Hanging in the Balance: Egyptian Theatre post January 25
von Sarah Enany
Erschienen in: Recherchen 104: Theater im arabischen Sprachraum – Theatre in the Arab World (12/2013)
In the 1990s, a pair of independent feminist theatre-makers approached the head of a major European country’s cultural centre to ask for funding for their women’s theatre project. “I have it on good authority that theatre is not a genuine Egyptian art form”, said the high-ranking European official, “and so we are only funding native Egyptian art forms such as storytelling and puppetry.”
Fortunately this narrow view is now mostly changed, and we are moving out of the days when colonialist perception unwittingly went hand-in-hand with repressive Egyptian laws to stifle independent theatre. As in many countries throughout the globe, traditional modes of performance now flourish in Egypt side-by-side (sometimes in tandem) with new and diverse forms. Stand-up comedy, storytelling and the traditional Egyptian qaraqoz (puppet clown) combine with proscenium arch theatre and texts both Egyptian and imported. But this is not to say that everything in the garden is rosy.
Although there is a governmental performance space actually named the Avant-Garde Theatre, it is generally verifiable that, since the early 1990s, the officially-produced state theatre has followed the ‘avant-garde’ trends first set by independent theatre makers. Despite the so-called ‘Golden Sixties’, the theatre of that time was, in fact, a government-produced, ideological, politically-driven theatre meant to disseminate President Nasser’s new ideology and to act as a safety-valve for dissent (not always safe, since many artists went to prison). What it did was carefully avoid any issues that fall under ‘the personal is political’ banner. There was no attempt whatsoever to challenge the traditional, patriarchal familial status quo, the religious command to obey those in power, or the role of women, to say nothing of unconventional sexuality.
The 1970s were no better: President Sadat’s new, conservative ideology and pandering to the Islamists resulted in an almost total neglect of theatre; filling the gap came the commercial musicals, which flourished, attended by Gulf Arab audiences. Today’s independent theatre artists cannot, therefore, really be said to be following on from an Egyptian tradition that already existed, but derived most of their cultural ideas and artistic methods from their avant-garde counterparts worldwide, such as Freire, Grotovski, Boal et al., as well as from non-theatrical sources such as cinema and the visual arts. A strengthening influence (much vilified by the classicists) was the now-defunct Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (1988–2010), especially in its early years, which proved an inspiration to an entire generation of younger theatre artists, and was, for many, their first and only exposure to international theatre.
‘The personal is political,’ though, is a risky business. Despite attempts by a few women writers to introduce a feminist strain into the largely patriarchal and phallocentric Egyptian theatre, it was not until the 1990s, with such fringe troupes as Effat Yehia’s Caravan and Nora Amin’s La Musica, that firmly-oriented feminist performances touching upon many taboo subjects and personal issues came onto the scene. Maher Sabry was the first playwright/director to portray gay and lesbian love in a sympathetic manner on stage. Despite their courage, these independent theatre makers — unless they are lucky enough to have influential friends or know a good grant writer — are in a never-ending uphill struggle that all-too-frequently ends with exile or bankruptcy. Sabry, hounded by state security after defending gay rights issues, has been coerced into exile in the USA, Amin spends much of her time giving workshops abroad, Effat Yehia and playwright/director Dalia Basiouny have found a refuge in the American University in Cairo, while Dalia el-Abd, like many of her fellow dancer-choreographers, can only perform if she finds a space in a foreign cultural centre. Other artists have simply faded into oblivion.
It would be all too easy to create an Orientalist view of this and impute it to the pressures of ‘Islamic’ culture and its attendant conservatism. As always, the explanation is more nuanced. In fact, despite an entrenched patriarchal heritage, there were significant attempts at liberalisation in Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century. For example, in the 1919 Revolution, women ripped off their face veils in a huge public demonstration against the collusion of the monarchy with British occupation, while Fatma Rushdi, founder of her own theatre company, gave sanctuary to demonstrating students fleeing the British guns. Whether these attempts would have come to fruition if left alone is now unknowable, but in any case, the popular uprisings were nipped in the bud by the self-styled 1952 Revolution — in reality a coup d’état by the military, which came to power and has never left. On the surface, the Nasser regime was very liberal, encouraging women to “rise up and fight alongside men”, as a state-produced song of the time exhorted. In reality, though, there was an all-encompassing and pervasive terror of the spies of the State, who actually were everywhere.
Since 1952, there has been a systematic crushing of any genuinely creative vision and a relentless drive to appoint the least qualified persons to government posts, especially decision-making ones. This has resulted in a 60-year legacy of exclusion, where those in power are chosen primarily for their loyalty to the regime and have a vested interest in preserving the status quo, whereas those with any sort of fresh and original vision are shunted aside.
This may make it clear why, despite the Revolution, it is probably a waste of energy to try and reform the state theatre apparatus anytime soon as it remains plagued with members of the ancien regime, who care more about paychecks than performances, at every conceivable level of operation. With this in mind, it is hardly an exaggeration to state that the main driving force moving Egyptian theatre forward is independent practitioners. But even when wholehearted enthusiasm for independent theatre-making is present, there is also a desperate lack of dedicated theatre venues that are accessible to all.
Although the Egyptian population now numbers nearly 90 million, apart from the fitfully-operating Cultural Homes and Palaces (relics of the Socialist era) in the provinces, and not counting makeshift spaces such as the premises of foreign cultural centres borrowed for the space of 2 or 3 performances at the most, the number of operational theatres does not exceed 50. Here, as elsewhere, the independent sector comes to the rescue: the Sawy Cultural Center (although it has been known to practice internal censorship), Rawabet and other independent spaces affiliated with the Townhouse Gallery, and, in Alexandria, Mahmoud Abou-Doma’s Teatro and the Jesuit Center’s Garage. As far as rehearsal spaces go, there is Ahmad Al Attar’s Studio Emad Eddin, but it can hardly service a city of some 15 million people, and the other spaces are constantly under threat.
The good thing about Egypt’s 25 January Revolution, though, despite the general persistence of the status quo, is that the old legal clause which killed street theatre before it could even start — the article of the Emergency Law forbidding the ‘public congregation’ of more than 5 people — has been, for all practical purposes, abolished. The public uprisings on 25 January 2011 blasted through the ‘public congregation’ barrier and, in addition, spawned a great deal of impromptu performance art. This quickly gave way to a new genre — quasi-documentary, quasi-verbatim theatre, quasi-stand-up, performed by artists/activists all over Egypt, but mainly in Tahrir and other areas of Cairo. The performances were held for the most part in public squares during the big demonstrations leading up to Mubarak’s ousting; other venues were alternative spaces such as the courtyards or gardens of historical homes. Prominent among these performances were Hany Abdel-Nasser’s comedy-musical political cabaret Pages from the Memory of the Square, Dalia Basiouny’s Tales from Tahrir, Abeer Ali’s John Doe, Hamada Shusha’s An Evening with the Revolution, Amr Qabeel’s Tales of a Square, and Mohamed Abdel-Fattah’s Haala Group who were active in Tahrir, both demonstrating and performing. Rawabet Gallery also hosted two evenings of personal testimonies by artists who took part in the demonstrations and were subjected to arrest and torture at the hands of the military police in the cellars of the Egyptian Museum, under the title No Time for Art, compiled by Laila Soliman.
It wasn’t long before the state theatre, true to form, jumped on the bandwagon. Forget any governmental theatre ‘celebrating’ the ‘Revolution, like Abdel-Moneim Kamel’s Pyramids and the Revolution (Cairo Opera House) and Mohamed el-Gheiti’s Roses of the Garden (State Theatre Organization), it’s all cheap, embarrassing trading on recent events, the fat cats of the ancien regime paying lip-service to change while milking a few last pounds out of the government’s coffers. (The author of the latter committed a horrendous faux-pas by inviting the families of the young people killed in Tahrir to the show, while prominently displaying their photographs and re-enacting their deaths on stage. Every day, according to the theatre’s artistic director, the auditorium was filled with screams and wails of anguish. The venue for this travesty? The Comedy Theatre. Fate, it seems, has a sense of humor.)
As of this article, two years after the Revolution, now hijacked by the Military Council and the Islamists, a mood of disillusionment seems to have set in. This was palpable in many performances, the last of which was Isis Mon Amour, which clearly stated through the General-For-All-Time that “We are still masters of the stage; we’ve just replaced the actors”, replacing one totalitarian rule with another. The lack of any real impetus for change or any agenda on the part of anyone currently in power to improve the conditions of people working in the theatre means that, Revolution or no, the fate of Egyptian theatre still hangs in the balance.