This is Not a Play

Last Friday night we went with my friend Maha, whom I’ve told you about, to see a performance called “Tahrir Monologues” at the Rawabet Theatre downtown. (Strong review here, less admiring review here.)  “This is not a play,” declared the program notes: it was documentary theatre, a pretty moving series of monologues based on interviews with participants in the Eighteen Days that toppled Mubarak. It started hesitant and built to triumphant: the boy who put on four layers of clothes so he could “withstand police beatings and keep going,” the girl who felt mildly guilty because she went home to sleep each night instead of camping out in the square, the young people who saw something within themselves change as they gained courage by confronting the regime’s brutality.

Rawabet was packed, and some of the energy probably came from the fact that many in the audience had been to that day’s unified and celebratory (though Islamist-dominated) demonstration in Tahrir. Audience members who had lived the Jan-Feb events nodded, laughed, and quietly commented: yes, it was exactly like that. But their feeling of nostalgia competed with an odd sense of unfinished business. There they were, back in Tahrir.  The show’s voice-over intro had stressed the psychological achievements of the 18 days, the sense of dignity and fearlessness that Egyptians would carry “regardless of whatever happens after this.”  For the moment, having successfully mustered a huge number of protesters to demand SCAF hand over power to a civilian government, they felt engaged again.

Then on Saturday the violence started. Yesterday (Tues) I texted Maha to check in. She texted back:

Thank u Marg. I go to work in the morning and Tahrir in the evening. Talk to the media if u can, Arabic or English, public or private. Tell them the people in Tahrir r butchered savagely. Tell them we r not thugs. No thug will carry on with the fight for so long.

The Rawabet Theatre collected dropped-off blankets and medical supplies.

Today we texted again.

It’s a war zone there Marg. U can’t imagine.


Pray for those on the front line and those on motorcycles carrying them outside when they r injured. They r so brave Marg. No masks, but they whiz in to the front line and come back.


I have seen more bravery in 2 days than I saw in my entire life.

What was this business about needing to tell people the protesters are not thugs?   (“Thugs” here, baltagiya, often means not just troublemakers, but people paid to be violent.) That’s certainly not how the media in my country are covering it (look, Anthony Shadid is finally here!). British papers either, I think.

But tonight I talked with my downstairs neighbor, a respectable woman in her 70s. She had the TV going, an independent channel but on mute, so just huge images of chaos in Tahrir. She shook her head. “It’s just wrong,” she said. I thought she meant the tear gas and live ammunition.  Instead: “These people have lost their minds. Isn’t there someone reasonable to tell them that this is wrong, that they should go home and stop ruining the country?”  And that is the charitable view, basically the one advanced by Tantawi in his speech last night.  Those poor misguided children.  I’ve heard versions of it even from people sympathetic to the protesters (but concerned that the elections go ahead on time, or worried that the economy is at a standstill and the country almost bankrupt, etc.).  A short hop from there to thinking these naive or too-stubborn protesters are open to being manipulated or paid.

As long as I’m reporting vicariously through Maha, let me tell you what she once told me about the eighteen days. The hardest part, she said, was after Mubarak’s Feb 2 speech where he offered all the apparent concessions, offering to resign in September and promising Gamal would not run to replace him. That’s when people started calling the protesters terrible names, blaming them for being stubborn and unreasonable, unwilling to compromise, for destroying the country. The same words some people are saying now.  “But he gave you everything you were demanding! What else do you want?” Then came the camel battle; Mubarak resigned 9 days later.


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.

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 ..