Ahmed El Attar’s ‘Before the Revolution,’ Where ‘Revolution Hangs Silently Over Everything’

How do you write about the Egyptian revolution? You sneak up on it from behind:

By Raphael Cormack

Since 2011, the question of how to write about “The Egyptian Revolution” (or whatever we call it) has been extremely difficult to answer.

Egyptian author Omar Robert Hamilton’s recent novel, The City Always Wins, explicitly omitted the “18 days” in Tahrir Square from his narrative. It has almost reached the point where, by reading the cultural production of the past five years, one begins to doubt that it ever happened. It is no co-incidence that one of the most successful literary representations of the events of 2011-13 (Mahmoud Abd al-Wahhab’s Ahlam al-Fatra al-Intiqaliyya [Dreams of the Transition Period) is told through a series of dreams. A newly released app uses you phone to show images of protests where the streets now stand empty. Although designed to preserve the memory of the period, it also highlights the dissonance between the present day and this period.

Writers are not (by and large) attempting to address this period directly or head-on in their work. Instead, people have been trying to find ways to approach it from different angles – to sneak up on the revolution from behind. This is what the theatre-maker Ahmed El Attar has done in his new play Before the Revolution, which was created at the Rawabet theatre in Cairo and then premiered in Switzerland in October before setting out to tour across Europe. I went to see the performance in the TARMAC theatre in Paris on the first of December.

This is El Attar’s first new work since the 2014 Last Supper, which has become a staple of the AUC Falaki theatre in recent years. As one of the most important playwrights working in Egypt now, a new play by el Attar is something of an event. Compared to the large cast and wide, open set of Last Supper, his new work is much more contained. Two actors — Nanda Mohammed and Ramsi Lehner — stand on a large platform, amongst a bed of protruding nails which ensure they remain stationary. They face out to the audience, never turning to each other, and recite their intertwining monologues.

The stage set forcibly disconnects the performers from each other; disconnection, in fact, is the overarching theme of this short (50 minute) play. El Attar builds his narrative through a series of events that happened in the decades running up to 2011. The events revolve around two major topics: state negligence and fundamentalist violence. The assassination of Farag Foda and the terrorist attacks in Luxor and Sharm el-Sheikh sit alongside the 2006 sinking of the al-Salam Boccaccio 98 and the 2002 al-Ayyat Railway Accident. This is punctuated by football chants and one particularly harrowing scene of sexual abuse of a servant by her wealthy master. Having the two actors simultaneous enact this scene as they stare, motionless into the audience is extremely disturbing. This class criticism that was so dominant in Last Supper still has a place in el Attar’s new play.

The “revolution” hangs silently over everything in this kaleidoscopic drama, whose cited influences range from religious sermons to Oka and Ortega songs via “Wikipedia Arabic.” Pre-revolutionary time begins to merge with the events of the revolution. The lists of people killed in the various attacks and disasters that the actors dispassionately recite remind me of the lists of the martyrs of the revolution. Although the “revolution” is there, it is unclear exactly where we are being asked to find it in the play. The tension builds, enhanced by the metronomic soundtrack by Hassan Khan that plays throughout and the tightly wound performances of Ramsi Lehner and the always-fantastic Nanda Mohammed, and we wait for an explosion that never arrives. El Attar seems to deliberately mock the desire for a simple narrative. The only time we are given anything like this in Before the Revolution is in the descriptions of melodramatic soap operas which aired in 2010. The story, for instance, of a worthy woman finding her true love, tied up with a happy ending, jars so profoundly with the rest of the play that we are forced to concede that Egyptian history has been no soap opera.

Although it is less than an hour long, the play left me exhausted. The different set pieces bleed into each other, and it becomes an assault of tragedy, death, and despair, sometimes hard to piece together and without any neat or satisfying climax. Since the play is, above all, an attempt to deal with the legacy and memory of the “Egyptian Revolution,” all that seems rather appropriate.

January 26 and 27, 2018: Showing in Antwerp

Raphael Cormack is a PhD student at Edinburgh University working on 19th and 20th Century Egyptian Literature. He blogs at https://onpaper.blog.