An Historic Moment

The PEN World Voices Festival concluded yesterday with two plays that deftly wove imagination and fantasy into political subject matter. In the talk-back afterward, Professor Marvin Carlson underlined the ground breaking nature of the events taking place at the Segal Center this week.  Ten years ago, the Segal Center hosted an academic conference on Arabic theatre, at which time, Carlson remembers that he’d only seen one Arab play in the city.* Certainly several more Arab productions have reached New York audiences since then (at La MaMa and BAM most recently), but the PEN World Voices Festival this year is certainly noteworthy in its hosting of five Arab plays over two days. If this PEN event (one of over 40 in the city this month) has been historic for New York, however, the two-year collaboration between the Royal Court Theatre and these Arab playwrights has proved significant in the Arab World, as well. Carlson and Laila Hourani, the Regional Manager of Creativity of the British Council in Syria, both remarked that the Arab Playwright project with Royal Court has emerged as an encouraging symbol of a regeneration of experimentation with theatre and theatrical forms by Arab playwrights. Following a vibrant theatre scene in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s in Egypt, the Levant, and North Africa, interest in the theatre plummeted revealing what Carlson called a “missing generation.” This collection of plays by young Arab writers signals a hopeful reemergence of theatrical experimentation in the Arab World.

The two plays shown yesterday encouraged their audiences that we have much to be hopeful about. Laila Solimon’s Egyptian Products follows Hadiya, a 29-year old single woman living in Cairo, a live-in assistant to the Ustaz, an aging professor. Gasir, who works as a lab assistant to the Ustaz’s doctor, keeps appearing in Hadia’s life in Cairo as well as in her fantastical daydreams. She fights pressure from her mother and brothers to get married (and quickly) to a man from her home city, outside of Cairo, and Gasir, still mourning his mother’s death 3 months ago, struggles to find his way with women. But the play avoids the desperate depression its characters almost evoke. The playwright’s approach is quixotic and playful, throwing her characters in and out of fantasy, elation, and despair. In addition to Solimon’s willingness to break “realistic” representation (and tension) with the seemingly random—throwing her characters into Baliwood dance sequences or film noir slow motion—her dialogue (and here, again, commendations to the translator) reveals the strong vein of playfulness in her work. At one point, Hadia asks the tight-lipped Gasir, “You like girls, right?” and then stammers, “I mean you like gills, on a fish?” An awkward silence envelopes the two before Gasir answers, “Fish in a dish or aquarium fish?” Hadia glows before answering “Both.” Rasha Zamamiri stood out as Hadia (though it should be noted that casting throughout the program, by Alan Filderman, was truly commendable).

The 6:30 program consisted of Imad Farajin’s play 603, the number of the cell block in an Israeli prison occupied by four Palestinian men. Slap, Boxman, Snake, and Mosquito have been in the same cell together for 8 years, every day awaiting the sound of buses that signal prisoner exchange and their release. The play weaves in and out of reality and fantasy, each man locked in a mental prison only the other characters can help him out of. Mosquito, deserted by his wife and the daughter he has never met, keeps a mosquito in a matchbox which he demands be fed by blood from his mates’ fingers; Slap, paralyzed by the memory of an instance of cowardice imagines and reimagines beating up the soldiers who humiliated his family and his students; Boxman can think of nothing but his girlfriend, Cyron, whom he refuses to acknowledge was probably killed in recent bombings of Gaza; and Snake, the one of the four who has no hope of release, struggles with the fact that his friends will one day leave him, stealing parts of each man’s fantasy. The piece is powerful without being didactic; Farajin’s insistence on showing parts of the imaginary insides of each man’s head succeeds in making his characters somehow more real and tangible. The play has toured successfully throughout the West Bank evoking strong reactions from Palestinian audiences.

The question of whether or not these playwrights’ work is political emerged in the panel discussion following the last reading. Audience members sought to understand more fully where these artists come from, what they hope to achieve, and how they feel about the work they’re producing, and the playwrights responded, I think, quite poetically. Azré Khodr, of Lebanon (The House), said that she feels she and her colleagues write “the color of our eyes” — that is to say, if the writer feels like s/he’s struggling in their daily life in their country, that sense of struggle will come out in their work. Mohammad al Attar, of Syria (Withdrawal) admitted that he tried his best to keep “politics” “out” of his work, trying to limit his play to real characters in an average, quotidian situation. However, he ventured that, if trying to keep their work “apolitical” was a goal of his or his colleague’s work, they had failed. “And I’m proud of it” Laila Solimon (Egyptian Products) quickly retorted. In soft spoken Arabic, Kamal Khalladi, of Morocco (Damage), said of his own work, “I feel that we live in a world that lacks happiness. What’s required of my talent is to explain why this is. Why aren’t we happy? And what’s happiness anyway?” Truly, an “apolitical” aesthetic may be impossible in the theatre, but the creativity these artists bring to the form is encouraging in defining what a political aesthetic may look like for this generation.

An incredibly encouraging program all around. We’ve much to learn, all of us, about the world(s) we live in.

Rayya El Zein

* This was the Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim’s The Tree Climber. The conference previously hosted at the Segal Center featured readings of plays by Alfred Farag and Lenin el Ramil.

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