Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A pilgrim’s progress

Nehad Selaiha partakes of a mystical spiritual journey at Al-Tali’a theatre

A pilgrim’s progress
A pilgrim’s progress
Al-Ahram Weekly

Al-Insan Al-Tayeb (The Good Person), written and directed by Said Soliman, Salah Abdel-Sabour Hall, Al-Taliaa  theatre, 10 April-May, 2016.

Over the years, writer and director Said Soliman has developed a distinctive theatrical blend of expressionism, Sufism, folklore and ritual. His latest work, Al-Insan Al-Tayeb (The Good Person), lately staged at Al-Taliaa theatre (where it ran for over six weeks), is a prime example of this blend and shows it at its best. As in most of his earlier fifteen productions, starting with Al-Sarkhah (The Scream) in 1989, folklore and ritual are not used here as decorative elements, nor indeed as socially integrative tools to consolidate, validate and cement the heritage of the past and its authority structures and project them symbolically into the future, as they have been used in scores of plays. Rather, they are manipulated in such a way as to create a subversive counter-narrative that questions the ideas, values and prejudices they are meant to sanction, thus turning them into weapons of resistance against all forms of dogmatism and oppression on every level. In this respect, his work may be said to continue a revolutionary, socialist trend in dealing with cultural heritage that began in the late 1960s at the hands of such progressive dramatists as Youssri Al-Guindi and Aboul-Ela Al-Salamouni. Partly in response to Youssef Idris’s article “Towards an Egyptian Theatre”, published in 1964, they sought to use Egyptian folklore, ritual and indigenous communal forms of entertainment to evolve a so-called ‘authentically Egyptian’ theatrical form, but one which nonetheless has a progressive, socialist content. 

In productions like Furgah Arabeyah (An Arab Folk Performance, 1995), Yasin and Baheyah (1997), Al Qabilah (The Tribe, 1998), Tuqoos Al Horreyah (Rituals of Freedom, 2005), and Naaima (2007), where folk tales and ballads and traditional beliefs and customs provide the material, Said Soliman uses ritual at once to provide form and technique and, in the process, to question the very material it shapes and offer a profound critique of the culture that produced it. Even in his adaptations of foreign plays – like Oedipus (1992), Macbeth (2000), Blood Wedding (2002), and Al-Beit (The House of Bernarda Alba, 2010) – one detects the same disruptive use of ritual to critique cultural heritage and the whole change-resistant societal codes it imposes.

Curiously, however, a spirit of Sufi mysticism seems to permeate Soliman’s work in varying degrees despite its obvious subversive thrust. Underlying the central conflict in every performance script is a fitfully glimpsed cosmic vision that transcends dogma and ideology and embraces a search for truth and light in the mystical sense. Of course, Sufism has always been a part of Islam and is well entrenched in Egypt, with over fifteen million Sufis, divided into some seventy sects. I imagine Soliman is one of them, at least in spirit and inclination, if not formally. The veiled mysticism in the earlier productions eventually revealed itself in two openly Sufi theatrical pieces. The first, Hakaza Takallam Ibn Arabi (Thus Spoke Ibn Arabi, 2006), was a dramatisation in musical form of the teachings, poetry and sayings of the Andalusian Sufi Mystic, Muhyeddin Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), particularly his beautiful exposition of the Unity of Being, the single and indivisible reality which simultaneously transcends and is manifested in all the images of the world. The second, Hayy ibn Yaqzan (2008), dramatised the philosophical tale written under that name (which is the name of its hero and literally means, in Shams C. Inati’s translation, “The Living Son of the Vigilant”) by Ibn Tufayl (1105-1185), another Andalusian philosopher. Though Ibn Tufayl is not usually ranked among Sufi philosophers, his tale shows how human knowledge can rise “from a blank slate to a mystical, direct experience of God after passing through the necessary natural experiences”, to use Inati’s words.

Plays about Sufi mystics or their works are rare in Arabic drama. Of the few that may exist, the best known are; Salah Abdel-Sabour’s The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj in the Sixties, on the life and martyrdom of the Sufi  master and dervish wanderer Al-Ḥusayn Ibn Mansur Al-Hallaj (858-922); Farid Abu Saeda’s Laylat Al-Suhrawardi Al-Akhira (Suhrawardi’s Last Night) (2015), which centers on the tragic relationship between the 12th Century mystic, theologian, and philosopher ShihabeddinYehya Al-Surhrawardi (also called ‘Sheikh Al-Ishraq’, or Master of Illumination, perhaps on account of his best-known work, Hikmat Al-Ishraq, or The Wisdom of Illumination) and Al-Zahir, the governor of Aleppo and son of Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty – a relationship that ended with the murder of the mystic; and a dramatisation by the late Iraqi writer and director Qasim Mohamed of Farid Al-Din Attar’s long and celebrated Sufi poem, Mantiq Al-Tayr (The Conference of the Birds), written in 1177. Hence the importance of Said Soliman’s latest Sufi work, Al Insan Al-Tayeb (The Good Person), which replays in a different vein the same spiritual quest staged in his two earlier mystical pieces. 

Initially inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, Soliman’s Good Person departs completely from it in its final form. This is typical of Soliman’s method. In practically all his productions, he uses original texts as sources of inspiration or material for free, extensive musical reworking and adaptation. Here, the Brechtian text served only as a springboard for discussions, reflections and verbal, musical, dance and movement improvisations on the meaning of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The final script, penned by Soliman, interweaves folkloric profane rites and songs with Sufi chanting and excerpts from the Sufi poetry of Jalaleddin Rumi (1207-1273), Umar Ibn Al-Farid (1181-1235), Rabiaa Al-Adawiyya (717-801), the female Sufi mystic, Muhyeddin Ibn Arabi Al-Hallaj, and the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, whose work has a strong mystical element though he rarely refers to God directly. The result was a ritualistic folk opera, deeply immersed in Sufism, where the central theme is the death of spirituality in a reactionary, patriarchal society, deeply entrenched in the tradition of male hegemony and dominated by a brutal, consumerist, materialistic culture. 

The principal figure is the eponymous symbolic Good Person, presented as a lonely female, with a deeply troubled soul, longing to know herself and the meaning of her life. A few lines from a poem by Tagore, softly intoned, suffice to communicate this existential crisis. In the distance (at the far end of Salah Abdel-Sabour hall) she glimpses three angelic figures (also females) in a halo of light, playing music, and their simple, ethereal tune seems to beckon her to join them and to promise release. The rest of the show consists of her efforts to cross over to them and being repeatedly obstructed and held back, so that the whole performance becomes metaphorically a kind of spiritual pilgrimage in the course of which the Good Person is assailed by shadows and demons that threaten to snatch her soul and obscure the mystical light that fitfully shines at the end of the tunnel.

The image of a tunnel or dungeon, or, indeed, of Plato’s allegorical cave, was powerfully evoked by the way scenic-designer Sobhi Abdel-Gawwad dressed the Salah Abdel-Sabour Hall, painting all the walls with grim, lurid images of writhing, deformed bodies, severed heads and monstrous, mythical creatures. The only bright spots are four columns placed at the centre of each side of the triangular hall and dressed in white gauze to suggest the trunks of trees, the tops of which we cannot see. These trees suggested to me the four corners of the world, as if the struggles of the Good Person were enacted on a cosmic stage. The trees, too, intrigued me. The tree is a mystical symbol that dates all the way back to the kabbalah and has been viewed throughout history as a link between worlds and worshipped as a bridge to heaven. The tree also occurs in connection with the light of God in the Quran, in the verse from Surat an Nur, which says: “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly white star lit from the oil of a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light.”  

In this performance, the light which all mystics crave shines only once, but is soon swamped by darkness. This happens midway in the spiritual journey of the Good Person, which falls into three stages; in the first, the Good Person is obstructed by the weight of tradition, religious extremism and patriarchal authority, represented by a horde of men and women, cloaked and hooded in black and pounding on drums and tambours, creating a horrible din. Some are bearded, like the Salafis, and wave sticks and whips; one flaunts a huge paunch in front of him and cries for more food (or money?) to swallow; some engage in a wailing ritual, while others hiss and writhe like serpents. They crowd upon the Good Person, heaping insults upon her, shouting orders and instructions, swathing her in black from head to foot, and even fitting her with a grotesque beard at one point. For a while, the Good Person is overpowered and mentally paralyzed and tries to do what they tells her. Finally, however, she remembers the tune she heard at the beginning and repeats the song she sang to it then, whereupon the pandemonium ends and the three angelic figures appear.

This heralds the second stage of the journey. Suddenly, the walls of the hall are covered with white curtains, the light changes, becoming soft and luminous, and Sufi chanters, all dressed in white, file in, carrying their lutes and flutes, and sit in a circle, filling the hall with enchanting mystical songs and creating a Sufi ambience replete with mystery and hidden connotations. The Good Person joins them, singing and playing the violin, while the three angelic figures sprinkle water and rose-petals around in a purifying ritual. But no sooner does the Good Person reach a state of spiritual ecstasy than the chanters withdraw, chased away by an invasion of rude, cacophonous shouts and mocking hoots and jeers. The assailants this time, though grotesque, belong to contemporary life on the streets of Cairo. They are a thug, a whore, a beggar, a dandy, a fat, greedy businessman, a sheikh, a down-at-heel civil servant, a woman wearing a burka, an ordinary housewife, a teacher, a beggar and a street peddler. Like the demonic figures in the first stage of the journey, these specimens of Egyptian society today mob and harass the Good Person and heap insults upon her song and mystical longings. Finally, they knock her down and bury her under a heap of rubbish where she lies still for a few minutes as if dead. The last scene, however, shows her raising a hand from the rubbish in silent supplication while a soft, pale light shines down upon her from above. The darkness may be thick, but the human spirit will keep trying to seek the light.

As in his best previous work, Soliman here encodes feminist, anti-patriarchal messages against oppression and the rise of religious fundamentalism. The choice of versatile performer Naglaa Younes to represent the symbolic Good Person was a masterstroke that at once evoked the great figure of Rabiaa Al-Adawiyya  and gave a feminist, political edge to the mystical quest. It is as if Soliman is telling us that ‘the spiritual is political’. In putting across this message, Soliman was assisted by composer Hani Abdel-Nasser who wrote the music of the whole show, trained and led the musicians and chanters (mostly students from the Faculty of Musical Education and the Theatre Institute) and also guided them in the mobbing scenes. His contribution (as music-writer, lute-player, singer and performer) was quite invaluable. 

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