Review: Tahrir Tales: Plays from the Egyptian Revolution, Edited by Mohammed Albakry and Rebekah Maggor. Seagll Books. ISBN 978-0857423412
Reviewed by Kristin Johnsen-Neshati
Volume 6, Issue 3 (Spring 2017)
With these ten translations of Egyptian plays, Mohammed Albakry and Rebekah Maggor have significantly advanced the field of Arabic theater studies and extended the influence of Egypt’s revolutionary voices to new audiences abroad. Each play provides a distinct perspective on the protests arising from—but also extending beyond—Tahrir Square in 2011. In clear, playable language, characters from across the anthology describe actual events witnessed collectively, but experienced personally, such the police and military attacks with fire hoses, tear gas and gunfire, and the deadly large animal stampede, known as the Battle of the Camel. Stories throughout the collection remind us of unparalleled acts of courage, generosity and camaraderie from those days, as well as feelings of guilt for some, and for others the end of fear.
They Say Dancing is a Sin by Mohamed Abdel Mu’iz
In this one-person show, a professional belly dancer addresses the audience in her dressing room, having just finished a performance. She’s about 40 years old and speaks casually about her friendships with women, relationships with men, and her disgust with arrogance and hypocrisy. Touching on themes of freedom, morality and self-worth, the Dancer suggests that these are luxuries for people like her, who worry about basic survival. The Dancer describes a predicament that might apply not only to her own search for validation, but also to the plight of Egyptian artists at large.
The Mirror by Yasmeen Emam
A young woman described as “The Girl” appears in her bedroom, studying herself in the mirror as she tries on outfits and rehearses what she’ll say at her cousin’s engagement party. The Girl repeats, questions and responds to the conflicting advice she receives hears from important figures in her life. The voices disagree on whether a woman should be bold or submissive, strong or delicate to win a man’s interest. Written as voice-overs, but playable live, these opinions build to a crescendo of confusion over celebrating another’s happiness while longing to find one’s own.
Tahrir Monologues by Sondos Shabayek and Members of the BuSSy Project
An ensemble of twenty performers share the monologues of protestors and observers who submitted their accounts of the Egyptian uprising to the BuSSy Project via Facebook and the Tahrir Monologues website. Beginning with a headline from April 19, 2010, this piece moves swiftly through pivotal events from the protests in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, including the ongoing vigil at Tahrir Square, the Central Security Forces’ use of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition, Christians and Muslims taking turns protecting each other as they prayed, and the news of Mubarak’s stepping down. Through eloquent, stirring monologues, a powerful refrain emerges, marking the moment when ordinary citizens became patriots, and in so doing, put an end to fear.
The Window by Said Solaiman
Hamid lives cooped up at home with his wife and daughter Sara, terrified of the old man and woman, sheikh, policeman and other “personalities” who watch them from beyond the window. Sara yearns to go out, and Hamid’s wife begs him to join them on excursions. He is paralyzed, however, by fears of surveillance and the judgment that goes with it. Described as a “Drama with Movement in One Act,” The Window depicts how the paranoia of contemporary urban life in Egypt can yield unexpectedly to revolt.
Comedy of Sorrows by Ibrahim El-Husseini
Signs of upheaval in the play’s physical world reflect the chaos, both internal and external, suffered by the characters whose poetic soliloquies ground this impressionistic ensemble piece about revolution and its aftermath. Characters speak in two modes (reflecting the formal and colloquial registers familiar to Arabic-speaking audiences), described by the translators as “heightened formal English, arranged in free verse, for the soliloquies and colloquial American English for the dialogue.” Characters deliver poignant speeches blending everyday experience with the surreal. Their accounts of abandonment, sadism, degradation and loss seem both contemporary and eerily detached.
In Search of Said Abu-Naga by Ahmad Hassan Al-Banna
Said Abu-Naga has gone missing in the days following the killing of an unarmed man in Alexandria on January 28, 2011. Clashes have broken out in Tahrir Square between protestors demanding regime change and police and military forces. Said’s mother and fiancée watch news reports, eager for word about the young man. Tensions arise, however, as Said’s mother and fiancée reveal competing hopes. The young woman longs for Said’s return so that the couple can marry, while the Mother prays her son will choose his father’s path.
Report on Revolutionary Circumstances by Magdy El-Hamzawy
A shoeshine kid overhears customers discussing the revolution taking shape in Tahrir Square. Hoping to secure himself an education, the kid joins the revolution and quickly takes part in every event at Tahrir Square. Written for a larger ensemble, this piece examines the revolution through the eyes of the poor and disenfranchised, whose voices risk getting lost in the elan of general protest.
The Visit by Muhammad Marros
Kamal is a middle-aged businessman who sits in the dark, waiting for his wife to return each night from Tahrir Square. Tahaya has developed an admiration for “the boys” and their empassioned protest, but it’s these “thugs” that Kamal blames for his tourism business going under. Tahaya invites one of the protesters, a photographer named Hisham, to their home for lunch, and their awkward encounter proves as volatile as the scene unfolding on the streets outside. The truth is slow to emerge in this play about loyalty, heroism and choosing sides.
Sorrowful City by Ashraf Abdo
Inspired by actual events affecting Egypt’s largest Christian minority, Sorrowful City depicts the betrayal and disillusionment of the Coptic community in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. With the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, Copts sought to flee the country in large numbers. The army and security forces attacked them repeatedly when they protested the demolition of a Coptic church in Aswan, and later when a riot broke out in the Port Said Stadium, killing over 70 people and injuring hundreds. Emigration and death emerge as key themes in this symbolic work about charting a course forward and leaving the past behind.
Taxi by Khalid Al Khamissi
Khalid Al Khamissi’s novel featuring 58 vignettes from the lives of Egyptian taxi drivers was adapted for the stage by the Thousand Tongues Theatre Company. Originally performed by an ensemble of six, the play shifts swiftly from one Cairo location to another, combining storytelling in the present with re-enactments from the characters’ past. The result is a motley collection of entertaining tales dedicated to the ubiquitous Cairo taxi and the people who spend their lives in them.
Albakry and Maggor have translated most of the works, usually with at least one other partner. Although the plots and characters vary considerably, the plays share a consistent accessibility of language and idiomatic style. One of the great strengths of this collection is the care with which the editors have established political and cultural contexts for these works. Albakry’s essay, “Translating Egyptian Drama for the Stage,” provides illuminating examples of how a translator approaches re-envisioning an Egyptian source text in English. Maggor’s introduction provides a fascinating account of how the Egyptian theater community merged with the protests, offering details about the events, artists, titles and venues that would shape this turbulent period in revolutionary theater. Several production photos accompany the texts, along with generous footnotes that expand on points without dominating this handsome collection. Nehad Selaiha’s brilliant essay, “The Fire and the Frying Pan: Censorship and Performance in Egypt,” illustrates both official and societal forms of censorship, their roots in colonialism, and the dire result when these forms overlap. Written with her characteristic elegance and precision, and paired nicely with the editors’ introductions, Selaiha’s remarks provide a crucial political context for Western readers and call to mind her special place as Egyptian theater’s great champion.
George Mason University
Kristin Johnsen-Neshati teaches courses in world theater, dramatic literature, dramaturgy and translation for George Mason University’s School of Theater. Her special interests include theater practice of the Middle East and North Africa. In 2011, she received a Fulbright grant to interview working professionals and scholars on the rise of Egypt’s independent theaters. She has translated four of Chekhov’s major works and, most recently, co-wrote and co-directed Gogol’s Nose & Other Strange Tales from the City with David Gaines.