Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 April 2011
Issue No. 1044
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

A political whodunit

Nehad Selaiha takes a dip into the lower depths of Egyptian society at the Youth theatre

Since January 25, the Egyptian population has been arbitrarily classified by the media, the intelligentsia and the supreme council of the armed forces into 'honorable' citizens and 'pure', disinterested revolutionaries, on the one hand, and into thugs, in the pay of the straggling remnants of the ancient regime on the other; into well-educated, middle class youths of good families, up-to-date with the latest technological developments in the field of communication, and well-behaved, well-dressed to boot, on the one hand, and a rabble of illiterate, shabby, violent hooligans and deviant delinquents on the other; into visionary, outspoken leaders, on one side, and a vast, deluded and ignorant, silent majority, on the other, in urgent need of education.

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Whenever violence erupts in Tahrir Square and similar gathering points and revolutionary venues elsewhere, or even in a football match, as happened lately in the match between Tunisia and Egypt, it is regarded as a violation of the will and wishes, not to say commands, of the Armed Forces to restore peace and order and entrust everything to their sagacity. Invariably, the blame for such insidious waywardness is laid at the door of subversive, foreign elements, or an excitable, ignorant rabble that does not know what is good for them and are promptly disowned by the nation.

'Those cannot be Egyptians," is the sentence vociferously and tirelessly reiterated whenever some untoward, violent collective action takes place. It is as if these people are measured against a certain model to which they fail to conform. Their own dismal circumstances, sordid poverty, demeaning social status, long oppression and deprivation of education and enlightenment are not considered as valid excuses and extenuating circumstances. They are suddenly required to miraculously transform into replicas of their socially and educationally superior comrades and behave accordingly. But, however frequently they fail to meet such rigorous qualifications, for which they had no preparation and, indeed, had every possible obstruction you can imagine, they are still Egyptians, and no one has the right to deny them this genealogical, historical identity on account of what is regarded as bad civil conduct or reprehensible public behaviour.

Underlying this divisive perspective on the recent events and their agitators is a totalitarian drive to establish conformity and the unity of the nation's will at whatever cost; dissidence is tolerated within certain limits; but the army is sacrosanct, and any criticism of its conduct and policies beyond a certain point has been robustly and sternly proclaimed in the media by prestigious intellectuals as a red line not to be crossed and described as tantamount to capital treason. One such intellectual went so far as to warn, in a political debate on the BBC Arabic Service, that if you press the military too far, they would just relinquish the whole affair and go back to their barracks, leaving the country to sink in chaos and a terrible blood bath. What a fearsome, daunting threat! One that makes capital of the general fear of Egypt turning into another Iraq and presents the members of the armed forces and their families as a celestial race that will escape the consequences of such chaos unscathed.

Are we then back to putting a ceiling on criticism, thought and free expression in the name of national security, or something or other? Are we directly and quite blatantly asked to pat and pacify the army at whatever cost and turn a blind eye to whatever reprehensible mistakes or human rights violations and abuses it commits to guarantee its continued support?

Corroborating this implicit totalitarian, authoritarian drive is the highly gratifying and widely peddled comfortable myth of the 'authentic Egyptian' -- an inherently noble and naturally civilized being, not unlike the noble savage in 19th Century Western, Romantic thought and literature, who stands outside history, harbouring the essence of civilization and noble values deep within himself, unaffected by whatever ill vicissitudes are visited upon him and his nation, and just waiting for the right moment to rise from the ashes like a phoenix, unsinged, and display to the world his real caliber in all its glory and true, magnificent colours. What Egyptian could resist the allure of such an idealized image, however mythical?

This idealized image of the 'true Egyptian' has often been used, consciously or otherwise, and more so recently than in previous times, to project a romanticized and sentimentalized image of the military as our 'fellow Egyptians', 'our brethren, equally, innately good and noble, who could do no wrong, and are only there to selflessly minister to our needs and desires.' No wonder that the accepted 'narrative' of the 25 January popular uprising now is that 'it was a revolution sparked off by the valiant offspring of the long and stressfully beleaguered middle classes, embraced and spread by the under-privileged majority and the long-embattled Islamists, and protected and guaranteed survival by the army.'

For this myth to survive and gain credibility, a large section of the Egyptian population has to be ostracized as 'un-Egyptian.' That this offensive 'rabble' is a natural product of years of oppression and total deprivation is a sad fact that, more than any thing else, the January revolution has risen up against and hopes to put right. And unless we stop blaming thugs and outlaws who 'cannot be Egyptian' (as the media tirelessly assures us) for all the things that threaten our lives without grasping that it would be unnatural if they behaved otherwise, having been extremely deprived and strenuously put under for decades in all economic, social, cultural, educational and political respects, we cannot begin to hope to put things right and undo the wrongs of the past.

It is precisely this that constitutes the basic argument of playwright Mohamed Mahrous in his realistic/symbolic social drama Beit El Naffadi. If you want to know why the 25 January revolution happened, just look at this and you will understand, the play seems to argue. Set in a dismal, squalid alley, in a shanty town on the outskirts of Cairo that sports a shrine of some legendary holy man after whom the alley is called, the play centers on the murder by stabbing of one of the frequenters of the weekly zikr sessions held at the shrine and takes the form of a 'whodunit', with the investigation providing, in a series of confrontations and flashbacks, the dramatic action -- a series of horror stories and sickening revelations that clearly display what a large section of the Egyptian population has had to put up with in the past 30 years.

A more vivid and unmitigated condemnation of Mubarak's and his military predecessors' reigns as dramatized in the nefarious Naffadi alley you cannot currently hope to top or find anywhere else. As the young inspector, hunting for the mysterious murderer, moves round the dismal alley, graphically reproduced by set designer Mohamed Hashim and enhanced by Heba Tantawi's accurate and true-to-life costumes and Islam Abdel Salam's incidental music, he finds himself as if dredging a deep and pestilent cesspool of human misery and corruption, including drug trafficking, disguised prostitution, sexual exploitation and slavery, the rape of unhappy street children and the fetid, debilitating effects of religious fanaticism.

Sincerely and simply performed by a group of competent students and graduates of the Theatre Institute who cleverly avoided the many melodramatic traps the text offered, assisted by the diligent direction of the extremely youthful and abundantly promising Karim Maghaweri (this being his debut as theatre director), Beit El-Naffadi came across a good and timely reminder of the seamy side of Egyptian reality that has been neglected and deliberately, wantonly ignored for many years and has, therefore, naturally produced the crop of citizens that the current media ostracises as 'un-Egyptian'.

The relentless, willful corruption of minds, morals and manners, the progressive and systematic stunting and scrushing of individual will, and ruthless erosion of human dignity Egyptians have suffered over the past 40 years at the hands of a vicious alliance of rabid capitalism, disguised military dictatorship and religious bigotry and charlatanism, are accurately and faithfully recorded in this performance. Furthermore, it also records the maliciously pursued drying up of the springs of hope in the hearts of young people. In Albert Camus' Caligula, Cherea, an author, tells the despotic, mad Roman emperor, after whom the play is called, that he could forgive him anything except poisoning the mind of the young poet Scipio, planting despair in his heart and driving him to suicide. For this alone, Caligula deserved to be killed. And for this alone, I still cling to the hope that for the long oppressed and neglected masses, ignorant, naïve and ideologically gullible as they may seem, something really good and lasting can come out of

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