Remembering Egyptian theatre critic and scholar Nehad Selaiha

Ati Metwaly , Thursday 16 Jun 2022

16 June marks 77th birth anniversary of late theatre critic Nehad Selaiha, a bilingual scholar, translator, historian, writer and critic with a multidisciplinary approach to theatre and a true “theatre activist”, as she was widely known

Nehad Selaiha
Nehad Selaiha (Photo: Hazem Shebl)

 

Born on 16 June 1945, Selaiha passed away on 6 January 2017 having carved herself a unique place in the world of theatre and among generations of its practitioners.

At a tender age Selaiha wanted to become a theatre actress and indeed she took to the stage on a few occasions before shifting to academia and theatre criticism.

Selaiha studied English literature at Cairo University, obtaining her MA from the University of Sussex, UK, in 1969, but she stayed close to theatrical circles partly through her fiancé (and later her husband) Mohamed Enani, who at the time co-edited Theatre magazine; Enani was to become not only the renowned translator of Shakespeare, Byron, and Pinter, but also a major scholar, writer, and critic who translated Arabic literature to English.

In the mid-1970s, Selaiha tought briefly Shakespearean drama at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but by the late 1970s she was already teaching criticism and drama at the High Institute for Art Criticism – the position through which many of us first became aware of her – moving in and out of Egypt while she earned her PhD in drama from the University of Exeter, UK, in 1982. Finally settling in Egypt in 1984, she was offered tenure at the institute, of which she became dean in 2001-2003.

A bilingual scholar, translator, historian, writer, and critic – her English reviews of Arabic productions gave pages of Al-Ahram Weekly (and other publications) an indispensable depth and value for years on end – Selaiha had boundless energy and depth. Her multidisciplinary approach to theatre is demonstrated in dozens of books she authored or contributed to, hundreds of articles she wrote and as many prestigious seminars and juries she led or participated in.

But above all, Selaiha was a theatre aficionado, a promoter, mediator and mentor who discovered, encouraged and supported hundreds of young theatre makers. A true 'theatre activist', as she was widely known, Selaiha saw the theatre as a kernel for creative energy, freedom of expression and human development.

Considered by many theatre makers as their 'godmother', with her constantly young and fresh spirit, even in the last years of her life, Selaiha always welcomed novelty, change and experimentation, new theatrical formats and vocabulary. She observed, encouraged, gave advices, opened doors to many, promoted those she believed in, often shaping their careers and remaining their mentor and confidente for years on.

While doing so, she also fought for young artists and for the presence of their creativity despite all odds that they'd encounter. She was among the important voices of the First Free Theatre Encounter [aka. Festival] in 1990, followed by the second Free Theatre Festival at the Al-Taliaa state theatre, in 1991, which became a strong independent movement housed by the newly opened Al-Hanager Arts Centre. As she documented the events, with typical humility, she refrained from mentioning her own crucial role in helping to unify many dispersed voices into a theatrical movement.

Many other big and small events and journeys of the artists saw her presence, often in the shadows, as she never expected anything in return – she followed her passion and mission of supporting and never giving up for one day till the end of her life.

Not only did she provide a highly valuable criticism of a theatre movement in Egypt and Arab countries, sat on theatre festivals' jury and participated in hundreds of local and international seminars, but also she has left a body of an extremely important documentation of those practices; they have become a book of historical knowledge about theatre of the region.

One of the renowned Egyptian theatre directors commented on Selaiha's work shortly after her passing saying: "[She was] always down to earth – she analyses and encourages, remains balanced and never overly emotional while she helps us understand our emotions. She has depth without needlessly complicating things. It is a very unique skill.”

Even during the final weeks of her life, Selaiha continued attending performances, documenting the history of Egyptian theatre, analysing trends and developments, setting them in larger contexts and speaking about the vibrant multidisciplinary relations between the many phenomena. She taught us arts, culture and life, presented international theatrical practices to Egyptian readers and spoke about Egypt to an international scene.

Selaiha received numerous awards and recognitions at many local, regional, and international theatre festivals, including the Sharjah Festival, the Gulf Cooperation Council Festival, the Carthage Festival, the Amman International Theatre Festival, and the Doha Arab Theatre Festival in 2012. In November 2016, shortly before her passing, she received the prestigious award in the field of arts and literature from the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences.

In Egypt, Selaiha received recognition from the Cairo International Experimental Theatre Festival (1996), the State Award for Superior Achievement in Literary Studies (2003), and the State Appreciation Award for Arts (2013). Many publications wrote about Selaiha, while on 2 January 2017 Masrahna (Our Theatre) magazine dedicated its issue to her. Her contribution to the cultural field had, after all, been extended through her membership of the High Committee for the Theatre at the Supreme Council of Culture, and at the Drama Committee of the Production Department for Radio and Television. She was also at the board of directors at the Roberto Cimetta Fund to Support Young Theatre Artists in the Euro-Med Region.

But all this is but a tiny part of the story, for much of what Selaiha achieved in her life cannot be quantified. Not one person who crossed her path was unaffected by her unique spirit, wisdom or genuine passion to support and encourage.

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