“RSVPs—Wow!” was the subject line of an email sent by Huntington Theatre Company’s director of marketing one week before our workshop performance in Boston of “Dancing Is a Sin: Two New One-Woman Plays from Egypt.” Hours after the Huntington sent out a routine announcement to their email list about our upcoming reading of two Arabic plays in translation, the event was completely booked with a growing waiting list.
The response was unexpected. It’s hard enough, conventional wisdom tells us, for leading nonprofit theatres to promote new plays by established and emerging stars of the American and British stage. Once in a while a playwright in translation, like Yasmina Reza (Art, God of Carnage), crosses the Atlantic from Western Europe and makes a splash on Broadway and in the LORT houses. But non-Western writers? Arab playwrights? Completely unknown to the English-speaking world? These would seem to be a non-starter in the intimate world of mainstream U.S. new play development. Dancing Is a Sin was a free one-night reading, so it only offered anecdotal evidence. But the Huntington audience’s overwhelming interest in these new Egyptian plays may well point to an untapped thirst for contemporary international drama in translation.
The two short Egyptian plays I directed and co-translated for the Huntington reading were full of humor and crushing candor. They told stories of women yearning for lives of dignity in the face of poverty, corruption, and discrimination. In the coming-of-age one-woman show The Mirror by Yasmeen Emam (Shaghaf), a teenage girl is paralyzed by the question of whether to dress modestly or sensually to the wedding of a man she at one point dreamed of marrying. Emam wrote the play in 2009, and it was first produced in Arabic, under her direction, at the Falaki Theatre’s 2B Continued Festival in Cairo in January 2014. In the gritty monologue They Say Dancing Is a Sin by Mohamed Abdel Mu’iz and Hany Abdel Naser, an independent-minded belly dancer derides the duplicity and greed of her well-to-do patrons. Mu’iz and Naser wrote the play in 2008, and it was first produced in Arabic, under Naser’s direction, by the Halwasa Theatre Troupe at El Hangar Theatre in Cairo in December 2012.
I first encountered these plays while co-editing my forthcoming anthology, Tahrir Tales: Plays from the Egyptian Revolution, for Seagull Books’ international drama in translation series “In Performance.” Two years before our Boston workshop, I met with two of the playwrights in the bustling theatre rehearsal spaces of Studio Emad Eddin (S.E.E.) in the heart of downtown Cairo. Hany and Yasmeen, rising stars of the vibrant Egyptian theatre scene, were happy that I chose to translate their plays into English and include them in an anthology, but they were also curious as to what prompted my interest. Neither had actively pursued a Western audience, nor were they previously known outside the Arab world. Was mine a legitimate interest in their plays as dramatic literature? Or was it a newfangled fascination with the recent events of the so-called “Arab Spring” and a taste for the exotic?
I chose their plays because they feature strong and imaginative female protagonists who speak in sharp, theatrical language and ask difficult questions about the status of women in an increasingly unequal society. It goes without saying that their plays give U.S. audiences a chance to learn about women in Egypt; but they also have the potential to push us to reflect on the challenges women face in American society. They Say Dancing Is a Sin, for example, explores the connection between a woman’s financial independence and her ability to lead a dignified and liberated life. Is a woman oppressed by poverty ever truly free? The Mirror asks what kind of future awaits young women of humble means. In an economically polarized society that is increasingly consumerist and fundamentalist, the Girl in The Mirror faces a bleak choice: to objectify or subjugate herself. It’s a modern-day free-market take on the virgin/whore dichotomy that has long stigmatized women in Egypt and elsewhere.
My goal in meeting with Hany and Yasmeen in Cairo, then asking them join me for a weeklong workshop in Boston, was to figure out how to best translate and stage these texts for an American audience. The profound themes at the core of their writing—freedom of expression, the status of women, the rise of fundamentalism, religion in government, corporate greed, police brutality, and economic disparity, among others—would allow my American audience to move beyond the Egyptian particularities of these dramas. Rather than using these writers as “native informants” (to use Iraqi poet and novelist Sinan Antoon’s phrase) whose texts expose us to a distant and exotic culture, I met with them to reflect on the political, cultural, and social issues that our societies have in common. My central question was: How can I make these texts resonate with U.S. theatregoers?
In bringing these Egyptian plays to the American stage I grappled with three practical challenges: language in translation, the casting of actors, and staging. I was less interested in adapting the plays into American versions that would alter the names and places of these Arabic texts. I aimed instead to faithfully translate these plays into an American English that would sound alive, theatrical, and natural in the mouths of the U.S. actors. As for the casting, just as Egyptian audiences recognize the types of women presented in these plays—especially their background in terms of class and education—I wanted my American audience to sense a surprising familiarity with these foreign characters.
In uniting translation and actors onstage, I sought to avoid an exotic or Orientalist interpretation that would emphasize difference. On the other hand, I also avoided a cosmopolitan universal take that would erase all difference. I searched for a perspective that would allow my American audience to see themselves in these very Egyptian characters. Good drama from another culture, well translated and sharply staged, can provide a provocative distance that brings our own dilemmas into focus and inspires unlikely reimaginings of the future.
The language of the Dancer in They Say Dancing is a Sin was a singular challenge. She speaks in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, full of idiosyncratic expressions. She can be elegant and self-assured, then suddenly crass and self-effacing. She professes an unexpected reverence and love for God. In my search to “hear” her voice in English, it was helpful to speak with Hany about his vision of this character. Hany explained that in the Egyptian context the belly dancer is often stigmatized as a woman just above the rank of prostitute. At the same time, the successful or “superstar” belly dancer wields immense power and influence: She is simultaneously beloved for her artistry and feared for her defiant sexuality and independence. Hany views the belly dancer as one of the rare individuals who is truly free to express herself in public. Although she suffers from an outsider status, she is a liberated woman who moves between different classes and religions and speaks her mind fearlessly.
The production of the play in Egypt, Hany explained, was shocking for some audience members. The notion that such a woman, from such a background—a dancer!—could be wise, generous, and close to God bordered on scandalous.
As a translator, I remain faithful to the meaning of the lines, but I take some poetic license in order to stay true to the character’s voice and rhythm. In this I am strongly influenced by Paul Schmidt, who in his introduction to The Plays of Anton Chekhov (Harper Perennial, 1998) wrote that “the task of the translator of Chekhov…is to write a play in English that will produce, when staged, an effect such as the original may be said to have had on a Russian audience.”
I usually work with a co-translator who is a native speaker of Arabic; in this case, Mohammed Albakry. My co-translator produces the first “reader-oriented,” translation. I then bounce back and forth between this translation and the original Arabic to create a second “theatrical” translation, a playable script. For example, when the Dancer describes a man she formerly dated— who ultimately reveals himself to be a heartless corporate lackey who abuses his workers—she says in the first reader-oriented translation, “And I said to myself, you shoe, you servant of your masters, now I understand where your vile complex comes from; you are a lowly boy, ridden by your superiors…a humble attendant who takes pleasure in his master’s commands.” In Arabic, calling someone a “shoe,” or throwing a shoe at someone, is a common vulgar insult.
Some translators like to keep these culturally specific expressions, as well as sprinkling difficult-to-translate Arabic words throughout the text (Allah, haram, habibi) because they believe it adds indigenous spice or authenticity to a translation. But in the translation of drama, this type of exotic or “foreignizing” translation has the effect of distancing the audience from the character. In the case of the Dancer, keeping the more literal translation would draw attention to the Otherness of her speech rather than conveying the spirit of her line. In my subsequent “theatrical” translation I sought equivalent invectives in American English that would capture the vibrancy of the Dancer’s voice. After several drafts I settled on the following: “And I thought to myself, you bootlicker, you houseboy…now I understand where your complex comes from. You’re an errand boy, a poodle, a limp dick.” It is more forceful and crass than the original Arabic, but comes closer to the effect that the original text had on the Egyptian audience.
In other moments in the play it felt right to keep an almost literal translation of an Arabic expression. While unknown to most of my U.S. audience, some of these expressions evoked vivid images without sounding foreign. For example, the Dancer says of the same former boyfriend (literal translation), “He’s like the tombstones of infidels—a garden on top and fire below.” I wanted to capture this notion of a devil disguised as an angel, but “infidel” (or heretic) is a humorless word in English that conjures images of violent religious crusades. I chose instead the more prosaic word “sinner” and strengthened the Dancer’s juxtaposition of heaven and hell with the saying “fire and brimstone.” On one hand “fire and brimstone” is a frightening biblical phrase for hell or the fate of the unfaithful; on the other hand, in contemporary American English it’s become comic shorthand for an evangelical notion of God as wrathful and judgmental. With this phrase the Dancer simultaneously comments on the contrast between this man’s beautiful exterior and manners and his hideous actions, as well as his narrow-minded assumptions about the Dancer’s character— all with an elegant touch of wit. The final version became: “He’s like the gravestones of sinners—a gorgeous garden on top and fire and brimstone below.”
In casting They Say Dancing Is a Sin in Boston I tried to imagine a performer who could embody this liberated woman in an American context. A literal casting of the role would call for an actress who knows how to belly dance. But it wasn’t necessary to cast an actual belly dancer, since there is no dancing in the monologue, and the core of this character does not revolve solely around her identity as an Egyptian belly dancer. It encompasses her experiences as a woman artist, her potent female liberation, and her ability to see through the entrenched power structures in her society. What type of American actress could best represent this influential yet marginal woman who is both lauded and reviled for her sexuality?
It seemed to me that every type of women—black, white, brown, Arab-American or Asian-American, thin or curvaceous, younger or older, heterosexual or transsexual—would convey a different yet viable version of this character. At the Huntington workshop, Miranda Craigwell, an African-American actress, slam poet, and playwright, played the role. Before rehearsals began Craigwell asked if she would need to learn an Egyptian accent for the role. “Absolutely not!” I responded. As director, I encouraged her to bring herself to the role. Rather than making this woman foreign and exotic, I asked her to find ways to move this character closer to herself and our American audience.
Craigwell found striking parallels between the Dancer’s stories of struggle in Egypt and the difficulties faced by women trying to climb out of poverty in the U.S. She pointed out fascinating connections between the Dancer’s criticism of wealthy Egyptian women and the American conversation around “white privilege.” During the panel discussion Craigwell told the audience, “Privilege is something you don’t know you have, until you don’t…This idea of privilege and being able to choose really resonates with me as an actress and a person of color. Because not everyone has the privilege to choose. It’s a universal theme.”
In the monologue the Dancer mocks a wealthy woman for her harsh judgement of the “choices” made by less fortunate women: “Because when a person lives in luxury and doesn’t have to worry about making a living, she can lead any kind of life her heart desires.” When Craigwell spoke these lines she brought her own American experience to bear on her performance of this Egyptian dancer.
But Craigwell’s performance was far from the only possible “American” rendition of the role. In an earlier reading of the play at the Lark Play Development Center in New York, another actress brought a very different emphasis to this part. For much of her career, Tina Benko fought the stereotype of the gorgeous blonde as easy airhead. She identified deeply with the Dancer, because she too came from a modest background and struggled to earn a decent living and gain respect as a serious theatre artist. In the monologue the Dancer describes the kinds of assumptions men make about her: One wealthy business man she dated would “be sitting with me at the table, speaking with the utmost politeness about . . .whatever, while his eyes were sizing me up and saying, ‘You’re nothing but a cheap dancer.’” In Tina’s reading of the Dancer, respect for dancing as an art and this woman’s uncompromised dignity stood at the heart of the play.
Unlike the belly dancer, the Girl in The Mirror has no independent voice. For most of the play she’s convinced that her only chance for a decent future is to find a good husband. While she has been told ad nauseam that only modest and respectable girls—“good girls”— find husbands, she discovers that the man she had wanted to marry prefers a free-spirited, flashy, independent woman who “doesn’t care what people think.” In the post-performance discussion at the Huntington, actress Aila Peck said that “finding a connection to this character was seamless and effortless.” She spoke of the impossible task of living up to contradictory and extreme standards.
“I think that this girl exists in all women,” Peck said. “Maybe even in all men. There are so many expectations put on us, on a constant basis, whether from our family or our religion or society, through advertisements and films. Everything is telling us we have to be a certain way.”
At one point in the play, the Girl is sexually harassed on a bus. While sexual harassment of women is more overt and vocal in Egypt, it remains a serious problem for women in the United States as well. An “exotic” staging of this moment—emphasizing the loud, crowded Egyptian bus and the hawking and bustling surrounding the Girl—would draw attention to difference. It would establish a hierarchy between East and West by encouraging an assumedly enlightened American audience to pity a poor Egyptian character as she faces the sexist and backwards insults and injuries of the “developing world.”
So rather than emphasizing this East/West contrast, I staged this moment in a way that would underscore a shared adversity. The core of the scene thus became the Girl’s bewilderment when she realizes that the man standing behind her has started touching her. She’s embarrassed; she freezes; she quietly asks him to stop; she’s careful not to accuse him. “Excuse me….Could you move a little?…Excuse me.” She tries to politely push him away and distance herself. She is afraid to make a scene. Surely any woman, whether Egyptian or American, who has found herself in this situation has felt similarly shocked and vulnerable.
From the selection of the text to the translation, the casting to the staging, each step in the process of producing Arab dramas on the American stage is rife with choices that simultaneously destroy and create meaning. Casting an African-American actress as the Dancer, for example, conveyed a recognizable American experience reflected in the Egyptian Dancer. Casting a well- known blonde actress evokes yet another identifiable American dilemma. These choices could be interpreted as misguided—insinuating false equivalences between an Egyptian woman and women in the context of the United States. While I recognize these pitfalls, I believe that the more powerful interpretations create proximity among these Arab characters, my American actors, and the audience.
The audience’s responses during and after the performance confirmed this approach. They of course asked the playwrights specific questions about art and politics in Egypt, but they also commented on the ways in which these stories affected them personally and politically. One elderly woman was deeply disturbed by Craigwell’s embodiment of the Dancer and her character’s searing criticism of privilege. Conflating actress and character but clearly sensing the American relevance of the performance, the woman stammered, pointing at Craigwell, “A woman like you just can’t exist!” Like any good theatre, drama in translation pushes us to examine our cultural blind spots and reconsider our assumptions about the social fabric of our own society. In this sense, Arab drama offers a rich canon of excellent, utterly original, provocative, and entertaining plays that not only open a window onto the Arab world but hold a boldly critical mirror up to challenges we face in American society.
Rebekah Maggor is a theatre director, translator, playwright, performer, and scholar. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright Scholar Program, the Theatre Communications Group Global Connections In the LAB program, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. She is assistant professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University.