Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Old times

Nehad Selaiha is assailed by nostalgia at an AUC performance

Old times
Old times
Al-Ahram Weekly

When I received an invitation to watch a new AUC production of a play called Estegwab (Interrogation) by a writer called Farid Kamil, I was thoroughly intrigued. I hadn’t come across the play before, and who is Farid Kamil, and how come I never heard of him before? Anxious to do my homework before the event, I scoured the net for information about the play or its writer. I found very little and that little was curiously tucked away in a most unexpected place and, furthermore, turned out to be quite puzzling, if not downright misleading, as you will see later.

In the published proceedings of the 15th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, edited by Siegbert Uhlig, and published in 2006 (the conference itself was held in Hamburg, in July 2003, with more than 400 participants from over 25 countries), you find a paper entitled ‘Theatre at the “White House”: Shakespeare and Surgery in the Eritrean Liberation Struggle’. In this paper, one of the 130 contributions selected for publication out of over 400, the writer, Christine Matzke, of Humboldt University, Berlin, mentions, almost perfunctorily, a production of ‘The Interrogation, a one-act play by Egyptian playwright Farid Kamil’, performed in the central hospital in Orota, at Barka, in the late 1980s, during the Ethiopian Civil War ( HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IILN3Kujo6Y” 1974-1991). In that production, she says, the play ‘was adapted to illustrate the plight of political prisoners under the Ethiopian Derg regime (the short name of the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army that ruled  HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopia” \o “Ethiopia” Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987), then adds: ‘Originally set against the end of British rule in Egypt in the early 1920s, it portrays the brutal interrogation of a widow whose son has been accused of concealing explosives for insurgent political action.’ A footnote mentions that the play she refers to was published in Egyptian One-Act Plays, edited by Denys Johnson Davies (London: Heinemann; Washington DC: Three Continents Press, 1981), 3-25. Whether the referred to text was originally written in English or a translation by the editor is not made clear. I could not find a trace of that book hard as I tried, but I’ll keep looking. The point is that I went to see the AUC Interrogation expecting a play set in the early 1920s.

As I walked from the car park towards the building which houses the Gerhardt theatre on the new AUC campus in New Cairo, I nearly did not believe my ears. Nasser’s historic nationalization of the Suez Canal speech on 26 July, 1956 was blaring out from somewhere, filling the whole air. And the cracked sound of this old recording and the ones that followed had a poignant nostalgic impact. Nasser’s speech continued as we walked into the dimly lighted hall where, seated on two of its adjoining sides, we faced a bare, dismal scene representing an interrogation office in some police station. The centre piece was a desk, with an armchair behind it, but that cluttered desk, with the few technological gadgets on it (the telephone, the radio set, the intercom, etc.) had a distinct ‘50s’ look that carried me back across the years to that period, opening the floodgates to an avalanche of childhood memories. We had a radio set just like that one, only bigger, and it was on that radio that my father listened to Nasser’s speech one distant evening, with tears in his eyes, before he suddenly jumped up to hug us all in turn. A simple, armless wooden chair placed near the audience and framed in a square of bluish light coming from above, as if through a barred skylight, was the only other article of furniture.

Nasser’s speech continued for quite a while, reviving memories of a glorious day. Eventually, it gave way to Anthony Eden’s voice, moving us forward in time three months, to the end of October ‘56. Whether what we heard was a cleverly edited collection of extracts from the speeches/broadcasts Eden made between October 30, when the Anglo-French ultimatum to Egypt was issued, and November 6, when he announced a ceasefire, technically ending the tripartite aggression on Egypt, or was only a long extract from his final speech at the House of Commons on 6 November, I cannot be sure. But of that final speech I am certain, since it clinches the action of the play. These recordings formed a kind of temporal backdrop, or, rather a general time framework that imaginatively brought into play the dramatic and often harrowing events that led up to the day on which the play’s action opens and ends, namely, 6 November ‘56. How well I remembered the window panes painted blue, the brick walls erected in front of entrances to buildings, the terrible booming of the air-raid sirens and the sound of explosions.

No trace of ‘the early1920s’ mentioned in the above-quoted ‘Shakespeare and Surgery’ paper as the temporal setting of the play. Could Christine Matzke, the author of that paper, have got her dates confused? Could she be referring to another play by the same author, written originally in English under the same title? Was such another play in existence? The little printed programme handed out at the door did not provide a clue; it only introduced the author as an AUC graduate, who studied journalism, eventually becoming the Middle East News Agency’s foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe; as having studied painting for two years at the College of Fine Arts in Cairo and held several exhibitions; and as having published several studies of Egyptian art, two novels, several short stories and plays, of which Interrogation is an early example. Nor did the photocopy of the play I received days later, by courtesy of the AUC Performing Arts Department, help to dispel the mystery. The text was clearly originally written in Arabic and published in Egypt (no date available) together with other plays and the temporal setting is clearly ‘1956, during the tripartite aggression on Egypt.’ Included in the same collection, as the last page of the photocopy I received told me, was Strangers Don’t Drink Coffee, by Mahmoud Diab, an eminent 1960s’ playwright – a detail that suggests that Farid Kamil had gained a degree of recognition in that decade. Again I ask myself how come I never heard of him before or came across any of his writings. How many more playwrights I have yet to discover and how many years one has to live in order to discover them all?

Not that the play itself, whether in reading or performance, turned out to be something world-shaking. The arrest of a hardworking, husbandless mother with two teenage boys on a charge of belonging to the resistance and hiding explosives under her bed and her coercive interrogation by a compatriot in the pay of the foreign invaders forms the action Estegwab. As in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which is basically an investigation of a crime, Estegwab adopts a tight classical form, where the Aristotelian Unities are strictly observed, with dramatic time almost exactly tallying with actual performance time, and where the action unfolds and develops through interrogation, yielding cumulative revelations. But while the investigation in the Greek play ends with a shattering tragic irony when the investigator discovers that he himself is the criminal in question, the revelations in the Egyptian play, which mainly focus on the character of the interrogator, do not tell us at the end more than what we already deduced about him within a few minutes of the beginning. Moreover, the fall of the interrogator from power is brought about by an external agent, in this case an occurrence, very much like the reprehensible Greek deus ex machina. The collapse of the interrogator from power and the saving of his poor, terrorized victim are achieved by news on the radio announcing that the British have accepted to cease hostilities and withdraw from Port Said. That this actually happened in real life, at a certain moment in history, and that the audience is supposed to know about it, does not make it dramatically valid, or less of a deus ex machina solution. It was mainly to address this palpable weakness, I think, that director Mahmoud El-Lozy used the recorded speeches of Nasser and Eden as a prelude to the performance. In this way, the announcement of the ceasefire at the end of the play was introduced at the very beginning, before the play even started, as a kind of predestined curse, like the Greek ‘Fate’, soon to overtake the interrogator, though neither he, nor his victim, know anything about it.

El-Lozy’s brilliant directing extended to the management of his performers. Apart from the voice of a broadcaster that comes on the radio, the play has only two characters: the unnamed interrogator and his nameless victim, referred to in the list of dramatis personae as simply ‘He’ and ‘She’. Two-handers are not exactly ideal for young, inexperienced actors and represent a tough challenge. It is a credit to El-Lozy’s coaching and directorial guidance that Ahmed Saleh (as He) and Morgan Abu Ali (as She), though looking much younger and more polished than the characters they represent are supposed to be, steered their way with tolerable success through the play. Apart from a bit of overacting here and there, like Saleh’s tendency to swagger more than is necessary and Abu Ali’s constant trembling and preoccupation with adjusting her headscarf, the actors did reasonably well. Laila Mansour’s costumes contributed to the credibility of the characters they represented and Amr Madkoor’s lighting framed them beautifully.

At the end of the performance, I found myself wondering why a brilliant director like El-Lozy chose to do this modest play and to do it now. One can argue for a tenuous relevance to the present in so far as the play dramatizes a specimen of the political time-servers and turncoats that can be seen around and ironically reflects the behaviour of many public figures and politicians since the 25 January revolution. But this does not tell us anything new, or add to what we already know. That the interrogator is a traitorous, mercenary collaborator, with no allegiances save to himself, is revealed to us at once, and save for a few insignificant details, all the dialogue that follows does not add anything to the picture. The woman too is a stereotype and when she tells the story of her life and describes her absent husband and what led to his deserting his family and disappearing, all we get is a variation on the same type of character that the interrogator represents. Throughout the play, neither character diverges from the type they represent or succeed in arousing a degree of interest, curiosity, or sympathy. We simply do not care what they are or what happens to them. One suspects that behind El Lozy’s choice was nostalgia of the kind I felt from the moment I heard Nasser’s voice to the moment I left the campus – nostalgia for a simpler world, for a time when conflicts were black and white, issues uncomplicated and loyalties clear. There is nothing like a moment of national pride or a foreign invasion to unite a people. And the nationalization of the Suez Canal provided such a moment and Eden’s coup de main against Nasser, known as the Suez crisis, was such an event.

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