Al Hurriya School Theater

The “Father of Arts” appeared in Al-Aboos before the cities of the north
Mohammed Al-Karami
February 19, 2024

Al Hurriya School Theater

The “Father of Arts” appeared in Al-Aboos before the cities of the north
Mohammed Al-Karami
February 19, 2024

Theater in Yemen had begun with almost unceasing school theatrical activities since the beginning of the 1930s until the late 1960s in southern Yemen, where public schools such as: Gail Bawazeer in Hadramout, Bazra'a Al-Khairiya, Saint Joseph Al-Olayya, and Saint Antonio (Al-Badri) in Aden presented Many diverse theatrical works in text, quotation, and acting, some of which were copied from international plays, and others from Arab epics.

The foundation of this school theater was laid by the first acting team of public school students in the city of Aden in 1910, when they presented the play “Julius Caesar” on a small theater set up in the tennis field, behind the ancient Al Ma'aref building in the Crater, as documented by historian Saeed Al-Awlaki.

  This school theater represented an incentive for the Christian mission schools existing in Aden at that time to present short English theatrical performances as an established tradition that emerged from the Arabic play. Despite the absence of sources and references indicating the continuation of school theater in southern Yemen in the following two decades, we find that public schools have continued their theatrical activity since the late 1930s.

Theater and Imam's so called "frivolous"

We do not know a specific date for the beginnings of theater in northern Yemen, as the plays were closer to improvised performances, in light of the widespread ignorance of this art, and the Imamate authority’s abuse of artists. With Imam Ahmed assuming power, succeeding his father, Imam Yahya, theater began to spread in the countryside step by step, and over time it began to appear at national events that Imam Ahmed attended in the open air in the mid-fifties. However, theater in the cities of the north was nothing more than “frivolous acts,” according to the description of Imam Ahmad of theater plays, as stated by the poet and historian Abdullah Al-Baradoni.

The city of Taiz is one of the most noticeable Yemeni cities that witnessed the revival of the cooperative movement in the rural areas, where its people, men and women, built most of the schools, clinics, and roads.

The city of Aden had turned into a global center linking the East and the West whereas the migration of people from the northern countryside to this city, which knew education early, led to the establishment of the Al-Ittihad Al-Abssi Club by the people of the Al Aboos province residing in Aden in the early 1950s. The club played an important role in transferring the educational experience to the province of Al-Aboos, Haifan District, where these parents were unable to enroll their children either in Aden schools because of British policies of discrimination towards the people of the northern regions, nor in northern Yemen, which was suffering under the grip of illiteracy and backwardness under the rule of the Imams.

  Hence, merchants and benefactors contributed with their own efforts in supporting education, raising the level of awareness, assisting their villages improve the standard of living, introducing modern means, building schools, and providing it with books and teachers according to the observation of Dr. Badr Ismail Abdel Razzaq, in his book “Formal Education in Al-Aboos”.

  As a result of these struggles, the Al-Hurriya School was established in 1954 as the first cooperative private school built in Yemen before the 1962 revolution in the province of Al-Aboos, and then schools gradually built after the September 26 Revolution.

The city of Taiz is one of the most outstanding Yemeni cities that witnessed the revival of the cooperative movement in the rural areas, where its people, men and women, built most of the schools, clinics, and roads. According to Badr Abdel Razaq, the male residents were voluntarily made themselves responsible for transporting equipment and furniture to the under construction schools, including building materials such as; cement bags, bricks, and equipment, on their backs over bumpy roads, while the women walked long distances in a long line that started at the market, and the ended in the cemetery of Al-Mudhayeen, carrying long wooden planks for the school roof on their heads in an amazing scene of dedication and self-accountability.

In light of the Imam’s strict policy of preventing formal education, women would tell the Imam’s soldiers that the school building was a house being built for one of the merchants residing in Aden. Additionally, these women would smuggle the wood out of the sight of the Imam’s soldiers to avoid imposing levies on them that they cannot pay. Thus, theater appeared within the activities of the newly established school, and Mr. Abdul wahed Abdo Othman is considered one of the pioneers of education in the area, and the first to launch school theater in the same year, at Al-Hurriya School in Al-Aboos. Moreover, Othman was familiar with the performing arts, and he composed and directed the first play known as “The Death of Betrayal,” which was played at the high school in Gail Bawazir in Hadramout. It met with relative success there, and gained the admiration of everyone who attended it due to its social contents that were commensurate with the situation in the northern part of the country.

Further, the historian Hussein Al-Asmar reported that Mr. Abdul Wahed Abdo Othman submitted a proposal to the school principal at the time regarding the necessity of presenting theatrical performances in the school. Fortunately, the principal understood the nature and significance of theatrical plays, so he agreed to the suggestion without hesitation. At the end of the first year, A farewell party was held on the occasion of the end of the academic year, which included some speeches and poems, in addition to two plays. The first, titled “Knowledge is Light, Ignorance is Darkness,” was written by Abdul Hafiz Mohammad Taher, the school principal at the time. It was acted by the students: Amin Muhammad Saeed, Abdul Sattar Shaif, Muhammad Shaher Hazza, and others who performed in the play.

As for the second play, it was entitled “The Miser, the Lover of Gold,” which was mentioned by the author Mohammad Saif in the book, "Icons of Literature and Theatrical Art in Yemen". It was written and directed by Mr. Abdul Wahed Abdo Othman, and it is a poetic play inspired by one of the literature textbooks that was sent from Aden. The play was acted by some of the students; Abdullah Abdo Saleh, in the role of the "beggar", Mohammad Abdo, in the role of the thief, and Yassin Abdel Wareth, in the role of the second thief. The two plays were good enough to keep the audience watching until the end of the ceremony program.

Since the emergence of theater across Yemen, school theater plays had been linked to annual religious seasons and events, presenting songs, popular dances, humorous “sketches,” and acting activities. In contrast, the Al-Abous schools (Al-Hurriya and Al-Falah) established the rules for school theater and made it a basic educational pillar, just like school subjects, to enhance public awareness and social education.

The phenomenon of acting became an established tradition that was held every year, and then annual celebrations continued, in which many different plays were presented that people admired, such as: “The Yamani Peacock and Hisham Abdel Malik,” “The Dreaming Hermit,” “Patience and Faith,” and “Bilal.” “The Messenger’s muezzin,” “The charlatan,” “The Messenger’s justice,” and “Qat is the cause.”

Theater and Audience Reactions

Theater was, in its view, transformed into a social experience shared by everyone, and not just an artistic performance that faded away immediately after the play ended. One of the funny situations that Hussein Al-Asmar narrated is that when the play “The Miser, Lover of Gold” was presented, which reflects the role of theater in crystallizing social attitudes, especially in light of the spread of racial and class discrimination and vertical relations between members of society under the rule of the Imams, in which the student Abdullah Abdo Saleh, who comes from a wealthy family enjoying great social privilege, acted the role of a beggar in the play. When he appeared on stage with torn clothes and a shabby appearance, his older brother was watching the play got flared up, so that he wrote a note of objection to the school administration declaring that it was inappropriate for his brother to appear in front of people with torn clothes and collect crumbs from them, and that this behavior was a great insult that degraded him and their family's prestigious position in the village. In the face of this fanatical position, the school principal became so angry that he decided to re-present the same play in the following year, and chose his son to play the role of the beggar in the play as a message to the people.

Furthermore, Mr. Mohammad Abdullah Mohsen, the school principal who provided historian Hussein Al-Asmar with the content of the plays presented, recounted that after the end of the performance of the one-act play “The Dreaming Hermit,” which tells the story of: A poor man owns a cup of honey, which is his only capital, and whenever he sees that cup, he dreams that he sells the honey and buys chickens to raise with its price, which he reproduces and trades with money he earns and buys a large plot of land, plows it and builds a large house. Then he marries a woman and has a son. The boy goes to school and is raised by educators and teachers. Then, in a moment, he becomes distracted and unfocused that he moves his stick in the air with all his might, so the stick falls and collides with the cup until it breaks and its parts are scattered throughout the place, and the dreams of the hermit man are scattered and lost in an instant. The school principal continues, narrating: “After the theatrical performance ended, a man from the audience who could not hide his admiration of the great actor and the show, so he went up to the stage and took off his watch and gave it as a gift to the actor for his prowess in acting, and to motivate him to continue the good acting.” He concluded.

Since the beginning of the sixties, school theater has significantly facilitated the integration of females into education, as the people of the countryside were highly aware of the disadvantages of illiteracy, and the first performance of a young man with his sister was on the stage in Al-Aboos.

Revolutionary Theater in the countryside

After the September 26 Revolution was achieved in 1962, cooperatives continued in supporting theater and education, as the Al-Falah School was established in the village of Al-Aboos, and many direct political and social plays presented during that period. Thanks to the support of the parents and the school director, Mr. Abdul Baqi Al-Murshedi, Al-Falah School benefited from the experience of the Al Hurriya School theater and accumulated new theatrical experiences that were distinguished by intellectual and political prospective.

Al-Morshedi wrote and directed the first theatrical performances at Al-Falah School, and organized a large theatrical artistic concert that included his musical play, “Sa'ad Al-Batoul.” The school then presented many plays that dealt with some social issues until the early seventies, such as: “Sa'ad Al-Batoul,”,” Knowledge and Ignorance,” “A Poor Family and a Ruthless Society,” and “Hassan Mashnouk.” These plays were performed in the colloquial dialect spoken by the people of the area.

Since the beginning of the sixties, school theater has significantly facilitated the integration of females into education, as the people of the countryside were highly aware of the disadvantages of illiteracy, and the first performance of a young man with his sister was on the stage in Al-Aboos. Among the girls who enrolled in education during that period and participated in theater plays were: Nathira Abdel-Wasae, Asiya Qahtan Salam, Khawla Saleh Shaher, and Mona Abdullah Mohammad. As the theater attracted female elements, the theater's audience base expanded. According to Al-Asmar, the theater at Al-Falah School created a qualitative leap in the field of local writing in the 1970s, when the poet Abdul Karim Al-Razhi wrote a poetry play entitled “Lebanon...Blood and Bullets” and directed it himself. The roles were played by some of the school's teachers and students, and the play achieved tangible success. In addition, Essam Al-Bari also wrote a short play entitled “The Fog”, which aimed to address the failures of the Yemeni revolution. He directed the play himself, and played the starring role in partnership with Nahdira Abdel-Wasae, Anwar Abdel-Majeed, Abdallah Othman, and Adnan Saleh.

Thus, Al-Aboos theater plays continued, and the number of schools presenting school theater performances increased and spread all over Yemen. However, Al-Hurriya School remained a witness to what a generation of inspiring parents and creative youth offered via the school theater in northern Yemen.

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