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Weighing delight and dole
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 12 - 2006


Nehad Selaiha gives a theatrical overview of 2006
The heavy clouds of ugly smoke left by the Beni Sweif inferno on 5 September 2005 had not dispersed when 2006 started; they gloomily shadowed one's mental landscapes and their acrid smell still lingered in one's nostrils like a burning sensation. And yet, despite the pain and sorrow, the sense of devastating loss and inconsolable grief, one still miraculously hoped. How could one survive otherwise? Of course one felt guilty, consistently, atrociously, thinking the earth should have stopped turning and theatre should have folded up and wilted at the horror of the disaster. But as theatre people, the wisest tribe that ever existed, have always maintained, the show had to go on. And it did, sometimes gloriously. That at moments a streak of suicidal nihilism seemed to creep into it to eat away at its heart was to be expected, indeed seemed inevitable given our politically anarchic, morally decentred and mentally fragmented postmodern times. Trapped in a transitional period, a harsh historical isthmus, as it were, and buffeted by merciless winds of change, Egyptian theatre frequently flounders and seems to cast around helplessly like a rudderless ship that has dangerously gone off course. Like Egypt, however, a country which was once described as "a miracle of survival", it always manages to carry on.
Looking back, 2006 seems like one of Rorschach's famous inkblots where one could read a pattern. Was it a coincidence that the year opened with a grand performance by and ended with her death? She was only 63 when she made her final exit from the stage of life on the afternoon of 18 December. In January, however, she had looked in the pink of health and quite glamorous. Akrahak (I Hate You), an Italian sensational compound of jealousy, adultery and murder for two actresses, adapted by her brother, Ahmed El-Khatib, and directed by Hisham 'Atwa, opened in January at the small (Youssef Idris) experimental hall in Al-Salam Theatre -- the same space which four years earlier had hosted El-Khatib's riveting performance as an aging, frustrated, embittered daughter stuck with a maddeningly cantankerous, bedridden, dying mother in Hanaa' Abdel-Fattah's memorable production of Catherine Hayes' Skirmishes. This time El-Khatib played an aged actress who tricks her young female rival, a journalist and former friend who steals her husband behind her back, into shooting her. It was a thoroughly melodramatic affair, but El-Khatib's performance was a brilliant tour de force and won her (jointly with Aida Abdel-Aziz) the award for Best Actress of the year in the first Egyptian National Theatre Festival in July.
I can almost see her now, incredulous and overjoyed, her smile twinkling shyly through her tears as she lightly stepped on Al-Gomhoriyya stage on 19 July to receive her award amid a storm of resounding applause. For her, it was a cathartic moment, an act of public absolution, a kind of formal reinstatement ceremony which offset the trauma of many years of ignominious penury in exile, in Tunis and Paris, where she was sometimes reduced to begging for cigarettes from workers on their way to early morning shifts (as she once told me), not to mention a spell in prison. Many years ago, at the height of her career, El-Khatib had the ill fortune of hitting a young man fatally while driving up the 6th of October flyover on her way home from the theatre late at night. Tragic though it was, the accident was blown out of all proportion and suddenly, despite an impeccable career spanning almost two decades, she was hounded by the press and found herself the object of a rabid, scurrilous smear campaign. Whether her production in 1968, while Nasser was still in power, of a film condemning his reign of terror and satirising the notorious habit of arresting political dissenters in the small hours, had anything to do with this remains a matter for conjecture. Predictably, Za'ir Al-Fagr (Dawn Visitor), was banned after a single showing for the press and was not aired until after Nasser's death and the dismantling of his intelligence apparatus four years later. That the film continued to rankle with the ousted potentates of the former regime is possible, and that they used their paid stooges in the press to get their own back on Magda and muddy her reputation is quite plausible. In any case, the offshoot of this infamous business was that Magda, in a mad, desperate moment, fled the country.
I met her face to face for the first time in Tunis, in the late 1980s, during one of Les Journees Theatrales de Carthage festivals, and as we embraced she broke down in tears, murmuring, "I'm sorry, so sorry," between sobs. She looked like a haunted person, extremely vulnerable and fragile, and my heart ached for her. I knew that the memory of that young student would never leave her. Six years in exile, however, were enough to make Magda realise she could not run away forever. She came back, spent a brief spell in prison, then resumed her career, making a splendid comeback as Salwa, the revolutionary socialist journalist, in Fathiyya El-Assal's Segn Al-Nisaa' (Women's Prison) in 1991, as the guardian of the socialist-liberal tradition in Egypt in Mohamed Salmawy's Al-Zahra Wa Al-Ganzir (The Flower and the Iron Chain) in 1995, as the narrator in a revival of Naguib Sorour's Yasin and Bahiyya at Al-Hanger by Syrian director Rolla Fattal in the spring of 2002, and in Skirmishes and I Hate You. I am only speaking of her achievements on stage, leaving her many acting feats in films and television to other specialised chroniclers. Funny that it was also in Tunisia, this time in beautiful Sousa, many years after our first meeting in Tunis, that I discovered what a wonderful human being Magda was. The occasion was an encounter of creative Arab women in the arts, and throughout the week she looked as happy as a child, especially when we visited the old markets. But it was during our after-dinner walks by the shore that I really got to know her. I have a weakness for any person who makes me laugh, and Magda had me doubling over, rolling on the sand, kicking and hooting with laughter almost every night. Shockingly honest and outspoken, her reminiscences took the form of witty anecdotes and were often deliciously irreverent and salubriously profane. She had no pretensions and knew better than anyone her weaknesses; and she was not afraid to admit them and ask forgiveness. God, how we shall all miss her.
And speaking of missing, 2006 has proved as brutally merciless as 2005, depriving me of two life-long friends within less than two months of each other. Samir Sarhan, a brilliant playwright who voluntarily terminated his dramatic career to dedicate himself to what he thought was a more effective role as disseminator of culture through heading the state publishing house, died, somewhat unexpectedly, on 1 July. Though he had lung cancer, he had seemed to be improving and responding to treatment. But in a single week he seemed to wilt and wither before my eyes; and before I could recover from the shock of his departure, Abdel-Aziz Hammoudah, another playwright of the same generation who after five sturdy theatrical ventures, three of which were successfully staged, decided to quit and dedicate himself to academia, suddenly opted out on 28 August, the victim of a heart attack. Sarhan and Hammouda had been close friends and colleagues since their undergraduate years and I couldn't help thinking that, unbeknown to us, they had made a date to meet in the after world. All through July and the rest of the year, I had Charles Dickens on my mind. I had read Peter Ackroyd's entrancingly imaginative and stunningly perceptive biography of him, mostly in the dim compartments of the Paris underground travelling back and forth from La Defense where I lodged to Ville Juif where my husband was hospitalised and getting treatment for cancer in 1990, and realised how right he was when he said that once you hit 50 you feel as if you are walking in one long, endless funeral -- always in the shadow of the valley of tears.
But I am jumping events. Of course I didn't know in January that dear, beautiful would be dead by December, or that I would lose Sarhan and Hammoudah in the sultry summer months. With El-Khatib's Akrahak opening at Al-Salam and prominent playwright Lenin El-Ramli winning the Dutch Prince Klaus Fund Award for constructive satirical writing and wide popular appeal, followed by a performance of his humorously corrosive, politically incisive Al-Asra (Captives), at Al-Saqqia cultural centre, the year seemed cheerfully set for a propitious career. Captives traveled to Amsterdam in April, then toured in America and Canada later in the year, performing both in Arabic and English, and garnering laurels all the way. In February, the Arab premiere of Jean Genet's Le Balcon opened at Al-Hanager, setting a precedent in the history of Egyptian censorship, thanks to Hoda Wasfi's indomitable courage and director Mohamed Abul Su'ood's fanatical defiance of any restrictions on free artistic expression. No other theatre in the Arab world would have dared stage this piece and it will be a long time before we see it aired once more.
Before the deep repercussions stirred by Le Balcon had subsided, Al-Hanager staged another equally subversive and politically sensitive production. But whereas Le Balcon, with its weird mixture of fact and fantasy, grim humour and ritualized burlesque, had gone over the censors' heads (they slept through most of the second part and went off believing it was a virulent attack on the West, especially America), Tareq El-Dweri's production of Antonio Buero Vallejo's The Double Story of Doctor Valmy, a play which openly tackles the issue of political torture, was an easier nut to crack. Its message was harrowingly obvious and had a clear topical relevance that could neither be disguised, critically palliated nor rhetorically smoothed over. Though exquisitely produced and acted, it had a deplorably short run during which Wasfi was constantly harassed by orders from the ministry of interior to shut it down.
Another heartening event in the early months of 2006 was a production of Goethe's Faust, performed by workers on a model organic farm in Bilbis on 13 March with the help of some German Eurhythmists. "Mephisto in Elysium" was the title I gave my review of the performance on this page at the time. And as I say this, let me remind you that all the performances and events I mention here have been covered in the Al-Ahram Weekly if you care to look them up; indeed, going over them in my mind now seems like treading a "path ... all covered o'er", in Dante Gabriel Rosetti's words. Other bright spots in April, on the fringe and otherwise, were Ramsi Lehner's Analog at the AUC black box theatre, funded by Al-Mawred, an independent arts organisation, a visiting show from Tunisia, called Hotages, by the independent Organic Theatre (Al-Masrah Al-'Udwi), hosted by Al-Hanager on 22-23 April, a revival of Murad Munir's production of Saadalla Wannus's Al-Malik Huwa Al-Malik (The King is the King) at Al-Salam, and another of Lenin El-Ramli's Ahlan Ya Bakawat (Welcome Gentlemen) at the National.
June was the month when the Cultural Palaces Organisation, thrown into terrible disarray by the Beni Sweif tragedy the previous September, made a show of recovering. Its Women Directors Festival, a new initiative held at the Fatma Rushdi Floating Theatre in Giza from 10 to 17 June, aired many new talents from all over the country and whipped up once more the old argument over the difference between male and female creativity. On 16 November, the 16th Theatre Clubs' Festival, a 12-day affair, was held at Al-Anfoushi Cultural Palace in Alexandria and dedicated to the memory, still very green, of the victims of the previous festival in Beni Sweif. But between June and November, a lot of water flowed under the bridge, to use a hackneyed metaphor, and some of it was dishearteningly murky. Though the first National Theatre Festival, held from 10 to 19 July, was a welcome, long-awaited event that managed to temporarily bridge the gap between different generations of theatre practitioners, as well as between the fringe and mainstream theatre, suggesting a possible course for future cooperation and momentarily creating a state of euphoria, the 9th Independent Theatre Festival failed to open on 1 August, as planned and publicised, on account of a sudden decision by the minister of culture to cancel all festivals and celebrations in sympathy with the victims of the war in Lebanon. The galling thing was that this arbitrary decision did not apply to the ministry's official cultural bodies and seemed only designed to disrupt the independent groups' festival. The shameful details of that story were fully recorded on this page at the time. Here, suffice it to say that, against great odds, the festival did materialise, opening at Al-Hanger on 10 August, and performing the bulk of its shows in non-governmental hosting venues, mainly the Townhouse Gallery, the French Cultural Centre in Alexandria and the Jesuit Centre in Menya. Three days later, Al-Saqqia's 4th Independent Theatre Festival opened, and though artistically inferior, it had better organisation and was, in a sense, truly independent.
As usual, September was dominated by the 10- day Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre which opened this year on the tenth of the month with a performance from Lebanon, in a show of solidarity with the Lebanese people for their admirable "steadfastness in the face of the Israeli aggression", as minister of culture Farouk Hosni announced in a press conference. It later transpired that the Egyptian ministry of culture had refused to pay the airfare of the "honoured" Lebanese artists and that the person who finally came to the rescue, saving the face of the ministry, was pop star Amr Diab. The CIFET was also soured by the baffling (and quite specious) decision of its organisors to close down Al-Hanager for the duration of the festival on the plea that it had not been satisfactorily secured against fire hazards. This is another story worth reading in full and you can find it in the Weekly issues of September this year.
Come October and it was Ibsen and nothing else. 2006 was of course the centenary of Ibsen's death, and the build up for the commemorative Egyptian- Norwegian production of Peer Gynt, at the Son et Lumiere theatre , at the feet of the Sphinx and pyramids, on 26 and 27 October, in the presence of Queen Sonja of Norway and Mrs. Mubarak of Egypt, had started much earlier. In March through May, there was talk of a musical version of When We Dead Awaken at Al-Hanager which never materialised. At the end of June, a Cultural Palaces production of A Doll's House played for a week at Al-Anfoushi theatre in Alexandria and was chosen to open the first National Theatre Festival on 10 July, scooping two top prizes. On 2 July, Azza El-Husseini and her Al-Ghagar (Gypsies) independent troupe gave a three-day repeat of her production of The Wild Duck which had premiered a couple of months earlier at Al-Hanager. In August, the National's much delayed and repeatedly postponed A Doll's House finally opened -- to the disappointment of many, one might add. When it finally materialised, the joint Norwegian-Egyptian Peer Gynt, though it raised many questions regarding its conception and the wisdom of identifying the Sphinx with the Boyg, was quite spectacular.
As it drew to a close, 2006 seemed to sing a consistently "independent", rebellious tune, theatrically speaking: on 13 October, the first Street Theatre Festival, organised by the Egyptian Centre for the Freedom of Creativity (an NGO), with vital support from Al-Tagammo' Party, opened and its slogan was "the street is ours"; on 27 October, Rawabet (Links), a new non-governmental arts and culture organisation, partly sponsored by the Town House Gallery, was officially launched; on 1 December, the 14th Shubra Al-Kheima Theatre Festival for amateurs and independent artists opened as usual at Masrah Al-Mu'assasa Al-'Igtima'iyya, a social, cooperative establishment that cares for the inhabitants of that industrial, culturally deprived, workers' quarter of Cairo; and, only two days ago, I got news of yet another new independent theatre festival, held this time in Alexandria by a group called Eskandrama, from 21 to 28 December. What more could I want? I leave 2006 with a burning desire to find out more about this Eskandrama crowd.


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