Nehad Selaiha watches Fathiya El-Assal and Samiha Ayoub pay tribute to Palestinian mothers
As a woman and writer, Fathiya El-Assal has always been actively political. A long-standing member of Al-Tagammu Party (Alliance or Coalition Party) she fought two election campaigns as the party's candidate to the People's Assembly for the constituency of Al-Sayeda Zeinab (a low- income, densely populated popular quarter of Cairo) and is known all over the Arab world for her many public stands and passionate tirades in defence of the poor and downtrodden. She never made it to the People's Assembly (losing both times to playwright Saadeddin Wahba, the late spouse of actress and National Theatre star and former artistic director Samiha Ayoub); her writing, however, has provided her with an effective public forum from which to disseminate her political ideals and fight "the twin devils of capitalism and patriarchy" as she professes.
For over half a century, in scores of radio and theatre plays and television serials and dramas, El-Assal has indefatigably opposed the dominant structures of power and oppression, ruthlessly baring and questioning their underpinning values and assumptions. Her integrity and life-long struggle were finally recognised this year when she was chosen by the International Theatre Institute (ITI) to address the world on International Theatre Day. As usual, her words were simple, passionate and from the heart. Though her theme was grand -- theatre as a force of liberation -- her style was homely, plain and confiding. Denied a regular education, coercively kept at home on reaching puberty and constantly watched and rigorously coached in the rituals of female obedience, El- Assal experienced oppression at a very tender age and her spontaneous rebellion against gender- specific roles and attitudes gained force and political direction when, at 17, she married journalist and novelist Abdallah El-Toukhi, who helped her educate herself and schooled her in leftist politics and Marxist theory.
The bulk of El-Assal's creative work is in radio and television. For theatre she only contributed half a dozen plays, most of them written when the children (she has five) had grown up. When they were young, she explains, serial drama for radio or television, which does not require long sessions with actors and directors or staying out late at rehearsals, seemed better suited to the daily routine of a mother and housewife. "Besides, in radio and television you reach a wider audience and can hopefully be more effective," she adds. That her latest play Leilat Al-Henna (Henna Night, a festive ritual celebration before the wedding when parts of the bride's body are painted with henna) is produced by the theatre productions sector of Egyptian television might seem to offer the best of both worlds, or so she thought: the play would be staged before a live audience for a month and then recorded and marketed to TV stations all over the Arab world.
Unfortunately however, for a play to be marketable on such a scale it has to satisfy certain requirements: stars, spectacular visuals, dancing and singing and at least one glamour girl top the list. A play has also to be of a certain length and there is always the unwritten law for such high-cost enterprises: nothing too daring, seriously controversial, or ideologically subversive. Though apt in terms of subject matter (what could be less disruptive or more unanimously approved than paying homage to the Palestinian resistance), Leilat Al-Henna could not hope to make it to the stage in its original, concentrated one-act form. Featuring a long suffering Palestinian woman who has lost her father, husband and one son to the cause, not to mention hordes of friends and neighbours, it opens amid festive preparations on the day before the remaining son's wedding. Predictably the round of sorrows continues as the son is called upon to assist a wounded comrade to blow up a bridge to obstruct the progress of Israeli tanks towards the village of the bride. Caught in a terrible conflict between her desire to cling on to her remaining son and her patriotic sentiments the mother, who had locked him in out of harm's way, finally surrenders him to certain death and collapses on a chair, completely broken.
All the play required to bring out the tragedy of this woman and her heart-rending, tortured hesitation were three good actors -- for the mother, son and friend -- who could produce a passable Palestinian accent, a modest realistic set and, possibly, some atmospheric music and sound effects. Instead, intensity was sacrificed for length, extending the original half-hour time span to close on two hours plus a 15- minute interval, and emotional depth bartered for gratuitous spectacular effects. Film actress Rania Yassin was written as the bride in the new version and given a silly, soppy part which amounted to lisping a few sentimental words and parading herself around in a clinging, heavily sequined pink evening dress. To accentuate her voluptuous figure the lower part of the dress was styled to make her look as if she had a band wound round her hips in the manner of a belly dancer. As her mother, another addition, Nohair Amin was cast as mistress of ceremonies and with an army of dancers, against a background of blaring recorded music, managed to make the first part into a folksy parody of a Palestinian henna night.
Not withstanding Ammar El- Shereiy's melodious tunes and Sayed Hijab's rousing lyrics, the musical element together with the thick crust of Palestinian folklore which extended to the second part, intruding upon the most tense and anguished moments, weighed heavily on the drama making it appear to progress by strangled fits and breathless starts. In the interest of time-stretching a chase scene was added, showing the comrade in flight from enemy soldiers in a maze of columns. It ends with a loud explosion, flashing lights and the cardboard columns collapsing in a heap as the wounded, limping fugitive throws a hand grenade at his pursuers. Compared to the devastation in the occupied territories one daily watches on television the scene was ridiculous and embarrassing, reducing the Palestinian armed struggle to a matter of puppetry.
I am loathe to lay the blame for this painful farce of a production at the door of Samiha Ayoub, who played what was left of her part after the massacre of the text with surprising sincerity. But as director, in her second venture in this field, she bears part of the responsibility. Her scene blocking and lighting plan were good and her choice of film star Hisham Selim and the talented Magdy Kamel for the parts of the son and comrade respectively cannot be faulted. But she had allowed the drama to be spread too thinly, making any powerful, convincing performances a near impossibility. Was it the allure of money (television theatre is famous for its fat cheques) and wide viewing that seduced her into relaxing her otherwise fastidious artistic standards? The same goes for El-Assal. How could she watch passively as her work was mauled and torn apart and her tribute to Palestinian mothers disfigured into a travesty?