Picking up the pieces
At the 16th annual Theatre Clubs' Festival, the first after the Beni Sweif holocaust on 5 September last year, Nehad Selaiha senses a fierce determination to carry on despite the tragedy
After what happened last year I didn't think I could attend another Theatre Clubs' Festival. I didn't think I could cope with the memories, the missing, the absence of so many loved ones. My first reaction when I heard the 16th festival would be held at Al-Anfoushi Cultural Palace in Alexandria from 16 to 27 November and was asked to be there was a big, impulsive "NO"; how could I? I stayed away for a whole week, trying to forget I had heard anything, to block the floodgates to memory, to lay to rest the many ghosts the news had vividly brought back to life. But evasion was fruitless -- far more painful and mentally exhausting than facing up to the loss. By the end of the week I was on a train bound for Alexandria; there I hoped I to find solace in the company of those of the clan that are left.
Theatre Clubs' festivals have always had, in my experience, a very special flavour and atmosphere. Here energy, passionate enthusiasm, an invigorating sense of youthful audacity and a kind of earthy freshness more than compensated for the palpable poverty of the shows and their relative immaturity. What was celebrated was the process -- the effort, ambition and social consequences (immediate and cumulative) -- rather than the final aesthetic product, and in the critical discussions held at the end of the evening every day throughout the festival, the cultural role of those clubs and the ideological messages their productions implicitly disseminated got as much attention as questions of artistic form and technical competence and finesse. Launched by the Cultural Palaces Organisation in 1990, the same year the Independent Theatre Movement was born, the project -- the brainchild of director Adel El-'Oleimi -- was conceived as an antidote to the growing hostility to the arts fostered by the wave of religious fundamentalism which was fast spreading throughout the country and growing particularly virulent in the neglected provinces far from the capital. To make theatre rather than terror was the guiding, albeit undeclared, slogan. The idea was to create safe, visible spaces where young people could meet to air their views creatively, vent their anger and frustration imaginatively, harmlessly, in dramatic fiction, and sort out their ideological confusion by dissecting reality on stage and projecting alternative versions. To be able to recreate the world even in one's imagination is a source of liberation and empowerment, as every one related to the Theatre Clubs' project knew. And there was the real value of the project -- as part of the politics of resistance against ideological bigotry and intellectual repression.
The first festival was held in 1991, in Damietta, hosted by its governor then, Ahmed Gweili, and featured the work of 10 clubs from Port Said, Suez, Fayyoum, Zaqaziq, Badrashin, Beni Mazar, as well as the host city and other towns. When Gweili moved to Ismailiya the following year, in the same capacity as governor, he carried the festival with him where he continued to host and support it for the next four years. During that time El-'Oleimi left for the Gulf, entrusting the management of the project to Sami Taha who diligently continued to develop it until the 10 initial clubs grew to 200 and the one annual major festival spawned five smaller regional ones held in different governorates and distributed over the year. Indeed, as early as 1996, the Cultural Palaces Theatre Clubs project had become one of the most vital tributaries of theatrical activity in Egypt and a major forum for free expression and artistic experimentation. No wonder critics rallied round it, often comparing its almost zero-budget productions to those of professional companies and finding them far more relevant, inventive, thought provoking and exciting.
Success, however, invariably breeds jealousy, fear and a long trail of grudges. One cannot say exactly when the tide began to turn for the Theatre Club's project, or pinpoint the forces which began to work against it and check its progress after its initial glorious thrust. Critic and journalist Nahid Izz El-Arab (of the Radio & Television Magazine ), who has closely followed the activities of the Theatre Clubs since they were first launched and knows a lot of what went on behind the scenes, believes that the curve started to go down after the 1996 festival. "The productions were so politically daring and subversive, so intellectually and artistically powerful they disturbed the people at the top of the organisation," she told me. "Rather than a safety-valve, or a safe way to counter the danger of the Islamists," she went on to say, "they were becoming an independent political force in their own right, and one with a potentially vast influence." Rather than openly censor the clubs or disband them, the guardians of the establishment, she claims, found insidious ways to check and cripple the movement, including tightening the already very tight purse strings, sucking some members into the system by dangling many seductive carrots (but never making them feel fully secure), tipping the balance in favour of some members against others quite erratically to create false grievances, and generally fostering a spirit of negative, destructive competitiveness among the members.
Though perceptibly enfeebled after 1996, the Theatre Clubs' movement continued to struggle on, always attracting new blood and young talents -- honest, bright- eyed budding socialists who fervently believed they should carry art and enlightenment to the most deprived corners of Egypt, to the forgotten silent masses -- and treating us to very powerful festivals every now and then. Throughout, it drew strength and inspiration from a bunch of brilliant, liberal-minded critics, including a few academics and enthusiastic media people, who zealously followed its activities wherever they took place and generously expended time and energy to keep the movement on the right course. Of those guardians of the movement, very few are now left. On 5 September last year, most of them died, together with scores of young artists and theatre enthusiasts, in the horrible fire which suddenly engulfed the Beni Sweif cultural palace, claiming more than 60 lives.
I arrived in Alexandria on 22 November and, true to my premonition, this was unlike any other festival, theatre-clubs or otherwise, I had attended before. It was an instance of the power of absence over presence. Far more vivid than anything I saw on stage, and more alive than all the people I met in the auditorium, the foyer, the hotel or on the streets were the absent faces I involuntarily kept looking for. More than once I thought I could glimpse some of them among the crowds, and in the hushed darkness of the auditorium I could swear they were there somewhere -- so uncannily strong, almost physical, was my sense of their insubstantial presence. Everything I watched was coloured by this eerie sensation: rather than what I felt and thought, I was fully engrossed in imagining how Hazem Shehata, Mohsen Mesilhi, Saleh Saad or Ahmed Abdel-Hamid would have reacted to the performance I was watching and what comments they would have made.
Has the general standard really plummeted, as Izz El-Arab mournfully noted? Yes, they would have probably concurred; but while Hazem would have explained it in postmodern terms as a symptom of the times, as yet another manifestation of the state of ideological confusion, spiritual de-centering and general loss of purpose which characterises the consciousness of many young people nowadays, Mohsen, a gifted playwright plus an academic, would have ascribed it to a facile, superficial approach to reality on the writers and directors' part, a certain lack of dialectical complexity and a firm sense of form. Meanwhile, good, old, infinitely tolerant Abdel-Hamid, grown mellow at 70, would have looked on benignly, praising everything he saw and patting any young shoulder that happened to be near.
One aspect of the festival, however, would have been unstintingly applauded by all my absent friends: variety. The 24 shows in the festival, carefully picked out of this year's theatrical crop which totaled 251 productions from clubs up and down the country, listed well-known Egyptian titles, like Salah Abdel-Sabour's Musafir Leil (Night Traveller), Ragab Selim's Al-Qal' wal-Sari (The Sail and the Mast) and Amin Bakir's Etnein fil-Halawa (Two in Cuckoo Land); new works by young Egyptian writers, like Mohamed El-Dorah's Brova (Rehearsal) from Zaqaziq, Wafaa El-Salih's Marionette from Menya, Mohamed Abdel-Mu'ti's Mahrous (a name which means the protected one) from Bebba in Beni Sweif, Sameh Osman's Yamama Bida (White Palm Dove) and Al-Qutta Al-'Amia (Blind Cat) from Alexandria, and Imsik Hilm (Catch a Dream) and Akher Al-Shari' (End of the Street) by Alexandrian playwright Mu'men Abdou whom we tragically lost in the Beni Sweif fire; as well as foreign plays in translation, some of them abridged or slightly adapted -- namely: Eugene O'Neil's 'Ile (read Oil), about a tyrannical captain obsessed by the search for whale oil; Anton Chekov's On the Harmfulness of Tobacco, a comic dramatic monologue in which Nyukhin, a hen- pecked husband, is supposed to deliver a lecture on the evils of tobacco but, instead, rambles on about his miserable life with his shrewish wife, taking the audience into his confidence, only to discover at the end that the said wife has been standing in the wings all along; Black Mass by Afro-American playwright Imamu Amiri Baraka (Leroy Jones) which features the creation of a monster and gives plenty of scope for visual inventiveness (it was given in two different productions by clubs from Al-Mihala Al-Kobra and Alexandria); Felicidad or Happiness, by Mexican dramatist Emilio Carballido; and Angels' Masks by Greek playwright Notis Pirialis, staged by the theatre club in Zaqaziq.
That such a wonderful menu was often marred by poor execution and technical sloppiness would have chagrined Hazem and Mohsen no end. Both, however, would have reveled in the virtuoso performance of Tamer El-Qadi as the Egyptian equivalent of Chekov's Mr Nyukhin in On the Harmfulness of Tobacco which won him the best actor award. Yamama Bida (which scooped two top awards: for Best Production and Best Script) would have also delighted them with its open theatricality, sharp satirical barbs, tough-and-rough acerbic humour and sweet, old melodies and would have generated a lot of exciting discussion. Made of seemingly disconnected, brief sketches, it mixes fantasy with reality and the past with the present to reveal the ugly spots and teasing contradictions that mar Egyptian reality. The sad romance between a Muslim boy and Christian girl is paralleled by another, between a sugar doll and sugar knight -- traditional features of the Moulid (the celebration marking the birth of Prophet Mohamed) that date back to the rule of the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. While the first leads to a tragic elopement which lands the lovers in prison, the latter ends with the doll sold to a whimpering idiot and dragged away to be eaten while the knight looks on wistfully, helplessly. There are also two false intellectuals who spout off big slogans and lead double lives, a corrupt cop in cahoots with burglars, a water carrier who mops up the secrets of the homes he visits as he pours water, a Misaharati ('awakener': a man who goes round in the month of Ramadan beating a drum to awaken fasters to eat their pre-dawn meal), and a lamp- lighter whose job allows him to see all the evil conspiracies hatched under the cover of darkness. Had the writer stopped at this he would have had a really compact and pungent theatrical piece, at once intriguingly varied, seemingly disconnected, but cogently coherent.
Unfortunately, Sameh Osman seems to have been carried away on the wings of imagination to the detriment of his work. Suddenly, towards the end, he treats us to a startling harking back to Ancient Egyptian mythology in a long, overstretched sequence, with traditional mourning rituals thrown in for good measure, then adds a moral parable with Goha, the proverbial trickster in Arab literature, at the centre, thus jolting us to another place and time. While Mohsen Mesilhi, a stickler for form, even in the most untraditional specimens of dramatic writing, would have bemoaned the writer's flagrant, irresponsible imaginative indulgences, dear Hazem Shehata would probably have hailed the White Palm Dove' s fragmentariness and parodic tendency as definitively expressive of a postmodern sensibility. Both would have sternly castigated the lighting and scenography in Al-Zaqaziq's Masks of Angels which dressed the actors in black against a black backdrop and rarely allowed us to see their faces, but would have praised the actors who struggled with a thoroughly alien, recalcitrant text.
I wonder what they would have thought of the Rehearsal where the dividing lines between fiction and reality, life and art, were dangerously blurred to the point of total obfuscation, or of the Mast and Sail which struck me as a theatrical variation on an old movie melodrama called Shati' Al-Gharam (Love Beach), starring Shadia, Emad Hamdi and Shukri Sarhan. "Film Arabi," was how most of the audience mockingly dismissed it at the end. They would have liked Al-Mahrous, however, especially its telling scenography with the gallows centre stage, lots of scarecrows and a high ladder at one end serving as the seat of the tyrant. Marionette they would have definitely dismissed as a thinly camouflaged, somewhat simplistic and openly didactic adaptation of Lenin El-Ramli's debut satirical masterpiece Enta Hor (You're Free). Always thinking what they would have thought and said was at once a great comfort and a terrible pain. Let us leave it at that.