How to Evade Theater Censorship in Cairo

In his directorial debut at the Balloon Theater, Mohammad el-Sharkawy’s ensemble parody “‘Aash’in Turabik” or “In Love with Your Soil,” was nixed by the “censorship committee,” which continues to exist in largely the same form as it did under Mubarak:

20193_469630459746136_909285251_nAlthough, el-Sharkawy told Al Ahram Weekly last week, he saw some difference: Ministry of Culture officials who used to be members in the Future Association affiliated with Mubarak…are now members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood; they now have beards.”

Whether or not it’s all the same gentlemen with new facial hair, the apparatus seems to be working largely the same — approving scripts in advance (unlike novels, which can be published without this approval). El-Sharkawy’s play, which seems to be a slapstick-y satire, touched enough sore points to make two censorship committees reject it.

El-Sharkawy told the state-owned Al Ahram Weekly (the English-language edition) that he was previously censored by the committee in 2008, as an actor, for a role in which he alluded to Gamal Mubarak inheriting the presidency.

This time, the script for his directorial debut was flatly rejected by the first censorship committee to see it. He told the paper: 

“I invited the censorship committee to a rational discussion, idea against idea. … Their first objection was a scene that included people with beards; for my part I asked the logical question: In the same, sarcastic scene, non-Islamic party members wear a big wig of hair; why don’t you object to that? Their answer was that non-Islamists are open-minded enough to understand the wig, but Islamists speak a language of violence and won’t accept the beards. Their other objection was to the name Kandil, and the third was not to mention founder of the Muslim Brotherhood Hassan Al-Banna directly — they argued that the prime minister and the heirs of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood could take us to court.

Al-Sharkawy said he refused to alter the play. A second censorship committee was convened; they also rejected the script. But al-Sharkawy would not let go of his idea.

“After feeling somewhat discouraged and concentrating on how this problem could be solved after all these negotiations with the censorship committee, I wrote a post about it on my Facebook page and I found very strong support from a huge number of artists; so we held a solidarity sit-in at the theatre with participation from various artists such as director Nasser Abdel-Moneim, artist Sabri Fawaz, actor Sameh Al-Sereiti representing the Actors’ Syndicate, political activists Maha Effat and Ahmed Abu Doma. [Coverage of this in Daily News Egypt.] In consequence, a third censorship committee — headed by Fathi Abdel-Sattar and including another nine members — came to see the play and accepted the script; we were finally allowed to open. I expressed to Abdel-Sattar my wish that this should be the modus operandi of the censorship committee and not an exception to the rule granted because of media pressure, because one of the main aims of the revolution was freedom and this is not how freedom should be practiced at all.”

El-Sharkawy continues, in the interview, to talk about the problems of bureaucracy and theater management. He concludes by noting that his experience with the censorship committee has been incorporated into the show at Balloon Theater, “with two actors playing censors suddenly interrupting the show on stage.”

However, while this sort of protest-intervention worked for el-Sharkawy’s play, it’s certainly seems a difficult way forward. Much harder for theater like “Bussy,” which faces serious social censorship in addition to the political.