Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 March 2008
Issue No. 889
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Politics centre-stage

Nehad Selaiha meets American writer and human rights activist Naomi Wallace and watches her trilogy on the Middle East at the AUC

In an article entitled "On writing as Transgression" (published in the American Theatre magazine and courteously sent to me by American director Frank Bradley), Naomi Wallace stoutly declares, quoting Bertolt Brecht, that "all political, and by political we mean human and social in its interaction and impact." She advocates a kind of writing which intimately engages with history, "with the collective human dramas around us," "deals with questions of power", makes a moral stand against injustice and leads us to "question our most deeply felt assumptions." Reading Naomi's plays, articles or interviews, or talking to her face to face, you cannot fail to be impressed by her vigorous honesty, moral passion and profound sympathy for the oppressed and downtrodden. Though she described herself once (in an interview by Lyn Gardner for The Guardian on 6 February, 2007) as "an angry optimist", she was very keen in our meeting at the AUC last week to fend off any charges of idealism or sentimentality. But aren't all engaged, politically committed artists a wee bit idealistic? Don't they all harbour, somewhere in their minds, a dream of some Utopia, however dimly perceived, a faint hope that the human race can ultimately be redeemed?

Yes, all theatre is political at heart, but under this general rubric there are differences and varieties, many shades and colours. Growing up in Egypt in the 1960s, you could not find a play that was not political: the core of theatre seemed to centre on the power relations between the state and individuals, between an autocratic regime and the people it rules. Many of these plays, however, though quite forceful in their impact at the time, and quite dangerous too, sending some writers (invariably Marxists) to prison, have failed to stand the test of time. They seemed to get too stuck in the moment and failed to see beyond it, and though many of them sought to 'speak truth to power' (Naomi's phrase), it was only one kind of truth, their truth. History has taught us to fear people who, however well-intentioned, claim sole possession of the truth. In Salah Abdel Saboor's beautiful verse drama Murder in Baghdad, the Sufi rebel, Al-Hallaj, who was crucified on a charge of heresy while his real crime was trying to defend the poor, comes to realize at the end, that "justice is an eternal question that has to be constantly raised."

Few of the 1960s writers had such insights or were willing to air them. Moreover, their questioning of the status quo did not reach deep enough to the roots of oppression embedded in the culture itself, in inherited mental attitudes about family relations, religion, the human body, sexuality and the freedom of women. This kind of political theatre which only scratches the surface and is reluctant to tackle the hidden forms of oppression at work in society is rampant in the Arab world. The audience get vicarious satisfaction out of hearing their grievances against their rulers aired, drawing a lot of cathartic pleasure out of the experience, and leave the theatre quite happy. Though political theatre in Egypt in the 1960s, our socialist era, seems quite different from mainstream theatre in the United States today, looking back, I think that deep down it was not so unlike the situation Wallace describes in "Writing as Transgression" when she says: "Mainstream theatre, embroiled as it is in mainstream cultural and economic pressures, tends to reward and applaud those who ask the questions that allow for its continued existence, albeit with a few adjustments here and there. But overall the status quo stands largely untouched." The audiences of the Egyptian political theatre in the 1960s, and most of its writers, were middleclass and though most of them professed a belief in socialist change, all they really wanted was a little more freedom and a share in power.

To my mind, real political theatre should do more than voice grievances and protests. It should not purge you of your anger, leaving you feeling momentarily relieved at having stuck out your tongue at your enemies and heaped curses on their heads. Khalid El-Sawi's smash hit, Messing with the Mind, an agit-prop, satirical piece which lampooned the Bush administration, the American generals in Iraq and the inept Arab rulers and their media, had this effect and was so widely reported in the media that its resonance reached as far as New York. I do not deny it was fun to watch and quite hilarious and even witty in places, but it gave you nothing more than clichés and stereotypes and told you nothing more than you already know. I suppose people need this kind of political theatre in times of extreme crisis, when they need to stem their sense of impotence; I am not sure, however, that such facile, cathartic pieces can qualify as resistance or have a healthy effect on the mind in the long run.

Wallace's The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East is a far cry from such political pieces as I have been speaking of. As you watch, or, indeed, read the three plays in succession -- A State of Innocence, The Retreating Country and Between this Breath and You -- you become progressively disoriented, moved and reflective. Here you find no clichés, no stereotypes, but the workings of a sensitive mind deeply engaged in reflecting on a painful reality, using the power of the poetic imagination not to go beyond it, make it more palatable, or passionately rail against it, but to sift through the rubble of bulldozered homes and the piles of corpses for any sign of hope even if you think that such signs are impossible, or can be only found beyond the grave. Each of the plays begins with a real life situation based on factual reports and involving loss, pain and anger. The exploration of this authentic material, however, is quite untraditional and far from realistic, and in the first and last plays is worked out through impossible encounters set in spaces which, though they exist in reality, seem to hover on the borders between dream and memory.

In A State of Innocence, the place is "something like a small zoo, but more silent, empty, in Rafah, Palestine. Or a space that once dreamed it was a zoo." In this deserted place, full of imaginary animals whose bodies fall apart every night and come together the following afternoon, Um Hisham, a Palestinian woman, meets the zoo keeper, a young Israeli soldier who studied philosophy as an undergraduate and an old architect who once specialized in building Jewish settlements and incessantly hums 'Homa Umigdal". Though the dialogue of the two men is peppered with the usual offensive clichés Palestinians are saddled with, the tone is dispassionate and evokes only sarcastic comments from Um Hisham. Throughout we are kept wondering about the thing that she tells the soldier she wants to give his mother. At the end we discover that it is the three moments she held his head in her lap after he was shot while searching her house. Her little daughter too was shot while on the roof of the house but died quite alone. These revelations are rendered with dignity, without a hint of sentimentality and are embroidered with such vivid, graphic details that we feel as if the deaths of the young soldier and the little girl were replayed right before our eyes but dignified with the magic of art. The soldier is already dead, we discover, and the whole play was a glimpse into the mind of Um Hisham, into the depths of her grief, revealing her sensitive soul and boundless humanity. Unfortunately this beautiful text suffered in the acting: the three actors -- Adham Zidan as the architet, Ahmed Omar as the soldier and Amira Gabr as Um Hisham -- did not seem to fully grasp what the play was about, missed out all the humour and seemed either too pallid or too tense. Their sizes too were so ill matched that Ahmed Omar seemed almost ridiculous as he lay down with his huge body to put his head in the lap of small, puny Amira. Would a different lighting plan have helped, particularly in the recollection sequence? May be. But in the first two plays Frank Bradley seemed to opt for starkness, in both set and lighting.

The second play, The Retreating World, I had already seen in a wonderful production at the AUC Howard hall in 2004. The play is in the form of a monologue delivered by an Iraqi young man called Ali about what he and his people have to suffer under the economic sanctions. I wrote extensively about the text and performance at the time and you can read the article ("An American take on Iraq") in the Culture section of the Weekly, 2 March, 2004, Issue No. 680. In Waleed Hammad's hands the text kept its humour and pathos but, to be honest, I preferred Yara Atef's subtle, emotional colouring of the part in the earlier production. I could not also understand Wallace's insistence on framing the play as a lecture delivered by Ali at an International Pigeon Convention. It seemed she wanted to justify why he was speaking directly to the audience. I do not recollect being bothered by this in Yara's performance. After all, this is an old theatrical convention. Besides, can you imagine a man walking into a conference hall to give a scientific talk on pigeons with a book balanced on his head. Naomi could have also meant to distantiate Iraq as a setting, a real place, and recreate it as a place in the memory, a kind of paradise lost. But, again, in the earlier production Iraq came across vividly as a 'retreating world.' Still, I suppose authors (and directors too) should be allowed their whims.

Curiously, the third vision in the trilogy, Between This Breath and You, which had seemed to me in reading the most realistic of the three and, therefore, stood in most danger of offending the Arabs and Egyptians in the audience given the daily slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank right now, worked far better on stage than the first. It features a fantastic situation in which a Palestinian man not only donates the lungs of his son who died in an Israeli raid to an Israeli young woman for transplant, but also seeks her out to help her retain the lungs and stay alive. When I met Naomi I told her frankly that people would not stomach this and would think it far too idealistic. Given what is happening next door, the first impulse of such a man would be to rip the woman's chest open and retrieve the lungs. "But it did happen," Naomi exclaimed. The play was based on a true story which after some effort I vaguely remembered. Still Naomi understood how the play might offend some people. It is difficult for people in the grip of anger and pain to listen to messages of tolerance, forgiveness and shared humanity. You couldn't for instance imagine the parents of poor Rachel Corrie who was brutally crushed by an Israeli armoured bulldozer in Rafah, on 16 March, 2003 while defending Palestinian homes to donate her organs to the Israelis. How many years have to pass before people could forget and forgive? Perhaps never.

And yet, in November 2005, the parents of 12-year old Ahmed Khatib who was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers during a raid on Jenin refugee camp, agreed to have his heart, liver, kidneys and lungs transplanted into six Israelis. This fact was wisely projected on a back screen before the play began to tell the audience that such miracles of forgiveness could happen and even qualify for some, as another caption taken from The Guardian said, as acts of resistance. According to the paper "the Khatibs" said "that peace and a desire to alleviate the suffering of others was uppermost in their minds. But looking exhausted and still stunned by the twin demands of Ahmed's death and the Israeli embrace, they also speak of their decision as an act of resistance." Given the fact that organ donations and transplants are still frowned upon and viewed with suspicion by religious conservatives in the Arab world and that the Khatibs' 'act of resistance' has not produced any tangible results, Between This Breath and You seemed a highly thorny issue.

What saved it from being rejected outright was the acting, the symbolic act of sweeping the sawdust which had covered the whole set in the earlier plays to clear a space where Mourid and Tanya could meet, and the less harsh, more sympathetic lighting which dimmed most of the stage except for the small acing space in front and gave the actors a certain appealing pallor. The actors seemed to know what they were doing and, unlike the ones in the first play, surrendered themselves to the text without resistance. Hassan Kreidli's clowning and funny antics offset Basil Daoud quiet dignity and buried grief as Mourid, the Palestinian father, and Amina Khalil, as Tanya, successfully transformed from an outwardly perky, cocky grownup woman who flares up at the suggestion that she has a Palestinian inside her and lashes out obscene details to shock and hurt Mourid, to a helpless, frightened child, quite alone and sheepishly willing to accept Mourid's assistance. The whole play hinges on this delicate, subtle shift in the balance of power which gradually reveals the strength of Mourid and the vulnerability of Tanya. In the process, the play reveals the undignified, hopeless lives suffered by many Arab Jews in Israel. To find his 'promised land' the Arab Jew, like Tanya, has to come to terms with Mourid who seems in full control at the end. That for Israel to survive, it has to accept living with the Palestinians and even learning from them seems the message of the play.

That some of the audience found it hard to swallow such a message is, perhaps, understandable and could be predicted. One wonders if there ever will come a time when such brave plays would be properly appreciated. In them, and in all her writing, Wallace "tries to place, hopes to place, in the very middle of history those who do not accept life as it has been established and narrated, the wager that the official version of reality handed down from above will always be contested by somebody, no matter what the cost to their bodies and sanity", to quote from Ariel Dorfman's introduction to his Trilogy of Resistance. It was a real privilege meeting Naomi Wallace and watching her Three Visions even though the time was not quite ripe for them. For this privilege I heartily thank Frank Bradley and the AUC Performing Arts Department who organized and hosted this event. They gave me a taste of real political theatre as I understand it: challenging, disorienting and thought provoking.

The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East -- a trilogy by American playwright and poet Naomi Wallace, directed by Frank Bradley at Al-Falaki main stage, AUC, 13-19 March, 2008.

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