More Tahrir Tales

by Nehad Selaiha – AL-AHRAM Weekly

Nehad Selaiha ponders the problematic of staging reality as she watches more theatrical takes on the Tahrir Square demonstrations
In her Introduction to Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage — an exciting collection theoretical, historical and performance texts that projects documentary theatre from fresher perspectives — Carol Martin, who edited the book and contributed one of its essays, takes up and profoundly investigates the issue of the elusiveness of truth in relation to the staging of ‘reality’ — a theme that has recently haunted me with grim persistence. “Despite the postmodern assertion that truth is not entirely verifiable,” she notes, “most people live guided by convictions about what they believe to be true. It’s this world — the world where truth is championed even as we experience our failure to ever know it with absolute finality — that theatre of the real attempts to stage.

Its assertion,” she goes on to say, ministering a strong antidote to my pervasive skepticism, “is that there is something to be known in addition to a dizzying kaleidoscopic array of competing truths. Skepticism and irony are still present,” she concedes, “but no longer centre stage.” Postmodernism notwithstanding, she concludes, almost chidingly, “A new generation of artists and scholars is committed to understanding theatre as an act of positive consequence.” In her own essay, ‘Bodies of Evidence’, which opens Part I of the book, Martin remarks, touching directly on the kind of theatre I have been watching since January 25: “In practice, much of contemporary documentary theatre is written contemporaneously with the events that are its subject matter…” and, therefore, “can directly intervene in the creation of history by unsettling the present by staging a disquieting past.” Though most of the performances I have seen lately do not generically qualify as documentary theatre and were neither consciously intended nor billed as such, they were uniformly, at least in part, concerned with putting real life scenes and experiences on stage in a variety of forms. Invariably, and however technically unsophisticated, or intellectually naïve, as some of them indeed were, they indirectly led one to question the relationship between facts and their interpretation by people as truth and/or reality, the role of the media in shaping our images of the self and understanding of facts, and the difference between ‘reality’, personally and concretely experienced, and ‘reality’ mediated through writing and the aesthetics of theatrical representation.

“A revolution cannot be televised,” says Dalia Basiouny (the founder of Sabeel, an independent theatre troupe established in Cairo in 1997,and one of that generation of committed artists, intent on making theatre an “act of positive consequence”), some American song, in her latest theatrical creation, entitled Solitaire. Originally, this dramatic monologue, which I saw at Rawabet theatre downtown on 30 March, was one of three, representing different generations of Egyptian women, in different socio-political contexts and at different historical junctures — a mother of the 1960s’ generation and her two daughters — and voiced at crucial moments of painful self discovery and identity definition.

I had read the 3 monologues, grouped together under the title Solitaire and courteously sent to me by Dalia, a few months before the revolution. While Dalia, as all independent theatre artists normally do when hoping to mount a production, was diligently fishing around for venues and funds, she suddenly found herself in Tahrir Square, among the revolutionaries. Her emailed reports to her friends from there during the 18 days preceding Mubarak’s’ stepping down are detailed, graphic and vibrant records of that historical event and have led her, within a few days of the eruption of the uprising, to collect and stage her Tahrir Stories, which I reviewed on this page last week.

But Solitaire still in Dalia’s mind, clamouring to be aired in March, as it had been promised by its authoress. And Dalia, famous for being irritatingly punctual and maddeningly scrupulous about keeping promises, fulfilled this one, at least in part. In one of the monologues, Dalia had drawn on her own personal experiences in New York, as an Arab Ph.D. student, after 11 September. Using a fictional persona — an expatriate, Egyptian, Muslim pharmacologist, happily married and with a charming little daughter — as a thin disguise to achieve a measure of dramatic objectivity as writer, she had drawn a memorable character, racked by questions of identity, torn between loyalty to the old homeland and the new adopted country, striving to find her own bearings in a fast-developing cosmopolitan culture, and grappling with the new world order’s double moral standards, historical prejudices, hegemonic drives and palpable injustices.

Like Dalia herself, her dramatic persona is a Sufi at heart, in search of peace and harmony, and the founts of spiritual energy at the mystical heart of the world. But she is also a determined political activist who believes for a while that demonstrations and sit-ins can stop the war on Iraq and the rabid campaign against Muslims in the West, and force the super powers to give some attention to the plight of the Palestinians. Without real religious convictions of its necessity, she nevertheless wears the Islamic veil in sympathy with her fellow Muslim female sufferers. She is sadly disillusioned, however, vows to quit demonstrating, having realized its futility, and seriously considers becoming officially an American citizen, as her easy-going and ‘practical’ husband had long advised, and taking the loyalty oath.

Disenchanted with the efficacy of public, popular protests, as Dalia was upon coming back from the States, she, nevertheless, rushed to Tahrir Square on 25 January. And there, her faith was restored. The original monologue was promptly rewritten to connect the events of in the United States to the Egyptian Revolution, highlighting both events as main catalysts in the change the world has been, and will be, undergoing in the 21st Century. With her meager funds, she decided to stage the re-written monologue at Rawabet, at her own expense, and it came across as a confessional monodrama about self-discovery and the slippery path connecting private and public spaces, the personal and political, and aesthetics, truth and reality.

Professional and more technically sophisticated than any of the records of the Revolution I have seen so far, Dalia’s Solitaire — a multi- media performance that, true to her Sabeel troupe’s objective, focuses on ‘promoting women’s work, researching ways of integrating theatre and video to create non-traditional plays and perform them in alternative spaces,’ as Dalia states in the play’s programme — sheds light on the changing identity of Arabs in the past decade and feelingly, humorously and wittily documents the crisis of identity, brought about by world events, that she experienced in her sojourn abroad, and her tormenting search for peace with self and the world.

With a few simple props, meticulously chosen and thoroughly elegant — a screen at the back for video projections, a cushion on the floor, stage centre, placed in front of a small brazier, a slim, modern chair, upholstered in gaudy red, with a small side table on one side, and a large shawl that eventually serves as an Islamic veil — and evocative, mood-sensitive lighting, Dalia, plainly dressed in turquoise, with her long, curly hair let down, introduced the performance as a personal, private ritual into which we were for this once admitted, and deftly proceeded to cross the narrow, slippery path between fact and fiction, reality and artistic truth. Sincere as she invariably sounded, she was careful throughout to preserve for her audience a certain aesthetic distance that allowed them to critique her narration as an eye witness account of a reality mediated through theatrical representation. That the performance raised more questions than it answered, prodded you to question the narration even while you were artistically persuaded to credit its truth, was a mark of profound intellectual integrity and artistic proficiency.

As a true revolutionary, Dalia Basiouny took her Solitaire to the first theatre festival of Gulamekhak in Sulaymanyah, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which featured a number of one woman plays from Kurdistan, in addition to monodramas from Egypt, Germany, Sweden, and Belgium. In the Gulamekhak festival (Gulamekhak is the Kurdish name for the carnation flower, a symbol for Kurdish women), Solitaire, true to its nature as an authentic, thought- provoking piece, caused commotion in the artistic and political circles on account of its opposition to the American invasion of Iraq, which is considered by many Kurds a liberation for their region.

Of such qualities as Dalia’s Solitaire vaunted — namely, intellectual integrity and artistic proficiency, Al-Tali’a’s A Ticket to Tahrir Square — collaboratively written by the performers in an improvisation workshop under the guidance and supervision of Yusef Muslim, with lyrics by Mohamed El-Azayzi, music by Ahmed Hamdi Ra’of, scenography by Fadi Fouquet, and directed by Sameh Basiouny, and featuring scenes from the Tahrir demonstrations, punctuated by songs, video projections of Mubarak’s last speeches and Omar Soliman’s announcement of the president’s decision to step down, individual statements and several personal stories and monologues of varying length — had little to boast.

In this kind of show, one assumes the performers’ statements, stories and confessional monologues to be authentic and their own, rather than fictional approximations of things that could have happened to others, or appropriations of real stories of absent demonstrators, dead or alive, acted in absentia by performers acting as surrogates. I doubt very much that this was the case here; this was not a straightforward, confessional piece like Dalia’s Tahrir Stories, or Hani Abdel Nasser’s By the Light of the Revolution Moon (both reviewed last week). The improvisation workshop which produced this text may have used some personal experiences of the performers who took part in the Tahrir events; however, the fictional, meta-theatrical framework chosen by director Sameh Basiouny and his dramaturge, Muslim, worked against the illusion of authenticity, so necessary in this kind of show, and damagingly highlighted its performative strategies and innate artificiality as a theatrical fabrication.

Humorous as it was, the meta-theatrical framing device in this show — which featured a young couple professing to be members of Al-Tali’a theatre troupe and hell bent on stopping or disrupting a performance called A Ticket to Tahrir Square the troupe is about to present because its director, Sameh Basiouny, had excluded them from the cast — not only seemed tediously hackneyed, having been tiresomely overworked by young directors in the past two decades, but also made a mockery of the show’s proclaimed pretensions to being a ‘faithful documentary’.

The heavily made up faces of the beautiful female performers; the confusing preponderance of red shirts worn by both sexes, signifying for some the red flannels of a leading Egyptian football team (Al-Ahli club’s), communism for the maturer in years, and blood and violence, passion, love and a myriad of other denotations for the ideologically innocent; the invariably declamatory mode of acting in the single monologues, embarrassingly sentimental, constantly hovering on the edge of melodramatic exaggeration, and always striving for ‘effect’; the dearth of visual documentary material; the apparent artificiality of the writing; and the ponderous vociferations of Mr. Muslim, bearded and all, as he punctually walked in and out of the performance space, acting as commentator-cum- oracle, and freezing the actors in medias res to provide background tableaux vivants to his words, not to mention the historically simplistic and shallow approach to the whole event, made A Ticket to Tahrir Square morally bankrupt and not worth the buying.

Ironically, as if to confirm my feelings about this Ticket, Imad Abu Ghazi, the new minister of culture, a thoroughly affable and modest person and a decen scholar, happened to be there on the night I watched it. The flurry and flutter his presence occasioned before the show and his subsequent mobbing by the actors at the end of it were clear pointers that nothing has really changed. Having often watched such pathetically obsequious spectacles previously mounted for the pleasure and gratification of the former, long-reigning minister of culture, Farouk Husni, I was thoroughly disoriented, seeing one mask of power exchanged for another without the viewers seeming to notice the change. For a fleeting second, time rolled backwards. Once more, I was left thoroughly doubtful and casting around for hope with a sinking heart.

Nehad Selaiha ponders the problematic of staging reality as she watches more theatrical takes on the Tahrir Square demonstrations
In her Introduction to Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage — an exciting collection theoretical, historical and performance texts that projects documentary theatre from fresher perspectives — Carol Martin, who edited the book and contributed one of its essays, takes up and profoundly investigates the issue of the elusiveness of truth in relation to the staging of ‘reality’ — a theme that has recently haunted me with grim persistence. “Despite the postmodern assertion that truth is not entirely verifiable,” she notes, “most people live guided by convictions about what they believe to be true. It’s this world — the world where truth is championed even as we experience our failure to ever know it with absolute finality — that theatre of the real attempts to stage.

Its assertion,” she goes on to say, ministering a strong antidote to my pervasive skepticism, “is that there is something to be known in addition to a dizzying kaleidoscopic array of competing truths. Skepticism and irony are still present,” she concedes, “but no longer centre stage.” Postmodernism notwithstanding, she concludes, almost chidingly, “A new generation of artists and scholars is committed to understanding theatre as an act of positive consequence.” In her own essay, ‘Bodies of Evidence’, which opens Part I of the book, Martin remarks, touching directly on the kind of theatre I have been watching since January 25: “In practice, much of contemporary documentary theatre is written contemporaneously with the events that are its subject matter…” and, therefore, “can directly intervene in the creation of history by unsettling the present by staging a disquieting past.” Though most of the performances I have seen lately do not generically qualify as documentary theatre and were neither consciously intended nor billed as such, they were uniformly, at least in part, concerned with putting real life scenes and experiences on stage in a variety of forms. Invariably, and however technically unsophisticated, or intellectually naïve, as some of them indeed were, they indirectly led one to question the relationship between facts and their interpretation by people as truth and/or reality, the role of the media in shaping our images of the self and understanding of facts, and the difference between ‘reality’, personally and concretely experienced, and ‘reality’ mediated through writing and the aesthetics of theatrical representation.

“A revolution cannot be televised,” says Dalia Basiouny (the founder of Sabeel, an independent theatre troupe established in Cairo in 1997,and one of that generation of committed artists, intent on making theatre an “act of positive consequence”), some American song, in her latest theatrical creation, entitled Solitaire. Originally, this dramatic monologue, which I saw at Rawabet theatre downtown on 30 March, was one of three, representing different generations of Egyptian women, in different socio-political contexts and at different historical junctures — a mother of the 1960s’ generation and her two daughters — and voiced at crucial moments of painful self discovery and identity definition.

I had read the 3 monologues, grouped together under the title Solitaire and courteously sent to me by Dalia, a few months before the revolution. While Dalia, as all independent theatre artists normally do when hoping to mount a production, was diligently fishing around for venues and funds, she suddenly found herself in Tahrir Square, among the revolutionaries. Her emailed reports to her friends from there during the 18 days preceding Mubarak’s’ stepping down are detailed, graphic and vibrant records of that historical event and have led her, within a few days of the eruption of the uprising, to collect and stage her Tahrir Stories, which I reviewed on this page last week.

But Solitaire still in Dalia’s mind, clamouring to be aired in March, as it had been promised by its authoress. And Dalia, famous for being irritatingly punctual and maddeningly scrupulous about keeping promises, fulfilled this one, at least in part. In one of the monologues, Dalia had drawn on her own personal experiences in New York, as an Arab Ph.D. student, after 11 September. Using a fictional persona — an expatriate, Egyptian, Muslim pharmacologist, happily married and with a charming little daughter — as a thin disguise to achieve a measure of dramatic objectivity as writer, she had drawn a memorable character, racked by questions of identity, torn between loyalty to the old homeland and the new adopted country, striving to find her own bearings in a fast-developing cosmopolitan culture, and grappling with the new world order’s double moral standards, historical prejudices, hegemonic drives and palpable injustices.

Like Dalia herself, her dramatic persona is a Sufi at heart, in search of peace and harmony, and the founts of spiritual energy at the mystical heart of the world. But she is also a determined political activist who believes for a while that demonstrations and sit-ins can stop the war on Iraq and the rabid campaign against Muslims in the West, and force the super powers to give some attention to the plight of the Palestinians. Without real religious convictions of its necessity, she nevertheless wears the Islamic veil in sympathy with her fellow Muslim female sufferers. She is sadly disillusioned, however, vows to quit demonstrating, having realized its futility, and seriously considers becoming officially an American citizen, as her easy-going and ‘practical’ husband had long advised, and taking the loyalty oath.

Disenchanted with the efficacy of public, popular protests, as Dalia was upon coming back from the States, she, nevertheless, rushed to Tahrir Square on 25 January. And there, her faith was restored. The original monologue was promptly rewritten to connect the events of in the United States to the Egyptian Revolution, highlighting both events as main catalysts in the change the world has been, and will be, undergoing in the 21st Century. With her meager funds, she decided to stage the re-written monologue at Rawabet, at her own expense, and it came across as a confessional monodrama about self-discovery and the slippery path connecting private and public spaces, the personal and political, and aesthetics, truth and reality.

Professional and more technically sophisticated than any of the records of the Revolution I have seen so far, Dalia’s Solitaire — a multi- media performance that, true to her Sabeel troupe’s objective, focuses on ‘promoting women’s work, researching ways of integrating theatre and video to create non-traditional plays and perform them in alternative spaces,’ as Dalia states in the play’s programme — sheds light on the changing identity of Arabs in the past decade and feelingly, humorously and wittily documents the crisis of identity, brought about by world events, that she experienced in her sojourn abroad, and her tormenting search for peace with self and the world.

With a few simple props, meticulously chosen and thoroughly elegant — a screen at the back for video projections, a cushion on the floor, stage centre, placed in front of a small brazier, a slim, modern chair, upholstered in gaudy red, with a small side table on one side, and a large shawl that eventually serves as an Islamic veil — and evocative, mood-sensitive lighting, Dalia, plainly dressed in turquoise, with her long, curly hair let down, introduced the performance as a personal, private ritual into which we were for this once admitted, and deftly proceeded to cross the narrow, slippery path between fact and fiction, reality and artistic truth. Sincere as she invariably sounded, she was careful throughout to preserve for her audience a certain aesthetic distance that allowed them to critique her narration as an eye witness account of a reality mediated through theatrical representation. That the performance raised more questions than it answered, prodded you to question the narration even while you were artistically persuaded to credit its truth, was a mark of profound intellectual integrity and artistic proficiency.

As a true revolutionary, Dalia Basiouny took her Solitaire to the first theatre festival of Gulamekhak in Sulaymanyah, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which featured a number of one woman plays from Kurdistan, in addition to monodramas from Egypt, Germany, Sweden, and Belgium. In the Gulamekhak festival (Gulamekhak is the Kurdish name for the carnation flower, a symbol for Kurdish women), Solitaire, true to its nature as an authentic, thought- provoking piece, caused commotion in the artistic and political circles on account of its opposition to the American invasion of Iraq, which is considered by many Kurds a liberation for their region.

Of such qualities as Dalia’s Solitaire vaunted — namely, intellectual integrity and artistic proficiency, Al-Tali’a’s A Ticket to Tahrir Square — collaboratively written by the performers in an improvisation workshop under the guidance and supervision of Yusef Muslim, with lyrics by Mohamed El-Azayzi, music by Ahmed Hamdi Ra’of, scenography by Fadi Fouquet, and directed by Sameh Basiouny, and featuring scenes from the Tahrir demonstrations, punctuated by songs, video projections of Mubarak’s last speeches and Omar Soliman’s announcement of the president’s decision to step down, individual statements and several personal stories and monologues of varying length — had little to boast.

In this kind of show, one assumes the performers’ statements, stories and confessional monologues to be authentic and their own, rather than fictional approximations of things that could have happened to others, or appropriations of real stories of absent demonstrators, dead or alive, acted in absentia by performers acting as surrogates. I doubt very much that this was the case here; this was not a straightforward, confessional piece like Dalia’s Tahrir Stories, or Hani Abdel Nasser’s By the Light of the Revolution Moon (both reviewed last week). The improvisation workshop which produced this text may have used some personal experiences of the performers who took part in the Tahrir events; however, the fictional, meta-theatrical framework chosen by director Sameh Basiouny and his dramaturge, Muslim, worked against the illusion of authenticity, so necessary in this kind of show, and damagingly highlighted its performative strategies and innate artificiality as a theatrical fabrication.

Humorous as it was, the meta-theatrical framing device in this show — which featured a young couple professing to be members of Al-Tali’a theatre troupe and hell bent on stopping or disrupting a performance called A Ticket to Tahrir Square the troupe is about to present because its director, Sameh Basiouny, had excluded them from the cast — not only seemed tediously hackneyed, having been tiresomely overworked by young directors in the past two decades, but also made a mockery of the show’s proclaimed pretensions to being a ‘faithful documentary’.

The heavily made up faces of the beautiful female performers; the confusing preponderance of red shirts worn by both sexes, signifying for some the red flannels of a leading Egyptian football team (Al-Ahli club’s), communism for the maturer in years, and blood and violence, passion, love and a myriad of other denotations for the ideologically innocent; the invariably declamatory mode of acting in the single monologues, embarrassingly sentimental, constantly hovering on the edge of melodramatic exaggeration, and always striving for ‘effect’; the dearth of visual documentary material; the apparent artificiality of the writing; and the ponderous vociferations of Mr. Muslim, bearded and all, as he punctually walked in and out of the performance space, acting as commentator-cum- oracle, and freezing the actors in medias res to provide background tableaux vivants to his words, not to mention the historically simplistic and shallow approach to the whole event, made A Ticket to Tahrir Square morally bankrupt and not worth the buying.

Ironically, as if to confirm my feelings about this Ticket, Imad Abu Ghazi, the new minister of culture, a thoroughly affable and modest person and a decen scholar, happened to be there on the night I watched it. The flurry and flutter his presence occasioned before the show and his subsequent mobbing by the actors at the end of it were clear pointers that nothing has really changed. Having often watched such pathetically obsequious spectacles previously mounted for the pleasure and gratification of the former, long-reigning minister of culture, Farouk Husni, I was thoroughly disoriented, seeing one mask of power exchanged for another without the viewers seeming to notice the change. For a fleeting second, time rolled backwards. Once more, I was left thoroughly doubtful and casting around for hope with a sinking heart.

 

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