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Off the beaten track
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 05 - 2008

Nehad Selaiha relates the present to the past as she watches an exciting new performance by students of the English Department of Cairo University
The English Department at the University of King Fuad I (rechristened Cairo University after the 1952 coup d'état and the abolition of the monarchy) was established in 1929, and ever since it has maintained strong links with the theatrical scene in Egypt, often acting as an incubator for new dramatists, critics and translators. Among its early graduates in the 1930s were playwrights Ali Ahmed Bakathir and Rashad Rushdi, both of whom played a vital role in modernising the language, themes and techniques of Egyptian drama, and critic Lewis Awad who revolutionised theatre-reviewing, investing it with scholarly depth and transforming it into a valuable and prestigious cultural pursuit.
All three were also gifted translators who rendered into Arabic many of the classics of world drama, including, among others, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, in which Bakathir experimented with reproducing the rhythms of the iambic pentameter in Arabic, thus sowing the earliest seeds of the free verse movement which eventually flowered and bore fruit in the 1950s, Gogol's The Inspector General, which Rushdi did into colloquial Arabic, an unusual medium in literary translation then which later became the most favoured in satirical social and political drama, and Aeschylus's Oresteia Trilogy ( Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers,, and The Eumenides ) by Awad, the first part of which was aired in an epic-style production by Karam Metaweh in 1966, alerting the theatre community in Egypt to the vast political potential of the ancient Greek classics and spawning a string of adaptations.
The 1940s were no less productive, introducing to the theatrical scene No'man Ashour who, building on the comic tradition established by Naguib El-Rihani and Badee' Khayri, went on to become 'the father of social realism' in modern Egyptian drama, and critic Ali El-Ra'i who championed the efforts to rehabilitate Egyptian folklore and the indigenous popular performance traditions, drawing attention to their similarity to some of the latest experiments and trends in Western theatre and advocating their integration into modern writing for the stage. Whereas Awad's criticism was solely focused on the dramatic text as literature, El-Ra'i gave equal attention to both text and performance, creating a balance between the literary and performative aspects of theatre in his criticism. Long before Performance Theory and Theatre Semiotics arrived in Egypt, El-Ra'i's criticism was diligently paving the way for both.
When Rashad Rushdi became the first Egyptian to head the English Department in the early 1950s -- a post which he held well into the following decade -- he was determined to integrate this oasis of English learning into mainstream Egyptian culture and turn his staff and students into active forces in the cultural life of the country. "To master the English language and know all about English literature would be quite useless unless you put that knowledge in the service of your own culture," he used to say; that one should have "one leg inside the department, the other outside, on the Egyptian cultural scene" was the advice he constantly drummed into our ears. And he practiced what he preached, writing highly controversial plays in Arabic, engaging in fierce critical battles over the nature and function of art and criticism with Marxist intellectuals, contributing to Arabic newspapers and the cultural programme of Cairo radio on a regular basis, editing two English publications -- the monthly Arab Review and the weekly Arab Observer -- to introduce Egyptian literature and culture to the English-speaking world, taking on El-Hakim newly established theatre company as artistic director in 1963 and issuing from its headquarters, in Emadeddin street, the following year, a quality monthly Theatre Magazine, the first since the 1930s, and encouraging all his staff and students to join him in his fights and projects and become leading writers and critics.
It was through Rashad Rushdi's example, his Theatre Magazine and other projects, that many of the department's senior and junior staff members and students eventually made their reputation as prestigious theatre critics, renowned translators and prominent playwrights -- people like Shafiq Migalli, Aziz Suliman, Amin El-Ayouti, Fayez Iskander, Fatma Musa, Angele Butros Samaan, Amir Salama, Nessim Migalli, Mohamed Enany, Samir Sarhan, Abdel Aziz Hamouda, Farouk Abdel Wahab Mustafa, Mohamed Salmawy, Nahid-Na'ila Naguib and Wagdi Zeid, among others. No honest account of the history of Egyptian culture, and especially of the history of theatre, in the latter half of the 20th century could ignore the vast contribution of this first Egyptian head of the English Department at Cairo University and the exhilarating wave of intellectual activities he nurtured and launched. And I can't tell you how proud I feel that I was part of this man's progress and glorious pageant.
I was in my second year at the department when, one day, early in 1964, Rashad Rushdi held a meeting with his theatre-loving students and staff members and told us that, as the English Department, we should mark the fourth century of Shakespeare's birth upcoming in April. The 2-day event would consist of a number of the most famous scenes in Shakespeare's plays (the Hamlet/Ophelia confrontation in the 'get the to a nunnery' scene; Cleopatra's death scene with the adder sucking at her breast; and Desdemona's 'willow song' and subsequent strangulation at Othello's hands), and he would host it at El-Hakim's theatre, providing us with all the costumes, props and scenery we needed from the stores of the National theatre. But, true to his 'one-leg-in-one-leg-out' principle, he warned, it would not be an all- English festival; half of it would consist of scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream performed in Arabic. A translation of the play, by Mohamed Enany, had just been published in the Theatre Magazine and it would form the basis for a collaborative performance with the students of the Theatre Institute of the Academy of Arts.
We were struck dumb at the news; he and the head of that Institute, Dr Mohamed Mandour, a Marxist who, unlike our liberal Rushdi, fanatically believed in the 'committed' socio-political function of art and criticism, had long been vociferously and passionately at loggerheads over this issue in the media so that everyone thought they could never agree on one single issue and were not even on civil speaking terms. It was both a grand surprise and quite an education to learn that both men respected each other deeply despite their ideological differences and could even share a drink and a convivial evening together without either budging one inch from his deeply cherished convictions and critical stand. Rushdi's Shakespeare Festival was a great success and all the people involved in it came out at the end with life-long friendships and bonds. It was then, I think, that my passionate commitment to theatre was sealed.
I left Egypt upon graduation in 1966, and for the next twenty years lost touch with the English Department -- the beloved playground of my youth and the strongest formative influence on my life. By the time I was back in the mid 1980s, thing had changed -- not only in the department, but in the whole of Egypt. Still, traces of the precious past remained. The remainder of the old guard, scholars like Fatma Musa, Angele Samaan, Huda Guindi, Amin El-Ayouti, Salwa Kamel and Fakhri Qustandi were fighting not only to keep the department on the world academic map, holding literary conferences which hosted world famous scholars and writers, such as Edward Said, Terry Eagleton, Ahdaf Sweif, and others, as key-note speakers and participants, but also to maintain its active links with the world outside by processing a string of outstanding writers, cultural activists and literary critics, such as Radwa Ashour, Mahir Shafiq Farid, Nabil Ragheb, Huda El-Sadda, Sherine Abul-Naga, Sahar El-Mogi, to mention only a few.
Of theatre, however, there were only a few sporadic flashes. Gone were the days when burgeoning theatre talents among the staff and students could confidently proceed, knowing that they had behind them the support of the state through such solid establishments as El-Hakim theatre and the Theatre Magazine. But though the land had become arid, new shoots kept sprouting. Between 1988 and 1993, Mona Radwan staged Sophocles's Oedipus Rex and Shaw's Arms and the Man ; Samah Awad dramatised Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner at the Russian Cultural Centre, delivering the poem from a feminist perspective; Dalia Basyouni actively contributed to a Shakespeare festival held at Al-Hanager Centre; and Sarah Enany gave a tongue-in- cheek, satirical, modern reading of the medieval morality play, Everyman, at the theatre of the Faculty of Law, dressing 'Death' as a military officer, 'Fellowship' as a prancing hippie in flowered beach shorts and with head phones, 'Kindred' as a couple of scantily-clad females under a beach umbrella, 'Worldly Goods' as a female grotesquely encased in a huge silver safe- box, with only her head, arms and legs protruding from that enormous structure, 'Good Deeds' as an in-patient in a modern private hospital, run as a business, unable to pay the hospital bill which kept spiraling as the minutes ticked away, and using the Abba's 'Money, money' and the Allen Parsons Project's 'La Sagrada Familia' songs as sarcastic musical accompaniments.
Shorn of the lavish support of the state that Rushdi once made available to the department, those brave young women and men muddled through the best they could and, the wonder of it, came out with highly creditable performances. The magic of theatre still lingered and was alive in that department, I felt, and desperately wanted to believe. When professor Nadia Guindi sent me an SMS two weeks ago, giving me short notice that, finally, my good, old English Department was going to stage a play at the theatre attached to the Cairo University Hostel, it was like a call from a distant past and I did not know quite how to feel. I had teaching at the academy that afternoon till 7 pm, and though I did not expect much artistically speaking, I raced like mad through the heavy Giza traffic and made it there jut as the lights were dimming in the auditorium and the show was about to begin.
Nadia El-Guindi's message had only told me the title, time, and location of the performance, and the poster outside the theatre did not mention the name of the author. The play, by Tony Devaney Morinelli, the Performing Arts Director and Humanities Chair at the Shipley School, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, as I later discovered, unfolded as an undisguised investigation of the causes of alcoholism, and all kinds of addiction, and a vehement warning against its lethal consequences. Though the writing paid sensitive attention to characterisation, was peppered with affective, poetical patches here and there and had lavish sprinklings of black humour, the play vividly reminded me of all those 'continence' melodramas which hoisted the banner of 'Defy the Demon Drink' at the turn of the century and were predominantly directed at the exploited working classes in the England and other Western countries. To the credit of the performance, it valiantly fought throughout against slipping into the squelchy, emotional morass that such melodramas enticingly offer, and managed, through the restrained dignity of the acting, the ascetically frugal set and effects, and the smooth and clever blocking by director Dina Amin, to symbolically transform the suffering of the two daughters caught in the clutches of poverty and saddled with an alcoholic mother into an existential trap of multiple, wider significance.
That the daughter Rose (Zainab Magdy), rather than decide for herself to put an end to her own, her sister's and her mother's suffering by willfully killing her mother, according to Morinelli's text, is made to respond to the mother's silent plea for someone to put a stop to her miserable life, was a concession to Egyptian sensibility, a backing away from facing the problem head on clash and accepting the burden of guilt. But it was done with great dignity and the audience loved it, as they loved every minute of the show. When I later asked Zainab Magdy about the choice of play, she told me that Dalia Youssef had suggested it and they had accepted it since it was an all- women cast and male acting talent was in short supply at the department.
With nothing but the most basic props, the most basic lighting and a row of chairs on the right where the performers sat waiting for their cues to enter upon the scene, Dina Amin's production of The Sins of the Mother was a memorable performance which richly deserves to be projected in other, more popular venues. The wealth of acting talent it highlighted was truly impressive and was comparable to the most professional of shows. Zainab Magdy as Rose, Ingy Taha as Ellen, Marwa Belal as Marie, the alcoholic mother, Nancy Awny as the grandmother and root of the whole problem, and Dawlat Magdy as aunt Theresa were a wonderful surprise and tread the boards as competent, seasoned performers. Throughout, memories flooded through my mind, and I was sure that the ghosts of old beloved masters, people those beautiful young actresses never knew, were hovering close in the wings.
Tony Devaney Morinelli's The Sins of the Mother, directed by Dina Amin and presented by the English Department Cultural Society (EDCS) Drama Group at Masrah Al-Madina Al-Gami'iya (theatre of the Cairo University Residence Hall), 30 April, 2008.


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