The Drama of Protest and ‘Tahrir Tales: Plays from the Egyptian Revolution’

This appears in full at Qantara:

tahrir_talesDespite bearing the title Tahrir Tales: Plays from the Egyptian Revolution, the works in this new anthology, translated and edited by Rebekah Maggor and Mohammad Albakry, aren′t limited to the events of January and February 2011, nor to other uprisings that have taken place in Cairo′s iconic downtown square.

The collection paints a broad picture of revolt, looking beyond street protests and politics. So why ″revolution″? In an email interview, Maggor said she hoped ″the inclusion of the word ′revolution′ in the title will encourage readers to see these plays in a more global context, as part of broader canon of ′drama of protest.′ ″

Yet there′s another reason to include plays written before 2011. The phrase “Egyptian revolution” is usually associated with protests that began in early 2011 and led to the expulsion of Hosni Mubarak. This makes 25 January their beginning. Yet they also began with the political shifts of 2005, when there was a contested presidential election, the Kefaya (Enough) movement and a new wave of independent bloggers, artists and journalists.

The plays in the Tahrir Tales collection were written during this new wave, between 2008 and 2014, which, as Maggor points out, ″spans the twilight of Mubarak′s regime through al-Sisi′s ascendance to the presidency.”

Beginning with a Comedy of Sorrows

The spark for the ten-play collection was Ibrahim El-Husseini′s Comedy of Sorrows, a work that Maggor helped translate and stage in 2012. Comedy of Sorrows, part of the first wave of post-2011 plays, was brought into English not for a general audience, but for an academic conference at Harvard University entitled “Women Making Democracy”.

El-Husseini′s play follows a privileged, university-educated Egyptian woman as she is forced into encounters with segments of society she′d previously ignored.

With Comedy of Sorrows, Maggor said, El-Husseini ″did not set out to explain the protest movement to a foreign audience, but rather to explore the complexities and conflicts within Egyptian society. It′s this inside perspective that′s so often missing from our conversation.″

From that point forward, Maggor and Albakry were collecting and translating works on shifting ground, as Egypt′s socio-artistic landscape changed drastically: the nation shifted from the rule of the military, to President Mohammed Morsi, to Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. When Maggor met with theatre artists, she said, they often didn′t want to talk about their work from a year or two earlier.

Yasmeen Emam, whose 2009 play The Mirror is included, was delighted to see her work translated into English. Yet she was ambivalent about seeing her work in the frame of revolution. Post-2011, she said, many Egyptian artists used the revolutionary frame to get a leg-up in their career, ″even those who were against it.″

The Mirror centres on a young woman whose body and psyche are the play′s battleground. The narrator is fought over by dozens of internalised voices. ″I wrote this piece to imagine how a girl would be if she listened to all these voices around her that are trying to deprive her of her right to choose for herself.″

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