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

Ahram Weekly

The Ramadan stage

Nora Amin roots for street performances in the provinces

The Ramadan stage

For decades the Egyptian traditions of entertainment during the holy month of Ramadan were centred around television productions. Everybody gathered around the television set to watch the drama series, the entertainment TV shows and the old popular Fawazeer (pr riddle) shows. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Culture continued to hold cultural events in some of its venues. Among those were folk music and traditional Sufi dance, reflecting an understanding of Ramadan as a time for ritualistic practices and traditions. And so the music and dance performances on offer had to be connected to some kind of religious, spiritual or at least traditional domain. In this context there has been no room for theatre or contemporary performances, which were generally regarded as unsuitable. I had always wondered why those brilliantly presented performative rituals should be restricted to the month of Ramadan, and why must the cultural scene respect this ancient categorisation of the performing arts.

This year, looking at the programme of the ministry’s Artistic House of Theatre, you can see that no prior announcement has been made regarding the cultural and artistic events of Ramadan. The main announcement focuses on ending the performance nights of state-owned theatre productions, clearly due to Ramadan approaching. Nonetheless there is no sign of what will be presented instead unless nothing is planned, which probably means folk dance and religious chanting as usual. It would be quite relevant to revive and re-stage some of the most successful state theatre productions that deal with spirituality.

These include Maher Mahmoud’s As You’re Seeing Him, produced by Al-Tali’a Theatre, a musical performance with a cast hailing from all over the country, which can therefore easily tour the provinces. This performance brings artistic excellence into the area of performing spirituality, and breaks the usual format of a chorus chanting religious songs by transforming it into a theatrical ritual experience of outstanding solos performatively interwoven. The Forty Rules of Passion by Adel Hassan, produced by Al-Salam Theatre, is another example of a musical performance that directly addresses Sufi music and songs. Composed by a master of musical theatre compositions, Mohamed Hosni, the production has made the largest income in theatre during 2017, and should also tour the cities of Egypt. Ramadan could be a good time for those successful productions to expand and break the traditional centralisation of culture. 

The Ramadan stage

It might also be a good idea to use the extreme popularity of television during that month to present excerpts from those productions on television, especially the songs that can be easily presented as “video clips”. This could be a successful tactic for outreach and marketing as well as expanding the offerings of theatre via television.  I believe there is a good possibility to reverse the classical image of Ramadan being the wrong month for theatre into a new image of investing in televised diffusion to publicise for theatre by presenting clips from the most successful performances either from state owned theatre or the independent scene. It is also possible to present scenes from previous productions in which many of the television’s up-and-coming stars took part.

In general, it is worthwhile to celebrate Ramadan in diverse forms and in a decentralised way: to serve the distant provinces of Egypt would be a message of social and cultural justice, equal to the messages of charity towards the sick and deprived. Cultural deprivation is indeed a form of injustice, and if Ramadan is the month of social solidarity and good deeds, then the state ought to address equality and justice within its own cultural policy during that month, proving that donations to hospitals and orphanages are not the only way to recognise its duty to the unprivileged communities, nor is it the only tool to reconstruct a healthy society, because cultural equality and justice form a guaranteed path towards the healing of the social fabric and the bridging of economic gaps via the arts. 

Maybe there is still a chance for solidarity between the underprivileged communities in the provinces and theatre as an underprivileged branch of the arts. The gatherings of spectators could trigger the community’s sense of reunion, possibly strengthening human relations and connections before everybody goes back to hide in cocoons infiltrated only by the television set and social media, except in villages where internet and social media are still not popular. 

We could even be so ambitious as to wish that those potential street performances will extend beyond Ramadan, becoming a stable source of culture in the provinces throughout the year. I know this is something the Ministry of Culture can do, which it has already done on occasion. And I know the Artistic House of Theatre and the Cultural Palaces are both eager to cooperate again and again. Last but not least, I know of several independent artists who have always put their sense social responsibility before any financial gain or personal glory; one of those fighters is Mohammed Fawzy, who founded Kayan Marionette to train young people to produce puppet theatre, an art form that perfectly suited to mobility and touring in the provinces while speaking to all ages and background. Another fighter is Ahmed Aboul Nasr, who has been developing new work and directing in the Oases, always challenging the obstacles and spreading faith in theatre wherever he goes. In such people there are real possibilities for independent theatre to start reversing the ancient conflict between Ramadan and theatre.

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