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Smothering
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 12 - 2000


By Nehad Selaiha
The traditional idealisation of the mother in Egyptian culture is heavily represented in the arts and it is extremely rare to find a play, a painting, a sculpture or a work of fiction that diverges from this view. A notable exception in fiction is Ihsan Abdel-Quddus's Al-Tariq Al-Masdoud (Cul-de-sac, made into a famous movie starring Faten Hamama) which features an unprincipled mother turning her house after her husband's death into a pleasure haunt and using her daughters as bait. I also remember an old radio drama serial, called Bitter Honey, in which the late Zuzu Nabil (immortalised in the popular mind by her performance as the legendary Scheherazade in another radio serial based on the Arabian Nights) played a maniacal mother, unhinged by her husband's betrayal, who locks up her daughter, forbidding her any communication with the outside world, and in her frenzied desire to protect her attempts to murder the only man who tries to break through her siege to save the daughter. It is only in cinema, and particularly old movies, where bad mothers get to make an occasional appearance, though in most cases they are either unfortunate women who bear their children out of wedlock and are forced to desert them and spend the rest of their lives, and the film, pining for them until the final lachrymose reunion, or vain and beautiful women who rebel against their humble life with a good husband, elope with a rich lover or a handsome knave and live to regret it. But the most remarkable and shocking example of maternal aberration in Egyptian movies occurs in Lahn Hubi (My Love's Melody, a musical starring Farid Al-Atrash and Sabah) where the mother, the seductive Zuzu Shakib, uses her daughter as a cover for her illicit adulterous-affair with Mahmoud El-Meligi (the notorious screen villain) by consenting, albeit temporarily, to their (the lover's and daughter's) engagement. Predictably, she is suitably punished; shamed before the world, she falls out of a window and breaks her neck.
Unfailingly, whenever the idealised image of the mother is inverted in cinema or any other art, the reason is pronouncedly and, more often than not, simplistically didactic. A striking and particularly clumsy example of this are two successive shots in the film version of Cul-de-sac which contrast the heroine's profligate mother, in an evening dress, raising a glass of wine and winking mischievously, with the homely image of a fat, provincial mother, veiled and kneeling on a prayer carpet. In the first, the mother's sexuality is framed and coded as a sign of depravity; in the second it is completely glossed over and the shapeless, heavily covered body is consigned to child-caring, house-work and worship. The black-and-white attitude that informs such representations allows little room for any real questioning of the popular stereotypes of the mother, or any serious in-depth exploration of the tensions and darker sides of the mother-child relationship. Fictional ideal mothers invariably raise fictional ideal sons and daughters, officiously attentive and vociferously affectionate. If any tension erupts, it is usually on account of a virtue carried to excess. A mother's inordinate love for her son or daughter may become possessive and breed tensions when they decide to take partners. To guard the ideal-mother image against such common human weaknesses, the jealous and nagging mother-in-law was developed as a comic stereotype and the late Mary Munib became its cherished icon.
It is against such a background of mother-representations that Nora Amin's recent and daringly iconoclastic The Box of Our Lives must be seen and appreciated. Amin gives her play a different title in Arabic, calling it Al-Dafirah(The Braid), and the images in both titles, which she realises visually on stage in the set and movement, complement each other and seem designed to point straight to the core of the play. Two lonely, frightened and obviously traumatised nameless women, a mother and her daughter, cooped up in a tiny, derelict, dark and windowless room (the box of the English title), are hopelessly interlocked, as in a fatal embrace, in a love-hate relationship, with death as the only hope of release. Of the history of these women, we are told nothing; indeed, they seem to exist outside history, in a timeless vacuum. With no access to the succession of night and day, and a single lamp, constantly burning, and casting lurid shadows on the walls, the stage image banishes chronological time, and with it the possibility of an objective narrative, however minimal, in terms of events, actions, motives, responses and consequences. What we encounter in this empty narrative space are not dramatic characters and a story, but significant moments and emotional states, fears and longings, remembered experiences and relived memories. And just as the absence of chronological time redefines time as undifferentiated experiential space and significant moments, the forgoing of traditional characterisation redefines the bodies of the performers (Amin and Basant Mohsin) on stage: they are not perceived as semiotic representations of fictional identities but as a stage on which historical remembrances, social, personal and collective female traumas are reenacted in the hope of achieving a degree of catharsis.
Like many contemporary feminist theatre makers in the West, Nora Amin (who is also the author of two novels, two plays, and three collections of short stories, a trained dancer and gifted actress with memorable performances in experimental versions of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Edward Bond's Lear, Arthur Miller's The Crucible and Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, and who works as a translator at the Academy of Arts and a part-time aerobics coach and masseuse to support herself and her daughter) displays an obsessive and urgent need for self-expression and self-exploration. In both her work and life, and in her case the two are coextensive, the driving force is the attempt to discover her own subjectivity and construct her own self-image amid many possible identities and inherited role-models. Like many feminist writers of her generation, she believes that the route to female subjectivity lies through the forbidden body, its physicality, desires, traumas and memories and, of course, all the taboos inscribed on it. In her work, the body becomes a subversive, disruptive force which, in Julia Kristeva's words "disturbs identity, system and order... does not respect borders, positions, rules," and is the site of the "in-between, the ambiguous, the composite."
Though heavily autobiographical, an intimate register of her memories and emotional experiences, Amin's work defies the traditional concept of autobiography defined, by the Dutch feminist critic Mieke Kolk, as "a life-story fixed in a reconstruction of chronological time, inserting logic and causality in its moving from beginnings to the end." It belongs more in the area of what Griselda Pollock has called auto-history -- a pre-symbolic, unmediated space filled with naked, highly personal experience, acted-out, rather than represented, in an everlasting present experience which, because dissociated from recognisable identity models and chronological time, is never closed or finalised and, paradoxically, for this very reason, never really strictly personal. Here, as Kolk puts it, "the highly personal as a route-de-passage reflects, emotionally, critically, our historical and collective individualisation."
Shrewdly, Amin set her performance of The Box in the Townhouse Gallery -- a spacious flat in an old-fashioned, battered, but still elegant building off Champollion street. Climbing up the stairs to the third floor and waiting outside the door felt like playing the ritual of women visiting each other in their historically specified intimate space: the home. When the door opened and we filed in, we found ourselves in a darkened, empty hall with no chairs, and took our places on the rug-covered floor. Facing us was another room, on a slightly elevated level, and it too was dark except for a single lamp hanging low over Amin's head, as she sat in an old armchair, completely still except for her hands which were methodically plaiting the hair of some shapeless figure, completely lost in the dark, sitting at her feet. The expression on her face and movement of her hands alternately expressed tenderness and pent-up rage, affection and resentment, protectiveness and hints of violence. Her ghostly make-up, black dress and the effect of being lighted from above gave her a macabre appearance, suggesting a mummified corpse. But most disturbing of all were the mysterious strips of packing tape encircling her hands. We eventually discover similar strips binding her feet, and the daughter's hands and feet as well, reminding us of the familiar practice of similarly binding hostages to prevent their escape.
The plaiting done, Amin pulled a black plastic bag over the head of the still figure, smoothing it round its shoulders like a dress, then patted it rigidly, adding, after a short expectant pause, in a bitterly reproachful tone: "No thanks?" The plaited head quietly bends and rests on her knee and she begins to hum a popular lullaby in a strained voice which slowly rises in a tense, ominous crescendo ending with a violent movement which flings the still figure away from her, hurling it to the floor. The light reveals a thin, frightened young woman, dressed like a boy in long grey trousers and a long-sleeved grey top. Like a startled animal, she scurries frantically round the bare room, on her hands and knees, on the dusty, rubbish-strewn floor. As we follow her, we trace the features of the set: three bare stone walls, two shuttered and boarded up windows at the back with a large blank white sheet of paper in between. Stretching across the room at the top is a greenish-grey fat and leaking plumbing pipe which drips with relentless regularity into a kind of rift that cuts through the floor of the room in a slightly wavy line stretching from the back wall to the auditorium.
The set, by Ibrahim Gharib, palpably evokes female and male sexual organs in intercourse and acts as a grimly ironical comment on the frustration of the two women while rendering in visual terms their obsessive fears and longings. The severely economical verbal dialogue takes the form of sudden, inconsequential and often monological eruptions, alternately lyrical and violent, aggressive and pleading, resurrecting vague memories of loss, of love, of fear and pain. The lyrical passages are often accompanied by Hisham Gabr's stirring music or played against a background of distant street sounds alluding to the bustling life outside. In both cases, the contrast between the words and sounds on the one hand and the dismal reality of the visual surroundings on the other is excruciatingly painful.
The movement, designed by Amin, complements the verbal text, filling in the gaps between the utterances, generating new and daring images which shock us out of any ordinary perception or stock interpretation of the situation into a confrontation with the unspeakable. Unforgettable is the image of the daughter, crouching on the floor, frantically scraping an empty tin dish with a knife while the mother recites from a thick volume (obviously some holy book) in an outlandish tongue; the mother stabbing herself with a lipstick and running it round her womb and up to her throat in a mixture of agony and ecstasy while the daughter frantically smears her mouth with another; the mother tying herself to her armchair with sticky tape then trying to break free; the mother lying on her back on the chair, her open legs resting on its back and her head dangling in the air while the daughter sits across her, on top, like a baby coming out of her womb head first or/and a surrogate lover; the daughter ripping off her clothes and standing, presumably naked (though for censorship reasons she was on this occasion dressed in transparent plastic and blue cloth) while the mother meticulously wraps her round with cellophane; the daughter tenderly cuddling then viciously beating a rag doll when it starts squeaking "mummy", or sitting on her mother's lap, supposedly naked, and pulling a black plastic bag over her head and fastening it hard round her neck with sticky tape; or, finally, the mother ripping off her black dress after the daughter's death, revealing a flesh-coloured leotard (suggesting her naked body), inscribed all over with Arabic writing, in bold letters, and stepping off stage, into the auditorium and out of the flat. Typically, as in many feminist performances, the final action is vexingly ambivalent: does it imply release and points in the direction of wholeness and freedom, or is it simply the first step in a repetition of the same cycle? It is a puzzle the audience take away with them.
The Box of Our Lives is the first production of La Musica independent theatre group founded by Nora Amin last year with a modest grant from the Cultural Development Fund. It is an exciting, challenging beginning and if the company lives up to the expectations they have raised and maintains the same standards of integrity, courage and artistic excellence achieved this time, they may prove a vital force in the battle to change the Egyptian theatrical landscape.
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