Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

A statue comes to life

Nehad Selaiha welcomes the revival of a play by Mohsen Misilhi, one of the victims of the 2005 Beni Sweif fire

Al-Ahram Weekly

Elli Bana Masr (He Who built Egypt), by Mohsen Misilhi, directed by Islam Imam, a Youth Theatre production, Al-Ayem small hall, opened 29/12/2013 and still running.

The current production of Mohsen Misilhi’s Elli Bana Masr (He Who Built Egypt) by the Youth Theatre Company is a long overdue gesture of recognition to a gifted playwright who, despite a substantial output in a comparatively short writing career, remained largely ignored by the State Theatre Organisation in his lifetime. Apart from Muhakamat Al-Kahen (The Trial of the Priest, adapted from a short story by Bahaa Taher and directed by Nur El-Sherif at Al-Hanger in 1995) and Getting off at the Next Stop (produced by the Television Theatre Company in 2003), most of his eight plays, starting with the unforgettable Darb Askar in 1985, were staged on the fringe of mainstream theatre, either by the Cultural Palaces Organisation or student and amateur troupes. Watching Elli Bana Masr for the third time (I saw two productions of it in the 1990s, one directed by Khalid Galal and performed in a University Theatre competition held at the Supreme Council of Youth and Sport, the other produced by the Cultural Palaces and staged at Wikalet Al-Ghouri by Isam El-Sayed) I found it as fresh as ever.  

The title of the play comes from a line in a popular ballad which says: “Elli bana Masr / Kan fil asl / Halawani,” which literally translates as: ‘He who built Cairo was originally a confectioner.” Rather than mention Cairo by its Arabic name – ‘Al-Qahirah’ (meaning ‘the Vanquisher’, ‘the Conqueror’, or ‘the Victorious’, and so called after the planet Mars, in Arabic Al-Qahir, which appeared as its foundations were laid), the ballad uses the word Masr (the Egyptian Arabic pronunciation of the name for Egypt itself) in accordance with the old habit of rural Egyptians of conferring the name of the whole country on the capital to mark its importance as the central seat of government. But why should the builder of Cairo, Jawhar Al-Siqilli (the Sicilian), a renowned military leader who led the Fatimid conquest of Egypt and founded the city of Cairo in 969, be nicknamed a ‘halawani’?  According to folklorists, the nickname refers to Al-Siqilli’s reported skill in making sweet pastries before he was sold as a slave to the Fatimid Khalif Al Mansour Billah to serve in his army.

Misilhi premises Elli Bana Masr on the idea of travelling in time – a familiar theme in world literature that other Egyptian dramatists have put to good use. But rather than carry his hero to the past, as Lenin El-Ramli did with his two main characters in Ahlan Ya Bakawat (Welcome Gentlemen), or thrust him into the future, like the heroes of Tawfiq El-Hakim’s  Rihla ila Al-Ghad (Voyage to Tomorrow), or of El Ramli’s Wada’an Ya Bakawat (Goodbye Gentlemen), Misilhi follows the example of Mohamed Ibrahim Al-Muwaylihi in Hadith Isa Ibn Hisham, or  Fatra min al Zaman (The Narrative of Isa Ibn Hisham, or A Period of Time) – a social satire in the rigid form of the Arabic maqama, first  serialized in Misbah Al-Sharq (1864-1906), a literary magazine founded by his father, then published in book form in 1907. Like Al-Muwaylihi, Misilhi uses the device of a resurrected figure from a previous era to project the present from the perspective of the past and discuss issues of current interest.  

Comparing the two texts, one is no less struck by the parallels between them than by the sharp, telling contrasts. Hadith Isa Ibn Hisham begins with the narrator, Isa, at a cemetery, pondering mortality, when suddenly a figure appears to him out of the grave. The resurrected figure turns out to be Muhammad Ali’s minister, Ahmad Pasha al-Manikli. In Elli Bana Masr, the action is triggered by a different but equally fantastical occurrence: one fine morning, the statue of Talaat Harb Pasha (1867-1941), which stands in a downtown square that carries its name, comes to life and leaves its pedestal to wander around. Both characters belong to the era of the Egyptian renaissance, when Egypt was trying to transform into a modern state under the rule of Mohamed Ali’s dynasty: Ahmad Pasha served Mohamed Ali, the builder of modern Egypt, and Talaat Harb was granted the rank of Pasha by one of the descendants of Mohamed Ali.  Both are taken round by guides who belong to the present, are dismayed by the changes in society they see and encounter various problems as they attempt to make sense of the new reality and deal with it. Like Ahmad pasha who, searches for his property and descendents only to find that the only surviving relative has squandered it all, Talaat Pasha discovers that all his efforts to establish a strong, independent national economy have been almost wiped out by a corrupt political and economic system.

However, while Ahmed Pasha has no historical significance, Talaat Harb occupies a prominent place in modern Egyptian history. And though both reject the values of the present and uphold those of a past era, the values are different in each case, and so is the present each confronts. In contrast to the conservative Ahmed Pasha who is troubled and irked by the process of modernization in the Egypt he encounters, Talaat Harb, the champion of change and progress, is shocked by the general degeneration and backwardness of contemporary Egyptian society. Indeed, the choice of Talaat Harb is of crucial importance to the satirical purposes of the play and its message, and the disappearance of his statue is used as an all encompassing metaphor for the collapse of the dream of a free, modern Egypt, with a thriving, independent economy. Harb realised that for Egypt to gain real freedom and political independence from foreign occupation, control and interference, it had first to have a strong, independent national economy. Prompted by this belief, he took the first major step towards economic independence by founding the first real Egyptian bank in 1920 – a bank owned by Egyptian shareholders, staffed by Egyptian nationals, and using Arabic, the national language, in all communications. Under his leadership, this bank (Banque Misr) served as a launching pad for a large number of industrial and commercial companies operating in various fields, such as textiles, transport and shipping, publishing, insurance, mines and quarries, and real estate. It was thanks to his initiatives that Egypt had its first national airline (Egypt Air), its first national sporting club, Al-Ahly (The national), and its first national movie-making company (Studio Misr).

When Gamal Abdel Nasser, the first Egyptian to rule Egypt since the Pharaohs, came to power after the 1952 revolution, he honoured Talaat Harb by having several streets and squares in Cairo and other cities named after him and ordering the removal of the statue of Soliman Pasha Al-Faransawi, Mohamed Ali’s French-born military chief of staff, from the square downtown which bore his name, and its replacement by one of Talaat Harb, with a corresponding alteration of square’s name. The 5-meter bronze statue, sculpted by Fathi Mohamed, with the assistance of Farouq Ibrahim, was erected on 12 February, 1964. It represents Harb in a formal European suit, with a vest and tie, but wearing the traditional tarboosh, looking ahead in determination, with his right foot stepping forward, as if moving into the future. The scroll he holds in his hands presumably represents the documents of the public subscription campaign which funded the establishment of the national bank, and as such symbolizes gaining control over Egypt’s economy. Ironically, President Sadat, whose economic policies were far removed from Harb’s directives, also honoured that great industrialist, posthumously awarding him the Nile Collar – the highest ranking of all Egyptian decorations – in 1980, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of Banque Misr.

Misilhi opens his play with the disappearance of this historically significant statue as an ominous sign of the revelations to follow. The authorities jump to the conclusion that it was stolen and initiate a feverish, nationwide search to find it and capture the thieves. The search is prompted by fear of punishment for losing government property, rather than by any realization of the value of the man it represents or knowledge of his history and national achievements. Indeed, its absence is not noticed for a while and none of the crowd in the square, including the policeman on guard, seems to have ever heard of the man it represents. When Talaat Harb suddenly materializes in the flesh, in his outmoded attire, complete with tarboosh, and declares his identity, he is only recognized and assisted by three young people: an unemployed intellectual with a PhD, reduced to vagrancy, and two down-at-heel aspiring actors engaged to each other. Harb tells them that after so many years of watching the deterioration of the square and its frequenters, he felt he had had enough and decided to come down and find out what happened to the Egypt he left. The three accept to accompany him and act as his guides, but at every place they stop, they meet with ruthlessness, vulgarity, ugliness, ignorance, intolerance, exploitation, corruption, pretentiousness, blind fanaticism, or extreme poverty, and are always chased by the police and forced to flee.  As the tour progresses, it yields as many sad revelations as comical episodes and the satire grows harsher and darker, leading to the bleak conclusion. Realizing that his valuable legacy had been wantonly dissipated, sinking Egypt in a worse condition than when he left it, and despairing of any immediate remedy, Harb decides to quit life and resume his place on top of his pedestal, but not before he delivers an impassioned, castigating sermon.

Intended as a topical satire on the mores and morals of contemporary Egyptians and the problems they face in daily life, and loosely constructed of separate episodes linked by one or more central figures, like a Western picaresque novel, or an Arabic maqama, Elli Bana Masr allows directors some freedom in making cuts, alterations and additions in the interest of topicality and relevance. In staging the play for the Youth Theatre, Islam put this freedom to good use, updating some of the dialogue to parody the jargon of youth culture and the strange language one hears on the streets today, replacing old topical references with new ones, adding a scene that satirically parodies a meeting of so-called political activists in a downtown hangout, and introducing snatches from some vulgar songs as well as some comical dancing near the end. He chose and managed his cast well, allowing the young actors, who represent modern Egyptian society, to violently caricature their parts and indulge in boisterous, farcical antics, presumably to deepen the contrast between them and veteran actor Mahmoud El-Guindi, who rendered Talaat Harb  as a sedate, dignified, serious figure. Throughout the performance, he remained the only source of stability and reason in what seemed a chaotic, tumultuous and garishly raucous reality.

Hazem Shebl’s set reproduced the familiar architectural features of Talaat Harb square in the form of painted scenery that enclosed the stage on all three sides from top to bottom. In front of this background, Shebl placed an imitation of the pedestal of the statue, fitted with a mechanical device for raising the actor impersonating Talaat Harb to the top to represent the statue and lowering him when the statue comes to life. Using a live actor instead of a reproduction of the statue in papier-mache, or some such material, was clever idea. Not only did it save money and effort and make the disappearing act smoother and quicker; it also gave the statue a powerful, vibrant presence, suggesting it was more real and alive than the real people around it.  Placing the statue on one side of the square, rather than in the centre, and keeping the empty pedestal in full view throughout was another good idea, underlining, in visual terms, the marginality of all the values Talaat Harb stood for in today’s Egypt, as well as the man’s sense of alienation from the world around him when he comes to life. Despite the storms of laughter raised by the young actors and the amusing comedy triggered by the incongruity of Talaat Harb’s situation, the image that lingers longer in one’s memory after the show is of the lonely statue, which had looked strong, determined and hopeful at the beginning, now sad and bent, standing in a fading spot of light, surrounded by a mass of darkness that will soon engulf it.

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