Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 January 2009
Issue No. 929
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

A magical evening

Nehad Selaiha finds solace and good cheer in a revival of Alfred Farag's Ali Janah Al-Tabrizi

Lately, like many I guess, I have developed a definite bias for escapist art. With the world grown so ugly and vicious and the media constantly bombarding us with horror stories that make Dracula and Frankenstein look like innocent babes, watching Murad Munir's diluted, musical version of Alfred Farag's Ali Janah Al-Tabrizi and his Servant Quffah, rechristened Si Ali last Saturday was a definite and welcome relief. Though it was not exactly the real thing, it had all the charm, geniality and good-natured humour of the original text and seemed to hark back to a better world that seems like a distant memory.

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Like all great works, Al-Tabrizi can withstand a lot of whittling and/or over-layering, so long as the adaptor does not lose sight of its core -- of that quintessential, "indivisible, indestructible part that remains of a gem after you have smashed it with a hammer," in the words of its eponymous hero. And the fact that it was Farag himself who prepared this musical version explains why it has the same enchanting atmosphere, the same delicious whimsicality, the same sunny optimism and vast humanity as the original play.

Curiously, this cheerful, ebullient play was written in the bleak years that followed the brutal awakening brought about by the 1967 defeat. Disillusioned and shattered, Farag flew back to the familiar and comforting world of The Arabian Nights he had visited earlier, in 1964, coming back with a gem of a play called The Barber of Baghdad . Between 1964 and 1967, when he still believed in Nasser's national project and thought the course of his regime could be mended and that there was still hope, he had turned his eyes away from the Nights and its fairy tales, and in the direction of history, contemporary reality and folk epics, producing, in succession, Sulayman El-Halabi, a historical/political tragedy, in 1965, Askar wi Haramiyya (Cops and Robbers), a realistic socio-political satire, in 1966, and, in 1967, Al-Zir Salem, a war- and-peace epic with a tragic hero that eerily foreshadowed the heated debate over the peace with Israel. After the June war, however, it was back to the Nights once more, at least for a spell.

There, Farag found 3 tales which captured him imagination: "The Imaginary Table", which tells of a rich man who plays a practical joke on an importunate visitor, inviting him to an imaginary table which he insists his guest takes for a real one; "The Sack", which features two deranged men fighting over the ownership of a sack that both believe to contain the whole world whereas in fact it holds nothing but an olive and a crust of bread; and "Ma'roof the Cobbler", which follows the escapades of its destitute hero who flies to a strange city to escape his debtors and, there, masquerades as a man of immense wealth waiting for his caravan to arrive, tricks the greedy merchants who covet his wealth and favour into lending him vast sums of money and even manages to marry the king's daughter.

In Farag's imagination, one side of Ma'roof, that of the poor cobbler, metamorphosed into the character of the servant Quffah, while the other side of him, that of the trickster, merged with the rich practical joker in the "Imaginary Table" story to create the fanciful Ali Janah Al-Tabrizi whose favourite diet is an olive and a crust of bread. In creating his two new characters and soldering their relationship, Farag actively drew, whether unconsciously or not, on a long stage tradition of crafty, clownish, down-to-earth and worldly wise servants and foolish, dreamy and harebrained masters -- a tradition which stretches back to the Romans, progressing through Shakespeare and Cervantes, down to Brecht's Mr. Puntila and his Hired Man, Matti, Yusef Idris's 1964 ground- breaking El-Farafeer (The Underlings) and Milan Kundera's unforgettable Jacques and his Master. It could be true, as Kundera says, that all literature consists of variations on variations.

Ali Janah Al-Tabrizi was first staged in 1969 by Abdel-Rehim Al-Zurqani at the Comedy theatre in a superb production starring Abu Bakr Izzat as the master, with Farag's favourite comedian, Abdel-Mon'im Ibrahim, playing the servant. Though the production was a huge success, this absolutely delightful text which was rendered into German (in 1983) and performed in Munich in 1986, with an English translation appearing in the United States the same year, was totally neglected by the mainstream theatre in Egypt for the next 22 years. Such neglect of the classics of the Egyptian drama was typical of the theatre in those lean years. I dimly remember watching a modest production of the play by a regional troupe (from Marsa Matrouh, I think) in the late 1980s. It was not until 1991, however, that a big, professional company attempted to revive it, and, ironically, it was a commercial one.

In that year, as Murad Munir records in his director's note in the printed programme of the current production, United Artists, one of the oldest, biggest and most prestigious commercial theatre companies -- the one that stages all the plays of superstar Adel Imam -- approached him to do a play for them. He had risen to fame as director in the late 1980s with two hugely popular productions in the state-theatre of two classics of Arabic drama, namely, Naguib Sorour's Meneen Ageeb Naas... (Where Can I Find People...) and Saadallah Wannus's Al-Malik Huwa Al-Malik ( The King is the King), and Samir Khafagui, the shrewd founder and general manager of United Artists, wanted to cash in on his newly acquired fame. Munir wisely chose the enchanting Al-Tabrizi with the idea of turning it into a romantic, musical comedy in colloquial, rather than its original classical Arabic and sought out Farag to get his approval.

Farag agreed; and though he made it a condition that he himself write the lighter version, many of his friends blamed him, seeing his decision as a bending of his standards and a concession to market pressures. They were right in a way, since part of Farag's reputation as an inventive and original playwright rests on his language: a brand of simple, musical classical Arabic that constantly draws on the vocabulary, idiom and images of the Egyptian vernacular and its syntactical and tonal variations. But he was right too; he had left the country after falling foul of Sadat's regime in 1973 and did not come back until 1987; and though he continued to write in his voluntary exile abroad, he missed the stage and felt like a fish out of water. Like all good dramatists, Farag did not write to be read, but to be performed and did not hold with the division of art into high and low. He wanted to reach an audience, and if musical comedy was what they wanted, he would give them one of the best in the genre..

Farag's new version of the play carried the catchy title: Etnein fi Quffah (Two in a Basket) and opened at the United Artists' Al-Hurriyyah theatre. Suddenly, however, after only 26 performances, it was taken off the stage -- either to cut down losses, as the word went then, or to make room for the company's superstar and his new show, as Murad explains in the programme of the current production. I myself was very surprised at this very brief run at the time and remember regretting not having gone earlier to see it. But whatever the reason for the untimely closure of Two in a Basket, it was a great shock to both Munir and Farag and taught them never to deal again with the commercial theatre.

In the following years, Farag tried hard to have the National stage this new, colloquial version of Al-Tabrizi, but to no avail; the next time it surfaced was at the AUC Falaki Chamber Theatre in a student production directed by Hanaa Abdel-Fattah. I reviewed that production for the Weekly on 13 February 2003 and was delighted when Farag rang up from London to tell me how much he enjoyed "Over the Rainbow", which was the title of the article. I was driving when the call came on my mobile and was so thrilled I nearly crashed into a tree. I grieves me that Farag is not around anymore to see Munir's revival of Two in a Basket as See Ali and enjoy it as much as I did. I would have liked to compare the two productions, but having missed the 1991 Two in a Basket, I cannot tell whether Si Ali, which uses the same text, is simply a repeat or a new creation. But, judging by what Munir says in the programme, one senses that the new title indicates not so much a change of directorial conception as a change of cast and artistic crew. Working in the state-theatre, with a generous budget and no commercial pressures, Munir could pick and choose and he picked some of the best talents around.

Hazem Shebl's gay and colourful sets combined with Samia Abdel Aziz's beautiful, well-studied costumes (the best I have seen for a long time) and Sherif Bora'i's evocative lighting to suggest in a very vivid way the fairytale atmosphere of the Arabian Nights, while Sayed Hagag's lyrics and Ahmed Al-Haggar and Hamdi Raouf's tunes and incidental music provided the musical aspect of the show. It would have been better of course had the whole text been set to music, cast in the form of an operetta and performed with a live orchestra -- especially since the part of Al-Tabrizi was played by popular singer Mohamed Al-Helw and since most of the cast, particularly Mahmoud Al-Guindi who took on the part of Quffah, have good, strong voices and could sing. As it was, one felt that Al-Helw's melodious voice and singing powers were not sufficiently framed and were under-exploited.

Magdi Saber's choreography of the group dances in the opening, market-place and wedding scenes, executed by a young and excellent corps de ballet, infused a great deal of vitality into the show, and all the cast -- Lutfi Labib, as the King, Yaser Sadiq, as his Vizier, Fayza Kamal, as his daughter, the beautiful Princess, Magda Munir, as her solicitous and garrulous Nurse, Gamil Aziz and Izzat Ibrahim as the greedy Merchants, Mahmoud Lashin, as the oily Innkeeper, and even Magdi Abdel-Halim and Mohamed Abdin, despite their brief appearances as Al-Tabrizi's Steward and Executioner -- performed with zest and gusto. They all seemed to enjoy what they were doing, and their enthusiasm and apparent pleasure communicated an overwhelming sense of joy. With showers of confetti and artificial snow occasionally raining down from the flies, a bridal bed suspended in midair, and so much gold and gauze in the palace sets, not to mention a white horse at the end that carries Ali and the Princess to safety, Si Ali seemed like a carefree Christmas pantomime that sticks out its tongue at reality.

Alfred Farag's Si Ali (Mr. Ali), a colloquial Arabic version of his Ali Janah Al-Tabrizi and his Servant Quffah , written by Farag himself and directed by Murad Munir, Al-Salam theatre, December 2008-January 2009.

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