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A story with a moral
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 03 - 2007

The first Cairo International Forum of Theatre for Children and Young People -- a non-governmental, six-day event -- was launched at Al-Arayes theatre on 21 February. Nehad Selaiha catches its tail end and talks to the man behind the scene
Though we have had an international children's film festival for 17 years (its 17th edition opened last week in the presence of the minister of culture, amid thick media coverage), it was not until this year that anything in this line was attempted with regard to children's theatre. The most ambitious effort the ministry of culture ever made in this direction was organizing a Pan-Arab Children's Theatre Convention in 1988 and persuading the governor of Suez to act as co-sponsor and host its performances and seminars. This promising undertaking, however, conceived as a bi-yearly event, was overtaken by the Gulf War and fizzled out before it could hold its second session. Since then, there has been no talk or a revival, let alone of an expanded international festival.
It was on the initiative of an independent troupe which specializes in the arts of performing for children, including puppet shows and shadow-plays, that an international festival for children's theatre was held in Egypt, for the first time, in February this year. Though small-scale, with only five companies from five countries, including Egypt, taking part, and a total of 7 productions -- the Jordanian National Group of the Interaction Theatre and the Austrian Konnex Dance Theatre contributed two each, besides the three presented by the T-Magisch Theatre from the Netherlands, the Swedish Teater Tre Group, and the Egyptian Manethon company -- this event which wisely skirted the word 'festival', with all its mixed associations and grand expectations, billing itself instead as the 1st Cairo International Forum of Theatre for Children & Young People, was a truly ground-breaking venture which, hopefully, will develop into a full-fledged festival in future years, drawing more funds, publicity and audiences. One also hopes it will inspire other groups to follow suit and stage similar multi-cultural encounters in other towns and provinces, and, perhaps, persuade the ministry of culture to finally create its own international festival for children's theatre.
Significantly, the independent theatre company which initiated this brave venture calls itself Manethon, after the famous Manethon of Sebennytos (present-day Samannud) -- the Egyptian priest who, in the 3rd Century B.C., at the request of Ptolemy I, composed in Greek a history of Egypt ( Aegyptiaca ) which ran into 30 volumes, progressing from mythical times to the year 323 B.C., and introduced in it, for the first time, the 30-dynasties historical division still used by Egyptologists today with some modifications. The fact that the founder of the company, Mohamed Karim, had studied Graeco-Roman archaeology at the University of Tanta before he joined the theatre department at Hilwan university, may account for the choice of name. But Karim adds that the name was also meant to define the cultural identity of the group as Egyptian and, at the same time, stress that this identity was rooted in cultural multiplicity, diversity and exchange.
That the Manethon members believe in cultural dialogue, interaction and interweaving, is implicit in their name, and, indeed, their contribution to this forum was thoroughly suffused with this faith and communicated a message of peace and tolerance. Namnam wi 'Amlaq (Teeny-weeny and Hulky-bulky), a shadow-puppet play, features two lonely, friendless creatures who, on account of their unnatural sizes (Namnam is very small and 'Amlaq quite gigantic) and unusual looks (both combine features from different animals), are shunned and ostracized by the rest of the 'normal' animals and become social outcasts in the jungle community. Consequently, they become aggressive and thoroughly distrustful, and when they meet, they display towards each other the same irrational prejudices against 'difference' they have subconsciously internalized from their society. By the end of the play, however, through dialogue and shared activities, they manage to break through those barriers and strike up a friendship. This beautiful, profound play was based on a German text by Georg Bendensky, adapted and directed by Karim, with lyrics by Ahmed Zeidan, music by Saad Beltagui, puppets by Ayman Hamdoun, and light and sound by Ulfat Uthman. Other core members of the group include: actress and costume-designer, Bushra Medani; set-designer, Omar Kamal; and actor and jack-of-all-trades (the dynamo of the group, Karim calls him) Mohamed Al-Sueissi.
For an independent, self-funding troupe of this size, where the age range is between 25 and 35, to even think of taking on such a task seems mad; to actually manage to pull it off amounts to a little miracle. The whole thing was a riddle and I sought out Karim to help me solve it. But the solution itself amounted to a riddle which needed further explanations. For two hours I sat with him outside Al-Arayes theatre, on the last day of the festival, listening open-eyed and trying to fit together the amazing bits of jigsaw puzzle he kept pouring on the table. "It all happened so quickly," he told me; "on 29 June, 2006, the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (more commonly known by its French initials as ASSITEJ) held a meeting on the fringe of a Shakespeare festival for children's theatre in Linz, Austria and decided to make Egypt a full member via the Manethon company, nominating me as the head of the Egyptian branch." He went on to say how proud he was that Egypt has finally joined this prestigious international body which dates back to 1965 and boasts a membership of 81 countries, with Egypt swelling the number to 82. But I wasn't interested; how these people had come to know about him and Manethon was what intrigued me.
"I had met many of them, including the current head of ASSITEJ, Wolfgang Schneider, at children's theatre festivals abroad, in Tunisia, where the company performed twice, in 2005 and 2006; in Turkey, at the Bursa festival in 2005, where I went solo, with no performances, but took part in the seminars and people seemed to like what I said; in Japan, 2006 where our shadow-puppet play was a big success; in Austria, Sweden, and, of course, South Korea." What took him to South Korea and who financed all those itineration? I breathlessly asked. "When I travel alone, I pay my way; when the company comes along to perform, we make arrangements with the host organisation, as we did when we went to Tunisia and Japan. In the case of Tunisia, they paid the travel fare, but deducted it out of the total 10-day per diem allowance we had agreed on. Nevertheless, to cut costs, we travelled by road -- a very exhausting journey." Thank God the company does not use children in its performances, I found myself thinking.
What about South Korea which was no mere jaunt to a festival but a long sojourn, extending over a year and a half? "It was in 2003, the time I decided to form my own company and specialise in children's theatre; I went there on my own, at my own expense; I wanted to learn more about theatre, particularly puppets and Children's theatre; I felt that neither my academic studies in theatre at Hilwan university, nor the diverse, practical experience I had gained working on the fringe or attending workshops at Al-Hanager were sufficient." From 1993, when he left Tanta with a B.A in archaeology, to 2002, when he graduated from Hilwan university, Karim worked with serious, independent groups, such as Hani Ghanem's Al-Masrah Al-Mutamared (Theatre of Rebellion), where he assisted in different capacities in all its productions, and Midhat Salem's Ru'ia (Vision), where he was mostly an actor and they mainly performed at the North Korean cultural centre before it closed down. He also tried his hand at directing adult plays for amateurs, staging in 1997 both Lenin El-Ramli's Sa'doun Al-Majnoun (Mad S'adoun) and an adaptation of Yaser Allam's Ana (I) at the Youth Centre in Samannud -- the Sebennytos of Manethon.
We laughed long as we remembered how Hani Ghanem, in his memorable, 1997 A Journey, had made him roll in the mud, in a small room off the courtyard of the historical House of Zeinab Khatoun, where the performance took place, and how this had resulted in his thin, flannel pants sticking to his skin, making him look quite nude, and sending one female critic screaming hysterically out of the room. She raised hell afterwards, demanding that the show be banned on grounds of obscenity. We also remembered Ghanem's Madness of the Gods, performed in the same space the following year, in which Karim served as both actor and assistant director; it had whipped up a similar vituperative campaign, with charges of apostasy this time. As the memories flooded in, the jigsaw puzzle bits clicked into place; I felt I knew everything that really mattered about Karim and needed to ask no more questions.
People of the calibre of Hani Ghanem, Mohamed Karim and their ilk, are self-made little miracles that grace our miserable, mundane, timorously paced and timidly calculated theatrical existence. Yes, it had all happened so quickly, as Karim said; the time between his nomination head of the ASSITEJ branch in Egypt and the date he set for the forum was short, but the challenge was irresistible. He would prove to his colleagues in ASSITEJ (Association Internationale du Theatre pour l'Enfance et la Jeunesse) that he was worthy of their confidence, and that Egypt was worthy of its membership whatever it cost. It is not money that makes art, Karim believes, but talent, imagination, and a lot of faith, dedication and hard work; this may eventually bring in money, invariably does; but if it doesn't, who cares? Yes, the ASSITEJ nomination was a test and an ordeal; and he wanted to start big and do credit to his country. A big event was needed, and Karim set about inviting all the groups whose performances he had seen and admired in Japan, Korea, Turkey, Tunisia, Austria, Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. He would personally provide accommodation and full board. But air tickets were quite beyond his financial capacity. Of the invited groups, only four could manage, at such a short notice, to find subsidies, or a sponsor to pay their passage.
While the office of Egypt Air in Vienna, via Botros Travel Vienna, together with the embassy of Austria and the Austrian cultural institute in Cairo, paid the air fare of the Austrian Konnex group, the Royal Jordan Air took care of the passage costs of the Jordanian group, the embassy of the Netherlands in Cairo paid the air fare of the T-Magisch group, and the main branch of the Swedish institute in Stockholm provided air tickets for the Teater Tre Group. Karim, himself, got no financial support from any domestic or international authority. But for the festival to take place, a venue was needed. Karim had no money left to rent a small theatre or hall for 6 days and pay for sound and lighting facilities. He presented a draft of the project to Ashraf Zaki, the present head of the state theatre organisation, who liked it so much that he promised to host the festival at Al-Arayes and Al-Tali'a theatres for free. As it turned out, 'free' was a very elastic word which involved plenty of overheads and could be stretched at any time to accommodate an incessant demand for bribes.
"The workers and technicians in both venues were veritable pests, constantly demanding tips, disturbing the actors if they didn't pay, sometimes literally kicking them out before official closing time, or switching off the lights during rehearsals." Nevertheless, "it was a real gesture of good will that Ashraf Zaki gave me the use of these theatres, and actually attended the final performance, the Swedish Halli Hallo, in person."" Karim says. It did not occur to him that Zaki was perhaps there in his official capacity, to greet the Swedish ambassador who was also present, rather than out of a sense of solidarity and genuine camaraderie. Am I being too cynical? The fact that Zaki withheld his verdict regarding the use of the venues -- yes or no -- until the very last minute threw the whole Manethon publicity team into a terrible dither, with the result that many of the people who would have loved to follow the festival never got to hear about it at all, or did so when it was nearly over. The lucky few who were emailed the schedule of performances two days after the opening could not understand how any sane person, familiar with the Cairo traffic and the pattern of life in Egypt, could ask them to drive down to Ataba square at mid-day to catch a half-hour performance at 3 pm, then expect them to be back for another at 5, and a third at 8, both equally short. Shortness can be a wonderful virtue, of course, but not when it leaves arid hours of useless lolling about between shows.
With his personal resources overstretched, and no financial help from outside, Karim could not afford publicity and relied on phone calls and emails to circulate news of the event. The result was a distressing lack of spectators, with the number of the audience for the whole festival totaling about one thousand. The audience whom this festival targeted, was really meant for, the children, were conspicuous by their absence. As I watched the last performance in the festival, the delightful Swedish Halli Hallo, designed for 2-4 kids and centering on playing as a way of resolving conflicts, discovering the self, the world, and the other, and reconciling them all in a bond of friendship, I kept regretting Karim had not put one of his alternative-spaces contingency plans into effect and spread the whole festival wide, allowing the actors to seek their proper audiences in schools, fun parks, public gardens and orphanages. I remembered that he had told me that to ease the frustration of the Swedish group at performing to empty halls, he had arranged for them to give a performance at a school for orphans in Maadi, and how that performance had been a wonderful experience and convinced him that theatre, specially children's theatre, should go to its young, invariably bounded and incarcerated audiences, wherever they exist, rather than wait for them to come to it. Halli Hallo was a heart-rending experience, not only on account of the profundity of the concept, the subtlety of the treatment, and the beauty of the execution, but because all the gifts and graces it had to offer seemed utterly wasted.
Watching Halli Hallo, with the head of the Egyptian state theatre organisation on my left, and the Swedish ambassador on my right, was not conducive to good reception. Everything was wrong; we should be somewhere else, I felt, dressed differently. Had I obeyed my impulse, I would have rushed out into the bustling square outside and dragged in all the two-year olds I could find. I would have come back with a thousand or more, and how they would have loved Halli Hallo !


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