Theatrical Modeling and the Collective Hero: An Interview with Ibrahim El-Husseiny

A protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square in December 2011. Since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, protests in Egypt have grown more violent and fractious as divisions in the country have become more polarized.

A protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in December 2011.

Ibrahim El-Husseiny wrote the play Comedy of Sorrows only a few months after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in February of 2011. As such, it was one of the very first creative pieces produced in response to the Egyptian revolution. Following a run of 60 performances in Egypt, a translation by Rebekah Maggor and Mohammed Albakry toured the States in Spring of 2012 as a staged reading, with performances at CUNY Graduate Center, the Radcliffe Institute, and Vanderbilt University, amongst other venues. With the second anniversary of the revolution approaching, Hani Omar Khalil sat down with El-Husseiny in Cairo recently to discuss both his own evolution as a political playwright as well as the role of theatrical narrative in the shaping of national discourse. Questions and answers were given in Arabic, with translational assistance provided by Omar S. Khalil.

HK: You initially wrote your play just a few months after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in 2011 and yet, even in those heady days in the wake the Revolution, you produced a work that many could view as expressing deep ambivalence about the Revolution and who it would ultimately benefit. Why did you choose this approach and what informed it?

IH: Just two months after the Revolution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was still in control of Egypt, and I saw, in a number of ways that the Revolution was still unfinished. Increasingly, I saw the possibility of chaos arising and the Muslim Brotherhood taking advantage. There wasn’t any progress being made, and already it seemed like SCAF would rule in the same way as Mubarak. It seemed, by that point, that the choice before us was either complete chaos or an already organized group taking over.

HK: The police figure very strongly in your work, but not the Muslim Brotherhood? Why was this?

IH: The MB were not as visible of a force during the time of the Revolution. SCAF was seen as the much bigger threat, and besides the MB were in Tahrir from the very beginning, though their presence wasn’t quite as obvious. They do, in fact, get mentioned in the play, but only at the very end, “Hide your revolutions, Hide your prophets”, the [narrator] Hafiz says, “We have not yet seen the dawn.” This was intended to show how the MB could eventually turn around and subvert the Revolution.

HK: How were you personally involved in the Revolution?

IH: On the first day, protests were restricted to the area around the High Court, and were much more localized. But then word quickly spread about how the police had handled these initial incursions; the reaction was so brutal. Like many people, I started marching to Tahrir after Friday prayers on January 28th, three days after the protests had begun. We were beaten down on Galaa Square (on the opposite side of Nile from Tahrir), beaten down before we could even cross the bridge. And once I experienced the effects of the tear gas and the bullets, there was no turning back. We made it all the way to Tahrir, and once there, I put my talents as a writer to use and helped with the writing of chants and slogans for people to repeat.

HK: What playwrights and theatrical works have helped shape your vision of yourself as a playwright?

IH: Well, I got my start in math and science actually. My B.S. is in Mathematics from Zaqaziq University, but after graduating I decided to study drama and criticism at the Academy of Arts. In my second year of study, though, I grew less interested in criticism and shifted focus to writing. Additionally, my brother had a very nice library full of poetry, theater, and criticism and I took advantage of that. I’ve since written 19 texts and 8 plays. My first play, Seduction, was produced in 1998, and for that I received a modest prize of 90 Egyptian pounds – this was the Mohamed Teymour Prize. Another play I wrote in 2000, Tattoo Birds, was also well received. But what I learned from mathematics, though, is precision, logical thinking, and order, all of which are very important to writing, not just creativity. A good play is geometry – in writing, though, you can be anything you want, and not just a number, as with math.

HK: Has the revolution changed your view of yourself as a playwright and an artist?

IH: In Tahrir, I was inspired by how people cooperated with each other, but there was also a world that existed outside of Tahrir and this was the world I wanted to portray. The revolution impacted every aspect of the society, but the protests were only actually happening in a few select locales, mostly in the cities. I wanted to send the Revolution into the larger society, and I did this by bringing symbols and aspects of the Revolution to the setting of my play, so as to take the personality of Tahrir and issue it to a wider space.

HK: What are some of the changes you have observed in the artistic and cultural life of Egypt since the revolution?

IH: The artistic personification of Egypt has historically been that of a rural peasant woman, but this is a pre-1950’s construction grounded in the image many people had of their own mothers prior to then, as a rural or rural-derived woman. Times have changed, obviously, a lot of people’s mothers have university degrees and careers now. The young people on the square are mainly 18-25, college educated, and speak more than one language. It makes no sense to me to depict the face of Egypt as something now so far outside the experience of so many Egyptians. This type of representation no longer seems relevant.

The most important development has been the breaking of the fear barrier. In the old days, you could only allude to government corruption without personally attacking the President. Before, if you dared do anything critical, you risked winding up in prison with possibly nobody able to find you. Now, all the new information that’s emerged in the wake of revolution – of government wrongdoing, prisons, torture – each piece of new information can create another story. And the very idea of the “hero” has changed as well. It has been replaced by the idea of the “collective hero”, and the conflict within that collective, instead of the focus on a singular hero.

HK: What are some of the dangers you foresee to the artistic and culture life of Egypt in light of recent events, with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to near unchecked power over the government?

IH: I’m quite concerned and fearful that the current government may put rules in place to channel creative content towards values and morals. This is frightening because it may take us the route of Europe in the Middle Ages when the church controlled all avenues of cultural expression. I am concerned now that music and theatrical output will be produced with more of a preaching element, more concerned with religious education than with experimentation.

HK: What do you see is the artist’s role in a society like Egypt? A society in flux?

IH: I believe that theater will be the cultural medium that can resolve a lot of the issues we face moving forward. One need only look at the works of Sophocles and Aeschylus for examples of theatre as a way of modeling behavior. In February, in fact, I have a play coming out called The Jail Cell, which explores the lives of ultra-orthodox Salafis in prison, but it’s a prison of their own creation. They commit themselves to jail cells in isolation of one another without any interaction, but the play has two possible outcomes: either they break out of these cells of their own creation or they remain in prison for the rest of their lives. In the theatre, the message has to get outside the physical theatre and into the public square. There is a dialogue happening in theatre occurring between human beings, and this dialogue can hopefully model for people how that dialogue should be taking place in their own lives and in society as a whole. Recently, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, as well as other actors in civil society, have made some efforts in the direction of this type of modeling approach to theatre, but so far there has either been not enough of it, or it has come with an ulterior motive. My hope is that the private sector, alongside ordinary citizens, will pool together the resources to create the space for this type of approach; modeling a kind of dialogue.

HK: Your play toured the States earlier this year. What message do you have for Western audience who will be viewing your work for the first time, regardless of their level of familiarity with the subject matter?

IH: I wrote my play for the Egyptian audience but, when seen by somebody outside of Egypt, I would [want] them to see some of the universal human values at play in countries like my own. I want Egypt to arrive at a state of change that other countries in the region can use as a model. I want other countries in the Arab World to be able to model this kind of change and for the West to understand the basic human aspirations for change that we are trying to model here.