Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Revolution or reform?

Nora Amin assesses a new dramatic crisis

Revolution or reform?
Revolution or reform?

Following up on my last article, dealing with the new recipe for theatre offered by the Ministry of Culture and expressing my fears regarding the perspective of the National Festival of Egyptian Theatre in its last edition — dedicated to Nehad Selaiha — I would like to analyse the current crisis, which emerged directly after the announcement of the prizes given by the jury of the National Festival for Egyptian Theatre.

The jury of the festival decided that none of the playwrights who presented their work in the festival deserve to compete for the prize of best playwright. The prominent actress Fardous Abdel-Hamid stood on stage to plainly and cruelly announce, “There are no more playwrights in Egypt.” An unjust claim that was previously made in the festival’s 2014 edition, when the prominent actress Soheir Al-Morshedi presented the same discourse, as if issuing a verdict to annul the existence of all the playwrights who participated in the festival. The playwright Mahmoud Al-Toukhi was present in the house, and he shouted in disdainful protest. Today many young theatre artists, not only playwrights, are shouting on social media. This time the protest not only has to do with playwriting but also with the dynamics of power within the theatre field. 

The juries in Egyptian theatre festivals are regarded as committees of recognition and validation. It is up to a jury to acknowledge or dismiss, to validate or eliminate, and to decide the artistic merit of the work submitted. The Egyptian jury carries the imprint of “teachers”, the jurors often taking a tone of pedagogical authority, and speaking from the superior rank of “Guardians of Good Art”. They thus extend the concept of cultural censorship with complicity from the artistic milieu: when a “verdict” is issued against playwrights — or against a whole generation of artists — it is treated as if it has the power of reality. In this sense, artistic reality changes by force of verdict, it is manipulated by the ruling powers to the extent that existing talents not recognised by and within the discourse of the jurors can be truly liquidated.

From my perspective this is exactly this sort of power that the theatrical field ought to rebel against. It is in opposition to this power to subjugate that creative circles ought to construct a new system of thinking. And it is only up to the young and the promising to formulate this new system. Not that the older generations are not eligible to do it — change is not exclusive to a certain age only — but it is the responsibility and duty of the young to build their present and their future. No one should do it for them. Yet in order to let them achieve this critical goal, on which the possibility of development and transformation in our theatre field relies, the current mechanisms of power should be dismantled. 

An organised group of theatre artists and activists drafted a petition and took it to the minister of culture a few days ago. The minister paid close attention to the present crisis in theatre and carefully listened to the demands and proposals of the group. The group, which was not representing the theatre community nor claimed any right of representation, volunteered to negotiate a way out of the restrictive and unfair system of operation within the theatrical sectors of the Ministry of Culture. Among their demands was to hold a national conference for all theatre artists in order to discuss their situation and how to overcome the current crisis. The petition also included the persistent demand of empowering the young artists and cultural operators in order to take vital positions within the system, a demand that would change the face of Egyptian bureaucracy if met. 

This demand goes hand in hand with another, namely the liberation of the creative sphere from any political restrictions and allowing artists the full freedom of thinking and of opinion. A fourth demand that consolidates the previous two is to activate the ministry’s unit for supporting independent theatre, a unique entity that was launched in order to provide state funding opportunities to independent theatre makers as a way to implement the principles of justice within the cultural field. The creation of the unit followed a long struggle by independent theatre artists to reach a legislative and political recognition of their rights from the state. Except for its successful festival celebrating the 25th anniversary of the independent theatre movement, since 2015 the unit has been almost paralysed — for financial reasons. If the minister of culture manages to implement at least those four demands, the theatre community will be in a much better position to recreate its own new system of operation: calling for a national conference hopefully leading to a mandate for theatre, promoting young cultural operators into key positions within the theatre state sector, liberating theatre productions from any political or security restrictions and guaranteeing state support to independent theatre makers. 

Whether or not we agree with this group’s voluntary step to meet the minister without having the credentials of representation, the demands within their petition remain extremely convincing and well formulated for confronting the discourse of “Guardians of Good Art” and dismantling the ideology of power within the arts. Such confrontation is long overdue. It seems paradoxical that the same community that held one of the most powerful sit-ins in Egypt — in June 2013, under the Muslim Brotherhood — cannot revolt against its own authoritarian system. It feels ironic that we should spend so many years comparing reform and revolution without really taking any action. Now is the moment when change is still possible, it is the “Chinese Crisis” as the Brazilian theatre icon Augusto Boal calls it: the moment we have the full conflict and the full crisis while having the full opportunity for change at the same time. The word used for “crisis” in the Chinese language is composed of two parts, one means crisis and the second means opportunity. In our case, the crisis is the opportunity. For this reason one should be grateful for the current situation in theatre field.

And change should be as dramatic as the crisis now is.

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