Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1395, (24 - 30 May 2018)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1395, (24 - 30 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Motherland revived

Somaya Ramadan is impressed with Sameh Mahran’s latest play, which opened last week at the Al-Ghad Theatre

The Apartment of Am Naguib
The Apartment of Am Naguib

While some countries are fatherlands, others are motherlands. More and more countries are being orphaned but that is not necessarily a bad thing, since a fair number of fathers and certainly mothers suffer from the now well acknowledge borderline personality disorder we refer to as narcissism. For the lay person like myself the narcissist or nark as they are called in popular literature on the net is gradually shedding its traditional meaning, however. 

“Narcissist” used to mean someone who is self-centred and totally absorbed in their own image, usually in front of a mirror, with apparently no other motive than to contemplate their own grandiose claims to superiority and hence like the original Narcissus of the Greek myth ends in self annihilation.  It is this classical image that captured the imagination of many artists. It continues to engage psychotherapists and psychologists who have always resorted to literature for the promulgation of their theories, so that their own literature is littered with characters directly conjured from myth, legend and even folk tales. I am not suggesting that this is a bad thing. On the contrary I would certainly dance and sing to make a young person go to read or watch Oedipus, Electra, any Greek mythology, since it would be unreasonable to ask students today to read the whole of Homer’s epics and still keep up with the world of YXO coins and next-to-human robots. 

At any rate, narcissism is not as simple as it seems. The much sung or rather wailed narcissist of popular imagination is coming forth to the public now in more depth and with more dimensions than previously thanks to the flood of easily accessible,  easily assimilated information on the internet. We now know, for example, that narcissism is not only about someone gazing at their own image to the point of distraction, but that such a person is suffering a total lack of affect (from affection) and is oblivious (apparently out of no fault of their own) to the existence of anyone else around them and in fact unable to gage the effect of their attitude on others. They are pathologically critical, they lack all empathy, are capable of untold cruelty, have absolutely no remorse, are unable to apologise when faced with their destructive behaviour and will brush away any responsibility for their actions no matter how grievous. This is of course one facet. The Janus face of that is that unlike the image projected in the mirror they suffer abominably from self-loathing and very low self-esteem; all the controlling behaviour they demonstrate from being over critical to the point of hurting people is rooted in an extremely fragile, deeply wounded ego that is threatened by the slightest suggestion that their behaviour could be ameliorated or revised, because that would mean an awakening that is too scary... 

I admit this is a long perambulation to arrive at the doorstep of a pretty straightforward topic: Sameh Mahran’s most recent work, The Apartment of Am Naguib, in which he attempts to formulate in theatrical expression something that many a playwright has been groping for in Egypt, since perhaps the 1970s. If we set aside high-brow academic discourse on theatre and go simply to that pristine saying of a 19th-century sage who had not witnessed the emergence of cinema and may never have been in a theatre – “Theatre is the pulpit of the future” – we would come closer to what Mahran has finally captured in a wide mesh designed to promote an art form for the agora. For what is the function of the pulpit in a church or a mosque? Ideally it would be to bring people together to engage them in discourse on how to create a better life for themselves and their neighbours or make them re-think an entrenched attitude that is not serving them or their spiritual evolution. In other words in its ideal form the pulpit transmits to a seated audience an idea which, since it comes from a single voice in lecture form, may or may not actually touch their hearts. Yet the essence of the message is ideally one which is designed to leave the believer in a state of energetic hope at least until the next week. 

The foundation of this hope, which needs rekindling on a weekly basis, is faith, but it also depends on the charisma, persuasive skills and cultural affinities of the preacher. The stage, so to speak, is already set in every sense of the word. The theatre on the other hand has as its foundation a dynamic of a different nature. Its message operates within the invisible energies created in a space where anyone of any faith can be, where an audience rather than being converted to a way of thinking, is meant to feel and think for itself. The motley composition that is a theatre audience does not come with collective a priori beliefs even when it ends up receiving a proposal that might resonate with each of its members individually, despite and not because of their individual world view, foundational beliefs and outlook. 

Sameh Mahran’s exceptional achievement in The Apartment of Am Naguib is that, while other playwrights are thrown out of orbit in their search for concrete and meaningful subject matter, something that can be explored without recourse to the cabaret genre that has dominated Egyptian theatre for decades, he manages to present a viable collective message. In the eye of the storm he holds onto a silver thread that leads him and his audience to a centre, a core, a value to which people might respond in a secular rather than a confessional register, and one that clearly belongs to drama more than anywhere else. An element that generates perspective and healthy introspection and perhaps facilitates healing the scars, psychological and mental, left by a motherland transcending its narcissistic wounds through the agency of its artists. We can only the great Salah Jahine, who expressed his love-hate relationship with the motherland in a widely quoted poem where Egypt is addressed as a flesh-and-blood mother. The poet, however, is not as concerned as the playwright with perspective. 

The issue of perspective seems to haunt contemporary Egyptian artists, indeed. When a playwright puts his finger on the ailment that diagnoses the root of the disease, the collective malaise so to speak, we must pay close attention. Now, though Mahran concentrates on images of women in Egyptian literature, and especially the female characters of Naguib Mahfouz – the Am Naguib of the title – he manages to breathe new life into the subject, placing those women in a context that clarifies their historicity. In Mahran’s hands they move out of the pages of the novels, shed the static conditions imposed on them by critics who have adored Mahfouz more for having won ‘them’ a Nobel Prize than for his writing, something demonstrated by the difference in attitudes before and after the award. And yet the playwright does not take an iconoclastic attitude. What we have rather is the intellect of a man deeply concerned with conditions that have kept his motherland stuck in a narcissistic mode not because of any one aspect of its history but because of the lack of a confident healer able to recognise the ailment and say, as ancient Egyptian physicians would on approaching a sick bed, “This is an ailment I am familiar with and I know how to cure it.”

Mahran very simply and modestly went to the patient in his home, exorcising the ghosts of a whole population. In the theatre healing is immediately apparent on account of costume, design and scenery. The language given to the characters is saturated with the epoch and social conditions in which each lived, creating the necessary shortcuts to the very core of the problem. These women, whether a submissive, bullied wife from an extinct harem or the much valorised Mahfouzian whore, emerge in their full contextual presence to underscore the fact that the modern-day wife as characterised by the modern-day actress (Heba Ra’ouf) has not only left behind terrorising deprivations but is also the upholder of core values much sought after and sung in an Egypt no longer suffering inertia and paralysis, no longer mummified in a freezer and thus able to extricate both herself and her male counterpart from the horrors of the narcissistic archives.  

This article would not be complete if it did not mention the vision of the director Galal Othman, who made the audience move full circle in their chairs to follow the scenes unfolding around them in four directions, thus enhancing the sense of malleability of time and endorsing the notion of the dangers of all that is still and static. Hats off to all who contributed to this inspiring experience.    

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