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Tahrir Plays: Beyond Orientalist Depictions of Arab Theater

by Mariam Bazeed

The actress Tina Benko (Midsummer Night’s Dream, Desdemona, The Avengers) strides onto the stage. Its lights are dimmed, but for the spotlight affixed to the music stand holding her script. She is in a simple dress, and takes her place underneath the light, her blonde hair shining golden. As the applause dies, she takes a sip of water and begins her reading. The lines that follow are sardonic in their wit, sharp in their criticism of a culture concerned only with the trappings of fake piety with little ethical substance to back it up. Her voice is strong, velvet-smooth, self-assured, full of lighthearted mirth, and at times, a black and bitter humor at others. She speaks in modulated, educated tones, her English slightly Connecticut-inflected, though the journey we end up taking with her is through the heart of bustling, boisterous Cairo.

In this staged reading of Mohammed Abdel Mu‘iz’s one-act play, And They Say Dancing Is a Sin, we come to understand that the character Benko is playing is a famous, well-paid, and highly sought-after belly dancer residing in Egypt. Through her retelling of several vignettes of daily life in Cairo, we are guided through its ethical underbelly, to which she has access as one often invited to entertain those at the top of the highly entrenched military and business cadres of power. We are the Schehrayars to her Scheherazade, as she spins from the ends of one tale the beginnings of another, all having to do with the endemic corruption and cruelty that have become Cairo’s calling cards, the state of life in which we live in the City Victorious, suspended between asthmatic accountability whose breath has been stolen by the smog in its congested streets, and the endlessly repetitive lip service paid to piety issuing from the mu’ezzins during their Friday sermons, at which the worshippers assembled hold their shoes in their hands, for fear that they would be stolen if left at the doors of the mosque.

The staged reading was held on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, at Barnard College’s Glicker- Milstein Theatre, and featured only one of several plays included in the anthology of Egyptian plays in translation, entitled, Tahrir Plays and Dramatic Texts from the Egyptian Revolution (Seagull books) with translators Rebekah Maggor and Mohammed Albakry collaborating on this volume of the In Performance series of texts, which tasks itself with translating dramatic works from all over the world into English. Present at the event were both translators, as well as the series editor, Carol Martin.

Perhaps the most striking detail of the event was the fact that the character brought to life on stage spoke to her American audience in a voice uninflected with a fake Arab accent. To add to my astonishment, the actor had been cast for her actual acting abilities, rather than for her ability to pass, in appearance, as Arab (hence all the South Asian actors playing Arab roles, badly, on many of America’s stages and silver screens). She read from a play text that, in translation into English, made a deliberate decision to discard the use of limited and literal translations from the local language of its origin, in exchange for the fluidity of speaking to an American audience in the kind of language whose idioms they could recognize, and whose tone was familiar. All of that is to say, that absent from the stage was the Orientalism that is virtually inescapable in popular depictions of Arab characters or Arab works in the English-language, and especially American, context. Perhaps this seems a broad accusation to make in the world of theater and film—but think, for a moment, about the last time you might have seen, in a popular film or theater production, an Arab character speaking in unaccented English, presented without Orientalist music best described as “serpentine.” Still thinking? I thought so.

What is perhaps most thrilling about this novel presentation of an Arab character who is not recognizable as such, is how flawlessly the language of the play itself was able, without these lazy shortcuts, to bring the character to life, and with it the details of modern-day Cairo. Maggor and Albakry spent quite some time describing the arduous process and many cycles of translation that they underwent in order to succeed so thoroughly in replicating the cadences of Cairo in our upstanding belly dancer’s sentences, through the details of her speech. They explained that they began the project with Albakry translating the original text from Arabic to English, with footnotes providing Maggor with details regarding the choices he made in translating the particulars of Egyptian idiomatic speech. Maggor then took that text, and as an Arabic speaker and translator herself, went through it to naturalize the speech patterns, and to interrogate the text for the essence of the character, in order to translate her in all of her richness to an American audience. In discussing this process, Rebecca Maggor underlined the importance she places on naturalizing a character’s patterns of speech, such that the audience is free of the task of bridging the gap created by translations that serve to “other” the characters and to show the ways in which they are different rather than similar to the American audience.

Maggor described this as a struggle that is often particular to depictions of Arab life, and which Western works in non-English languages very rarely have to contend with. She describes her experience attending one of the plays she co-translated with Albakry, saying,

“We went to a really wonderful festival of international drama in translation, [showcasing] really new plays from all over the world, and they staged a reading of one of the plays that we co-translated in the anthology. We sat in the audience, and we hadn’t been involved with the production…and the lights came up, and the actors started speaking with Arabic accents in our text. And I thought how awkward it was, because we had worked so hard to make this language work in American English. These Arabic accents were accompanied by stereotypical folk music, and there were other Orientalist directorial choices which I believe not only distanced the audience from the play and the experience of these characters, but left no room for self-reflection…none of the other plays in the festival…were performed in foreign accents.”

She made the point that this type of treatment is rare in dramaturgic works, and seems to afflict only certain plays from certain parts of the world; it is unthinkable for most theater directors to attempt to stage a translation of a play by Molière with actors speaking English in French accents, or of Chekhov with actors adding a Russian inflection to their English.

Maggor puts much weight on these directorial choices, seeing them as having a larger [and negative] impact on the experience of the play, and not just its aesthetic choices. She states, “When something is defined as ‘the other,’ it flattens it, it simplifies it, it distances it, and it makes it impossible to understand the similarities between the Middle East and the West, or similarities between Egypt and the United States. And of course the tragedy of this encounter is that each [culture] fails to see [its] own oppression.”

It is true that the main character of the play was able to situate us, minimally and efficiently, into a Cairo that one could recognize in its details. The pickle-maker, scrimping on vinegar in order to make an extra few piasters on his wares; the many of Egypt’s children who are forced to leave to seek their livelihoods elsewhere, an ever-expanding reality for many in Egypt in the twenty-first century, as we rank sixth for 2013 in the countries with the most remittances sent from abroad; and even the ever-famous ful sandwich makes an appearance.

Even the distaste that the belly dancer is subjected to by the same people who will hire her for her services, and then hypocritically define artists pursuing her brand of dance as sinful, promiscuous, lacking in morality…all of these details were pithily included in the conversational narrative, so that entire worlds were summoned onto the stage. In speaking to Umm ‘Azza, her maid, the character demands, “Why are your eyes always downcast and your voice broken?” and I couldn’t help but be propelled in memory to the many in Egypt who are downcast, and broken, and whose voices cannot help but reflect the inequality upon which our great nation currently stands.

And yet, as Maggor insists, these are not concerns that are relevant only to the Egyptian or Arab audience, with the West standing as voyeurs at a window to a world that they do not themselves inhabit. The play interrogates institutional corruption, and the many ways in which it can warp those it subjects to its influence, so that an entire society can be turned into predator and prey, with the powerful preying on the weak in order to maintain their position in the pecking order, and with the weak learning the behaviors necessary for survival; invisibility, bowed heads, patience even unto hopelessness. I cannot help but think of the Ferguson riots that have rocked the United States, and of the Million Man March that happened just the day before this writing, as concerned citizens piled into the streets to protest the institutional racism and entrenched inequality displayed by the police and those who wield power and abuse it. The belly dancer describes these corruptors, saying, “These guys need doomsday, not a revolution, to bring them down. These are the sons that Satan had when he was older and wiser,” and in this colorful language we understand implicitly that Satan is a citizen of the world who travels without visas, and who speaks in many, and the same, tongues.

It is times such as these where one can rename Washington Square “Tahrir,” and know that there is much truth in the naming, and that the same calls for human dignity resound in both places. ‘Eish, horiyya, ‘adala egtima‘iyya. We are reminded by Maggor that this call for human dignity—for “bread, freedom, social justice”—sounds the same in any language,

My goal in translating international drama, in this case contemporary Egyptian drama, is NOT to provide the audience with a theatrical journey to a foreign and exotic land, and it is not that they will experience these plays as depictions of dramatic events taking place over there, to those people, and in no way related to our own lives. In translating this international drama, I want to prompt my audience to self-reflection, to question the very core of our own beliefs and assumptions. To contextualize these plays as a thing apart from us, as a thing distant and exotic, is to miss the point of translating and producing international drama altogether.

The bellydancer leaves us with the question of why it is that bellydancing is a sin, when there is virulent corruption in the world she inhabits that routinely destroys people’s homes, their livelihoods, their sense of adequacy in the face of a cruel and uncaring world, driving them to find cruelty within themselves, or to escape into drugs, corruption, expatriation. She takes off her scarf, which had been tied at her hips to accentuate their curves during her dance. She unfurls it, cloaks it around herself in the superficial apparel of respectability with which we are all familiar, and walks out into the Cairo that she has described for us so well, its expatriated children’s ghosts running around in the street.

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