Banafsaj looks into existential questions

Sara Elkamel, Monday 9 Apr 2012

As part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Fest, a play on the morbid influence of merciless wars on psychology in the Arab World, Banafsaj, will hold it's last performance in Cairo on 9 April


Banafsaj is a thrilling two-character Lebanese production written and directed by Issan Bou Khaled, staged at the Falaki Theatre in downtown Cairo on two nights, Sunday 8 April and Monday 9 April.

Set in a mass graveyard, Banafsaj is the last play in a trilogy tackling themes of war and death, started by Issam Bou Khaled in 1999. All three plays juxtapose melancholy and humour.

Banafsaj consists of two characters, a nameless man and woman. And piles of loose body parts.

Set in the underworld, the play drags the audience down to the land of the dead. But there is nothing lifeless about the characters.

Benadette Houdeib, playing the leading - and only - lady is soulful throughout. She breaks out into fervent rants and loses her calm at moments, screams in silence at others; she manages to engage the audience, make them laugh at her mismatched body parts, cringe at her descriptions of the bloodless corpses of the grave, and sympathise with her longing for her newborn infant among the remains.

Despite the utterly melancholic and intense subject matter, the play does not give in to melodrama. Witticisms are squeezed into the dialogue, and comic body language manages to draw hearty laughs from the otherwise wide-eyed spectators. The nameless woman assembles her body parts, but ends up with an unfortunate figure, "this is the first time I see my bottom as I walk!" she says to a giggling audience.

Issam Bou Khaled says Banafsaj is a reflection on the sequence of wars that splattered blood all over the Arab world, in Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza. "After a while, people are thrown in mass graves, and become merely numbers, losing their identities."

But Bou Khaled manages to create very strong identities through Banafsej. The playwright represents a contemporary, decaying society by shedding light on a woman who loses her body and her son, but retains her happy spirit. Commenting on the brutality of the security apparatus in Arab countries, he creates a character so degraded by police that he morphs into an animal.

The man spends most of his time on all fours, dog-like and deranged. The lady shouts, "animal!" time after time as he nearly weeps, checking his behind over and over, in fear of growing a tail. Actor Said Serhan looks utterly drained after the play, tied to a rope for an hour, jumping and running around, he admits "every bone in his body aches."

The rhythm of the production fluctuates throughout the hour; at times, one is immersed in the despair that emanates off the stage, at others one is filled with an edge of seat excitement as the animal springs back and forth across the jet black wooden floors.

One euphoric moment is when the man and woman, their relationship jagged throughout the play, find companionship in one another. She asks him to close his eyes, and when he opens them, she hangs mid-air from a swing, begs him to join her, and they swing back and forth, cutting through the tense air. The animal wishes "if only for a moment, to see the world…from above." He even takes her hand, and asks her to dance.

Lighting poignantly dramatises the scenes. In the final scene, a yellow spotlight peers down onto the lady as she looks up, yearning for a moment up there. It is then that the spectator realises, he has been living among the dead for the past hour.

The play forces you to reflect on your own humanity, on the essence that transcends physical limitations. The buoyant, depressed woman on stage is dressed in body parts that are not her own, but she stays the same, her soul radiating. At one point she is comically dressed in dozens of arms and legs. Like a cloak of limbs, the outfit is deeply unsettling.

The lady repeats countless times throughout the play, "it’s not good here," but she stays. The line resonates; it is as true of life as it is of death.

Her suffering is at times contagious, and for that it is a relief when at the end of the cathartic journey and her futile search for her son she says, "There’s nothing to wait for anymore, let’s go." The audience gives the couple a standing ovation, glad to put them out of their misery, perhaps.

The girl often posed for an imaginary camera with a sardonic smile; the play tackles the insincere and inhuman role of media coverage in battle. "I was very annoyed by the way cameras handle battle scenes," Bou Khaled says, his eyes diluting. "Cameras act like vampires, chasing blood for a picture."

In Banafsaj, the Lebanese director uses the dead to comment on the lifelessness of the animate. Through giving so much energy to the deceased man and woman to roam the stage, change body parts and fly through the underground, he presents the audience with a question: "Are you alive or are you dead?"

Monday 9 April, 8:00pm
(Opening night in Cairo was on Sunday, Monday is the last night)
Falaki Theatre, American University in Cairo
Downtown campus

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