Right-wing political commentators and drama enthusiasts make somewhat unusual bedfellows in mourning pioneering Egyptian playwright Ali Salem, who died yesterday:
According to Al-Masry Al-Youm, Salem died Tuesday at the age of 79 in his home in the Mohandiseen district after being sick for some time.
Salem’s most significant work was the iconic Egyptian play Madrasset El-Mushaghebeen (School of the Troublemakers), which he wrote in 1973. According to theatre scholar Sonali Pahwa, this was “Salem’s best play, a truly courageous work that challenged the cultural establishment.”
“Salem’s evergreen satire took up the Ministry of Culture’s policy that theatre should be a school for the masses,” Pahwa wrote on Facebook, “and exposed the ideology of schooling itself as a farce.”
About Salem’s Comedy of Oedipus, Egyptian-British actor Joie Rizk said in a 2013 interview that, “Ironically, even though this play was written in 1970 with reference to President Nasser, its message is as relevant as it was then as it is today. Not just in relation to Egyptian contemporary society but in relation to the world as a whole.”
Salem was also a critic of pan-Arabism, as in his The Odd Man and the Sea.
But Salem was unfortunately better-known in the West and Israel for his varied political writing and TV commentary. His memoir, My Drive to Israel, earned him sharp criticism in Egypt and a $50,000 courage prize in London. He was also applauded in the US for statements late last year about Hamas being Egypt’s enemy, not Israel.
The book My Drive to Israel, although apparently also critical of Israelis, led to a shunning of Salem for a time — and his expulsion from the Egyptian Writers Union, although he was reinstated after an appeal. But he was never fully excluded; Margaret Litvin writes about his participation in one of Naguib Mahfouz’s nadwas, and he had of late rejoined the world of contemporary Egyptian politics. Indeed, his recent controversial political statements haven’t just been confined to Israel and Palestine.
Still, it is for his contrarianism, as well as his enduring work in the theatre, that he is being remembered.