Cairo | Staging a Revolution

A theatre production challenges murky rules of censorship in Egypt

In a scene from Lessons in Revolting, choreographer Karima Mansour steps on the chest of actor Ruud Gielens as they play the characters of the revolution and its nemesis, respectively. COURTESY ADHAM BAKRY
01 December, 2011

A MAN NAILS POSTERS titled ‘Lessons in Revolting’ on a wall by the entrance to Rawabet, a small theatre in downtown Cairo. The hammering rings like gunshots and, in the sweaty stillness inside the theatre, I am deceived. It is a summer afternoon in August, the month of Ramadan, and I’m there to see a final   dress rehearsal.

Days of fasting have subdued the nervous energy in the city. The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has warned against demonstrations during the holy month.  Still, action ensues after the evening iftars. Angry protestors burn the Israeli flag, challenging the peace between Israel and Egypt that had been cemented by former president Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, the heat and the revolution keep tourists away.

Speaking loudly into the darkened room of the theatre, Aly Sobhy, an actor and activist, describes his arrest after the military dispersed a demonstration in March. As he talks, he juggles three balls, beautiful in their formation but threatening to fall apart like the social groups that came together in the name of the revolution. Sobhy mocks the military’s pronouncement that Egyptians should be grateful they did not face a violent backlash. Several moments after he exits the stage, Aida Elkashef, a filmmaker, enters and recalls the story of 14 army officers joining their sit-in during a protest in April, only to have the sit-in broken up by the military.

Sobhy and Elkashef are among a group of nine friends who protested together during the pro-democracy movement and the subsequent demonstrations against the slow pace of reform in Egypt. Together, they have created Lessons in Revolting, a series of simple yet powerful monologues that tell the story of the mass uprising through their individual experiences, moving quickly through the toppling of Mubarak in the 18 day revolution and the crackdown on activists after the military took control. During the play’s dress rehearsal, images of the protests are projected on a white wall behind the stage as well as on laptops that the actors carry through the audience. Many of these scenes of the revolution depict the actors themselves in their real-life roles. The white light from the laptops, while unobtrusive, subtly take credit for their role in the uprising.

The actors—activists as well as theatre and film professionals—have different visions for the piece. Laila Soliman, the group’s scriptwriter, describes the work as a “visual, physical, political column” that captures the volatile relationship between the activists and the military as well as the current “unity or disunity” of the movement. “The purification of the system has not happened yet,” she says. Mubarak may be gone, but the military is still in charge, elections are months away and dissent continues to be punished. Karima Mansour, the choreographer, stresses that the play isn’t an archive of the past but an unyielding call for social justice. “This is not an explanation of what was but what it is now and what will be,” she says.

The play is writer Soliman’s second piece after the revolution. The first also focused on the human rights violations that Egyptians suffered at the hands of the military. Since the subject matter of Lessons in Revolting is so contemporary, it is perhaps too early to propose a solution to the problems that it considers. “It raises more questions than statements,” Soliman says. For her, the play is also a way of counteracting the popular narrative of the glorious Egyptian revolution that is—or at least was—projected by the media inside the country and abroad. The facade was shattered in October, when a military crackdown killed 28 peaceful protestors. The military leaders have been accused of corruption and activists suspect security forces of torturing prisoners. Many activists, as far back as the summer, have had an inkling of how bad things would get. “One doesn’t feel very hopeful when one sees men in uniform,” says Soliman.

Lessons in Revolting, however, steers clear of the religiopolitical turmoil, especially the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist organisation, which enjoys wide support among the people, is largely perceived to have stolen the thunder from the “liberals” and has become a preoccupation of the West ever since its ability to fill the power vacuum became clear. “I’m not interested in what the West is obsessed with,” says Soliman. “I am against stagnation.”

The play has been performed four times in Cairo and toured in Europe in October. Tickets were available free of cost at the door. On opening night, the hall was packed.

The actors aren’t sure why they haven’t been shut down by the military. They opted for low-key publicity to stay under the radar. One explanation, Soliman offers, is that theatre in Egypt has too small a following to be deemed a threat.

Alongside the monologues performed at the dress rehearsal, the events of the past eight months are portrayed through abstract dance that, fastened to the stirring music, manages both to lull and jolt spectators. The clanging of swords, the thud of body movements and the resonance of vigorous clapping bring the performance to a simmer. The choreography is haunting in its depiction of the emotional upheaval experienced by those who have fashioned the revolution—and those who have lost control of it. In one sequence, Mansour and Belgian actor Ruud Gielens assume, respectively, the characters of the revolution and its nemesis engaged in a dance duel. With ease, Mansour steps onto Gielen’s broad chest. With graceful roughness, they wrestle each other. Movement is intrinsic to the plot. The actors leap, crawl and drag themselves across the floor of the stage. And the choreography that brings them together in close physical touch reveals a sentiment of both love and betrayal. Even during a monologue, the other actors entwine themselves into a huddle in the background. One of the last scenes of the play is a sequence of fist-pumping, chest-beating, arm-swinging and clapping. The routine may seem primitive, but its repetition is hypnotic.

The play is physically demanding. After one drill, the actors urge each other to channel more energy into their moves. Watching them practise, their political commitment becomes clear. One sees how this modest production is just a tiny piece of the larger puzzle of the Arab Spring. In the evening, other larger pieces stream in through images seen on countless television sets in open-air cafes around the city. After breaking their fast, people watch events unfolding in neighbouring countries where political expression is being unleashed. Over hookahs, they enjoy political satires—most of which target the old regime—for the first time. Still, the boundaries of criticism are obvious. An estimated 12,000 civilians have been tried by military tribunals since Mubarak’s ouster—several for “insulting” the military.

Freedom of speech, these days, makes for complicated stuff in Egypt. One year ago, a play criticising the country’s ruling regime would have been impossible. In Mubarak’s era, Soliman had her scripts checked by government officials. While the old regime’s restrictions were discernable, the new rules of censorship are murkier. It isn’t clear what gets one arrested or killed. “We’re taking the risk,” she says. “It’s a different game.”

The divide between the “liberals” who brought about the revolution, pushing society towards risky new possibilities, and the rest of the populace is growing—which explains why the campaign against the military tribunals has not gathered steam. People are still reeling from the insecurity that gripped Egypt after the revolution, and they credit the military with restoring order. Rumours and conspiracy theories rove Cairo with gleeful abandon. To many, the young people who toppled Mubarak have become agents of the United States or Israel, agents of Egypt’s enemies. Puffing out a cloud of smoke, an Egyptian businessman declares that some of the activists should be arrested because they are dividing the country during a difficult transition period. “They deserve it,” he says.

On the streets of the capital, one notices that freedom, like riding a bike, needs to be practised. Questions enabled by the new state of uncertain possibility, like how much freedom is enough, are asked every day—everyone is figuring them out at their own pace. Decades of censorship have taught people to censor themselves. The businessman insists that freedom of speech now exists in Egypt. “It is enough for now,” he says. “We can get more after a few years when we are more settled.”