Cairo conference on theatre and censorship kicks off with stormy debate

Dalia Basiouny, Monday 25 May 2015

First day of the conference saw sharp exchanges of views by those opposed to and those who support censorship practices

Part of artwork from the conference's promotional material (R), 1st day conference (Photos by Dalia Basiouny, L)

The churnings of the second decade of the 21st century resulted in social and political unrest across the globe, and revolutions in a number of Arab countries pushed the boundaries of freedom and created an urgent desire to challenge rules and norms that had long been taken for granted.

For artists one of the shifting areas of debate has been the topic of censorship and in particular the limits on artistic freedom of expression.

This week the National Centre for Theatre, Music and Folk Arts in Cairo is organising a conference to discuss this theme, entitled “Censorship and Theatre.”

The three-day conference kicked off on Sunday and the discussion proved to be intense and emotional from the beginning, illustrating how hard it is to discuss a complex issue and ask questions which demand unsettling conversations.

The opening ceremony, held at Hanager Arts Centre in the grounds of the Cairo Opera House, was attended by many notable Egyptian artists, academics and intellectuals, in addition to an array of Arab and international participants from three continents.

The organisers screened a short film they had produced which documented Egypt’s journey with official censorship, starting with a decree by Khedive Tawfik in 1881 as part of his attempt to control political criticism.

Although the film clearly states that censorship was connected from the start to the political control of expression, later presentations seemed to ignore this connection, reducing censorship to issues of morality and freedom of the body.

Minister of Culture Abdel Wahed El-Nabawy in his welcoming speech argued that censorship was "helpful to Egyptian theatre as it encouraged artists to create a wide range of theatre forms."

American theatre historian and academic Marvin Carlson offered the conference’s opening remarks, arguing that the most common forms of censorship are political, moral and religious, and that the three often overlap. He also referred to self censorship, and how some artists stop themselves from creating, or only create what would be accepted in society. He also highlighted economic censorship (who is going to pay to produce what, and who is going to pay to see it) and its effect on artistic expression – a form of censorship that is often neglected in discussions about the topic.

A heated beginning

The first session, titled “The Role of Censorship between Past and Future,” was an explosive one, and it was followed by a heated discussion between supporters of official governmental censorship and opponents of all forms of censorship.

Egyptian researcher Wissam Nabih Nasr summarised her paper on the topic, while Egyptian director Gamal Yaqout spoke about “Censorship and Value Reference in Modern and Contemporary Theatre.” They were followed by Abdel Sattar Fathy, head of the Censorship Institute in Egypt who spoke about the role of censorship historically. Finally a Sudanese actor/director presented a paper on “The Prospects of International Cooperation and Global Content of Censorship, and Mechanisms of Optimal Use of Public Censorship Terms.”

It is understandable that the head of the censorship authority wouuld defend the role of his institution, but it was shocking to hear the contradictory statements by artists who claimed to oppose the notion of censorship, yet find some form of it “necessary” in the current situation. And the attendees responded with enthusiasm.

Yaqout seemed to express two contradictory ideas. He said he is against censorship, yet feels that "as a society we need censorship at this transitional phase," giving examples from choices he made in his plays to avoid presenting explicit scenes on stage. He reduced the issue of censorship to protecting the audience from “unnecessarily explicit sexuality.”

Egyptian actor Salwa Mohamed Aly expressed her shock at Yaqout’s statement. She zealously defended the rights of artists to present whatever they want, in whichever way they would like to.

Ali Abu Shady, previous head of the Censorship Institute and the chair of the first session, expressed his support for artists in the way he interpreted the laws (to side with the artists), while affirming family values to protect children.

Tunisian views

The clear voice and vision of progressive Tunisian artists seemed to suggest that when it comes to issues of freedom and censorship, the answer is still “Tunisia!"

Lassaad Jamoussi, Tunisian artist and head of Carthage Theatre Festival, said he supports all censorship for “works presented for children” but vehemently rejected that the whole of society to be treated like children by whoever is placed in the position of power.

Another passionate voice in support of freedom of expression was Tunisian artist Meriam Bousselmi. She disagreed with Gamal Yaqout’s argument that lumped up television, social media, and theatre into one category. Asserting that the kind of theatre she believes in is of a completely different rank, by definition it is out to effect change, and challenge the status quo. She said that speakers mix up notions of self censorship and responsibility.

In the other camp, some attendees thought freedom and abolishing censorship would translate into “destroying society and its moral code” and strongly defended the role of censorship in society, as they believed it is much needed.

Ahmad Amer, Egyptian academic and critic told Ahram Online that he categorically disagrees with censorship. "The problem with people who think they are against censorship is that they are mostly serving the other camp through undeveloped arguments which focus the conversation on moral behaviour or 'naked bodies on stage,' ” Amer argued.

The first day of the conference lead to heated exchanges, shaking some participants out of their comfort zones. Given that, it is hard to anticipate what kind of conversation the loaded topics of the second and third days -- “mechanisms of censorship” and “theatre as an act of resistance” -- will create.

Check out the conference's complete programme here.

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