art against the silence

fiona winning at cairo's experimental theatre festival

Bayan Shbib, Safad-Shatila (Vice Versa)

Bayan Shbib, Safad-Shatila (Vice Versa)

The world is developing and changing every day and our responsibilities do not allow us to let our life remain the way it is. We cannot change however, without dialogue, by opening up to the other, defying isolation and rejecting silence.
Farouk Husni, Minister of Culture, Egypt

I WAS ON THE JURY OF THE 18TH CAIRO INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF EXPERIMENTAL THEATRE, ALONG WITH 10 ARTISTS, PRODUCERS, CRITICS AND ACADEMICS HAILING FROM MANY COUNTRIES—MOROCCO, MEXICO, CHINA, GERMANY, RUSSIA, EGYPT AND OTHERS.

A government sponsored event, in a great international city, the festival featured 62 works from 47 countries. Each company registers to participate and raises its own resources to present their work in Cairo. Once there, works are shortlisted by an international Viewing Committee into the ‘official’ and ‘fringe’ parts of the event. The 25 works in the official program are part of a competition for a range of awards—best performance, direction, scenography, ensemble, actor and actress.

Every night, we were driven in convoy to a series of venues across the city. We’d arrive and be ushered into the first few rows of the theatre to watch works from Libya, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Ghana, Japan, Bangladesh, Croatia, Uzbekistan and others. If the performances were in Arabic, our interpreters would simultaneously translate the text into the first language of the jury member. The hubbub created by the translations joined the general noise of the space—the sound of mobile phones ringing and being answered, people coming and going and discussing the work throughout. The theatres, during the festival at least, are lively social spaces.

The work we saw was incredibly diverse, formally, technically and aesthetically. From the simple storytelling theatre of Ghana’s Abibigroma Theatre Company, in their joyous fable The Story Aranse Told, to the overwrought incoherence of King Lear As A Sufi by The National Theatre of Jordan. From the visceral physical ensemble work by the all male cast of the Russian company Moon Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet to the intense vocal ensemble work by the women in the Armenian Experimental Group’s production of 4:48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane. And from the austere representation of rural life and courtship in Uzbekistan’s Bukhara Puppet Theatre’s When Stars Are Lit to the intricate mediatised scenography in the Japanese company Chiten’s production of The Crucible.

Given Western neo-colonial ventures in the region, the ongoing violence in Palestine and Iraq and the recent July war in Lebanon, it wasn’t surprising that representational forms exploring issues of violence, war, forced migration and grief dominated the Arab works in the Festival.

Nisaa’ fil Harb (Women in Wartime), by the Iraqi National Theatre focused on the experiences of three women displaced by war and terror, seeking asylum on the borders of Germany. Rithaa Al-Fajr (Lamentations at Dawn) by Mazoon Theatre from the Sultanate of Oman was a dialogue between the ghost of a dead warrior and his grieving widow.

More complex and controversial works were presented by the Palestinian Ashtar Theatre and The Experimental Theatre of Syria.

Safad-Shatila, Vice Versa, is a solo work by Bayan Shbib for Ashtar Theatre tracing a young woman’s decision to counter violence with violence. One Palestinian woman’s loss of home and country, during Al Naqba in 1948, merges with another’s loss of her husband and family during the Shatila massacre in Lebanon in 1982, prompting a response that grief is futile and only direct action is viable.

Written and directed by Jawad Al-Assadi, Hammam Baghdadi (The Bath of Baghdad) is a sophisticated and devastating work. It’s set in a public bath-house in Baghdad where the competitive relationship between two brothers, who drive trucks between Amman and Baghdad, is played out. They share horrendous stories of finding a mass grave, playing football with the severed heads of the enemy and trying to avoid violence only to stumble into more. Textual references to, and physical actions of cleansing, spiritual purging and burial rituals merge with the imagery of the city as a blood bath. Saddam’s reign of terror melds seamlessly with the terror of the American occupation in The Experimental Theatre of Syria production.

The diversity of work in the festival prompted many debates among audiences, the Jury and in The Experimental, the daily publication of the festival. Just what does ‘experimental theatre’ mean across east/west cultural contexts? Is it useful, indeed possible, to compare work from first and third world economies and from countries where contemporary practice has been institutionally supported for generations and those where it is not? Isn’t it disingenuous to present (and judge) what are ostensibly subversive practices in Egypt in the context of the government’s patronage?

This final paradox and the absence of independent artists around the festival, prompted me to visit Townhouse Gallery, an independently run arts space in the back streets of Downtown Cairo.
Fayez Qozoq & Nidal Al-Sigary, Hammam Baghdadi (The Bath of Baghdad)

Fayez Qozoq & Nidal Al-Sigary, Hammam Baghdadi (The Bath of Baghdad)

It’s in a poor area that’s dominated by tiny engine repair shops. The locals in the surrounding streets welcomed us with pride, knowing we must be in the neighbourhood to visit their arts centre. They took us to the beautiful old building that had been abandoned in 1956. The genesis of the centre, established in 1998, has been totally connected with the lives of the locals, who have renovated the building and continue to work, play, visit and pray in the space daily.

It’s a great story of community interactivity, lateral business planning, arts and audience development. It emerges from the social context of poverty and working children alongside the cultural context where artists are subject to censorship and an official expectation that phaoroanic culture and its imagery is the most legitimate representation/content for Egyptian art.

Townhouse programs are a mix of contemporary arts development and presentation, community development and business training. They include participatory programs, open access spaces, exhibitions and events. They have street front galleries, a library, rehearsal and residency spaces and are in the process of developing a new space for live performance. They host a range of international artists each year whom they invite to interact with and respond to their part of Cairo. High profile initiatives include: Photo Cairo, an annual regional photographic survey show and symposium and the Open Studio Project hosting process-based projects with local and international sound artists.

The government, media and art schools have ignored or attempted to blacklist Townhouse, but international foundations, development programs and businesses have funded to the extent they have 22 staff and are expanding their programs each year. All this operates alongside the policy: “all decisions are made in conjunction with our neighbours.”

Minister Husni’s call for dialogue informs not only his prestigious Festival of Experimental Theatre but is enacted here in the back streets of Downtown Cairo in an everyday, potent and politicised way.

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 40

© Fiona Winning; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2006