Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 March 2000
Issue No. 473
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Back to Rod El-Farag

By Nehad Selaiha

Nehad Selaiha As I drove down to Rod El-Farag Cultural Palace, which stands where the old vegetable market used to be, across the road from the Nile, I was flooded by memories. The tidy, greenless Corniche, parched by neglect and the sun, and eternally swimming in a thin haze of smoke, seemed to melt away. Another image, shadowy and faded but unbearably beautiful and painful, slowly floated up from the depths of childhood memories to take its place: a dusty shore of earth and lush vegetation -- and slippery, muddy patches in winter -- sloping down to the river at the end of a tram-line on which bright yellow carriages chugged gently under the graceful trees bordering the route from Shubra Street, through Rod El-Farag, to the Nile.

Before her family grew, forcing her to give up her little pleasures, my mother used to take us there, my elder sister and I, to watch the sunset on the water and remember her hometown in the north, in the greenest part of the Delta. We never stayed after dark, never saw any bars or nightclubs blaze into life at night. I read about them later, but by that time they had disappeared. The chronicles of the Egyptian theatre tell us that the beloved shore of my early childhood was the earliest playground and nursery for many actors, singers and dancers in the twenties, and remained the home of many small theatrical groups, offering music hall and variety shows at Monte Carlo, San Stefano and other less famous cabarets well into the forties. Comedian Ali El-Kassar, though he had his own theatre in the more respectable Emadeddin Street, never neglected Rod El-Farag, often performing there in the summer, side by side with the company of Fawzi Muneeb who shared El-Kassar's dark complexion and therefore plagiarised his vaudevilles and the comic character of the dark Nubian, Osman, who El-Kassar devised and was famed for. Amina Rizq, too, mentions in an interview that she first became infatuated with theatre when her family moved to Rod El-Farag, and she used to sneak out with her young aunt, Amina Mohamed, and make her way to the Nile to join the carnival held there every night.

By the time I knew that shore it had become a twilight area; the carnival had dwindled and all but disappeared. But even in its heyday, it had been marginal, on the fringe of the theatrical mainstream in Emadeddin Street, the home of such illustrious companies as Ramsis, Fatma Rushdi, and Naguib El-Rihani. Now, in the year 2000, the Nile shore at Rod El-Farag bears no trace of its former rich night life; it has no theatres, cabarets or nightclubs. Emadeddin Street, too, has fallen on hard times, becoming drab and squalid. It still has some cinemas; but of its many theatres, only one, El-Rihani, has survived.

Just as the Nile of Rod El-Farag is deeply embedded in my childhood, Emadeddin street is a precious part of my youth; and last week the two merged together in the crucible of my memory through a play and a place: a revival of Samir Sarhan's Rod El-Farag at the cultural palace of Rod El-Farag.

Rod El-Farag first opened in the Spring of 1982 at Mohamed Farid theatre (now defunct) in Emadeddin Street. It was an instant hit and seemed destined for a long run. It closed however after only 18 performances when a fire destroyed the stage, the dressing rooms and part of the auditorium. The real cause of the fire remains a mystery now as it was then. The official report blamed it on an electrical fault, waving aside the initial, and familiar, lighted-stub-of-a-cigarette theory. Nevertheless, rumours buzzed around that it was arson. The culprits, it was widely and warily whispered, were not, as one might reasonably expect (given the religious sources of the play) anti-theatre Islamic extremists (of the bigoted, ferocious breed incubated and nurtured by the regime in the universities in the seventies), but agents of the former president's clique who regarded the production as anti-Sadat propaganda and a vindication and glorification of his assassin and who thus wanted to put a stop to it at any price.

"Metaweh's lavish, gimmicky production, with non-professional actors... is a real credit to its dedicated cast and director, Mohamed El-Shabrawi"
Fortunately there was no loss of life. The fire took place when the theatre was deserted, and though it caused extensive damage to the acting and tiring spaces and effectively reduced the play's elaborate sets and costumes to ashes, it did not spread to the rest of the building. Ironically, however, this added fuel to the rumours, and the fact that the late Karam Mutaweh, who directed the play, and his wife Sohair El-Murshidi, who starred in it, were outspoken critics of Sadat's policies and the Camp David accord did little to dispel them. Those who had seen the production gone credence to the rumours and found an incontrovertible motive for foul play in Mutaweh's management of a particular scene which features the assassination of a British officer during the British occupation of Egypt: he froze the scene at the moment of shooting while Ali El-Haggar, in a voice-over, chanted an emotive patriotic song, egging on the assassin and blessing his hand. Indeed, for many, not all of them Sadat-sympathisers, that scene had come across as brash, gloating and quite repulsive.

I remember racing down to the theatre in anguish that distant spring evening in '82 after a brief call from the author telling me the news. Mohamed Farid was not only one of the oldest theatres in town, a veritable historical site, but one where I had many cherished memories. It was there that I made my single public appearance on a real stage as an actress during a student festival of Shakespeare's plays in '64. I had frequented it almost daily during my last two years at university to watch plays, attend rehearsals, visit friends at the Theatre Magazine it issued, or simply hang around actors. They fascinated me then, and still do, though the magic has somewhat diminished. It was also there that I met my first boyfriend, a stage-struck young Armenian from Shubra who loved not me but my performances of Hermia and Desdemona. No wonder the romance did not long outlast the brief theatrical glow bestowed upon me by the Bard.

There were two fire-engines, some policemen and a small crowd outside the theatre when I arrived. The fire had been put out, but there were hoses everywhere and a clutter of objects on the drenched pavement and at the entrance. As I waded through the water inside, choking with the heavy smell of fetid wetness and acrid smoke that clung to everything, I felt that a precious part of my youth had been irretrievably lost, and at the sight of the charred, gutted out stage I burst into tears. I was only one in a chorus of weepers. The only discordant note came from Metaweh: he was angry, very angry and made a lot of accusations aloud and under his breath. I remember thinking in my misery, quite unreasonably of course, that if half of what I overheard him saying was true, then I should never forgive him for having incensed whoever it was to the point of ruthlessly setting fire to the theatre. It seemed at the time that no production, and particularly that production of his, was worth it. I had seen it and thought that he had warped the text to serve his own ideological ends and sacrificed its taut design and human complexity for a kind of spurious, topical pertinence.

Sarhan's play was written at least one year before Sadat was gunned down. He never intended it as a vehicle for the kind of thinly camouflaged political criticism that flourished in the theatre of the sixties. Indeed, by temperament, education and training, he flinches from the immediately topical, the openly didactic or politically transparent, believing they are of transient value and can only touch the surface of life. The major influences on his work are Ibsen, Chekov, Miller and O'Neil, rather than Brecht or Peter Weiss, and even his most knavish characters are drawn with sympathetic understanding, mild sarcasm and gentle humour. After an early realistic moral satire, The Liar (never performed), and a satirical fantasy, A King in Search of a Job (performed 1972), about a topsy-turvy imaginary kingdom, ravaged by drought and famine, he turned to his favourite mode of psychological realism and his favoured subject, the tragic human condition. In Sitt El-Mulk (performed at the National in 1987, starring Nur El-Sherif and Samiha Ayyoub), he reinterpreted the character of the mad, 11th century Fatimid ruler of Egypt, El-Hakim bi Amrellah (literally, he who rules by the order of Allah), presenting him as a complex, tormented, existential hero, driven insane -- like Albert Camus' Caligula -- by immortal longings, and destroying many people, and ultimately himself, in his quest for divine knowledge and wisdom.

His next play, Rod El-Farag, took its inspiration not from history, but from Greek legend and Holy Scripture. The story of the legendary Phaedra, who falsely accused her stepson, Hippolytus, when he spurned her incestuous passion, merges with that of Potiphar's wife and her attempted seduction of Joseph, mentioned in both the Quran and the Bible. Originally, Sarhan boldly titled his text Imra'at Al-Aziz (The Wife of the Ruler), which is the term used in the Quran to refer to Potiphar's wife. Predictably, there was trouble with the censor, not only on account of the title, the presentation of a sacred figure on stage (prohibited by Al-Azhar), and the incest theme, but also because the heroine's monologues were redolent of sexual passion and abounded in erotic imagery of the kind found in the Psalms and the Song of Songs. The offensive passages had to be excised, the title was changed to the innocuous Rod El-Farag (the setting of the first part which presents the heroine, Zubayda, as a singer in a sleazy joint owned by a Greek in the forties), and the hot-headed revolutionary, Youssef, who assassinates the British officer at the joint, became not a real but an adopted son of the modern Potiphar/Theseus, Aziz Pasha.

In the text, the political assassination which stirred up such a hornet's nest in the '82 production serves only to trigger off the action which consists mainly in the exposition and development of the conflicting passions and tangled loyalties of the Aziz-Youssef-Zubayda triangle and the intricate power-game of domination and subordination which engages all the characters, including the obsequious, sycophantic timeserver Fahmi, the Pasha's personal secretary, the manipulative, parasitical Aref, the brother of his first, deceased wife, and even Wadi', the old, defeated, alternately cynical and melancholic poet who looked after Zubayda after the British killed her father. Indeed, the strength of this play lies in its complex characterisation, almost unparalleled in modern Egyptian drama, its subtle orchestration of mood and feeling, and its daring airing of sexual passion and almost unprecedented questioning of traditional ethics, particularly where sex is concerned.

For a play of such complexity and such a sensitive subject to be performed in Rod El-Farag, before the conventional, unsophisticated audience of its cultural palace, is a feat in itself; that it came across so powerfully, surpassing in its impact Metaweh's lavish, gimmicky production, with non-professional actors, and despite the crude performance conditions (a makeshift stage inside a small marquee, with primitive lighting, decor and sound equipment), is a marvel and a real credit to its dedicated cast and to its director, Mohamed El-Shabrawi, stage and costume designer, Mahmoud Gamaleddin, and composer, Rami Wagdi. I left Rod El-Farag cheerfully thinking that with more shows of this calibre, the area can perhaps recover something of its scintillating theatrical past.

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