El-Warsha troupe honours Egyptian labour corps of WWI through songs and storytelling

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 31 May 2023

At one of El-Warsha's recent performances, the audience sang along with Naima Al Masrya's classic tune "Ya Aziz Eini Ana Awez Arawah Balady" (O The Apple of My eye, I want to go back home) and participated in the troupe's group singing session and educational presentation on Egypt's social history.

Rawshet El-Warsha performance. Photo by Amira noshokaty


Egypt's first independent theatre troupe, El-Warsha, has launched a new monthly performance called Rawshat El Warsha (Splendor of the Workshop) for the past few months.

Rawshat El Warsha, which started by singing the works of famous music composers such as El-Sheikh Imam Issa, Zakaria Ahmed, Sayed Darwish, Fouad Haddad, and Salah Jaheen, includes a brief discussion of the artist's social history and the era they represent, sometimes with family members in attendance.

This month, El-Warsha centered on the patriotic songs of the Egyptian Labour Corps during WWI (1914-1918), which also encompassed the 1919 Egyptian Revolution.

Hassan El-Geretly, the founder of El-Warsha troupe, stated that "We picked the name Rawsha, after a title of an article, that late art critic Nehad Seliha, once wrote about El-Warsha, and we decided to name such new monthly performances."

"In our 4th Rawsha night, we decided to focus on this Egyptian corps that we first came to know of a few years back when we joined sociologist Alia Mosalam’s workshop series Ihky ya Tarikh." The series concentrated on the oral and social history of specific Egyptian governorates and introduced various research and documentation techniques for transforming data into documentaries and stories, El-Geretly remarked.

El-Geretly stated that “So through the work of Aliaa Mossalam, we discovered the story of the Egyptian corps in world war one (1914-1918) and how the British Troupes used half a million Egyptians in forced labour during world war one, where they laboured in Sinai, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, France and Belgium.” This was a substantial number, particularly because the total population of Egyptians at that time was 12 million.

He described that  “You see the year 2014, marked the centenary of WWI, and lots of documents were released to the public that were followed by research and books on that topic. Mohamed Abul Ghar based his latest book ‘The Egyptian Labour Corps- The Crime of kidnapping half a million Egyptians on such research and on the data he found in the war museum in England, which held lots of documentaries and photographs of the Egyptian Labour Corps of WWI."

The night began with a captivating storytelling performance by Abanoub Zakaria, who recounted the real-life tale of Younis, a peasant who returned after the end of WWI. His story was documented in a book authored by Egyptian judge and writer Esmat Seif el Dawla.

The singing segment began with the audience singing along to the oud played by Maged Soliman and the percussion by Gamal Massoud. One of the well-known songs of the Egyptian Labour Corps, "Ya Aziz Eini Ana Awez Arawah Balady," sung by the renowned Naima El Masria, was among the Egyptian heritage songs. Another song connected to the same event was "Salma Ya Salam" (Safe and Sound), composed and performed by Egypt's legendary music composer Said Darwish, followed by his classic song "Oum Ya Masry," which was associated with the 1919 Egyptian Revolution.

El-Geretly emphasized the significance of the night's theme, as it had a tremendous impact on Egypt's villagers and made them a crucial part of the 1919 Egyptian Revolution. He mentioned Ziad Fahmy's book, "Ordinary Egyptians" (AUC Press), which revealed how pre-1919 popular culture created a new collective national identity through songs, art, phonographs, and a new ritual of reading newspapers aloud to the masses at local coffee shops. This infusion created a strong sense of patriotism and collective consciousness that eventually led to the 1919 revolution, in which Egyptian villagers played a significant role in response to British enforcement of labour upon Egyptian peasants during WWI.


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