Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The one and only

“She is sitting there in the dark but we can see her shining eyes and feel her passionate breath”: Nora Amin, a self-avowed student of Al-Ahram Weekly’s lamented theatre critic, makes a powerful case for life after death, while in a review of a Canadian production from 2008, Nehad Selaiha’s own inimitab

# Nehad Selaiha # Nehad Selaiha
# #

The following is neither an obituary nor a testimony about the person of Nehad Selaiha. It is rather a humble documentation of the spiritual life of a lady who is one of a kind. It has been written in the present tense; this is not a grammatical error, nor a printing mistake.

Nehad lives with us now in the form of abstract energy. She was once materialised in the ephemeral physical body that carried her through her social and professional life, but now her existence takes on another shape: eternal. The abstract energy in which Nehad exists today is her unique spiritual identity, which everybody describes as loving, giving, motherly, supportive, etc. This identity is the soul of Nehad, and her soul has touched all of us in the arts, to the extent that we are all certain that she continues to exist within and among us.

In her own special way, Nehad lives by loving, and she lives for loving. Her path in literary studies, theatre criticism, translation and academic teaching can be summarised in the word “love”.

As a theatre critic, she managed to connect to all artistic experiences, especially by including her emotionality. By scholars and critics such emotionality is frequently considered irrational, thus unscientific and false. Yet Nehad does not see a contradiction between the mind and the heart, the intellectual and the emotional; both are one, probably bonded by the spirit. She is able to comprehend beyond the image, beyond the ideological discourse. She embraces times and places with her spirit, and projects everything back in her writing. Her writings are literary pieces of outstanding calibre. She is a poet, a writer and a philosopher. She is the one who “sees” when all are blinded. She is the survivor of despair and of oppression. She is the tireless rebel and the mature woman who acknowledges her femininity as an organic part of her holistic knowledge.

To read a review of a theatre production by Nehad Selaiha is to re-live the experience via verbal language, to witness a whole reconstruction of the performative aesthetic in alphabetical writing. She is the master of transforming lived experience into a memorable document, she is the live memory of Egyptian theatre and of decades of the lives of thousands of artists. The core reason behind all of this is that she knows how to live the moment to the full. A theatre performance for her is a life experience, a moment of celebration of all our senses, souls and minds. She does not go to the theatre to perform her duties as a critic, she goes to practice of life and beauty. She does not watch the performance, she lives it. She is someone who spectates by giving to, and not only taking in the performance. She sits among the audience and radiates energy, a mode of communication, a profound understanding, that rewards the performers instantly and adds to their delivery.

This form of being, and this ability to communicate, radiating energy and emotion, are essential performative skills. Nehad who had aspired early in her life to become an actress without ever managing to achieve her dream, eventually became her own type of performer. Without standing on stage, memorising lines or adopting a fictional character, Nehad projects life and love onto her entourage and community. She excels at making a direct impact on our thoughts and emotions, she touches us with only a word or a look. She helps us become aware of performance as a profound mode of communication, a truthful experience, an authentic expression and a transformational moment. She is the enemy of hypocrisy and all artistic conventions that support it. She is the enemy of pretension and falsehood. She is the ally of authenticity, freedom and openness. She is sitting there in the dark but we can see her shining eyes and feel her passionate breath. We can only be true, for the presence of Nehad will open the circles of perception and facilitate the meeting of our souls and the flourishing of our being. 

Such a soul can only be free. She is the free soul that opens, connects, appreciates, projects, transforms and loves.

I truly believe she will always remain alive and among us, because the spiritual energy of love does not die, it only transforms into other forms. Her soul has now transformed into parts of our souls, she has become part of us, we have become her. In all the past and future decades of Egyptian theatre Nehad will be there, for she contributed the most to the creation of this history, therefore her traces will persist into the future to inspire and to radiate love.

I will not use the word “godmother”, which she hated whenever I uttered it. I will say instead, “Nehad my friend”, just as she preferred me to. And so, Nehad my friend: the only reason I can continue going on stage and making theatre is your teaching; stand tall and never let anyone break you, love yourself and do what pleases you, your dignity is your own and nothing can touch it. Every time I stand on stage you shall be within me, part of my soul and that dignity. You may not have realised your old wish of standing on stage as an actress, but your soul marks all the stages of Egypt, the stages of our lives. 

I believe the stage to be the face of our human dignity, and Nehad to be the soul of that stage. 


Nora Amin is a writer, performer, translator and theatre director, and the founder of Lamusica Independent Theatre Group.


XIT THE PLAYERS: When actors are banished from the stage can we still call it theatre?

I have always believed that theatre is essentially about presence – the physical presence of performers and spectators in the here and now. This does not exclude puppet theatre where one is constantly aware of the omnipotent presence of the human performer behind the puppets in the figure of the invisible puppet master. Even in extreme experiments where the actors are reduced to marionettes and stage props or, more drastically, dismembered by the manipulation of light and presented in bits and pieces like fragments of broken images – as in Samuel Beckett’s Not I (The Royal Court Theatre, London, 1973), for instance, which featured a human mouth, lit from close-up and below, with the rest of the actress’s face and body in shadow, and a faintly lit hooded figure, dead still throughout except for three gestures, and seemingly suspended in a dark void, or, more recently, in the productions of the Polish Scena Plastyczna company (of the Catholic University of Lublin) seen in the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre – one can still draw comfort from the knowledge that however disfigured or dehumanised, the human performers are still there, in the flesh, even if they do not appear at the end of the show to take their bows.

This is what has made the Canadian production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Les Aveugles (The Blind) by Quebecois director Denis Marleau at the Chapelle du Lycee St Joseph in Avignon such a disorienting experience, calling into question my most cherished convictions. When the small audience (only 50 spectators as the director stipulated) filed into the chapel they were plunged in pitch darkness – a physical foretaste of blindness. I remember stumbling, panicking and calling out loud: “I can’t see.” A young voice whispered, “give me your hand,” and I was led round what felt like a curtain. Suddenly, 12 human faces seemed to float out of the darkness at the far end of the hall where the stage should have been. The impression of floating, of approaching and receding, was very strong and continued throughout even though I realised after a while that it was an optical illusion. And it wasn’t the only one.

For the first few minutes I assumed that the actors were there, though their bodies were shrouded in darkness and their faces seemed somewhat larger than life. I was soon caught up in the hypnotic, incantatory rhythm of their whispers, murmurs and silences, in the flow of images, memories, anxieties and fears that make up this highly poetic metaphysical play. Except for the slight movement of the lips when they spoke and of the eyes when they were silent, the faces (or masks?) were completely still. The sharp contrast between the immediate content of the spoken words – the plight of blind people lost in a forest – and the tone of extreme emotional restraint in which they were uttered, coupled with the fixed facial expressions, triggered a sense of unreality, making the words shed their habitual meanings and generate a plethora of nebulous associations and elusive sensations that one experienced viscerally. All the time, however, there was a nagging sense of oddness, the kind of anxiety you experience in dreams. Then, like a sudden revelation, the truth hit me: “those our actors were only spirits” – like Prospero’s in The Tempest – insubstantial images projected on a screen. Furthermore, what I had taken to be 12 different people – six men and six women – were in fact replicated and carefully edited video takes of only two performers – Celine Bonnier and Paul Savoie.

It was technological bluffing of the highest order, and I had been duped. Rather than live theatre I had been given a sophisticated montage of video projections. Strangely, I didn’t feel angry or cheated. And those whispering images suspended in the darkness – making absence a harrowing reality – didn’t feel like video images at all, nor like cinema either. They belonged to a category all by themselves and felt like vague, ancient memories, dredged out of the depths of our collective unconscious. I felt that Maeterlinck’s The Blind had finally got its definitive production, albeit without actors. Indeed, this is one case where the absence of the human performer seems an asset, perhaps a must. In the 1890’s, Maeterlinck, like Alfred Jarry and the symbolists, dreamed of ridding the stage of human actors and replacing them with puppets and shadows. He went so far as to declare that their absence seemed to him a necessity. In banishing the actors from the stage in this production Marleau has finally fulfilled Maeterlinck’s dream and given his audience the most authentic rendering of The Blind in my experience as well as one of the two most powerful and moving shows in the Avignon festival this year.

Curiously, the other show, Enfants de nuit (Children of the Night), was also spun out darkness, absence, helplessness and despair. An exhibition-performance devised by 18 young artists aged between nine and 25 who come from the ranks of the poorest, most deprived and abused street children in Senegal, and who live or have passed through the Man-Keneen-Ki home-cum-art school in Dakar, it takes the visitor on an infernal trip into the depths of human misery, through the wreckage of shattered dreams, broken hopes and anguished longings. At the Baraque Chabran, where it was held, you stepped into what felt like a dark maze of rooms and narrow alleys, armed with a tiny electric torch to light your own path. You are given no guidance, and as you stumble along, feeling your way and bumping into things, walls and people – like Maeterlinck’s blind lost in the wood – you are assailed by whispers, mysterious sounds and screams and constantly invaded by that distinctive stench of poverty – rank and putrid – which seems to stick to your nostrils long after you leave.

As you move your torch helplessly, images spring upon you suddenly out of the darkness, creep under your skin and tug at your heart: photographs of street kids in the grip of squalor, hunger and violence; video images of a child on the verge of death, with half closed eyes which nevertheless reflect the light, opening and shutting his mouth slowly, silently, and another looking hopelessly in front of him and reciting -- in a voice over – his poem which says that the only thing he now hopes for is death. In a small room, on low bookstands, there were copies of a book of poems and stories composed by those young artists, and opposite them, in a small glass cage, you could barely make out a figure of a small boy, sitting completely still, holding a candle and gazing at a tiny coffin-like box, with a doll stretched on top of it like a corpse – a human being or a statue? You could never be sure. Images of death proliferate in another room filled from one end to the other with rows upon rows of little crosses dressed in tattered and soiled children’s clothes, which turn it into a veritable graveyard.

But finally, if you grope long enough, and do not become hysterical with the pain, as happened to one visitor who started screaming and laughing involuntarily and had to be taken out, you get to meet the young artists who, under the artistic direction of their longstanding guardian angel, Jean Michel Bruyere, have created those beautiful, uncompromisingly honest compositions out of their drab lives and savage reality. It is not, however, the kind of meeting one would normally expect. In a room you see a piano with a figure on one side bending over it; on the stool, another figure holds a guitar, with a microphone in front of him; on a raised platform opposite, a group of boys sit, as if ready to start singing. But they never do, and never move either. I stood in that room for 10 minutes looking at them in the dim light and eerie silence, trying to listen to their breathing, but not daring to touch them, and aching to find out whether they were real boys or bronze sculptures. A woman told me confidently they were the artists, but though she seemed to know what she was talking about, I still have my doubts.

In contrast, the last room which leads out to the exit was bursting with energy and life. Its airy spaciousness was a welcome relief after the claustrophobic maze one had been through. But, again, those lively figures dancing happily on the walls all round the room were insubstantial images, painful reminders of what those kids should have been like. The reality, however, was back there, in the stench and darkness of that nightmarish maze. At the door I felt an unbearable tightening in my chest. Was I gasping for breath or sobbing aloud as I ran out? 

“Exit the players” first appeared in the 15 August 2002 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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