Last week at the premises of Al-Warsha troupe, talented storyteller Ahmed Shoukry took us on a vivid tour of Egypt just by sitting on a simple wooden chair while addressing an empty chair, contemplating his loneliness.
‘Flowers,’ written and performed by Shoukry, is the voice of the marginalised majority trapped by their own silence in the face of ugliness.
The storyteller simply narrates his daily routine of watching how the garbage bags piled up on his street, how his neighbours reacted, and how people adapted to the garbage pile and added to it in complete harmony.
This scene is contrasted by the sudden appearance of a beautiful girl who is all dressed up and carrying flowers while walking confidently down the road.
The anonymous woman is stereotyped and stigmatised, as her mere presence disturbs the ugly harmony of a neighbourhood that could not tolerate such beauty, thereby highlighting its own ugliness.
Despite being a professional storyteller and actor for 10 years – from the folk stories of Al-Sirah Al-Hilalia (Epic of Beni Hilal), to classic the stories of Daqahlia – this is the first time that Shoukry has performed a story of his own writing.
“It is based on my own personal experience,” he told Ahram Online, explaining that Flowers is made up of “three stories entangled in absurdity.”
He says that while visiting France, he “saw two beautiful women on the street, then I started panicking thinking of what could happen to them at the hands of harassers, that they could easily be pelted with rocks. Then I realised that such things would never happen to them in France.”
“The second incident was when I moved to Cairo and was really irritated by the garbage that surrounded my building. The third is the famous incident when [activist Shimaa El-Sabbagh was shot in 2015] while holding flowers at a peaceful protest in downtown [Cairo],” he said.
“I was so sad [over Shimaa’s death], then I heard a garbage bag being thrown out of my neighbour’s window, and thought they must be the same people who would blame Shimaa, saying ‘what made her go there in the first place’?”
And so Shoukry compiled all three incidents together in a story that reflected in the simplest of terms the absurdity, complexity and growing violence that the world, and Egypt, is facing nowadays.
Through a monologue where he addresses the empty chair, the storyteller recounts the reactions of his old neighbours to a strike by garbage collectors, and how the strike dissipated over time, leading garbage collectors into a life of veiled beggary. He tells of how stray animals that were killed gave the garbage a bitter smell that lingered with every step he took in his neighbourhood.
He tells of how the killing of even human beings down the street became the norm to his elderly neighbours, who “feared change or interventions that might jeopardise their ‘future’,” he says as he laughs.
The simple narration and his impersonation of several of his neighbours, the sound of the restless streets of the city and the several power cuts that are manifested literary in the performance, bring the audience closer to the solitude and isolation that this man lives on a daily basis.
With a perfect command of body language and a shifting in the tone of narration, like any professional storyteller Shoukry manages to tell the story of those nameless bystanders watching in despair the ugliness of the world from their living room window.