Of theatre, bureaucracy and finding your way in between
Abdel-Rahman El-Shafie speaks at you. He may not be a very attentive listener but remains an obliging presence nonetheless. At least on the surface, that is: he has a true fellah's capacity for moral as well as material hospitality and though constantly distracted -- during the present encounter, at least -- he never fails to project the fake concern of the trypical fellah. This provincial orientation is so strange in a contemporary theatre director, and at the same time so predictable, it makes for equivocal conversation.
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'And I am not a money-oriented person,I don't know anything about money, whether or not or how much of it I have at any given point in time -- it's not something I think about, so it could never have provided motivation for work'
It soon transpires that El-Shafie is a far from enthusiastic conversationalist: as if to conserve energy in the process of responding to questions he keeps directing you to material that has been written about him, a large quantity of which he makes freely available. And the more you observe him interacting with friends and colleagues -- many of whom defer warmly to him as the former director of the Balloon Theatre, the venue of the present meeting -- the more you realise the fellah's approach is part of a self-styled image. It is not a false image, this, but image it is -- and one profoundly relevant to the theatrical path he has trodden. For El- Shafie is the Egyptian stage's most steadfast proponent of the folk arts; and his shows reflect not only a concern with authenticity but a passion for grassroots -- the epics, the legends, the performance.
El-Shafie was born in 1939 in the village of Al- Sanafin, near Menya Al-Qamh -- in which town he attended secondary school -- in Sharqiya. Although his father was a school master, he says, he spent his childhood and adolescence "in a rural community", and to this day, he insists, "I carry the seeds and the smells of the Egyptian countryside". Indeed this seems to be all he wants to talk about: "I exited the government," he speaks of his recent retirement, "a fellah with the rank of deputy minister. I've always had this love of my origins, my roots," El-Shafie goes on. "It is this that affected the direction of my work. At a very early age I had a special interest in the world of folklore -- the moulid [saint's anniversary], the dhikr [invocation or praise] ceremonies, the Sira poets [folk epic reciters who sing to the accompaniment of rabab]..."
As a secondary student, he recounts, he formed a folk troupe that performed at local mawalid (sing. moulid) and other popular gatherings. Enrolling at the Faculty of Law, Ain Shams University, he spent more time at the university theatre than on his studies. The move to Cairo, he says -- El-Shafie was living by himself for the first time in his life -- involved a degree of suffering, "in studying and working at the same time, in adjusting to a new mode of life, in maintaining a clear-cut sense of direction", but it turned out to be, on the whole, a smooth transition. "I was plunged into numerous experiences," he says, "some good, some cruel. But in the end I think they enriched me no end." He was helped, he implies, by an inborn sociability. "Nobody can live in isolation," he elaborates, "and I naturally like company. So I've always been surrounded by people, colleagues, good friends..."
Two years after his graduation in 1961 El-Shafie joined the International Theatre department of the state-supported Television Theatre, then at the height of its achievement -- first as actor, but before too long as assistant director, then director. "I had already learned a lot from practising on the university theatre stage," he explains. Yet he never sought formal education: "When I started talking about studying theatre, they told me I should go and teach it." To have acted on the university theatre stage at that time, El-Shafie goes on to explain, was more or less equivalent to graduating from the Theatrical Arts Institute. And El- Shafie's generation of university actors -- by way of example he mentions, among many others, present-day household names like Yahya El-Fakharani, Mahmoud El-Qal'awi and Mahmoud Yasine -- took their extracurricular activities seriously.
"There is no doubt that, throughout this time I sought to enhance any talent I might have -- it was as good as an education. I've always loved to read," he adds, "and I was reading a lot at this stage, in every field of art and the humanities. I don't have much of a scientific mind," he goes on, "so I tend to avoid this side knowledge. But I read about theatre and the arts, literature, criticism, folklore. I developed a reasonable working knowledge of all the main theatrical trends as well. Today," he adds as if incidentally, "I teach drama at the Higher Institute of Folk Arts."
Such incidental pride in his accomplishments seems to be typical of El-Shafie: "To direct and manage a troupe for the first time was a significant turning point in my life. I gained access to the most significant theatrical trends from all over the world, and I learned at the hands of some of the most important figures in the history of modern Egyptian theatre -- Hamdi Gheith, Saad Ardash, Sayed Bedier, Kamal Eid..." The list goes on. In 1967, El-Shafie continues, International Theatre was discontinued, "due to pressure to reduce spending", and for a year he worked in the Modern Theatre and the Singing and Performance Troupe, two other departments of the Television Theatre. His breakthrough occurred when Hamdi Gheith, then the director of the Thaqafa Jamahiriya (now the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces) Theatre, assigned him the task of bringing together and directing "the first theatre troupe to represent a popular district", the colourful neighbourhood of Ghouriya, "in the blessed vicinity of Sayedna Al-Hussein and Al-Azhar Mosque". His directorial debut was Adham Al-Shaqawi, based on the popular epic of a national hero. The show was almost all folklore, in spirit as well as content; and El- Shafie followed with Ali Al-Zeiba'q, Asheq Al- Maddahin, Moulid ya Sayed, Menein Agib Nass... The success of the first play was such, he recalls proudly, that peformances went on uninterrupted for a year; as a result Ardash, who had replaced Gheith, promoted him to the position of director of the Samer Theatre, one of the most popular divisions of the Thaqafa Jamahiriya.
Thus El-Shafie's lifelong association with the establishment coincided with his professional maturity -- perhaps an unfortunate convergence, but one with which he has remained at ease for more than three decades. What few abortive experiences he has had with commercial theatre, El-Shafie supplies by way of explanation, were disappointing to the point of distress. "And I am not a money-oriented person," he goes on. "I don't know anything about money, whether or not or how much of it I have at any given point in time -- it's not something I think about, so it could never have provided motivation for work." He does admit, however, that the employee in him has consistently thrived at the expense of the artist. "Of course, becoming the director of a theatre troupe at such an early age was nothing to scoff at. But maybe I wasn't entirely aware of the administrative responsibilities it would entail. It was just such responsibilities that took up time and energy I would have preferred to spend on directing. Had I devoted myself to theatre," he conjectures without bitterness, "I would have achieved a far higher position by now. Just think: I received the State Incentive Award and the medal of excellence, first class, in 1986, after presenting my theatrical version of the Sira [Hilaleya] -- so there must be something there, some worthy talent or ability or what have you. Had I devoted myself to art," he reiterates, "it would have been better recognised..."
Bureaucratic chores drove El-Shafie, in his own words, "into the ranks of the poor" -- something that no doubt contributes to his provincial sense of self. Yet it is the authenticity of the kind of theatre he seeks, and the gravity with which he approaches his work, that has made for "a poor man's career". The moral reward, he constantly suggests, more than makes up for it.
"Director Abdel-Rahman El-Shafie has managed," wrote critic Farida El-Naqqash in a 1970 review of Adham Al-Sharqawi, "using only a tree trunk, in the absence of a budget for a proper stage set, to communicate all the required images, transporting us from one place and one psychological state to another, while avoiding monotony. In this he was helped by the actors, dedicated young people who created, out of the substance of reality, a theatre for simple people, in their own language. A theatre that says everything without tastelessness or arrogance, without being mawkish or obscene -- a difficult equation that could only have been generated by ethusiastic young people driven by ambition, not hampered by vanity -- young people whose difficult circumstances have driven them to come up with their own creative means."
Had he devoted himself wholly to theatre, that moral reward might have been greater indeed. As it is, his administrative skill comes to the fore just as frequently as his artistic abilities. This side of his character too owes much to his provincial roots and the image into which he has woven them -- a kind of tribal patriarch.
"You've witnessed it yourself," he describes a brief scene. "When someone says he won't show up for a rehearsal, well -- I don't want that person to show up ever again. Such is my administrative stringency. But at the same time," he goes on, "I've made all my best friends while working -- the people who formed that Ghouriya troupe with me, for example. They are family friends to this day. Something that was often said about me was that I always fell in love with my heroine. Well, it is true, in a sense. Because when you work in the theatre, something very intimate develops between you and your team. Of course it isn't as if I've had any kind of amorous entaglements with my actresses, but very often -- and you have to remember that my heroines are often folk performers, provincial women, due to my interest in the folk arts -- a relationship would develop, something innocent and profound, so that despite my professional severity everyone enjoyed working with me. What better proof," he goes on, "than the fact that on many occasions people worked with me without being paid, and they weren't always women either. Often my heroine would come to me with her troubles, though only when we we were not engaged in rehearsal, and I would offer my heartfelt, sincere counsel. Thankfully I know how to separate work from personal relations. And this is the way it's always been, which is why I tend to stay in contact with the people I work with long, long after the relevant work is done."
El-Shafie's career could be conceived of as an ongoing attempt to extricate himself from the bureaucratic treadmill -- which, even though it has continually failed, gives him plenty of room for manoeuvre. "Whenever I tried to slip out, I would end up landing in another post. And bureaucracy is difficult in our country -- the troubles are endless and intractable."
He has held numerous official positions -- in the Ministry of Culture, the Thaqafa Jamihiriya and the academic establishment -- and received as many honours. He has travelled, with his troupes, to the four corners of the globe. Yet he remains fully at ease only in Al-Sanafin, or in the village atmosphere he creates among his performers, on stage. The 56 plays he has directed constitute the most persistent attempt to find a space for the folk arts within the establishment, and he is widely credited with being the first director to incorporate folk performance into the fabric of modern theatre through direct integration -- bringing folk performers on stage and casting them in title roles. Among his best known achievements is the Nile Festival for Folk Arts, which took place in the US in 1976, 1982 and 1995 -- probably the most authoratitive programme of Egyptian folk performance in existence. Married with two actor sons, he continues to go back to Sharqiya, if only to revify his earliest driving force.
"Some people find it strange that I should come across as a fellah."
El-Shafie returns to his favourite topic.
"But for me it is the most natural thing in the world. When I first arrived in the city I was a little disoriented, no doubt. But one principle I've held on to is that I would never disown my roots, never be a city person. And in truth I couldn't have been. It was in the village that art first caught my attention, and it was that village art that I wanted to practise and bring to the fore. Nothing, not even the most sophisticated music, moves me like a simple folk tune. There is another side to me, too, of course -- the director. I tried acting a few times after I graduated, but directing drew me like a magnet. Not only because it seemed more appropriate for my kind of talent, but because it could give me the freedom to create the kind of contemporary play that I wanted -- the kind that answered directly to the needs of the village audience with whom I took the first steps on that ongoing path.
After the city I travelled a lot," El-Shafie reiterates again. "I attended dinners and receptions. I received honours and became an academic professor. But deep inside there still lives the real person to whom all this happened, and the person I've endeavoured to guard -- the fellah. Some people are surprised by my manner," he says again. "But it certainly doesn't bother me. And it is the only manner in which I can effectively function."