Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 September 1999
Issue No. 446
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Beetles, puppets and butterflies

In the first week of CIFET, Nehad Selaiha encounters some poignant fairy tales

Front Page

Adapting novels for the stage is often a tricky business; there are usually far too many threads to unravel and sort out; and if the dramaturge succumbs to the temptation of trying to rope them all in, the end result may very well be a frustrating jumble of fragmentary ideas, nascent themes and half-baked characters. The Egypt People of the River, based on the novel by the Nubian writer Hajaj Adoul, is a case in point. Imagine a production which tries, in the space of less than an hour and a half, to debate the rights and wrongs of the thorny and painful issue of burying a large part of the Nubian land, with its ancient civilization and way of life, under water (in the interest of the rest of the valley in the north) and, at the same time, cram in two love stories, and provide background information about the ethnic structure of the people of Nubia, their languages, beliefs, specific mythology, and their struggle to survive and preserve their cultural identity. To complicate things further, this identity is not presented as far from controversial, and the relation between the south and north of the Nile valley is rendered more problematic by being posed in the larger context of the relation between the north and south of the Mediterranean. The attempts to relate this dual north-south theme to the two love stories (which contrast in terms of their courses and endings) are often hampered and frustrated by the intrusion of minor characters, marginal conflicts, and scenes (delightful in themselves) which depict the daily life in a typical Nubian village, with its rituals, games, music and characteristic dances.

These folkloric scenes, performed by real Nubians of immense beauty, grace and dignity, have a moving ring of authenticity and endow the image of 'the flood coming from the north' -- which dominates the collective consciousness of the villagers -- with urgency and poignant credibility. Indeed, one of the virtues of this show is its cast, which is predominantly Nubian, and most of them treading the boards for the first time. What they lacked in terms of technique, they more than made up for by their sincerity, natural grace, and power of conviction. Equally gratifying is the sense of fairness at having Nubians, for once, speak for themselves: if they did not have much say in the matter when it was decided to drown their land, they can at least take part in the mourning and burial rites. I cannot help thinking that left to themselves, and with a Nubian dramaturge and director, the army of Nubians taking part in People of the River could have turned it into an overpowering theatrical threnody for Nubia. As it is, the elegiac, nostalgic mood was constantly disrupted by the presence of outsiders (characters from the north -- Cairo, Alexandria, and Greece) making a show of conscientiously conducting a postmortem on the distant event, investigating its pros and cons, while foisting facile justifications, trotting out extenuating circumstances, or sidetracking the whole issue by plunging into philosophical discussions of the meaning of illusion and reality, or the validity of dreams and myths, or diluting it by projecting it in the more generalised context of western cultural hegemony. Wary of being accused of advocating separatism, dramaturge Hazem Shihata and director Nasser Abdel-Moneim fell between two stools: they neither gave us a powerful drama that honestly anatomises the circumstances of the decision to sacrifice Nubia, nor allowed their Nubian cast to pay their last respects without interruption. Indeed, as one perceptive critic noted, the mere fact that the performance opens with Sayed Darwish's rousing national song, 'Ana Al-Masri' ('I, the Egyptian') preempts any discussion of a 'Nubian nation', and the metaphor of 'amputating a gangrenous leg to save the whole body' (glibly rotted out by a Cairene high official at a crucial stage in the performance) forestalls any lamentations over the severed limb.

Nevertheless, People of the River is not to be missed, if only because it may send you looking for Adoul's novel, or haring off to what remains of Nubia, or just give you a lot of food for thought.

From Palestine, another performance in the festival, also adapted from a novel, may prove equally controversial. The Ashtar group's Women of Sand and Myrrh, adapted from the novel by Lebanese writer Hanan Al-Sheikh, features four Arab women cooped up in a white, transparent cage, with high mobile sliding walls, in some Arab desert, and struggling for self-definition and liberation. Different in almost every respect -- education, temperament, social class and occupation -- they are united by their shared condition (translated in the stage metaphor of the desert-cage) and their need for solidarity in the face of male chauvinism and the patriarchal heritage. The stories unfold as each conjures up characters and situations from her life, and enacts them in the present with the help of the three other females. This game of impersonation demands from the four actresses (Iman Aoun, Tahani Salim, Faten Khoury, and Munira Zureike) constant costume-and-role-changing, giving them ample opportunity to display their virtuosity, and also allows for the introduction of a very comic streak into this intensely passionate drama. In this respect, irony, parody, and caricature act as 'alienation-effects' -- devices to defamiliarise daily reality and expose it to our critical gaze. Women of Sand and Myrrh (directed by Peter Braschler, and produced in collaboration with Maralam Theatre, Zurich) will participate in CIFET at the initiative of the Swiss cultural organisation, Pro Helvetia, and, one may add, at their risk. It is a daring show, and some of its episodes and characters (particularly the sensual Nur, with her many lovers, and the desert-sheikh, Moaz, who courts an American coquette) may infuriate some and shock many.

The image of the cage crops up again in the Egyptian one-man show, Through the 'Hole' of the Self, as a metaphor for the sense of alienation. But this time, the prisoner is a young man from Upper Egypt, torn between the lure of the modern westernised city and the security of the conventional way of life in the old village, and crushed by both. Choreographed (with the help of minimal props) as a fierce tug-of-war, of which the young man is the inevitable victim, and performed with passionate sincerity and great physical energy in a tiny vault on one side of the entrance of the House of Zeinab Khatoun, it envelops the small audience (15 people at most) in an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere, and the message that reaches them 'through the hole of the self' of this typical young Egyptian speaks of the oppression suffered by the young at the hands of fathers, teachers, and priests, of their cultural and moral dilemmas, excruciating self-doubts, and humiliating sense of helplessness and impotence.

The longing for freedom, fulfilment and integration also informs Colluders in Silence (another Egyptian show in the festival) at the House of Al-Harrawi next door. Based on Lorca's Yerma, it adumbrates the original, gives the Spanish heroine a contemporary Egyptian counterpart, and encloses both, with the other characters, in a grey, grim-looking, round structure, resembling a tomb. At the centre, is a frightful iron bench to which the old Yerma remains chained throughout. Dressed in black, or muted colours, the actors looked, in the cold, pale light, like the inmates of a medieval prison or mental asylum -- shadowy, tortured figures in a nightmarish vision. If you go there looking for Lorca's Yerma with its haunting mixture of sensuous poetry and tragic passion, you will be sorely disappointed, and also unfair to the show. Yerma is projected here through the disillusioned eyes of a sick, frustrated and helpless Egyptian woman who, shut up in a bourgeois home, away from nature, can only experience freedom vicariously through Yerma's rebellion and killing for her husband; it is also projected through the eyes of a generation (director Khaled Galal is barely 31) born to a cynical world, bereft of poetry, romance, and tragic grandeur.

   Top of page
Front Page