Land Without Jasmine is an adaptation of Wajdi al Ahdal‘s novel, which tells the story of a young woman who disappears from her university in Sana’a, Yemen. The play was put on by the new collective Sarha and billed as “the first ever Yemeni theatre production to be staged in the UK.” Sarha describe their adaptation as “a dark fairytale which transports audiences to a murky underworld of lust, obsession and violence where nothing and no one are what they seem.”
There was certainly that: lust and obsession and violence in spades, but what that lust and obsession and violence amounted to was not always clear, other than reinforcing two stereotypes: Arab men are misogynistic sexual predators, and those Arabs really believe in that hocus pocus djinn stuff, don’t they.
The opening scenes of the play were disorienting. The woman who is meant to be Jasmine’s spirit, her djinn double, strides around a bed eating carrots and leeks (?) then spitting them out, spluttering and visceral in an absurdist djinn paroxysm of rage at her contained life and all those horrible men staring at her everywhere she goes.
This theme would later be picked up by the audience, in this quite predictable fashion: “on the authority I have having lived as a white woman in a Middle Eastern Country this is true: men over there treat women as meat. Meat.” And then there were the pained audience members suggesting with admirable restraint that maybe, just maybe, this collective of Arab actors could make just a little more effort to not reinforce stereotypes? Treat misogyny as a valid subject, by all means, because we desperately need to have nuanced conversations in our communities about how we represent and how we think about and talk about and deal with the misogyny permeating our societies. But we do not particularly need more two dimensional decontextualised representations of Arab men as repressed perverts, as though the perverse obsession with veiling stupidly enforced by the comically horny men was the root cause of the trouble in the region. We already have plenty of that sort of thing.
The problem of stereotypes aside, this production was structurally disjointed. The logic to hang the scenes together was not there. Maybe it was the attempt to compress a novel into this format. Maybe it was that they needed more time. Whatever the reason, the material felt shallow and confusing.
During the Q&A, there were disagreements over linguistic and music choices, since none of the cast was Yemeni and everyone spoke in their own accents (and there was some Yemeni music but also Levantine). An audience member argued that they should have “been more authentic if you’re going to tell a Yemeni story.” The cast disagreed with this take, insisting that they were all diverse and did not care about accents and that this was our problem, us Arabs, our divisiveness. I would ordinarily support that position because the actors were mainly speaking English, which maybe makes the quibbling about the correct Arabic accents beside the point, and they said they found it difficult to cast Yemenis, and they were doing the best they can.
But there was something to the point about Sarha as a collective claiming to tell a story about Yemen when Yemen is going through so much and then giving the subject a treatment that felt superficial, even if this was not by virtue of lack of commitment. There are so many stories that need to be told about Yemen. Many in the audience were clearly hoping for this play to do justice to their realities, and it was dispiriting to watch as those hopes were somewhat dashed.
During the Q&A, Momin Swaitat repeated that finally there was a collective of Arab actors “to speak in our own voices.” If they have more shows in the future, maybe we will see an improvement on this effort, because there were some signs of hope here and there for coming performances and a seeming openness to grow and learn and develop. The undoubted star of the show was Jasmine’s mother; her anger and sorrow at her daughter’s disappearance were emotionally charged and felt real (and here the djinn thing worked well as her way of dealing with the sorrow). Ali’s monologue to the beautiful Jasmine was sweet though somewhat cringe-worthy. The pomegranate juice seller complaining about universities turning people into donkeys got some laughs. (I am not sure why they then had to have the guy weirdly cackling while eating pomegranates. This play had too much unexplained messy eating of symbolic produce.)
But, to look on the bright side, the Sarha collective exists now, may they be one among many more to come, and what they did get right in this performance was a promising hint of what could be…with maybe some more thought through material.