Places of the mind
Nehad Selaiha hails a visiting play from Scotland
In 1996, Sarah Enany, a young Egyptian director, staged a play based on a short story by Jean Rhys called Vienna. Though the story itself (which is set in Vienna on the eve of World War II and portrays an expatriate British woman who lives for beauty and kills herself in a car crash when she can no longer afford it) is simple, and when summarized can even sound silly, in the writing, Rhys recreated the city where it takes place into a poignant metaphor for the fragility and effermeralness of beauty -- or, at least, this is how Sarah read it.
To communicate this meaning to her audience, she set on a small stage dressed in black velvet on 3 sides a series of sensuous images of breathtaking beauty in which projections of some Klimt's paintings flashed at the back while the light picked and framed real crystal glasses, bunches of fresh irises, an ethereal ballet dancer in black, dancing to the tunes of a Chopin piano waltz, an old-fashioned golden telephone, an antique gramophone with a big brass horn which played Edith Piaf songs and lengths of richly coloured and exquisitely embroidered gauzy fabrics from the Far East. At the end, a huge glass sheet which had stood at the back throughout suddenly splinters and crashes to the floor at the sound of the car crash, leaving the empty stage covered with a carpet of sparkling fragments, while a video of iris petals floating on water plays at the back, faintly accompanied by the same Chopin waltz. People loved this show, especially the regular young clientele of Al-Hanager centre where it was performed But when two middle-aged women from the Austrian embassy came to see the show, they were baffled. Missing the whole point, they kept looking for the real or historical Vienna and couldn't understand what Chopin, a Pole, or France's Edith Piaf was doing there.
Like Rhys' Vienna, Strindberg's To Damascus, or Athol Fugard's The Mecca, David Greig's recent play, Damascus, which visited Cairo last week, on route from Damascus and Beirut to Tunis, uses the city of the title primarily as a metaphor, as 'a place of the mind', in the words of one character. Explaining how he came to write the play, Greig says: " Damascus came about as an unexpected by product of the artistic exchange I have been privileged to have with young theatre makers in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Palestine since 2000. During that time I have led a number of playwriting workshops in the region facilitated and encouraged by, amongst other organizations, The British Council. ......... Whatever the Arab writers learned -- the workshops ended up teaching me an enormous amount about the complexities of relations between the west and the Arab world. In the end, despite my best efforts to avoid it, I felt compelled to write a play to explore those complexities."
Not surprisingly then, Greig's Damascus is not about a real Arab city, or Arab culture, as some people were led to think. Rather, it is about the education of a westerner through a journey, not unlike the one Greig himself made, or the grand tour of Europe on which the sons of the wealthy British were sent in the past to open up their minds and refine their sensibilities. Underlying the play is the same paradox that Greig points out in speaking of his own experience: the paradox of the teacher changing roles with the student. Paul Hartstone, a middle class, middle-aged Scotsman who writes educational English text books is forced one day to take the place of his boss and travel to Damascus to clinch a deal with the ministry of education there. He arrives armed with his comprehensive English language learning system, thinking to educate the 'natives' into his language and culture and ends up himself undergoing an education and going home a humbler, more tolerant and more open person. Though he seems at first the stronger party, being a westerner and holding the key to needed knowledge, he is soon reduced to a trader peddling his goods to an exacting customer and willing to make concession to pacify her. This is the first step in his education: learning to question and rethink his superiour status and what he has always taken for granted.
The action is set in a small hotel in Damascus and consists of a series of encounters between Paul and 3 Arabs, a female and two males, who, without realizing it, undertake his education and in the process are led to rediscover and reevaluate themselves. The effect of the encounter is profound on both sides. Significantly, Zakaria, Muna and Wasim, do not belong in Damascus and are all exiles in different ways, longing for some paradise lost or a paradise to come: Zakaria, the receptionist-cum-barman- cum-bell boy, is always homesick for his village up in the mountains and obsessed with the idea of emigrating to the West and becoming a famous movie-writer there. Muna, the liberated, sophisticated secular, Palestinian college teacher who speaks 3 languages besides Arabic, was twice exiled -- from Jaffa to Beirut, and from there to some city in Syria -- and has lived to see all her idols fall and all her dreams vanish; what keeps her going is a lingering faith in 'the country of the imagination' she had a glimpse of in her youth and a sense of responsibility towards her students who remind her of her brother who died fighting in Lebanon. The third Arab character is Wasim, Muna's former lover, teacher and ideological mentor and currently the dean of the college where she works; once a 'campus Che Guevara' who goes to prison for his ideals, by the time we see him, he has turned into a disillusioned, embittered and cynical middle-aged man who longs to recover Muna's love and the talent for poetry he once had, but keeps producing mediocre erotic verses which disgust her.
By coming into contact with these 3 characters over 3 days, Paul begins to discover the old city, realizing in the process the dreariness of his life, the depth of his ignorance of other peoples and cultures, the narrowness of his perception of the world and the shallowness of his understanding of what happens in it. Gradually, we see him changing and opening up, accepting to have his deep-seated views challenged and conceding other points of view, taking an interest in learning about other people and listening to them and reading in the old city deeper meanings than the others can reach. He sees it as 'a place of infinite possibility... built of accretions and extensions' of human knowledge round a centre as holy as a mosque or a church or a temple -- namely, 'the truth', or, at least, 'the desire to tell the truth'.
Paul's vision of the old city resembles Wasim's vision of a 'country of the imagination' which inspired Muna in her youth. But while Wasim has lost his spiritual and imaginative home, landing in a dark cave, and now has to make his way towards the truth through 'doubt, hesitancy, timidity, uncertainty', Paul's efforts to evade the truth about himself and his feeling for Muna by deliberately letting himself get lost in the alleys of the old city at dawn always lead him back to the mosque which he finally enters and experiences a kind of epiphany. Unlike St. Paul, however, Greig's Paul stops short of a full conversion; it is not something that can ever be achieved in the play's world where democracy, freedom of speech and even 'truth' have become suspect words and can be used as destructive weapons. The way Greig builds his play, arranges his scenes and orchestrates his dialogue creates echoes, contrasts and parallels, charging the play with a strange poetic energy and coating everything with a thin layer of irony so that every utterance is qualified and you are never quite sure which side the play is on. This generates a lot of emotional tension and intellectual anxiety and has made me almost panic at one time.
And because nothing can be certain and the only reality seems to be questioning and doubt, after the mosque trip at dawn, and though it has shaken him to the core, Paul spends his last time in Damascus in debauch, and like the other 3 characters, has to bow down to the dictates of reality, resume his former life and try to make the best of it. Nevertheless, his final telephone message to his wife in which he tells her he is coming home, but that they should visit Damascus together some day suggests that he will not completely revert to the man he was at the beginning of the play and will try, like Muna, to hang on to 'a country of the imagination' where truth is sought and there are no censors -- to his Damascus of the mind.
The only character in this quartet who is really doomed is, paradoxically, the one who provides the most laughter. With his obtrusive garrulousness, maddening officiousness and forced confidences, Zakaria seems at first a straightforward comic figure purely intended for comic capital. Soon enough, however, he grows in importance, becoming essential to the meaning of the play. Like the other characters, Zakaria has his own 'country of the imagination'; and his fictional America, which he imagines in the story of his life that he writes to lie up a tree, provides a delightfully comic variation on Paul's 'Damascus of the Mind'. But Zakaria is more vulnerable, more at risk than Paul, or the other two characters. Young, troubled, poor and lonely, with no family or career to fall back on and no memories to cherish, he cannot survive losing this country of the imagination. While the other characters have homes of their own, are staying at the hotel by choice and can freely leave it when they want, he is stuck there, in this cold, neutral, public space which, like an airport or a railway station, belongs to nobody and cannot produce durable bonds.
Unable to go back home to the village where he can get no work, having failed to learn his father's craft as a mosaic-maker, and where he is bound to be unfavourably compared to his 2 clever brothers and made to feel inferior, and equally unable to belong in Damascus where he is totally marginalized and cannot marry or have sex with a Damascene, not even a Damascene prostitute since they are expensive, Zakaria takes refuge in a world of fantasy, regarding the hotel as only a temporary transit camp on the way to America, and spinning yarns about sleeping with foreign girls whom he picks up in the mosque. Besides using Zakaria to draw out Paul and focus the tragic dilemma facing many Arab youths today, by playing him off against the guests at the hotel, Greig reveals their contrasting attitudes towards him. The fact that the only person Zakaria can talk to and be friendly with is a foreigner and that neither Muna nor Wasim seem to notice him and only address him to give an order is highly significant and indirectly points up the rigid class barriers in the Arab world and the terrible alienation of people like Zakaria.
If you ignore the metaphoric level of the play, you would find it hard to justify Zakaria's death and may wonder why he did not just swallow his disappointment, like Chekhov's uncle Vanya, and after one or two stray shots stoically decide to live on and go on doing his job. Gunshots are embarrassing on stage and often regarded as a cheap way to provide a rousing finale. In Damascus, however, given the metaphorical impact of the set, Zakaria's suicide seems inevitable. It is the only way left to him to free himself of his spiritual exile, the only way he can take the trip to another world as he has always longed. One may wonder why Elena, the Ukrainian pianist, who seems equally eternally doomed to never leaving the set or her piano, does not commit a similar desperate act to free herself. The answer once more lies in the fact that this is not a strictly realistic play, but a play with an inbuilt metaphorical dimension, or, to use Zakaria's description of his script, a play 'containing mythological elements'
Though Elena and her piano are a fixed part of the foyer set, none of the characters seem to see or hear her. Never changing her dress, never leaving her piano, seeing all and remaining unseen, she seems like a ghost inhabiting the place, or, indeed, since she describes herself as 'transsexual', occupies an intermediate, indeterminate space between the stage and the auditorium and seems to stand outside time, like the mythical Tiresias in T. S. Eliot's Waste Land. Greig gives us the final, hectic part of the play completely through her in the form of a frantic report which ends with the words: "I remember... I was here, I am always here" -- words which redefine all that we have seen a memory recalled by this mythical presence and replayed before us. As an eternal exile and a bundle of irreconcilable contradictions, Elena not only combines the two main themes in the play, sums up the spirit of Damascus, but also embodies one definition of the human condition.
Other interesting details in this beautiful play include Greig's cunning choice of names: while 'Paul' and 'Zakaria' (which is the Arabic pronunciation of Zachary or Zacharias) are clearly biblical, the English 'Hartstone' and the Arabic 'Muna' and 'Wasim', which mean 'the heart's desire' and 'the handsome one' respectively, are both ironical and suggestive. More interesting still and more intriguing was the trick of having the characters speak in English pretending it was another language which Greig possibly borrowed from Brian Friel's Translations. In the scenes in which Muna volunteers to translate for Paul and Wasim, this trick which allowed the audience to compare what was actually said and Muna's version of it was a source of great hilarity.
The Traverse theatre production of Damascus which visited Cairo was unobtrusively and sensitively directed by Philip Howard and exquisitely performed by Dolya Gavanski as Elena, Paul Higgins as Paul, Khalid Laith as Zakaria, Nathalie Armin as Muna and Alex Elliott as Wasim. It was obvious that a lot of time and effort had been spent on analyzing the characters, deciding on the right tone and tempo, developing the right body language to complement the spoken words, fill in the silences and suggest unspoken meaning and feelings. The choice of costumes, too, and the lighting plan had been obviously carefully and thoroughly thought out. And the effort paid; every detail on stage, whether aural or visual was eloquent and significant with not a redundant scrap and the performances of the actors were warm, vivid, sensuous, beautifully orchestrated and simply stunning. It is a credit to this production that many of the people who had read the play before, including myself, only came to understand its subtleties and ironies, grasp its complexity and depth and fully appreciate its fine artistry and its intellectual tolerance and integrity after watching it in this performance.
In the question and answer session after the show, Zakaria's suicide was the subject of many comments and criticisms. One member of the audience expected Zakaria to shoot Paul rather than himself, while playwright Mohamed Salmawi thought the suicide quite redundant since Zakaria, as he himself says early in the play, was already 'dead inside' at the start. And in the one-day seminar at the British Council on Monday, 30 March, Zakaria's status in the play as an underling and Paul's condescending and nonchalant attitude towards him seemed to trouble Huda Wasfi. Most people, however, didn't see eye to eye with her and some, like Lebanese actress Yara, thought that Paul was the only character in the play who paid Zakaria any attention and treated him as a fellow human being and that far from being an underling, Zakaria was the main and most sympathetic character in the play and one that represented many Arab youths today. To view and try to understand Zakaria and his suicide in isolation from the rest of the elements in the play was quite misleading, I thought. All the same, I was quite relieved and deeply delighted that no one either at the theatre discussions or seminar, where many of the women present were veiled, seemed to mind that the only Arab woman in the play had previously slept with two lovers outside marriage, traveled around unchaperoned in the company of a male colleague, danced in the presence of a stranger, drank with him, heard him invite her to his bed without slapping him on the face and even allowed him to kiss her. It was the representation of Muna as almost a Western woman that I feared would trigger the fiercest criticism, but it didn't. It seems there is hope yet.