Scenes from the Status Quo Ante: Performing the Egypt that Was, and Is, and Might Have Been

cq5dam_web_564_9999If the reader will permit me to pierce the critical veil, for one brief instance, I’d like to relate a conversation that took place between myself and a friend at a bar in Chelsea, while watching a Jets playoff game in mid-January 2011. My friend had arrived wearing a red and white tracksuit, evocative of the flag of Tunisia, in honor of that country’s recent (and genuinely surprising) overthrow of its longtime dictator, Zein el Abeddine Ben Ali, heralding the start of what’s known in the West as the Arab Spring. Ordinarily more bullish about revolutionary movements than I, my friend conceded that he didn’t anticipate anything similar happening in Egypt where he, like myself, has family. “It’s that culture of ‘What will people say?’” I offered: a hidebound, almost pathological fixation on middle class respectability that tends to view any challenge to authority as ill-bred, if not dangerous. Egypt – a country that, in my parents’ lifetime, has transitioned from a decadently aristocratic monarchy, to a quasi-Marxist exercise in nationalist adventurism, to a neoliberal beachhead for American strategic interests to, now, a nearly-failed, kleptocratic police state sustained by Pentagon dollars and Saudi investment – had arrived at a point where few saw any value in stepping outside the roles prescribed for them by the institutions of state power. At the individual level, this status quo was felt most acutely by Egypt’s young people who, unbeknownst to us in that bar at that moment, were clamoring to set their world ablaze.

There is, or course, more to understanding the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 than just this, and I’ve devoted a lot of space here to getting a complete handle on all the narrative dimensions surrounding it. Recent performances at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute of The Mirror, by Yasmeen Imam Bashir, and They Say Dancing is a Sin, by Hani Abdel Nasser & Mohamed Abdel Mu’iz, bring many of these narrative dimensions back to the fore, shining a light not simply on the systemization of inequality and injustice in Egypt, but how this systemization is visited upon women in particular. Both written in the wake of 2011, these works will appear in co-translator Rebekah Maggor’s upcoming anthology, Tahrir Plays and Performance Texts from the Egyptian Revolution, part of the In Performance Series.

Issues of women’s autonomy – whether corporeal , economic, or political – lay very close to the surface of events in 2011, and remained a constant flash point in the years that followed. It was a young Egyptian woman, Asmaa Mahfouz, who took to YouTube in January 2011, excoriating her countrymen – particularly its men – for hypocritically standing idle while allowing female protestors to be beaten by state security police. “If you think yourself a man,” she challenged, “come with me. Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they’ll be beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with us on January 25th.” “Anyone who doesn’t join us,” she added, “ … you will be guilty, before your nation and your people. And you’ll be responsible for what happens to us.” Tough words, to put it mildly, especially in a society where women are frequently the subject of unwanted advances by men in public spaces. But if the 2011 Revolution envisioned a radical reassessment of one society’s expectations of itself, the residual institutions of state power had very different ideas. In the wake of the Revolution, Egyptian women frequently found themselves trapped at the intersection of private hierarchies and public violence that (per Corey Robin) are the twin pretexts of reactionary regimes. Female protestors were subject to invasive and humiliating “Virginity tests, ” ostensibly to refute claims that they had been raped in detention. In December of 2011, a brutal police crackdown on female protestors led to one unarmed protestor being dragged and truncheoned on live TV, her upper body exposed, save for a blue bra, as her niqab (face veil) was stripped away. In their brief turn at the helm of power, the Muslim Brotherhood alienated women activists by seeking to decriminalize female circumcision, vocally backing out of a U.N. Women’s Rights Declaration, and making frequently archaic statements about the role of women at home and in society at large. The return to de facto military rule has ushered in a gaudy personality cult surrounding current Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi that frequently borders on the carnal. Sisi, incidentally, defended the use of virginity tests in his previous role as Defense Minister.

It is impossible to detect where in the course of these events the protagonist of The Mirror (performed by Bailey Nasetta) finds herself; it is a testament to the intractability of the challenges women face in Egypt that she could just as easily be placed in Mubarak-era Egypt, as in the Egypt of today. “What’s wrong with the mirror?” she asks, “Why isn’t the reflection clear?” She is steeling herself for a fraught congratulation, of a cousin over her engagement, the circumstances of which become revealed over the course of the play. “The Girl”, as our protagonist is known, assumes the guise of a number of voices: her parents (“What will people say about you?”), her friends (“You’ve got to smile more”), consumer culture (“With this whitening tooth paste, your smile will charm him”), religious authorities (“The girl who leaves the house does dishonor to herself and to society”), and the Western pop music she enjoys (in this performance, a version of “I Will Make You Love Me” by The Temptations). She dons the hijab a quarter of the way through, with some reluctance. An enormously fraught garment, regardless of context, the hijab is often a reflection of the public significance society chooses to place on it. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is mandatory, and seldom worn by nationals of these countries overseas. In Turkey, it’s defined in opposition to Kemalist ideas of secular modernity. For a young Muslim woman in the States, hijab is an expression of her own autonomy in a society where Muslim Americans, in many quarters, are still viewed askance: a challenge to America to accept her religious identity on her own terms. In Egypt, however, it’s become a social expectation, adorned by fairly 90% of the female population (a figure unimaginable three decades ago), and often completely disconnected from any devotional ideas of modesty.  It is a marker of middle class respectability, a sartorial signal that nobody will ever say anything about you, for good or for ill. But The Mirror poses a far more vexing question for our protagonist than merely whether or not to cover her hair. Instead, she is made to grapple with the more fundamental question of how should a woman be. “A good girl does as she’s told,” she asks plaintively, “what are they telling her to do?!” Enter Cousin Sarah.

More privileged than the Girl, better off, Cousin Sarah has the latitude to make her own life choices, to change the situation she’s in. “You won’t ever get respect unless you raise your voice,” she says, echoing Asmaa Mahfouz. And so Cousin Sarah stands up to her harassers on the street, Cousin Sarah can tune out the cacophony of material and confessional culture. But ,“Cousin Sara has a lot of money,” the Girl’s mother warns, “We know our place. We don’t want trouble. “ Cousin Sarah is there less to demonstrate an alternative way of being for the Girl, then to draw the limitations to which she is subject into starker relief. It is, strangely, with a mixture of relief and regret that the Girl greets news of Sarah’s engagement, to a man the Girl herself had previously pursued: regret, perhaps, at a lost opportunity, but also relief for not having to pursue it any further. For all her ambivalence, one might imagine for the Girl of The Mirror the opportunity to seek the space to grow on her own terms, however long the odds of that may be.

They Say Dancing is a Sin presents us with a very different protagonist, separated from the Girl of The Mirror by decades of experience, and diametrically opposed in social positioning. If the Girl is taught to internalize all the myriad ways a woman ought to be, the protagonist in They Say Dancing is a Sin (let’s call her, “the Dancer,” performed by Tina Benko) grapples instead with what a woman has to do, in this case as a courtesan of Cairene nightlife inhabiting an overlapping landscape of military power and exploitative capitalism. Where The Mirror provided a snapshot of a society on the brink, at long last willing to ask some very difficult questions of itself, Dancing takes the much longer view. Our Dancer serves more as a sultry, world-weary central intelligence of a story decades in the making. She relays a personal history of triumphs and heartbreaks, conquests, and failures: businessmen clients who fell out of favor with the regime, married Generals who could always get her out of a bind, NGO officials on the take from foreign sponsors. She aspires to become a screen actor like Tahia Carioca, and Fatin Hamama –  icons of Egypt’s long defunct role as a global cinematic force, once third behind Hollywood and Bollywood – embodying a fading Egypt that still sustains throughout the ages. But for how long?

While ostensibly also a story of the difficulties faced by women without independent means, Dancing is a far broader indictment than The Mirror, frequently training its sites on the Generals as bodies natural, as opposed to bodies politic, burdened with sexual appetites, infirm loyalties, and an almost rapacious drive to control others. “These people need a Doomsday to bring them down,” she declares, “not just a Revolution.” And yet, very similar to The Mirror, Dancing is also a study on piety and it’s often self-serving ends. An instinctually pious (if not particularly observant) woman, the Dancer frequently casts herself as a modern-day Robin Hood, sometimes returning the spoils of her trade to those less fortunate. “But you know, the money comes from dancing and dancing is a sin,” she laments, “Fine, I won’t contradict them, they’re the scholars.” She recounts the Terms of Repentance in Islam (known as Tawba) relayed to her by a bourgeois religious woman she meets in the Gulf: admission of guilt, cessation of the misdeed, vowing never to do it again, and restoring the rights of all those afflicted by it. “Well if dancing is a sin, my repentance would be easy,” she says, “but what about the rest of these guys whose crimes come at the expense of the people? Destroying homes, cutting off people’s livelihoods, crushing them, drowning them, burning them.”  She chokes up, not simply for the injustice she has surveyed, but perhaps for her own proximity to the perpetrators of it. Significantly less so than The Mirror, no transformation takes place in Dancing, only acquiescence and perseverance. This may be all our Dancer can reasonably expect, for all her worldly and material wealth. If the Revolution can’t come soon enough for the Girl, for the Dancer it may not amount to reckoning enough.

The Mirror and Dancing are not the first selections of the anthology to be performed in New York: Ibrahim El-Husseiny’s Comedy of Sorrows made its debut at HEAR in August of 2013, just weeks after the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power. These performances preview a body of work with far more ambitious designs than the mere theatrical chronicling of an historical moment. “[Tahrir Plays] are plays that are urgent and relevant to American audiences, “ Maggor states, “ Corruption, Income Inequality, Gender Inequality . . . International drama and translation can push us to challenge assumptions about our own culture, and not to look at pieces as foreign and exotic.” Maggor’s approach, in this and other works, is to make the idiom of performance more relatably American. In The Mirror, the Girl’s hijab may well be the only reference point in the entire play anchoring it in a foreign culture; “Egypt” is never once mentioned, nor is the dialogue freighted with Arabic expression that might seem esoteric and strange to American ears. “The challenges are linguistic and thematic, “ Maggor goes on to say, “Capturing the essence of tone, there’s lots of American teen culture in The Mirror. We make it relatable to young women. No matter where you are, there are huge challenges to grapple with. If we want to approach the challenge of facing our internal blind spots, we need to make the work relevant for American audiences.” She adds, “Orientalizing leaves no room for self-reflection.”

Of course, gender inequality manifests itself very differently in the American and Egyptian contexts. As recent debates over campus rape, Gamer culture, and the NFL’s role in covering up off-field domestic violence have demonstrated, gender inequality, and the pathologies it sustains, can occur in the some of the most innocuous, privileged, and seemingly secure, precincts of American culture. This is not to draw equivalency between disparate examples, but instead to complicate assumptions of what we know about ourselves, and how we approach these issues in our own society. In describing translational approaches to fostering this complexity, panelist Mark Wing-Davey states that, “the audience cannot be in a superior position to the material. [We] try to create proximity to the audience. “

For Maggor, this proximity serves a more global dialectical purpose than simply making a foreign work accessible to American audiences. Pointing to the Egyptian dramaturgical tradition of “Egyptianizing” Western work in the local dialect, she cites a recent Egyptian adaptation of Inherit the Wind, Tariq El-Dweiri’s The Trial, which explored the frustration of making social change happen and how entrenched power structures in Egypt prevent them. “Egyptian theatre knows our canon quite well, “ she says, “Egyptian theatre is in dialogue with the West, but the inverse isn’t true. Usually our take on non-Western theatre is that we produce it as a way of looking at the other. “

De-otherizing the source material goes to more than just issues of language and tone. Both Maggor and Benko cite the need in Dancing to disentangle Eastern dance (or belly dancing) from the connotations associated with it in the West. Benko, in putting together her performance, explored issues of, “who has the power, the Dancer or the man . . . there’s a lot mixed up in terms how Americans view the term ‘Dancer’, there’s this notion of sin.” Maggor adds, “This woman found her strength and independence through the art form and that needed to come through.” Indeed, if the Dancer’s independence appears ill-gotten, it’s not for her artform itself, but for the misdeeds of those who patronize it.

De-otherizing,  in turn, is vital not simply for better understanding works in translation but for the overall ecology of theatre itself. “There’s a dual conversation about what arts does in the world and what’s going on inside the art,”  says panelist Derek Goldman, “the conversation about identity and inclusion is too much a conversation about identity politics, it’s not about a conversation about why theatre in Minneapolis looks so much like theatre in San Diego looks so much like theatre in New Haven.” Citing the strictly etymological definition of the word respect – to look upon something again – he adds, “the spaces where we are genuinely able to encounter the other are genuinely rare. We are surrounded by things we ‘Like.’ This may lend itself to a tolerance of the other, but we don’t have a sense of adventure or appreciation for encountering the other.”

What art – what theatre, in particular – can do in the world need not be limited to the particular circumstances informing the work on stage at its point of initial encounter with the audience. Where an American theatregoer viewing Inherit the Wind for the first (or perhaps dozenth) time might view it with a familiar sense of embarrassment for, or even indignation with, the body politic, a theatregoer in Cairo or Alexandria might see something instructive and real, with an urgency reaching far beyond the very historically specific subject matter of the original work.  The dialogue in Egypt will, no doubt, be altered in the coming years, as the political climate in the country becomes increasingly intolerant of dissent in any form. The culture of “What will people say?” may have become muted somewhat, but the superstructure of official and unofficial hierarchies that helped sustain it remains as strong a force in people’s lives as ever before. Nevertheless, the foundation of a new Egyptian canon is now firmly in place. International translations like Tahrir Plays can serve a more far-reaching purpose than simply depicting a discrete moment in time in a faraway place: they can serve to put us inside that place, and help us to understand the times as our own.

They Say Dancing is a Sin, co-translated by Rebekah Maggor and Mohammed Albakry, will be performed again as part of “Tahrir Plays & Performance Texts: Politics, Aesthetics, Translation”, a panel discussion and staged reading, Monday, November 10, 2014 at 6:30pm, at the Glicker-Milstein Theatre of Barnard College, LL2200 Diana Center, 3009 Broadway, New York, NY 10027.

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