An Essay on Ibrahim El-Husseini’s “Comedy of Sorrows”
Ibrahim El-Husseini’s Comedy of Sorrows (Komedia el Ahzaan) is one of the first theatrical responses to Egypt’s 2011 revolution. It received a reading at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the Graduate Center at CUNY on April 2, 2012, Rebekah Maggor was the director. It will have another reading at the Consulate General of Egypt in Chicago on May 15, presented by the International Voices Project. The following essay was submitted to Culturebot by Hani Omar Khalil, a lawyer, writer, and photographer based in Manhattan.
In a recent Q&A for the reading of his play, Comedy of Sorrows (Komedia el Ahzaan), playwright Ibrahim El-Husseini offered a simple explanation for why he felt compelled to create a play about the Egyptian Revolution so soon after it had come to pass: “I didn’t,” he remarked.
Developed over the course of the past year, after sixty staged performances in Egypt, and now currently being read in translation in the U.S., it has indeed been a remarkably quick trajectory for a theatrical work based on events that occurred barely a year ago. But when first approached about writing the play, El-Husseini was himself resistant. He believed, like many Egyptians, that it was simply too soon to begin offering his own dramatic account of the meaning of the events of January 2011. Like many Egyptians, he believed that the Revolution had still to continue, that its goals of a democratic, accountable, and transparent Egypt–one grounded in fairness, equality, and the rule of law, out from under the thumb of military rule and big power politics–were still far from being accomplished, even with the resignation and eventual trial of former President Hosni Mubarak and members of his family.
The year that followed Mubarak’s resignation–which marked the temporal, if not the substantive, end of the revolution–has been one permeated with uncertainty, frustration, and the occasional flickers of hope. The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has cracked down on a continually restive protest movement through increasingly draconian military diktats, while the remaining civic space has been monopolized by dueling Islamist groups vying for power with the support of the urban poor. Egypt is, in a number of ways, an irreversibly changed society from a year ago, but the political drama being played out on its streets and in its corridors of power is one presently without denouement. Not surprisingly then, it is an air of uncertainty–of the revolution unrealized- that is most apparent in Comedy of Sorrows, and El-Husseini harnesses this uncertainty by treating the revolution not as an historical fact, but as an existential condition.
The play opens in Cairo’s City of the Dead, a vast, ancient labyrinth of mausoleums and crypts that was long ago re-purposed as informal housing for the poor. Uncle Hafiz (read in New York by Arthur French), an old cemetery guard, opens with the admonishment, “Hide your ideas and your dreams; behind every dreaming prophet lies a thief.” Confined to the slum, and speaking only in homilies grounded in his own past, Hafiz acts as a kind of central intelligence for the story, bringing with it a point of view of authoritative weariness. Uncle Hafiz is soon joined by Yusuf and Niqrazan (read in New York by Ariel Shafir and Mikéah Ernest Jennings, respectively) two unemployed, university-educated men now living in squalor. Yusuf is without work, while Niqrazan has practically devolved into the character of a dog, up to the point of preparing to defecate in public.
All the characters on stage employ Classical Arabic when speaking internally, but communicate with others in the Egyptian dialect. This is a critical linguistic attribute of the Arabic language that often gets lost in translation, but is nevertheless maintained steadily throughout the story thanks to expert casting. French himself reads Hafiz with a preacherly cadence that is alien to Egypt but, whether intentionally or not, evokes the same folkloric rhythms as the Delta culture from which his character is drawn. Jennings portrays an excitable and absurdly ignorant Niqrazan, in a manner oddly of a piece with the slapstick performances of Egyptian screen legends Ismail Yasin and Adel Imam. The effect is a drama of voices, as opposed to events, and with it an interplay of the considered against the direct.
While foraging for food and clothing, they come across the discarded signs of protest collected from Tahrir Square across town. Eventually, they unearth from the trash Doha (read in New York by Najla Said), an educated, upper class woman, who had hid in a garbage truck to evade police capture on Tahrir. The Revolution is already afoot at the outset of El-Husseini’s play, and is only alluded to as a background event incidental to the setting of every scene. Yusuf recognizes Doha as a former flame from college, but Doha has no recollection of him. She flees the slums in bewilderment leaving behind only a cell phone, setting the spine of the story in place. The inciting event of Comedy of Sorrows is not the events unfolding on Tahrir, nor Doha’s involvement in them, but the sudden reminder of an unremembered past between herself and Yusuf, which Yusuf still pines for but which Doha has long since forgotten. For the remainder of the play, Yusuf continues to pursue her throughout the city, but Doha remains elusive. Along the way, she encounters different individuals caught in the crosshairs of revolution: Nada (Lisette Silva in New York) a young villager recently widowed by an officer’s bullet, Mansur (Bill Barclay), a police sergeant’s son who has disobeyed his father (Steve Mellor) to take to the streets, and a dead man, who in eternal silence provides Doha her only willing audience.
All throughout, the audience is presented with an Egypt brought together under duress, but seemingly at odds with itself and its own fundamental character. In Doha, the audience finds an updated representation of Egypt as feminized ideal, but presented this time not as a steadfast mother figure but as a cosseted bourgeoise reacting to events as they unfold. In Hafiz, it hears the fading authority of long decayed grandeur on a society that no longer has any use for them. Through Yusuf, we are exposed to the desperation and frustration of the urban poor treated as non-persons in their own country. In Nada, we see reverent self-sacrifice give way to atavistic panic once the revolution is complete. The familiar refrain of the “The People Brought Down the Regime” is voiced here not in celebration but in wan, self-doubting apprehension. “The walls of fear have fallen”, Hafiz warns, “but scores of others remain.” “Hide the light . . . hide your dreams . . . hide your revolutions. We are still waiting for the dawn.”
El-Husseini has said he never intended his material for Western consumption which, ironically, has helped make translations of his work more accessible to these audiences. In an introduction to the play by translators Mohammed Albakry and Rebekah Maggor, he describes his approach as a desire to “provide my audience with the Arab reality . . . and the ways that the theatre in particular is able to absorb that reality.” In many ways, this approach is uniquely suited to dramatic portrayals of what is referred to in the West as the “Arab Spring”. Absent any exoticizing or orientalizing adornment, Comedy of Sorrows is identifiably a work about resistance and hope, and how the nature of one can very often lead to the subversion of the other.
If the major takeaway of the Arab revolutions is the power of grass roots resistance in the face of even the most entrenched tyrannies, then they can be placed among the likes of countless protest movements throughout history. For whatever the ensuing complications, there was indeed something recognizably universal at work in the streets of Cairo in 2011, just as in Tunis, Benghazi, and into today across Syria and Yemen. Revolutions happen everywhere for broadly the same reasons, and the Arab World certainly does not have a monopoly over them. Rather than celebrating the Egyptian Revolution as historical moment–with a focus on why it happened, and what it was intended to accomplish–El-Husseini instead calls the audience to a less obvious and much more vexing inquiry: who was the revolution for? And whatever happened to them?
Hani Omar Khalil is a lawyer, writer, and photographer based in Manhattan.