‘A Land Without Jasmine’ puts on stage plight of Yemeni women
LONDON - “A Land Without Jasmine,” the first Yemeni theatre production staged in London, is an engrossing combination of a detective story and a macabre fairy tale that takes the audience into a murky world of unsatisfied sexual desires and magic where nothing is as it seems.
The play, which ran for three days in the Battersea Arts Centre in south-west London, constantly highlights the challenges faced by a young woman growing up in the conservative Yemeni society. It is about Jasmine, who suddenly disappears from her university campus in Sana’a. Jasmine is an individual but her experiences are those of thousands of women and the story is the that of young women in Yemen today.
The producers at the Sarha Collective adapted Wajdi al-Ahdal’s satirical novel “A Land Without Jasmine” into a theatrical masterpiece. Like the book, each scene is narrated by a different character, beginning with Jasmine herself. Much of the dialogue is in Arabic with the translation on a screen above the stage.
In the first scene, Jasmine talks about her family and her life as a science student at Sana’a University. She voices anger and unhappiness about unwanted attention from men — her neighbour Sultan, who watches her from his window and his son Ali, who follows her as she walks to university.
Like the other characters Jasmine connects with the audience focusing on individuals seated in the front row, looks them in the eye and speaks as if her monologue is solely for them. Later in the play, Nasser, who manages a cafe at the university, offers members of the audience a cup of juice and makes them part of the story.
“I feel under siege,” a distressed Jasmine says looking for empathy. “When a girl reaches maturity, she becomes society’s enemy. Her father thinks she is a landmine that will explode between his feet.”
As she continues with her monologue she puts on an abaya, which can be interpreted as a symbol of isolation and seclusion from society.
In the next scene Jasmine disappears. An inspector introduces herself and complains about the lack of assistance she receives from Jasmine’s family describing how her father cursed everyone. The inspector calls Jasmine’s mother the “lady of the veil of tears,” who pleads with her to bring her daughter back.
She then describes a meeting with Dr Aqlan, a professor at Sana’a University with a reputation for luring young female students to his apartment with promises of good grades in return for sexual favours.
The other characters in Jasmine’s life tell their stories, which contrast sharply with the account Jasmine gives of their relationships in the first scene. Sultan, the neighbour, speaks about how Jasmine opened her window and looked at him licking an ice cream.
In a powerful, emotional monologue delivered sitting on a ladder, Ali speaks about how he played with Jasmine when they were children. He was amazed at Jasmine’s knowledge of ancient Yemeni history. After Jasmine’s disappearance he goes to the university, sits in the garden by a fountain and falls asleep. He is awakened by a mysterious figure dressed in white carrying a white book who leads him to a pomegranate tree where he finds Jasmine’s bag and secret diary.
This scene takes the play from everyday reality to the world of magic and illusion. The white figure vanishes after showing Ali Jasmine’s bag. Finding the bag costs Ali his life. He takes it to Jasmine’s family and her tribe kills the young man. The inspector comments that Jasmine is from a ferocious tribe and nothing can be done to bring the killers to justice.
Jasmine’s mother, dressed in a colourful traditional Yemeni costume, tells her story emphasising that she had four children and seven miscarriages. This is the voice of the older generation concerned with female honour and influenced by black magic and superstition.
Jasmine appears again in the last scene. She is in the garden of the university talking about her encounter with the man in the white robe. A smoky mist rises slowly covering the stage.
As in the novel, no one knows what happened to Jasmine. Everyone wants a piece of the charming young student and family, friends, fellow students and nosy neighbours are quick to make their own judgments on the case but no one knows the truth, which may be stranger than they all anticipate.
Like the play, Ahdal’s novel provided a penetrating flash of insight into life in Yemeni society telling the unvarnished truth about the world of a girl whose every move comes under a gaze that, in her words, is “a noxious type of male violence.”