Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Sufi syndrome

Nora Amin attended the opening of Al-Salam Theatre

Sufi syndrome

On Tuesday 28 March Al-Salam Theatre had its new opening with the presence of the Minister of Culture Helmy Al-Namnam and a full house of spectators, celebrating the launch of The Forty Rules of Love, directed by Adel Hassaan.

Inspired by the 13th-century Sufi Shams Al-Din Tabrizi’s eponymous book, which was transformed into a theatrical text by Rasha Abdel-Moneim in collaboration with Yasmine Emam Shaghaf and Khairy Al-Fakharany, the production took three years to see the light. Several versions of the script were made until the director settled on one that could satisfy his ambition. Working with a team of writers-dramaturges is a new trend in the Egyptian theatre, and a big leap from the traditional notion of the playwright to the concept of a writing workshop commissioned by the director and capable of transforming the text in relation to the development of the director’s vision. Rasha Abdel-Moneim is a master of this craft. She has previous experience with similar dramaturgical processes with the two prominent independent theatre makers: Abeer Ali, and Mohamed Abdel-Khalek.

For those who have seen the latest production by the iconic Nasser Abdel-Moneim, “The Master of Time”, produced by Al-Ghad Theatre, The Forty Rules of Love will be within the sphere of comparison. The two productions are inspired by the same source, have the same characters and the same artistic style. Both are musical and employ the visual aesthetics of Sufism. Both productions are set within the new policy of the Ministry of Culture’s Artistic House of Theatre, which aims to counter fanaticism through the arts. How then can one escape the duality of such an experience where one production recalls the other and where similar sources and visions attract attention?

Sufi syndrome

In my opinion, while it is possible to compare the two productions it is not so wise to put them in competition. There is no better or worse. Both creative processes followed their own journeys to produce a certain product that represents a goal for its creators. Adel Hassaan’s is by default a production requiring a stage and a proscenium, while Nasser’s could be set in a black box or a chamber theatre. This physical nature that the performance requires already determines many aspects of the aesthetics of the performance as well as relations and communication with the audience. Not only is this related to the dose of intimacy offered by the performance, it also reflects the spectators’ perception of the whole offering. A stage is indeed the usual space to watch from afar, creating a necessary distance that helps to see the whole picture, the whole frame, the wholeness of the scene. While an image within the intimacy of a black box may be similar to a close-up shot in which the spectator is necessarily engaged and “taken” into the details, the emotions and sensations of each breath of the performers.

In both cases the whirling dervishes were present, embodying the philosophy of Sufism and the universal dance of the love of God, yet Hassan’s dervishes were employed more as “dancers” than as “lovers of God”. Their movement and stillness felt more functional than dramatic and emotional, they did not insinuate the metaphor behind the movement; their positions balanced the scenery and their movement accompanied the songs in a very predictable manner. The Egyptian Mawlaweyya worked very hard through 105 minutes – the duration of the show – but did not manage to give the impression of being part of the performance. The lighting design was very clever, the designer Ibrahim Al-Forn is a master of this craft; and it was in perfect combination with the set design created by Mostafa Hamed, who divided the stage into a horizontal level downstage and centre stage, and a vertical level made up of two levels upstage. The vertical levels were in their turn divided into six almost equal boxes-rooms. The scenes were distributed between the stage’s horizontal level where the group scenes and outdoor scenes took place, and the vertical levels where the duo and trio scenes happened. The most dramatic scenes were those taking place either at the house of Jalaluddin Rumi or on the street. Therefore the distribution between the horizontal and vertical levels was balanced. Rumi’s room was the most vital in the philosophical discussion between Rumi and Shams, it almost seemed that all the Rules of Love would be set first within the private room on the second level before moving to the downstage area where they could be applied and tested on the street and in public.

Shams clearly guides Mawlana Rumi to grasp the true essence of the love of God, the core of Sufism. And Sufism is indeed the strongest enemy of fanaticism, it is the spiritual embrace that counters the rigidity and the power hierarchy of conservative institutional religion. It is where man and God are one, united within the human soul and the universe. The Forty Rules of Love are supposed to guide us to be aware of God, to embrace the universe and to love one another beyond prejudice and power. It is the path to tolerance and to the liberation of the soul. It is the journey of empowering the self and breaking boundaries.

Hassaan’s production is primarily musical, although performed by actors who do not sing or dance. It manages to combine acting, dance and music-song, distributed among three casts. The music master of this production is the brilliant Mohamed Hosny, a composer and singer who has excelled in musicals for almost two decades. Hosny composed the scores of over 100 theatre productions and managed to create his own signature where drama and music fuse in an organic way. The Forty Rules of Love includes 13 songs ranging from the traditional maqamat to jazz and fusion. All the lyrics come from the poems of the great Sufi poets Ibn Al-Fared, Ibn Arabi, Rumi, Ibn Said and Al-Suhrawardi. The main achievement of Hosny is to have contributed to the theatrical and dramatic structure of the performance through almost 50 minutes of song and music, which is half the duration of the whole production. Hosny’s signature here is evident in modernising the musical themes while preserving the traditional Sufi flavour, as well as creating an escalating emotional journey that matches the quest of the main characters and carries it into a vocal and musical zenith transcending the literary narrative and meeting the spiritual sensation of Sufism, something that the actors struggled to achieve while the music and song gracefully accomplished with passion and power.

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