Brilliant form, bleak vision
Nehad Selaiha wonders at how much laughter can be wrung out of anger and despair
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Glowing in peculiar lighting arrangements, El-Attar's latter-day heroes face the contemporary world with all the caustic irony it solicits
Last month, just before Eid Al-Adha, I attended the second Festival des Jeunes Createurs organised by the French Cultural Centre in Cairo. Over six days, from 25 to 30 January, I watched 15 productions by amateur and independent groups. The abundance of talent and the vitality of the young artists were striking; but, underlying the majority of the shows, whatever the theme or form, was a deep sense of frustration, confusion, impotent rage and profound hopelessness. In most of them the present seemed a nightmare, the future a bleak wasteland. In this respect, Ahmad El-Attar's latest production, Mother, I Want to be a Millionaire, a multi-media caustic piece, is no different.
Cast in the mode of parody, with some grotesque touches, it develops as a brutal satire on the abuses of television, the rampant spread of crass materialism, the commercialisation of art, the degradation of sex, the oppression of the mind and the systematic erosion of its thinking, critical powers through the machinations of insidiously influential or openly authoritarian institutions -- such as the media, the school, the army and the bureaucratic system. In scene after fleeting scene (the scenes total 50 and the longest of them is only four minutes), we are imaginatively and visually transported, with the help of Charlie Astrom's lighting, Hassan Baydoun's set design, Hassan Khan's video tracks and atmospheric, electronic music, to various locations -- a public office, a military college, a classroom, a television studio, a street, a nightclub, a private bedroom, a baladi café, or a boxing-ring-cum- abattoir.
The lights come up with a terrible crash of sound and we are faced with a lurid, ghostly place, smoke-clogged, which makes you think of a demolition site, of people trapped under a collapsed building, or of some infernal, subterranean cave where the dwellers died long ago but are doomed to go on, for ever, mechanically and grotesquely aping the gestures of the living. This is El-Attar's image of the public office. Next you are lulled by Salwa Mohamed Ali's face and voice, in a video recording projected on an enormous screen dominating the stage at the back, into a false sense of security as she begins to narrate, in slow, measured tones, a folk tale about the fictional hero of The Arabian Nights, El-Shatir Hassan (Hassan, the clever). Something about Salwa's face and voice, however, faintly rings an ominous note -- a hint of tautness about the lips, as if she was hiding something terrible under the soothingly familiar surface of her tale, moments of eerie stillness as she slowly lowers her lids or looks away into the distance, with a fixed, mournful gaze, never blinking, as if watching the relentless approach of some impending disaster.
Next, in a small pool of light, on one side of the stage, a soldier recites the Egyptian military oath with touching candour. Then a dizzying plunge from the sublime to the ridiculous as we face, both on stage and the screen, a mad television presenter, in a wheel chair (Ahmed Kamal), jabbering away in a strident, metallic voice, urging us, amidst bouts of hooting, hysterical laughter, to take part in his show, "Who is the Hero", and pick the best pop singer from among a number of contestants (hilariously and farcically played by Sayed Ragab, Roba El- Shamy, Ramadan Khater, Walid Marzouk and Hassan El-Kreidli). The winner, we are told, will get 15 million dollars and have an album produced by an American company and distributed worldwide. Each week too, the presenter adds, a number of viewers will be chosen by lot to receive fat cash prizes running into tens of thousands of pounds. Immediately the scene shifts to a classroom (lorded over by Sayed Ragab as the teacher) where rote-memorisation is the rule and fear of the master's rod the only incentive. At one point a young athlete in shorts (Hassan El-Kreidli) faces us on a chair and recites in a neutral voice a long list of grievances and frustrations while slowly, sensually, running a tiny camera, fixed to his palm, all over his bare chest and thighs and producing some weird images on the screen at the back. There is also a fleeting street scene in which a man (Khalid Zaki), holding a Pepsi Cola can in one hand, furtively chalks on a wall with the other a slogan saying "Palestine is Arab" before quickly slinking away. Next we are back in the television studio, watching the hero contestants mangling the Egyptian musical heritage (as many so-called singers do in nightclubs and discos all over the city now), and painfully hacking some of Abdel-Halim Hafez's most memorable and beloved 1960s songs. In turn, each of them is also allowed time before a camera to expound their idea of heroism and tell us what they plan to do with the money if they win the title and become millionaires.
The short, flickering scenes which make up the first part or, rather, movement, of the performance are picked up again and again and replayed in more or less the same order and tempo in the two subsequent movements, like musical notes or themes in a fugue. Some are repeated with slight variations; others are developed and carried through to an unpredictably startling end. The soldier reciting the military oath becomes progressively more panicky and muddled, pathetically jumbling his words, and ends up hysterical, with a white hamster (for lack of a mouse) in a round glass jar grotesquely attached to his belly, making him look like a pregnant woman. The young athlete takes on the name of El-Shatir Hassan and starts a sexual affair with a lewd woman who finally rejects him and wears the veil. We listen to their erotic telephone calls and see the woman, in various seductive positions on top of the back screen which flashes his image in quick close-ups and medium shots. Finally, she appears up high as a bodiless, veiled head, floating in the darkness.
The fictional El-Shatir Hassan of the tale meets with a far worse fate than his contemporary counterpart and, contrary to the original story, ends up being eaten by the ogress. The classroom scene gains in menace as it progresses from Arabic to English to geography and ends on a violent note at the religion lesson. The graffiti man too keeps coming back to scribble new slogans over the old ones until the wall becomes an illegible mass of squiggles. When the television presenter appears for the last time, holding a rabbit on his lap (his metaphoric equivalent perhaps, as in the case of the soldier and the mouse), he is a sick, dying man who has lost all coherence. Ironically, the screen behind him shows him for the first time standing up on his two feet and in the bloom of health. The show does not need him alive to go on, the screen seems to tell us; the media will keep on fabricating him over and over. When the viewers finally nominate the hero of their choice, it turns out to be the new El-Shatir Hassan, the young athlete and lover. After treating us to a mushy, cacophonous performance of a famous Abdel-Halim Hafez song, he rips off his shirt and starts to punch viciously, like a boxer, at a raw slab of meat suspended from the flies while shouting out his hatred of all the Arabs and his love for all westerners. It was a shocking, thoroughly repulsive image bespeaking frenzied impotence.
At first you enjoy the parody and laugh your fill. But, gradually, as the scenes flash by and you start to feel dizzy, as if caught in a terrible whirl, ever sinking into a bottomless vortex of recurring sounds and images, you begin to grasp the full picture, and it is not a pleasant one. It depicts a dehumanised, thoroughly debased world, overrun by inanity, coarseness, greed and vulgarity. Nowhere do you get a whiff of any redeeming value, however tenuous, or a glimpse of anything remotely resembling human dignity. It is a cold, decaying world, deeply fissured underneath its thin, glittering, technological crust and peopled with moronic, hysterical, robot-like creatures who are hollow underneath their coat of flesh -- a world completely bereft of grace and beyond any hope of redemption.
The significant scarcity of dialogue and predominance of hectoring, speech- making and monologues in Mother, I Want to be a Millionaire, deepen the gloom and are meant to technically stress the oppression and alienation of the characters and the breakdown of meaningful human communication. Such a monologic tendency, however, precludes the possibility of viable dramatic conflict or dialectical perspectives. No wonder the play, like the work of so many other young writers, comes across as a one- sided statement, more of a mock documentary of modern Egyptian society or a pungent audio-visual protest, than a drama. Ultimately, however, Mother, I Want to be a Millionaire focusses the challenge which many artists have to face nowadays: namely, how to communicate meaningfully about a world you have come increasingly to feel is meaningless. In such a situation, when the content of experience lacks all sense and order, the burden of communication falls squarely on form. El-Attar's vision would have been intolerable and, maybe, quite meaningless without the antidote of formal beauty he, with the help of his co-director, Nevine El-Ibiary, and artistic crew, injected into the show. The intricate musical patterning of the material was a delight to trace and the formal coherence and technical polish of the work balanced its depressing, disheartening message.