A hidden gem

Nora Amin, Tuesday 1 Oct 2019

Nora Amin resumes her Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre coverage

To witness the Moroccan performance Allach? (For What?) is to finally locate the gem in this year’s the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (CIFCET). Presented at the Floating Theatre, the performance did not have the same glamorous framing as the western performances presented at the small theatre of the Cairo Opera House, or at the Hanager Arts Centre, but it framed itself autonomously through the kind of art it offered. When all frames, social and economic, are removed, we are left with only the stage performance itself.

Written and directed by the brilliant Abdel-Fettah Achil, the performance features three men and two women in a poor setting. Yet we quickly discover anew the power of honest and passionate theatre making which has an impact transcending all the incredibly expensive or technological sets. Allach? is theatrically composed and choreographed to focus on the meaning, not any kind of showing off of technique or craft. It is made to transport a meaning and an impact, something very simple that is nonetheless quickly disappearing from our Arab theatre world.

While the pronunciation and Arabic vocabulary of the actors was not easy to understand for an Egyptian, the articulation and delivery of all the text on the performative and emotional levels was both accessible and powerful. It afforded proof that linguistic barriers can be overcome by the craft of acting, that acting is not only about transmitting words through voice, but also about reshaping an emotional and physical articulation of the verbal component in a way that communicates the content even if the spectators do not get the meaning word for word. Sometimes we are inside each word but are not at all touched by the content. Egyptian audiences who erecting a wall of incomprehension in between themselves and Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian performances due to dialect are restricting a great possibility of enjoyment, and losing the chance to re-understand a theatrical communication where the performance resides beyond the words, and where the words are not only those that we hear.

In a deserted world that does not seem to be far from T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, a woman is equally deserted. A monologue questioning the meaning of love opens the performance, although love is definitely on the opposite side of this desert world where only roughness exits. A married woman questions the meaning of love, marriage and manhood, in a space of monstrous loneliness. The dim lights and pale colours of the filters contribute to creating a mood of existential void, of profound oppression and loss. The woman walks alone in that no man’s land of the heart, a very present background made of a black panelling accompanies her walk, her tragedy and her transformation. The black panels become a projection screen for different light moods insinuating aggression, the death of the soul, the death of humanness. The brilliant choreography makes an extremely powerful impact without any exhibitionism. The woman draws a circle around her on the black panel, with white chalk. Three men appear and invade the circle. They rape her – no melodrama, no screaming, no emotional blackmail of the audience. The act happens with full emotional impact, yet without the traditional stage abuse of the aggression and victimisation. She draws more lines, like imaginary mountains and hills to be crossed.

The honesty of the acting and dancing can barely be matched by any other performance I have recently seen except the Swiss Viva La Vie at CIFCET, perhaps the only another gem in this round.  In the Moroccan performance, everybody is oppressed, even those who rape the woman. It is a world of de-humanisation. There was no other adequate way to present that world but this way, Achiq’s way. As painful as it is, it does leave a human trace on our bodies and sensitivities while witnessing it. It reconnects us to our own traumas of de-humanisation and of dreaming of a humane life. It reminds us of our daily psychological violations, only to instigate a collective bonding within the performance space that helps us to hold onto life and dignity.

Presented by the Coulisses (Backstage) theatre company from Casablanca, Allach?questions authority and oppression. It traces a femininity that is born within this wasteland, and discusses the masculinities that develop out of it. A long scene of debate takes place between the three men from different generations, the first son and the younger son and the brother. What are their rights, who are they, what is the truth… “Do we have the right to dream?”, “No, dreaming is forbidden. We are not allowed to dream.” The woman has become a mother, and now her male son questions her. How has she lived her life? She goes on top of the mountain every day waiting for hope, for something to happen, for an end to their extreme poverty. The sons also are lost, they are either on a certain aimless road or they are being threatened by something. The woman-mother comes down from the mountain carrying the coats of her sons, the female neighbour tells her to keep going on, never to settle down, never to look back, because if she stops and looks back she will be hunted all over again.

For a moment I forget that this is a Moroccan performance, it feels like it is coming from nowhere and from everywhere, it could be coming from Bosnia or any oher war zone. I ask myself, Are these characters living in their homeland? What kind of homeland is this? Is there such a deserted, monstrous homeland of de-humanisation? And what kind of womanhood and manhood does it produce? At least it produces this kind of performance which is in itself a very powerful artistic statement against all forms of de-humanisation and oppression, whether it is sexual, political or economic. It produces a very honest and theatrically brilliant discourse that presents a different form of experimentation and con-temporality beyond technologies and the extravagant stage tricks, an experimentation in composition, acting craft, choreography, and of course in directorial style. 


*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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