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Monday, 09 December 2019

Master of Time: 12th century mystic revived in a Cairo theatre

Currently performed on the stage of Cairo's El-Ghad Theatre, The Master of Time (Sayed El-Waqt) is a visually impressive story of the 12th century Persian mystic As-Suhrawardī

Dalia Basiouny, Wednesday 17 Jun 2015
The Master of Time
The Master of Time (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)
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Between light and darkness there is the shadowy Master of Time ...

Veteran Egyptian director Nasser Abel Moneam's latest production, The Master of Time (Sayed El-Waqt), which opened last week at El-Ghad Theatre in Agouza, is an ambitious project. Enveloped in impressive visuals, the play attempts to tackle some of the big questions modern societies face; namely, the clash between the traditional and the interpretative view of religion, and the tension between state and religion.

For that exigent task, Abdel Moneam started with poet Farid Abouseada’s text The Last Night of Suhrawardī. The play recounts the story of the enigmatic 12th century mystic Shahab Ad-Din As-Suhrawardī, founder of Al-Ishraq, the Illuminationism school of Islamic philosophy and mysticism, which is based on the notion of the “Light of Lights.”

As-Suhrawardī, also known as Shiekh Al-Ishraq, considered light a divine and metaphysical source of knowledge. He drew upon Zoroastrian and Platonic ideals, categorising the universe and all levels of existence on varying degrees of light and darkness, based on their reception or non-reception of light.

The Master of Time
The Master of Time (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

His own light shone ever so briefly: he was born in 1154 in Suhraward village, Iran and was executed for his beliefs in 1191 in Aleppo, Syria. During his short life, he wrote more than 50 manuscripts in both Arabic and Persian.

His magnum opus, Philosophy of Illumination, continued to influence thinkers for centuries and to have resonance in contemporary society. The creators of The Master of Time compare his book and his end to that of contemporary Egyptian thinkers Farag Fouda and Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid. The first lost his life to a fatwa, while the latter fled with his life and ideas to live banished from his country.

Not only does The Master of Time have an interesting premise, it also plays in an exquisite set. The limited space of El-Ghad Theatre is transformed in the expert hands of designer Nadia El-Melegy. She manages to widen the physical space of the theatre through her elegant use of fabric, using semi-transparent sides painted with outlines of whirling dervishes filled with Arabic calligraphy.

The glorious backdrop is embellished with calligraphic design, which adds more depth to the space, and when backlit enhances the sense of mystery. This is complemented with beautiful brass lanterns adorning centre stage and part of the aisles.

The characters chosen to tell the story are alluring: a modern narrator, a 12th century mystic, a prince from the Ayyubid dynasty, three religious authorities, a courtesan, and two children, backed up by a whirling dervish, a modern dancer, and a singer. This grouping ought to be interesting, right? However…

The Master of Time
The Master of Time (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)


The dramatic structure fails to weave these elements together in a gripping way to absorb the audience. In spite of the dramaturgical modifications that Nasser Abdel-Moneam brought into the text, the script lacks a genuine dramatic conflict. Though the lives the play portrays were dramatic, this did not create stage drama.

Without conflict — the main building block of drama — the disjointed structure becomes more of a debate than a work of theatre. Even the intellectual argument between the protagonist, As-Suhrawardī, and conservative religious figures was not presented in an intellectually compelling manner for the audience to take his side. While emotionally, spectators were not given a chance to relate to the mystic, and so truly care about his fate.

The disengaged scenes presenting As-Suhrawardī's connection with Prince Alzaher, and his debates with religious figures, were interspersed with mesmerising Sufi chants, and spell-binding dancing in whirling dervishes’ style. Yet, the songs and dances were ineffective in saving the play — a play that carries a loose structure in which the modern narrator who starts the story almost disappears completely from the play, without being missed. When he surfaces at the end it is hard to remember his connection to the ancient story.

This flaw severs the connection of the ancient story and contemporary realities, and weakens the play’s relevancy to current issues. Even the charming young actor Hassan Aballah, playing the narrator, was lackluster in a role that is easy to forget.

The Master of Time
The Master of Time (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)


The text is laden with events that have no consequence. One glaring example is when Warda (the courtesan), performed by the delightful Samia Atef, writes a letter to the Mystic Sheikh and hands it to his young disciple, who destroys it.

Then... nothing happens. No reaction, no response, no information on what she wrote in the letter, and no consequences to it being delivered. As such, the objective of the scene remains obscure. On a larger scale, the purpose of the character of Warda is equally unclear in the drama.

Amid a problematic structure, not only does such staccato performance muddy the issues the play claims to champion, but it does not give the performers the fabric to build their characters either.

Tamer Nabeel struggles to present authentic moments in the role of Prince Alzaher, while Wael Ibrahim suffers the most with repetitive lines that are not anchored in a dramatic progression and that fail to create a believable inner life or motivation for the lead role of As-Suhrawardī.

Director Nasser Abdel Moneam raises hopes of a theatre that brings forth the hard issues and makes room for the difficult questions facing our part of the world. Unfortunately, The Master of Time fails to deliver on what it promises theatrically. The naval gazing experience feels more like a truncated lecture on some Sufi concepts with a forced crescendo ending.

The Master of Time
The Master of Time (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

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