Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 -19 November 2008
Issue No. 922
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

A bitter pill

Nehad Selaiha hails a hotly controversial political satire by Sameh Mahran

If a play is called Puzzle One (which is also the Arabic title), one would legitimately assume that it is part of a planned series and that we should expect puzzle two and three or four. And this is exactly what Sameh Marhran has in mind and the message he intended his audience to get. His Puzzle One, currently on at the small hall of Fatma Rushdi Floating Theatre in Giza (at the tip of University Bridge), is the first part of a trilogy critiquing modern Egyptian history since the 1952 coup d'etat and the abolition of the monarchy.

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Judging by this first part, or puzzle, the intended trilogy would follow the traditional historical division of the period from 1952 till now into three phases according to the succession of rulers from Nasser to Mubarak. Whether Mahran would adopt in the subsequent parts the same tongue-in-cheek, devil-may-care satirical attitude, the same outrageously cynical and bitterly disillusioned tone, or use the same intriguing mix of fantasy, document and farcical parody in his form is any body's guess. Here, this formula was at once refreshingly original, painfully provocative and stunningly truthful. Treading a thin line between fact and fiction, private life and the public sphere, lived experience and a media- manufactured virtual reality, conscience and false consciousness, and throwing caution to the four winds, Mahran managed to distill the essence of what it meant to be alive and growing up in the 1950s and 60s and living through the cataclysmic 1967 military defeat.

Mahran was only a child when the events he writes about took place, and it is a wonder to me how he could capture with such pulverising authenticity the feeling of initial euphoria which marked the early years of the revolution and the sense of shock and utter decimation that swept through us, the 1960s generation, in 1967, leaving us floating in mid air, like so many specks of dust, with no feeling of a solid earth underneath our feet and no where to turn to for solace or reassurance. 'Betrayal' was the word uppermost in our consciousness then; we had been taken for a ride, and what a ruthlessly destructive one that was. For those of us who survived that mental earthquake (and some of us didn't, dying of a sudden heart attack, like Philip Gallab, or, like Salah Jaheen, going into deep depression and eventually committing suicide) there was nothing left but impotent anger, a sick kind of nostalgia and gruesome forebodings of further disasters in the future.

Eerily, Mahran's Puzzle captured the trauma of the 1960s generation, many of whom could not cope with the mortifying, mind-boggling and soul-shriveling revelations the 1967 defeat brought about. Consequently many members of this generation acted like a lot of dazed, scared children, with some seeking oblivion like Tennyson's 'opium eaters' and withdrawing to the shores of Lethe, and some nursing their wounds with lies and dressing them with layers upon layers of ineffectual nostalgia for a never-never land they thought they once glimpsed.

Spanning the period from 23 July 1952 to 9 June 1967, the play centers on a number of key events which, according to Mahran, shaped and defined this political phase and Nasser's regime -- namely: the abdication of king Farouk and his departure from Alexandria into exile on 26 July 1952 aboard his yacht 'Al-Mahrousa', the flag ship of the Egyptian navy; the 1952 agrarian reform laws which limited land ownership to 200 fedans per family (later reduced to 100) and turned many agricultural workers into small landowners; the big, pro-democracy demonstrations in March 1954 which called for the restoration of political parties and parliamentary life and were ruthlessly crushed; the declaration at Manshiya Square in Alexandria of the nationalization of the Suez canal on 26 July 1956; the subsequent tripartite aggression on Egypt which started on the night of 29 October of the same year; the 28 September 1961 severe socialist laws which decreed the nationalization of all major commercial concerns, the confiscation of private property and the sequestration of private bank accounts exceeding a certain limit; and, finally, the disastrous defeat in the war with Israel on 6 June 1967.

These key events act as Mahran's building blocks, and while they are evoked by means of old documentary films, recordings of memorable speeches and announcements and some of the most popular period patriotic songs, their negative consequences are unsparingly exposed and wittily satirised in short, barbed scenes, very much like a cartoon strip, shot through with elements of fantasy at times and often bordering on the farcical. The scenes are linked by a fable, in the manner of a morality play, but the moral here is devastatingly ironical and fiercely cynical; it says, in no vague terms, that the reign of the 'free officers' was nothing but a vulgar extension of the old, autocratic, feudalist regime, albeit gaudily decked out and elaborately masked.

Like a parody of an old, black and white celluloid melodrama, the story which holds the play together traces the gradual moral corruption and mental deterioration of Leila, the beautiful, imaginative and highly educated daughter of a feudalist Pasha, who is forced by her father, in order to protect himself and guard his financial interests, into a loveless marriage to one of the stooges of the new regime -- a pompous, vulgar opportunist and social upstart by the name of Hafiz Sadiq. More ironical than his actual name (which means in Arabic the truthful one who knows the Koran by heart) is Sadiq's nickname, 'Alima Wa Lam Yubaligh' (he who knew what was being hatched but did not report it), which exactly describes how he rose to power and gained favour with the military junta: as the secretary of the minister of war in the old regime, Sadiq got to know the exact hour of the planned military coup but wisely kept it to himself, thus winning the eternal gratitude and trust of the new lords of Egypt.

Chafing under the yoke of this travesty of a marriage, Laila (a palpable symbol of Egypt) insists on calling the daughter it produces 'A Lie', escapes into western fantasies of sexual freedom by conjuring up the phantom of Emma Bovary and making of her a bosom friend, falls in love with an inflatable rubber doll in the image of popular singer Abdel-Halim Hafiz, the idol of the 1960s and 'voice of the revolution', as he was often officially described, indulges her physical cravings in a shabby extra-marital liaison with a self-confessed gigolo and dirty blackmailer, consents to having her daughter's legs lopped off to stop her dancing on the advice of a crazy psychiatrist, and ends up a lonely, sad woman, robbed of all illusions, pathetically hugging her rubber image of Halim, now pierced flat.

Meanwhile, her husband, assisted by another, more wily junta stooge, helps the Pasha, her father, to get round the agrarian reform laws and keep his land by forging selling contracts to imaginary buyers, joins the anti-democracy forces, is appointed the chairman of the board of a nationalised big company which he gets busy robbing by transferring a substantial part of its assets and business to a small, private company established under his wife's name, puts up with Laila's sexual shenanigans, bribing the gigolo into silence with money and the promise of a respectable job as a journalist, and ends up trying to put his wife in a mental home while seeking to buy the sexual favours of the gigolo's seductive wife.

Every action denotes a particular date, and so the story of Laila and her husband carries us from 1952 till 1967 where the play stops. The 1967 defeat dominates this whole sad pageant from the word go. Though the action follows a straight chronological order, the play starts with Nasser's resignation speech, on the evening of 9 June 1967, played in a voiceover while shots of the empty streets of Cairo at dusk are projected on a screen at the centre of the two-level stage set. In this historical speech, Nasser finally admitted defeat, calling it a 'setback', took full responsibility for it and announced his decision to step down and withdraw from public life. No sooner had the broadcast ended than the streets were flooded with crowds wailing and weeping and calling upon him to stay at the helm, so to speak, and help the nation to recover. The demonstrations (which some cynics claim were organised by Nasser's men) continued throughout the following day until the evening when Nasser announced, in another nation-wide broadcast, that he would bow down to the popular will and stay in office, at least until all traces of the 'setback' were removed.

This second speech, however, does not feature in the play and may possibly do so in the second part of the trilogy. Here, only the resignation speech was heard, and as Nasser's voice trailed off, the lights suddenly came up on stage, picking up Laila standing at a table on the upper level of the set, defensively answering an invisible interrogator and shouting at him: "What is it you all want? I am really surprised. I would not have believed anyone still thought the way you do. Are you asking me what I was looking for?" At once, king Farouk's image flickers on the screen as he prepares to board his yacht and we are flung back 15 years to July, 1952. Next, a photo of an aged pasha, in full regalia, takes up the whole screen while the fictive pasha in Mahran's story paces up and down the stage, like a caged animal, his elongated, huge silhouette crossing and re-crossing the photo on the screen, often blurring it. "Lily', he bawls, and Laila emerges from the shadows, descends the curved staircase leading down to the lower level of the set to face her father.

The brief, stormy scene which follows seals Laila's fate: she will marry Hafiz Sadiq, the representative of the new regime, whether she likes it or not, the pasha peremptorily decrees before squashing out the light with his foot and plunging the whole stage in darkness. It was a slight gesture which spoke volumes -- one of the many small and fine details with which Mahran, as director, enriched his text. Almost at once, the lights pick up Laila on the upper level, quite distraught and absent-mindedly whispering an old children folk song which says: "Put out the light, woman, put out the light/We're the cops arrived, but we're also the robbers." Then she turns to the invisible interrogator and fiercely asks: "Why do children in the poor, deprived areas always sing this song whenever there is a power cut? Answer me. Or has the cat eaten your tongue? No, please, write down everything I say without omission or polishing. You are not a censor; you're something else. You want a straight answer? Are you sure? Well, here it is: because the cops are indeed the robbers. No, don't slap me; I cannot bear it, and don't call me names either. I am not a man- hunter. What am I then? You are right there; I don't know what I am. Who am I?"

This casts the whole play in the form of a flashback, or a forced recollection, a tracing back of the events of many years in the presence of an unsympathetic interrogator; it also establishes Laila as a clear symbol of Egypt. The play then follows an ordered chronological line, carrying us back, at the end, to the starting point. Just as it began with a reminder of the 1967 defeat, it ends with images of war planes filling the sky and dropping bombs and the sound of explosions.

Given the choice, Mahran would rather direct his own plays and has done so whenever it was feasible. Like writers with a good experience of the stage and how words come alive on it, he knows what aural and visual aids would complement, paradoxically negate, or ironically undercut the stated, obvious verbal meaning and how to invest them with optimum stage efficacy. But before I go into this, and before I forget, I would like to briefly comment on his ingenious tapping of the rich resources of colloquial Arabic, or, rather, the common Egyptian tongue, and his introduction, and crafty dramatic manipulation of the character of the invisible interrogator. In terms of language, he went all out for caricaturing the way people talked in the 1960s, producing a richly variegated verbal text, peppered with popular clichés, folk nursery rhymes, old proverbs, famous lines from period songs, echoes from the dialogue in period movies, the jargon of psychiatrists as well as the nationalist, socialist political jargon in current use then, and used all this in such a deliciously cunning, parodic way as to transform the whole play into a hauntingly grotesque hall of echoes.

As for the invisible interrogator, a very important character that does not figure on the list of the dramatis personae, let alone the cast list, He, She, or It functioned in a dual, ironical capacity as both the seeming consciousness of the play and the secret police who invades the privacy of individuals, listens at their doors, terrorises them and searches through their minds and most intimate thoughts. Not a single character in the play, not even the gigolo and his wife, can evade him. All are alternately summoned into his presence to confess their secrets, at once narrating what they had done while enacting it, bridging the past and present, and pitching the audience into an immensely teasing dual temporal frame. Is he the invisible censor within us all past and present? The fearful, internal censor Mahran had to battle against in the past and is still warding off in the present in order to be able to freely write his testimony?

In the hands of another director, Puzzle One would have definitely come across as a different show, coloured by that director's ideological leanings, political sympathies and, no doubt, the dictates of his own inner censor. It wouldn't have been the sharp, contentious performance it is now. In directing his text, Mahran used all the available means of theatre to crystallise his text and testimony, fearing nothing and, as I said before, throwing caution to the four winds. The result was a crisp, elegant, fast-paced and extremely provocative performance that you could love or hate, but which will not leave you unmoved one way or the other.

Puzzle One may seem different from Mahran's earlier plays, whether the ones he originally wrote or those he adapted from well-known novels, the works he himself staged or the ones he entrusted to other directors. Quite different in form, seeming like a drastic departure from his earlier modes, mixing satire with documentary stuff, and leaning heavily on parody and farce, with a big splash of fantasy thrown in, and casting the whole mix in the mould of a light comedy cum multi- media show, Puzzle One still carries clear traces of Mahran's earlier works. Rather than a complete departure, or a new expedition into a hitherto untrodden territory, it strikes one as a continuation of the same intellectual project started in the earlier stage work.

Underneath all the technical bravado and brilliant verbal trickeries and innovations, one detects a thread that stretches back to his earlier plays and stage adaptations. Here, as in his dramatisations of Jalloun's novel, The Child of Sand, Bahaa Tahir's Aunt Safiya and the Monstary, Abdel Hakim Qasim's The Seven Days of Man, Mohamed Nagui's Khafyet Qamar (Moon Eclipse), or his originally composed The Boatman, Under the Umbrella, Di and Doody Meet Shakesy, or Who Dares Eat his Father? Mahran continues his critique of modern Egyptian history and his questioning and condemnation of the male chauvinistic attitudes deeply embedded Egyptian culture and its quintessential patriarchal structure. That all females could be coerced into submission and obedience by male, sexual prowess, and that the politics of this game of coercion and submission begin in the bedroom is a recurrent motif in Puzzle One, voiced by its male chauvinists/political oppressors.

No other director could have could have risked such flagrant, unbridled audacity. And no cast, except a deeply sympathetic one who shared the author's views and convictions could have executed the job as perfectly as Mahran's cast have done. As Laila, Nirmeen Za'za' rendered her part with admirable precision and fineness, keeping a delicate balance between realism and caricature, and successfully warding off the onslaughts of farce and parody directed at her by the other characters as their roles demanded and the director instructed. Galal Osman, as the upstart officer, was deliciously vulgar, at once menacing and farcical, and often took on the mechanical aspect of a robot and movements of a stringed marionette. Ahmed Halawani, as his crafty assistant, was outrageously vulgar, repulsively oily and absolutely delightful, reminding one all the time of a smooth and slippery deadly snake. Khalid El-Nagdi's acting prowess was somewhat restricted in the role of the pasha, but found an outlet and ample compensation in his vocal rendering of the Halim-doll part. It was amazing how he mimicked the famous singer's speaking rhythms, the timbre of his voice and his vocal inflections. Yehia Ahmed, as the gigolo, pronouncedly opted for mimicry and broad burlesque, while Rania Al-Naggar, as his unconscionable, scheming, blood-sucking and lustful wife, was a real treat. The way she moved and danced, cajoled and seduced, flared up in violent temper tantrums then subsided into a kind of enticing, low purring and snake-like softness was absolutely enchanting. Indeed, Mahran's whole cast and technical crew in Puzzle One deserve a big hand. Without them, his intriguing text and fresh directorial conception could not have come to fruition.

Puzzle One, written and directed by Sameh Mahran, Small Floating Theatre (Fatma Rushdi), opened briefly during the CIFET and resumed on 8 November 2008 for a current longer run.

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