In the latest volume of Arab Stages — its eleventh — Dina Amin has translated Sameh Mahran’s 1997 play The Boatman and has also written about the text in “Al-Marakbi and Ceaseless Visibility: The Creation of ‘Docile Bodies’ and a ‘Disciplinary Society'”:
In this surreal satire, an Egyptian couple who have been engaged seven years but unable to marry, because they can’t get together the money for an apartment, attempt to find a place to be intimate.
When the action begins, they are sitting on a bench, “far from one another” according to the stage direction, and while they both want to kiss, the unnamed Young Man says, “I’m afraid someone will walk by.” We realize they must be sitting in view of all passersby as the Young Man soon complains: “These lights irritate me.”
They think of going on the bus, where they might at least bump up against each other with no one looking askance, but then they go back to talking about the sea — which is in front of them — and the fish within it:
Young Man: The most beautiful thing about fish is that they don’t need to take their clothes off.
Young Woman: And they make love just like that, no need or privacy.
Young Man: But don’t you find that somehow insolent?
Young woman: Certainly. What insolence!
What’s more, the Young Man says, “the new generations of fish will be illegitimate.”
Next, they discuss going to another in-between space, the cinema, where they might at least grope each other in the dark, but the Young Woman remarks: “Every time we go to the movies the zipper on your pants makes noises like war tanks. It makes me feel that everyone there knows exactly what I am doing.”
The next solution the Young Man proposes is crossing the sea:
Young woman: (Whispering slyly) They say that people over there go to the beach stark naked.
Young man: And that men French-kiss their lovers in public.
Young woman: Don’t forget, they also suck a women’s nipples as if they haven’t been weaned.
The next liminal space they enter is their dreams, and they imagine a space where they can be together as lovers (in a tub that becomes as big as a lake) although soon enough the imaginary stopper is pulled, and they are exposed once again.
Just as they finally are kissing, a Policeman and Policeman’s Wife walk by and threaten them. The Young Man is valiant:
Young man: (Changes his previous tone of voice) Please take me, but let her go.
Policeman: And what would I tell them at the police station?
Policeman’s wife: That the young man was kissing himself. That he was squeezing his own lips and fondling his own bosom. That he was caressing his own arms in a soft horny manner.
The policeman and his wife — together so they can surveil one another as well as the streets — nip the watch off the Young Man, and then they make a suggestion for the last in-between space:
Policeman: I have a brother who owns a boat.
Policeman’s wife: He can take you both to the middle of the sea.
Policeman: Where there will be no onlookers or observers.
Policeman’s wife: There will only be water, air and sky.
Policeman: It won’t cost you much.
Policeman’s wife: Just give him whatever you can afford in booze and hashish.
Act II takes place on the no-man’s land of the sea, for good as well as for bad. The Boatman knows just where to take them:
Boatman: I will take you to the middle of the sea exactly. There we’ll be lost in the middle of this world.
Once there, in the middle of the world, the young man and the young woman are entirely vulnerable to the Boatman, who turns out to be no more benign than his Policeman brother or Policeman’s wife sister-in-law. And when the Boatman threatens them, where do they have left to go?
These minor figures of state and patriarchal control are interlaced with disembodied state policies about birth and economic controls, and, as Amin writes, “the ending of the play gives no hope for a better future for the rest of the population.”
Read the play: The Boatman