Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

An apology for Islam

Nehad Selaiha has divided feelings about a new play that seeks to distance Islam from terrorism

An apology for Islam
An apology for Islam
Al-Ahram Weekly

With so many bloody raids, ambushes, explosions and suicide bombings round the world claiming dozens of innocent lives, the latest of which took place in Brussels last week, and with the unceasing avalanche of horrific news stories and images of atrocities committed by radical Islamic militants, one wonders if drama can at present grapple with such a thorny issue as terrorism with any degree of artistic objectivity and whether it is at all possible to portray the perpetrators of such massacres as other than demonised symbols of inhuman brutality. And yet, this is exactly what a new one-act play at Al-Tali’a pretends to do. 

Entitled Al-Halal, a word that at once means in religious jargon ‘that which is lawful’ and points to the setting of the drama in Jabal Al-Halal – a rocky mountain in the middle of Sinai that has become a major hideout for militant Islamic factions, mainly hardline Wahabist  groups, in recent years, the play (written by Ashraf Hosni and directed by Mohamed Ibrahim) features two nameless jihadists in a cave in mount Halal, just back from a terrorist attack and waiting for orders to execute another. They are deliberately left nameless to represent all jihadists everywhere. While one kneels in prayer, thanking the Lord for their success and frenziedly invoking His wrath on all infidels, the other, who it turns out is a new recruit, is sickened and appalled by the reality of the ‘holy war’ to which he has pledged himself. 

The attempts of the veteran Jihadist (Magdi Rashwan) to soothe the relatively new recruit (Mohamed Salah Adam) and quell his doubts triggers a heated argument between the two, formerly medical students, over the lawfulness of the use of violence in fighting for one’s beliefs. This, in turn, quickly leads to a critical exposition of such beliefs as are reportedly common among all Islamic Jihadist groups, particularly those that damn all their opponents as infidels, sanction the massacre of non Muslims and the plundering/destruction of their possessions, advocate  sexual jihad among Muslim women (i.e., the voluntary offering of themselves in sexual comfort roles to men fighting for the establishment of Islamic rule) and condone the sexual enslavement of non Muslim ones. Such beliefs are at once condemned on humanitarian grounds and discredited by carefully selected quotations from the Quran. Indeed, to further bolster the anti-jihadist position of the play in other than verbal terms, the author introduces the figure of a sexually enslaved female, ironically called ‘Zahra’ (flower), showing her as completely wilted and thoroughly dehumanised, submitting robot-like to her outrageous violation. 

To humanise the two jihadists and build them into credible, lifelike characters, the play offers some glimpses of their past lives in the form of memories, graphically recalled or re-enacted, and these memories are brought into play to shed light on the present attitudes of both parties and help to propel the conflict to a climax. The appearance of ‘Zahra’ (played by Noha Al-Adl) awakens romantic longings in the mind of the younger jihadist, conjuring up the phantom of his beloved who materialises in the flesh on stage, in the figure of an angelic looking dancer (Rahma), all dressed in white. The two perform a gentle lovey-dovey dance to the tunes of a popular love song by Um Kulthum. The tender love-making expressed in this dance, which Islamists would condemn as ‘haram’ (unlawful), is meant to stand in sharp contrast with the beastly copulation taking place inside the cave between ‘Zahra’ and the older jihadist, which the same Islamists would consider ‘halal’ (lawful). But while the message implicit in the contrast is quite obvious, it is never made clear to us why the younger jihadist deserted his love and former life for a jihadist career. In another scene, when told that their next mission is to blow up a school run by Copts, the younger jihadist remembers a teacher at that school he used to know and the phantom of that teacher rises before his eyes (and ours) in the figure of actor Hassan Noah to speak of teaching children as a sacred vocation. But again, this memory, while it juxtaposes the teacher’s noble mission with that of the terrorists and intensifies the horror at the prospective bombing of the school, does not help to clarify the conversion question, and we are left to conjecture that the younger jihadist, like many innocent, idealistic, ignorant youths, was simply deluded by the high-sounding ideas and bewitching slogans of jihadi preachers.

The conversion of the older jihadist, on the other hand, is clearly explained: he was unjustly arrested and brutally tortured by the state security apparatus on suspicion of involvement in subversive activities. Actor Magdi Rashwan makes quite a meal of the memory of torture, graphically reproducing it in vivid physical details that suggest such horrors as electric shocks and rape. Such an explanation while dramatically plausible can hardly be called original. It has been strained by overuse in movies since the 1980s (The Jacobean Building jumps to mind in this respect) and seems here quite timeworn and hackneyed. Worse still, at the end of the torture-recollection scene, Rashwan startles us by suddenly laughing it all off as pure invention, a mere figment of his fertile imagination! Baffled and disconcerted by this abrupt volte-face, I applied to one of the director’s assistants for enlightenment and at once the mystery was clarified: the ministry of interior while approving the anti-terrorist thrust of the show to the extent of offering to host it at the Police Academy and other police congregations as a morale booster and vindication of their war on terror, objected to the reference to police brutality. Rather than expunge the whole scene, which would have deprived Rashwan of his dramatic justification as character and his master scene as actor, the director opted for this absurd turnabout as the lesser of two evils, hoping, perhaps, that it will pass unnoticed, or that the very force of the acting would discredit its veracity. The main thing was that the interior ministry was pacified.

The characterisation of ‘Zahra’, the sexually enslaved female, is even vaguer and shoddier than that of the two jihadists. We first see her completely veiled, meekly obeying orders and declaring that she is at the beck and call of the jihadists. We naturally take her to be a Muslim sexual volunteer. In her second and last scene, she appears veil-less, and we learn from her conversation with the younger jihadist that she has been forcefully enslaved and has submitted to her fate in despair. At one embarrassing moment in the scene, she seems to be making love to the young jihadist, telling him that he reminds her of a man she once loved. When questioned about her past and family, she answers that she has no one and gives no details. Urged to fly, she is at first reluctant, not knowing where to go, but she finally takes the leap. 

Weak and insipid as a character, ‘Zahra’ is, however, useful in carrying the play to its climax. Her flight, which the younger jihadist confesses to having instigated and assisted, coupled with his obstinate refusal to obey orders and take part in the school-bombing operation brings the conflict to a head and the younger jihadist is sentenced to death as a traitor. He is to die by the hand of his friend, the older jihadist, who, after a brief, frantic attempt to save him by lying to the ‘Emir’, or leader of the group, submits to orders and acts the executioner. The younger jihadist does not resist; he kneels down serenely, in a halo of light on the darkened stage, as if in prayer; he welcomes death as atonement for the crimes he committed, forgives his executioner and even pities him, and is only too grateful that he will die in his beloved homeland and be buried in its earth. He winds up with a rhapsodic hymn to Egypt that ends with the rousing cry that though it may kill thousands, terrorism can never destroy Egypt. All the while, the older jihadist stands behind the kneeling figure, raising a knife over his head, ready to slit his throat, vividly reproducing in this visual composition what has become an iconic image of ISIS executions. When the knife finally descends and sweeps across the throat of the kneeling man, the stage is blacked out and a famous recording of Sheikh Mohamed Metwali Al-Shaarawi in praise of Egypt blares out in a voice-over. Other recordings of Sheikh Al-Shaarawi and other well-known enlightened religious figures and moderate preachers are played at the beginning and in the course of the play, and the sound score, designed by the director himself, also includes religious chants, anthems, a love song, atmospheric sound effects and incidental music. 

Director Mohamed Ibrahim, who, I am told, has firsthand experience of terrorist groups and has studied Islam and the Quran, also ‘worked’ on the text of the play, even though it won a top award in an Arab literary contest. Not having read the play in print, I can only guess at his contribution, which I think mainly consisted in frequently lacing the classical Arabic of the original with colloquial words and phrases to make the dialogue more lively and bring it closer to the audience, and in training his actors to use the rhythms and modulations of colloquial speech in speaking their classical Arabic lines. This, unfortunately, did not guard against a certain tendency to vocal and physical extravagance and ostentatious display in the case of Rashwan, or a certain self-important woodenness and histrionic pomposity in the delivery of Adam. Both actors, however, performed with energy and conviction, which cannot be said of poor Al-Adl who had not even the outline of a character to work on.  

Heba Abdel-Hamid’s impressive realistic set of a cave in a rocky mountain range, with a footpath on one side, leading out and upwards, was carefully lighted by the director in shades of yellow, white, blue and red of different intensities to suit the different moods and evocatively frame special moments. Her costume designs however were quite uneven – perfectly suited to the two jihadists but oddly fanciful in the case of women. While dressing ‘Zahra’ in garish pink with a knitted white veil that covers her head and face and drapes down over her shoulders and chest, she decked out the dancer Rahma in a white, seductively revealing evening dress. But perhaps Rahma’s costume was inspired by Samah Mubareh’s sensuous choreography of her dance with the younger jihadist.

  As a play, Al-Halal may be dramatically weak and faulty; but it deals with a hotly topical issue and bravely attempts to dissociate true Islam, as the makers of the show perceive it, from the terrorist acts committed in its name. It advocates a moderate Islam that values human life, respects other faiths and embraces love and beauty. That it fails to present credible characters, lacks intellectual complexity and depth and often sounds preachy is perhaps inevitable, given the urgent topicality, immediate relevance and pervasive media coverage of its subject. Plays featuring terrorists and murder on ideological grounds have been around since 1979 at least, when Naguib Mahfouz published his one-act play The Mountain. There have also been numerous movies that dealt with terrorism in different ways and for different ends.  No previous film or play however has dedicated itself solely and so whole-heartedly to defending Islam against the charge that it engenders terrorism; and Al-Halal performed its self-appointed task with passionate sincerity, single-minded concentration and unwavering directness. In this lies its strength as an apology for Islam and its weakness as a drama. 

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