|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
2 - 8 August 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
An identity elementTo be Armenian is to be Egyptian is to be yourself
Profile by Youssef Rakha
Vanya Exerjian: actress, producer, child psychologist; her home: Heliopolis, the American University in Cairo theatre, the Anatolian town of Erzerum; her distinguishing features: a temperamental disposition, a dramatic voice, a spectacular presence. In the last decade three media have borne tidings of her gift: the non- commercial performance space, the cinematic milieu and the television screen.
The beginning of Exerjian's theatrical career coincided with the widening of horizons brought about by attending the American University in Cairo. Lately The Last Walk recalled the delightful madness of her earliest performances, revealing depths that El-Warsha's last, stylised shows had kept hidden.
In the case of the latter, Exerjian insists, the occasion of her appearance was a subterfuge carried out by the director Charles Yamine and the cameraman Tareq El-Telmisani. The project was an advertisement for a brand of tissue paper said to be "soft, strong and full of tenderness." Exerjian was present as assistant director when her colleagues asked her to repeat those words, which formed the last part of the ad; "to try out the shot," they urged. A professional model had been recruited, and so, unsuspecting, Exerjian complied. But her attempt was so effortlessly disarming, timid and exact, it was her face, not the model's, that transmigrated across Egyptian households. And thanks to the marketing slogan in question -- a few seconds of the viewer's life -- it became known to millions.
In the film industry, too, Exerjian has kept a reluctant profile as a performer. Despite appearances in films by Youssri Nasralla, Zaki Abdel- Wahab and Radwan El-Kashef, her role as a producer is the only one she takes seriously in this context, thinking of herself as primarily a stage actress.
"There was always practice and experience, but I am still not a professional actress. Being a professional actress entails that I devote myself to acting full-time." A shift of tonality here, as if the statement conceals some inner act of catharsis. "I did do that for a while [in the early 1990s], and I really enjoyed the small parts that I played in high-brow films. But it was a disappointing period, maybe because I never tried to spread out, as it were, my standards were too high. On at least three occasions I was offered parts, big parts, important parts that I would probably accept now. But at the time I wasn't looking for just anything. I wanted to work with Youssef Chahine, with Shadi Abdel-Salam," she stresses ironically. "And maybe my problem as a full-time actress was simply that some offers I shouldn't have said no to. I didn't know how to pander to the market or where to draw the line.
"There was one attempt," she declares, "one daring attempt to break through the glass cage and do something crazy: I was going to phone Mohamed Khan and tell him I wanted to play Nesma," in Khan's never realised project of the same name, about the trials and tribulations of an obese young woman who is fond of food (Soad Hosni was one candidate for the role). "I would plead with him to audition me, to train me, I deliberated. Or, better still, I would offer to help produce the film. He had cast me in the part of Nesma's friend, and for years the attempt would come up, only to disappear and reappear periodically." Was an attempt actually made? "Once, I bumped into him and I said, 'Why don't you let me play Nesma?' I said it jokingly, but I didn't mean it as a joke," she says. "But since his only response was laughter, I think he took it as a joke. After that I thought again about phoning and telling him how seriously I actually wanted the part. I never did.
"Nesma was one thing I felt very strongly about," Exerjian earnestly confesses.
On another occasion, while casually describing the sensationally elaborate schemes hatched in "the attempt," she once delivered a remarkable impromptu monologue about being inches away from stardom and never making it, a most persuasive swan song. Such is the ease with which she drifts from unmediated self-expression to stylised performance. Dramatising her disillusion of an idle night, she addressed an absent audience in the shape of an acquaintance who happened to be there to listen.
Acting is not Exerjian's only connection with the film industry, however. With Galila Nawwar, she manages Video 2000, the production company that dubs the Disney animation classics into Arabic and has produced, among other television ads and programmes promotional documentaries as well as features, Dawoud Abdel-Sayed's Al- Bahth An Sayed Marzouq (The Search for Sayed Marzouq). Currently she is in the process of founding Media 100, a sound studio and "edit suite" whose ownership she will share exclusively with Nawwar and Salma Osman. She is only too aware of her success as a producer and what it takes day in, day out: that is precisely the reason she is not a professional actress.
It is not as if production leaves her idle or cold, though being a producer does not involve the same kind of passion. One thing it does involve is effective administration, though. And in this context a tradition of Armenian business acumen and an unselfconsciously patrician sophistication combine to make up a different persona altogether. This pragmatic Exerjian practices none of the relentless self-excavation the actress regularly undertakes in rehearsal, none of the reaching out to other people's spaces she first learned to do with Hassan El-Geretly's theatre troupe, El- Warsha. She has only decisions to make, instructions to communicate, meetings to attend and schedules to put out. In common with many Egyptian Armenians of the same career-driven persuasion, she is cosmopolitan and shrewd. Mistress of her own domain, she has expensive tastes and a complex network of loyalties.
"Right now I wish I was sitting in our town, Erzerum [in Turkish Armenia]...
"When I was growing up and becoming aware of things, there was a period in my life that was very difficult for me." Suddenly the frustrated film star and the multi-lingual producer become one. "Up until I went to AUC I had led a somewhat sheltered life. I went to foreign schools and studied Armenian, I studied Armenian history and Armenian poetry, and I went up on stage to read it, telling the community how Armenia is heaven on earth, the promised land. But at the same time it was Egypt that felt like home, and I kept thinking I don't necessarily want to be anywhere else.
"So there was this kind of conflict, especially when I went to Armenia [for the first time in 1978], because what's left of Armenia is not where my parents come from. What was even more difficult," she moves on to a higher note, "was that when present-day Armenia came into being, I didn't emigrate there. Finally in paradise on earth, I was made to feel like a tourist. But definitely when I went out of Yerevan," she insists, "I felt very in tune with the people. There was a kind of affinity of spirit, as if my soul was taken from them, my soul," she repeats. "There was undoubtedly something in common.
"So there was conflict, until I resolved to have both, Egypt and Armenia, to accept the fact that both are there for me, each in its way. I am very happy to be an Armenian but at the same time sadly aware of Armenian history and how the Diaspora came about. I think it's the fear of losing their identity that drives minority communities to stick together and concentrate on functions that might be somewhat superficial in themselves. Nothing happened to drive me away from the Armenian community, I just gradually felt that if I was to do something for Armenia or be a representative of Armenia in some way, I need not be part of the community in order to do this. I could do it differently.
"The community does not impinge on what I feel towards Armenia because, you know, it's very much like somebody's relationship with God. One can have one's own relationship with God completely irrespective of the rituals of the religious institution one belongs to."
The ostensive break with the community presaged a longer journey home, a route that involved venturing into alien spaces and incorporating outside forces on the way. With her scandalously Muslim husband, Exerjian now lives in her grandmother's flat in Heliopolis, the place to which she journeyed constantly from her parents' house as a child, luxuriating in the safety of her grandmother's company for weeks on end. The connection, she explains, is far from severed.
An exhaustive account of Exerjian's theatrical career would prove off point. One can assume that its beginning coincided with the widening of horizons brought about by attending university. Exerjian belongs with a unique generation of AUC-educated women: liberated, informed and ruthlessly devoted to their artistic vocation of choice. In the decade during which she was a vital part of the American University's theatrical activities -- "many productions, major productions in French, in English and in Arabic, workshops and daily training and brainstorming sessions, plays for children, A Street Car Named Desire, Six Characters in Search of an Author, important plays that were very rewarding to do" -- the AUC was at its heyday from the viewpoint of the arts. Exerjian discovered another home: the theatre. And she remained loyal to "the AUC clan" long after she graduated, until she joined El-Warsha in 1989. By then the clan had disbanded, abandoning AUC theatre to less buoyant times. It is survived by a puppet theatre company, Zassy, of which Exerjian was part until the early 1990s, when she began courting the cinema and devoting more time to El-Warsha. AUC had given her plenty of exposure and discipline, she says, propelling her out of the cocoon of her upbringing. As an integral part of the one "free troupe" that brought the alternative and the experimental almost to the heart of the mainstream, however, she was propelled even further. Diversity is one of the group's most abiding principles, and the task of creating alternative frameworks in which people from diverse backgrounds can interact is arguably more important to El-Geretly than that of making theatre. As she immersed herself in radically new creative interactions with Upper Egyptians, street performers, left-wing activists, gypsy dancers, illiterate story-tellers, Exerjian brought along her Armenian identity and her dissatisfaction with commercial and state- supported theatre. In Ghazir El-Leil (Tides of Night), an Armenian dirge is juxtaposed with the mawwal of Hassan and Na'ima; and in the group's story telling sessions, stories of the Armenian holocaust would be told repeatedly first in Armenian, then in Arabic translation, until the rest of the group could understand the original unaided. Journeys within Egypt proved enriching. "When we first went to Upper Egypt," she intones, "it was incredible. At every step I felt I was entering a new world, worlds upon worlds that I didn't even know existed." In 1989 El-Geretly told Exerjian her background and appearance would confine her to the role of an aristocrat or a foreigner, but by the late 1990s she was playing Khadra in El-Geretly's take on the Hilaleya epic. As the focus of El- Warsha strayed away from production towards outreach and training, however, Exerjian found herself embroiled in activities other than acting and rethought her role in the troupe. The Last Walk, the last part of Dina Amin's recent production of an early cycle of plays by Alfred Farag, recalled the delightful madness of her earliest performances, revealing depths that the last, stylised shows had kept hidden and, to her disappointment, surprising even El-Geretly. Having extracted herself from a web of administrative and educational responsibilities, Exerjian is now attending rehearsals for El- Warsha's upcoming production of Tawfik El- Hakim's classic Rosasa fil-Qalb.
As she reminisces about her theatrical career, Exerjian metamorphoses yet again. The third persona incorporates elements of the previous two, but it is more endearing than either. This compassionate Exerjian is an admirable performer, a person who has managed to articulate her sense of tragedy into a subtly imposing gesture, a hysterical tone of voice, a warm admonition. She is maternal and knowledgeable, like her grandmother. Herself a hard-won only child, Exerjian earned a degree in child psychology in order to satisfy her parents' idea of a proper education; theatre was fine, they said, so long as one had respectable qualifications to one's name. But her choice of academic path was far from haphazard. It is her interest in children that caters to this generous persona most clearly.
Not only did this interest inform her work in El- Warsha, it influenced her outlook on life. After she graduated, Exerjian worked briefly with children at an Armenian school, but her approach undermined the authority of older disciplinarians and she willingly left. She tried to pursue work with mentally handicapped children, but it proved impossibly depressing. "There is," she explains, "only so much you can do for these children. However much you try, they won't improve beyond a certain level. And every time you look at them you can see that, and every time it tears you apart."
There is an undertone of distress as she recalls the occasion on which she held a Christmas party for those children, a rare opportunity for them to spend some time outside the hospital. "We had decorations and gifts, my father dressed up as Santa Claus and my mother cooked an Armenian Christmas pudding," she recalls. "But it was disastrous: we couldn't control the movement of the children, and the whole time we were panting to prevent them from hurting themselves..."
Perhaps it is on this image -- the child psychologist running around to ensure the safety of a group of mentally handicapped children celebrating Christmas in her own house -- that the many-hued narratives of Vanya Exerjian's life and work should converge.
Recommend this page
© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time