Ibrahim El-Husseiny wrote the play “Comedy of Sorrows” only a few months after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in February of 2011. As such, it was one of the very first creative pieces produced in response to the Egyptian revolution. Following a run of 60 performances in Egypt, a translation by Rebekah Maggor toured the States in Spring of 2012 as a staged reading, with performances at CUNY Graduate Center, the Radcliffe Institute, and Vanderbilt University, amongst other venues. Two years into the revolution, Hani Omar Khalil sat down with El-Husseiny in Cairo to discuss both his own evolution as a political playwright as well as the role of theatrical narrative in the shaping of national discourse. Questions and answers were given in Arabic, with translational assistance provided by Omar S. Khalil.
A Harlem state of mind. Music. Rhythm. Black beauty. Soul. Culture. Defiance. Harlem intrigues and inspires. Harlem has also innovated and has been invaded. By police. By white real estate. By capitalism. While Harlem innovates, the world culturally appropriates without seeing the sacrifice—both of blood and of spirit—that has produced such beauty, such depth, such life.
The recent cultural theft from Harlem has been the recent viral videos of gyrating bodies performing what they consider to be the "Harlem Shake." However, the original "Harlem Shake," and its later meaning to the residents of Harlem, does not correspond with the current trend that includes the appropriation of cultural capital from the residents of Harlem. For many Harlem residents, the "Harlem Shake" is an art form that deserves respect. Like many musical, literary and artistic traditions of Harlem that have been acquired by white, American society and corporate America, the "Harlem Shake" viral craze is just another example of the spectacle that will eventually fade and the art form that is the "Harlem Shake" will continue to be lived, performed and experienced by those who reside in Harlem. The "Harlem Shake," or what has become its viral spectacle, is indeed a site of protest and defiance to the powers that be—that discriminate, that dominate, that oppress. It is its rhythm, its perfection, its life that makes the "Harlem Shake" an art form.
"Egypt is heading towards civil war", composer Mohammed Fairouz plainly states in discussion of his opera, Sumeida's Song, which premiered at the Prototype Festival in SoHo. Civil war is perhaps too strong a word to describe the current state of affairs in Egypt, but few would argue with Fairouz that the country is going, in his words, in "a particularly bad direction."
After a series of electoral victories, Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood effectively spent the final months of 2012 fast-tracking drastic changes to the constitution that many seculars, liberals, and democratic activists believe provide inadequate protection for women, religious minorities, and other groups, while laying the groundwork for implementation of Sharia law in the country ("Sharia law in Egypt?” Fairouz asks plaintively, before giving in to nervous laughter. "I mean, it's not Saudi Arabia, it's Egypt!").
In 1949, Ali Bakathir published The Tragedy of Oedipus. His Oedipus was not the one that we are familiar with. This Oedipus knows from the beginning of the play that he is Laius’ murderer and that the Oracle says he is the cause of the pollution that has lead to Thebes’ plague. As a mid-twentieth century Oedipus, he believes that the corrupt priesthood only wants to fill their pockets and do not care one iota for the people who are suffering. This is until Tiresias, who has been expelled from the priestly order for suggesting that maybe it would be nice to give some money to the poor, talks to him. Tiresias convinces him that the cabal of Theban priests are all false prophets and that the one true God is the God of Islam. Oedipus is convinced, and together Tiresias and Oedipus defeat the corrupt religious authorities and save Thebes by bringing the message of Islam.
This kind of ‘Arabicization’ of a ‘Western classic’ like Oedipus Rex may sound rather bizarre, or unlikely. However, alterations of this kind to texts considered part of the Western classical canon are central to the twentieth century Arabic tradition of engagement with seminal works of theatre. From the lowbrow to the sophisticated, every Western theatrical import was given a distinctly Arabic character. To give another example, one of the most respected poets of the age, Ahmed Shawqi, created a version of Antony and Cleopatra, called The Death of Cleopatra (Masra’ Kliobatra), in which the character of Cleopatra is turned into a patriotic, virtuous Egyptian who dies for the sake of her country
Ashraf Khalil’s Liberation Square offers a gritty and engrossing account of the events that took place in Egypt in 2011, using the voices of both Egypt’s most prominent political observers and the activists who risked everything in pursuit of an ever-elusive dream. Khalil, who has covered regional politics from Cairo, Jerusalem, and Iraq for a variety of publications over the past 15 years, adds his perspective to the narrative, allocating praise and blame in careful doses. An Egyptian-American raised in the States, Khalil’s personal stake in the outcome of this upheaval makes him a unique interlocutor. As such, Liberation Square is not simply a catalogue of Egypt’s revolution; rather, Khalil, who is not afraid of colorful metaphor or bawdy language, calls for systemic change. Delving into the psychology of the uprising, Liberation Square illuminates both how corrupt Mubarak’s regime had become, and how improbable the success of the uprising to oust it was.
Khalil begins with a historical look at Mohammed Hosni Mubarak’s rise to power. A stolid and uninspiring air force general, President Anwar Sadat appointed him vice president because he was not a threat. Sadat’s abrupt assassination unexpectedly pushed Mubarak to center-stage, where his risk-averse and unimaginative nature suited all comers – the military, the United States, and Mubarak’s Arab counterparts So, he remained for 30 years.
The Passing of Pope Shenouda III and the Perpetuation of “Sectarian” Discourse in a Media Context
Pope Shenouda III’s passing comes at a moment of political uncertainty for a new Egypt and its Coptic communities. In Western media, fears of “sectarian violence” and potential “religious discrimination” have been expressed in numerous articles focusing on his passing as the next stage of a timeless religious conflict that will erupt between the Muslim and Coptic communities in Egypt. But, is “sectarianism” in Egypt indeed timeless and inevitable?
“Sectarianism” in Egypt and the narrative associated with it has been normalized, naturalized, and constantly reified as something inevitable. This “sectarian” discourse and knowledge is perpetuated through the plethora of mainstream Western media stories addressing the passing of Pope Shenouda III and the “troubled” future of Coptic peoples.
In an article published by the New York Times entitled, “Coptic Pope’s Death Adds Fears in Egypt’s Time of Transition,” it is implied through interviews with Copts that Pope Shenouda III was the only barrier against a flood of “sectarian” violence and an increase in marginalization in the event of the establishment of an Islamist government. With his passing, the fear of “sectarianism” in Egypt has arisen as a means to describe an “unknown” political future for the role of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Kareem Fahim, from the New York Times, writes:
The grief [of Pope Shenouda III’s passing] seemed only to compound the long-held complaints about discrimination which since Mr. Mubarak’s departure have been replaced by deeper fears that Islamist parties could further marginalize the minority Christian population if they try to fashion Egypt into a more observant Muslim state.
It is September 2009; I’m in Upper Egypt, on this particular night, at the monastery and commemoration site of three martyred youth of Coptic history in a suburb of Luxor. As I passed a pathway littered with garbage set ablaze, I am told to look down, walk fast, and stay close to the Coptic sisters as we walked by a crowd of Muslim men or so my Coptic sisters told me. I felt their fear while we were walking through this neighborhood, but I didn’t entirely understand why. As soon as we arrived at the monastery, I asked my Coptic friends why we walked so timidly. They replied, “This area is unsafe for Christians at night.” With those words, I began to reflect on the reason and context for such words, and why fear of the Muslim other was so deeply seated in the Coptic community, at least the one I was acquainted with in Sheraton, Heliopolis.