INTERVIEW: Egyptian theatre director Laila Soliman on 'Zig Zig' and drawing from historical archives

Soha Elsirgany , Tuesday 9 Aug 2016

Directed by Laila Soliman, Zig Zig, a play that retells the story of 12 Egyptian women who were raped by British soldiers in 1919, premiered in April this year. The play returned to the stages of Cairo and Alexandria this month

Zig Zig
Zig Zig directed by Laila Soliman (Photo: Ruud Gielens)

Set nearly 100 years ago, Laila Soliman’s play Zig Zig retells the history of 12 women who were raped by British soldiers in Nazlat El-Shobak, an Egyptian village near Giza that was violently raided during the British occupation in 1919.

When called upon to give evidence in a British military court, the women's reports on their rape presented a rare record of testimonies of this kind. Since Egyptian sources held no complete transcript of the events, the play takes the 1919 archives from the British Foreign Office as the material voicing the women’s stories.

The stories of these women are little known to the public, yet this revisiting of history is not new to Soliman, whose works are recurrently drawing from archival material framed on stage into poignant theatrical pieces.

An established Egyptian director, on the rise since her first play in 2004 (The Retreating World), Soliman extensively studied theatre, and went on to produce a number of important plays across the years, including ‘Ghorba, Images of Alienation’ in 2006, ‘Lessons in Revolting’ in 2011, and in the same year a documentary theatre series titled ‘No Time for Art’ on military and police violence.

Soliman speaks to Ahram Online about Zig Zig, which debuted in April at DCAF festival and was recently on show at Cairo's Jesuit Nahda Centre, and is set for two upcoming performances in Alexandria’s Jesuit Centre on 10 and 11 August.

Zig Zig
Zig Zig directed by Laila Soliman (Photo: Ruud Gielens)

AO: With over a decade of experience, how would you say your subject matter has changed over time?

LS: My first play was about the siege of Iraq, so from the beginning my plays have been socially and politically aware. The shift was in form, from fiction to documentary. I had already taken that direction since 2009, then [Egypt's 2011] revolution sort of pushed it forward.

AO: Your previous play Whims of Freedom (2014) was also drawn from archives of the 1919 revolution. How did Zig Zig emerge from that?

LS: We were already working on Whims of Freedom, which was already a documentary performance, [when] we found the documents on the Nazlet El-Shobak investigations.

It was quite late to fully ingenerate them in the performance we were working on, and I felt they deserved to be better framed and be the subject of a separate play.

AO: What draws you to the past to create contemporary performances?

LS: I’m interested in this idea of alternative history writing; history should not be only one narrative, a nationalist narrative decided on by the government. Looking for ways to rewrite history was also triggered further by the revolution. Of course nobody has the whole truth, but at least there should be multiple narratives, and that of the individual citizen shouldn’t be undermined or left out.

Another point was that women are often not equally represented. And so it’s not just about an alternative to the nationalist narrative, but to the patriarchal narrative as well.

AO: While it is based on facts, a large part of the women’s stories is left to the imagination, and sometimes you even share your own questions in the play. What were some considerations you had in mind while presenting the script?

LS: I think that’s a subjective interpretation, I don’t think it was left to the imagination. I think we were pointing to the gaps and trying to work with these gaps. There were many more versions or directions that would have gone into interpretations. Like if I had translated the text for example, or used certain costumes, or by trying to re-enact certain scenes it would have went into interpretation, but I tried to leave it as open as possible, to leave it to the audience.

Zig Zig
Zig Zig directed by Laila Soliman (Photo: Ruud Gielens)

AO: Though based on historical archives, Zig Zig does not unfold objectively as a list of facts. As it attempts to humanise the incident, it becomes inevitably subjective. Were there times that you held back from taking too much liberty with the story, in an effort to leave it open?

LS: Of course with every material the selection of what to share makes it subjective. I am not a historian; at the end this is a work of theatre.
I think that I did everything I wanted.

AO: The play is described in the booklet as drawing links on stage between the historical material, the women’s personal experiences and today’s rape culture. Perhaps the play not only tries to bridge times, but also social classes (between the village women of 1919, and contemporary women in 2016).

LS: I don’t know if I was trying to bridge classes, but rather I was trying to break the stereotypes, and suggest that what we know about the past is not always real, and maybe peasant women from that time were more outspoken than we imagine them to be.

Bridging the times serves to show that things are not black and white. Even the British soldiers, as bad as they were, did attempt to be more subjective and conduct open investigations.

AO: As the actresses read out the archived interrogations of the women by the British court, several times they place the women’s credibility in doubt, if one is to follow the script alone. Yet the whole performance leads us to be on the women’s side and believe them. How did you frame this when working on the play?

LS: The mechanism of the conducting interrogations uses well- known patterns. There are people who are trained in how to break the people being questioned. Sometimes of course you can see contradictions and inconsistency in the story. I see the clear mechanism they are using, and how the woman might be confused, or inclined to lie about one thing or another.

AO: The interrogation also uses certain words, like ‘violated’ when referring to ‘rape’.

LS: The choice of words matter, and how the question is phrased, again it is all part of that mechanism.

This was the only recorded case we found where the women speak out, plus all over the world it’s very common that rape happens as a part of negligence in how the soldiers conduct themselves, or as politically organised. And of course it’s not something usually documented. You will never have the absolute answer to whether it was organised or not.

Zig Zig
Zig Zig directed by Laila Soliman (Photo: Ruud Gielens)

AO: The play begins with an actress talking about a nightmare. Was that the only part that was scripted?

LS: That was actually a dream the actress herself had, which she wrote and shared in the play.

AO: Zig Zig infuses music, with a violinist sharing the stage with the actresses, songs from the era of the incident, both in Arabic and English, as well as contemporary dance segments. Was the decision to include these means of expression a way to make it more artistically accessible?

LS:I wanted to [present a contrast between the voice of the text] with another [voice of] emotions. It is also about emotional interpretation.

These songs are all related to the period. There are always both content choices and emotional choices, so I chose them based on the significance of the song historically, as well as the emotional aspect they could convey.

AO: You’ve previously described yourself as being 'most interested in an independent, socially and politically aware theatre.' How would you position your work in this context?

LS: Independent is a state of living. Maybe if I were somewhere else, I wouldn’t mind working in state theatre. I don’t know if it’s so much a choice, or maybe it’s a character trait.

AO: What do you hope to find or hope to present to the audience by retelling these scenes from history?

LS: I’m a theatre maker, so I work on the material that interests me in hopes that it will interest the audience as well. I believe that theatre has a different power of communicating with audience members in a direct and hopefully deeper way. I hope reflecting on the past gives us opportunity to reflect on the present.

10, 11 August at 8pm
El-Garage, Jesuits Cultural Centre, 298 Port Said Street, Cleopatra, Alexandria

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