Wednesday,20 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)
Wednesday,20 March, 2019
Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Chanting theatre into being

Nora Amin attended the new and unique Taliaa Theatre show As If You Are Seeing Him


Chanting theatre into being
Chanting theatre into being

Maher Mahmoud, a fantastic singer, made his directorial debut at the state’s Al-Taliaa Theatre by creating a musical performance celebrating the legacy of praise for the Prophet Mohamed. The performance revisits the Egyptian tradition of religious chanting in a new light, and offers a high-quality musical experience crafted by the expertise of the music master Mohamed Ezzat.

As If You Are Seeing Him may look at first glance like a religious performance celebrating the Prophet, but deep down it is more a celebration of the human voice as a spiritual medium. In the tiny space of the Salah Abdel-Sabour Hall, the audience gathers around the performers. The space is organised in the manner of a ritual. We are all close to each other, we can see each other’s faces, noticing the slightest detail. The place is unveiled, and the performance is among us. There is no division, no hierarchy between the performers and the spectators. There are no borders, just as there are no borders between the self and the other, the human being and God.

Directed by Maher Mahmoud, originally a singer who specialises in religious chanting and traditional Egyptian singing, As If You Are Seeing Him is a gift of love transmitted through the voices of the performers-singers to embrace our hearts and take us to a level of transcendence where performance is ritual, and where spectatorship is partnership. The plot is simple and predictable: a mosque is about to be attacked by a terrorist, a kind soldier guards it with only weapon of his kindness, people from all walks of life gather in front of the mosque, we witness diverse cases of the love of God and the Prophet Mohamed — until the terrorist is arrested and the mosque is saved.

In the course of this simple story, almost all the characters of the play deliver their roles in singing. The music composed by the great Ezzat is the biggest accomplishment of the performance. It is very apparent how much time and effort he and Mahmoud invested in training the performers who were selected from all over the provinces of Egypt. The musical identity remains in the foreground all the time, and carries traces of both Ezzat’s own musical signature and Mahmoud’s singing style. The diversity of the communities where the performers-singers come from is reflected in their songs. Every character is supposed to have come from a different region seeking spiritual refuge near the mosque, and close to the light of the prophet. And each manages to truly bring a different colour into the performance, covering a wide range of vocal qualities and delivery methods. Mahmoud took the initiative to travel across Egypt and select those genuine voices, he really wanted the performance to embrace the geographic diversity of Egypt just as the story says. It made a big difference that those performers were really coming from the provinces and not just pretending they were playing the roles of characters coming from the provinces. We saw new faces, and heard fresh voices.

The one actor — not singer — who played the most difficult role is Mohamed Younis. Younis delivered the role of the Islamic saint who appears as a ghost, yet his spiritual presence was felt and embraced by everybody. Younis managed to bring into his performance a rare kind of spirituality where his eyes shone with faith and goodness. This faith and this goodness are not necessarily Muslim, they are human and universal, and thus they acquire their Sufi colour which unites instead of dividing. Younis incarnated this spiritual being that stands opposite the fundamentalist and terrorist discourses. He simply radiated love.

As If You Are Seeing Him is not actually about “seeing him”, it is rather about hearing him. The spirit of goodness, attributed here to the Prophet Mohamed, is felt in the voice and in the vocal performance rather than the image. The lyrics by Mohamed Bahgat were a great gift to the performance, extremely well written poems that communicate the spiritual mood and create the foundation of the whole performance. One cannot ignore the beautiful actors in the performance: Alaa Al-Naqeeb (the soldier), Sameh Fekri (the photographer) and Walid Al-Zorkani (the terrorist); they all contributed to the overall spiritual mood by helping to lay a certain dramatic foundation as a pretext for the vocal performance.

I believe Al-Taliaa has the chance to develop this production and tour with it in all the provinces of Egypt, this will not be too expensive for the budget of the Artistic House of Theatre, and it will be a nice experience for the performers to return to their communities with a gift from Cairo. As If You Are Seeing Him opens the door to the very rich possibility of witnessing what is usually labelled madih — praise or inshad — chanting as a vocal performance of spirituality that transcends religion and speaks universally to the human soul beyond strict religious traditions.

Maybe there is only a tiny difference between this and the religious tradition from which it departs, but in that tiny difference lies huge performative and human potential.

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