|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
31 Jan. - 6 Feb. 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
And the rest is silenceNehad Selaiha finds bitter laughter at the Gumhuriya Theatre
Political plays with a clear message can be deadly dull and boring; but they are never that with Nur El-Sherif around, taking the lead. His presence onstage adds depth to any words he utters, giving a very credible illusion of complexity and profundity even to the obviously simplistic or glaringly mundane. His superb style of acting, sophisticated and finely-honed, invariably communicates a warm sense of conviction, of touching, wide-eyed, often bewildered innocence, but tinged with a tone of subtle irony and an elusive whiff of bitter resignation. It is a style that has often worked wonders with otherwise unpalatable fare.
Not that Sherif El-Shoubashi's Jerusalem Shall Not Fall (his first venture as dramatist) is not a brave effort in the direction of agit-prop theatre, comparing favourably with many attempts in the same field. The secret of its appeal is its unpretentious approach, clear, succinct message and rather novel structure. Formed of two parts, with two different sets of events and characters, two contrasting heroes (both played by Nur El- Sherif), three locales (Jerusalem, Damascus and Baghdad) and two rival dynasties (the Abbasids with a caliph ruling from Baghdad and the Fatimids with another ruling from Cairo), it offers variety and plenty of scope for spectacle and imaginative theatrical display, but without splitting apart. Both parts are joined by the theme of betrayal on which each is a variation; and the sense of unity and continuity stems from the continued presence of the citizens of Jerusalem on stage as the victims in both sections.
In the first part they are betrayed by the leader of the city's garrison who fails to get the necessary help from the caliph in Cairo to resist the foreign invaders and subsequently deserts the city and absconds with his army, trading the safety of the people in his charge for a promise of safe passage for himself and his men. The second part follows logically as the citizens who flee the carnage embark on a long and arduous trip to Damascus to seek the help of its honourable, patriotic chief justice in a desperate attempt to save the city before it is too late. This takes them on another trip, this time to Baghdad and its caliph who proves no better than the one in Cairo; his court is a grotesque mockery, infested with sharks, crooks and charlatans. In the face of such rampant corruption, even the good hero of the second part is helpless and ineffectual. The cycle of betrayal is once more enacted on a wider scale and Jerusalem is hopelessly lost. The fact that the two heroes, the true and false, are played by the same actor makes betrayal and corruption seem like the ineluctable fate of the Arabs and the contrast between them, held firmly before our eyes throughout, acts as a bitter satirical comment on what we see without need for verbal overstatement, political hectoring, or facile patriotic declamation.
Fahmi El-Kholi directed with flair and panache without sacrificing the clarity and straightforwardness of the text. He used plenty of colour, particularly in the costumes (designed by Mahmoud Mabrouk) and lighting effects as if to offset the blackness of the vision presented on stage; and though the set (which he himself designed) was a little too elaborate and bulky for this kind of play and sometimes clashed with the simple epic mode of acting adopted by the supporting cast, it created a multidimensional space which made the transitions in place and time smooth and fast, without the need for lengthy blackouts. The action unfolds against the famous dome of Al-Aqsa mosque, which forms the visual centre of the stage, hitched up high, with six mobile staircases attached to it which could be raised and lowered to create different levels and locations. As an added bonus, and whether by chance or design, the ropes from which the set was suspended added an ironical visual element, occasionally making the characters look like marionettes suspended from the hands of an unseen puppeteer -- which tallies with the play's ironical bent and satirical portrayal of Arab rulers and their flunkies.
Indeed, the last words in the play strongly corroborate this impression. At the end, when everything is lost, Nur El-Sherif, as the chief justice of Damascus, stands facing the audience and sardonically quotes a phrase, exactly two words, from a famous satirical poem by the celebrated Arab poet, Al-Mutanabbi (who belongs to the Abbasid era) on the state of the Arabs; he simply says: "Ya umatan dahikat..."; he does not need to say more; every one in the audience could finish the line for him, which goes: "min gahliha al- umamu." (O nation whose ignorance has made you the laughing-stock of all other nations). The irony is compounded if you remember the first part of this verse in which the poet lampoons the religious hypocrisy of those who stick fervently to shows of piety and outward forms of religion while ignoring its spirit. It says: "Is the ultimate aim of religion trimming your moustaches?") -- a pointed reference to the practice of shaving moustaches and growing beards claimed by some as part of the 'Sunna'. For most of us who could remember this line, it did not seem that time had moved on at all since the days of El- Mutanabi. The impact of those words -- 'Ya ommatan dahikat' -- was shattering and part of the effect was due to the way Nur delivered them, so quietly, in his controlled style, without emotional redundancy. He just looked at us and said them, with the kind of hopeless disdain that comes from utter disillusionment; "Ya umatan dahikat..." and then stopped -- the rest is silence.
For a political play of the agit-prop type, it was a fresh and stirring end very few actors would dare perform as a finale. The temptation here for any other actor, to scream at the top of his lungs, would have been irresistible. But with what is happening in Jerusalem at this very moment, Nur El-Sherif had the integrity not to try to delude the audience with rousing diatribes, impassioned speeches or false heroics that can only have a hollow ring. None in the audience would have believed him. Instead, what we saw was consistency -- Nur never raised his voice once throughout the play, showing instead repressed emotion reflected in the deep tones of his voice, as well as in the elegant economy of every movement and gesture.
Of course the burden of Jerusalem fell squarely on El-Sherif's shoulders; but luckily he was supported by a magnificent cast of young actors who doubled in many parts, performing both the funny and sad scenes with ease and confidence as well as playing the chorus with great harmony. The word funny may seem oddly out of context here; but surprisingly, despite the gloomy vision enacted on the stage, Jerusalem is full of bright flashes of humour, wrung out of moments of despair. Apart from the cartoon- strip portrayal of the rulers and the ridiculous antics of their courtiers who attempt to extort bribes from the penniless, homeless refugees and their leader, as a price for seeing the caliph while assiduously presenting him with a rosy picture of the life of his subjects, which raised many laughs, the most hilarious and endearing moment was when the chief justice, banned from gaining access to the caliph, thinks up a ruse to ensure his admittance: he simply sits down in the middle of the street and breaks his fast openly at midday in Ramadan. At once everybody is up in arms against the Terrible Sin. Compared to this, the fall of Jerusalem pales into insignificance. Guards are summoned, jail is threatened, and the whole palace rises up in arms to defend the sacred rules of religion. This quite daring barbed quip was directed against the narrow-minded religious dogmatism prevalent nowadays.
There was also a significant dig at the position of women in those long-ago sumptuous courts, full of slave girls regarded as part of the possessions of men and part of the trappings of power and glory. This happened in the final scene of the first part, when the military hero, the leader of the garrison, is about to save his skin and lead his men out of the city without even bothering to secure a treaty with the enemy to save the inhabitants from the inevitable massacre that will surely follow. His favourite concubine, gently and sensitively played by the tall and graceful Liqaa Sweidan, refuses to join him and tries to dissuade him from this disastrous course of action. He refuses to listen, orders her to retire to her room where he will promptly join her, but she finally opposes the patriarchal codes of obedience and decides to stay and die in her beloved city.
To balance the black humour, El-Kholi punctuated his show with emotional lyrics by Wafaa Wagdi, set to music by Mounir El-Weseimi and sung by Afaf Radi; the songs provided a nostalgic undercurrent alternating with a poignant elegiac mood. But however pleasurable in many of its aspects, Jerusalem comes across most strongly as a painful, almost savage reminder of the long history of lost chances and missed opportunities of the Arab nation, over centuries, due to dogmatic, intolerant, autocratic and thoroughly stupid forms of government. But the relevance here is not simply of subject matter, but of that dreadful feeling of humiliation and sense of impotence that seems to be dogging our lives, drilled into us by the media almost every minute.
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