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
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
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
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
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.
transl. into English by aw
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:
[and following pages]
The University of Wisconsin made the German version available while
adding the following copyright note:
© copyright by the author, the editor(s) and/or the publisher
and the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.
This article, downloaded from a collection collection published by
the University of Wisconsin may be freely used for non-profit educational
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It is reused here, and translated into English, for the purpose of
advancing the debate on the merits of turning - or returning to Brecht,
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