Egypt's changing image
Caught up in the tumult of the moment, Nehad Selaiha detects a shift in the representation of Egypt in songs and plays
As I am writing this, on Friday, 8 July, millions of Egyptians are demonstrating and possibly rioting in public squares all over the country under the slogan 'The Revolution First'. Having failed to resolve their deep differences over the definition of the character of the future regime -- whether it should be openly secular and unconditionally civil, or civil within a referential framework of Islamic Shari'a (a flagrant contradiction in terms if you ask me) -- or to settle the raging controversy over whether the drafting of a new constitution should precede or follow parliamentary elections, the various political factions that have sprouted, or become openly active in the public arena since 25 January, all laying claim to the popular uprising that broke out on that day, have decided to make a show of unity under this vague, loose, evasive and dangerously elastic, kind of hold-all slogan. Indeed, having enquired of people of different political denominations, affiliations and predilections as to the exact meaning of that slogan -- 'the revolution first' -- I am forced to conclude that it is no more than a convenient cover-up for the failure to conduct a sensible, democratic national dialogue, or reach a semblance of consensus on any of the crucial issues that face the country.
Remembering how, regardless of their ideologies and future agendas, the cry to bring down Mubarak and his regime had united all during those memorable 18 days in Tahrir Square that led up to his ousting, and nostalgic for the romantic illusion of a veritable utopia on earth, as life on the square in those heady days had seemed to many, the liberal forces, in an unbelievably foolhardy step that ignores the lessons of the immediate past, have decided once more to join forces with the Islamic factions, including the extremist Salafis, in demonstrations that, when you look closely enough, are motivated by no nobler feelings than revenge and greed. A universal howl for blood and money, for summary executions, regardless of the law and legal procedures, and prompt, generous compensations for any one killed during the tumults and turbulences of those days, without distinction between active demonstrators and passive standers bye, between those who hurled themselves at the security forces, risking their lives, and those accidentally killed or injured by stray bullets or flying stones, seem to be what today's demonstrations are all about. More bitterly ironical still is the fact that they will be held with the full approval and blessing of the military currently in command!
Mercifully, theatre, a fundamentally dialectical, dialogic activity, can never sanction such 'howls' unless it betrays its true nature and sinks into irresponsible, gratuitous, unconscionable agitation. In the best, pre-and- post-25 January theatre in Egypt no such facile, black-and-white division of the people into oppressors and oppressed, guilty and innocent is condoned. However harsh the condemnation of the regime's crimes is presented, one always detects, in varying degrees, an honest, guilty admission of collusion in these crimes, if only by silence and passive patience. The criminals invariably have a human side to their characters, however dark, or feeble, and are not just rabid beasts that you can comfortably hang with a clear conscience. They, too, are in some measure victims -- not only of their ambitions, weaknesses, misguided passions, immediate superiours, or foreign masters, but also, and more importantly, of a heavy, historical legacy of cultural and ideological oppression that enshrines 'obedience' as the supreme virtue and regards dialogue with deep suspicion and democracy with profound animosity. Every one of us, true theatre will admit, was in some degree responsible for upholding such a heritage and for blindly supporting those who defended it and enforced its basic principles.
Those of us who are old enough to have experienced first hand the terrors and delusions of Nasser's military rule are guilty of having actively promoted or blindly condoned the myth of 'the good leader surrounded by a corrupt clique', identifying the leader with the nation and singing his and Egypt's praises almost in the same breath. We are also guilty of thinking of no other alternative to Sadat's autocratic, rightwing policies than a nostalgic yearning to Nasser's days. Mubarak's policy of "let the dogs howl to their hearts' content so long as the caravan, led by himself of course, goes on its merry way undisturbed" had seemed to us a great improvement on his predecessors', and we told our children as much; was not this another guilt? It was ominous that, within a few days of the collapse of Mubarak's regime, which was no more than a natural growth and legitimate extension of the military dictatorship established by Nasser and matured by Sadat under a different guise, we were suddenly bombarded on radio and television by patriotic songs that date to the period of Nasser's rule. For whom and by whose instructions were those songs broadcast? It was as if we were back, in a full, vicious circle, to the 1950s and '6os, as if history had been wiped out, or the nation had been suddenly stricken with total amnesia, as if the martyrs who fell in the ruthlessly crushed 1954 student and workers demonstrations for democracy had never been and our ultimate salvation lay nowhere but in a return to the undisguised military dictatorship of that period.
Fortunately, rather than share in the misguided nostalgia of their predecessors for an age they, themselves, have not experienced and, with all the school history books purged and falsified, know very little about, our young people produced their own songs. True some of them, like all the patriotic songs my generation had been brought up with, unconditionally pledge their lives and eternal love to 'Egypt' without pausing for a moment to reflect what that word exactly meant for them, or referred to -- something that many of the pre-revolution fringe shows had boldly done, following the example of Yusef Idris, who, in his play, Al-Bahlawan (The Acrobat), made a young journalist protest that, for him, unless Egypt meant 'a clean glass of water, a decent shelter and some dignity at work and on the streets, it did not exist for him'. There are others, however, that, while still clinging to the traditional representation of Egypt as mother or sweetheart, boldly put it on trial.
The image of Egypt as a woman dates back to the 1870s; but as Beth Baron notes, the visual representation of this female in Egyptian paintings, sculptures and cartoon varied widely so that 'several "Egypts" ran through the 1920s and early 1930s, differing in age, size, and attributes.' Out of the many representations that she has meticulously documented and examined in her fascinating "Nationalist Iconography: Egypt as a Woman" (published as chapter 6 in Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East, Edited by Gershoni, Israel and Jankowski, James, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, and later expanded into a full-length book, called Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics, university of California press, 2005), the one that has gained the strongest foothold was of Egypt as a peasant woman. It has certainly been the predominant one since the quasi-socialist 1952 revolution and, whether called khadra (the green one), as in the plays of Saadeddin Wahba and other playwrights of the 1960s, or Bahiya (the radiant one), as in the plays of Naguib Sorour and such famous songs as Ahmed Foad Nigm's and Sheikh Imam's 'Masr Yamma Ya Bahiya' (Egypt, My Radiant Mother), she is always the same peasant woman immortalized in Mahmoud Mukhtar's sculpture, Nahdat Misr (the Rise of Egypt), which stands at the tip of University Bridge in Giza, and in Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi's poem " Adda El-Nihar" (The Day Has Passed), sung by Abdel-Halim Hafez That this peasant woman, everybody's beloved and Umm El-Donia (Mother of the World), is sometimes represented as an 'honest whore', or raped victim, is a reflection of Egypt's multiple invasion over history by different colonialist forces and/or her abuse at the hands of its rulers. Up until recently, however, all representations of Egypt in plays, songs, films, or art agreed on one thing: that no amount of suffering or degradation can make Egypt anything other than a loving, forgiving, caring and eternally loyal mother or sweetheart.
This image, however, has been undergoing a remarkable change in the past 10 years or so. I have noted this change in many of the plays I reviewed on this page during that time and, recently, it has made itself felt in some popular songs, particularly in Mohamed Munir's staggering Ezzay (How Come?)-- a song suppressed by the former regime and released after the revolution to become its strongest emblem. Nowhere would you find the change in Egypt's image more pronouncedly and forcefully expressed as in Nasreddin Nagui's fiercely castigating lyrics, Ahmed Farahat's aggressive music and Munir's fiery mode of singing. In no other Egyptian patriotic song would you find the singer telling Egypt that he 'finds no reason to love' her, that she 'has led him astray' when, like a child, he hung to her clothes on the road, that, always, at the end of the day, she leaves his back bare and bent, expecting him at the same time to protect hers, and that if he could help loving her, his heart would have changed long ago; and in no other patriotic song would you find the singer winding up such an angry remonstrance by stoutly warning/threatening his beloved that he will keep on trying to change her, even by force, until she becomes worthy of his love.
Munir's love/patriotic song does not clarify the attributes of his fickle and ruthless mistress, his dame sans merci ; the tone of the song, however, leaves us in no doubt that she is not a fallaha (peasant woman) -- a figure that, since the 1920s, as Baron points out, 'had become prized as the soul of Egypt: "the repository of all that was virtuous and noble in the Egyptian nation"'. Rather, Munir's beloved sounds like a modern, urban woman, wily, self-willed and educated. Though by no means new, dating back to the cartoons of the 1920s and 1930s, many of which, according to Baron, 'tended to depict the nation in urban garb', as 'a "new woman" type,' this representation of Egypt has been long neglected in favour of the fellaha, and, therefore, strikes one as quite fresh and novel.
It was such an image of Egypt as the one projected in Munir's song that I encountered at Al-Ghad theatre last week, in Ibrahim El-Husseini's latest play, Commedia Al-Ahzaan (A Comedy of Sorrows). Written in a mixture of poetry and prose, and consisting mainly of monologues, with very little dialogue, and short, disconnected scenes that merge realism with expressionism and are arranged by a kind of cinematic montage, Commedia presents Egypt as a young, attractive, university educated middle class woman, in a trim black suit, who through various encounters -- with 2 poor and downtrodden young men who, though university graduates, literally live on a rubbish dump, an old and wistful cemetery guard, rendered dumb by lying, who, we soon realize, is a metaphoric personification of History, 2 martyrs killed in Tahrir Square and the fiancée of a third, and a sadistic representative of the security apparatus who gets his kicks out of torturing prisoners -- gradually realizes that she had been blind to all the misery and ugliness into which her people sank and that she had been deluded and duped by her attendants and retainers who presented her with a false, rosy picture of reality; she finally indulges in a soul-searching monologue that traces the beginnings of her deterioration back to Sadat's reign in the sinister influence of the combined forces of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and the USA on Egyptian culture, economy and way of life, as well as in the cowardice and fickleness of the liberal/socialist political opposition.
Simple in conception and direct in expression, with very little, sporadic, interactive drama, and predominantly lyrical, Commedia Al-Ahzaan was saved from sinking into vulgar sloganeering and facile topicality by the quality of the writing -- uniformly sensitive, unpretentious, pictorially vivid and strongly evocative, as well as, and even more, by the passion and conviction of the actors. Led by Wafaa El-Hakim (as Egypt), Abdel-Rehim Hassan (as the cemetery-guard/ History) and Mu'taz El-Sweifi, currently the most delightful villain on the Egyptian stage (as the sadistic torturer, who ends up being asked to torture his own son who has joined the revolutionaries), they handled the text with professional skill, technical finesse, confident competence and infinite care, delivering it with the kind of emotional sincerity and ring of truth essential in this kind of performance. Accompanying them with live songs and music on the lute and drums was the priceless Ahmed Higazi, acting at once as chorus, commentator, mood shifter and orchestrator, and breathing passionate liveliness in between the scenes. How I wish director Sameh Megahed had trusted to the poetic power of El-Husseini's text and the superb talents and powers of his magnificent cast and put them on a bare stage with intelligent lighting. Instead, he encumbered them with Mohamed Hashim's fulsomely excessive and distractingly ornate set. Not satisfied with plastering posters of trampled and decapitated children, screaming demonstrators, chains and heavy military boots all over the walls of the small black-box, he also added panels of flashing bulbs, medieval stocks, a forest of dangling ropes and whips, some grave stones, artificial flowers and rows upon rows of huge plastic frames embroidered in abundance with disconcerting plastic squiggles and, to top it all, an opaque screen reflecting the shadows of some human forms behind it. It is a credit to the text and actors that despite this visual burden that heavily weighed on the eyes throughout, they managed to make us share with them an emotionally poignant and aesthetically cathartic theatrical experience.