Opinions vary about the impact of the Jan. 25 revolution on the progression, and the potential emancipation, of Egyptian theatre. Some believe that the revolution has pushed theatremakers to break rules and defy the authorities; others believe that there is no discernable difference between the pre– and post–Jan. 25 Egyptian performance worlds.
“There was plenty of anger, plenty of frustration, in the works staged at the end of last decade,” Sabet points out. “But that became redundant. The revolution gave theatremakers more angles to tackle these problems from.”
“The street visuals that were taking over public spaces all over the city had a major impact on theatre,” Basiouny notes. “People felt they had something to say, and they knew they could finally say it. It was exciting to see so many things happening—we went through something major and amazing and magical, and artists wanted to capture some of this magic for those who were not part of it. It opened a great doorway for expression. The quality of the works left a lot to desired, but the joy of the whole affair carried them through.”
Basiouny describes the revolutionary experience, centered in Tahrir Square, as “lovely chaos,” adding, “When you’re down the street marching and chanting, the fear barrier breaks. That’s what we witnessed in everything afterwards—in journalism, arts, civil society. Things were also somewhat clear; we knew who was with us and who was against us at the time.”
A prominent figure in the post-revolution theatre is another AUC alumni, Laila Soliman, who spent the earlier part of her career adapting foreign texts by such writers as Harold Pinter, Naomi Wallace and Frank Wedekind. It wasn’t until after Jan. 25 that Soliman found her voice, according to Basiouny, when she started creating No Time for Art, a series of plays based on the military trials of that time. Her brand of verbatim/documentary theatre resulted in five performances that were met with high acclaim and traveled the world over. Not only did Soliman use direct testimonials of detainees, she employed performers who reenacted their own experiences of being in prison.
But the sense of victory and jubilation informing the plays that were made in the immediate wake of Jan. 25 is now dead, replaced by an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and confusion. The hope that all censorship would be abolished after Jan. 25 soon dissipated, with the election of Mohamed Morsi and the shor
t reign of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the months after January 2011, two performances were canceled by different censors: The Choir Project, a musical by Alexandrian artist Salam Yousry modeled on the Finnish Complaints Choir, about a church group that was suspended by the military for criticizing the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the media and hypocritical religious institutions; and BuSSy, inspired by Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, that was suspended by the state-owned Artistic Creativity Center for presenting content deemed too risqué by theatre supervisors (it was later performed at D-CAF 2012).
“The Muslim Brotherhood reign was an interesting time,” Basiouny allows. “We were constantly on guard, expecting them to clamp down on the arts. But that really never happened. They were busy with other things. They were eventually going to get us, though.”
Despite the present volatile political situation, more independent theatre schools have begun opening up in Cairo, and new independent regional and international festivals could point the way to a progressive future for Egyptian theatre. Yet questions of censorship and freedom of expression continue to loom over the nation’s artistic life. Today, criticizing the military or defending the recently overthrown Muslim Brotherhood is a major taboo for all artists. There is no tolerance for anyone deviating away from the dominant narrative the state is promoting. The lofty ideals of Jan. 25 have become nothing but a pipe dream. In El Attar’s estimation, “The margin of freedom gained from Jan. 25 has been rapidly eroding since last July.”
“The worst form of censorship is self-censorship,” Basiouny chimes in. “The problem now is that it’s not just one body that enforces censorship—it’s the whole society. The censorship is strongly backed by the people. There are people out there who would volunteer to punish you if you attack their ‘savior.’ You’re dealing now with 50 million censors, not just one.”
Despite the fact that the revolution has ushered in a second round of censorship, Basiouny remains hopeful for the future. “I’m an annoyingly optimistic person,” she admits. “I would like to believe that the dark forces will not conquer us. But I also know that these are very tricky times.”
Joseph Fahim was the arts and culture page editor for the English-language Daily News Egypt until the publication’s demise in 2012. He is currently the program director of the Cairo International Film Festival.
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