Comedy of Sorrows at HERE
It would be impossible to view recent events in Egypt – up to and including this past month’s brutal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and the wave of sectarian and street violence that ensued – without seeing them as in some ways predictable, if not inevitable. Since the Revolution of 2011 that toppled longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak – heralding, in earnest, the start of the “Arab Spring” (a term, incidentally, viewed with deep derision by most in the Arab World; “If this was the Spring”, the thinking goes, “then what the hell is the Winter supposed to be like?”) – Egypt has see-sawed from one authoritarian regime to the next, whether under the guise of provisional military control (2011-2012), a misspent electoral mandate by the Muslim Brotherhood (2012-2013), or the military once again, this time acting with the support of widespread street protests mobilized against the Brotherhood (2013 – present.)
Each of these regimes has been transitional either in fact or in substance. None were willing, or even temperamentally equipped, to initiate the type of broad-based process of comprehensive reform, national reconciliation, and institution-building demanded by those who originally took to Tahrir Square in 2011. In their first turn at the helm, the Generals truncheoned female protestors and molested them with “virginity tests.” They kept the state security establishment firmly in place, and successfully resisted any meaningful civilian oversight over their affairs. After them, the Brothers paid lip service early on to working with secular parties, only to embark on a politically foolish exercise of attempting to remake the country in the image of their own ideological purview. President Mohamed Morsi was eventually pushed aside by a new set of generals (many of them, ironically, hand-picked by him), who quickly put in place a highly technocratic caretaker government of seculars and liberals, while also (as it now seems apparent) planning a massive-scale purge of all Muslim Brotherhood protest sites and whipping much of the Egyptian population into an hysteria of rank xenophobia and anti-Brotherhood bloodlust. Since August 14th, the death toll has surpassed 800.
If the enduring lesson of the 18 Days, as Egyptians reverentially refer to the Revolution of 2011, was the utter falsity of the Mubarak-era choice between authoritarian impunity and runaway Islamism, it was a lesson either immediately lost on those in power, or purposefully ignored by them. Meanwhile, in opposition, seculars and liberals proved themselves more adept at sloganeering and self-sabotage than coalescing into a unified political force at the ballot box. And while a robust culture of dissent and political satire has visibly taken shape over the past three years (as exemplified by Dr. Bassem Youssef’s Daily Show-inspired, “El Bernameg”), it has failed to create a wide enough discursive space from which could emerge a viable political alternative to the two extremes of military authoritarianism and Islamist adventurism. As a result of these and other factors, the long-standing, often deadly, duel between Egypt’s military and its Islamists has not only persisted, but deepened and intensified with higher stakes.
Egypt is now at a moment of reckoning never before encountered in its multi-millennia history. “It could never happen here”, it has often been said, “Egyptians would never fight other Egyptians.” Implicit in this assertion is the belief that Egyptians are characteristically different (in a fashion, superior) to other Arabs, unafflicted by the type of clan-based, hyper-sectarian civil strife that has plagued post-colonial creation-states like Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq throughout their modern histories. The Egyptian national identity, grounded in an odd mixture of pan-Arab nationalism, Islamic history, Coptic patrimony, Deltan peasant folkways, Pashalic gentility, and (only-when-convenient) Pharaonic antiquity, was simply too authentic, too historically cohesive, too confidently at home with itself to be undone by the kind of petty internecine warfare displayed by weaker nations who don’t even belong together in the same states. That assumption is now being torn asunder. The reality that many Egyptians are only now waking up to is that they have indeed been fighting one another for decades now, it’s just that one side in the conflict wears epaulets and ribbons, and the other sides beards and skullcaps. And for the first time in Egypt’s history, this conflict is being played out not under cover of the deep state, but out in the open, in the streets with AK47’s and Molotov cocktails, and with the rest of the country caught literally in the crossfire.
At a time when the very purpose of revolution is being called into question in Egypt, it seems as much timely as fated that Ibrahim El-Husseiny’s play “Comedy of Sorrows” be making its return to New York this week. “Comedy of Sorrows” was one of the first theatrical responses to the Revolution that emerged from Egypt and when it first toured the States in early 2012, it already handled the subject of revolution with a kind of cautious optimism giving way to freighted ambivalence. By El-Husseiny’s lights, revolution seemed less an historical event to be celebrated and more an existential condition through which each character must enter and exit over the course of the play, and then only with varying degrees of success. Hybrid Theatre’s production at HERE expands on this ambivalence and weighs it down even further. Tracy Cameron Francis directs a production that pushes the revolution far beyond the boundaries of space and time, throwing it into a surreal fog of claustrophobic chaos and misapprehended memory.
The production opens in medias res, in this case, quite literally, with a scene originally purposed for the middle of the play. A red velvet cake is sliced up and consumed by military personnel, who have been embedded in the audience. They brag of ill-gotten gains and multi-billion dollar payouts, speaking in innuendo, gluttonously licking their fingers of cream cheese frosting. They then quickly exit the stage in urgent heed of nature’s call and this is the last the audience ever sees of them. Otherwise, the 18 days have already begun to toll at the play’s outset. The revolution first appears not as a gathering of protestors in a public square, but as a pile of garbage being sifted through by two vagrants, Yusuf and Niqrazan (Adi Hanash and Bobbac Kashani, respectively). Condemned to the City of the Dead, a teaming, informal settlement that had previously been in use as a cemetery since the 7th century, they forage for food in a heap of discarded signs and pamphlets. The refuse reads like a capsule summary of the past three years of political life in Egypt, “Game Over . . . The Army . . . Bread . . . Muslim Brothers . . . War. . . Corruption . .. Salafis . . Paper Parties . . . Military Rule.” They are either observed, or narrated, by Uncle Hafiz (Gordon Kupperstein), an ancient cemetery guard who pretends to be deaf and mute and speaks only to himself in Classical Arabic (a linguistic feature employed by each of the characters throughout the play). Niqrazan sits and behaves in the manner of a dog. Yusuf, though more reflective, is resigned and withdrawn, until he unearths from the garbage Doha (Najla Said, reprising the role from 2012), an affluent, upper class woman, who had hidden in the garbage of Tahrir in order to evade police capture. Doha, it turns out, is an old flame of Yusuf’s from university, but she does not remember having met him and is instantly repulsed by his living conditions. “Wake up already”, she admonishes them both, “or have you become addicted to humiliation and fear and filth?” The symbolism of Doha’s character is not altogether subtle (in this production, she is clothed in the colors of the Egyptian flag), but the personification of Egypt as a cosseted bourgeoise, reacting to events as they unfold, seemingly out of touch with the material agonies of her own society, is perhaps the central characterization of the play and one critical to understanding the narrative El-Husseiny sought to create.
Doha flees the City of the Dead into the larger city, a disorienting, seemingly unshapen space of shadowy figures and extra-diegetic voices. It is in these spaces that we are introduced to the other characters of the play: Nada (Lily Balsen), a peasant woman whose fiance was gunned down by an officer, Mansur (Raphael Eilenberg), a protestor who has taken to the streets in defiance of his police sergeant father, and Suliman (Paul Kelly), Mansur’s father who takes seemingly sadistic pleasure in the torture of prisoners. Uncle Hafiz is present in nearly every scene, as either detached observer or delphic authority. The narrative bifurcation that takes place in each character is clearest within him. Arabic, a language that differs substantially between its classical and colloquial forms, is repurposed in translation as the idiom of memory vs. the idiom of personhood. Uncle Hafiz, it seems, already knows the outcome of events from the first (“Ideas are made by prophets and stolen by thieves”, he warns in the beginning, “Hide your ideas; the thieves are coming.”) And yet it is the idiom of memory that tells us more about the person giving voice to it than any individual action taken by the characters.
Uncle Hafiz speaks of history, more as an indecipherable burden to be borne by the living than the mere record of fact. Both Nada and Yusuf speak of love, and indeed it is the quest for love, either extinguished or unrequited, that incites both of them into action. Suliman speaks of power for its own purpose, and Mansur, of rebellion and youth. Niqrazan, most tellingly, doesn’t speak in any internal voice at all, desperate instead to uncover the instrumentality of his own debasement, and through this, the discovery (and one hopes, the redemption) of his own personal dignity. It is Doha’s voice – the voice of Egypt personified – that leads the viewer to nowhere in particular, other than deeper and deeper into her own confusion (“I am Doha . . . of nobody”, she states, often plainly and dismissively.) Her revelation is one of disillusionment, both with herself and the world around her. That the people do indeed bring down the regime in the end happens seemingly in spite of her (albeit on her behalf) and not because of any action she herself has undertaken. Within moments of the regime’s fall, she can only stand by helplessly as Nada becomes paranoically, almost schizophrenically, consumed with a fear of flying bullets. In contrast to Uncle Hafiz’s early admonishment, Nada begs, “Hide me . . . hide yourselves,” before curling into a fetal position in Doha’s lap.
Comedy of Sorrows is not a treacly, doe-eyed liberation plot, where the characters arrive in the end at some elevated, and qualitatively improved, understanding of themselves and the society they wish to inhabit. The ambiguity here is purposeful and instructive. Revolutions are indeed complicated, messy, and disruptive affairs. Sure, they may carry for some a certain polemical appeal; what, after all, could provide greater proof of the indomitable power of human agency than the very upending of the normative order? But revolutions are most accurately assessed by their aftermath, rather than by their mere occurrence. It takes the work of individuals, often with disparate worldviews and agendas, to salve the political ruptures from which revolutions, by necessity, must emerge. The Egyptian example has so far only underscored the very real dangers for a society where such individuals do not in fact come to the fore. It is no coincidence then that the play lacks a central protagonist. In an interview in Cairo in late 2012, El-Husseiny addressed the dramaturgical idea of the “collective hero”, which emphasized conflict within the collective, instead of focusing on a singular hero. That the characters are culturally and socio-economically atomized, brought together only incidentally by a revolution that appears on stage but once, says as much about the muddled reality of the 18 Days as it does about the society it sought to change.
And yet, by trying to tell the story of an Arab revolution, El-Husseiny also tells a more universal story about the fundamental precariousness of revolutions, both in terms of societal outcomes and in terms of the circumstances that bring them about. El-Husseiny, a civil servant and mathematician by training, who originally set out to study theatre criticism, approaches his work with an acute sense of theory. He speaks of providing his audience, “with the Arab reality . . . and the ways that the theatre in particular is able to absorb that reality.” Well, the Arab reality, at least with respect to revolutions these past few years, has been a parade of horrors interrupted on occasion by ephemeral flashes of hope. Tunisia is at a marginally less violent, but still dangerous, stalemate between its factions. For all the political posturing surrounding it in the U.S., Libya has collapsed into a failed state with completely porous borders. Bahrain crushed its popular uprising with barely an eyebrow raised by the West. Syria is now intractably mired in a gruesome civil war doubling as a proxy war between the Assad regime’s sponsors and the Gulf countries. El-Husseiny see his role as not simply the dramatizing of an historic event, but as modeling a kind of civic behavior in society. “There is a dialogue happening in theatre occurring between human beings,” he told Culturebot back in December, “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.” As Comedy of Sorrows demonstrates, this modeling is also inclusive of the dialogue between those in power, and those under their control.
In a society now seemingly bent on the eradication of an entire segment of its polity, it is not entirely clear where such a dialogue would even begin. A more cynical, more feckless, interpretation of this new production might center on where the characters would realistically find themselves now, three years on. Might Doha be cheerleading the Generals in their rout of the Muslim Brotherhood? Might Nada have been gunned down with the brothers on Rabaa El-Adawiya Square? Might Niqrazan or Youssef still even be alive? Might Mansour? Or his father, the Sergeant? That Uncle Hafiz’s fate –constrained as he is to the literal recesses of history – seems the most certain among all the characters in the play says as much about his station in life as it does about the limits of revolution to change anything about it.
And yet everywhere you look in Egypt, there are intimations of a civic future beyond the two authoritarian extremes set by the Generals and the Brothers, and oftentimes it has been the work of professional and citizen artists like El-Husseiny that have most effectively brought this future to light. The weeks leading up to the June 30th protests that removed Mohamed Morsi from power were marked by nightly protest vigils in front of the Ministry of Culture featuring live music, poetry readings, and performances by the Cairo Ballet. During the 2011 revolution, a vibrant and hitherto unseen culture of street art unfurled almost overnight on the walls of Egypt’s cities, attacking not only the Mubarak regime, but also the Generals and the Brothers who replaced him, and more boldly, issues like sectarianism, violence against women, and homophobia. The anti-Mubarak protests on Tahrir in 2011 elevated Egypt’s famously ribald (and often off-color) vernacular culture to the level of public protest (for his part, El-Husseiny was in Tahrir throughout most of the 18 Days writing call-and-response cheers). All of these serve to demonstrate how a culture of discourse and creative expression need not necessarily be viewed as the self-indulgent flourish of a type of elitist high-brow secular humanism, but as a critical feature of a society willing to ask some especially difficult questions, both of itself and of those in power. “That’s all democracy is”, Daily Show host Jon Stewart told an Egyptian audience earlier this summer on El Bernameg, “the ability to express yourself and be heard.” He also added, “Isn’t that all government is? We all get together and decide as a majority who the assholes are.”
Right now, however, it is the most polarized, most atavistic voices that resonate the loudest, and by all indications, they are not easily given to self-criticism. While there is still the possibility of a democratically accountable, representative government emerging out of the miasma, it will almost certainly occur in a climate of deep distrust, division, and paranoia. Egypt’s military currently enjoys a level of support perhaps unmatched under Mubarak, and with a media infrastructure almost entirely under their control (and with early reports of harassment and detention of foreign journalists) they appear primed to brook even less public dissent than ever before. Moreover, both the Generals and the Brotherhood have demonstrated a surprising alacrity and ease with manipulating public opinion and directing popular ire toward imagined threats from without. In the latest iteration of the conspiratorial strain in Egyptian media culture (a phenomenon grounded in a legitimate grievance over American foreign policy in the region), Egypt’s seculars and liberals are now in complete agreement with the far right wing of American politics that President Obama is operating in league with the Muslim Brotherhood, an assertion whose internal logic makes the Tea Party conceit sound downright sensible. “Just around the corner”, Uncle Hafiz warns all too presciently in his final soliloquy, “lie the idolaters of rulers.”
It has been oft-stated, and is entirely true, that it will be existentially impossible for Egyptians to return to the status quo ante under Mubarak. What El-Husseiny has described as “the fear barrier” has indeed been shattered, perhaps permanently. Moreover, the likelihood of a Saudi-style theocracy where all culture serves a strictly confessional purpose now seems, to put it mildly, remote. But having existed in a state of Perpetual Thermidore for almost three years now, Egyptians seem more willing than ever to double-down on familiar patterns of behavior, rather than amble bravely into the chaos, as Comedy of Sorrows envisions they might.
Comedy of Sorrows plays August 21st – 25th at HERE Arts Center. Tickets & more information here.