Miriam Dessaive

Brecht in Pakistan 

       The way Brecht is dealt with in countries of the Third World strangely contrasts with the culinary reception of Brecht on German stages.  While he was at first publicly boycotted and secretely venerated as a socialist author, Brecht's plays became gradually socially acceptable in the course of the liberalization of the literary and art world. By now [i.e. in 1989], they form part of the repertory of all publicly financed theaters.* At the moment, they enjoy an above average success with the public, as is shown for example by box office sales in the case of the stagings of the Three Penny Opera (Dreigroschenoper)  and Man is Man (Mann ist Mann) in Frankfurt. A bit of revolution coveted as entainment in the evening? Max Frisch once referred to the ''sweeping ineffectiveness of the classical author'' Brecht; the public, wearing suits and ties respectively a black evening dress thoroughly enjoy the racket and take it for a farce.  In the slums of the Third World, however, others are enjoying Brecht's plays, and they enjoy them in another way. Against the resistance of the powerful, they are performed again, adapted, and made productive. It suffices here to refer to the planned publication of the Brecht Yearbook [Brecht Jahrbook] dedicated to the subject ''Brecht and the Third World.''  Brecht is dead? ''Write that I was inconvenient [unbequem, i.e. an embarassment to the mighty], and that I entend to stay so after my death. Even then, certain possiblities exist.“ ["Schreiben Sie, daß ich unbequem war  und es auch nach meinem Tod zu bleiben gedenke. Es gibt auch dann noch gewisse Möglichkeiten." (Brecht, quoted by the Berliner Zeitung, August 16, 1956).  
       In February, I was in Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan with seven million inhabitants – at the turn of the century it was still a village of fisher folk. The Exception and the Rule (Die Ausnahme und die Regel) was to be performed on the premises of the Municipal Art's Council in the context of a cultural festival.  On the day before the planned staging, the performance was cancelled. The troupe could not obtain the permission to perform it.  Karachi is subject to a state of emergency since the massacres in the suburbs that occurred in December of last year between Pathans and Mohajirs – a consequence of the new wave of ''newcomers'' from the regions of social unrest in the North of the country, with all of its socio-cultural and economic effects of an impaired balance :  an informal economic sector based on the drug trade and arms trade, and the traditional corruption of the administration, which has by now taken on the quality of a farce, when the town mayor heads a demonstration against the provincial administration, is thrown into prison and triggers a strike of the municipal administration, which in turn fosters public disorder, etc. At any rate, the general prohibition of public gathering is still in force and seems to prove a reliable, multifaceted instrument of control. Those in power in this country obviously are not interested in Brecht's play The Exception and the Rule. Brecht is no unknown author even in Pakistan.
   The performance did not come about anymore during my stay in Pakistan. But the group expressed its readiness to have a conversation with me, as a Brecht student from Germany, in the afternoon after their weekly rehearsal in the apartment of the director, Aslam Azhar.   
       Dastak, the name of the group, means as much as to knock, to give a push in Urdu. It was founded in 1982, during a phase of increasing islamization, by six people who began to study Brecht's theory of the theater and his plays. By now it consists of 65 members, men and women belonging to every age group, from all social strata  and the most diverse professions. All of them belong to the Left in a broader sense, and politically they see themselves as a part of the democratization movement, an oppositional front against the ruling military dictatorship. Why are they attracted exactly to Brecht, I wanted to know; why don't they perform plays from their own culture? Aslam, who is a bit like a Pakistani Galileo, married to a feminist woman, and who has lost one job after the other in his profession, in the cultural sphere, due to his active commitment to socialism, comprehends all great art as a metaphor for social conditions, stating that its durability is proved by its many-sided applicability. While Brecht had made his subject matter appear strange in order to show structures of problems of his time, it was easily possible to transfer these  structures to today's ''developing societies'' and their contradictions exactly because of the device of ''enstrangement.''  Brecht's theater originated in a phase of radical societal shifts, of the kind experienced today by all developing countries, but it belonged to the tradition of European enlightement, which was without equivalent here, where independent cultures had been suppressed respectively colonized for hundreds of years.  Brecht's ''theater of the scientific age“ could be an effective antidote to the re-installation of Islam in its present use as a quasi-feudal, rule-stabilizing ideology. ''Everything is changeable'' [Alles ist veränderlich], he quoted [Brecht] with apparent pleasure. 
        I asked the members of the group the question why they perform as actors in addition to their professions and obligations of everyday life.  A young man who presented himself selfconfidently as a steelworker (but in fact wasn't anymore, as some people of the group objected) saw the process of becoming more conscious in the course of his trade union activity confirmed by his theater-related work –  and  simultanously made fruitful for others. A university student who is operating, together with likeminded others, an evening school for children and adults in a slum and who has initiated a children's theater group that is performing plays of the Grips Theater in Urdu, sees in this theater work a possible starting point to effect change regarding the way people think. The success of their work was related to the fact that for the first time plays were performed for workers that 'talked' to them about their own matters. Theater is also a form of social communication about oneself, opined a young doctor who works in a psychiatric clinic and who wants to show especially the exceptions as symptoms of society. The liveliness and sense of commitment that this group revealed is perhaps owed to the fact that all of them are amateurs of the theater, with the exception of the two mentors, Aslam and Mansoor who does the translations. For traditionally trained Pakistani actors, it would certainly be very difficult to relate to Brecht. Perhaps it is also owed to the present situation of social fermentation which could be balanced by a saturated satisfaction. 
        The first play by Brecht that the group performed was The Exception and the Rule (Die Ausnahme und die Regel), followed by The Yeah-Sayer and the Nay-Sayer [Der Jasager und der Neinsager] and  Life of Galilei (Leben des Galilei). Saint Joan of the Stockyards [Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthofe] as the most recent Brecht production was performed in the street in front of 5,000 industrial workers on last year's May Day Centennial of the trade union. The success of the performance was stunning, according to reports by members of the group. Repeatedly, slogans of the democratization movement were voiced. When there was a power failure during a performance ten minutes before the play's end, the audience replied with a storm of ''yes'' shouts when asked whether they wanted to see the remaining part nonetheless. Spontaneously the headlights of a few cars were turmed towards the stage, and thus at least the problem of lighting was taken care of. During a demonstration on the following day that the troupe took part in, the slogan ''All  workers are brothers''  was expanded by adding ''... and sisters.''  Nusrat, who performed the role of Saint Joan, saw in this an effect of the play. Woman as a comrade-in-arms, this is no longer selfunderstood, now that the beginnings of the emancipation of women from their traditional role have fallen prey to re-islamization.  Somebody else, who had performed the role of a worker in the play, was identified on the following day with his role despite his bourgeois habitus and asked by workers to accompany them and drink tea with them.
       Although only Saint Joan of the Stockyards has been performed so far as street theater, the group takes this form to be more effective, despite many realization problems in the case of more complex plays like Galilei: theater is brought to those not accustomed to visit theater houses, more people are reached, there originates more spontanous communication between actors and the audience. Street theater is furthermore a form that corresponds to the possibilities of the group.  The members work for free. Box office intake, with nominal ticket prices for an audience of workers and from sold programmes, are needed to pay for the rent of auditoriums, technical requirements, and ads. Only the Goethe Institute supports Brecht and Grips performances. Thus it is especially regrettable that a project to realize, via Deutsche Welle, a  version of Galilei for the radio in Urdu, was aborted by the steep license fees demanded by the Suhrkamp publishing house, as Aslam mentioned. Of Galilei, a Sindhi version has already been published, but the Urdu translation used so far is still unpublished, and so is a translation of poems by Brecht into Punjabi. The group has by now accomplished its own translation into Urdu, based on Desmond Vesey's English version of 1960, and it is said to be closer to the German original than the English text, according to some who are proficient in all three languages. Aslam speculated about the linguistic connections between German and Urdu and quoted again with much pleasure a few sentences from the text in Urdu. Dastak sees itself as part and catalyst of a theater movement. Since it was founded, many similar groups have formed in other cities; even in Karachi there are now a few others, former members create branches, such as the group Ajooka (Today) in Lahore, which is going to perform Galilei in that city. For them, to perform is a form of social commitment in so far as theater work, based on the model of Brecht's Didactic Plays (Lehrstücke), has an enhancing effect on one's consciousness, and every performance is – also – a political event. Even though every play must be approved by two censorship authorities before it may be performed, members of the group are never completely assured that they will not be arrested all of a sudden. Permits for a performance can be revoked under some pretext, as in the case of the planned performance of The Exception and the Rule.  What Brecht would have liked to hear people say about his verse, is true here with regard to his plays: ''The evil ones fear your claw/The good ones enjoy [take pleasure in] your grace.'' ("Die Schlechten fürchten deine Klaue/Die Guten freuen sich deiner Grazie.") The conflicts between ethnic groups and the massacre in December have motivated the group to project, as their next production, a Pakistani version of The Roundheads and the Vortexheads (Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe), in order to enlighten about the usefulness of racial hatred for the rulers (those in power, the dominant class, die Herrschenden). The fact that the experience of the Third Reich has not averted the present relationship of Germany with ''asylum seekers'' from the Third World, despite ''rectification of past damage done'' (''Wiedergutmachung'') and officially bended knees, cannot make Aslam give up his optimism. The dramatic acerbation [Verschärfung, worsening] of the present  situation in Pakistan contained the possibility of a qualitative reversal [qualitative Umschlag], the burgeoning [Keim] of amelioration, pressure and counterpressure, in good materialist terms. In contrast to Germany.   

Primary source of the German version: Miriam Dessaive, "Brecht in Pakistan", in: Fuegi, John, et al. (ed.) /  Brecht in Asia and Africa = Brecht in Asien und Afrika (1989),   pp.101-104.] 

Source of the German version used here: 
German.BrechtYearbook014&isize=text&submit=Go+to+page&page=101 [and following pages] 

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