Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

From memory to myth

Nehad Selaiha hails the revival of a 2004 one-woman show that has proved a gut prophecy of the 25 January Revolution

Matahat Al-Zakirah
Matahat Al-Zakirah
Al-Ahram Weekly

Osiris Art Production and Training, Cairo’s latest independent performing arts studio, seems set to become one of the most exciting theatrical spaces in Egypt and a favourite haunt for young, adventurous artists as well as audiences looking for offbeat theatrical experiences and artistic events. Though it has been around for a year (it was founded in January 2015 by director Omar Al-Moataz Bellah in a multi-purpose flat in Garden City as a venue for performances, rehearsals, workshops, book-signings, talks, poetry-readings, etc.), I did not get to visit it till late last December when it hosted an acting workshop conducted by Nora Amin. Entitled Matahat Al-Zakirah (Labyrinths of Memory), the workshop used the personal memories of the participants as material, emotional trigger and gateway into the psyche and resulted in an original and exciting interactive performance that played four times on 30 and 31 December.

In this work, the whole flat (its four rooms, entrance hall and kitchen, plus a wall storage cupboard) was used as performance space, or, rather, was recreated into a network of small, separate performance spaces, each labeled with a title, occupied by one of the actors and simply fitted up and lighted to suit the memories revived and relived there. After a hushed, communal ritual, in which the audience met all the actors in the softly lit entrance hall, were addressed by them individually in whispers and offered sweets and nuts, the actors retired and the members of the audience took turns visiting all the rooms individually, in a certain order jotted on a card handed out to them at the beginning of the tour. Shut in alone with each of the actors in turn, listening to him or her and engaging in an intimate exchange of memories, each member of the audience becomes actively involved in shaping the encounter. At the end of the tour, the performance is neither more nor less than the cumulative experiences each of us has helped to create in collaboration with the actors along the way. Within two days of travelling through Nora Amin’s Labyrinths, precisely on 2 January 2016, I was back again at Osiris, walking once more all over the flat, which this time was furnished differently and wore a completely dissimilar aspect. The occasion was a site-specific production of Naguib Mahfouz’s 1969 one-act play Al Nagaa (rendered as ‘The Rescue’ in a published 1989 translation of the play but translated as ‘Deliverance’ in this production’s English publicity sheet), directed by Mahmoud Sayed (which I extensively reviewed in Issue 1277, “Revisiting a Mahfouz play”).

At the beginning of February, after a month of theatrical drought, where a tiny sprinkling of shows seemed viciously designed to put one off theatre for life, Osiris hosted a revival Hadd Rayeh Safheti? (Going to My Page?) – a one-woman show, written, designed, directed and performed by Reem Hegab. I had seen that show back in 2004, when it was first presented at Al-Hanager Centre, and all I could recall of it were a few dim images. I remembered it started in the foyer, with Hegab suddenly bursting in upon the audience gathered there, shouting something at us and sweeping us along with her into the theatre where she mounted the stage. Nothing else. I don’t think it made much of an impression on me at the time, or I would have remembered more of it. I could not understand why Hegab, who has substantially developed and matured as an artist in the intervening years, giving us a mesmerising performance in Mohsen Hilmi’s production of Rasha Faltas’s monodrama, Paranoia, at Al-Hanager last year (see my review in Issue 1249 “Blasted with ecstasy”) wanted to revive that old piece. In short, I went to Osiris in early February little expecting the stunning surprise that awaited me there.

Watching My Page at Osiris, I was amazed at the way time and history could invest an old show new meaning and transform it into a stunning prophecy of a later, cataclysmic historical event that still resonates in the present. In an article entitled ‘Changing contexts of reception’, published on this page on 19 September, 2013, I said that ‘though it has long been acknowledged that the socio-political context of a performance shapes in some degree its making and reception, what has not been sufficiently stressed is the extent to which socio-political reality impinges on and influences the reception/interpretation of dramatic texts and performances in countries that suffer, or have recently suffered totalitarian regimes.’ Whether Egypt has rid itself of such a stigma remains an open question and is not the point here. The point is that viewed in 2016, in the socio-political context of post-revolutionary Egypt, Going My Page?, which had seemed like a string of disconnected poetic ramblings in 2004, was amazingly transfigured in this revival into a clear, accurate, prophetic description of what happened in Tahrir Square during the 25 January revolution and what has been happening since. Of course, knowing that Hegab took an active part in that revolution, believes that it has not yet fulfilled its goals and is, therefore, an ardent supporter of the slogan ‘the revolution continues’, helped to contextualise my reading of this revival of My Page.

Another crucial influence on my reception of My Page, which made it seem more like a new, developed version of the old show, was the new setting, atmosphere and visuals that gave the performance a dream-like quality and made it come across as a ritualistic reenactment, complete with cakes and candles, of an ancient myth or fairytale. The performance was set in the two connected rooms in the Osiris flat, with the wall-to-wall door between them removed to form a larger, rectangular space that held the audience and performer in close proximity. On one side, a wall-to-wall mirror faced the audience ranged on rows of wooden chairs with a long, narrow aisle between them. In front of the mirror, a row of stools, with lighted candles in glass holders underneath, formed a small platform. At the opposite end, behind the last row of seats, stood a narrower raised platform, carrying a chair and a lantern on top. On that chair Hegab crouched, shrouded in darkness and unseen by us as we filed into the softly lit space and took our seats. Two more stools, placed midway between the rows of seats, on either side of the room, completed the set.

Our first glimpse of Hegab was as a dim reflection in the mirror facing us, like a phantom or an unearthly being suddenly materialising out of darkness. Dressed in a white shroud, like a corpse wrapped up for burial, or just raised from the dead, and holding her lantern, she slowly advanced up the aisle, speaking to us and gazing deep into our eyes. The lamp and the shroud at once created an ironical visual paradox, joining the image of ‘The Living Dead’ with the iconic image of Florence Nightingale as ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, making rounds of wounded soldiers at night. The latter image qualifies the former: the living-dead figure here is not a bloodthirsty zombie as in George A. Romero’ 1968 movie of that name, but a kindly, caring spirit.

The verbal text that follows partakes of the same poetic energy, reflecting a rich imagination that draws on legend and literature, history and folklore, and transmutes memory into myth. Cast in the form of a narrative/ confessional dramatic monologue, it begins with the narrator introducing herself as a fictional character that has fallen out of a story book into a prison and is trying to regain the page where she belongs. She further identifies herself as the legendary Joan of Arc and addresses the audience as fellow fictional characters that have similarly lost their pages and joined her in her prison in some unknown country. As in the world of legends and fairytales, time and place are undefined; place could be anywhere and time is insignificant. What matters, we are told, are letters and words which are, in fact, actions and deeds. Unlike many Egyptian poets who, following Hamlet’s example, often contrast words and deeds, Hegab annuls the distinction between them. “The progress of the letter on the page is a step in place and time,” she tells us.

And just as the image of the Living Dead merged with that of The Lady with the Lamp, the figure of Joan of Arc, the indomitable warrior, soon merges with that of Rahma (Mercy), the patient, long-suffering, faithful wife of Job in the Egyptian folk legend Ayyoub El-Masri, or the Egyptian Job – a symbol of self-sacrifice and peaceful resistance. Hegab identifies herself as Rahma, describing her as a simple Egyptian peasant of indefinable age (she could be ‘nine, nineteen, or twenty-nine, depending on the number of the page you are reading’) and religion (her mother taught her ‘Our Father which art in heaven’ and Ave Maria, Surat Al-Fatihah and other verses of the Quran’ besides songs, proverbs and many household and farming skills).

This part of the monologue serves as a kind of introduction; the story that follows tells of the struggle of the story-teller (as Joan of Arc/Rahma) against her enemies/oppressors/jailers, who are called vicious bugs, said to resemble the seeds of unripe melons and nicknamed ‘Fasafees’ (pustules). In speaking of this enemy, Hegab uses the phrase Al-Lahw Al-Khafi (literally, ‘he who is invisible’) – a phrase that was jocularly used in the year immediately following the 25 January Revolution to refer to that mysterious agent on whom the ruling military council blamed all the deaths in the riots that took place. Whether this invisible internal enemy that went secretly around destroying everything was manipulated by the supporters of the toppled regime, popularly dubbed Felool (remnants), or by the military council in authority, or the security apparatus to convince the people of the need for their remaining in power to preserve law and order is still unclear. However, the mere mention of Al-Lahw Al-Khafi in Going to My Page immediately links, in the audience’s minds, the struggle of Joan of Arc against her enemies in Hegab’s monologue to the 25 January Revolt against Mubarak’s regime.

This link is corroborated by the rest of the monologue which seems to trace in metaphoric terms, in the form and style of a folktale that involves a king, a rebellion, betrayal and defeat, the course of the 25 January Revolution. Indeed, at many points in the show, particularly when the fighting between the heroine and the ‘Fasafees’ vividly recalls the confrontation between the demonstrators and the armed security forces in Tahrir Square during the 25 January uprising and later in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, fiction melts into fact and myth becomes memory. This was certainly true in Hegab’s case at least. What she wrote in 2004 as a personal wish-fulfillment myth, she lived through as fact in 2011 and was reliving as memory in this performance in 2016. Indeed, acting is not a word to be used in connection with this kind of theatrical experience; performing memory would be more accurate, and Hegab’s performing memory cast a spell on all present, drawing them inside its charmed circle.  To achieve this, she drew on her rich vocal, physical, emotional and cultural resources, tuning her voice to fit the different moods and emotions and drawing on the poetry of movement and body memory she has mastered as a dancer to invest the words with subtle shades and nuances and visually communicate what cannot be verbally expressed, even in poetry. Confined to a narrow aisle between rows of seats and a few stools on either side, Hegab’s movement showed no signs of strain but rather gained in intensity and expressive energy.  

Hegab’s poignant, poetic narrative has no happy ending. However, it ends on a hopeful, defiant note. The struggle will continue; the voices that had gone silent are back, giving her courage to continue the revolution. Other voices too, from other pages in the story book, urge her to face her trial bravely and carry on the struggle. Though, as the mythical Rahma (Mercy), she prefers peaceful resistance; as Joan of Ark, she knows it is futile. When Hegab cries near the end of the monologue: ‘I need a weapon, yes, I need a weapon though I love white banners more than firearms’,  one remembers that she was in Tahrir Square when peaceful demonstrations turned into fire and blood.

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