Sad al-Ghareeb: Notes on Script and Performance in Yemeni Drama

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

From the first sight, it appears that motion pictures (namely fiction films and television series) and symphonies are worlds apart, yet they are similar in many ways. Perhaps the most common of which is that they both tell a story. However, what makes them more similar than any other form of artistic expression is that they require a certain harmony and seamless synergy between a group of artists in order to produce a coherent work of art. Most importantly, a work where the viewer or listener does not feel strange, unless strangeness itself is part of the creative intention. Broadly speaking, these two genres are similar in their reliance on a director or a conductor who draws out the roles in which each artist performs separately, but brings them together as a greater ensemble. Thus, the piano does not vocalize all it wants to express merely due to its astounding notes as a camera does not depict all it wants to show just because it can create fascinating imagery. This also applies to television drama as well. In order to delve deeper into these concepts, I will be discussing them against the background of Yemeni drama, specifically the newly released series Sad al-Ghareeb (The Stranger’s Dam). Although Sad al-Ghareeb provides the Yemeni audience with an unconventional drama, the show’s attempt to cover everything, the inconsistency between action and dialogue, as well as the actors’ rather timid and anxious performance, led to a work that differed structurally from mainstream Yemeni drama but did not overcome its greatest challenges in script and performance.

A scene from Sad al-Ghareeb series. Screenshot taken from the Youtube channel of Yemen Shabab TV Channel.

Sad al-Ghareeb tells the story of two tribes, al-Mujawera and al-Rayahena, who come into conflict over a shared water dam. The series moves between two time periods—the 1980s and the present—depicting the scenes of conflict across the two villages, the broken families left behind, and the grudge that was passed down to the next generation.

The series was created by Abdullah Yahya Ibrahim, who is also starring as both Yahya and Amir; written by Yousra Abbas, and directed by Hashem Hashem. The show also stars a number of established actors, such as Nabil Hizam , playing Hamid, and Najeeba Abdullah as Khaizrann.

Did the show present an unconventional story for Yemeni drama? Definitely. By having each episode follow a non-linear structure, which moves between different time periods, Hashem Hashem introduces a new narrative to Yemeni viewers. Yousra Abbas avoids the common trope of creating silly characters, which sets the series apart from other mainstream shows. Composer Muhammad al-Qahoum’s scores also stand out and deserve praise. However, does the unconventional necessarily mean better? Or is there a possibility that the unconventional may in essence be akin to the mainstream?

The story that tries to say everything, says nothing. While it is true that the time and space a writer has in a television series enables them to create more than one story and many pivotal characters, the most difficult challenge always remains in the writer’s ability to create a balanced relationship between the characters and the concepts embodied in the story. The aim is to create an immersive experience that not only narrates events but also engages the viewer. In an interview with journalist Samir al-Nimri, Yousra Abbas said that the series addresses “many social issues in rural and urban areas, mainly water, money, poverty, oppression, disease, deception, greed, murder and treachery”. [1]Consequently, the result was fragmented scenes and a rather incomplete, premature exploration of these wide-ranging issues.

A scene from Sad al-Ghareeb series. Screenshot taken from the Youtube channel of Yemen Shabab TV Channel.

Overall, the episodes offer a brief narration of events which only aid in explaining rather than feeling the story. In the first five episodes, the viewer understands, through direct conversations between characters, that the two villages are struggling with water shortage. Yet throughout the episodes, we barely experience their suffering, witness the hardships of families, or their drying lands.

To begin, in the first episode, Yahya teases his sister Rayhana (Reham Gibran) as she carries a bucket of water on her head. The scene culminates with the bucket dropping and the water splashing onto the ground.  In the second episode, one of the villagers (Samir al-Jarbani) meets Hajj Abed (Abdul Rahman al-Masaybi). The villager complains about the problem of water shortage in the village—and the consequent migration of its people — to which he himself suggests that they build their own dam. Hajj Abed’s response is that the solution is to pray for rain. The villagers then gather to pray, and by the time they finish, it begins to rain.

In the first scene, the director struggles to convince the viewer that the lack of water constitutes an existential crisis for Yahya and his family. It is hard to comprehend that a generation that grew up with scarce water would so carelessly waste its resources. Meanwhile, the second scene embodies the issue of focusing on narration rather than experience. The scene from start to finish does nothing more than use characters to explain what has happened and will happen. The villager who suggested ​​building the dam did not insist on his idea, and how did he end up accepting the rain prayer as an answer to his proposal so easily? Moreover, the writer lost a golden opportunity to depict the suffering of the village. In screenwriting, one should not neglect any opportunity to hone and strengthen the main conflict. Unfortunately, Sad al-Ghareeb misses more than one opportunity to do so.

What if it had not rained? What if Hajj Abed and the villagers had to build a dam but had no means to? The attempt to tackle more than one issue and several storylines at once deprives the creators from the opportunity to dig deeper into each issue separately and explore more complex conflicts. Drama feeds on this complexity.

In general, the show suffers from inconsistencies between actions, dialogue and performance. The premature construction of the world of the story leads to a series of characters who seem to exist in isolation from each other, reciting lines that—rather than pushing the narrative forward—create contradictions that do not serve the story.

The contradictions portrayed in the second episode, mostly in regards to Hamid and Hajj Muqdam, are one example. In one scene, Yahya tells Alawi (Ibrahim al-Zabli) that Hamid is the cause of conflict between the two tribes. But earlier scenes do not portray Hamid as a powerful character with much influence. For instance, Hamid gets into a fight with Yahya in front of the dam because the latter had offered it for sale. In the following scene, Hajj Muqdam (Mohammad al-Harazi), who appears to be the face of al-Rayahena tribe, has a stand-off with Hamid and declares that the dam belongs to both al-Mujawera and al-Rayahena. Later, the two villages meet at al-Gharib Dam. In this scene, al-Mujawera express their wish to turn the page on the past and open the dam, placing their empty buckets of water in front of al-Rayahena as a gesture of truce. Hajj Muqdam rejects their request on the premise that it is difficult to simply forget what they have done. Hamid then asks, “To whose land will the water flow?” Hajj Muqdam, who is a member of Hamid’s tribe, responds that all this land belongs to al-Rayahena. With this statement they enter a verbal dispute in which al-Hajj Muqdam implicitly accuses Hamid of theft. All of which unfolds in front of the enemy tribe.

If the show is portraying Yemeni tribes — who support each other through justice and injustice — then how does Hajj Muqdam allow the enemy tribe to witness this scene? If Hamid was the actor keeping this conflict alive for the past 26 years, how is it that he is so easily confronted? What does the character of Hajj Muqdam represent? Is he a true tribesman? If so, why does he confront Hamid in front of the other tribe rather than keep it within their own? Is he a sympathetic tribesman? Or is his behavior governed by each scene separately, in isolation from other scenes? On the other hand, how does the sheikh of al-Mujawera forget that Sabir, a member of his tribe, was killed by Rajeh who is one of al-Rayahena’s sons? This point alone would be in his favor in the negotiation for reopening the dam.

A scene from Sad al-Ghareeb series. Screenshot taken from the Youtube channel of Yemen Shabab TV Channel.

As for the scene of Rajeh’s killing, it is clear that its pieces do not fit together, resulting in an unnatural flow of events and a fragmented image that does not reflect the reality of the tribe as Yemenis know it. The scene begins with Rajeh laying large rocks to block the dam. Saber arrives together with a woman, whom he instructs to walk over Rajeh’s rocks and go towards the water. The woman refuses. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Saber says, “Or did you forget that he left you and treated you like you were worthless?” This statement provokes Rajeh to start a fight, which ends with Saber’s killing and Rajeh’s escape.

Saber’s killing coincides with the arrival of the two tribes, and rather than an outcry or eruption of clashes, both tribes stand passively around the body. Some exclaim, “There is no power or strength except in God”, others fly their hands in shock, while Habib, Saber’s brother, kneels beside his brother’s body. Before running off to chase Rajeh, Habib lays blame on al-Rayahena in a relatively long monologue, a gesture which does not fit the graveness or urgency of the scene.

Once again, what Saber told the woman was unfitting with the context of the scene. There are many scenarios to provoke Rajeh through a dialogue relevant to the tribe or dam without the need to evoke a statement that has nothing to do with the woman’s refusal to cross the dam. Dialogue that does not fit the context, such as this, reveals a weakness in the script and its inconsistency with the storyline, leaving the viewer with the impression that scenes are constructed hastily and removed from the real world that the series aims to portray. Even the emotional responses of the characters in this scene illustrate how they act in isolation from each other. There is a body lying on the ground, while Hajj Abid and Hajj Muqdam, along with three other figures, stand by calmly and passively. Even Nasser (Tariq Radman), Hamid’s rival, stands silently as Hamid makes threats. For Yemeni viewers with a basic knowledge of tribes and the turns that such conflicts take, this scene feels like a botched attempt at portraying tribal customs. It is surprising how a scene with great potential did not fuel the narrative of the conflict on which all the remaining episodes of the series could have been built.

Although the script bear most of the responsibility for this fragmentation, the confusion that the characters reveal in more than one scene falls within the responsibility of the director, whose most important role is to breakdown the script and lead the actors through the journey of understanding their characters. However, in most scenes with more than two characters, the viewer finds that the actors — not their characters — whether speaking or silent, freeze or work too hard on their facial expressions in a way that makes them seem fake and unnatural. This is because the characters deliver their lines like a sermon: memorized and presented.

Before I conclude, we must always remember that it is important for us to experiment, but equally important, we also need critique and an accumulation of knowledge.

In the end, anything is possible in the world of visual storytelling, but as a storyteller it is imperative to create a world for your story and abide by its laws. Only then will the story appear more realistic and compelling to the viewer. Because a lawless world tells an incoherent story. Like symphonies, television dramas need a multilayered and complex script as well as a harmonious and moving performances. Complexity here is not the opposite of simplicity, just as simplicity is not synonymous with weakness. The most captivating shows are those which say a lot with a focus on content, not size. Shows which embed events, actions, and dialogue with greater meaning. Most important of all, they are the ones that tell a complete and coherent story. Despite Sad al-Ghareeb’s attempts to present a new form of television drama, it unfortunately did not succeed in addressing the most common problems of screenwriting and performance in Yemeni television dramas.

[1] Yousra Abbas. يسرى عباس: غياب الأعمال اليمنية يدفع المجتمع اليمني لمتابعة الدراما العربية والأجنبية [In the absence of local shows, Yemeni viewers follow Arab and Western dramas].  Yemen News Network. Retrieved from http://yn-n.net/General/Details.aspx?ID=4610

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