Having found renewed hope in the work of young artists, Nehad Selaiha explains her recent silence
January took me by surprise. I had been kept informed of the calls, plans and preparations for the big event on that day through some young friends, active in different movements, via the net.
For a long time I had felt that people had had enough; that things could not go on the way they did for much longer; that corruption had contaminated the very springs and sources of life, had infected the very bone and marrow of the country and so eaten into its moral fibre that it had become like a rotten, sinking ship that soon the big rats would be deserting.
I knew there was anger; plenty of it; and frustration and despair. Young people were literally throwing themselves into the sea to get away, far, far away from Mother Egypt — once a land of peace and plenty, of faith and hope — turned into a vicious, crazed cat that eats its own children.
I had felt all this, and was reminded of it daily as I walked the streets of Cairo, or travelled in the provinces, as I talked to the mighty and the humble — to smarmy, philistine officials, who lorded it over every body, and to diffident, struggling students, who daily travelled from the provinces in cold winter, in search of education and social advancement, and valiantly tried to hold on to their dignity, despite the frayed collars of their shirts, their thin, faded pullovers and well-worn dresses and jackets.
In theatre, which has long been my life, it was the same story. Haunting the fringe, as I inveterately do, I often experienced, and regularly reported (on this page), the bleak visions and feelings of impotence and hopelessness, of alienation and humiliation that heavily shadowed almost every performance I watched. Going through some of the articles I wrote about the independent theatre movement in the past 20 years and the work of its varied troupes, I could read unmistakable signs that pointed to the conflagration on 25 January. Whatever the ideological leanings of the groups, their work seemed to plainly say, in the often-quoted words of Salah Abdel Sabour, in his memorable verse drama Laila and the Majnoun (Madman): “Explode or Die.” There were, it seemed, no other alternatives.
Indeed, this sentiment was poignantly shouted from the stage in the first and last Egyptian play Mrs. Mubarak attended as First Lady. The long-running Qahwa Sada (Black, Unsweetened Coffee) had caused quite a stir and attracted a lot of publicity on account of its daring outspokenness, bleak vision of the present and future and delicious black humour. The First Lady heard about it and came to see it at the invitation of minister of culture, Farouk Husni. Along with her came a big horde of ministers, public figures, and Arab diplomats and their wives.
And the Lady was amused, was even heard laughing loudly at many points. But the Lady missed the whole point of the show. In my review of it, entitled ‘A sprightly elegy’ ( Al-Ahram Weekly, No. 901, 12 June, 2008), I wrote: “the show turns its satirical gaze homeward, taking up some of the most salient problems that face Egyptian society today and farcically exaggerating them: the religious hypocrisy of the new class of upstart businessmen and the dangerous coalition of money and religion; the rising cost of marriage which forces young people into long, secret, fruitless liaisons or condemns them to lifelong celibacy and sexual frustration; the chronic shortage of bread; … the deterioration of the educational system …; the worsening economic crisis which has made it impossible for most people to find a home of their own, seek medical help, or even bury their dead, has driven some parents to sell their daughters under the guise of marriage and has caused waves of illegal immigration across the Mediterranean, often ending in disaster…. By the end of the show,” I concluded, “the world portrayed on stage, though extremely farcical, seems a veritable wasteland.” You can’t say that the regime was not warned.
Indeed, there were warnings in plenty, wherever you turned your face, and they were graphically expressed in theatre by young artists whenever they got the chance. And yet, I was taken by surprise on 25 January. For days I felt dazed, elated, and worried sick all at the same time. ‘What next?’ was my first question. I had to confess that my own experience had made me thoroughly skeptical of all revolutions — indeed, of all ideologies, national projects and political causes. In all my cherished remembrances of youthful energy, deep faith and selfless rebelliousness, I could find plenty of sympathy with the demonstrators, but no refuge from doubt. God! All we, my generation, have gone through! The glorious hopes, dreams, sacrifices! And, finally, 1967 and terrible disillusionment; then a victory, in 1973, the moral and material fruits of which were soon robbed by ideological bigots, fortune seekers and social climbers. Then the rise of the tide of religious fundamentalism and its seeping deep into the basic layers of society, so much so that democracy, mechanically applied in the absence of its true spirit, and in the presence of poverty, ignorance, and a long tradition of intellectual oppression that puts a definite ceiling on free thought and willfully suppresses free choice and the spirit of inquiry in the name of religion, morality, the sacred heritage, cultural authenticity, the general good, or the public weal, seemed to me like a terrible threat, promising nothing but doom and gloom. The alternative was worse: a soulless capitalist, military dictatorship that voraciously sapped the energy of the nation, corrupted its morals and depleted its material and spiritual resources.
But this revolution was different, I argued with myself. It was not thoroughly planned and was largely spontaneous — nothing like the 1952 military coup d’état in whose shadow I had lived for close on 60 years. But then, what next? For if this revolution was not simply fuelled by a longing for democracy, but was also a protest against chronic unemployment, social injustice, the rising cost of living and the lack of a clear future for millions of young people, the question was, as someone wrote somewhere on the net, “when the bricks stop flying, what will Egyptians do to empower their fellow countrymen to better their lives?” is true, I thought, that, as this same writer went on to say, “while the fighting rages in Tahrir Square, the wealthiest abandoned downtown Egypt years ago, and built Californian-style gated communities on the edges of the desert named 6th of October, and Kattameya Hills. These Egyptians walled themselves off from the rest of the country, living much better than the average American, I assure you. If the roots of this revolt are over economics, then replacing a dictator won’t be enough.”
Yet, for a while, Tahrir Square seemed like a Utopian republic, where, as Yusef Rakha wrote, “Egyptians — Islamists, Copts, seculars, liberals, leftists, even the angry rabble … [were] … able to live productively and peacefully together;” where “all that is civic and public and state-operated about life was smoothly undertaken with infinitely more efficiency and conscience than anybody had ever known anywhere in Egypt.” Rakha (a dear, dear friend in spite of our difference in years) went on to say: “In Tahrir, spaces were opened up and, for the first time in our lifetimes, we could see that once the regime left us alone we had a lot more in common than we had ever thought possible; there is a necessary and beautiful space where we can all be together — and it is nowhere near as narrow or negative as the space in which reject the nidham, although the latter proved to be the only gateway to it. Slogans also referred to freedom, peace and unity. During the protests, in the open air, there was painting and music and theatre as well as prayers (Muslim and Christian); there were creative and hilarious responses to the oppressor outside and the apathetic onlooker at the doorstep. There was a flowering of graffiti; giant drawings seemed to crawl on the asphalt. Many of the smaller signs were literary gemstones, and video footage was quickly converted into songs. Photos were made into artworks of immediate relevance… Kites in the colours of the flag were constantly flown high in the sky; and the military helicopters, which the protesters did not always trust, seemed to circle them.”
This took me back to the late 1950s, when, as school children, we were herded to Tahrir Square in buses, pumped full of enthusiastic slogans, given little flags to wave, and made to sing national songs after Mohamed Abdel Wahab, who was there in the flesh, like a glorious, ruddy moon (this is how his face looked to me then), momentarily and miraculously descended to earth. Then too, Tahrir Square, indeed the whole of Egypt, had seemed like a utopia where freedom, dignity, social justice and equality were upheld principles. Rakha and his generation, however, luckily or otherwise, were not rushed into Tahrir Square by a charismatic national leader with a definite political programme. In Tahrir Square, in the late 1950s, we had no Islamists amongst us; our future Egypt was to be a democratic, secular, socialist state, we believed. That it would not become either democratic or socialist, and would be secular only in name and outer gloss, we were later to discover at a terrible cost.
Nevertheless, I wondered, shouldn’t a revolution have a ‘brain”, a clear ideological vision, declared goals and basic principles, and a manifesto? This has been an irking question since 25 January. When questioned about these very same points on the BBC Arabic Service, a prominent Islamist said: “Suffice it that we agree on bringing down the regime. This is our common goal now. Our ideological differences and political visions will be sorted out (fought out?) later.” Rakha, among many others, acknowledges as vital factors in the success of the revolution the logistical help provided by the very well organized Moslem Brotherhood and the positive neutrality of the army.
With the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom of old people I could have told dear Yusef Rakha that a revolt cradled between the wings of the military and Islamic bigots could not lay the foundation for a free, civil and democratic society. Elated as I was that people had finally got up enough courage to say ‘No’ and ‘Enough’, I could not help telling one of my students one night, when everybody was celebrating the army taking charge of the country, that since I had lived all my life under the rule of the military, I had hoped I would be free of them before I died.
In all my life I have learnt one thing: never to argue with the military or with self-proclaimed ‘true believers’. A dialogue in either case is at best futile, at worst, bloody and vengeful. While the former have military might; the latter have no fewer supporters than God Himself. How could one conduct a dialogue with people who would not even acknowledge your individual rights as a human being, a free thinker, and a free arbiter in matters of faith, gender roles and sexual identity? Islamic fundamentalists have no truck with such issues; they possess truth, the whole truth, and so help them ‘their’ god. Such a god as they uphold thought it worthy to sanction the killing of unbelievers — a sanction that culminated in the Luxor massacre, on 17 November 1997, at , not to mention the almost lethal attack on Naguib Mahfouz and the assassination of Farag Fouda, among others.
Media reports from Tahrir Square on the first day had sentimentalized and romanticized the event, comparing it once to a merry carnival and commending the self-restrain of the security forces. It made the whole thing seem disturbingly unreal, and I was strongly reminded of Fernando Arrabal’s Picnic on the Battle Field. Even the whitest of revolutions must have its fair share of innocent victims and martyrs; when the regime finally bared its ugly face and the first martyrs fell, the revolution became real — an open struggle for power, as all revolutions, indeed, ultimately are.
And, like all revolutions, this one brought out the best in people and the worst. It was hardly 10 days old and still fighting for survival, when the demented scramble to claim the largest bite possible of the prospective cake began. It was sickening to watch. The will of the nation, which had seemed unified behind its youth, soon splintered into many self- interested fighting factions, each with its own agenda and each claiming sole possession of Truth and Right. The first principles of democracy and human rights — principles the revolution champions had hoped to instate — namely: the right to differ without being called a traitor and the right of a defendant to be considered innocent until tried and proven otherwise — were shamelessly trampled on in the media. Daily, rumours spread like wild fire, ignited by old feuds, petty grudges, vengeful impulses and greedy ambition, leaving in its wake many an innocent victim and shrouding the truth in thick, impenetrable clouds of smoke. Rather than honourably seek out the truth and verify the facts, the media has turned it, wittingly or otherwise, into a hazy, ever elusive ball, feverishly bandied about by grim contesters and impossible to glimpse but for a fleeting second.
You know what happened afterwards; the referendum on the constitutional amendments, maliciously turned into a sectarian fight between Muslims and Copts, felt ominous and seemed to confirm my worst fears. Casting about for a ray of hope, I decided to put aside for a while the wisdom of age (my daughter had told me she had had enough of it, that it was thoroughly depressing and futile, and that every generation had to fight their own battles according to their altered circumstances) and set forth in search of hope; and I found it, albeit fleetingly, in the community of young theatre people.
While the was fiercely raging all over the country, and Mubarak was still acting deaf and grimly holding on to power, Cairo’s independent theatre troupes, many of them had already been in Tahrir Square from Day 1, took turns at fighting alongside the revolutionaries and improvising, singly or in impromptu coalitions, short performances to cheer up everybody, ease out the long hours of waiting for the good news, or the next eruption of violence, and generally keep up the morale. When things got too hot in the square, a number of these performances moved to a safer, but hardly more congenial, location across Kasr Al-Nil Bridge
The derelict space outside Al-Hanager Centre (once the home of many independent troupes but now closed, and has been so for nearly 4 years now, allegedly for renovation, but really for being politically naughty and potentially subversive) was the new venue, offered by the ever valiant Hoda Wasfi, the director of the centre. There, barricaded from the rest of the Opera grounds on all sides by a corrugated iron fence, a section of which they contrived to remove to let in spectators, surrounded by mounds of sand, cement and rubble and constantly harried and harassed by the architect in charge and his builders for being in the way, 6 independent theatre troupes — Sabeel (Public Drinking Fountain), Hala (A State of Mind)), Soo’ Tafahom (Misunderstanding), Halwasa (Hallucinations), Nas (People), and Ana El-Hikaya (I am the Story) — presented their performances over 5 evenings as one event, christened “Layali El-Meidan” (Nights at the Square).
Two weeks later, 3 of these performances — Sabeel’s Tahrir Stories, Pages from the Tahrir Diary, a collaborative work by a coalition of 3 independent troupes (, and El-Hikaya), and ‘ Tafahom’s It Was a Misunderstanding — were hosted by the Cultural Palaces organization at Manf hall, together with 2 new works, Halwasa’s By the Light of the Revolution Moon and Hamada Shousha’s Sahra Thawriyya (An Evening Celebrating the Revolution), some concerts, films, political colloquia, a book fair and a photography exhibition, in a big event that lasted from 14 to 28 and was called Hikayat Yanayer (Tales of January).
Pages from the Tahrir Diary, written, acted and directed by Hani Abdel Naser, Siham Abdel Salam, Mohamed Ti’eema and Mohamed Mahrous, with Naglaa Yunis giving a hand with the acting, Soo’ Tafahom’s It Was a Misunderstanding, collectively improvised by the troupe and directed by Mohamed Mabrouk, and Shousha’s Evening, also collectively devised by the members of his troupe, with music by Hussein Abu Al-Derda’ and choreography by Rasha and Leebi, were political cabaret shows, consisting in varying degrees of poems, music, songs, brief, satirical sketches, mime acts, some storytelling and group dances. Though predominantly humorous and vastly entertaining, there were moments when the feeling of elation and the celebratory mood gave way to profound grief and sorrow over fallen friends and comrades.
However, of the spate of shows created in the first flush of the revolution, the most moving were the ones that documented this historical event through the testimonies of people (artists or otherwise, alive or dead) who actually took part in the Tahrir demonstrations, told real stories of other demonstrators, and paid homage to the Tahrir martyrs. These were: Sabeel’s Tahrir Stories, put together and directed by Dalia Basiouny in a ritualistic vein, and Halwasa’s confessional By the Light of the Revolution Moon, written and acted by Hani Abdel Naser, Mohamed Abdel Mu’iz and Ahmed Fu’ad and directed by Hani Abdel Naser. Delivered in person or by proxy, the testimonies there had the authentic ring of truth; they were simply phrased and candidly delivered, had no trace of empty rhetoric or hollow sounding heroics; they intimately dwelt on what going to Tahrir Square had been like and what it had meant and done to the testifiers. In all, one major theme was ‘breaking the barrier of fear and feeling empowered’. Another was recovering a sense of belonging to something called Egypt and taking pride in the fact, together with a sense of dignity and personal worth. If the revolution has done nothing else and achieves nothing in future, this would be enough and well worth all the sacrifices.