'Is Anybody Out There?' on the consquences of colonization and oppression

Menna Taher, Sunday 10 Apr 2011

Staged as a play within a play, the American University in Cairo (AUC) production of 'Meinein Aguib Naas' (Is Anybody Out There?) portrays the effects of corruption, colonization and oppression on society and individuals


Naguib Sorour's Menein Aguib Naas (Is Anybody Out There?) opened on 6 April at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

The musical drama follows Naima (Nada El Shazly) as she searches for her lover Hassan’s (Hassan Abou El Rouss) body, while carrying his head around. Hassan, an outspoken singer was brutally murdered by the tyrannical regime. During her quest, she encounters many individuals around Egypt, from a farmer to fishermen and factory workers on strike. All know about Hassan's tragic death and are themselves victims of the same oppression.

Sourour, an adamant critic of the regime, was much-censored, prosecuted and tortured, and at the end of his life sent to a mental institution. The threat that rebellious art causes authorities, quite evident in his life, was also referred to in the play, as Hassan’s singing was always intended to be silenced. 

If one can relate Hassan’s case to Egypt today, Khaled Saeed is the symbol who signifies a greater issue and is one individual of many who has resonated within people’s minds and memories.

Being a poet, Sorour’s dialogue held an internal melody and rhyme and was in the form of traditional proverbs. It also included a lot of metaphors, with the most dominant one comparing the oppressors with wolves, and those working for them and attending to their needs as dogs.

The play is set during the British colonisation in Egypt. In the AUC production directed by Mahmoud El Lozy, the musical is staged as an AUC student’s rehearsal, which allows the play to incorporate recent political events. With a minimal set and the painting unfinished, one surprisingly enters into a rehearsal space. On the side a table has props stacked on it. 

This play within a play adds a small-scale conflict representing today’s events. While in the original play the different characters criticise the British and their Egyptian compatriots, in the rehearsal the students change ‘English’ to ‘Americans’, infuriating their stage manager (Sara Shaarawy), who just wants to graduate.  Perhaps this was an allegory to those who called for stability during the massive protests to remove Mubarak from his post as president. Her agitation was later explained by a censorial law that condemns the criticism of any country in “friendly relations” and “strategic alliance” with Egypt.

Another scene relevant to today’s events was the student’s demonstration on Abbas Bridge in 1946, when students revolted against the British colonisation. They were cordoned off on the bridge by the police who then opened it, resulting in many falling into the Nile, either injured or dying. This well-executed scene portrayed the upper class as they condemned the demonstrations, very much like what happened during the 18-day-uprising that toppled the former president.

However the script, though relevant and relatable, was trite with language like “hidden hands” and “agendas”. The humour in these words has been undermined by their extensive usage in banners, stand-up comedy shows and the like.

The scenes had a melancholic mood, which was manifested by the songs. In one very aesthetically-pleasing scene, drapes hung from above ornamented the stage, as Naeema was sleeping leaning her head on a rehearsal cube, while three actresses sat on the floor singing.

The desperation and hopelessness in the scenes was palpable, however the gravity of the situation wasn’t always evident in the acting.

The play ends with Abdel Halim’s song Sura, perhaps signifying hope. However, the shift from intense sorrow to this triumphant song was rather abrupt.

Perhaps the intention was less loaded and more symbolic since the song that was banned during the Mubarak era now blares out from radios everywhere.

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