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All is not well
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 09 - 2006

The Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) which ended yesterday left Nehad Selaiha with many vexing questions
The death of veteran comedian Fouad El-Mohandes on 16 September cast a dark shadow on the seventh day of the festival. Promptly, the minister of culture ordered all theatres to observe a minute's silence in honour of his memory prior to every show that evening. One wishes a similar courtesy had been shown to Samir Sarhan who died this summer, on 1 July. When I read the list of the CIFET honorees this year, I was sure I would find his name on it; instead, the only Egyptian mentioned there was the late Abu Bakr Ezzat, another comedian whom we lost earlier this year and who, though a distinguished actor with a long career in theatre, cinema and television, never had anything to do with experimental theatre and starred mostly in commercial comedies. I was baffled and felt a lump in my throat. How can people forget so quickly, so easily?
For many years, Samir Sarhan had been an active supporter of CIFET, serving many times as head of the local selection committee entrusted with the choice of the Egyptian entries in its international contest, often acting as moderator in its central symposium and, later, as head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation, regularly setting up book stalls in every theatre and performance venue to make available to the festival audiences all the texts and books on theatre published by his organization at substantial discounts. But even if he had had nothing to do with the CIFET, Sarhan deserved to be remembered. Not only was he one of the major playwrights of the 1970s and '80s, a theatre scholar with several books on Egyptian and Western theatre, a professor of drama at Cairo University with thousands of students and former dean of the Institutes of Theatre and Arts Criticism at the Academy of Arts, he was also a prolific theatre critic who helped (together with Rashad Rushdi, Mohamed Enani and Farouk Abdel-Wahab Mustafa) launch the first Egyptian theatre magazine, Migalit Al-Masrah, in 1964, reviving it in 1985 when he took over as head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) and acting as chairman of its board until his demise. Directly relevant to the CIFET and, perhaps, paving the way to it were Sarhan's translations of many avant-garde plays, including Ionesco's Rhinoceros, Tom Stoppard's The Jugglers and Harold Pinter's Landscape and Silence, his translation in the early 1970s of August Boal's influential book Towards a Poor Theatre, his 1969 analytical description of the latest trends in American theatre in Tagarub Masrahiyya Gadidah (New Theatrical Experiments) -- the first book to introduce the Egyptian public to Happening and the Living Theatre -- and his survey of new directions in British drama in his book Al-Masrah Al-Engleezi fi Al-Sab'inat (The English Theatre in the 1970s).
Such a slip on the festival's part would have been understandable (though it would still have seemed a bit niggardly) if the National Theatre Festival, which took place 10 days after Sarhan's death, had cared to honour the man's contribution to theatre and, indeed, to culture at large. It didn't; its list of honorees only included comedian Abdel-Mon'im Madbouli, who was still alive then though in the throes of death; National Theatre actor Mohamed El-Dafrawi; and the name of veteran actor and director Hamdi Geith. When I took up Asharaf Zaki, the head of the state theatre organisation and also of the festival, on this oversight, telling him plainly it was disgraceful, he pleaded lack of time as an excuse. What excuse can the organisers of the CIFET offer this time to explain such shameful indifference and callous ingratitude?
It is often said, half jocularly, half in earnest, that we are a nation with a weak memory, or no memory at all. Forgetting to pay homage to Sarhan in this year's CIFET or even mention him once is one instance of this malaise; another is forgetting that a show called , by the British 'Ralf Ralf' company, already played in the festival in 1989 and hosting it afresh this year, as if for the first time, to represent the UK in the contest. It is true that the play -- "a wordless theatrical piece of political satire conducted in invented languages, gesture and song, showing a Summit conference between two politicians who don't speak the same language in front of an audience that doesn't understand either language," as the programme accurately and succinctly describes it -- has perennial charm and relevance and I personally would want it to visit Egypt every year. That it came to the festival before is not the point; the really disturbing thing is the forgetting, or the pretence that things which happened before never really did. For the British Council to bring to the festival once more could only mean one of two things: either the British have nothing else to offer, which is a bit farfetched; or that they were sure the organisers wouldn't remember -- which is the more likely explanation. The Romanian Edith, on the life of Edith Piaf, by the Gestual Art Theatre, could be another repeat; some of the people who watched it told me they had a vague feeling they had seen it before but could not place the year. Is this a sign that in future the CIFET would start regurgitating old fare?
Was it also weak memory which caused the festival organisers to neglect checking the venues for safety, remembering to do so only at the very last minute? Suddenly, two days before the opening, both Al-Hanager, a very popular space with foreign troupes, with five productions of its own lined up for the event, and Al-Balloon Theatre which usually hosts big productions were declared fire hazards and put out of action. The fact that the Ministry of Culture is said to have spent a lot of money refitting both theatres to meet civil defence safety requirements following the Beni Sweif fire last September and that both theatres have been operating since, and indeed receiving audiences until two days before the festival, made this decision seem odd and a bit suspicious. Why should a building be considered safe for Egyptian audiences in ordinary times and suddenly become unsafe during a festival which hosts a lot of foreigners? Should one read this decision as part of the old rivalry between the state theatre organisation and Al-Hanager, this time taking a nasty turn to deal the latter a crippling blow and roping in the Balloon Theatre as a smoke screen, as many have done? Or should one go along with those who cynically affirmed it was just another crass example of the government's indifference to the lives of its people? In any case, the consequences of this decision for Al-Hanager were quite detrimental, scattering its productions among different venues, all unsuitable, and landing its star show, Mohamed Abul Su'ood's Antigone in Ramallah...in Beirut, which was selected to represent Egypt in the contest, together with another production of the state theatre organisation, in an obscure, primitively equipped theatre. No wonder Abul Su'ood was in a dither and nearly withdrew his beautiful work from the festival.
In one case, however, weak memory will not serve as a convenient peg on which to hang the festival's mistakes and inconsistencies: the case of the Athenee troupe from Lebanon. Farouk Hosni wanted a Lebanese performance for the opening "as a show of solidarity" with the Lebanese people and the troupe's Al-Nasheed (The Anthem -- reviewed last week) was recommended and accepted. There remained one problem: the troupe could not afford the plane tickets and the regulations of the festival stipulated that companies should pay their own fare. In ordinary circumstances. Randa Asmar and Ghibrial Yamin, the founders of the troupe and its leading actors, would have sought the help of sympathetic bodies and individuals. But with Lebanon all but totally destroyed and needing all the help it can get from its friends and neighbours, fundraising to go to a festival is not only impossible, but hardly the decent thing to do. Since the troupe were not getting any money for their performance, the least the festival could do was pay their passage. The festival's organisers, however, were loath to bend the rules, fearing it would set a precedent and set their worst bureaucratic face dead against all arguments and commonsense. They completely forgot that exceptional situations call for exceptional measures. The fairy godmother who stepped in at the last minute to transport the troupe to Egypt and save the minister's face was pop singer Amr Diab; the whole thing cost him LE20,000 -- a small drop in the ocean of the Ministry of Culture's budget. One winces at the mention of this unsavoury episode. But the deplorable treatment of the troupe did not stop at this; as if to punish them for the embarrassment they unwittingly caused the festival, its organisers barred them from taking part in the contest, though Randa Asmar's performance could have successfully competed for the best actress award, and allowed them only one performance instead of the usual two allotted to all groups in or outside the contest. Naturally, they were bitter about the way they were treated and I shared their feelings. My bitterness deepened when I learnt that the other Lebanese troupe, from Haigazian University, would not be bringing their Li Wannus (For Wannus) to Cairo. It seems that in their case, no fairy godmother was at hand to come to the rescue. That the festival could easily have paid their fare and didn't still mortifies me. There were, however, some bright spots in those ten days, but I shall save them till next week.
18th CIFET Awards
Members of the jury of the 18th CIFET : Giancarlo Nanni (Italy), Chair; Zhang Xian (China); Hassan Al-Minai (Morocco); Rodiger Schaper (Germany); Santiago Martin Bermudez (Spain); Vladimir Ovsyannikov (Russia); Fiona Winning (Australia); Luis Mario Monacada (Mexico); Liz Engleman (USA); William Galinsky (UK); and Hani Motawei (Egypt)
Award for Best Performance : Romeo and Juliet, Moon Theatre, Russia
Award for Best Directing : Sureen Sharedyan, director of Psychosis 4 : 48, Experimental Group of the National Theatre, Armenia
Award for Best Actress : Bayan Shbib, for her role in Safad-Shatila, vice versa, Ashtar, Palestine
Award for Best Actor : Fayez Qozoq and Nidal Al-Sigary for their roles in Bath of Baghdad, Experimental Theatre Group, Syria
Award for Best Scenography : The Crucible, Chiten Group, Japan
Award for Best Ensemble : Romeo and Juliet, Moon Theatre, Russia


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