Nehad Selaiha deplores the lack of depth in the first Egyptian drama on 11 September
You would expect that an Egyptian drama on 9/11, its effects on Egyptian-American Muslims and the hostile attitudes to Islam it has generated in the United States would be immediately snapped up by directors and given pride of place in any respectable theatre. Yet, despite its hot subject and the established reputation of its author, Abu El-'Ela El-Salamouni's Al-Haditha Allati Garat (a needlessly tautological title which reads The Incident that Took Place) had to wait for nearly 5 years and go through a lot of ugly wrangling to reach the stage. Though it had no problems with censorship and was smoothly and promptly approved, Sherif Abdel-Latif, the head of the National theatre then, seemed reluctant to produce it, privately saying it was mediocre and publicly claiming that none of the resident directors at his theatre was willing to do it. Piqued by the insult, El-Salamouni lashed out accusations of a conspiracy to suppress his play on the orders of the US Embassy in Cairo. To end the row, Mohamed Mahmoud, the ex-manager of Al-Tali'a theatre who currently heads the Comedy, volunteered to take it, assigning it to director Maher Selim who reluctantly accepted the task.
It finally opened at the end of last June, running for 3 weeks during which it was dogged by ill luck. First, its male lead, Farouq 'Eita, had to be hospitalized for a number of days, forcing its director who had no handy substitute to fill in for him, with disastrous results, then it failed to make it to the competition of the 5th Egyptian National Theatre Festival and had to close down in mid July to make room for the plays chosen by the festival's selection committee. It did not open again until the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the Lesser Bairam feast which, happily for it, coincided with the 9th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and Pentagon in Washington.
Suddenly, for those who had not yet seen it but had read about it in the papers and knew what it dealt with, Al-Haditha gained in relevance and urgency, and its topical appeal was further fuelled by the violent controversy in the States over the plan to build an Islamic community centre and mosque -- the so- called Cordoba house -- 2 blocks from the WTC site, not to mention the spiraling antagonism to Islam attested by the latest opinion polls, which culminated in the attempt by Pastor Terry Jones to make 9/11 "international burn a Quran day" and his description of Islam from his little church in Florida as "of the Devil". Sadly, however, the play failed to fulfill the high expectations of the audiences who flocked to see it, and within a few days of its opening, the actors were playing to almost an empty auditorium.
Al-Haditha opens in New York, in the elegant drawing room of the suburban villa of Dr. Abul Farag (Farouq 'Eita), a well-to-do Egyptian- American professor of Arabic literature who emigrated to the States as a young student more than 20 years ago, became a respectable American citizen and member of academia, married Lisa (Walaa Farid), a well-connected American colleague who converted to Islam, and had by her two children, now teenagers: a son called Marwan (Ahmed Mustafa) and a daughter called Marwa (Lamia Hamidou). The time is the morning immediately following the attacks. The couple is still in shock and trying to make sense of what happened. While Abul Farag is reluctant to believe that Muslims committed this atrocity, suspects some kind of conspiracy to malign Islam and fears a backlash against American Muslims, his naively optimistic wife tries to assure him that most Americans are enlightened and tolerant people who respect all faiths and appreciate the contribution of Islamic civilization to Western culture. Abul Farag's worst fears are soon realized when the daughter and son walk in disheveled, badly bruised and limping to announce that they were beaten by their school fellows, called terrorists and jilted by their American boy and girl friends whom they had planned to marry, and who had, for this reason, converted to Islam as the all-American, formerly Christian Lisa had done to marry Abul Farag.
At this point, as the daughter casually reveals that, contrary to the teachings of Islam, she has been sleeping with her boyfriend with the approval of her mother, is now pregnant and intends to get rid of the baby since the marriage plan is off and the son flippantly declares that his girlfriend whom he has also impregnated intends to do likewise -- a revelation that makes Abul Farag fly off the handle in a comical way and sends him into ridiculous fits of rage that the family serenely waves aside, the play seems to suddenly cast off its realistic mode and serious tone and begins to erratically swing between the extremes of farcical comedy and melodrama. But despite the hilarity it generates, the sharp contrast between the two parents' reactions to their children's conduct in sexual matters brings to the surface the moral differences and cultural tensions still lingering within this Muslim American family despite the outward show of harmony.
Unfortunately, this rich thematic vein is not further explored and is dropped as soon as its comic potential is exhausted. We soon forget about it as Dr. Johnson, Lisa's father (Hani Al-Nabulsi), storms in, in high dudgeon, screaming that all Arabs and Muslims are terrorists. Though a liberal and enlightened academic who up until 9/11 had loved his son-in-law, admired Arabic culture and championed the cause of the Palestinians, as Abul Farag and Lisa try to remind him, he now demands, blustering and rushing around like a demented person, that Abul Farag promptly divorces his daughter and she immediately reverts to her former faith. When the couple, who are deeply in love and seem, like us, to have forgotten all about their different attitudes to premarital sex and the way kids should be brought up, refuse to separate, Dr. Johnson, in another melodramatic move by the author, invokes the power of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) to terrorize his son-in-law into submission.
The investigation treats us to yet another melodramatic revelation: unbeknown to him, Abul Farag has long had indirect connections with Al-Qaeda through his two brothers who had also lived in the States for a number of years and become naturalized American citizens before leaving for Afghanistan to join the ranks of Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. Though he tries to dissociate himself from his brothers, protesting that he has not seen or heard from them for years and has always been loyal to his new country, Abul Farag is summarily deported to Egypt with the promise that his family would eventually be allowed to join him if he agrees to cooperate and report any news he happens to learn about his brothers.
Part II opens in Cairo, in a psychiatric clinic where Abul Farag, now completely dazed and dithering and wracked by an identity crisis, goes to seek help. In the next scene, which presumably takes place some months later, we abruptly discover that he has been cured and reunited with his family. How this came about and against what concessions we are never told. Instead, we meet two new characters, Hamida and Rashida (Fawzia Abu Zeid and Mona Shakir) -- the bigoted and fanatical, black-clad and extremely veiled wives of Abul Farag's two absent brothers, and immediately learn that they have been persistently pestering and bullying the whole family for a long time to convert them to their form of Islam and way of life.
Like Dr. Johnson, the representative of white, Christian, right-wing America in the part I, Abul Farag's two sisters-in-law, who are here made to embody the most negative and reactionary aspects of Islamic fundamentalism, are presented as grotesque caricatures, and their farcical antics and exaggerated outbursts of verbal and physical violence, including their attempts to get Lisa and her daughter circumcised and totally covered, shatters the play's thin crust of realism once again, turning it into a grotesque satirical farce and drowning Lisa's arguments in favour of a tolerant, enlightened form of Islam in the storms of laughter raised by the two veiled women.
The play sobers up briefly and reverts to a show of realism when Abul Farag's two brothers appear in the next scene to reveal to him the role the US administration has played in breeding and nurturing religious extremism and armed Jihad in Afghanistan and how for years they had worked closely with the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) before the US finally turned its back on them, forcing them into the arms of Al-Qaeda. Unfortunately, this scene, which is supposed to crystallize the message of the play, does not tell the audience anything they have not already heard a thousand times before and is, indeed, littered with political clichés and sounds more like an article in a newspaper alternately read out loud by two dispassionate voices than a dialogue between characters in a tense, suspenseful moment of revelation. Nor does it bring about any dramatic change in Abul Farag's life or perception of the world, only confirming his earlier reiterated belief that "America is the Devil." Moreover, as the scene draws to an end, the serious tone suddenly breaks up, giving way to frivolous comments by the two visitors on the ugliness of their wives and the feminine beauty of Lisa.
What follows is quite startling and beats any dramatic logic. When one of the brothers is killed, his wife insists on marrying Abul Farag as a substitute, since it is his religious duty to "guard as his own 'flesh' his brother's wife." Moreover, the son and daughter of Abul Farag and Lisa whom we last saw in part I speaking of girl and boy friends and abortions suddenly appear completely changed, he in a white galabiya, bearded and waving a rosary, she in a long dress and veiled. While they were off stage, both have fallen under the spell of Muslim fundamentalists, dressing and speaking like them, and have been paired off with sex partners by their religious mentors without legal marriage contracts. As a result, Lisa suffers a nervous breakdown; but before she is sent to a sanatorium, leaving Abul Farag bemoaning his losses and blaming all his suffering, the spread of terrorism and the corruption of Islam on his once beloved America, a parallelism between this form of cohabitation, which the author claims is sanctioned by Muslim fundamentalists under the cloak of religion, and pre-marital sex in the West, which he assumes is universally approved by society there, is pointedly drawn by one of Abul Farag's brothers, as if to further emphasize the responsibility of America for the current abuses of Islam. Such reckless claims and facile generalizations as are repeatedly made by the author are simply flabbergasting and bespeak deep ignorance, if not intellectual naiveté and a shallow mind.
Strangely enough, the play ends happily; just as Abul Farag is about to plummet into the depths of despair, Lisa reappears completely recovered and the son and daughter blithely walk in, having realized the errors of their ways, reformed, got rid of their spouses, donned off their so-called Islamic robes and resumed their jeans and T shirts. The only explanation offered for this miraculous transformation is that, somewhere off stage, the surviving brother of Abul Farag, acting as the proverbial dues ex machine, had got hold of the son and persuaded him to 'go back' before it was too late.
With such a disjointed structure, so many loose ends, characters who are either puppets, empty husks, or grotesque caricatures, the disorienting shifts in mood and tone, the sudden temporal jolts and leaps, the wooden, soulless and lackluster dialogue, and all those shallow simplifications, irresponsible generalizations and ridiculous exaggerations, one can hardly blame director Maher Selim for failing to make sense of the play and interpreting it, according to his own lights, as an attack on the atrocities committed by Israel in the occupied territories with the approval and collusion of the US, its major ally. This curious interpretation, which offensively implies that one atrocity deserves another and indirectly suggests that the slaughter of 2,700 people in the WTC on 9/11 was a just retribution for the suffering of Palestinians, is couched in a number of lyrics by Beyram El-Tonsi and Mahmoud Gomaa, set to music by Izz El-Din Taha and sung by Mohamed Salem and Manal. These lyrics, which always began with the phrase: "And they said (presumably the Americans), O, Israel," go and do this or that, mentioning a list of different atrocities, punctuated the performance from beginning to end, as explanatory footnotes to the audience who may be at a loss how to make sense of the action on stage. There was nothing wrong with the lyrics in themselves; but in the context of the play, they acquired a vicious meaning. Furthermore, the constant intrusion of the two singers from the wings as commentators, suggesting an epic style of direction, sharply clashed with Amr Abdalla's carefully detailed realistic sets.
Other extraneous elements were used to enliven the text, including a long, quasi- American dance sequence at the beginning, choreographed by Mohamed Ibrahim, a huge conflagration of light, sound and smoke to suggest the attack of the twin towers, and an assortment of funny costumes (designed by Heba Abdel-Hamid). No amount of gimmicks, however, could help the poor actors who were saddled with the impossible task of giving coherent performances in a show that maddeningly swung the whole time between contradictory moods and dramatic modes. It was pathetic to see them struggling to breathe life into their bloodless parts and find the right tone and acting style. It is thanks to them, to the anniversary of 9/11 and to Pastor Terry Jones that this play drew any audiences at all.