A dream come true
The story of Teatro Eskendria inspires Nehad Selaiha with renewed hope for the future of a once cosmopolitan city
We are told to 'despair of nothing we would attain, as unwearied diligence our point would gain.' This is the moral; now for the story. One evening in Alexandria, many, many years ago, Mahmoud Abodoma, a brilliant writer and theatre-maker, said to me: 'my real dream, the one I have always had, is to find a little place in downtown Alexandria “ê" a run-down garage, a derelict building, a disused backyard “ê" anything that I can cheaply get and pitch my own theatre there.' He had had his own impendent troupe, the Alternative Theatre, since 1990; but like all such troupes, it had no settled home, no fixed base or permanent venue, and could only fitfully perform, usually for 2, or 3 nights at most, at the Jesuit Centre, the back garden of the Alexandria Atelier, or the halls of the Goethe Institute and the French Cultural Centre. This left Aboudoma deeply dissatisfied. Though he enjoyed putting together a show and working with his group, he was always haunted by a painful sense of ineffectuality, if not futility. There was much more to theatre than the pleasure he got out of making it. He deeply believed, as all his plays reflect, in the political potency of theatre, in the wide sense of the word. But for theatre to make a real social impact, it needed continuity and constant presence among the people.
Alexandria had no regular theatrical life at that time; all the old big theatres, including Sayed Darwish, were either shut and quietly left to rot, or opened for 2 or 3 months in Summer to host light, commercial shows from Cairo for the diversion of the seasonal influx of holiday-makers. For the rest of the year, the only theatre to be had consisted of a handful of independent or amateur performances, fitfully presented at local or foreign cultural centres, and usually attended by a small coterie. This was a dangerous situation, Aboudoma, realized; the withdrawal of theatre and other enlightened cultural/artistic activities from the public life of the city left it defenceless against the rising tide of religious fundamentalism and was quickly eroding the little that remained of Alexandria's once distinctive cosmopolitan, secular and multicultural character. From a Mediterranean hub of culture and the arts, as Aboudoma knew it in his boyhood, Alexandria was fast turning under his very eyes into a hotbed of Salafism “ê" an alien, benighted, desert-bred form of Wahhabi Islam.
At the time Aboudma told me of his dream, he had left his job as lecturer at the theatre department in the University of Alexandria to become the director of the theatre section of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's artistic activities. In leaving the secluded cloisters of academia and plunging into public cultural action, he was no doubt prompted by his fears for his beloved city and the desire to reach a wider audience. At the Bibliotheca, he launched on 28 December 2003 the first Creative Forum for Independent Theatre Groups “ê" an annual Europe-Mediterranean programme of performances, workshops, brainstorming roundtables and intercultural translations and publications, developing it over the years into one of the most serious, fruitful and well-attended cultural/theatrical-mediation events in Egypt. At every Forum, performances by independent troupes from both sides of the Mediterranean, including many from Egypt, were hosted at the well-fitted, technically sophisticated performance spaces at the Bibliotheca, where ordinary Alexandrians flocked to see them. Not once, however, did Aboudoma allow his own independent Alternative Theatre to perform there. He had made it a point of honour to keep his public office and private troupe absolutely apart and not exploit the one to promote the other. Such integrity is rarely to be met with in Egypt.
The first years of the Forum provided Aboudoma with a lot of valuable experience and many valuable connections, which he eventually used to fulfill his own dream. Since the Bibliotheca did not have the needed personnel to run such an international project, he had to seek them outside and gradually built a core of diligent, intelligent, efficient and dedicated artistic and administrative assistants, capable of networking with several European and international cultural/artistic associations to engage experts and fund the trips of the visiting Arab and European artists and troupes, since the Bibliotheca only paid internal travel expenses. Led by Aboudoma, this brilliant young team became the backbone of the Forum, and to keep them together and guarantee the survival of the project if the Bibliotheca decided to give it up for any reason, or were he himself to leave the Bibliotheca, as he had been increasingly feeling inclined to do, Aboudoma launched his own independent International Association for Creation and Training (I-act) in 2006. However, like his Alternative Theatre, it had no independent base.
For Aboudoma, as for the whole of Egypt, the 25 January revolution was a turning point and ushered a new phase. The Forum was not held that year, and within a few months Aboudoma quitted the Bibliotheca for good. Luckily, by unwearied diligence and perseverance, he had discovered an old, derelict, 2-storey building in Fouad street, opposite Sayed Darwish Theatre (Alexandria's Opera house at present), which had been standing empty for decades. Built in 1929 by an Italian architect, it had been the property and residence of a Greek engineer. After the 1952 revolution, which drove away most of the foreign community in Egypt and nationalized their property, it was taken over by the State Department of Foreign Property Custodianship and put in the care of the Alexandria Governorate. This official body, however, ignorant of its architectural value perhaps and/or anxious to clear the site for excavation, was only too happy to let it fall into wrack and ruin. After long and arduous negotiations with that establishment, and by a continued exertion of will, ingenuity and power of persuasion, Aboudoma was able to lease it for 10 years at an affordable sum and was promised a renewal of the lease.
By that time, Aboudoma's original dream of simply having a permanent venue and base for his Alternative Theatre troupe had expanded into a full artistic, cultural, and educational project. Rather than a theatre, his Teatro would be an international training centre and studio that offers young people of all nationalities a wide range of training courses and workshops in film-making, theatre and dance, music and multimedia, jewelry and design, as well as creative writing. It would also have recording and rehearsal spaces for musicians and young theatre-makers, would host music, theatre and story-telling events inside the caf≥© and some of its outdoor venues and organize a literary programme of dialogue and debate featuring Egyptian novelists and public figures. There would be a training programme specifically designed for children and teenagers to enhance their intellectual, cultural and social development and creative self-expression by involving them in different activities, including, among others, handicrafts, shadow play, story-telling and theatre games. Besides, a small gallery-cum- bookshop called 'Al-Rowaq' would display the latest works of Egyptian writers and exhibit the new products of Egyptian artists, including paintings, photography, handicrafts and jewelry. A staggering conception, you must admit. But Aboudoma had the will for it and the people who could make it a reality, and having secured a place, the next hurdle was the costly operation of its restoration, renovation and conversion, and it was accomplished mainly through private funds, with the support of the Culture Resource, the Embassy of the kingdom of the Netherlands in Egypt and SIDA (the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency).
While the restoration operation was still in progress, Aboudoma and his I-act group organized 'Reveille' “ê" a mini regional theatre forum for independent theatre in December 2011 on the theme of the Arab Spring, hosting a small number of Arab performances from Tunis, Syria, Jordan and Egypt “ê" all presented at the French Cultural Centre. Classes and workshops were also offered with the help of the Swedish Institute, the Goethe Institute, the Swiss Prohelvatia, SIDA, and the French Cultural Centre in Alexandria. The event seemed intended to keep the idea of the 'independent theatre forum' alive despite the failure of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina to hold one that year, and seems in retrospect to have been a kind of rehearsal for the forum planned to mark the opening of Teatro Eskendria. Aboudoma's artistic contribution to 'Reveille' was a rousing music and poetry piece called Explode or Die, performed by his Alternative Theatre troupe in collaboration with the Massar Igbary (Compulsory Direction) pop group.
It was during that forum last December that Aboudoma took me on a tour of the building under restoration, and how struck I was by the beauty and quaintness of its interior and exterior architectural design. A cobbled courtyard leads from the street to the antique, wooden door “ê" a delight in itself, with a few steps next to it leading to a kind of porch. The first floor, almost at street level, consists of a small hall flanked by 2 rooms and giving on to a third larger one. At the back of it, a narrow passage contains the toilets and other smaller rooms. When the conversion was completed, the whole of the first floor, plus the porch and part of the courtyard became a public area-cum-caf≥© that can host a variety of activities and be put to multiple uses. The second floor, reached by a narrow staircase from the hall below, contains a larger number of different-sized rooms which serve as offices and rehearsal/training/performance spaces. The interior decoration, all Aboudoma's idea, preserves some of the original walls and floors and combines orange, green and brick walls, with plenty of wood in the paneling and furnishings. The elegant simplicity, bright colours and quasi rustic style of the interior decoration gives the place a cozy, comfortable, intimate and quietly cheerful atmosphere.
Though Teatro Eskendria was not formally launched as a training centre and studio until the 23rd of September this year, the first floor of the building has been open to the public since the middle of May this year and has proved very popular with young Alexandrians and visitors to the city and witnessed at least 2 book-signings. Seeing it in its final shape and full glory last month, I was simply elated. It was a dream come true in times when few dreams do. I was startled, however, to discover that Teatro had acquired a new neighbour in the shape of a primitive mosque that was not there before. I have no objection to mosques sprouting everywhere, being a Muslim myself by birth. They can be beautiful, peaceful places that lift you up to heaven. This one, however, obviously a hastily patched up affair, consisting of an open backyard, spread with green mats, covered with some kind of cloth, and neon-lighted, with a loudspeaker visibly fixed high up outside the building immediately adjacent to Teatro, seemed to have sprung up with the express purpose of warning off anyone who dared approach that den of vice and threaten those already inside with doom and gloom. At sunset, the call for prayers was cacophonously sounded in a coarse, hoarse voice at a shattering volume, and was succeeded by a long, gloomy, fire-and-brimstone sermon, blared in the same gruff voice, at the same deafening pitch.
For the opening of Teatro Eskendria, Aboudoma and his I-act team, in cooperation with local, regional and international cultural institutions, planned a one-week, multi-venued Euro-Mediterranean forum/festival for independent artists and theatre troupes, along the very same lines as the previous Bibliotheca forums in terms of structure, but less centralized, spreading all over the city. The event, launched on 23 September was christened 'Backstreet Festival: Euro-Mediterranean', with the explanatory subtitle: 'Towards Art in Non-Traditional Spaces'. The word 'Backstreet' was carefully chosen to signify both street-theatre performances and theatrical activities on the fringe of, or off, mainstream theatre. Both kinds of performances usually take place in non-traditional spaces. The word 'Backstreet', with this double reference, was the shaping spirit of the event, determining the choice of performances, the designing of the training programme and the topics of the roundtable. It also influenced the choice of venues as far as was possible in a country where performing in public spaces is hardly tolerated and invariably involves a long and complicated bureaucratic process. When Aboudoma applied for permission to use a public square in the city for a limited period during the festival the authorities refused him, but the same authorities had no qualms about allowing the Muslim Brotherhood's party to pitch a big tent in that same square and hold a meeting there.
As a substitute, such open-air venues as the back garden of the Atelier of Alexandria, Dekket El-Daraweesh Caf≥© in Koum El-Dekka, the Plaza of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the open air Cinema Rio and the open courtyard of Teatro Eskendria were used to accommodate most of the local and European street performances. These included: Desire and Occupation, a presentation of a 5-day workshop conducted by the French Eric de Sarria and Sarah Letouzey on 'the constraints and liberties in the art of puppetry', Austria's Show Bizarre!!!, by the Theater Leela company, Serbia's Walk and Watch: Human Statues and the Super Nova Fire Show (both by the Bubble Events Company), Belgium's Inside Time Outside Space (by Irene K. Company), The Fastest Man on Earth, by the stunning Phax Ahmada, of the Studio Oscuro in Sweden, The Transformers Street Clowns, by the magnificent Egyptian Outa Hamra (Red Tomatoes) troupe, and Al-Hezb El-Comedy (the Comic Party), a standup, musical and sketch street performance in English by the Egyptian American University Alumni Community Theatre (ACT), founded by Laila Saad. The rest of the 19 performances comprised in the festival, including the ones for children, were presented in schools (mainly Al-Reyadah and Saint Gabriel), or at closed spaces “ê" namely: the theatre of the French Cultural centre, which hosted Croatia's Shoemaker and the Devil, the Egyptian El Wad Fi Alex (The Guy's in Alex), a musical performance by the 'Like Jelly' group, Blok, by the Lebanese American University Laptop Orchestra, and Syria's Theatrical Rhythms, by the students of the theatre institute in Damascus; the middle hall of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which hosted the Spanish dance performance Caf≥© Sol, the German King Hamed and the Fearless Girl, by the Schnawwl Theatre of Mannheim, the Egyptian First Step, by the Ibn Danyal troupe, and the trandisciplinary and interactive Windows, by the '417 itg-International Theatre Group; the Great Hall of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where the Palestinian El-Funoun Dance Troupe presented their Raqsit Shams (The Sun Dance); and El-Cabina, where Italian street dancers Ann Amendolagine and Livia Bettinelli performed their Roma Tap Dance.
Likewise, the workshops (on writing, the art of puppetry, street dance, the use of multimedia on stage, scenography in non-traditional spaces and graffiti), all conducted by Arab and European experts, were distributed among several places, including the Goethe Institute, Centre Rezodanse Egypte, El-Madina Studio for Performing and Digital Art, and Teatro Eskendria. The 2-day roundtable, entitled 'Open Spaces“ê¶Closed Spaces', was the only activity excepted from this multi-venue policy. Its 6 sessions were all held in the conference room of the Swedish Institute, with speakers from Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, France, Italy and Sweden. The sessions were moderated by retired Palestinian dancer Senene Hulleileh (of the Arab Education Forum in Jordan), and she did it with such cheerful vitality and good humour that put everyone at ease, removed all formality and, despite the language barriers and the need of some to rely on the simultaneous translation, created a friendly, confidential, warm atmosphere.
Rather than read formal presentations on the assigned topics, or on their artistic experiences as street performers, the participants spoke their thoughts and feelings, as if reflecting aloud on issues that personally engaged them on a deep existential level. The topics covered in the sessions were all profoundly interesting and thought provoking. They included 'Place/Space and Interaction with the Audience', 'Place/Space and Theatrical Memory', 'Space and the Liberation of Human Action', and 'The Obstacles of Space in Arab Countries'. Under the heading 'Experiences of Space: Best Practices and Ideas', Raed Asfour, of Al-Balad Theatre in Jordan, spoke of the difficulties encountered by his troupe on their tours in the countryside with regard to space and boundaries, Eric de Sarria, of the Mots de Tete Comagnie in France, showed us photo projections of a how a South African village looked like before and after the intervention of art in space, Hany Taher, the founder of Outa Hamra (Red Tomatoes) in Egypt told us how the troupe got to have this queer name, making everyone double up with laughter, and showed us video clips of their work as street clowns in the poorest and most deprived areas of Cairo. What wonderful joy and colour they bring into the drab lives of the children there! Phax Ahmada, a self-taught artist, citizen of the world and born storyteller, narrated his uphill struggle to become a street performer in a series of humorous anecdotes, and Ann Amendolagine spoke movingly of how she only found her true self when she became a street dancer, of her relationship with the homeless, the police and rival street artists, and quite surprised us with the information that things are as bad for street artists in Rome as in Egypt and other Arab countries. Oh, I could go on and on about this wonderful roundtable and never finish. It has been recorded however and we are promised it would soon be put on the net. I left Alexandria feeling that, grim as the picture looks now, perhaps all is not lost. There is hope yet... perhaps.