Profile: Theatre Critic Nehad Selaiha on a lifetime of passion

Mary Mourad and Mohammed Saad , Friday 6 Sep 2013

Winner of the State Appreciation Award, Nehad Selaiha speaks to Ahram Online about the theatre -- how it first captured her heart as a schoolgirl then guided her steps on the stage of life

Nehad Selaiha
Nehad Selaiha (Photo: Courtesy of Nehad Selaiha)

Treading passionately into the Al-Hanager Theatre café at the Opera House grounds where our meeting was scheduled, Selaiha carried an air of someone walking at home, familiar and extremely comfortable around the place that witnessed many of her evenings among the audience of Egyptian theatre performances over the years.

Although she never became an actress or playwright herself, a lifetime of writing about, and teaching, theatre was her own performance.

"Being on stage remained a passion with me throughout my life although I couldn't become an actress, and so teaching offered me a sort of a substitute. I enjoy teaching because, for me, it’s like being on stage, I have the floor, I teach drama, I can act all the parts I like... I have a captive audience."

Egypt of the 1960s

Growing up among a conservative family in Cairo, Selaiha didn't exactly get the fancy intellectual childhood some Egyptians enjoyed during the 1960s. Selaiha opened her heart to us and shared.

“My mother was the conservative one; my father was very progressive and very liberal. When I went out every evening and stayed out late, my mother used to argue with me over it and object, but he used to say 'I trust my daughter and just leave her [to her judgement], I know she isn’t going to do anything wrong'.”

Selaiha attended a government school and received the same public education as most Egyptians. The passion for drama started with a schoolteacher. "Ms Leila", the lady behind Selaiha's first encounter with theatre, suggested that her students learn and practice Shakespearean language by performing his plays. The experience, not only of acting but of working on preparing her first school theatre play, was life-changing. "We made everything on stage, bringing clothes from home and using whatever we could get our hands on, until the play was finally staged," Selaiha remembers with a bright smile, “until today, I still enjoy watching theatre in the making, looking backstage, watching rehearsals, speaking with actors and directors and others.”

“I wanted very much to become an actress; that was my real ambition. I told everybody that I wanted to be an actress once I graduate. And I wanted very much to go and study in Britain, but, of course, traditions interfered, everybody was dead against it, they said 'you’re a very good scholar, you’d become the best professor, you know acting is a very uncertain career and you get exposed to so many unpleasant things'.”

The first time Selaiha actually went to the theatre was in college. As a student at Cairo University's Faculty of Arts during the early 1960s, her professors were part of the artistic scene, and she quickly tagged along for evenings at the theatre and at the headquarters of the first theatre periodical of the time. This didn’t go without reproach from the family, who were worried about their brilliant young girl coming home long past midnight, even if accompanied by her fiancé (now her husband).

Nehad Seliha
Nehad Selaiha (Photo: Courtesy of Nehad Selaiha)

“During my time at the university, I read a great deal about history and philosophy – I am very fond of philosophy and I love existentialism. I think my university years [1962-1966] were among the happiest of my whole life, the most active and the most formative,” Selaiha couldn’t repress that playful smile as she recalled.

Nasser, during whose rule Selaiha grew, both championed theatre and, ironically, censored it very strictly. Selaiha is convinced that the seemingly contradictory trends actually contributed to strengthening theatre all the more.

“Curiously and ironically, Nasser’s censorship of theatre made it very important. If you could go to prison over a show, that makes theatre very serious. It’s not like ‘say what you want on stage, it doesn’t matter, we will do whatever we like anyway’; no, the word had value. This made theatre resonate in the whole of society during the 1960s; it was a very political theatre that influenced politics. Everyone was sending word out to the regime through writing, acting, and performing.”

The next major step was completing her undergraduate degree and joining her husband who was sent by the Egyptian government to study in England. Three years after her departure, she returned to Egypt in 1969, after Nasser’s death. “I was a Nasserite down to the roots and was so moved by his death that I really needed to return to Egypt to check on my country, how it was faring after its central pillar fell. This brief one-month trip was memorable in that it cured me of my Nasserite passion: Nasser’s regime required that those leaving the country obtain a departure license and I went all over the place to get it but still failed. After two whole weeks of trying hard, I had to resort to my father’s connections to receive it. This completely demystified the Nasserist era for me: it was no longer all the freedoms and openness I had observed,” Selaiha remembers with some pain.

The 1970s: Another Egypt

Attempting to settle back in Egypt after obtaining her Masters Degree from the UK's Sussex University, Selaiha was shocked at the 1970s Egypt she was returning to. “It was a different Egypt,” the signs of that unpleasant surprise still audible in Selaiha’s voice as she went on, “prices had rocketed, all our friends had left for one place or another, and everything looked different”. Without any savings, without a job and with her little girl, Selaiha realised she was starting from scratch.

Nehad Selaiha
Nehad Selaiha, with husband Mohamed Enani during the 1980s

A brief two-semester teaching job in Saudi Arabia left her certain that she couldn’t move to the gulf like many of her colleagues had done. Settling for a university job in Cairo, Selaiha went on to pursue a PhD from Exeter and started teaching at the Higher Institute for Artistic Criticism.

“I never even considered not settling in Egypt eventually, despite everything! My husband and I refused to purchase property in, or apply for a passport from, any other country, not even for our daughter's sake, because it was not conceivable that we don’t return to our homeland, which had given us this great opportunity to study and learn abroad,” Selaiha stressed.

Journalistic writing, she started by mere coincidence. Smiling, she remembers “I wrote a letter to a friend describing a theatre play I had watched in England in 1985, and he went on and published it! Soon I was writing regularly for a number of periodicals in Arabic and eventually for Al-Ahram Weekly also.”

Nehad Selaiha
Nehad Selaiha with her daughter Sarah in London, 1973

“The change that took place in theatre when the state withdrew its support was tremendous: commercial theatre took over and the best playwrights went on to write for television. No more blood was flowing into Egyptian theatre. Upon finally returning to Egypt in the 1980s, I tried hard to catch up on what I had missed, and found very few chances in regional theatre that still ran some of the earlier plays,” Selaiha recalled with a sigh, upset that the few companies who were fighting hard to gain space for independent theatre weren’t getting nearly enough support.

Selaiha notes how theatre had changed from “word-based, word biased” theatre, where dialogue played the largest role, to an all-encompassing art where music, dance, body movement, choreography, sets, colours and other audio-visual sensory elements came into the performance -- her writing about theatre tried to emphasise that to the reader.

Contribution to Theatre

Selaiha’s biggest contribution to theatre criticism and scholarly works in Egypt helped merge all of her passions -- theatre, philosophy and acting -- in one trade.

Nehad Selaiha
Nehad Selaiha with husband Mohamed Enani and late critic Samir Sarhan

“I don’t write reviews exactly; they're supposed to be reviews of the performances, but they are not precisely so because I try to introduce the political, socio-political, and economic contexts into the art. I don’t believe that art, any kind of art, happens in a vacuum; everything happens in a context and particularly theatre, because it’s so related to life and it’s a collective work involving so many different disciplines in order to come into the light.

“There’s no objectivity in theatre, except in practical matters like not favouring friends with reviews and holding no preconceived ideas. Otherwise, I analyse the entire performance and attempt to bring that personal and subjective perspective to the reader,” Selaiha explained.

"The more I know theatre, the more I become sort of discouraged from playwriting or directing. I’m a bit of a coward as well as a perfectionist. I wanted to be a writer, but when I see the writing of the masters I feel that if I cannot write like them I don’t want to write. I see directors directing and I know what a big, big, big task theirs is. It takes a lot more than just talent, imagination and technical knowhow. It takes leadership, organisation and a very good memory."

A few days ago, Selaiha was announced winner of the prestigious State Appreciation Award. She was really pleased by “the recognition of this branch of writing, rarely considered artistic. This award usually goes to playwrights, scriptwriters or literary writers, and it is the first time that we are also recognised. This will encourage people in this branch to continue research and writing.” But what made her particularly thrilled was the timing of the award after 30 June: “It is a gift from the revolution; we were able to get rid of the Brotherhood rule. I was extremely apprehensive of their presence in the first revolution, and I am really glad that it is over now.”

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