Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Invitation to madness

Nehad Selaiha sees method in madness in a revival of a 1970s play at Al-Tali’a

Al-Ahram Weekly

The phenomenon of the writer/director that has dominated the theatre scene in Egypt since the mid 1980s, both in mainstream theatre and on the fringe, particularly among independent theatre-makers, can be traced back to the work of a few prominent figures in the history of the Egyptian theatre. It started with Ya’coub Sannu’ in the late 19th Century, was consolidated by Yusef Wahbi in the inter-war period and was revived by Raafat El-Dweri in the 1970s after it had completely disappeared during the 1950s and ‘60s when the emergence of a generation of prominent dramatists led to a strict segregation of the two jobs. Though El-Dweri started his career in theatre as a professional director, joining the Pocket theatre in 1962 and staging many plays by other writers in the provinces under the auspices of the Mass Culture Organization (later rechristened the Cultural Palaces), he took up playwriting in the early 1970’s, producing over the 2 following decades a string of experimental texts which he himself mostly directed. In them, he developed a distinctive dramatic style that relies on archetypal themes and symbols, merges aspects of expressionism and surrealism with religious and magical rituals as well as folk tales and songs, and draws on ancient mythology and literary sources, both local and Western.

Written by a director of long experience, it is no wonder that in print El-Dweri’s plays read like detailed performance scripts, with plentiful, meticulous stage directions often forming a parallel text that complements and visually contextualizes the dialogue. Over the years he has produced an impressive corpus of works consisting of over a dozen long plays and half a dozen short ones; these include: Shakespeare in the Ataba District (1976); Qittah bi Saba’ Terwah (A Cat with Seven Lives) 1983; Wiladah Muta’asira (A Difficult Birth), 1986; Thalath Waraqat (3 Cards), 1987; Mit’alaq min ‘Arqubu (Strung up by the Ankle), 1991, Bada’e Al-Fahlawan (Al-Fahlawan’s Wonders), 1998; Khoyool El-Nil (Horses of the Nile) and Khoyool Al-Khayal (Horses of the Imagination), a 2-part play published in 2002, but written much earlier; Bein Narein (A Choice of Hells), 2006; Al-Tawhidi Ghareeban fi Watanihi (An Exile in his own Country) and Al-Tawhidi min Ghorba ila Ghorba (From one Exile to Another), a play in 2 parts about the 10th Century Arab thinker Abu Hayyan Al-Tawhidi, 2008; and Kawabees Leilet El-Dokhla (Wedding Night Nightmares), 2011. Diverse in plot and temporal/spatial setting, the plays have certain recurrent themes, namely: the individual’s suffering, loneliness and sense of alienation in a hostile world; the social and political oppression of the majority at the hands of a powerful, corrupt minority; the power of the imagination, of dreams and the collective memory to transcend the boundaries of time and reality; and the presence of the past as an active force in the present.

El-Dweri’s first dramatic venture, Kafr Al-Tanahudat (Hamlet of Sighs) – a play in 2 parts, first staged by the author himself in the provinces in 1971, but usually performed afterwards as 2 separate plays – clearly reflects the thematic and technical features of his dramaturgy. In the first part, Al Waghish (The Pest), which centers on the theme of revenge, El-Dweri draws at once on Greek mythology and Arabic folk literature. The legend of Electra and Orestes, as treated by Aeschylus in The Libation Bearers (or Choephori), the second play of his Oresteia trilogy, and by Sophocles and Euripides in their Electra plays, is reset in Upper Egypt, where much of the culture and many of the traditions and metaphysical assumptions are similar to those in ancient Greece, and merged with the famous 6th century Arabic Epic of Adi, popularly known as Al-Zir Salem, which traces the origins and progress of the bloody conflict between the Taghlib and Bakr clans in pre-Islamic Arabia, known as al-Basus War – a war that purportedly lasted for forty years, from 494-534 CE. In the Arabic epic, the cycle of vengeance is triggered by the murder of King Kulaib bin Rabi’a, who belongs to the Taghlib tribe, at the hands of Gassas, the head of the Bakr tribe and brother of his wife Galila. When Galila is suspected of collusion in the murder, she smuggles her only son, Hagras, to distant lands and takes refuge with her tribe, leaving behind her daughter, Al-Yamama. Traumatized by the murder and crazed with grief, the dead king’s brother, El-Zir Salem (a poet and warrior whose real name was Adi bin Rabi’a and is said to have died in 531 CE), swears to exterminate the whole Bakr tribe. Al-Yamama, infected by his vengeful passion, longs for the return of her brother, Hagras, to kill Gassas with his own hands and take his father’s place as king.

 In El-Dweri’s play, Al-Yamama and Electra merge in the character of Morra (the bitter one) and, as in the Greek legend, it is she, rather than her mother, who saves the life of her young brother, Orestes/Hagras, by sending him away when their father is murdered. Though Morra’s mother and murdering uncle keep the names of their counterparts in the Arabic epic, they are no longer brother and sister and are modeled on Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus in the Greek myth. When the long absent Hagras returns, he is accompanied by a friend, like the Greek Orestes, and the meeting between brother and sister proceeds very much along the same lines as in Aeschylus’s Choephori and Sophocles’s Electra. However, El-Dweri’s Hagras, unlike his Greek and Arabic prototypes, is a modern, educated man who rejects the vendetta tradition, still rife in Upper Egypt, and renounces the role of the avenging son. Instead, he gives the familiar story a new political slant by assuming the role of a revolutionary and leading the ruthlessly repressed and exploited village people in rebellion against the tyranny of Gassas and his gang. The villagers, however, cannot sustain the rebellion for long; they are too poor, too ignorant and too used to obedience and submission to resist the authority, bribes and brutality of Gassas’a men, or the reprobation of the hectoring Imam of the village mosque in his pay. The play ends with Morra taking matters into her own hands and stabbing Gassas and being stabbed in return by his henchmen. Though the dialogue and characterization are realistic and the action is punctuated with folkloric songs and dances and ancient rituals, like the ritual of visiting the dead on feast days, the stage directions suggest a fluid, dreamlike set that represents a whole village nestling in the shadow of a high burial ground, with the lighting and simple motifs indicating the different locations. Such a set was necessary to accommodate Morra’s nightmarish memories of the old crime which keep intruding on the present in the form of silent, shadowy scenes floating in the darkness under a spotlight.


The second part of Kafr Al-Tanahudat, entitled Al Muhaqiq allazi Faqad ‘Aqloh li Yastareda Ziluh (The Investigator who Lost his Mind to Recover his Shadow), begins where the first part left off, with minor alterations: though Gassas is dead, Morra is not, and we know that, like Electra in Euripides’s play, she had been coerced by Gassas into marrying a poor, ignorant peasant; also, while Hagras is nowhere to be seen and Galila insists he can never be found because he died at the age of two, his friend is still around and confirms his existence. The trial of Orestes which forms the third part of Aeschylus’s take on the House of Agamemnon myth is here replaced by the second best thing: the investigation of a murder and the search for the prime suspect, Hagras. Opening as a typical whodunit, with the arrival of an examining magistrate from the capital to investigate the murder of Gassas, the village chief, Al Muhaqiq soon upsets our expectations, inverting the form, as it were, by introducing one self-confessed murderer after another, all eager to substantiate their claims by explaining their motives. The confessions of the main suspects – Morra, whose motive was revenge for the murder of her father, and Hammam, her husband, whom Gassas always forced to marry his rape-victims and castoff mistresses – are followed by those of the village undertaker, who often saw the dead man desecrating the burial ground by sleeping with women there; the village idiot, who was harassed into madness by the dead man; the local singer, whom the dead man often mocked and publicly humiliated; and the village ghaziyya (belly dancer) and prostitute, who was forced into the profession after losing her honour at the hands of the dead man.

Curiously, around the same time Al-Muhaqiq was written, the same situation, where a host of people confess to a murder, crops up in a full-length play by Lenin El-Ramly, originally called Meen Qatal Bora’ie? (Who Killed Bora’ie?), but staged by Galal El-Sharqawi in 1974 under the more commercial title Innahum Yaqtuloon Al-Hameer (They Kill Donkeys) presumably to cash in on the popularity of the 1969 American movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which, when shown in Cairo, was billed in Arabic as Innahum Yaqtuloon (meaning ‘kill’ rather than ‘shoot’) Al-Giyad. In the two plays, however, the situation is developed differently and leads to different denouements. In El-Dweri’s play, the individual confessions lead to a collective one when the whole village population surrounds the house where the investigation is taking place, all shouting ‘I am the murderer of Gassas’. At this point, the investigator, who, as we learn from some remarks dropped in the course of the play and from his confrontation with the ghaziyya,  had selfishly cut off his ties with his humble origins in that self-same village, had heartlessly deserted his old love, the ghaziyya, driving her into the arms of Gassas, had sold his principles to climb up the social ladder and entered into a loveless match with the daughter of his boss for purely mercenary reasons and to further his career, discovers what a cad he had been all along and under the weight of the revelation loses his mind, or, rather, his cold, materialistic reason and worldly wisdom. When he had his ‘mind’, he, like the devil, had no shadow, was inhuman. When he loses it, he regains his humanity, and this is symbolized by his ripping off his suit to reveal a peasant’s attire underneath. The play ends with the investigator who has lost his mind and recovered his shadow joining the masses in rebellion against tyranny and corruption and shouting frantically: ‘I am the one who killed Gassas’.


In the recent revival of Al Muhaqiq at Al-Tali’a theatre, director Emil Shawqi used the text to comment on the political scene in post-revolutionary Egypt, satirize the current regime, and affirm that the revolution has far from ended and has to go on until it achieves its real goals. To realize this, he made some minor changes in the text, with the approval of the author, peppering it with topical references and allusions. The changes brought the play very close to the present, making the investigation seem like an ironical metaphoric portrayal of the feverish eagerness of every political faction in Egypt during the past two years to claim for itself alone the honour of having brought down Mubarak, This meaning, however, soon gives way to another, equally relevant to the present, when, in a new final scene added by the director, the shrouded body of the murdered Gassas, which has lain in full view throughout the investigation, evoking the figure of Mubarak on a gurney, as seen on television during the trials, suddenly disappears (hence the title ‘Without a Trance’). This is angrily taken by the characters as an annulment of the revolutionary act of bringing down Gassas/Mubarak and an omen that he will come back (has indeed come back?) in another, more sinister, form. Upon this, all the cast and extras join in a choral chant that vows to kill the likes of Gassas in whatever form or guise, shouting ‘we will kill you’ over and over as a child unfurls the flag of Egypt.

Crucial to the impact of this show was the mode of directing chosen by Emil Shawqi. While keeping the framework of a realistic detective drama, he opted for a small, intimate hall, rather than a traditional theatre, and had his set designer, Naser Abdel-Hafiz, dress it to look like a typical visitors room in a village in Upper Egypt, with wooden, high-backed benches on two sides for the audience, a prominent zir (a large, semi-conical earthenware jar on an iron stand for storing water) in one corner, kerosene lamps and wicker baskets on the walls, and plaid scrap rugs everywhere. In this cozy, intimate atmosphere, we, the audience, really felt at home, like old friends invited to participate in an exciting event. This,  together with Karim Arafa’s and Sam Emil’s catchy tunes and vibrant music, Kawthar Mustafa’s and Isam Hammam’s incisive lyrics, Izzat Abu Senna’s group and solo folkloric dances, and the general style of the acting – a cabaret-style, typical of the revue, which allowed the actors plenty of room for adlibbing and on-the-spot improvisation – soon transformed the performance into the nearest thing to a festive communal entertainment, on the model of the indigenous, popular theatrical form called El-Samer, where dramatic illusion gives way to open theatricality and the barriers between the fictional reality inhabited by the actors and the daily reality experienced by the audience pales out, allowing constant cross-referencing between the two.

The structure of the play helped in this respect. Consisting of a series of interviews in each of which the floor is given to a single character to make her/his case, the play could easily transform into a series of numbers showcasing individual performers. And the performers in this case made the most of this structure, eagerly catching at the opportunity to display their wit and talent, using their individual slots to maximum effect, and vying with each other in making pointed satirical comments on the present and shooting barbed quips, stinging gibes and jeering taunts at the ruling party and the current government.

In this kind of performance, where satire is the ruling spirit, the mood is decidedly carnivalesque, and all the main parts are nearly equal and even the smallest, silent ones count in the general effect, the director has to pick his actors carefully and make them really enjoy what they are doing. In this respect, Emil Shawqi surpassed my expectations. With the exception of Magdi Fikry (who played the investigator) all the actors were either relatively newcomers to the stage, or virtually unknown to the general public. And yet, they all entered into the spirit of the show, performing with zest and infectious energy and creating memorable vignettes. The ones who had individual slots made a meal of them. Abeer El-Tokhi, (as Morra) played with passion and conviction, balancing with her staid seriousness the bubbling hilarity of the rest; Abdallah El-Sharqawi (as her husband), though ridiculous and pathetic, declaimed his part with proper melodramatic gusto; Samiha Abdel-Hadi rendered Galila as a sly, steely woman and imaginatively tinkered with the keening and wailing scene, burlesquing it delightfully and raising a storm of laughter; Nageh Na’eem managed to turn the undertaker into a kind of peeping tom, suggesting that despite his squeamish, sanctimonious exterior and pronouncements, he did in fact enjoy watching sex among the tombs; Murad Fikry (as the singer) made the character ridiculously foppish and came across as an impressive standup comedian; Hassan El-Arabi made the village idiot into a singing, dancing wise fool; and Nihad Sa’id (as the ghaziyya) was captivatingly beautiful and elegantly graceful and made the character proud, forceful and dignified.


Two actors had the taxing task of remaining on the scene all thrugh the play, mostly silent, or interjecting a few words, and generally playing audience to the rest and reacting to their individual performances. These were Magdi Fikry, as the investigator, and Hani Al-Nabulsi, as Bassas, Gassas’s private eye (as his name indicates), and both played up to each other, forming a delightful contrapuntal duette. While Fikry was quiet, restrained, aloof and tense, Al-Nabulsi was loud, loquacious, vexingly officious and unbridled. But while Fikry had a master scene at the end in which to let rip and rage all over the place, and which makes his previous terseness a kind of preparation for this final explosion, Al-Nabulsi had none. From first to last, his part was simply that of a foolish, noisome meddler. And yet, he created out of this poor material a memorable performance. His boundless energy and overwhelming presence, his body language, broad voice and vocal techniques vividly reminded me of the late, great Salah Mansour, particularly in Hussein Kamal’s The Postman (1968) and Salah Abu Seif’s The Second Wife (1967) – two of the greatest classics of Egyptian cinema. I think this actor will go far; if he does, it will be thanks to Al-Muhaqiq.

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