Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 October 1998
Issue No.398
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

From Tiba to Taba

By Fatemah Farag

Spectacular performance
2000 soldiers and artists joined with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra to stage this spectacular performance
The final countdown had begun. Two spectacular productions had been ordered, for Monday and Tuesday, to mark the war's silver jubilee. The days before the big gala nights were numbered.

The first of these spectaculars brought together an odd couple: the Egyptian armed forces and the staff and artists of the Cairo Opera House. The first dress rehearsal was held at one of the indoor halls of the Cairo Stadium in Nasr City, last Friday. The atmosphere was electric. High-ranking officers walked up and down barking orders into the walkie-talkies they held in one hand, pausing only to puff on the cigars they held in the other.

Walking into the basement of the stadium was like walking into an army camp, but on the stage there were conductor Mustafa Nagi and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra as well as a group of young women from a sports college. "There is a total of 2000 people participating in this event," explained Maj. Gen. Ahmed Gamaleddin. "Fifteen hundred of them come from the armed forces. It is very moving work," continued the general. Special care was given to building the stage so that it could be removed without damaging the stadium. The stage itself was in the shape of a ship -- symbolising Egypt.

The ministers of culture and defence walked in. Walid Aouni, the choreographer and director of the performance was getting ready to begin. A large group of men were sitting on the stage covered in an enormous black tarpaulin. "They are going to suffocate," exclaimed the man behind me. "It is difficult being in the army, but I am sure they are well-trained," replied his partner. Fortunately, the risk of suffocation appeared to have been exaggerated. This tableau was just one of the effects created by Aouni to express the feelings of anger and frustration that permeated Egyptian society after the 1967 defeat. Soon, the men would tear dramatically through the black cloth with their brilliant bayonets, to signify the eruption of anger.

Throughout, ranged against a background of dramatic music, Samiha Ayyoub's voice was there, explaining the sequence of events. Then the crucial airstrike which initiated the war was represented using sophisticated lighting technology. "We have brought in the most highly developed technology especially for this show," boasted Gamaleddin.

Ben Richards, who was responsible for the lighting, has impressive credentials, having just finished work on a gig for the rock group Metallica. "It is not like the work we usually do for theatre or concerts," explained a representative of High End Systems, the company in charge of the lighting. "The scale here is much larger. It is a challenge. Also there is the subject matter itself which is very intense. You have a choir, soldiers, live music -- a lot of synchronisation is needed. It is really very unique."

After the soldiers on stage had enacted the Canal crossing, chants of 'God is Great' shook the stadium, backed by the music of Richard Wagner. Visions of war were replaced by the great themes of development and peace, the soldiers joining to form a large orange heart which gradually filled out with green leaves.

"What people will be seeing here is a strange mix," said Gamaleddin. "The military usually stage parades and the media and culture sectors have their own ways of celebrating. This is the first time we've mixed the two. Even though it has been a very tiring month, I feel great and I think everyone here feels the same." The grins of the soldiers that followed us on our way out seemed to prove the general right.

Across the street, preparations for the second production were taking a rather more stressful form. Safwat El-Sherif, minister of information, had been attending rehearsals on a daily basis. On the stage, choreographers Abdel-Moneim Kamel and Magdi Saber twitched nervously among the dancers -- most of whom were not even trying to disguise the fact that they were Russian. Glamorous actors and actresses strolled casually in and out of the hall -- Nelly, Poussy, Ezzat El-Alayli and Hassan Kami. The man running the show was Nour El-Sherif -- and his hair was standing on end. Once again, there was the now standard flurry of mobile phones and walkie-talkies, without which artistic creation, like warfare, would be virtually impossible.

"There are three parts to our celebration," explained composer Gamal Salama. "The first is a singing debut, starring Ali El-Haggar and Nadia Mustafa, with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. I myself composed the music, and Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi wrote the poetry. Then there is a play -- Kifah Tiba [The Struggle for Thebes] -- which is based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz. Then we go back to more singing to finish, the theme of which is the Egyptian victory." On stage, Mohamed Rushdi and Mohamed Tharwat were already singing their hearts out, while Angham watched from the front row of the auditorium.

The song cycles provide the traditional aspect of the show, while Kifah Tiba offers an interesting innovation. "We started working on the sets and costumes about a month and a half ago," recounted set designer Mahmoud Mabrouk as he sat among his workers at the Pharaonic Village on Friday morning. "It has been non-stop work," he added with a bright smile. "A lot of effort has gone into even the smallest detail."

Mabrouk lamented the fact that many of these small details will be almost invisible once on stage. To make up for this, the elaborate set will also incorporate a 7.5 metre-high statue. "It is the first time that we have used such a sculpture in the theatre," he added.

The play celebrates the victory of the Pharaohs over the Hyksos. "It is a flashback in history -- a "Tiba-to-Taba" sort of thing," Salama explained. "The point is to highlight the victories the Egyptians have won against their invaders over and over again throughout history."