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Conquerors and performers
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 01 - 2015

Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt), a Hanager production of Mohsen Misilhi's Abwab Al Madina (City Gates), directed by Asim Nagati, December 2014.
Dramatising history on stage to critically reflect and comment on current political events, establish parallels/contrasts between the present and the past, tackle urgent topical issues in an indirect, metaphoric way, or offer a new reading of past events that questions the generally accepted ones is a familiar practice not only in the Egyptian theatre but also in world drama. Think of Ahmed Shawqi's Masra' (The Death of) Cleopatra, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Brecht's Life of Galileo, or Jerome Lawrence's and Robert Edwin Lee's Inherit the Wind. A similar purpose was palpably what director Asim Nagati (who also currently heads the Egyptian National Theatre Centre) had in mind when he decided to revive Mohsen Misilhi's hitherto unjustly ignored quasi historical play Bab Zuweila, which had its premiere in 2004, in a regional theatre production by the Suez National Company, directed by Nagati himself under the new title Bab El-Madina (The City Gate). I did not unfortunately see that first production and therefore do not know what Nagati did with it. In the current Al-Hanager production, however, the Ottoman conquest of Egypt is given precedence over other themes and put firmly in focus. This entails some changes and leads to a marked shift in the general impact of the play and its message.
Written in 1999, only six years before its author's tragic death in the fire that destroyed the Beni Sweif cultural palace in the course of a theatre festival in 2005, Bab Zuweila is temporally set in the 16th Century, during the Ottoman–Mameluke War of 1516–1517, and shows a bankrupt Egypt, overrun by corruption, ruled over by a cruel and extortionate sultan and an unconscionable, self-seeking, disloyal clique and facing at once internal and external enemies. The external enemies are, first, the Portuguese, who having discovered the route round the Cape in 1497 sought to control the Eastern seas, thus depriving the Egyptian treasury of valuable revenues, and then the invading Ottoman armies led by Sultan Selim I who, having vanquished the Safavid Persians at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, turned his full might against the Mamelukes, who ruled in Syria and Egypt, to complete the Ottoman conquest of the Middle East. The internal enemies, on the other hand, are the Mameluke rulers themselves who not only fail to defend the country due to their bigoted adherence to traditional methods of warfare, with cavalry using bows and arrows, against the modern firearms used by the Ottomans, but also betray it by joining forces with Selim I to preserve their wealth and might.
The play opens sometime before the Battle of Marj Dabiq, which took place on 24 August, 1516, and in which Sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri (born in 1441) was defeated and killed by the Ottoman army, led by Selim I, and ends with the defeat and capture of his successor, Al-Ashraf Tuman bay and his hanging at the age of forty at the City Gate, Bab Zuweila, which give the play its title on April 15, 1517. In between the two events, which mark the end of the Mameluke dynasty, the play remains close to history, drawing most of its events and characters and many interesting details from the chronicles of contemporary historians of the late Mameluke and early Ottoman periods in Egypt, particularly Bada'i al-zuhur by Mohamed Ibn Iyas (1448-1522).
It shows us Sultan Qansuh Al-Ghawri deploring the loss of trade routes and revenues, complaining of the outrages of his royal Mamelukes, punishing some and taking fresh oaths of loyalty from others, and sending Al-Agami Al-Shanqaji (who becomes in the play the sultan's favourite companion and master of revels) on a secret mission to Shah Ismail I of Persia, the Ottoman's enemy. We are also introduced to Al-Ghawri's prime minister and eventual successor, Tuman bay II, who is presented as a just, upright, brave and generous man, deeply attached to Egypt and its people and harshly critical of the Mameluke's cupidity, faithlessness and venality. After the defeat and death of Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri is reported, we see Tuman bay reluctant to succeed him and it takes a lot of persuasion by religious dignitaries and popular pressure to make him accept what he regards as a thankless dignity and an onerous task. He is declared sultan without pomp or ceremony, and we see him frantically recruiting troops from various classes of society, appealing to the people to rise up in defence of their country against the invaders and attempting to quip his armies with cannons and firearms, but all at the last minute.
After the decisive battle of Ridanieh, at the doorstep of Cairo, on January 22, 1517, which Tuman bay fought bravely but lost, we watch the victorious Selim I in silhouette, reading out the historical dispatch he sent to Tuman bay in which he boasts that the Caliph, Al-Mutawakkil III, together with many traitorous judges, fugitive emirs and a horde of mercenary Mamelukes have joined his ranks, demands that his supremacy be acknowledged both in the coinage and public prayers and offers to make Tuman bay his viceroy in Egypt if he surrenders – an offer which Tuman bay disdainfully rejects, opting for a guerrilla campaign against the invaders. Though we do not see the battle of Ridanieh, we learn of Tuman bay's defeat when he walks on stage wounded, and is advised by his supporters to seek refuge with Sheikh Hassan bin Bora'e, a Bedouin chief whose life he once saved, as the play makes clear in its first scene. When Tuman bay appears next in fetters, we know that in the play, as in history, the Sheikh had ungratefully betrayed him into Turkish hands. How to kill him without making a martyr of him in the eyes of the people who love him is then debated by the victors and a solution is reached: to hang him and bribe historians, writers and popular artists to falsify his record, brand him as a traitor and destroy his reputation.
This devilish solution, which Misilhi prepares the way for earlier in the play by showing us Al-Agami dismissing the palace chronicler, brazenly declaring that history is written by the rulers, then showing him later bribing that same chronicler to glorify him in a book, sums up in a neat capsule the play's central conflict between art and power, which involves the themes of the falsification of history and the manipulation and corruption of writers and artists by rulers for political ends. Though in using history to attack Mubarak's corrupt regime and warn against increasing American hegemony in the Middle East the play seems to have been looking forward into the future, prophesying the collapse of that regime twelve years later and the spiralling of American hegemony in the post 9/11 era, its overriding preoccupation, which guarantees its enduring appeal and relevance, remains the role of the artist and intellectual in totalitarian societies, the difficult choices s/he has to make and her/his responsibility towards history and future generations.
Indeed, the conflict between art and power is built into the very structure of the play, which develops through a set of binary oppositions, or related contrasts. The world of the play is divided between two places inhabited by two distinct sets of characters: in opposition to the citadel, which represents the seat of political power and is inhabited by true historical figures, there is the street in front of the Zuweila City Gate, inhabited by new, imaginary characters, representing a host of street artists who live with and perform for and among the people. The action is triggered by the desire of two characters (both historical figures but invested with new, imaginary traits) to cross from one space to the other. These two characters are Agami and Tuman bay; and in both the conflict between art and power is replayed internally. Agami, who is here presented as a former street artist, first betrays his art to move up to the Citadel, becoming the Sultan's boon companion and master of revels, then betrays his country to gain a top military rank in the invading army. In contrast, Tuman bay, historically a prime minister and distinguished military leader, is imaginatively presented by the author as a true artist at heart, who, as a kidnapped child slave living in the Citadel, could only feel at home and find solace and friendship down below, out of the Citadel, among the people and in the company of the Bab Zuweila street artists. Furthermore, Tuman bay is made to fall deeply in love with Fatima, who keeps alive the heritage of her father, the master puppeteer and shadow player, Al-Bakry, and who at once represents the integrity of art and emerges as a symbol of Egypt.
The progress and contrasting courses and fates of these two paradoxical characters, the twin heroes of the play, or its protagonist and antagonist, form the backbone of the action. At the end of the play, Tuman bay, who in one poignant scene, which sums up his tragedy, is rejected by Fatima and his childhood friend, Tawfiq, the shadow player, as a foreign Mameluke, finally dies for Egypt, in the spot he loved and called home, among his adopted people. Al-Agami, on the other hand, though an Egyptian born trained artist, severs all ties with his art and country. Ironically, it is Al-Agami who orders the death of Tuman bay and comes up with the idea of using art to falsify his history and blacken his name. The irony serves to underline the paradoxical makeup of the two characters and enforce the contrast between them as well as the central conflict. The play leaves us wondering about the meaning of home and country. Indeed, the question of whether one's belonging is defined by birth or choice emerges as an offshoot of the action.
With its vivid representation of a crucial, painful turning point in Egyptian history, imaginative dramatization of the conflict between art and power and of the political and social responsibility of the artist, its poignant portrayal of the story of a man who makes an existential decision to become Egyptian and lays down his life to realize it, its intricate structure, clever mixture of mirth and pathos and use of the shadow play as a means of relaying information and dramatic narration, Bab Zuweila is a play fit for all times. This would amply explain its current revival at Al-Hanager, not to mention Asim Nagati's sense of loyalty to its author – his long time friend, colleague and former teacher. In directing the play, however, Nagati's overriding preoccupation seems to have been to bring home to the audience the danger of a repetition of the Ottoman invasion of Egypt under the banner of Islam by drawing a parallel between that historical disaster and the role Turkey has been playing in the Middle East since the so-called Arab Spring.
Indeed, since the 25 January revolution, Erdogan has been a staunch supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. The support has intensified since the June 30 revolution in Egypt, which immediately led to the end of the short reign of the Brotherhood in Egypt on July 3, 2013. Thenceforward, Turkey has become the regional hub for the Muslim Brotherhood's international organization, playing host to many of its conspiratorial meetings, supporting its efforts to outlaw the legitimacy of the new Egyptian leadership on the international front, as well as providing refuge to many of its Egyptian leaders, particularly after their expulsion from Qatar under Saudi pressure. As one report says, ‘the tears of Recep Tayyip Erdogan when the Egyptian security forces attempted to storm the sit-in of Rabaa al-Adawiya, proved Erdogan's ties with the Muslim Brotherhood's international organization and their mutual interest in restoring “the era of Islamic rule,” seen by the Brotherhood as the basis for protecting “the Islamic nation.”'
It is exactly against such concepts as ‘the Islamic nation' and such projects as ‘restoring the era of Islamic rule' that the current production of Bab Zuweila warns. Neither the concept nor the project is new; they have been peddled by Islamists since the 1970s and continued to gain momentum during Mubarak's reign. However, after experiencing the rule of Islamists for one year, most Egyptians have come to regard them as mere glossy covers for Turkey's current pan Islamist, expansionist project, which seeks to establish a new Islamic empire on the model of the old Ottoman one, using the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamist movements to erode the cultural identities and sense of nationhood in neighbouring Middle Eastern countries in favour of an imaginary Islamic identity.
By making us relive the tragic overrunning of the Arab world by the Ottomans in the light of recent events in Egypt since 2011, the current production of the play seeks to expose the deception peddled in the name of Islam and make the audience alive to the realities of history. The message intended by the production is clearly expressed in the new title Nagati gives to the play. He had changed Bab Zuweila into Bab El-Madina when he first staged the play in 2004. In 1914, he chose for a title Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt) – a slogan that has become emblematic of the 30 June uprising and the fall of the Islamist regime, and one which is frequently reiterated by President Al-Sisi.
This has misled some critics into dismissing the production as mere political propaganda to butter up the regime and curry favour with the president. Indeed, one critic went so far as to identify Al-Sisi with Tuman bay, accusing the director of reviving the long outdated tradition of hero-worship which glorified Nasser and idealized him as a saviour in the 1960s theatre. Such readings and interpretations are specious and unfair. They turn a blind eye to the fact that in the play Tuman bay is not a saviour but is defeated, hanged and only honoured by the people as a martyr. They also forget that his final words emphasize that no single hero can save the country, that only a united people can do that in a collective effort – a message directly opposed to hero worship. Perhaps Nagati erred in changing the original play's end. In his eagerness to urge Egyptians to stand united in the face of the spreading sway of political Islam and the ambitious dreams of Turkey's current Islamist regime, he adapted the play in a way that allows him to stop the action at the moment Tuman bay is sentenced to death, make the actors object to it and opt instead for an optimistically celebratory musical finale in which the slogan of the title features prominently.
To be able to do this, Nagai cast the play, originally written as a quasi-historical, folk drama, in a meta-theatrical frame, as a play-within-the-play, by presenting it as a text improvised by an author on the spur of the moment at the behest of a theatre troupe who insist on performing ‘something topically relevant that directly addresses urgent concerns.' Throughout the performance, the imaginary author, whom Nagati calls ‘Ibn (son of) Misilhi', thus identifying him with the real author, Mohsen Misilhi, moves in and out of the play-within-the-play, alternately impersonating characters, acting as narrator/commentator, or addressing remarks to the actors and giving them instructions. This, together with some adlibbing on the part of the actors, directed at the audience, a few topical allusions to the real world outside the play and a number of group dances accompanied by recorded songs, brought the performance close to the mode of epic theatre – a mode that suits the director's didactic purpose.
Nevertheless, Tahya Masr comes across as a stirring, enjoyable performance which, in spite of the changes and additions, and thanks to the accurate, well-thought out, well-tuned and sensitively shaded performances of the cast (particularly Ahmed Thabit, as Tuman bay, Asim Nagati, as Agami, Jihan Salama, as Fatima, Mohamed Nash'at as Tawfiq, and Ahmed Maged as the narrator) communicates much of the original play's human complexity and depth. What a pity its brilliant author died so early, and so young!

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