Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 April - 6 May 2009
Issue No. 945
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

In defence of women

Nehad Selaiha watches a folkloric parable with a feminist intention at Al-Ghad hall

Al-Ghad theatre has recently undergone a drastic change of identity. Rather that a venue for new and daring experiments as it was originally intended and, indeed, as its name, meaning 'tomorrow', suggests, it has been rechristened this year as a National Heritage theatre company. Not that names really matter in Egypt or are anything to go by when it comes to defining the identity or function of many governmental cultural institutions. For years, indeed since it was established nearly 14 years ago, Al-Ghad theatre has churned a variety of theatrical fare that beats classification, ranging from ritualistic plays, dramatizations of folk epics, dance and movement performances and modern Egyptian drama -- including Tawfiq El-Hakim's Al-Ta'am li kul Famm (Food for Every Mouth), to adaptations of Western classics -- like Lorca's Blood Wedding, Goethe's Faust, and Eugene O'Neil's The Hairy Ape, and even to Tagore's little known and rarely performed The King of the Dark Chamber. But it was not so much what Al-Ghad offered in the way of theatre that prompted the change. Rather, it was the name of the company per se -- a name that points in the direction of the new and experimental.

Suddenly, the people at the top of the State Theatre organisation discovered that they already have, indeed have had for decades a company that is supposed to serve exactly the same function as Al-Ghad -- namely, Al-Tali'a, or the avant-garde theatre. Not that Al-Tali'a itself has lived up to its name in terms of the productions it presents, which seem as haphazard as those of Al-Ghad. Rather than face up to the fact that all the State Theatre companies have long lost direction and have been muddling along for years without an overall philosophy or guiding lines and do something about it, the successive heads of the state theatre organisation have found it easier to juggle around with names. And so, Al-Ghad company now carries another name, but not its venue, which continues to be called Al-Ghad, and I doubt very much that the new name of the company will bring about a change of policy or make any difference.

Any way, to Al-Ghad hall I went to watch the inaugural production of the National Heritage theatre company. At the foyer, Bahig Ismail told me that he wrote Al-Ghoula (The ogress) in response to the rising tide of fundamentalist ideas that seek to oppress women in the name of religion and tradition. No wonder he dedicated it in the performance programme to the newly appointed minister of family and population affairs, Mushira Khattab, together with Khalid Muntasir, a medical doctor who has made his fame in satellite television scripting and presenting anti female-genital-mutilation programmes. But worthy as cause seemed, I wished Ismail had not spelt it out so clearly or so smugly expecting me to jubilate. I always suspect plays that are written with a clear purpose in mind however sublime the intentions may be. His pointed reference to the dedication and insistence on my looking at the printed programme which he forced upon me, something I never do before a show, also nettled me. I am mentioning this because it is possible that this brief encounter might have influenced my reception of the play.

Al-Ghoula is set in a nameless Egyptian oasis, deep in the desert, and features a deeply conservative, ignorant and abnormally xenophobic tribal community, rigidly governed by ancient customs and traditions as well as hallowed myths and superstitions. The women in this community are, predictably, thickly veiled and severely oppressed. Not only are they never allowed to have a say in the choice of their husbands, are incarcerated in their homes once they marry and are not even allowed to peer through a window, but the tribal law also condemns them upon the death of a husband to remain in a dark room for 40 days, feeding on scraps, never seeing the daylight and never washing. For centuries this tribe has lived undisturbed, completely cut off from the outside world. But when one member of this tribe makes the fatal mistake of sending his daughter to an aunt in Cairo to get educated before returning to the oasis to join the family and presumably get married, this creates a dramatic situation fraught with potential conflict. The fact that she survives the car crash which kills her father and two brothers on the way home, thus depriving her of her only enlightened allies and cutting off her lines of retreat by destroying the only means of transportation between the oasis and the capital, further enhances the potential conflict with the tribe.

Back home, and alone with her meek and helpless mother, Widad, the young and beautiful educated Bedouin, is coerced into marrying the octogenarian, autocratic tribe's chief who already has several wives. Fortunately for her, however (or, perhaps, not so fortunately in view of what follows), on the wedding night, and before he even touches her, the groom, overwhelmed by joy, dies of a heart attack, but not before enjoining her with his dying breath to voice the loud ululation of joy as brides in the tribe customarily do upon the consummation of their marriage. Grateful for his opportune exit and, perhaps, moved by his pitiful sexual vanity, Widad obeys his last request and has therefore to undergo the customary 40-day widow's penance. The fact that as the chieftain's wife she stands to inherit part of his large fortune does not console her and she struggles to escape her prison.

Ironically, her jailer is none other than her own mother who, like the rest of the tribe, believes that a widow's face is only safe to look upon when she has bathed herself in the well after her 40-day solitary confinement. Before that ritual a widow is regarded as a ghoula or ogress and any one who dares or chances to look upon her, the tribal legend says, would be immediately transfigured into a genie and go underground. To compound Widad's difficulties, Bahig Ismael introduces the character of Mas'oud, the dead chieftain's younger brother and heir to his wealth and position. Mas'oud who has supped on the blood of hyenas as a young man is even greedier, more ruthless and tyrannical than his dead brother. Coveting Widad's beauty and inheritance, he accuses her of murdering his brother and threatens to put her on trial unless she marries him. But this bleak situation is not devoid of romance. At the centre of the play is the love story of Widad and a young Cairene doctor who is posted to the oasis to introduce its people to modern medicine but finds himself completely ostracized and his presence violently resented. He first meets Widad when he examines her husband's body on her wedding night; his verdict of death of heart failure however is rejected by the vicious Mas'oud and the cunning and wily local medicine man that belongs to the tribe.

This is the story which forms the background to the action proper and which the audience gradually piece together from the dialogue, particularly in the first scene, and a few flashbacks. Opting for a classical structure which observes the unities of action, place and time (the whole action is contained within the oasis, albeit in different locations, and is compressed into the space of two days), Ismael opens his play near the end, when the conflict between Widad and the tribe, represented by its chieftain, is about to reach a climax. The opening scene shows Widad defying the tribe's taboo and breaking out of her prison before the appointed time and rushing to the well to bathe. She is pursued by her frantic mother and the tribe's blind fortuneteller who is soon revealed as the intransigent guardian of the tribe's traditions and the staunch protectress of its taboos and superstitions. This initial scene which provides most of the background information to the plot is followed by a number of tender scenes and stormy confrontations which alternately build up the love story, showing the lovers confessing their feelings, pledging themselves to each other and vowing to stick together in the face of adversity, and intensify the conflict between Widad and the tribe, represented both by its chieftain, whose advances she rejects, and its old, wise woman, Om El-Saa'd (literally 'mother of good fortune'), who, ironically, never prophecies anything but gloom and doom.

The play reaches its climax in the trial scene in which Widad comes into her own as a true rebel, refuses to cover her face in front of the men, dares to speak the unspeakable and divulge the secrets of the bedroom, telling the company what happened on her wedding night, and when defied valiantly accepts to take the tribe's gruesome lying test which consists in licking a red hot pan with a bare tongue. Though she does not believe in miracles and knows that this test would kill anyone, whether they told the truth or lied, she would rather die free and defiant than live a slave to the tribe and its chieftain. But having built Widad into a real heroine who is willing to die for her beliefs and principles, Bahig Ismael seems suddenly to flinch from the prospect of her heroic death, which is the natural and dramatically logical conclusion of her fate, and starts to retrace his steps, arbitrarily forcing the action into a different direction and bouncing it from a realistic onto one of fantasy.

Widad miraculously passes the lying test unscathed, thanks to the intervention of a mysterious sheikh, acting like the proverbial deus ex machina, and is declared innocent. This seems to point in the direction of a happy ending. But just as she and her doctor are about to get married, Om El-Saa'd arrives with orders from Mas'oud to kill Widad and by mistake kills her mother instead, while the medicine man, also prompted by Mas'oud, surreptitiously sneaks lethal poison into the doctor's water jugs. When Om El-Saa'd gloatingly tells Widad, while chasing her around, about the poisoned jugs and how the doctor must be dead by now, the distraught girl rushes to her lover's house to warn him and throws herself into his arms weeping, whereupon Mas'oud and his men suddenly materialize to catch them in the act, accusing them of fornication and condemning them to death by stoning. The lovers are promptly tied to a palm tree and guards are set around them until the whole tribe arrives to execute the slaughter. Surely, you think, nothing can save them now and you brace yourself for a sad finale. But for the third time you are fooled and your expectations are foiled. Desperate to save the lovers, and with no plausible realistic solution in sight, the ever resourceful author resorts to the miraculous and literally spirits them away, simply making them disappear as if snatched by genies, as the tribesmen declare.

It was clear that Bahig Ismael could not make up his mind whether he was writing a charming fairy tale, an exotic folk drama, with all the frills, or a serious feminist parable, and the play kept constantly swinging among the three options. When he felt it had gone too far in one direction, he would pull it back either by sudden, illogical twists or by overwriting one of the other elements into the dialogue. This explains, perhaps, the general verbosity of the play and its occasional propagandist tone. Indeed, after a while, Widad's verbal diatribes and protestations against the injustices done to women began to pall, seeming to force a point long after it had been dramatically made by the action. A little subtlety and less preaching would have done this play a world of good. A parable precariously placed on the margin between the real and the legendary is the kindest way I can find to describe this play.

As director, Mustafa Tulba's contribution consisted mainly in securing good actors, casting veteran National theatre actor Khalil Mursi as Mas'oud, the young and talented Iman Raga'ee as Widad, Samira Abdel-Aziz as her mother, Mohamed Salah as her lover, and Bushra Al-Qasabi as Om El-Saa'd. While this bunch adopted an openly melodramatic or romantically sentimental style of acting, the delightful Sa'id El-Maghrabi, as the medicine man, and most of the actors who played the tribe's dignitaries opted for broad comedy which often spilled into farce. Tulba also made sure that his actors were properly decked out by Gamalat Abdou who treated us to a feast of colourful and richly ornamented Bedouin costumes, complete with the right head covers and jewelry. The trouble is that all the costumes looked so new and shiny, with hardly a crease, as if they had just come out of the tailor's atelier; and the actors seemed to sense this and carried them like mannequins in a fashion show.

Like most Egyptian directors nowadays, Tulba inserted into the play two songs and several dances, further diluting it. But what one could never forgive him was his acquiescing to Amr Abdallah's stage design. Al-Ghad is a rectangular chamber theatre with no fixed stage or seating and allows every designer to shape the audience and performance spaces as suits the nature of the play. What on earth made the designer in this case decide to install a long and narrow acting platform along one of the long sides of the hall and arrange the audience in two rows facing it and three on either side? While those facing the platform were too uncomfortably close to the actors immediately in front of them and at the same time had to constantly lean forward and twist their necks sideways past the people next to them to catch a glimpse of what was happening at the far ends of the inordinately long stage, the spectators sitting on the sides could only see the play in profile. As for the actors, they hardly had any room to move between the front of the stage and the painted desert scene at the back and kept bumping into it. This curious arrangement made all the entrances and exits seem quite wrong and made it impossible to form a picture of the imaginary space behind the visible one. To make matters worse, bits of painted scenery representing the interiors of different houses and outdoor locations kept descending and ascending all the time, further diminishing the acting space and reminding one, the way they were painted, of children's illustrated story books. If the text of Al-Ghoula was somewhat irritating, this queer stage design made it a positively frustrating play- watching experience.

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