about its targets. Sawalha is critical of new Jordanian plays that ``want to hurt,'' and ``don't go for the elegant comment.''

``You can say anything you like,'' Yanis adds, ``but in the right way, so that the audience's ear is not scratched.''

At the same time, ``if you don't touch things that people feel, they don't react,'' Sawalha says. And in that spirit, the pair are now writing a play about peace with Israel.

That, again, is only possible in the current political atmosphere. ``Thank God we lived to see this period in Jordan,'' exults Sawalha, ``the beginning of a peace process and democracy. These are incredible happenings for us as artists, because as an artist you need a big mind and a human outlook on things.

``The vanishing of the censor - who is usually a government nitwit who thinks he can protect other peoples' minds - from our lives is incredible.'' Plays complement culture

If the seeds of artistic freedom sown in Jordan's theater flourish in other media and in other countries, ``we as Arabs will be a very good complement to the cultural life of the world,'' Sawalha predicts.

``Till now, because of our leaders selling us nationalism in the name of Palestine and suppressing thought and freedom, we have not been able to participate,'' he argues.

``But we Arabs are a people of incredible imagination, with incredible dreams, with incredible humanity and incredible love for life. With peace, we'll be a great complement to the human heritage,'' Sawalha says.

Yanis has a more lighthearted argument in favor of the new liberalism. ``For the first time in 30 years, we are making a profit with a theater play,'' he points out. ``We can't afford to go back to dictatorship.''

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