Pinter in Egypt
Nehad Selaiha traces the fortunes of Harold Pinter's plays in Egypt
Pinter's name arrived in Egypt in the late 1960s under the mantle of the so- called Theatre of the Absurd which had burst upon the local theatrical scene at the beginning of that decade. A review of the English text of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot by Ahmed Bahgat (an influential writer) in the daily Al-Ahram which equated Godot with God, dismissing both as redundant, useless concepts in the modern world, aroused a great deal of amused excitement and curiosity about this new brand of dramatic writing and also some controversy. The controversy, however, had nothing to do with religious faith or what the article purported to be the play's view of God. Such an issue was not in the forefront of the intellectuals' minds at the time. It was the heyday of socialism, when most writers and artists were either committed socialists or zealous advocates of Jean Paul Sartre's existentialism -- or simply free- thinkers, with a sprinkling of anarchists and nihilists. Indeed, you often came across weird and fascinating combinations of wildly divergent ideological strands in the same person. The controversy, therefore, centered mainly on the use and social value of such "defeatist, self-involved" writing (as some described it then) for a budding socialist nation still embroiled in the struggle for freedom and development. It was yet another example of the socially irresponsible, self-indulgent, reactionary writing of the decadent 'art for art's sake' school, some virulently argued.
Notwithstanding such arguments, the following year, 1962, witnessed the Arab premiere of another Beckett play -- Endgame -- at the newly founded Pocket Theatre, housed at the Royal Automobile Club. Curiously, the production was staged by Saad Ardash -- the artistic director of the theatre -- an inveterate socialist, with a deep-seated belief in the political role of theatre as a forum for disseminating progressive, revolutionary ideas. His artistic curiosity and experimental drive, it seemed, had got the better of his political convictions. The stir caused by the production had hardly died down when, in the following season, 1963, he treated his clientele to what amounted to a veritable ideological conundrum, presenting in close succession another absurd drama, this time Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs, directed by Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, and Bertolt Brecht's The Exception and the Rule (translated by Abdel-Ghaffar Mekkawi and directed by Farouk El-Dimirdash). It was the first sample of Brecht's epic theatre to be seen in Egypt, or anywhere in the Arab world, and the novelty of Brecht's dramaturgy, with it pronouncedly political slant, and underpinning Marxist ideas (which contrasted sharply in this respect with that of Beckett or Ionesco) was equally fascinating, starting a spate of critical articles, theoretical studies and translations.
For the next few years, Absurd drama and the epic theatre jostled for supremacy over the Egyptian stage, with Brecht eventually winning over the masses, especially in the amateur and regional theatre, and scoring high on productions, while Beckett and his ilk remained confined to a small, select audience, then gradually withdrew to the rarefied circles of academia and highbrow literary criticism. By the time the monthly Theatre Magazine published Fayez Iskander's translation of Waiting for Godot in its first issue (January, 1964) and Martin Esslin's vastly influential book, The Theatre of the Absurd, reached Cairo and an abridged Arabic version of it was published (done also by Iskander), Absurd drama, though it continued to intrigue writers, critics and scholars, had completely withdrawn from the stage to live quietly in books, with occasional airings on radio.
Such was the scene when Pinter's first play The Room (1957) made its Arabic debut on Radio 2 (The Cultural Programme) in 1966, directed by El-Sherif Khatir, the head of drama there. Though Pinter had occupied a very small section in Esslin's groundbreaking study (he had barely emerged when the first edition of the book appeared in 1961) and was hardly known even in intellectual circles, his work bewitched Khatir. The following year he introduced his listeners to The Birthday Party in a translation by Ibrahim Mansour, then went on to translate himself and direct for his venue seven of Pinter's plays: Silence (in 1970), The Caretaker (1974), The Tea Party and No Man's Land (1987), Old Times and A Slight Ache (1988), and The Homecoming in 1997. Apart from A Slight Ache, which was published in Al-Funoon magazine in Cairo, all Khatir's translations of Pinter were made available to the Arab reader by the long-standing and popular World Theatre series issued in Kuwait. And though some of these plays later appeared in other, perhaps more accurate translations -- namely, Silence (by Samir Sarhan, published with a translation of Landscape in 1979), No Man's Land (by Mohamed Enany in 1980), Old Times (by Sakhr Sidqi Abdel-Rahman in 1990, then Mohamed Metwalli in 1996), and The Caretaker (by Abdel-Halim El-Bashlawi, also in 1996) -- I cannot think of anyone who has single-handedly done more, whether on radio or in print, to establish Pinter's reputation among the educated section of the Egyptian public.
It helped that the Cairo Theatre Magazine continued to maintain a degree of interest in Pinter's work, bolstered, perhaps, by his brave political stands, sporadically publishing scholarly studies and critiques of his works and introducing Betrayal to its readers in 1985, in a translation by its managing-editor then, Amir Salama. But knowing Pinter in print, through radio, or by reading books and articles about him without ever getting the chance to experience his plays in live performances hardly qualifies as knowledge and creates a curious situation in which you find critics who have never been exposed to Pinter on stage, in the flesh so to speak, professing profound knowledge of his world and glibly spouting off about "Pinteresque" traits in the works of so and so. This ludicrous, regrettable situation was remedied in 1988 when Al-Warsha troupe staged in a double-bill, at the small (Salah Abdel-Sabour) hall of Al-Tali'a theatre, The Dumb Waiter and The Lover. Both were done into colloquial Arabic, the first by Abdel-Fattah El-Beltagi and the second by Mona Hilmi, and reset in Cairo by the director, Hassan El-Gretly, who stuck fanatically to the text while replacing the English names and references with local ones. The combination didn't work; the characters' manner of speaking clashed violently with their names and setting, making the dialogue ring false and the whole thing seem mechanically rigged and embarrassingly affected.
The experiment was valuable in one respect, however. It crystallized the problems of staging Pinter in Arabic -- problems one does not notice in the reading. These problems are not limited to cultural differences (and some of Pinter's plays would be pretty shocking to ordinary, middle-class Egyptian theatre-goers), or to differences in temperament and humour; they extend to the verbal fabric of the plays and matters of dramaturgy. The cryptic, hedging quality of the dialogue, its teasing rambling and faltering, stops and pauses could be very frustrating and baffling. Equally vexing to an Egyptian audience would be the persistent element of mystification in the plays -- what Esslin called "the deliberate omission of an explanation or a motivation for the action." Any amount of suspense, however sinister, is welcome, so long as the mystery is unraveled and logically resolved at the end, any ordinary Egyptian spectator would tell you. But Pinter keeps you guessing till after the curtain falls and you really have to be alert and work hard to read what lies behind the words and in the gaps between them. Do you wonder people shied away from putting his plays on stage for over two decades after the Egyptian Room was first broadcast?
Some of Pinter's plays, however, are more broadly accessible and easier to do than others. The easiest, perhaps, is Mountain Language which Pinter wrote after a visit to Turkey in 1985 where he discovered that Kurds there were forbidden to use their own language. In four short, sparse scenes, the brutal suppression of native languages by military dictatorships is built into an eloquent, powerful metaphor for all forms of political and human oppression. With a clear political theme and a barking dialogue, consisting mostly of coarse, obscene curses and insults, and completely free of ambiguities, this play could easily appeal to an Egyptian audience and have immediate relevance. And it did when Khalid Galal directed it for his independent troupe, Liqaa (Encounter), and presented it at the small hall of the Opera house at opening of the first Free Theatre Festival in 1990. I had translated the text and published it in the Theatre Magazine a year earlier and though the production softened a great deal of the harshness and savagery of the original, I was delighted with the enthusiastic response of the audience.
Far more ambitious and taxing was Mohamed Aboul- Su'ood's production of Old Times at Al-Hanager in 1996. I had seen the play at the Aldwych in 1971 and the memory of that performance -- the sophisticated, witty sparring, the complex web of thorny relationships which binds the three characters, the husband, the wife and her old friend, and the disconcerting contradictory reminiscences and sudden shifts from the present to the past -- made me realize the magnitude of the task Aboul-Su'ood had set himself and the enormity of the risks he was prepared to take. Luckily, Mohamed Metwalli, a gifted poet, had produced for him an amazingly elegant and accurate translation in the Egyptian vernacular spoken by the educated, without changing the setting or names or making any attempts at disguising or softening the palpable foreignness of the play. Curiously, this helped the audience negotiate the cultural transition into the world of the text more easily and cross such hurdles as the taboo theme of lesbianism which keeps surfacing in subtle shades and innuendoes.
Also helpful were the few alterations Aboul-Su'ood made to slightly update the text and bring it closer in time to his own generation, and also closer to his own sensibility and imaginative understanding of the play. Writing in 1970, Pinter makes his characters reminisce about the London of the 1950s; in 1996, at the age of twenty-five, Aboul-Su'ood could not reach further back in his imagination than the 1960s. And so, instead of the 1950s' tunes, he gave us the Beatles, and rather than Odd Man Out, the film that brings Dealey and Kate together and figures prominently in his recollections, we have Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre Sa Vie. The 'fleapit' of a cinema that Deeley remembers is recreated by means of a screen on which shots of the film are projected -- the only divergence from Pinter's stage directions regarding set and movement perhaps -- and later, in the second half, the same screen shows footage of Anna and Kate dressed in each other's clothes and cozily chatting on a bed, then shots of Deeley walking in repeatedly through the big French window framing the stage at the back. The success of Aboul-Su'ood's venture was also due in part to the sensitive, disciplined performances of Khalid El-Sawi (himself a playwright and actor like Pinter) as Deeley, Manal Youssef as Kate, and Sherine El-Ansari as Anna (see review in Al-Ahram Weekly, 25 July, 1996).
Within a few months of Aboul- Su'ood's Old Time, in November the same year, another Pinter play, The Caretaker, was successfully mounted at the National. Like Metwalli, translator Abdel-Halim El-Bashlawi used the Egyptian vernacular, albeit in a coarser vein to suit the characters' station in life, and made no attempt to Egyptianise the setting or characters. On the whole, Mohamed Abdel-Hadi's production stuck faithfully to the text, while set-designer, Mohamed Hashim, followed as far as possible Pinter's stage directions regarding the set and costumes. Here too, the acting contributed a great deal to the success of the production, with Sami Abdel-Halim, as Davies, the tramp, Kamal Suliman, as the gentle, slow-witted Aston, and Zein Nassar, as the aggressive Mick, making up a wonderful trio. And though the dialogic tactics and dramaturgy here were as devious and thoroughly 'Pinteresque' as in Old Times, it was easier for the audience to understand the characters, grasp their shifting relationships and read their motives -- perhaps because they belonged to the lower orders of society and their drab, junk-filled world was easily identifiable. After all, aren't tramps and the poor and marginalised more or less the same everywhere? (Review in Al-Ahram Weekly, 28 November, 1996.)
The last Pinter play I saw performed in Egypt was Betrayal in a production by the AUC Department of Performing Arts in 1998. I had seen it a few years earlier (can't locate the year) in an amateur production by a group who called themselves The Maadi Players and it had also been done in English. This makes me wonder how this play would transfer to Arabic. One could easily predict the reaction to the play's adultery theme in our morally conservative society; but it would be fascinating to see how an ordinary Egyptian audience would respond to its inventive, disorienting manipulation of time, its quirky ordering of the remembered events of the story which splinters the narrative among three points of view and calls into question the reality of memory and experience. Eric Grischkat's AUC production, with an intriguing multiple set by Timaree McCormick, vaguely reminiscent of Escher's lithographs and woodcuts, was intensely moving and made the audience deeply sympathise with the adulterous Emma, making her out as a vulnerable, pathetically honest and deeply confused victim. Would she ever come across this way in Arabic? (Review in Al-Ahram Weekly, 26 February, 1998.)
Would more productions of the plays have made Pinter a stronger influence on modern Egyptian drama than he has been? Or have the Egyptian dramatists of his and later generations found inspiration in the same sources he used -- in Kafka and Beckett -- as well as others? One occasionally comes across what one thinks are traces of his technique and faint echoes of his idiom here and there, in Amir Salama's Straw World, for instance, or Nadia El-Banhawi's Love and Death Sonata or The Lost Melody ; however, one is never sure whether it is really him or Beckett. Perhaps he has had more influence on poets (like Paul Sha'ool who recently published a translation of Ashes to Ashes in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal ) and the young writers of the so-called 'prose-poem', like Mohamed Metwalli. In any case, I like to think that Pinter has at least taught some of our dramatists to be less garrulous, to make their dialogue more subtle, less direct and more compact, to use irony and paradox rather than direct statements and, best of all, to value the eloquence of silence.