In 1911 Youssef al-Khouri Boutros Yazbek had a problem and that problem was vice. He was so worried about it that he decided to write and publish a play, which he called “The Afflication of Young and Old: Drinking and Playing Dice”.
In his introduction he explains his motivations.
“I have been thinking about our times”, he says “and looking at the illness that is holding back most countries. I have decided that the illness and affliction of these lands is drunkenness, smoking and playing dice.”
He adds that “I see a people begging for improvement but I have not seen it … they are asking for unity I have not found it.”
His solution to this is simple but a little unusual. He says that “I have hurriedly composed a comic play that I hope pleases they eye of the reader. It is comic in style but its message is serious because it represents the state of our times.”
He is, however, under no illusions about his skill as a playwright. “I am no writer”, he says “neither of prose nor poetry.” But he still thinks the endeavour is worth embarking upon. “If I am wrong, I will not be the first person to be wrong. Nor will I be the first person to achieve something, if I achieve something with this. I acknowledge my weakness and deficiencies to the noble reader.”
He ends on a last humble request: “I must ask any troupe that decides to perform my play to invite its author to the performance.”
The play itself is hardly a romp but it ends on a triumphant not (triumphant if you are Yazbek) that the Government has announced a ban on all drinking and dice playing and that anyone found violating the law will have 5 years in prison.
Beyond the almost charmingly futile attempt to try to stop the rot with a short farce about drinking and gambling, this little text is an interesting example of an Arabic play-text from the early 20th century.
A large number of plays were printed in this period but they are often hard to find because of the informal nature of their production and lack of records of what plays were printed. Many plays seem to have been printed because their performances had been successful and people wanted to buy a script. One of the biggest stars of Egyptian theatre at the turn of the century, Salama Higazi, had many of his plays printed. They were largely done by a single press (Gharzuzi) in Alexandria.
This play, however, was not printed after the success of a production. It was printed by one, hopeful, man in attempt to get it performed. Nor was it printed in Beirut as most books were at the time but in the mountain town of Aley, on the road to Damascus.
Youssef Yazbek’s efforts were not a huge success in the long run. You can still get a good drink in Lebanon. Gambling is more difficult but the palatial Casino du Liban still does a good trade. At least he tried though…