I Wish I Was Egyptian: Echoes of a pre-revolutionary yearn for change

Sara Elkamel, Sunday 11 Nov 2012

An adaptation of Al-Aswany’s Chicago by French dramatist Jean-Louis Martinelli proves that the art of theatre can mirror the essence of a people and capture the pulse of change in contemporary society

I Wish I Were Egyptian, 7 November, Gomhouri Theatre. Photo: Sherif Sonbol

At El-Gomhoriya Theatre on 7 November, a large audience giggled and applauded through J’aurais voulu etre Egyptien or I Wish I Was Egyptian, a French adaptation of Alaa Al-Aswany’s Chicago, a sensual novel that tackles unconsummated desire and distressful patriotism. 

The show, dramatised by Jean-Louis Martinelli and performed by the Amandiers Theatre Troupe, hailing from Nanterrem France, is a spectacle of cowardice and a hunger for change. I Wish I Was Egyptian could actually be named I Wish I Wasn't Egyptian, or even, I Wish I Had Never Been Born At All. It playfully recreates the disillusionment and frustration experienced by Egyptian citizens in the decade leading up to the 2011 revolution.

Although one existential crisis unfolds after the other, the performance is not emotionally draining; a lively mise en scène keeps the audience entertained as they watch the cast grappling with reveries of change.

The drama revolves around a group of Egyptian doctors and students residing in Chicago, reminiscing - with mixed feelings - about life in Cairo. The play’s fabric is infused in poetic fibre; the characters are nostalgic for a home that rejected them.

Readers of Arab literature do not adore the novel by Al-Aswany. Bring it up in a conversation and most people will remark: "I didn’t quite like it," with a pensive frown.

Perhaps it was doomed, for its storyline is so packed with frustration that the reader ends up adopting the sentiment as well. But Al-Aswany’s undeniable knack for recreating the plights and charming flaws of Egyptian characters facilitates Jean-Louis Martinelli’s dramatisation of Chicago.

Martinelli visited Cairo a number of times over the past two years to consult with Al-Aswany over how to adapt Chicago for the stage. Driven by the Arab Spring uprisings, Martinelli set out to dramatise this prophetic novel and J’aurais voulu etre Egyptien débuted in Nanterre, France in September 2011- merely months after the January 25 revolution.

I Wish I Was Egyptian captures the woes of a generation that was rendered impotent by the heaps of corruption in Egypt. The glimmer of hope lies in the play's protagonist: a political dissident with a lust for change, Mounir Margoum as Nagi Abdel Samad. He is determined to write a manifesto to be read to Egypt's president on his visit to Chicago, demanding that he hand over power, cancel the emergency law, among a list of revolutionary demands that were echoed in Tahrir Square. 

The events as they unfold strike a chord with the predominantly Egyptian audience. Released by Al-Aswany in 2006, Chicago is perhaps one of the most prophetic contemporary political novels, even if at first glance is doesn't seem to be about politics at all. The romantic stories that carry the storyline forward at times steal the spotlight, yet at the core, this is a story of rebellion.

In Martinelli’s adaptation, the mise en scène is fluid and dynamic. The scenography is very accommodating, with a dinner table, a couch and chairs scattered around the deck, and racks of clothes available for the occasional on-stage change of costume. The actors come and go, exchanging places in centre stage while the rest are sprinkled across the busy backdrop. 

Yes, the production was slightly cluttered, with sub-plots weaving in and out and the stage in a whirlwind of action. The actors are liberal with movement, and perhaps it is the form of the play that makes it possible to animate the drama. Members of the ensemble cast went from being an actor to a narrator to a spectator to a singer, demanding an edge-of-seat attentiveness. It was not smooth-but it wasn’t confusing; Martinelli constructed a performance that was cadenced and harmonious.

One of the most captivating actors is Abbes Zahmani As Saleh, a doctor who struggles with impotence and is overcome with regret at 60 years of age for leaving Egypt. He reminisces about his young love, Zeinab, and is determined (or so it would appear) to prove that he is not as cowardly as she once accused him. Yet Saleh is utterly powerless and beaten that he wastes his one chance at stepping up and reading the manifesto to the Egyptian president. You cannot help – what? - with the short man, who is rendered downright pathetic. 

Saleh’s wife, Sylvie Milaud as Chris, gives a compelling account of an unsatisfied woman, rejected by her Egyptian husband. At one point Chris pantomimes getting her heart broken; silent body movements were, dare I say, slightly comic, yet heart-wrenching all the same. 

Karam Doss, played by Azize Kabouche presents a gripping performance as a Coptic Christian doctor who faced religious discrimination back home and now leads a lonely life, longing for a country whose love he questions. 

Also stellar in his rendering of a dishevelled Danana is Eric Caruso, as a man whose wife finds him repulsive, who is puppy-dog obedient to the repressive regime and who has a religious man for a façade - literally, he bears an ashy spot on his forehead from the many times he has supposedly prostrated in prayer. 

Staged in Chicago at a time when Egyptians were suffering the wrath of a seemingly pre-determined future of corruption and dictatorship during the Mubarak era, this play is a flashback to the recent past. The audience was bound to find it bittersweet to realise that the thwarted aspirations of the characters on stage were realised almost two years ago (or not). 

Despite a flicker of hope and the spirit of resistance, the play does not give the audience a sense of closure.

A buoyant Alaa Al-Aswany received a standing ovation alongside the cast of J’aurais voulu etre Egyptien on the second night of the performance at downtown Cairo’s El-Gomhoriya Theatre. He stood out among the cast with his Egyptian features, yet he belonged on that stage for this was his story. Not merely because he penned Chicago, but also because Aswany’s life bore resemblances to the lives of the characters he created. His Chicago was inspired by the years he spent living in the city to study dentistry at the University of Illinois. 

The play is aptly named, I Wish I Was Egyptian for somehow. Despite being thoroughly enjoyable, this fundamentally Egyptian tale is rendered slightly distant by the French dialogue, faces and postures.

Photo: Sherif Sonbol
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