Sketches of a new/old political stasis

Just went to see this show, “The Last Days of Umm Dina,” at the Rawabet Center with my friend Maha. It was fun: not the sexy bellydancing promised on the poster, and not in fact a history of prostitution in Egypt, but an amateur sketch show (is this the Egyptian genre known as political cabaret?) with some songs satirizing the next-oldest profession, politics. The performers looked a lot like the audience: 20-something, wearing jeans and t-shirts, three women (of whom one muhaggaba) in a troupe of about 10 performers. There were funny numbers on the elections (ElBaradei made a brief appearance, spoke a few words, and beat a hasty retreat promising “the rest on Twitter”… Amre Moussa pretended to be the inevitable candidate doing various gymnastics to distance himself from the old regime… various old-regime leftovers and Islamists stumbled around dispensing violence or bribes and promising a “transitional period of 30 or 40 years or so,” as the three girls sang exaggerated backup to each candidate:
كلام جمييييل، كلام معقووووووول، ما اقدرش اقووووووووووووول حاجة فيه) and related phenomena. One young man deadpanned that after the revolution he decided not to be part of the old regime anymore, but to be part of the new regime (with a military salute showing exactly who Egypt’s “new” rulers were).
Lots of pointed jokes at state-run TV and SCAF and the ongoing military regime, lots of playful saluting, some slapping around of dissidents and would-be-independent journalists and such.
On the poster the show was labeled “a comedy, to a certain extent” – and that’s about right. Some things are hard to laugh about right now – the wounds are too fresh. (At the end the director came out and dedicated the show to Alaa Abdel Fattah.) There were definite moments of collective depression among the audience as well as applause and general hilarity at the SCAF send-ups. Regardless of the quality, it was good to see the downtown theatre crowd out in force, basking for an hour or so anyway in the warmth of shared political disillusion.
If even cardboard-man Tantawi is being readied for a personality cult (witness the celebrations of his birthday yesterday, appropriately coinciding with All Hallows’ Eve and marked by SCAF’s sticking the World’s Tallest Flagpole into the soil of Egypt), then the time will soon be ripe for satire again.


“Show me what democracy looks like”

Is Cairo boiling today? I’m not there. People there must feel that this is a last chance to drag the revolution out from under the wheels of the Egyptian Army’s tanks; today is probably the day that will decide whether or not the army’s massacre of civilians at Maspero last Sunday, with the associated state-media-incited sectarian violence, is or isn’t forever considered an inexorable turning point in Egypt’s post-Mubarak history, a turn into something slimier and darker than the nice “transition period” people had been talking about.  (Remember the Eastern-bloc “transitions to democracy”? Like pre-Putin Russia?)  A line in last Tuesday’s front-page Al-Masry al-Youm editorial put it succinctly:

الفطرة الانتقالية لم تبدأ بعد  The transitional period has not yet begun.

The paper also called on Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (the name means “honor”) to “have the sharaf to resign.”  He hasn’t. Instead, an unabashed cover-up press conference by SCAF, some dithering by the main political parties.  The intelligentsia immediately started doing its thing, sometimes with great wit.  This is a mock film poster for a feature called “The Ministry of Interior is Still in My Pocket,” starring Hosni Mubarak:

The artist known as Sad Panda proposes cutting off the tower of the State Radio and TV building rather than cutting the bells and domes off of churches in Upper Egypt (More from Sad Panda here):

And another artist, Abdallah, highlights the contrast between 1973 and 2011 in a cartoon titled The Maspero Slaughter. “I sacrificed my life on 6 October on top of a tank,” says the skeleton on the right. “And I sacrificed my life on 9 October, under a tank!!” responds his friend on the left.

Where am I as all this unfolds? In Boston, home of the original Tea Party and still showing traces of its founding by a band of salafist reformers called the Puritans.  Having a great time hanging out with a hyper-talented theatre director and his company, but also homesick for Cairo. Since I can’t be at Tahrir or Azhar Square, maybe I’ll go visit the sleep-in near South Station this morning – this is the Boston chapter of the Occupy Wall Street folks, showing us all what democracy sounds like.

And maybe I won’t. Here’s an excerpt from the FAQ posted on the official Occupy Boston web site – doesn’t really suggest a vibrant and unified opposition to capitalist hegemony, does it?:

“Where can I park my car?

There are plenty of parking lots in the area. Daily parking lot rates can be as high as $30/day on weekdays.  Rates of $9-$12 are more common for weekends. Street parking is available all around the financial district, Chinatown and the waterfront. Meters cost a quarter for 12 minutes and you can only get up to 2 hours at a time. Meters are shut off at 8:00 pm and are off all day on Sundays.

I went to Dewey Square but I didn’t see an occupation there.  Where are you?

We are tucked away behind some small trees. Look harder, we are definitely there.  We are directly across Atlantic Avenue from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which is this large silvery building.  …

I don’t like the food at Occupy Boston, or I don’t need free food.  Where else can I buy food nearby?

South Station has a small food court.  Quincy Market / Faneuil Hall is an 8-10 minute walk north on Atlantic Ave, and there is a wide variety of restaurants there.  Chinatown is a 2-3 minute walk south on Surface Road, and there are a lot of inexpensive restaurants and delis there.  Really, it’s downtown Boston; you can walk in any direction and find a lot of places to eat.”

Okay, in fairness, these are the FAQs intended for visitors and clueless fellow-travelers.  The protests are gaining momentum, spreading to different cities, and will probably get more interesting. But you know what I mean. These Bostonians can sound a bit whiny.  The physical courage of the Egyptian protesters, standing their ground in the face of unimaginable state violence, is just somehow (and thank God no one runs us over with APCs here) of a different moral stature.

On Arab theatre under American eyes

This is from the article I was up all that night trying to conclude: basically an analysis of two 2009 festivals of Arab or Muslim performance.  Finally, the following afternoon, gave up on defending a single artificially clear thesis and decided to have it both ways. Does this work? Tell me now. There will still be time to make changes in the proofs.

Let me tease out some of the apparent contradictions in the argument I’ve proposed.  The skeptic says: it is not art’s job to teach or edify, and artists can even be corrupted by playing to audiences whose curiosity is ethnographic or forensic.  The optimist says: events like Arabesque and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Muslim Voices actually can expand audiences’ knowledge of Arab or Muslim realities, and this is a good thing.  Likewise, the skeptic says, organized efforts to promote “dialogue” with “the Other” through art are doomed, because they must begin by reifying the Other into a single addressable interlocutor.  And yet, the optimist retorts, isolated small moments of dialogic give-and-take sometimes do emerge – although they more often fail to emerge, as in the “deaf dialogue” Brooklyn Q&A described above – from particular playgoers’ encounters with particular performances.  The skeptic says: the box is Orientalist, how could it not be? And yet, the optimist says, there are wonderful things inside.
At various times and in different roles I have argued for different sides of this debate.  To a professional scholar’s ears, the optimist above sounds dated and bizarre: how very 1990s to think a work of art can or should cure anyone’s misconceptions of the Other, and how very 1790s to think it might deepen anyone’s soul.  And yet this view still captures some of our intuitions as language learners, dramaturgs, translators, and teachers – or why would we bother?  The optimist offers more scope for creative action, even if the skeptic is right. 

Too sentimental?  I should say that there will be some room for personal reflection in this collection inspired by the memory of Saadallah Wannus; it’s not strictly academic in tone.

Remembering Francois Abou Salem

Meanwhile, in Palestine, the incredibly gifted theatre director and actor Francois Abou Salem has thrown himself off a building.

I saw this man play Mahmoud Darwish at the Cairo International Festival of Experiemental Theatre in 2008 in a very powerful one-man show of Memory for Forgetfulness, Darwish’s poetic memoir of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut.  It was the only unambiguously good play I saw at the entire festival (the Iraqi show Below Zero that year was also excellent, but had some issues.)  Abou Salem’s adaptation included my favorite bit (everyone’s favorite bit) of that book, Darwish’s ode to coffee (start here for English translation, then buy the book and read the rest). And he was surprisingly warm and kind, though tired, when I spoke with him after the show and when we emailed afterwards.  There’s something wrong with the sound on my computer, but I think you can watch the coffee excerpt fine; text below.



ولكن كيف أصل إلى المطبخ ؟
أريد رائحة القهوة ! لا أريد غير رائحة القهوة
ولا أُريد من الأيام كلها غير رائحة القهوة
رائحة القهوة لأتماسك .. لأقف على قدمي .. لأتحول من زاحف إلى كائن !
لأوقف حصتي من هذا الفجر على قدميها .. لنمضي معاً
أنا و .. هذا النهار , إلى الشارع بحثاً عن مكان آخر ..

كيف أذيع رائحة القهوة من خلاياي .. وقذائف البحر تنقض على واجهة المطبخ المطل
على البحر لتنشر رائحة البارود ومذاق العدم ؟

صرت أقيس المسافة الزمنية بين قذيفتين ثانية واحدة .. ثانية واحدة أقصر من المسافة
بين الزفير والشهيق , أقصر من المسافة بين دقتيّ قلب ..

ثانية واحدة لا تكفي لأن أقف أمام البوتوغاز الملاصق لواجهة الزجاج المطلة على البحر
ثانية واحدة لا تكفي لأن أفتح زجاجة الماء , ثانية واحدة لا تكفي لأن أصب الماء في الغلاية
ثانية واحدة لا تكفي لإشعال عود الثقاب .. ولكن ثانية واحدة تكفي لأن أحترق …

أقفلتُ مفتاح الراديو لم أتساءل إن كان جدار الممر الضيق يقيني فعلاً مطر الصواريخ
ما يعنيني هو أن ثمة جداراً يحجب الهواء المنصهر إلى معدن يُصيب اللحم البشري
بشكل مباشر أو يتشظّى أو يخنق وفي وسع ستارة داكنة – في مثل هذه الحالات-
أن توفر غطاء الأمان الوهمي فالموت هو أن ترى الموت .

أريد رائحة القهوة , أريد خمس دقائق .. اريد هدنة لمدة خمس دقائق من أجل القهوة !
لم يعد لي من مطلب شخصي غير إعداد فنجان القهوة
بهذا الهوس حددّت مهمتي وهدفي توثبت حواسي كلها في نداء واحد واشرأبت عطشي
نحو غاية واحدة : القهوة .

والقهوة لمن أدمنها مثلي هي مفتاحُ النهار
والقهوة لمن يعرفها مثلي هي أن تصنعها بيديك , لا أن تأتيك على طبق
لأن حامل الطبق هو حامل الكلام ,

والقهوة الأولى يفسدها الكلام الأول لأنها عذراء الصباح الصامت
الفجرُ أعني فجري نقيض الكلام ورائحة القهوة تتشرب الأصوات
ولو كانت تحية رقيقة مثل ” صباح الخير ” وتفسد …

لذا , فإن القهوة هي هذا الصمت الصباحي الباكر المتأني
والوحيد الذي تقف فيه وحدك مع ماء تختاره بكسل وعزلة
في سلام مبتكر مع النفس والأشياء وتسكبه على مهل
وعلى مهل في إناء نحاسي صغير داكن وسري اللمعان أفر مائل إلى البني ,
ثم تضعه على نار خفيفة آه لو كانت نار الحطب …

ابتعد قليلاً عن النار الخفيفة لتطل على شارع ينهض للبحث عن خبزه منذ تورط القرد بالنزول
عن الشجرة وبالسير على قدمين , شارع محمول على عربات الخضار والفواكه
وأصوات الباعة المتميزة بركاكة المدائح وتحويل السلعة إلى نعت للسعر ,
واستنشق هواء قادماً من برودة الليل ثم عُد إلى النار الخفيفة –
آه لو كانت نار الحطب – وراقب بمودة وتؤدة علاقة العنصرين :
النار التي تتلون بالأخضر والأزرق
والماء الذي يتجعد ويتنفس حبيبات صغيرة بيضاء تتحول إلى جلد ناعم ,
ثم تكبر .. تكبر على مهل لتنتفخ فقاعات تتسع وتتسع بوتيرة أسرع وتنكسر !
تنتفخ وتنكسر عطشى لالتهام ملعقتين من السكر الخشن الذي ما ان يداخلها
حتى تهدأ بعد فحيح شحيح لتعود بعد هنيهة إلى صراخ الدوائر المشرئبة
إلى مادة أخرى هي البُن الصارخ,
ديكاً من الرائحة والذكورة الشرقية …

أبعد الإناء عن النار الخفيفة لتجري حوار اليد الطاهرة من رائحة التبغ
والحبر مع أولى إبداعاتها مع إبداع أول سيحدد لك منذ هذه الهنيهة,
مذاق نهارك وقوس حظك , سيحدد لك إن كان عليك أن تعمل أم تجتنب
العلاقة مع أحد طيلة هذا اليوم فإن ما سينتج عن هذه الحركة الأولى وعن
إيقاعها وعما يحركها من عالم النوم الناهض من اليوم السابق وعما
يكشف من غموض نفسك سيكون هوية يومك الجديد .

لأن القهوة , فنجان القهوة الأول هي مرآة اليد
واليد التي تصنع القهوة تشيع نوعية النفس التي تحركها وهكذا …
فالقهوة هي القراءةُ العلنية لكتاب النفس المفتوح .. والساحرة الكاشفة لما يحمله النهار من أسرار

ما زال الفجر الرصاصي يتقدم من جهة البحر على اصوات لم أعرفها من قبل ,
البحر برمته محشوّ في قذائف طائشة
البحر يبدل طبيعته البحرية ويتمعدن
أللموت كل هذه الأسماء ؟ قلنا : سنخرج , فلماذا ينصب هذا المطر الأحمر -الأسود – الرمادي
على من سيخرج وعلى من سيقى من بشر وشجر وحجر ؟
قلنا : سنخرج قالوا : من البحر ؟ قلنا : من البحر ,
فلماذا يسلحون الموج والزبد بهذه المدافع ؟
ألكي نعالج الخطى نحو البحر ؟
عليهم أن يفكوا الحصار عن البحر أولاً .. عليهم أن يخلوا الطريق الأخير
لخيط دمنـا الأخير , وما دام الأمر كذلك
وهو كذلك … فلن نخرج … إذن , سأُعدّ القهــوة ..


Two Girls from Egypt

On the plane to the UK I watched a 2010 Egyptian movie, Bintayn Min Masr (Two Girls From Egypt), written and directed by Mohamed Amin (a few details here).  It was kind of an earnest social-critique tearjerker melodrama, as you can see from the trailer:

Like all the other cultural production that has come out of Egypt in the past 10-15 years, this film can be said to “predict the Egyptian revolution” of Jan 25 (yes, the linked article is about a supercomputer model!) or at least lay bare the social frustrations that helped contribute to it (Khamissi, Aswany, etc).

The subtitles mistranslated the title as Egyptian Maidens, probably to emphasize that the desperate 30-something heroines were both virgins — a result of social constraints and their inability to find husbands.  The least expected (and perhaps the least watchable) scene was a conversation in which a group of young women explained this sad fact to… a visiting researcher from Boston University!  Of all things.  The American scholar was depicted as blonde and a bit slow, with an exaggerated American accent.

Other highlights. All the men in the film were either scoundrels working abroad, decent men arrested for falling afoul of the regime (two of these), or depressed. The heroine’s brother was nearly killed after an accident sank the ferry that was carrying him to a dead-end restaurant job in Saudi Arabia. Of the female characters young and old, the only one who occasionally appeared happy was a young nurse or doctor involved in a heterosexual relationship, albeit one that was “external” (i.e., sexual but not damaging to technical virginity) and “urfi” (protected by a customary agreement rather than a formal marriage certificate), and consummated mostly in supply closets.  Everyone else was single or widowed, and totally neurotic/miserable/psychosomatically ill, trying everything (dating offices, the Internet, airport lounge speed-dating with Gulf emigrants) to land a man.

Since I have kids, airplanes are about the only time I get to watch movies. Sometime I’ll tell you about Al-Dealer, another recent Egyptian film I saw on a recent flight to Beirut.  Equally melodramatic but much more exciting, and it touched on the former Soviet bloc!