Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Virgin Spring

‫Censorship, theatre‬ and (counter)revolution: Soha Hesham goes to the Ballon Theatre to talk to the young director Mohamed El-Sharkawy

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Evidently censorship is reaching new peaks with the rise of political Islam in Egypt. Not that it wasn’t happening under Mubarak: it seems to be affecting a much wider cross section of society and curbing freedom of expression more directly and more often than before. Examples abound not only in art but also in the media and the internet: the banning of the satellite channel Dream, the conviction of cyber-activist Albert Saber in September for making pro-atheist statements on Facebook, etc.

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The most recent subject of censorship was a play, ‘Aash’in Turabik (In Love with Your Soil), written by Yasser Allam, starring a group of fresh graduates of the Higher Institute of Theatre Arts and directed by Mohamed El-Sharkawy, 27 — better known to the audience as an actor; he featured in last year’s Ramadan TV serial drama Taraf Talet (Third Party) and director Galal El-Sharkawy’s 2008 play Donia Aragozat (Clown World). Initially scheduled to open on the third day of Eid Al-Adha, ‘Aash’in Turabik was postponed nine days. On its opening at the state owned Ballon Theatre, the young director, now doing his masters at the Higher Institute of Theatre Arts, took the time to explain the story of the play:

“The idea behind the play occurred to me during the Islamist demonstration known as Kandahar Friday; it became clearer during the Mohamed Mahmoud Street events [when non-Islamist demonstrators clashed with the police]. I had the desire to deliver a message about the incidents that followed the 18-day sit-in of Tahrir Square, an idea I already had about us Egyptians: that we give in to happiness very fast but forget just as fast. So I started to work with my colleague, script-writer Yasser Allam; we started to gather together a group of young people who belonged in the revolution camp. My priority was to engage everyone in their own specialisation. The head of the Theatre Art House at the time was Sayed Mohamed Ali; he could’ve agreed to the play himself but he sent me to meet with the manager of the Youth Theatre and, as it turned out, he too was intimidated by the idea.”

When, last June, Nasser Abdel-Moneim replaced Mohamed Ali as head of the Theatre Art House, he liked the idea and offered his full support. El-Sharkawy continued while preparations were being made on stage: “The idea began to grow with 22 of young people improvising; we came up with 86 themes, and narrowed them down to the eight actually included in the play: the counterrevolution, the conflict between religious and liberal parties, the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, our African dimension and the water problem, the idea of dreaming and what Egypt will be like in 2050.”

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Mohamed Youssef is one of the actors in ‘Aash’in Turabik; he bears an uncanny resemblance to comedy star Karim Abdel-Aziz. Youssef had various previous experiences in theatre and TV series such as Al-Dali and Mesh Alf Leila wi Leila (Not A Thousand and One Nights); and he feels “the play presents eight satirical portraits; in the first I play the host of a talk show called Al-Mo’amra (The Conspiracy) discussing Egyptian concerns before and after the revolution”; the episode also includes the character of a vernacular poet who does a brilliant and hilarious imitation of Hisham Al-Gakh. Youssef continues, “An imaginary portrait showing what Egypt would’ve been like had the revolution failed to remove the old regime and picturing Egypt with Mubarak and his son ruling Egypt.”

Another portrait shows how the young protesters wanted to see their country; yet another, the contrast between Islamist and liberal parties, during which each group, with beards and wigs, respectively, takes one side of the stage to engage in a debate mixed with singing and sarcastic lines between the two that ends up showing how both sides are totally mistaken in how they see one another. One of the most impressive portraits was about Prime Minister Hisham Kandil’s comment after his visit to Ethiopia in an attempt to solve the water problem, advising Egyptians to wear cotton and sit in one room to use one air-conditioner to save electricity.

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But there were disappointments during rehearsals: “We faced various obstacles and we didn’t have support. We the cast of the play rented a place for rehearsals at our own expense; and, later, when we objected, a place not fit for human habitation was offered to us. But we had faith in our idea and we were trying to surpass the romantic idea of the revolution to present something new to the audience who probably saw a great deal of art dealing with the revolution in a romantic way and expressing nostalgia for the days of Tahrir. After Abdel-Moneim finally resigned, there were various attempts to terminate rehearsals and to abort the whole idea. Right before the inauguration of the play,” and here is the crux, “the censorship committee refused the script.

“I invited the censorship committee to a rational discussion, idea against idea. Discussion would be pointless if their aim was just to cut the script; luckily enough, the committee agreed to have a discussion. Their first objection was a scene that included people with beards; for my part I asked the logical question: In the same, sarcastic scene, non-Islamic party members wear a big wig of hair; why don’t you object to that? Their answer was that non-Islamists are open-minded enough to understand the wig, but Islamists speak a language of violence and won’t accept the beards. Their other objection was to the name Kandil, and the third was not to mention founder of the Muslim Brotherhood Hassan Al-Banna directly — they argued that the prime minister and the heirs of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood could take us to court.

“I was obliged to say, if the committee is so convinced that Islamists speak a language of violence, surely I should be given the chance to say so one way or another; I insisted I wouldn’t remove a single thing. I would take a stand even at the cost of my life; I feel committed to presenting what I have to say for the sake of the martyrs of revolution to whom I dedicated the play; they paid with their lives so we could have our freedom.” And indeed, as I saw for myself, while the play is sarcastically critical of Islamists, it is equally critical of liberals and many other categories of people. Seemingly, another censorship committee was arranged especially for the controversial play but the results were the same, with the same response from the director; the problem began to draw attention.

“After feeling somewhat discouraged and concentrating on how this problem could be solved after all these negotiations with the censorship committee, I wrote a post about it on my Facebook page and I found very strong support from a huge number of artists; so we held a solidarity sit-in at the theatre with participation from various artists such as director Nasser Abdel-Moneim, artist Sabri Fawaz, actor Sameh Al-Sereiti representing the Actors’ Syndicate, political activists Maha Effat and Ahmed Abu Doma. In consequence, a third censorship committee — headed by Fathi Abdel-Sattar and including another nine members — came to see the play and accepted the script; we were finally allowed to open. I expressed to Abdel-Sattar my wish that this should be the modus operandi of the censorship committee and not an exception to the rule granted because of media pressure, because one of the main aims of the revolution was freedom and this is not how freedom should be practiced at all.”

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In this context, El-Sharkawy took the time to explain the misconceptions dogging the Ministry of Culture: “We should admit that we have a huge problem in theatre production; ministry higher-ups who used to belong in the clique of former Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni are convinced that the core of a successful production is its high cost, not the material. They are very old-fashion people, imagining that we can still have a play for three full hours with a break. Young people need to see something shorter and hipper; my play has the lowest budget, the lowest payment for actors — and yet it has achieved the highest revenues, the hall is fully booked daily in spite the fact that there is no support and the cast is doing the marketing of the play individually. Along the same lines, I will not use old-fashioned techniques like introducing a king from history to drive my point home; if I want to do sarcasm, especially a political cabaret like ‘Aash’in Turabik, it will be in a direct way, like the scene in which Kandil is mentioned which they wanted me to remove from the script.”

El-Sharkawy gives the example of another play, Al-Ayam (The Days), a very expensive production that draws into the hall only four or people a day; the theatre management let it happen, he says, even though they wouldn’t let him put on his play before the theatre was 60 per cent full. Speaking of avant-garde techniques and the idea of the political cabaret, “I have the very nice option of updating the play whenever something politically related happens,” El-Sharkawy says. “I can add it to the play; for instance, now I’m in the middle of preparing a new insert about the Islamist who appeared on TV calling for destroying the Pyramids and the Sphinx.” The play has been widely acclaimed, so much so that, for the first time in Egyptian history, a sponsor is presenting the offer of a theatre: “This is how we can find money for production, while the easiest excuse for censorship and deprivation is to talk about insufficient funds...”

The issues of the former regime are playing out anew in every aspect of life; it could even be said that the Mubarak regime practised suppression in a more intelligent way: no newspaper was taken out the print press directly;  no satellite channels was summarily discontinued.” Under Mubarak, El-Sharkawy recounts, “The only dealing I had with a censorship committee was in 2008 when I was working with director Galal El-Sharkawy in Donia Aragozat (Clown World). I was playing the role of former president Hosni Mubarak, and the same head of the censorship committee that refused ‘Aash’in Turabik rejected a scene that alluded to Gamal Mubarak inheriting the post — I actually reminded him of the incident.” Even now, El-Sharkawy reports, he saw Ministry of Culture officials who used to be members in the Future Association affiliated with Mubarak and are now members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood; they now have beards.

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But was ‘Aash’in Turabik El-Sharkawy’s directorial debut? “Yes, this is a virgin experience — the first for almost everyone in the cast, my and Allam’s debut and that of the designer and most of the actors, to whom it is a direct outcome of the revolution. However I tried to replace “bread, freedom and social justice” [the principal slogan of the revolution] with such relevant terms as “honourable official”, “clean pavement”, “not to be a guest in my own country” and many more. Nevertheless, I have to be politically aware of everything to present a certain point of view and defend it to the end. I even thought about joining a political party and I came to the conclusion that I can’t, in spite of my admiration for the Dostour (Constitution) Party and Mohamed Al-Baradei: I don’t want to be biased to the point of view of a party that maybe one day I will want to criticise. I’m committed to 30 days of performance the play with the possibility of expansion, there were successful experiences like Qahwa Sada (Black Coffee) that remained on stage for up to two years — Shezlong lasted for one — but I still don’t know how long my play will last on stage. 

“My revolutionary dream about censorship, particularly in the post-revolution era, is to cancel all kinds of censorship and to leave it to three main aspects: the conscience of the creative art, the opinion of the art critique and to the role of the syndicate. What it does — is it forces you defend people of whom you are not convinced only for the sake of freedom of expression. I’m not convinced of Tawfik Okasha, for example; but I’m against banning his or any other programme on the basis of the speaker opposing a particular ideology; I only supported [the celebrated actress] Elham Shahine because I refuse the basis of their attack on her — and the same is true of [comedy superstar] Adel Imam.”

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El-Sharkawy even includes his experience with the censorship committee, with two actors playing censors suddenly interrupting the show on stage. The performance is full of energy and young talent: Hala Sorour, Hagar Gad, Mido Abdel-Kader, Abdallah Selim, Ahmed Samir, Zakaria Maarouf, Rania Al-Khatib, Nora Nour, Ahmed Mubarak and Ahmed Ali are some of the actors. Before finally leaving to join his cast and crew, El-Sharkawy made a very persuasive remark about the Islamists in the context of the current unrest: “In their foolishness they will lose their political ground.”

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