Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 March 2006
Issue No. 786
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Mephisto in Elysium

Nehad Selaiha encounters the ghost of Rudolf Steiner on a farm in Bilbis

Dr. Ibrahim Abul-Eish is what you would definitely call a diligent, indeed brilliant businessman. In less than 30 years, he has managed to develop a modest farm for organically cultivated medicinal herbs, built on a mere 70 hectares of desert land near Bilbis, 60 kms northeast of Cairo, into a vast, thriving network of integrated companies, producing a large variety of chemical-free consumer goods, ranging from fresh fruit and vegetables and herbal remedies to cotton, cosmetics and textiles. But there is much more to the man than a mere success story, however impressive. His ardent dedication to the development and propagation of biodynamic methods of agriculture in Egypt and unflagging efforts to spread a mantle of greenness over the rugged face of the desert stems from a profound respect for nature and is guided by a deep sense of religious duty which impels him to want to leave the world a better place than he found it.

Abul-Eish's sense of responsibility towards nature and the planet he inhabits extends to his fellow human beings. Unlike most businessmen, he does not regard the two thousand workers employed in his companies as mere 'hands' or money-making machines. Their social, cultural, physical and spiritual welfare is a paramount concern. Towards this end, he has appointed for each of his companies an administrator whose sole duty is to minister to the needs of the workers on all fronts and make sure they have a pleasant and healthy work environment. Each morning, the workers in every company meet, and standing in a circle, in the open air, under the sun (vitality from the sun is the motto of Abul-Eish's consortium) to exchange ideas, talk about their problems, air their demands and, most importantly, experience the sense of being a valued member of a closely knit community.

To make the world a better place and draw upon the creative forces of nature in one's work or any other form of human activity has been the driving force behind the many institutions related to development, education, applied research and health care which have sprouted round Abul-Eish's companies: the kindergarten, primary and secondary school and health care centre in Bilbis, the MAHAD Adult Training Institute, the special programme for handicapped children, the Academy for Applied Arts and Sciences in Heliopolis, an association of researchers and artists, both Egyptian and foreign (the latter mainly German), which seeks to merge "the approaches of science, art and study of the human spirit in every department and create ideas, products and services which add value to human life in the economic, legal and cultural realm," the Egyptian Society of Cultural Development (SCD), an NGO which ambitiously aims to "elevate the total welfare of the Egyptian people by enabling them to determine and realise their own socially unique and culturally appropriate development path," and the Egyptian Biodynamic Association, another non-profit NGO, intended to promote the organic agriculture movement in Egypt by providing training, research and advisory services in the field of organic farming.

Underlying Abul-Eish's attitude to his workers and his many institutions is "a holistic vision, encompassing economic, social and cultural endeavours with the main aim to develop the people... to enhance and bring about a greater integration of the Arts, Religion and Sciences," as the web site of his company explains. No wonder his company received the Right Livelihood Award in 2003 and he himself was selected as an Outstanding Social Entrepreneur by the Schwab Foundation and invited to participate at the next World Economic Forum.

Particularly endearing in Abul-Eish's socio- cultural-economic enterprise is the care and attention given to theatre. An amateur theatre group of the companies' employees regularly rehearse and perform plays at the Academy which also offers different training programmes in theatrical art. I am told that the Academy theatre team has participated in the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre in 2002 with Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a performance which I unfortunately missed; however, my first introduction to Abul-Eish's multifaceted developmental project was through theatre and a technically decent and quite zestful performance of Lenin El-Ramli's Point of View performed on a small, simple stage in a hall on the farm in Bilbis. This happened several months ago, and at the time I knew very little about the cultural activities of Abul-Eish's companies. Last week, however, as I watched the first part of Goethe's Faust subtly trimmed to fit within two hours and seamlessly, sensitively directed by Christoph Graf and performed by the Academy troupe, with the help of one professional, Hamada Shousha, and a few German guest artists, things began to click.

The key or clue were the scenes featuring the angels, witches and spirits which were performed in the tradition of Eurhythmy, an art of movement developed by Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian scholar, scientist, pedagogue and artist, and passionate disciple of Goethe, who, after a series of lectures at the Theosophical Library of Count and Countess Brockdorff in 1901/1902, began to construct what he called an "anthroposophical spiritual science," based on the idealistic tradition in philosophy, rooted in the thinking of Aristotle, Plato and Thomas Aquinas, and, on its basis, initiated in 1912 this new art of movement which is kindred in spirit and direction to that of Isadora Duncan. The essence of this art is a belief that the inmost nature of the human being can be revealed through movements of the arms and hands. As one commentator says, "in the case of Eurhythmy, body, soul and spirit work harmoniously together, so that here one has to do with an ensouled and spiritualised form of gymnastics." Another professes that "the new art of Eurhythmy now being developed at the Goetheanum (the first stage and school founded by Steiner in Dornach, Switzerland, in 1913 and the model for his later schools) seeks to give direct expression, from out of the individual performer, to the rhythm which pervades the human organism and Nature." According to Steiner, in a 1923 lecture, "every Eurhythmic movement may be looked upon as being of a threefold nature;... . In the first place there is the movement as such; then there is the feeling which lies within the movement; and lastly there is the character which flows out of the soul-life, and streams into the movement." Underlying such statements are the teachings of Anthroposophy which looks upon man as a meeting-point of the forces of the universe. Indeed, Steiner saw Eurhythmy as a tool of Anthroposophy useful in revealing and bringing about "a certain 'spiritual impulse' in our age."

Despite what I like to call my 'healthy' suspicion of all 'spiritual' talk and 'soulful' mumbo- jumbo, the opening scene, "The Prologue in Heaven," featuring the angels (though not the Lord, for obvious reasons) swaying and fluttering around in flowing robes and performed to the accompaniment of rhythmical chanting issuing from the wings almost had me hypnotized and I caught myself involuntarily trying to reproduce the fascinating movements of the arms and hands of the Eurhythmists. For once I came close to believing that Eurhythmic movements, as Steiner describes them, "are the truest means of giving outward and visible expression to all that is contained in the human soul." This is why he calls Eurhythmy "visible speech" and "visible music" and maintains that "the movements of Eurhythmy do actually proceed out of the inner organisation of man." (He doesn't mention woman; but then, political correctness was not around when he gave his lecture.)

It suddenly became clear to me that Abul-Eish was functioning within an old German philosophical tradition (he lived for a long time in Germany) which Steiner voiced when he said: "The healthy social life is only found when in the mirror of each human soul the whole community finds its reflection and when in the community the virtue of each one is living." Like the German furniture manufacturer, Wolf Dohrn who, in 1909, invited the famous Swiss composer and educator Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, the devisor of the music learning method known as Eurhythmics (which emphasises the importance of rhythmic movement in enhancing the performance of musicians as well as their aesthetic perception, physical and spiritual well-being and capacity for social integration), to form an institute at his planned community in Hellerau, which he intended as an example of a Werkstatte -- "a settlement," as history tells us, "designed for ideal social unity and progress and the personal growth and well-being of workers and their children" -- and not unlike Emil Molt, another German industrialist and the director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart who, in 1919, after the war, when Germany felt the need for a cohesive social structure, invited Rudolf Steiner to open a school centered on the art of Eurhythmy for the children of the factory workers, Abul-Eish has decided to build a community round an industry and do his best to promote the social and individual well-being of its members. If Steiner, who devoted himself to the study and propagation of Goethe's ideals, were still around, Abul-Eish would have doubtlessly invited him, and possibly his wife too, Marie von Sievers, to direct last week's Faust and possibly give a course of lectures on Eurhythmy at his Academy. But though Steiner is no longer around in the flesh, his teachings and ideas seem to permeate every aspect of the activities of everyone connected with Abul-Eish's vast enterprise. Eurhythmy features on the curricula of every educational institution sponsored by him and for Part I of Goethe's Faust, he invited a specialist in this art from Switzerland who, I guess, most probably teaches and works at the Goetheanum.

Using an art form which draws on movement, poetry, music and drama, and with a competent chorus, a haunting score by Dietrich Sprenger, beautifully executed by team of excellent musicians, led by Hisham Gabr, and eight fascinating Eurhythmists, Graf elicited from his cast some wonderfully rhythmical and moving performances without sacrificing the element of humour. Samah Selim as Margarita was quite ethereal, reminding one of Steiner's concept of the "etheric" body, and vividly evoked Ophelia in the prison scene; her gentleness and fragility contrasted well with Yasser Badawi's heavily solid and sonorous Faust, and Sherif Hamdi, masquerading as Martha in a red, satin dress, was pure delight and managed to draw lots of laughter without tipping openly into farce. Mohamed Zakaria as the Student was fittingly small, pathetic and faintly comical, and Ahmed Yehia, doubling as Wagner and Valentine was quite impressive, giving each character a distinctive outward display; without reading the programme you wouldn't know it was the same person playing both parts. But the real gem in this performance was Hamada Shousha as Mephisto. He seemed to revel in the part and infected us with his devilish spirit and thorough, overwhelming, reckless enjoyment of doing mischief. One couldn't but love him as one loves Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a part that he aches to play. His vast vocal range and years of arduous training in the art of mime stood him in good stead, helping him to negotiate the transition from angel of hell into dog, servant and domineering blackmailer with stunning ease and his strong stage presence and natural knack for drawing out even the most stolid of audiences were a real asset to the whole performance. Given the quality of the show and considering that it had never been done in Egypt before, this production of the first part of Goethe's Faust, albeit performed on a farm by amateur workers and employees, barring a few professionals, ranks as quite an important theatrical event which should be celebrated and transferred to a public theatre so that many more people can enjoy it. Judging by it, it seems that Abul-Eish's cultural project is moving on the right track and bearing fruit as fresh and healthy as those produced by his organic farms. But what irony to find Mephisto dominating the stage in this idyllic blueprint of a utopia.

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