Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Textual migrations

Nehad Selaiha traces the mutations of old texts across genre and nationality in a new play at Al-Tali’a

Al-Ahram Weekly

In 1948, Emmanuel Roblès (1914-95), a French writer of Spanish origin, born in Oran in Algeria, wrote a play called Montserrat, in which the eponymous hero, a young Spanish officer sent to Venezuela in 1812 to help capture Simón Bolívar, chooses to die the rather than reveal the hiding place of that liberator. Roblès, however, does not allow his hero to die before putting him through a grueling moral choice. Having subjected Montserrat to brutal torture in vain, the ruthless Spanish commander, Colonel Izquierdo, thinks up a fiendish way to make him talk: he has six entirely innocent townspeople randomly picked up and dragged into headquarters and tells them in the presence of Montserrat that they have precisely one hour to persuade him to give them the information needed to capture Bolivar or they will all be shot. Montserrat, though horrified, refuses and the tension builds as the characters try to come to grips with the situation and deal with each other, resulting in a long, harrowing ordeal that severely tests convictions and reveals the selfish callousness of some, the  cowardice of others and the courage of a few.

Ironically, Montserrat premiered in freed Paris and occupied Algiers on the same night – 23 April, 1948. But while in Paris, where the memory of France’s humiliating surrender to the Nazis in 1940 was still painfully fresh, the audience at the théâtre Montparnasse could read the play as honouring the French resistance during the German occupation, the predominantly French audience at the Coliseum theatre in Algiers could not but see it as a harsh condemnation of their country’s occupation of Algeria. Within a year of these 2 French productions, an English version by Lillian Hellman was directed by Kermit Bloomgarden and Gilbert Miller and opened in Manhattan on 7 November, 1949, and the same version was staged in London, at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, by Noel Willman and Nigel Green, in 1952, with Richard Burton in the title role. Two years later, it was made into a British TV movie, directed by Stephen Harrison.  Hellman’s script then migrated to West Germany, in 1957, and used in another TV Movie, directed by Fritz Umgelter. In 1960, however, the original Roblès text surfaced again in a TV movie directed by Stellio Lorenzi, and it was this perhaps which prompted Umgelter, who had used Hellman’s script in his 1957 TV movie of the play, go back to it in 1962, using this time a translation of the original by Kurt Robert. Other European countries soon joined the Montserrat cavalcade, including a Finnish TV movie in 1963, translated and directed by Seppo Wallin, and a Portuguese one by Herlander Peyroteo in 1975.

Nor were Montserrat’s migrations limited to the northern hemisphere. The play was translated into Arabic in Lebanon by Sohail Idris in the early 1960s and was seen in Egypt on the big screen under a different title in 1964. Though a small-budget affair, the credits for Thaman Al-Horreyah (The Price of Freedom) sported the names of some of the most prestigious and best known artists at the time. While Naguib Mahfouz provided the storyline, Lutfi El-Kholy and Tulba Radwan collaborated on the screenplay and Nur El-Dimirdash directed. The play was reset in Egypt, during the British occupation, and the film script stuck closely to the original, observing even the social status of the 6 captured citizens. Roblès’s Salas Ina, the prosperous businessman, became a rich local merchant; Arnaldo Lujan, the wood carver who makes the statues of the saints, became  a cart driver; Matilde remained the same: a mother with two small children she left alone at home while she went to market; Juan Salcedo Alvarez, the actor from Cádiz, became a foppish, tarbooshed  singer; Felisa, however, though still pretty and patriotic as in the original text, became more sober, more modest and less ravenous, and was caught humming a Sayed Darwish patriotic song; and Ricardo, the youth who only wants to know that Bolivar is safe, became a student whose brother, a member of the resistance, was killed by the British. Indeed, the striking similarity between the characters in Roblès’s play and in the Egyptian movie and the overpowering sense of the action’s at-homeness in the Egyptian setting explains why Montserrat, in Idris’s translation, is so frequently staged in the Arab world, particularly by university troupes, in adaptations that give it a local context, be it Tunisian, Moroccan, Syrian or Omani, and at the same time leads one to wonder how much of one’s popular culture, and cinema is certainly an important component of modern popular culture, is hybrid and has hidden streams that link it to the rest of the world.   

Curiously, in that same year (1964), the same moral dilemma faced by Mohamed El-Masry, the Egyptian Montserrat in The Price of Freedom, cropped up again, with a different twist, in a West German film, released on 30 June and entered into the 14th Berlin International Film Festival. In Die Zeit der Schuldlosen (Time of the Innocent), directed by Thomas Fantl – a survivor of the Holocaust and three concentration camps (Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Buchenwald) – who also co-wrote the screen play with German author Siegfried Lenz, another victim of National Socialism, 9 innocent citizens in a fictional dictatorship are randomly arrested and locked up with Sason, an underground freedom fighter who has made an attempt on the life of the ‘Governor’ and refuses to divulge the names of his accomplices in the conspiracy. The governor hopes the 9 citizens would succeed where torture failed; they are asked to cooperate with the regime, given a free hand to do with Sason what they think necessary to make him talk, and told they will not be released until they do. Eager to regain their freedom, the innocent 9 – who represent a cross-section of the population and are given general designations (Hotelier, Consul, student, farmer, etc.) rather than names – act exactly as the governor expects and bombard Sason with pitiful pleas, logical arguments, angry threats and even physical attacks, but he withstands all and remains steadfast. In the morning, he is found strangled where he slept.

The question of who did it does not arise until 4 years later, after the fall of the dictator, when the revolutionaries seize power and start hunting for the murderer of their comrade. The same 9 people are brought together again in a requisitioned villa – this time by the Revolution Party to which Sason once belonged – and are asked to find out the culprit. The student in the earlier part is discovered to have been all along a secret member of the Resistance and now acts as judge. After a long session of general questioning and cross-questioning, punctuated with fits of rage and mutual suspicions and accusations, they find a convenient solution and decide to offer the simplest amongst them, the ‘farmer’, as a scapegoat. But the cynical, skeptical ‘consul’, who has acted all along as an ironical commentator, objects and when he shoots himself the others are set free. This death, however, does not solve the mystery, for it is by no means certain that he is the guilty one. In his closing speech, the student says: ‘The offence is expiated, but the guilt will remain with all of us.’ Ultimately, no one is innocent and all are guilty of complicity by silence, abstention, or conformity.

Time of the Innocent was based on a stage play of the same name by Siegfried Lenz, published in 1961, and the play itself was a reworking, with minor changes, of a 2-part radio drama by the same author about collective guilt, broadcast in 1960 and ’61 as Time of the Innocent and Time of the Guilty. This radio play was originally conceived as a short story inspired by a Chinese fairy tale about 9 respectable men and an outcast caught in a storm and taking shelter in a temple. When the temple is threatened by flashes of lightening, they know a great sinner is among them. To find him out, they fall back on a superstitious belief and hang their straw hats on the gate, certain that the wind will first blow away the hat of the sinner. When the temple is finally struck by a thunder bolt, the 9 men are killed and only the outcast, the only righteous one in the bunch, survives. To think that such a simple tale could mutate into a 2-part radio drama, a 2-part stage play then a harrowing film! But this is not the end of the story.

Akram Mustafa, a gifted playwright, actor and director, frankly confesses that his recent play, Al-Abreyaa (The Innocent), currently on at Al-Tali’a, is a reworking, in the context of the current situation in Egypt, not only of Lenz’s Time of the Innocent, as noted in the bills, but also of The Price of Freedom movie and Roblès’s Montserrat. Consisting of 2 parts like Lenz’s play, and set in Egypt like The Price of Freedom, it opens just before the 25 January revolution in a grim, forbidding underground cell, where 11 innocent citizens, picked up at random by national security men, are brought to make a political dissenter reveal the names of the members of his secret revolutionary organization which seeks to topple Mubarak’s regime. The citizens are: a university professor (Hassan El-‘Adl); a woman gynaecologist (Fayza Kamal, in a most welcome return to the stage after a long absence); a university student (Yehia Mahmoud); a businessman and hotelier (Fikry Selim); a school teacher (Gamal Yusef); a Copt taxi-driver (Mohamed Yorka); a Copt bank manager (Mohamed Abdel Wahab), a woman journalist (Marwa ‘Eid), an uprooted peasant who does odd jobs to survive (El-Hasan Mohamed), and a bawdy female servant who systematically robs her employers, uses her job as a cover for and prostitution, and does some pimping on the side (Hanaa Sa’id). All the characters are thoroughly Egyptian, and so are their problems, concerns and language. The action in the first part is set in motion by the appearance of the brutally tortured revolutionary (Karim El-Husseini) and more or less follows the same routes delineated in Lenz’s play, except where sectarian tension between Muslims and Copts erupts, ending with the rebel murdered and the citizens released.

The 10-minute interval separating parts 1 and 2 was structurally used by director Ahmed Ibrahim to review by means of a stirring documentary photomontage prepared by Amr Abdalla (who also designed the sets, costumes and lighting) all the painful events, setbacks and power-struggles that followed the Egyptian revolution up to the present moment, and thereby project the second part into an imagined future, 4 years hence. In that fictional future, Akram Mustafa hopefully tells us, Egypt will have a liberal leadership that has a large number of Copts and represents all the colours of the ideological rainbow, all working together in perfect harmony. When the student of the first part appears as a representative of the new regime, he is closely accompanied by a bearded man (Ashraf Saleh) with a pronounced zibeeba ( a callus developed by rubbing the forehead hard on a rough prayer rug) – clear emblems of the Islamists.

This bright picture, however, soon gathers shadows as the words of the new liberal leader and his Islamist assistant betray a hidden tension between them and a residue of dogmatism; and the shadows thicken as the investigation and interrogation of the 11 citizens proceed, yielding many shameful revelations. We learn that the university professor has been a dope addict for over 20 years; the gynaecologist is making a fortune out of abortions and patching up ruptured hymens; the school-teacher is a child molester; the journalist was blackmailed by the security apparatus of the former regime into becoming a spy and infiltrating revolutionary cells and was afterwards appointed the head of a TV channel as a reward; the bank manager had assisted members of the former regime to smuggle their ill-begotten gains abroad; the hotelier damns the revolution and preaches against; the taxi-driver is still as fanatical and suspicious of his Muslim compatriots as before; and the needy peasant has been reduced to prostitution. Even the former student/now member of the ruling revolutionary council confesses that he let the murdered revolutionary suffer rather than confess to being his accomplice in the plot to overthrow the regime. Only the maid has been changed by the revolution and given up thieving and selling her body.

The ironical contrast between the bright surface picture in the second part and the corrupt reality underneath it is accentuated by the deliberately artificial-looking, studiedly colourful and brilliantly-lit scene of the investigation, which represents a clean, beautiful, martyrs’ cemetery, shaded by greenery, with white tombstones carrying the names of real Egyptian martyrs killed in the past 2 years. The investigation yields nothing but ugly revelations and the professor, unlike his counterpart, the consul, in Lenz’s play, does not shoot himself. The play ends quietly, with no melodramatic gunshot. The character withdraw, and for a few seconds, we are left with only the tombstones staring at us accusingly, as if saying, in the words of director Ahmed Ibrahim in the printed programme: ‘The martyrs did not die this. Our whole society is sick and every one of us has a black spot hidden somewhere.’

If the play has a message, it is that toppling a corrupt regime does not automatically uproot corruption; that real, fundamental change can only be brought about if we face up to the fact that we all have been corrupted by it, in one way or another, stop condemning the others and exempting ourselves, and confess to being guilty of complicity by silence, abstention, or conformity. This was the message of Lenz’s play. And it is also the message here, and the author is the first to practice what he preaches, confessing in the play’s programme: ‘When I look in my mirror, I am certain of my guilt. But when faced by the others, I desperately defend myself, admitting no charge.’


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