Laila Soliman’s “Whims of Freedom” looks at what gets lost in historical re-tellings:
By Yasmin Elbeih
Earlier this month, Egyptian playwright Laila Soliman gave a talk on the acclaimed play she directed and co-authored, Hawa El Horreya (“Whims of Freedom”), at the American University in Cairo’s Downtown Campus.
Excerpts of the two-woman play were performed during the evening lecture, and a Q&A session followed. Although technical difficulties prevented the full play from being performed in the lecture space that night, the two female actors were successful in presenting the highlights of Hawa El Horreya and its themes of the elusiveness of historical documentation, the parallels in the struggles a nation faces in a span of over a hundred years, as well as the classist and colonial attitudes inherited across generations.
The subject matter of Hawa El Horreya may primarily be historical events in 1917 and 1919 Egypt, but it couldn’t be more relevant to current-day audiences.
Zainab Magdy, the voice of the academic and the cultural historian in the play, tells her Syrian singer friend, Nanda Mohammed: “With time, I feel that comparing 1917 and 1919 bears a resemblance to comparisons between 2011 and 2013,” and Nanda interrupts her mid-sentence, “Comparisons confine the imagination and oversimplify matters,” but then later almost nods her head in agreement with Zainab.
Both actresses were cast as themselves in the play, Zainab being a bilingual academic and theatre-maker, and Nanda a Syrian performer and long-time resident of Cairo, with tension between the voices of the researcher and the artist as Zainab primarily embodies the prior and Nanda embodies the latter.
The parallels between Egypt’s early twentieth century uprisings and more recent events are made especially clear through the line “Long live peace and quiet,” a line Nanda and Zainab, with sarcastic smiles on their faces, tell audiences was chanted as the villages where protests broke out were burned down — only for such violent incidents to later be disowned by the authorities. The tension between these characters only dissolves at the end of the play as Zeinab reads the anti-demonstration law, in effect since 1914, while Nanda sings Sayed Darwish’s Visit Me Once Each Year.
The discomfort audience members may feel upon the realization of just how strongly history repeats itself is heightened through the English-language foreign-office archival document that Zainab reads out, recounting the story of the interrogation of “Aysha Bint Metwalli” who had been raped by a British army officer.
“The colonizer never bothered learning Arabic…This woman’s voice has been completely stolen, and that’s an act of violence that was done to her; the fact that this document only exists in English demonstrates that violence quite clearly,” said Katharine Halls, the translator of Hawa El Horreya, during a Q&A session following the performance.
Soliman calls her discovery that the only documentation of the rape incident exists in the English language “painful.” With a minority of Egypt’s population at the time having the ability to read and write, and an even smaller portion of the population fluent in English, it was clear that Bint Metwalli most likely spoke Arabic colloquial and not the English her story is documented in. There is mention of the fake jewelry she loses after the rape incident, almost metaphoric of the loss of cultural heritage incurred by colonialism.
The lines between past and present are further blurred through the mention of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptian martyrs lost in the First World War, the exodus of Syrians to Egypt during the early twentieth century, and the hawanim who participated in the 1919 protests by stepping out of their parked chauffeured cars in main squares. The circumstances recounted through the voice of both the academic and the musician couldn’t be more relevant in a present-day society where Syrian refugees are far from welcome, where the popular folk songs of the past that Nanda sings in her authentic accent hit notes with our current reality, where young women and men of all socioeconomic backgrounds express “revolutionary” ideals. Nanda may be playing broken records, but the nostalgia the audience feels through lyrics they may not recognize could only take them three years back in time.
“There’s always a truth to rumors and the stories people tell that you would never find in the archives… The Syrian revolution has been happening for three years and yet people still ask me, is it true that Bashar kills people? People in general still don’t want to listen,” Nanda told the audience during the performance.
The excerpts of Hawa El Horreya share a common theme of indirectly warning that, just as the 1917 uprisings were led by commoners and later forgotten, with little documentation of what happened, today’s political uprisings may be misinterpreted when they are recorded into history. This is specifically implied through mention of the violently suppressed October 2011 Maspero demonstrations, dominated by Egyptian Copts, which was and remains distortedly discussed in the media.
Hawa El Horreya has been performed in Cairo, Berlin, Freiburg and London. For information about future performances, follow their Facebook page.
Yasmin Elbeih has a degree in English and Comparative Literature and currently works with Rowayat magazine as the journal’s External Relations Coordinator. She is also passionate about theatre and community service.