The new production by the award-winning stage director Mohamed Meeky is Harem of Fire (Hareem El-Nar), written by the prominent Shazly Farah and produced by the Taliaa Theatre under artist Shady Soroor. A production that can be perfectly categorised as feminist theatre, Harem of Fire is performed by a cast of female actors though the playwright and director are men. Is that paradoxical? Or is it a triumph of the feminist perspective as a human vision that embraces humanity in general against oppression and discrimination in all its forms?
Set in Upper Egypt, the production is an example of feminist theatre not because of its all-female cast, but because of its direct criticism of the oppression of the female identity and the enslavement of the female body by the patriarchal system. The tyrant is the mother, not the father – proof that patriarchy is a matter of mentality, not of gender. It is the matriarchy here that implements the traditions that kill the very autonomy of the female – recycling of the crushing and objectification that the mother herself has endured throughout her life, and a means of cherishing the power that resides in tyranny.
Played by the great Aida Fahmy, the role of the mother is iconic in understanding how the oppressed transforms into an oppressor instead of working towards the liberation of self and others. The playwright excels in delivering a series of very powerful monologues where the character of the mother recreates the whole fabric of inter-generational oppression and trauma.
Humiliated by two marriages (having been forced into one marriage when she was practically a minor and disappointed in the second, where she was continuously violated) by being handed over to an old man as a child and objectified as a sex object, she is also de-humanised by discriminatory traditions, robbed of her sexuality, autonomy, freedom and identity. The mother thus becomes almost a model of the extreme oppression that can be imposed on a female in every society. The provincial world of southern Egypt is nothing but an example of the possibilities of cruelty and enslavement.
Yet this is not a play of black and white characters, nor of one way morality. That is why the de-humanised mother/tyrant is herself locking up her daughters and depriving them of their very right to freedom of thought, movement and behaviour. The elder daughter, from the mother’s first marriage, is to be married, and her other daughters from her second marriage are jealous because they also hope for love while being continuously manipulated and imprisoned by the mother.
The upcoming wedding sets the house on fire. The future husband of the lucky daughter is desired by almost every girl in town. This social construction of female jealousy is so common in Egyptian drama, but Meeky does not opt for an easy solution. He dissects the inner emotions of the sisters, bringing about an understanding of female desire beyond prejudice. In my opinion this is his biggest achievement in this production. It is also an achievement of the feminist discourse that is not only part of his message and directorial discourse, but also part of his personal life and career journey.
Meeky and Eman Emam are a married couple who have formed a career journey together. The artists coming from Alexandria joined creative forces after their marriage to collaborate on several productions that were all very successful. No one can deny the impact that Emam has had on Meeky, whether as a vital support in his career, or an inspiration for progressive ideas especially when it comes to feminist topics. The influence of Emam, who won the best actress award at the National Festival of Egyptian Theatre several times, cannot be overlooked, just as the influence and presence of Franca Rama on Dario Fo’s journey cannot be ignored – a fact neither of the two male artists has ever denied.
Throughout Harem of Fire, one witnesses good acting that one has missed so much in state theatre. This is acting of style and of authenticity. Yet the one actress that exceeds all expectations is Abeer Lotfy. Portraying the sister who has a profound grudge against her older sister/the bride to be, Lotfy could easily have used the traditional superficial style of acting, of women wishing death for other women in order to win the desired man. She could have easily employed the clichés and stereotype of the jealous woman, recycling a whole, ready tradition of Egyptian female acting and evil female characters. But Lotfy made the very difficult choice, one only made by actresses who have a unique vision and a feminist voice, to stand by her character all the way, not to judge her, not to share in society’s prejudice against her or present her as inhuman, as a mask, but rather as an entirely normal and good woman who is forced by the oppressive patriarchal pedagogy delivered by her own mother to despise her own gender and her own desires, culminating in hate towards her elder sister as an extended form of her self-hatred.
The assumed ugly sister does not end here as an evil character, she expands and becomes a flagrant model of the female self-hatred that is produced by this oppressive system. She ends up being the core of feminist discourse in this production, while relying on a powerful history of stage acting and directing that explains how she has the courage of “being” instead of “pretending”, how she has the stage power of “vulnerability” instead of the stage vice of “social hypocrisy”. Lotfy screams and cries and jumps and trembles on stage as if she is reclaiming a whole history of female acting that was as much repressed and manipulated as the character that she is playing. The journey of the actress here meets with the journey of the repressed and instrumentalised feminist voice.
Nesreen Youssef plays the youngest sister who is crazy enough to seduce the future husband of her elder sister and attract him to her bed. The character stands on the opposite side of Lotfy, only because she has the power to execute her desire. A kind of confrontation here is also insinuated between the two opposite ways of reclaiming sexuality: screaming it out or directly taking hold of one’s own sexual rights. To see Nesreen Youssef play that sexualised role with such freedom and power is also to see the imprint of Eman Emam on the mentality of her artistic partner, and to trace one manifestation of Meeky’s revolutionary feminist directorial style.
One moment remains truly unforgettable: when the younger, free sister admits that she has had the man in her bed, Nesreen Youssef does it with full dignity and entitlement, without the usual moral hypocrisy of an apologetic acting style. This a real and concrete triumph of the discourse of freedom on the Egyptian stage, because this acting style removes the traditional shame from female sexuality and recognises the female’s ownership of her body as well as the integrity and autonomy of the female acting voice beyond the theatrical traditions of hypocrisy, shaming and patriarchal stereotyping.
The mother ends up shooting her youngest daughter as a punishment for her deed – quite a traditional, predictable ending, but any other ending would have seemed unrealistic. The jealous older sister (Abeer Lotfy) who reported the deed of her younger sister to the mother, is the first one to collapse and weep. Her character is again confirmed as purely human, entirely shaken and driven to the borders of madness. The mother collapses as well, and recognises how she has contributed to build an empire of death, a Harem of Fire.
Kudos to the rising star Mohamed Meeky, and to the Taliaa Theatre. This is a production every woman should be proud of.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.