Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis inspires The Widow of the Desert dance performance

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 2 Oct 2014

Based on the award-winning novel Sunset Oasis, the dance performance The Widow of the Desert is performed at the Gomhoreya Theatre on 1 and 2 October

The Widow of the Desert
The Widow of the Desert by the Egyptian Modern Dance Theatre Company (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

"The desert stretches away before my eyes and there is nothing in it but sand, dunes, rocks, and the mirage that shimmers in the distance. Searing heat by day and biting cold by night. From time to time, chains of grey mountains like the remnants of a single mountain transformed by boltsof lightning into splintered rubble."

In one of the first chapters of Sunset Oasis, veteran Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher uses the voice of Mahmoud, the book's protagonist, to introduce Siwa, an oasis located over 500km south-west from Cairo, close to the border with Libya. The book, which won the Arabic Booker prize in 2008, became an inspiration for a dance performance, The Widow of the Desert, staged by the Egyptian Modern Dance Theatre Company on two consecutive evenings, 1 and 2 October at the Gomhoreya Theatre.

Written in the first person, Taher walks the reader from one character to another, fusing reality with imagination, looking into the 19th century Egypt from the prism of the isolated Berber's community and practices.

But as each of Taher's characters – Mahmoud, Catherine, Sheikh Yahya and even Alexander the Great – is distinctive in his nature and background, it is Maleeka, a young rebellious girl that triggered Sally Ahmed, director and choreographer, to place her as protagonist of the dance performance The Widow of the Desert. Though, in comparison with Mahmoud or Catherine, the book's protagonists, Taher didn’t spill much ink when speaking about Maleeka, he wrote just enough to shape her as one of the most attractive characters in the story. Loving, truthful and innocent in her understanding of life, the tragedy of Maleeka is in her involuntary shift to an epitome of the ghoul-woman. According to Siwa's practices, a ghoul-woman or a ghoula, is a widow who has to stay at home for four months and ten days "so that she could become cleansed of the spirit that had possessed her and brought death to her husband," Taher explains in Sunset Oasis.

The Widow of the Desert
The Widow of the Desert (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

During this period the woman that was believed to be inhabited by the angel of death "was not allowed to change her mourning dress no matter how dirty it got. She could not bathe and she could not put on make-up." Youthful Maleeka could not accept her destiny and as was subjected to the punishment that falls on the ghoul-woman who rebels against this practice as she did.

As Sally Ahmed explains in the programme notes, she was particularly moved by Maleeka, and calls her a "victim of ignorance caused by superstitions, worn-out tradition and the endless battles between the tribes of Siwa oasis." And while personalising the ghoula, the choreographer tailors the remaining characters so they can better serve Maleeka's portrayal.

The performance looks into Maleeka's innocence trapped within the harsh customs ruling the oasis of a distant desert. We are offered a series of tableaus that depict passion, love and compassion, conflicts, along the rivalry set against the customary unity of Siwa's people. Both solo and group images testify to the choreographer's budding creativity, which, in some scenes, needed to be better adopted by the troupe, something that probably could have been reached through the longer rehearsal time. Solo scenes underscore the individual skills of the dancers, who emanate an obvious synergy particularly in a few touching pas de deux. The group images create many remarkable paintings within the theatrical space however at times they lacked the body harmony.

Simple, static yet poignantly evocative scenography designed by Hossam Ahmed Salah perfectly features Siwa's setting. The visual presentation would have been just perfect, had it been supported with equally fitting choices in light design. Though, in his book Taher mentions the yellow sands turning orange and even red during the sunset, the light designers Amr Abdalla and Ahmed Fathy, took the latter colour as a dominant shade of the oasis. The excessive red and violet lights flooding the stage in too many scenes challenged the true picture of captivating Siwa enveloped in hot yellow sands.

"As we arrived, men of the small village on the outskirts of the oasis came to meet us in an open courtyard surrounded by walls. I noticed they were wearing neither the flowing robes of the Bedouin nor the trailing gallabiyas of the peasants. Their gallabiyas were short and white, like wide skirts, and under them they wore long drawers, and most of them were barefoot." This is how Catherine describes her entry to the Siwa oasis in one of the chapters.

In her turn, costume designer Hala Mahmoud made sure to remain as faithful as possible to Siwa's wardrobe customs. The costumes are especially impressive in scenes that are characterised by open and sustained movements. They give justice to all arabesques, stretches and squats. However, more detailed gestures, interesting foot and hand work, characteristic to modern dance, were being lost in amounts of material that trapped them, hindering the accuracy projected by the dancers.  

The Widow of the Desert
The Widow of the Desert (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

No doubt, the Widow of the Desert is particularly interesting if we look into its thematic content and how the literary work has been transposed into movement, fusing the modern dance characteristic with Egypt's traditions. The final blend is definitely catchy for the eyes and senses.

The Egyptian Modern Dance Theatre Company was founded in 1993 under the Ministry of Culture and the Cairo Opera House with Walid Awni as its artistic director and choreographer before the post was given to Monadel Antar in recent years. Since its inception, the company has given over 26 performances in Egypt and toured internationally, receiving audiences' acclaim. Throughout the many years of its activities, choreographers working with the Company were inspired by a variety of creative forms which included literary material. In May this year, the troupe directed by Monadel Antar performed Mawlana based on Ibrahim Eissa's novel of the same name.

Though the programme notes state that "the company is considered the first of this kind in the Arab World," one must not undermine the history and successes of other companies working in similar scopes where they fuse modern dance with traditional material distinctive to their home country. The history of the iconic Caracalla Dance Theatre from Lebanon goes back to the 1960s and the decades have only brought it to the summits on the international scenes. Enana Dance Theatre, a renowned Syrian troupe established in 1990 with headquarters currently moved to Doha, is yet another company entwining modern dance with theatre and Arab cultural heritage. Not to forget Foursan Al Sharq Lil Turath (Knights of the Orient for Heritage), Egypt's very own much younger troupe, founded in 2009, working within a similar scope yet shedding more light on material taken from the Egyptian heritage.

The Widow of the Desert
The Widow of the Desert (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Wednesday 1 October and Thursday 2 October, 8pm
12 El-Gomhoreya Street, Abdin, Cairo


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