Ancient Persian legends on contemporary Egyptian stage

Soha Elsirgany and Rowan El Shimi, Tuesday 17 Dec 2013

Employing paintings, actors and a violin, a simple setting enriched with history and meaning, director Sabry Zekry presents a story of past and present in 'In Once Upon a Time, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow'

'Once Upon a Time Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow' at Darb 1718 (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Like a fairytale, we are carried into the story through an entrancing violin melody. A journey through time takes the audience back and forth between the present and the magical past. A story from modern day Tehran and an Iranian folkloric tale hit the Egyptian audience very close to home.

Inspired by real events, ‘Once Upon a Time Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’, directed by Iranian-Egyptian artist Sabry Zekry and showing in several spaces around Cairo and Minya this December, narrates the imprisonment of Sereen, a lawyer and political activist, who goes on a month-long hunger strike while serving her 20-year sentence.

From her prison cell, Sereen in her agony and weakness endeavours to secretly write her son a letter telling him the Persian legend of tyrannical figure Zahaak, while eluding her prison guard who refuses her a pen and paper, forcing her to write on a handkerchief using her eyeliner.

As if in a segment of Sereen’s imagination, at the cue of the violin lullaby, we are transported to a sub-story of a teacher and student.

Actress Naglaa Younes, who plays Sereen as well as the violin, takes on the role of the teacher, who casually but seriously recounts the legend of Zahaak that Sereen wishes to pass on to her son. Younes alternates between the role of Sereen in prison and the narrating teacher, morphing swiftly between the two layers of the story.

On the surface the story is about Iran. Yet the resemblances with Egypt are impossible to miss: the story of a revolution derailed and repeated. Parallel themes of corrosive power ring a bell with Egyptian audiences, whose recent years tell a similar political tale.

The play highlight's the power of the people over tyrannical rulers, and the prevalence of the good-willed over the corrupt. Sereen’s open letter to her son reaches out from her prison cell as both a plea and a promise. As the audience is taken from the distress of her hunger strike to an uplifting fairytale, the story implores the next generation to rise up while hinting that the history of their victory has already been written.

Younes gave an impeccable performance, able to shift swiftly between playing the tired, hungry, strong willed yet weak bodied Sereen in jail, and the energetic, power-driven teacher. During her vibrant role as the story-teller she also took up roles within the story of Zahaak.

In turn, with an ironic shift of power, we watch as the prison guard performed by Abdel-Rahman Nasser takes the role of docile student to the domineering teacher. Like adaptive chameleons the two actors dexterously juggle their many characters.


Three large illustrative paintings constitute the scenography, painted by artist Hany Hommos, a student of acclaimed artist Mohamed Abla.

Zekry worked closely with Hommos to create the paintings, studying depictions of legends in Persian literature.

In addition to serving as the backdrop, the paintings also served as an innovative visual aid for the teacher while telling Zahaak’s story.

An experimental director interested in environmental theatre, Zekry often employs the Iranian 'Ta’zieh' technique: theatre inspired by historical and religious events, symbolising epic spirit and resistance.

Zekry explained to Ahram Online the challenges of writing the script in Arabic, which he barely speaks.

When casting, he wanted actors who were able to adapt the concepts into dialogue. And he was successful in his choice. Younes wrote most of the dialogue, which was quite smooth and came to life on the stage. This process allowed for a collaborative experiment with the actors who were part of the initial creative process.

“I prefer working with simple, impromptu spaces as opposed to full theatre halls,” says Zekry, commenting that this allows the performance to be organic, and breaking the third wall with the audience regularly, lest they forget the story is about them too.

From Tehran to Cairo, Zekry has explored and worked in a variety of disciplines – acting, filmmaking, photography, scriptwriting, as well as directing.

This is Zekry’s first theatre piece written in Egypt, although he is involved in a number of related projects.

An Iranian story in origin, yet many would not hesitate to call it Egyptian. Between the lines is a familiar story of corruption, struggle, revolution, and hope – the play functions as a mosaic piece of solidarity.


Sunday 15 and Monday 16 December, at 7pm El-Dammah Theatre (El-Mastaba), 30 El-Balaqsah Street, Abdeen, Downtown

Tuesday 17 December, at 7pm
Al-Nahda Association (Jesuit Cairo), 15 Al-Mahrany Street, Al-Faggala, Ramsis

Wednesday 18 December, at 7pm
El-Warsha Theatre, 17 Sherif Street, Downtown

Thursday 19 December, at 7pm
New Hermopolis, Tuna El-Gabal, Al-Miniya

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