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Don't call me Mother
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 01 - 2007

Nehad Selaiha hails the Egyptian premiere of Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water by Al-Qafela (The Caravan) -- an independent troupe, at the AUC Studio Theatre
The Memory of Water (Dhakirat Al-Miyah), by Shelagh Stephenson, staged by Effat Yehia at the AUC Studio Theatre, 13-15 January 2007.
As we were leaving Al-Falaki Studio Theatre after watching Effat Yehia's latest production, a brilliant adaptation of Shelagh Stephenson's beautiful play The Memory of Water, a fellow woman critic whom I had invited to the show said excitedly: "My, but this is so different from the usual stuff we get in theatres!" And she was right. Apart from her flair for original visual designs -- images where realistic, and expressionistic elements intersected intriguingly to create bizarre effects, dislodging our familiar perception of things -- one of the most refreshing aspects of Yehia's work is her insistence on thematically venturing where others fear to tread. Where else in Egypt could you find a play triggered by such a shattering tragedy as a mother's death, coupled with shocking, agonised revelations (including adultery, an 'Urfi -- or common-law cohabitation -- and a misplaced bastard son begotten by a 14 year old girl), and yet conducted with so much sidesplitting hilarity, with alcohol and dope thrown in as dramatic energisers.
As early as 1992, when Effat, a fresh graduate from the AUC, decided to devote herself to theatre, she chose for her debut as theatre-maker Edna O'Brien's Virginia -- a poignant, lyrical text which reflectively explores Virginia Woolf's stormy, ambivalent relationships with her husband, Leonard, her intimate friend, Vita Sackville West, her awesome father and long-suffering mother. Virginia, staged at the National Upstairs in 1992, was the first Egyptian performance ever to question the hallowed status of mothers and fathers in Egyptian culture, to give a daughter's view of their relationship as husband and wife, and critically scrutinise traditional concepts of "love". It was obvious then that what Yehia wanted to do, as she put it much later, after she had formed her Al-Qafela group, was to create a forum where women's experiences, their struggles with patriarchal norms and traditions, could be aired -- but, most importantly, a space where she, as a woman, could express herself "sincerely" and face up to "life's many distortions and grotesqueries".
To avoid being tripped up by the intensely personal quality of her work, to allow it to be at once vividly present and yet artistically elusive, Yehia intuitively hit on a mode of work based on "transcultural mediation", "sharing" and supportive collaboration. A voracious reader of new plays worldwide, she usually found her inspiration in texts in which the thematic concerns matched her own traumas and existential preoccupations at every stage. Once she found a play that could mediate her need to express herself "sincerely", she would translate it (most of the texts she has done are unfortunately, yet understandably, foreign), then share it with the group, mostly close female friends and sympathetic male colleagues and friends -- all with some professional training and experience in theatre -- allowing each member to relate to it in their own way, through extensive improvisation sessions centering on its major theme. When the casting is finally decided, the actors are asked to phrase their parts in the language they would normally use in similar situations without straying from the main drift of the dialogue. When this is done, she takes home all the personal, creative treasures contributed by the actors and makes the final draft of the Egyptianised text in the light of the original. The end product is usually something rich and strange -- at once intimately personal and neutrally universal, profoundly disconsolate and hilariously comic, even farcical.
Loneliness, oppression, gratuitous suffering, the longing for love, for relating to others, for adventure, for breaking out, the transience of life and unverifiability of memories have been dominant, recurrent themes in Yehia's work since 1992. As the waves of life tossed her across the years, memory seemed to grow into an obsession, colouring her very perception of herself and the world at every moment. After her mother died of a terminal cancer that took both to the States for months in the hope of delaying the dreaded separation, Effat realised that memories are all that was left of her mother. It may be true, as Judith Arcana reports one of her respondents as saying in Our Mothers' Daughters (London, The Women's Press, 1981), that a woman never feels truly "an adult" until her mother dies, though she may still long to be daughtered, or that, as Vivien E Nice says in her Mothers and Daughters (Macmillan, 1992), that a "mother's death" could lead to "a better understanding of one's mother". Nevertheless, to be only left with fallible memories, tentative, retrospective, hazy reconstructions of a person through faded photographs in a family album, a pile of outmoded clothing and snatches of vaguely remembered conversations hardly qualifies as "a better understanding". In Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club (quoted by Nice), the fictional mother, Ying-Ying St Claire, draws attention to how in patriarchal cultures mothers are indoctrinated into total self-denial and silence, how they are reduced to images and roles which supplant their reality as people and turns them into formidable, fantastical ghosts, or scattered glimpses of vaguely remembered, helpless silhouettes, and how this affects mother- daughter relationships when she says: "For all those years I kept my mouth closed so selfish desires would not fall out. And because I remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me... All these years I kept my true nature hidden, running along like a small shadow so nobody could catch me. And because I moved so secretly now my daughter does not see me... And I want to tell her this: We are lost, she and I, unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others."
In a 1987 poem (quoted by Nice), Carole Stewart wrote:
Don't call me Mama
Don't call me Mother
See me for what I am
A Woman.
How many of us have really managed to do this in their lives, to see motherhood (in Stewart's words) as "just another dimension" of the person we call "mother"? Sadly, for most daughters, this recognition may come too late, or in the case of sons not at all. Though mother-daughter relationships are seminal to a woman's life and are "at the core of women's writing", no Egyptian dramatist, including women playwrights, has cared to explore this rugged and deeply ambivalent emotional terrain. Even Fathiyya Al-Assal, the most staged of Egyptian woman dramatists, has only cursorily touched upon it in her Women's Prison, and only to show that her militant socialist heroine still harboured the male-imposed, sexually conceived definition of a female's "honour" in oriental societies.
It took Effat Yehia to realise the dramatic worthiness of the subject. And though she only staged it after her mother died, she tells me she had made her read the play two years before she departed. "Is that supposed to be prophetic?" her mother had sardonically asked. In an interview, the author, Shelagh Stephenson, laughed off the suggestion that her Memory was in any way inspired by Chekov's Three Sisters, adding that "the motivation for the play's themes came from within". She is probably right; there are no mothers in The Three Sisters except the vulgar, grasping, adulterous Natasha who mothers a son, rather than a daughter, and whereas in the first scene of Memory Mary, one of Stephenson's three sisters asks "What do people usually talk about when their mother's just died?" Chekov's play opens with Olga, the eldest of his three sisters, saying: "It's exactly a year ago that father died, isn't it?" No mention is made of their mother and they invariably pin their hopes on men to get them out of the rural rut where their father, the general, had landed them. Stephenson has four sisters and wrote her Memory after her mother's death. For Effat too, who has two sisters, I bet that the motivation for staging it, first in the spring of 2004 at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina for only one performance (the scheduled other two were abruptly cancelled due to a sudden visit by Susan Mubarak to the Bibliotheca), then now, in January, 2007, at Al-Falaki Studio, by courtesy of Frank Bradley, of the Performing and Visual Arts Department of the AUC, was to ease away her grief after she lost her mother.
In Between Mothers and Daughters: Stories across a generation (New York, The Feminist Press, 1985), Susan Koppelman wrote: "Women of every race, ethnicity, religion, region, and historical period write stories about mothers and daughters, and the similarities among the stories are greater than the differences because what we share as women, at least in terms of this primary relationship, is more that whatever else divides us. Stories about mothers and daughters seem like different facets of one great universal story that includes not only all the stories we have, but all those still lost and all those yet to be written." I do not know if Effat ever read this, but her adaptation (Egyptianisation) of Sephenson's remarkable play seems to have been guided by a similar sentiment. True to her method, she first made a rough verbatim translation of the text, then shared it with her cast, spending weeks in discussions, improvisations, and heart-rending rummaging in the secret drawers of memory. And all the while, the group were guided by that scrap of dialogue which gives the play its name. Towards the end of Act One, Mike tells Mary that "after months and months of apparently stringent tests", some fellow scientist discovered that "you can remove every last trace of the curative element from a water solution and it will still retain its beneficial effect. And they decided that this meant water was like magnetic tape. That water had memory."
What Effat wanted her cast to intuit was, in Nice's words, that, for daughters, the "death of the mother is only in the physical sense a final separation", that the "relationship lives on in the daughter's mind"; in other words, we are never rid of our mothers; even when they die, we, daughters, seem to internalise them and appropriate their part in the memories we shared. Luckily (or not), most of her cast had lost their mothers and could empathise with such reflections. When everyone had written their part in the light of their own remembrances, in the way that they thought best expressed their own presence in the story, Effat made the final draft. The result was a scintillating colloquial Arabic rendering of the original play which transposed it to Egypt now, strictly preserving the integrity of the text while providing an alternative frame of cultural references and many intelligent equivalences. And because it had been dredged out of the actors' personal memories, it had an unmistakable ring of truth.
That she could not have pulled it off alone, Effat is the first to admit. Of the original Alexandria cast of five women and two men, only two remained, Nihad Abul-'Enein, who had played the dead mother, and Maysa Zaki as Teresa (Zahra in the Arabic text). When three years later she could muster enough energy to start the arduous round all over again, Effat had to find replacements for her original Mary/Dalia, Catherine/Yassmine, Mike/Tareq and Frank/Mahmoud. She also had to rethink and slightly modify her quirky representation of the dead mother as two women (not in the original text): one completely inert, except for the head and eyes -- and pinned to, or rather crucified on an upright bed, stage-left, throughout the performance; and her ghost which wanders around freely, haunts the daughters, particularly Mary -- and often goes to the window, stage-right, to gaze dreamily out at the sea. I forgot to say that rather than a village in the north of England, in freezing weather, Effat set her play in a coastal village near Alexandria, very close to the sea, during the dusty, stormy Khamaseen season.
Anyone who sees a video of the Alexandria production can safely declare that Effat really hit it lucky the second time as far as actors are concerned. For her 2007 version she was able to rope in (gratis, mind you) such solid professional performers as Salwa Mohamed Ali, Mutazza Abdel-Sabour, and such sensitive, dedicated actors, like Dalia El-Guindi, Mohamed Shindi and Yehia El-Diquin. In Abu Bakr Sherif's lighting, Salwa, as the memory of the mother, was quite eerie, floating in and out of the set serenely, like a smooth air-glider, and casting a long shadow over every thing. Dalia El-Guindi, as the psychiatrist Mary, though strong of build and sturdy looking, managed at all times to communicate a pathetic, lost- girl-in-search-of-a-mother sense of fragility. As Catherine/Yassmine, Mutazza Abdel-Sabour, in her ridiculously crazy getups of patched shorts and skimpy, sleeveless tops, stormed through the play like a veritable tornado, swinging between tragedy and farce at disconcerting speed.
The two new male members of the cast, Shindi and El-Diquin, seemed to inject a degree of mundane sanity and commonsense in the grand, hysterical proceedings triggered by the sisters. They seemed to stridently contradict Hamlet's "Frailty, thy name is woman", turning it to "Frailty thy name is man". It was left to the only two members of the original cast, Abul-'Enein and Zaki, to guard Effat's original conception, visually, rhythmically and emotionally. For nearly 75 minutes, the former stood on a box, her whole body inert, stuck to a white wooden board, but following all that is happening with her head and eloquently communicating with her daughters, and with her ghostly double through eye language, while the latter, even when drunk, befuddled and mad, seemed to embrace everybody, the whole of human suffering, in a warm, agonised look. To support her acting, and, indeed, underline the whole message of the play, in the first scene Effat introduces a tape, in which one of the most celebrated reciters of the Qur'an, Abdel Basit Abdel-Samad, melodiously chants: "And the pains of childbirth/ Drove her to the trunk/Of a palm-tree;/ She cried (in her anguish)/ 'Ah! I would that I had/Died before this! would that / I had been a thing/ Forgotten and out of sight. But (a voice) cried to her/From beneath (the palm-tree)/ 'Grieve not! For thy Lord/Hath provided a rivulet/Beneath thee./And shake towards thyself/The trunk of the palm-tree: /It will let fall/Fresh ripe dates upon thee./ So eat and drink/And cool (thine) eye.'" (Abdullah Yusufali's translation of The Holy Qur'an, S. xix. 23-26).
These wonderful Qur'anic verses which conjure up the figure of the Holy Virgin link up beautifully with another melodious recitation, at the end, of verses in colloquial Arabic by Bayram Al-Tonsi, chanted by Norihan Basarah, in which he forlornly begs his dying mother to hold him before she departs. The song seemed to faintly echo the title Stephenson gave her film version of Memory : Before You Go -- and was visually orchestrated by the lighting which picked up the three sisters in turn, framing each in a lonely pool of light, and ended up framing the dead mother on the bed -- Effat's surrogate for Mother Mary -- in a soft halo that made her seem almost transparent.
The Memory of Water will be performed at Rawabet Theatre, next to the Townhouse Gallery, on 2 and 3 February, at 7pm.

Clic here to read the story from its source.