Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 January 2005
Issue No. 724
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Lysistrata in Iraq

Nehad Selaiha finds plenty of food for thought in Lenin El-Ramli's modern version of Lysistrata

A BBC report broadcast this morning described how a man returning to Al- Falluja found his home in ruins and dogs gnawing at the corpse of a dead relative -- a single macabre detail in a vast, ghastly tapestry that passes for reality in Iraq today. Eerier still was the broadcaster's neutral, matter-of-fact tone which made the whole thing sound luridly insane. One wonders if the 27- year Peloponnesian War initiated by Sparta against Athens in 431 BC witnessed horrors of this kind or on such a massive scale. My guess is that it did not, or, if it did, they were mercifully kept at a safe distance from civilians on account of the primitive technology of the times. If Aristophanes who hated this war and spoke openly against it had been fed news of such horrors as the media now transmits day and night, I doubt he could have written any of his anti-war trilogy of plays -- The Acharnians (425 BC), Peace (421 BC), or Lysistrata (411 BC) -- in that cheerful, optimistic, often ribald mood, with so much comedy and so many feasts and joyful celebrations of peace at the end, with wine, women and song. Either the man did not know what wars involve, or he had a tough, undefeatable faith in the essential goodness of life and the worthiness of human nature. Or may be the reason he could write about war the way he did was that the conflict between Athens and Sparta was less complex, not involving issues of ethnic, religious or cultural differences, which made the prospect of peace quite tenable in his view, and its achievement a simple matter of men coming to their senses.

photo: Sherif El-Nemr Click to view caption
photo: Sherif El-Nemr

Lysistrata, often mistaken for a women's liberation play, has been frequently performed in recent years. In 2003, however, its plea for peace, rather than its supposedly feminist slant, became the focus of interest for intellectuals and artists opposing the war on Iraq. A Lysistrata Project was launched, organising over 1,000 readings of the play all over the world to protest the war, a few of them staged in Arab countries. I have not attended any of these and do not know if one was staged in Egypt. I heard of one in Lebanon though and got some e-mails from the States asking for support to promote the project. By way of encouragement, one of them cited a production by an Iranian director living in the US which reset the play in the Middle-East, substituting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for the Athenian-Spartan one. The idea struck me as flippant and somewhat simplistic, since I remembered the play from my student days as something of a joke which no one could credibly link to the grim reality of today. I reread the play, however, in Douglas Parker's excellent English translation, just to make sure I wasn't being unfair; but this fresh reading only confirmed my earlier, nebulous feeling that it was slyly anti-feminist, and though its anti-war rhetoric can be fitfully moving, especially when it speaks of the pain of women who lose children in senseless wars, the women's struggle for peace and their victory, viewed in the context of the present, seemed to belong to the realm of erotic fantasy and facile romantic comedy. In short, I was not interested and put the whole thing out of my mind.

Lysistrata, however, "the one who tian and the steatopygous Corinthian girl are replaced by four men and one woman in drag: the American Lillian and Madonna (Mohamed Alieddin and Hamada Shousha), the French Françoise (Sherif Kamal), the German Germane (Khaled Hosni), and the British Thatsher (Misha). This contingent, particularly the first four, were rudely, outrageously dressed to grotesquely ape the caricature stereotypes of modern liberated women. And the contrast between them and their Iraqi partners was underlined at every step, on both the visual, conceptual and ideological levels, and used to foreground the way religion and culture differently affects their attitudes and decisions, thus paving the way for the collapse of their solidarity pact.

To the question why Lysistrata in particular and not any other Greek play she answered: "The play ideally lends itself to highlighting cultural idiosyncrasies (my italics) of the Arab world on important issues such as sexual and war politics, the distinction between the private and the public space, transgressive behavior and the position of women in these cultures." At the same time, she added, "the problem of staging the play will, I hope, afford us concrete insights into the contemporary Arabic theatre of the Mediterranean region." It was obvious Kotzamani had no idea about Arab theatre whatsoever, and this chagrined me; but when she wrote that one of the objects of the project was "stimulating original thinking on the connection between theatre and contemporary politics in the Arabic countries of the Mediterranean," I couldn't help laughing. Such a connection, or thinking about it, need no stimulation; if Arab drama and theatre studies are about anything at all, they are just about this. Rather than send Kotzamani an essay, or "dramaturgical project", as she dauntingly phrased it, I sent her some books in English on the Egyptian theatre, the names and e-mails of people who could be interested in her venture, and persuaded Fawzi Fahmi to invite her to the Experimental Festival to sample something of Arab drama for herself. But, as Kleonike tells the eponymous heroine in Lysistrata: "a woman's way is hard --/ mainly the way out of the house: fuss over hubby,/ wake the maid up, put the baby down, bathe him,/ feed him." Kotzamani had a baby in the summer, and after initially accepting the invitation, she finally found she could not get away. Hopefully, by next year the baby will have grown old enough for her to make it to the festival.

May be because he is a man, or because, like Aristophanes, he combines a tough sense of humour with a fantastic imagination and an acute interest in current affairs and, despite a growing cynical bent born out of the time he lives in, he still "champions a festive sense of the common man and a spirit of communal celebration" (as someone once said of Aristophanes), Lenin El-Ramli was the only Egyptian writer to respond to the challenge of Kotzamani's Lysistrata 2004 project. The result was his Salam Al-Nisaa' (Women for Peace) -- a savagely ironic, intertextual engagement with Aristophanes's Lysistrata across the gap of centuries, where the scene becomes Baghdad and the time immediately before the American invasion.

In this new setting, the recalcitrant ideological issues underpinning the conflict between a predominantly Muslim Arab world and a predominantly Christian West are ruthlessly bared and made to destroy the solidarity of women. Consequently, the comic spirit gathers shadows, becoming positively black; parody tips into the disturbingly grotesque; wit consistently verges on the sardonic; and the general mood is relentlessly nihilistic.

Women for Piece depicts a bereaved nation, exhausted by the war with Iran, disgusted with the massacres of the Kurds in the north, straining under the weight of an oppressive, dictatorial military regime, wearied and depleted by the economic sanctions, and trembling at the prospect of yet another devastating war and more destruction. The Pan-Hellenic plot of the Athenian, Spartan, Corinthian and Boiotian women to stop the war by staging a sex strike in their respective territories is replayed by Iraqi and Western women from the States, Britain, France and Germany.

The play (jointly sponsored by the Greek embassy, cultural centre and society of the Greek community in Egypt, and directed by El-Ramli who chose to stage at the open-air theatre of the Opera house in an attempt to mimic the production conditions in Aristophanes's time) begins with a deceptively light-hearted choral prologue (on the model of the Greek parabasis), in which the chorus of men and women, dressed in an approximation of the ancient Greek style and led by Yasser Badawi in the role of a Greek Koryphaios, warn us that they are all amateurs, with no stars in the cast, tell us the play is a disputatious parody of Lysistrata, deny that it has any political message and disclaim any responsibility for it should it fail to please us. Then the lights go down, and when they come up again the mood is completely different. It is early in the morning, before sunrise; the light is soft and hazy; a woman (Amal Badawi) sits alone on a bench, in what looks like an empty public square or park, closely pulling a shawl around her shoulders and silently reading a letter. The gentle strains of a lute waft on the air as the light picks up Sameh Badawi, sitting far on one side, at the head of one of the covered galleries flanking the stage, and singing beautiful verses, carefully culled from the work of the great Iraqi poet, Abdul-Wahab Al-Bayati, to represent what the woman is reading. It is a sad, nostalgic love letter from her absent husband who has fled the country to escape the terror of Saddam's regime and its senseless wars. When this sequence ends and other characters start appearing, El-Ramli's play closely follows the order of scenes in Lysistrata and their content for two thirds of the play.

The lonely woman's name is Labiba (the wise one) and she is the modern Iraqi counterpart of Aristophanes's Lysistrata (the woman who finds solutions). For the original Kleonike and Myrrhine (her closest friends and supporters), we have the newly-wed Karima and Muwaffaqa (the one who always succeeds); Kinesias, Myrrhine's husband in the original (whose name refers to movement and sexual appetite), is recreated as Kamel, an Iraqi military commander and prominent member of the Baath Party. Rahma (mercy), on the other hand, the veiled, fanatical virgin who eventually falls under the influence of Islamic extremists and ends up a suicide-bomber, is pure Ramli invention, and so are James, the American reporter, and Jawwad, the Iraqi poet. The former loves his booze, is excited by veiled women and envies Arab men their right to marry four women; and the latter is a hash-smoker who craves the sexual promiscuity he thinks Western men and women enjoy, has cut off his thumb to escape military conscription, makes a point of never writing down his verses and forgetting them as soon as they are composed to avoid blabbing them if subjected to torture. Finally both agree that democracy neither exists in the States or Iraq. These two figures, however, appear only towards the end, after the sexually tantalising encounter between "Myrrhine/Muwaffaqa" and "Kinesias/Kamel", when El-Ramli's text suddenly changes gear and begins to drastically veer away from Aristophanes's fanciful comedy and in the direction of the grim present.

On the Western front, Aristophanes's Lampito, the Spartan, Ismenia, the Boiotian and the steatopygous Corinthian girl are replaced by four men and one woman in drag: the American Lillian and Madonna (Mohamed Alieddin and Hamada Shousha), the French Françoise (Sherif Kamal), the German Germane (Khaled Hosni), and the British Thatsher (Misha). This contingent, particularly the first four, were rudely, outrageously dressed to grotesquely ape the caricature stereotypes of modern liberated women. And the contrast between them and their Iraqi partners was underlined at every step, on both the visual, conceptual and ideological levels, and used to foreground the way religion and culture differently affects their attitudes and decisions, thus paving the way for the collapse of their solidarity pact.

In Aristophanes's play, when Kleonike asks, referring to the men: "Suppose they take us by force and drag us off/to the bedroom against our wills?" Lysistrata answers: "Hang on to the door." To Kleonike's: "Suppose they beat us," she advises: "Give in -- but be bad sports...(and) they'll stop soon enough" for a "married man wants harmony --/ cooperation, not rape." Here, the threat of being beaten and raped is recognised as a natural, possible consequence of the sex strike by both the Athenian women and their foreign confederates. In Women for Peace, however, at the mention of beating and rape a heated controversy erupts between the Western and Iraqi women centering on women's rights, the definition of gender and sexual identity, homosexuality, lesbianism and sex outside marriage, as well as the question of cultural specificity vis-- vis globalisation. The controversy which begins as a kind of verbal/ideological sparring soon deteriorates into a slanging, mud-hurling match in which the rich complexity of the culture and religion of both parties are progressively and farcically eroded, giving way to the usual, bigoted, simplistic and narrow-minded clichés.

With the peace advocates turning against each other, the war-mongers cannot but win. The play ends with the Western women departing in disgust, the Iraqi women dragged out of the building of the ministry of petroleum which they had occupied (the modern equivalent of the Acropolis in Lysistrata ) and unceremoniously shooed out of the political arena and back to their traditional private spaces, with Rahma, the chaste virgin, preparing to explode herself and calling it her wedding night, and Carter, the secret American peace negotiator (the Spartan ambassador in the original) joining forces with Kamel/Kinesias in promoting the interests of the global war machine. The final scene shows the American reporter, James, and the Iraqi poet, Jawwad, dead drunk and slumped on the floor of the empty stage, back to back, while the din of booming sirens, deafening explosions and whizzing airplanes is heard in the background. Not what you would call an uplifting finale, but one cunningly designed to leave you reflecting long after you have seen the play.

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