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20 years on the Silk Road
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 05 - 2010


By Nehad Selaiha
he first time I heard of the Weekly was at the Nile Hilton cafeteria one autumn evening in 1989. My husband (Mohamed Enani) and I had been invited there by Saad Gamal El-Din, who had taught both of us linguistics as undergraduates at the English Department of Cairo University, and a Mr. Ashraf Kamal, a simultaneous translator whom I had never met before but who knew my husband. They were scouting for contributors to a new English publication Al-Ahram was preparing to launch on a weekly basis, they said, and suggested that we should join in the venture. My husband declined, but I felt deeply divided.
The offer came at a crucial time in my career: It was only 5 years since I had finally returned to Egypt to settle down for good after more than 20 years abroad. In those 5 years I had worked hard to overcome the painful feeling of being a stranger in my own country, to fill in the many gaps in my knowledge about what had happened to the people and culture during my absence, to feel at home once more in my mother language and recover the gift I once had of writing easily and fluently in Arabic -- a gift I feared I had lost during my long years in England when English was my main, and sometimes only, linguistic fare. I had also managed to find myself a foothold in the Egyptian cultural scene as a theatre and literary critic and scholar, teaching in Arabic at the Academy of Arts, participating in Arab conferences and seminars, contributing regularly to Arabic newspapers, magazines and periodicals and publishing several books and translations. Would I be able to take on, on top of all that, writing a weekly article on theatre in English? More importantly, what would this publication be like and who were the people involved in it? I needed to know more before making up my mind.
Appointments were made and in the following week I got to meet the unforgettable Hosny Guindy and he explained that his ambition was to produce a new kind of newspaper worthy of representing Egypt abroad -- a newspaper comparable to the London Times not only in integrity, credibility, objectivity and freedom of expression, but also in elegance and readability. Rather than another tedious and predictable official mouthpiece for the regime with a photo of the president always on the front page, the Weekly, as Guindy envisioned it, was to be independent and liberal in thought and to provide accurate, unwaveringly honest, in-depth information about all aspects of Egyptian life and culture as, well as varied Egyptian perspectives on international and Arab affairs. In short, the Weekly aimed to achieve the highest international standards of professional journalism.
When I finally said yes, it was not only because I liked Guindy a lot and felt it would be a real honour and a valuable experience to work with him and the bunch of wonderful people he recruited for his great project, or because he infected me with his faith in role the Weekly could play in giving a true image of Egypt abroad, but also because he assured me that I could write without fear of censorship. However, when I actually started writing reviews for the zero numbers, I was assailed by doubts: What was I doing writing in a foreign language again when all I wanted was to recover my Arabic voice and feel at home? And if the thing I wanted most was to be an effective force in Egyptian theatre circles and play an active part in supporting budding talents and new movements, what was the point in writing about plays that most of the people who make and watch them could not read? There was also the fact that with no access to the plays or events I reviewed, or to information in English about contemporary theatre in Egypt in general, most of my English-speaking audience would have no way of verifying or controverting anything I said and would have to take my word for it. What a fearful responsibility!
What consoled me and made me go on was the hope that my writing could help put the Egyptian theatre on the world theatre map. During my long years abroad, I had discovered that very few people in the English-speaking world knew that theatre was practiced in the Arab world, and that the little information available about it was sketchy, focused solely on playwrights and, in the best cases, stopped at the 1960s. However far and wide one searched, one would find nothing about contemporary plays and performances. Besides, whatever information there was about the Egyptian theatre was confined to scholarly studies and specialized publications to which ordinary people have little access. To write about current theatrical activities in Egypt in an English-language weekly newspaper distributed abroad, I thought, would be like opening a little window through which ordinary people of other cultures could see them, albeit through the lense of a third party.
Over the next 20 years, I never once regretted my decision. True I wrote less in Arabic than I would have liked to, often felt deeply guilty when theatre artists told me how they wished they could read what I wrote about them, or looked very hard for someone to translate an article for them, and sometimes resented that my criticisms of the theatrical establishment did not carry much weight with its officials since only 'foreigners' would read them and they would not, therefore, affect the local public opinion; however, the compensations and rewards have been many: More non-Arabic speaking people, including specialists and scholars, know more about the Egyptian theatre now than before the Weekly came into existence; many young Egyptian theatre artists no longer feel alone and isolated, but draw courage from the fact that their battles with censorship and other forms of suppression and coercion will be reported and publicized in a language that human rights activists and fellow theatre artists all over the world can understand; many of them too take pride in having their work reported internationally and some of them have actually managed to gain access to foreign cultural institutions and funds through this; extensive coverage of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET), which was launched two years before the first issue of the Weekly appeared, along with other theatrical events in Egypt and the Arab world, has helped to raise interest in these events among theatre artists, critics and scholars worldwide; foreign theatre troupes have been able to get an idea about the impression their performances make on Egyptian spectators; and foreign writers, scholars, critics and theatre historians have now the chance to know how foreign plays are presented in Egypt and the many ways in which they are adapted.
On the personal level, I have won a new multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic audience; made many valued friends all over the world, met some of the greatest figures in world theatre and travelled widely as a guest at festivals and conferences. For me the Weekly has been like the old Silk Road that in the past connected the East and West, facilitating cultural exchange en route. Moreover, I have travelled this Silk Road so far in peace and freedom, and in the company of beautiful people who are all always with me, even the ones that left or were cruelly snatched from me on the way, and hope to continue to do so till the day I die.


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