Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Journeys within, journeys without

By Amina Elbendary

Cairo, Cairo, my blessed city the victorious! Anyone who says culture is dead here isn't really living in this city. It seems everywhere we turn there is some sort of festival or cultural event going on: at the Citadel, the Cairo Opera House, the International Conference Centre. The economy may be stagnant, but the people are definitely not.

The latest event to hit town is the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre, an annual event that has turned out to be more popular than anyone could have imagined. The festival is too often stereotyped as a series of bizarre, incomprehensible plays by intellectual wannabes. Indeed, the cultural press was preoccupied on the eve of the event in trying to define and discuss just what makes a play "experimental." Whatever the answer may be, CIFET is surprisingly more vibrant -- if potentially more depressing -- than I first anticipated.

The schedule is so hectic, with three or more shows a night in more than five venues, all going on simultaneously! Yet surprisingly, most of the plays actually start on time! The programme isn't very instructive, merely listing time, place, title and country. So for the amateur theatregoer and first time CIFETer -- like this writer -- you just have to choose by gut instinct and convenience of the time and place. Of course the more exotic sounding titles aren't necessarily the most enjoyable performances, but that's a risk one sometimes has to take.

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Such was my experience with the Egyptian production Escorial. Escorial is directed by Husam El-Shazli, starring Kamal Attia and Yasmine Montasir and a group of Theatre Institute graduates. Translated from a Belgian text, it deals with the "marital woes of a sexually defunct dictator." Once more, the age-old sex and death motif and the tensions within are played out in a tense, contrived production. The dictator's impotence is a traditional subversive ploy. In this play the queen falls in love with the king's clown. The king orders her death and in a dangerous game of role reversal with the jester inherent political and sexual tensions are exposed.

More than any of the other plays attended, the Slovenian Lava was closest to my former stereotype of the festival. Primarily a movement piece interrupted by minimal dialogue (in English) Lava is supposed to deal with a man's obsession with death that prevents him from living a normal life. This one went rather over my head!

The crammed schedule means frantic taxi rides across the city: from Al-Hanager, to Ataba, to Qasr Al-Aini and back to the Opera! These rushed taxi rides are themselves part of the experience. You leave the theatre with a head brimming with conflicting, exciting, mind-boggling ideas of plays you don't always comprehend, to enter a world of Baba Obbah and Amr Diab's latest Tamali Ma'ak. But then this is Cairo, where the contradictions and contrasts exist side by side, a seemingly mad -- and maddening -- existence in which one is constantly journeying from one extreme to another. And it is the absurdity of those journeys that make up our lives that were the gist of the Romanian production Traveller in the Night based on Salah Abdel-Sabbour's classic. The play chronicles a train ride which the protagonist, Abdu, takes (with the stage itself arranged as a coach and the audience acting as passengers) and during which he is subjected to the absurd, tyrannical acts of a bizarre conductor, with the occasional collaboration of two giggling female travellers. At this journey's end this Abdu is stabbed and then a singer in a white galabiya and the two women travellers dance to the music of Amr Diab's Nur Al-Ain! Are these angels ushering him to heaven? Was he simply dreaming an absurd dream?

Philosophical journeys of a different kind were the subject of Epistle of the Birds. Directed by the Iraqi Qasim Mohamed and music composed by the famous oudist Nasir Shamma, this play is based on the treatise by Avicenna and selections from Al-Ghazali. I found it reminiscent of Fraideddin Al-Attar's The Conference of the Birds. The performance managed, through creative choreography, to tackle the philosophical introspective journey, a journey within the soul in search of knowledge and Truth. In their struggle to free themselves -- and their souls -- from captivity and oppression, these birds embark on a journey, led by the hoopoe; a journey not only in time and space, he tells them, but also in being. Exhausted, they never arrive at their destination, and never meet the king who is to be their saviour. Instead, they arrive at a realisation that Truth lies within them, lies in their awareness.

The festival also features several performances from various Arab countries -- Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Tunisia and Yemen -- and is thus a welcome forum for Arab intellectuals interested in theatre as well as for the audience not familiar with Arab theatrical trends.

In the Syrian production Aisha, the star embarks on a different journey, perhaps through time, perhaps through her subconscious. For Aisha, time has stopped at 2:30pm, 30 years before when her lover failed to show up at the agreed time to elope with her. Isolated from the world around her, Aisha might be representative of the Arab nation's modern predicament but she is also a symbol of its women. The stage is bare except for a clock stopped at 2:30 and a chest that acts as the custodian of her memories, her subconscious and, potentially, her coffin. Aisha delves into the chest to take out her memories, people and events from her past, before time stopped and people that forced her into her current position. Throughout Aisha seems passive in the face of her dilemma. The play ends with her most dangerous -- only? -- decision to throw away the keys to her house and refuse to answer the calls of the outside world. Her decision is to remain isolated. Not a very inspirational note to end on, one has to admit.

The plays are so diverse and so different you don't know exactly what to expect, from movement pieces, to translated texts, to plays adapted from the corpus of the Arabo-Muslim heritage. From rather sophisticated performances to "experiments" by theatre students. From plays in Arabic to plays in Romanian, Armenian, Greek and Latvian. I was genuinely shocked when I failed to attend the Romanian Travellers in the Night -- even though I had bought a ticket -- because the hall was packed! There was actually a crowd out there waiting to get in, and failing like me. It is interesting that there are so many theatre lovers queuing to watch plays in words they don't understand.

It is also quite refreshing and reassuring that there are so many young people actively engaged in the cultural scene these days. And it was surprising to find that the theatre halls are usually packed with a broad mixture of faces; mostly young people -- un-angry men and women who look like your next door neighbours -- as well as veteran intellectuals; some greying, some grey, the occasional family of four, with mother coaxing a bored, more-than-reluctant teenage daughter, hoping to broaden her horizons by taking her to the theatre. After a couple of days, the faces get more familiar and you begin to recognise people hanging out in the smoke-filled theatre cafés. Despite the occasional confusion -- logistical as well as intellectual -- CIFET is a thoroughly energising experience even for the non-specialised amateur theatregoer and a cultural event that should not be missed.

For a full programme, see On stage

Related sories:
Off the record

Around the merry-go-round 31 August - 6 September 2000
A question of merit 16 - 22 September 1999
Geisha with wings 9 - 15 September 1999

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