The Comedy of the East, or the Art of Cunning

by Lenin El-Ramly
Translated by Hazem Azmy

Lenin_El-RamlyDiscussing the French Expedition to Egypt of which he was a witness,1 Egyptian Chronicler Abdel-Rahman al-Jabarti (1756-1825) wrote that the French had constructed special buildings at al-Azbakiyya quarter at which men and women would gather to engage in unrestricted entertainment and acts of licentiousness. As we get to know later, Egyptian locals would go out of their way to steal a look at what took place inside. It was the practice of theatre that al-Jabarti was describing.

Another important description of the thespian art came from the pen of Rifa’a Rafi’al-Tahtawi (1801-1853), a pioneer of the Egyptian enlightenment who served as the Imam (religious leader) of the Egyptian educational mission sent to France by Viceroy Muhammad Ali. Encountering the theatre for the first time in his life, al-Tahtawi famously described it as serious acts presented in a playful form, no doubt a refreshing departure from al-Jabarti’s moralistic censure.2

Given such a juxtaposition of seriousness and playfulness, it was probably no coincidence that the first Western play adapted into Arabic happened to be a comedy. In 1847, Marun Naqqash, a rich Lebanese merchant, presented a play called Al-Bakhil, a freely adapted version of Moliere’s The Miser. Performing the play at his own home to an invited audience consisting of his friends and acquaintances from the upper class, he introduced the event to them in the following words: “Here am I stepping forward all alone, sacrificing myself for your sake lest this act should incur blame.” Just how precarious he must have felt at the time is clear from very Arabic word he used to describe his initiative: fedaa, Arabic for sacrifice. His word choice instantly recalls its derivative Feda’ee, the freedom fighter who puts his life to risk for the sake of the larger community. Perhaps in instilling theatre into this part of the world Naqqash needed to see himself as such.

Naqqash’s second play was adapted from Arabic literature.3 Here, beardless young men played the roles of women (who were not, at any rate, present among the audience, comprising as it did the elite and the dignitaries of the city). The story of performance revolved around an adulterous wife. However, it so happened that the audience on that particular night included the Mufti, the highest Muslim religious authority in the community. Enraged at the boldness of the woman and the sheer foolishness of her husband, he started shouting angry comments while the performance was in progress, scolding her and warning the cuckold husband of her stratagems. In effect, the reverend cleric was serving the role of the first censor in our theatre history. Many would gladly assign themselves the same mission from then onwards.

In the period that followed, Egypt became a regular destination for numerous itinerant troupes of entertainers, whose improvised comic scenes were often vulgar and even obscene, as a contemporary Western observer once remarked. 4 A comic formula of more or less the same calibre still thrives to this day in what is known in Egypt as the “commercial” (read: sleazy) theatre.

The year 1896 marks the opening of Suez Canal as well as the opening of the first opera house in Africa at the behest of the Khedive Ismail, Egypt’s Europeanizing viceroy under Ottoman suzerainty. Not unexpectedly, the program of the new opera was confined to Western classics. In the next year, however, in the same neighborhood but on a far smaller stage, the first Egyptian troupe trod the boards to present the first Egyptian play, attempting as it did to imitate the European model but still adapting it into the indigenous idiom and atmosphere. The man behind this initiative was Yacub Sannu, whose output consisted only of comedy since he saw in Moliere a role model and a source of inspiration. Initially, the Khedive admired Sannu’s work and even called him the Moliere of the East. Sannu’s plays, however, ventured into a critique of social and political problems, albeit disguised in symbols and tacit references. But the time was yet too early for such tactics and not all the cunning of Arabia could have saved Sannu from the inevitable wrath of Ismail. His theatre was closed down in 1872 and he had to flee to Paris.

Adaptations from Western comedy remained a regular fare in the East, with the gamut running from French Vaudeville to Ionesco and his successors. It was through the new art of cinema, however, that people could obtain their intake of western comedy directly from Western artists. Charlie Chaplin presented a significant case in point. I recall as a child that I often saw downtrodden and barefooted children sitting on dusty floors, laughing and clapping to his every move on the screen. What was it that drove them to identify with Chaplin more than any other Western movie star? First, he was silent, speaking no language foreign to them. Like the East and its people, he was poor and thus gave the feeling of being one of the common people, so common indeed that he did not even have a distinct name. Like people in the East, too, he was sentimental, and he was always the target of some cruel chase, thus echoing a predicament that people here see as theirs as well. He was continually being beaten and defeated by far stronger forces; the East is also weak and consistently vanquished. Chaplin, however, always achieves some victory in the end, thanks to his cunning in getting around difficult situations. This may be far from the reality of the East, but it is its ultimate dream: Using the cunning of images rather than that of words, Chaplin could help our people realize their victory, even if only in their imagination. With Chaplin, there was no cultural difference: His Eastern audience could be counted on to intuitively sense, though not always understand, what he wished to communicate.

Ultimately, however, cunning did not serve Chaplin any better than it did Sannu. The McCarthyism of his day could soon read into his works certain meanings he probably never intended. Like Sannu, then, Chaplain had to flee, in his case to Switzerland. Perhaps it was too early in the Land of the Free as well.

Theatres of the East continue to adapt Western works—typically two or three generations after the fact. Everything that ends and becomes past in the West somehow finds a new lease on life in the East and becomes part of its active present. This is what I call the difference between two cultural time zones. Indeed, there was a time when many voices predicted that the cultural gap would narrow down gradually, especially as Eastern societies embarked on their own development. Yet the ultimate irony is that the gap became even more gaping as the world set out to become a small village. In the societies of the East, many voices started to call for a rupture with Western culture and a return to our own heritage. A form of thinking that belongs to the dark Middle Ages is now rearing its ugly head. The space for freedom and democracy started to shrink by the day, while the cultural gap between the East and the West continues to grow ever wider.

Since the 1970s onwards, then, it became increasingly difficult to adapt contemporary Western comedy. This could be due to the cultural sensitivities of the adapting writer or his fear of censorship and the public opinion. (Indeed, in our latter-day “clean” cinema, kisses have all but disappeared, since an intimate relationship between a man and woman is still forbidden outside marriage). Yet the situation is often far more complex than this: Not so long ago it was possible to draw inspiration from the story of Romeo and Juliet. Today, however, it would be completely unthinkable to adapt a contemporary play in which Romeo marries another Romeo, or in which Juliet leaves her Romeo for another Juliet. No less unthinkable is an Othello who would forgive Desdemona instead of killing her to avenge his honor, or a play with a third-sex hero, or one that deals critically with a religious topic (be it Muslim or Christian), or a comedy in which scientists succeed in creating a human being, or one that deals with mercy killing. And so on. Life in the West has become remarkably different from ours.

By the same token, you cannot hope to adapt a play that satirizes Bush or Blair by putting an Arab ruler in their place (although, of course, you are welcome to put on the original lampoon as it is—with its conveniently Western butts of ridicule). In our part of the world, the sole raison d’être of historical dramas is to glorify whatever historical figures they are depicting. Comedy thus arises when it is least intended in an Egyptian feature film that has the late President Nasser confiding his dream of touring the world after he reaches “the age of compulsory retirement.” In the East, every local knows, rulers rule for life, only to circumscribe the present long after their death. What is past is forever sacrosanct.

Was it by sheer coincidence that the art of theatre should be born in the lap of Athenian democracy? I think not: The essence of all drama is inner conflict, democracy being the recognition of this conflict within the one society. Alas, thanks to a deeply-rooted legacy, the societies of the East are still incapable of grasping the full meaning of democracy and thus find it difficult to recognize a drama based on inner conflict within the individual. When this conflict erupts—in the teeth of all the incessant attempts to deny its very existence—our rulers are quick to identify their opponents with the foreign enemy, thus conveniently and manipulatively turning the conflict into an external one with a national dimension. In the East, then, we welcome a Danish Hamlet soliloquizing “To be or not to be”; when, however, an Arab Hamlet asks himself whether, say, he should go to war or not, he is instantly branded a traitor by the overwhelming majority, including those who would dodge from any war if it ever became actual.

Devoid of all inner conflict, then, our comedy is mass-produced in a form as safe and stomach-friendly as cholesterol-free food. At best, it becomes half-skimmed drama: Tired stories repackaged in the form of disconnected and irrelevant gags and jokes, innocent of all meaning and, indeed, of all comedy. These are told by a celebrity jester—as distinct from a comic actor in the true sense of the word—whose job it is to represent neither a character nor a type but only himself, his very own star persona that emboldens him to usurp the functions of both the writer and the director. This setup is only a natural reflection of a society in which officials “run the show” in whatever way they please, turning an essentially objective and systematic process into a never-ending ego trip.

It is true that the Egyptian government has recently allowed a more democratic atmosphere in which it tolerates criticism of itself and its officials. But this newfound freedom is only taking place after the field was left open too long for the forces of obscurantism and religious authoritarianism. In this new climate, then, artists and intellectuals suffer far more tribulations at the hands of the thought terrorism of the society, thanks to the abject state of education and culture. An author attempting to present his own take on the main intellectual concerns of the day is likely to find the task all the more challenging. Hordes of writers and journalists are only too ready in the wings to brand him an atheist or as being morally loose. The result is a type of art that dances around the same old ideas without ever daring to critique them. Departing from the path of the tribe is today’s most unsafe venture.

The situation tends to become somewhat better if you happen to be a poet or a writer of novels or short stories, since it is always possible for you then to publish your work outside your country (on the Internet, for instance). Writing plays is a totally different game, since a play is never complete unless it is put on stage, a condition that requires the consent of the authorities, of the society at large, and of the very artists doing the staging. The author of plays is by definition an individual who cannot function except with the consensus of the others.

Most of the Egyptian writers in the 1960s were content to work under the wing of the State. The State returned the favor by extending its support to them and producing their own works inasmuch as those writers tended not to contradict the cause of the regime, not to say upholding it at times. Yet, after the defeat of 1967 (at the hands of Israel), and given the sense of national self-searching that the “setback” brought about on all levels, the censorship saw fit to reject almost all such works. If anything, this story should illuminate the precarious position of an independent writer like myself, one who continues to be unaffiliated with the government in any sense. Under such circumstances, cunning presented itself as the only solution in my case.

Cunning is the norm in the East because its rulers routinely resort to it whenever they have the urge to abuse the law. Following the example of its rulers, the society at large seems to have defined its eternal wisdom as such: Woe betide him who follows not cunning (!) But such a form of cunning is to be found more often in works toying with sexual taboos rather than those discussing intellectual, political, or religious topics. This imbalance may be due to the writer’s fear of entering any confrontation with the powers-that-be, a fear that turns all creative work into a mere job done to secure an income. It could also be blamed on the artist’s lack of the necessary talent or intellectual depth.

Be these limits and constraints as they may, I have always found through them avenues of voicing my opinion, even if only in part sometimes. Comedy has proven a great tool in this regard, given the Egyptians’ proverbial love for humor and comedy. Comedy transcends reality only to catch it red-handed with the truth. It pretends to speak in jest while being the height of serious thinking. A joke is but a lie that reveals part of the truth or at least insinuates it.

In what follows, then, I would like to dwell for a while on my own experience as a writer of drama in Egypt. By using examples from my own works, I hope to show the extent to which I had to resort to cunning in a variety of forms and guises.

Scene One: My Cunning Strategies with the Conditions of Artistic Production
When I first entered the scene, the state-run theatres were floundering under the control of a number of self-serving bureaucrats whom writers (often lesser ones) needed to supplicate to have their plays produced. Commercial theatres, on the other hand, were searching frantically for good scripts—but, curiously, not for good playwrights.

The offerings of these profit-based theatres consisted mainly of brainless farces: the formula they had concocted was a mixture of whatever was left of indigenous performance forms (such as the Karagoz, Khayal al-Zil [Shadow plays], and folk humor) along with some song and dance thrown into the mix. In other words, it was a hastily cooked meal combining the ingredients of folk entertainment with those of a bourgeois nightclub soirée. This formula enjoyed enormous appeal among Egyptians and Gulf Arab tourists alike, but it could not be any further from the reality of either group. It was my ultimate challenge, then, to find my way around this setup.

In the beginning, I tried to tap the same folkloric spirit while also drawing on my hands-on experience with various theatrical forms in international theatre. My aim was to express social and intellectual concerns, while endeavoring to transcend these local issues towards a more humanistic vision. My guiding assumption was that imported Western styles of writing were not necessarily incompatible with local taste and sensibility. It was the actors, rather the audience, who found the greatest difficulty in adjusting to this new mode of writing. Whenever they encountered a script of mine, they ended up presenting it by means of their own clichés and tried-and-true bag of tricks. The result was productions that enjoyed considerable commercial success but which, for me, left a lot to be desired artistically.

I had to devise a strategy out of this morass: I joined forces with a colleague of mine at the Theatre Institute (whose major was acting while mine was dramatic criticism and playwriting). Still fledgling and obscure at the time, he seemed pliable enough to adapt to the new style in which I wrote my plays. After only our first two productions as a duo, he was already a recognized star in his own right, so I prevailed on him in 1981 to form our own troupe. The six plays that we mounted together sent a clear message that some space for change was still possible. The audiences were totally in tune, and the critics followed suit, if somewhat later. For my part, I always took more pride in the loyalty of my audience. A bond of mutual trust developed between us since that time onwards.

Scene Two: My Cunning Strategies with the Censorship
One of my earliest works in 1972 was a screenplay enthusiastically taken up by the guru director Salah Abu-Seif but which was vehemently rejected by the censorship of the day. It was Abu-Seif’s idea that we call the film Madrasset El-Gens (The School for Sex). This was his first mistake: To this very day, the word Gens (“sex”) is sure to cause great offence if it were to be thus flashed on street billboards. The film, I hasten to add, depicted a dysfunctional sexual relationship between a man and his wife due to the contradictory conceptions of sex inculcated into men and women by the society. Still, the film included no sexually explicit scenes, since the director was keen on appealing to the viewers’ intellect rather than their lower instincts. His aim was to tackle the problem openly and head on.

This, as it turned out, was his second big mistake. Whenever a new head of the censorship took office, Abu-Seif would re-submit the controversial screenplay for official approval; successive censors remained adamant, though. At long last, the screenplay was passed—after 25 years of continuing rejections during which Abu-Seif himself passed away. The film finally appeared in 2002, under the direction of Mohamed Abu-Seif, the late director’s son. All along the film’s struggle to come into life, Egyptian cinema had already churned out numerous other films with far raunchier content. That the censor gladly allowed those films to appear while banning ours was because they had resorted to cunning in suggesting their taboo material rather than presenting it up front. This was the lesson that I had to learn the hard way over the years, as many of my earlier scripts continued to be rejected by Egyptian TV censors.

In my play Weghet Nazar (A Point of View), a blind man named Arafa Al-Shawaf joins an institution for the blind, only to discover that the administration is making use of the inmates’ handicap to steal their benefits and financial dues. The play concludes with an official visit by Mrs. Box, a high-ranking UN officer on a mission to assess the volume of Foreign Aid to be given to the institution. Under the leadership of the assertive and insightful Arafa, the blind inmates expose the administration by unveiling the truth to the visiting international observer.

The play had originally been written as a screenplay that, here again, director Salah Abu-Seif showed great enthusiasm to turn into a movie. By way of doing our homework, we went together to visit some of those blind institutions. He came back with the impression that the abuses depicted in my script had no equivalent in reality. What he could not see was that it was not any “real” life that I was keen to depict, but rather a form of a higher truth.

For me, the blind inmates stand for the citizens of any (Arab) nation “blinded” to their own scandalous reality. The administration, by extension, echoes the very dictatorial regime controlling the lives of such a population by means of manipulation and deceit. In one scene of the play, Arafa brags about having a visual impairment rate of 99%, thanks to his being the “leader of the blind.” Few could fail to get the dig at the time-honored practice of Arab heads of state to “win” their referendums with a 99% of the votes.

Following the final rehearsal, my wife approached the head of the censorship and asked her whether she, the censor, had any objections. The baffled censor confided in my wife that I certainly knew how to say whatever I wanted without making the work officially objectionable. In eventually approving the play, then, that censor knew full well she had nothing to fear: After all, there were no direct references to Egypt as such with its harrowing gap between people and their rulers, nor did the play, for that matter, present any foreign power intervening to demand internal reform. It was only a play, and herein lies the rub: Cunning, I maintain, is the art of telling the truth in broad daylight while leaving behind no traces of the crime. In the end, you are acquitted for lack of proof—only to remain a suspect ever after!

Scene Three: My Cunning Strategies with the Public Opinion
I understand public opinion here as the more modern equivalent of the mores of the tribe. As a general rule, I have never entertained any dream of winning all the members of this tribe to my side, but neither did I wish to lose them completely. I thus figured out that cunning could help me expose the thinking of the tribe without risking my total banishment from it into the wilderness. After all, no theatre nor culture can flourish amidst the desert.

In 1970, I wrote three scenes of a play that would later be known as Bel Arabi al-Faseeh (In Plain Arabic). The play attempted a critique of the Arabs’ modes of thinking and their relationship with the West: In it, we see a group of 14 students coming from all over the Arab world and now living at a London hotel. When their Palestinian colleague disappears mysteriously, the others assume that he has been kidnapped while the British police uphold a theory that he is a terrorist who fled after setting fire to a bookstore. So daring was this line of thinking that I, safe in the knowledge that no censor would ever allow it to see the light, eventually stopped short of finishing the text, leaving it to gather dust in one of my drawers. I also had in mind then a cast of Arab students living in Cairo, so I resigned to the fact that no member of this community would endorse the play’s line of thinking, much less take part in its realization.

Many years later, I returned to the script, and put it on stage with an all-Egyptian cast of amateurs. The play’s biting self-criticism soon attracted the attention of foreign correspondents in Egypt, who produced some 40 reviews of the plays in their respective papers. Many of them were surprised then to see Egyptians and Arabs laughing at their own abject predicament: at their own self-deception, internal defeat, and backward mindset. Indeed, one of our homespun ideologue critics accused the play of being a “sadistic act of self-flagellation.” For my part, however, I derived no small pleasure from seeing audience members on many nights laughing out loud with tears pouring from their eyes. One female spectator, coming out of the performance fully exhausted from laughing and crying simultaneously, thanked me wholeheartedly for such an entertaining night yet in the same breath blamed me for being so cruel to my Arab characters. It then dawned on me that comedy is born out of the impulse to fend off the causes of tears, so numerous as these causes happen to be in our world.

Many foreign correspondents asked me at the time whether the play stood any chance of being presented in Arab countries other than Egypt. I told them to wait and see. As it happened, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture nominated the play to represent Egypt at Carthage Festival in Tunisia. Even more so, the President of the Festival saw it himself while in Cairo and assured me that it was heading to win the Festival’s top award. The Tunisian cultural attaché, however, sent a report to his government complaining about my characterization of the Tunisian student in the play. I was then bombarded with requests to omit the offending character from the play so that it might become palatable for Tunisians. I rejected the request, and the play was never shown in Tunisia. In another instance, the president of the Jordanian Festival of Jerash, after initially signing a contract with me to have the play performed at the festival, called me afterwards to request the omission of the Jordanian character. Once again, I held fast to my rejection.

To this very day, the play continues to be popular with amateur and college theatres in Egypt. For his part, however, the Censor at the State-run Egyptian Television still sees fit to reject its broadcasting. Such a position is likely to leave a Western observer in some confusion as to what best represents the official reaction to the play: Is it that of the Ministry of Culture, whose affiliate censorship had permitted the play to be presented and which went as far as nominating it to represent Egypt internationally, or the one endorsed by the Ministry of Information, which runs the Egyptian TV that banned its broadcasting? Or is it that this setup is the Egyptian answer to political pluralism?

My 2004 adaptation of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, titled Salam El-Nisaa (A Peace of Women),5 presented another case in point. When Greek theatre scholar Dr. Marina Kotzamani (then of Columbia University) invited me to her PAJ Lysistrata on the Arab Stage Project, requesting me to write an essay on how Aristophanes’ Lysistrata could be presented in today’s Arab world, I ended up writing a whole play instead, initially for no other purpose except to see how the censor would react to it and thus make my answers to Kotzamani’s questions more grounded in reality.

The play’s action takes place in Baghdad, shortly before the American-led invasion, with the Chorus of Old Men in Aristophanes replaced here with a Chorus of Iraqi Anti-Riot Police. In her efforts to stop the impending war, my Iraqi Lysistrata allies with Western women activists from the US and Europe. Unlike Aristophanes’ play, however, the Iraqi and American officials do not agree on the terms of peace but rather ally against the insurgent women from both sides. For their part, and despite their consensus on peace and their willingness to go beyond any political differences, the women from the East and the West end up becoming more bitterly divided by their radically different cultural (read: moral) value systems.

When Kotzamani asked me whether the Censor would tolerate Aristophanes’s use of sexual puns and jokes, my answer was both yes and no. This is probably one important aspect of cultural difference, since our Arab audiences are not accustomed to hearing biological facts thrown right in their faces. When I consulted the existing Arabic translation of Aristophanes’s play, I noticed that the translator had already bowdlerized some of the raunchier passages and jokes in the original text. I then decided to use the parameters of this translation as a form of self-imposed moral check.

In so doing, I resorted for the first time in my life to writing in Fus’ha (Modern Standard Arabic). In essence, Fus’ha is characterized by a certain abstract quality that allows it to suggest the most shocking meanings without explicitly stating them. My choice of this language form was thus due to the internal cultural distance it was bound to create in the spectator’s mind. Although it is the language of education, media, and official discourse, few people are actually fluent in it, even among the educated classes. The spectators were thus likely to translate Fus’ha utterances in their minds to their everyday Ammeya (Colloquial Arabic), a process that would mitigate, in the course of its execution, the strong effect of whatever sexual jokes I opted to borrow from Aristophanes.

Conceiving of the play as such, I was aware that it fit the requirements of neither the commercial theatre nor, of course, those of the state-run ones. This left me with the sole option of directing the play myself with a cast of amateurs, in a production that the Greek community in Egypt stepped in to finance. It was during the casting process that I knew firsthand the answer to one of Kotzamani’s central questions: Are there any Egyptian actresses willing to undertake the sexually suggestive roles that Aristophanes’s text included?

As I knew at the time, few Egyptian amateur actresses were indeed ready to flash many parts of their bodies on stage, especially as demanded by the roles of the Western women. It then occurred to me to get around the problem by re-invoking one of the oldest traditions of ancient Greek theatre: to cast men in some of the female roles.

Emboldened by this solution, I decided to retain some of the raunchy speeches over which the censorship had seen red. In one of these speeches, the German activist brags “modern technology has given women many alternatives to men.” Many in the audience were unable to understand the reference; sex shops are not part of our everyday reality—at least not yet!

Upon watching the play on stage, some critics and intellectuals complained about showing the Western female activists in such a burlesque manner, clad as they were in semi-nude dresses. In my doing so, they argued, I was in effect confirming the stereotype of the licentious West—one that is already strong in the Egyptian spectator’s imagination.6 While I knew that this stereotype was far from reality, I was keen to give the spectators their familiar host of images about Western women by way of setting them up to better accept these women’s scathing criticism of the East and the abject reality of its distaff. This Western criticism is countered in the course of the same scene by familiar justifications for Arabs injustices against women—justifications uttered by the Iraqi women, no less.

The reception of the audience was particularly positive—against many odds, I must add. As commentary on the most recent Gulf War, the play appeared at a time when the public opinion could not be more opposed—rightly, I think—to the US-led invasion of Iraq. Where many of these freedom-loving voices seem to me pathetically contradictory is in their long and dubious silence regarding the dictatorial practices of Saddam’s regime, ones that the play sets to expose and lampoon. Hardly anyone in the past had bothered to oppose this most barbarous regime in the same fervor with which the US and its war are currently being attacked. Far from it, in the best tradition of protecting the interests of the Pan-Arab tribe, one of our homespun ideologue critics called my critique of Saddam’s Iraq “an inappropriate interference in the internal affairs of a sister Arab state” (!)
Such being the climate, it is hardly surprising that many calls for peace in today’s Arab world risk being branded as acts of treason. No less alarming, however, is one Western reaction to the play: The doyen of foreign correspondents in Egypt, a German journalist who has been living in Egypt since 1954, told me after watching the performance: “This time you have not left anyone unscathed: The East and the West alike.” Was his annoyed reaction a form of Western chauvinism? Or was it the effect of the journalist’s long stay in Egypt?

Scene Four: My Cunning strategies with the Audience
I think of the audience as the less vociferous section of the public opinion. When I set out to write a new script, it is the undivided attention of this audience, rather than their admiration, that I crave above all else. I thus devote the major part of my energy to using my chosen form in a way that best communicates my ideas, but all with the intent of keeping my audience glued to their seats, to have them hold their breath, crack a laugh, and, yes, shed a tear. Once all this is accomplished, it matters less to me whether they support my opinion or not. Prominent Egyptian writer Anis Mansour once described this comic strategy of mine as “tickling the spectator with the edge of a knife.”

In my film Al-Irhabi (The Terrorist), a certain happenstance has an undercover Muslim extremist becoming the houseguest of a highly urbanized Egyptian family without them knowing his true identity. In one scene, he plays cards with the younger daughter of the family, who happens to be dressed in hot shorts. Taking her appearance as an open invitation for sex, he tries to grab her body, only to be greeted with a slap in the face that leaves him utterly dumbfounded. While writing this scene, I could anticipate the rather uneasy reactions of some viewers, who must have held that the young woman only had herself to blame for “dressing that suggestively.” Yet I was confident that, long after they have forgotten all about the film itself, the memory of this scene will persist in some hidden corner of their minds, warning them against any facile or quick moral judgements based on mere appearance.

The film was a huge box-office success, but also a much-needed warning against the rising tide of Islamist violence. In this regard, it was doubly ironical that some of the fiercest criticism of the film came from the secular left. Some of its writers accused me at the time of writing a film commissioned by the State in support of its official line. Cultural idiosyncrasies? Perhaps not, or so one surmises from the case of the American critic who reviewed the film in an academic journal issued by the American University in Cairo, no less, and who effectively repeated the same tired allegations of the left-wing chorus. More ironical still, for all these attacks against the writer of the film, the film became a huge success for Adel Imam, the superstar actor who played the title role. His wage doubled, while, on the critical level, he was given the best actor award for the first time in his life!

Scene Five: My Cunning Strategies with Myself
At that point, my actor artistic partner and I had come to a parting of ways. When the media started to ascribe my words and ideas to him, merely the performer delivering them on stage, he ended up buying into this mismatch himself. Alas, like all his fellow stars, he wanted to cast himself as the author as well. Our partnership thus ended in 1993. Since then, I have continued to produce my plays all on my own, presenting a number of risky theatrical experiments, some of which performed with free admission. The financial loss was often huge. Why the trouble? Perhaps because I wanted to remain true to myself, to maintain self-respect and internal satisfaction, even if this demanded that I resort to cunning with myself at times. I had long known that the best way to achieve this self-respect is never to see playwriting as a profession, but as a vocation by means of which I write “real” plays whenever the urge came. It is not a means of earning my living but a strategy of bearing with the price of staying alive. I became aware that genuine writing is the one resulting from anxious questions and not from settled convictions, with my anxiety pushing me in turn to embody these questions theatrically, in a form and manner as palatable as possible to the audience. I have never entertained any hope of winning this audience to any particular cause, dogma, or party line; the very act of raising questions is enough for me. I decided long ago never to attempt changing the world.

By way of an Exit
In 1987, my film Al-Bidaya (The Beginning) received “Charlie Chaplin’s Golden Stick,” which is the Audience Award at Vevey International Festival for Comic Films in Switzerland. It occurred to me then that, even in its French subtitles, the comedy in the film could transcend any cultural differences and reach out to the foreign viewers who gave it this honor. If anything, this incident is only another proof that all human beings are essentially same—to the extent that you appeal to them as just that: as human beings.

Comedy presents itself as an exemplary way of transcending all differences. Its domain is not the presentation of cultural or ideological specifics, nor the propagation of any set of values no matter how noble. Rather, laughter arises out of the sincere depiction of truth, albeit through the use of the imagined and the improbable. Comedy incites laugher as well as a sense of sorrow. In its depiction of the Human Being, it inspires us, moves us, and eventually leaves us with numerous questions as to the nature of this admirable creature who, all the same, incites in us a mixture of pity and fear. This is the selfsame catharsis that Aristotle mentions in his famous definition of tragedy. Tragedy, after all, is but the dark canvas against which the entire variety of comedic colors spread and play out.

1.  See: Al-Jabarti’s Chronicle of the First Seven Months of the French Occupation of Egypt. Edited and Translated by S. Moreh. (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 1975).

2.  al-Tahtawi’s experiences in Paris are recorded in his 1834 magnum opus, Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Bariz, available in English as The Extraction of Gold, or an Overview of Paris, translated from the Arabic by Ihsan Abbas, in Ra’if Khuri, ed. Modern Arab Thought. (Princeton, N. J.: Kingston Press, 1983).

3.  The play was called Abu al-Hasan al-Mughafal (Abu al-Hasan, the Gullible), loosely based on a story from The Thousand and One Nights known as “al-Na’im wa al-Yaqzan” (the Sleeping and the Wakeful). Scholars date the performance to either the end of 1849 or the beginning of 1850.

4.  The reference here is apparently to the folk jesters known as al-Muhabbizun (with the indigenous performance form itself known as Tahbeez). British Orientalist E. W. Lane who lived in Egypt during the 1820s and 1830s tells about a farce he watched in an Egyptian village. He has this to say about the performance: “The Egyptians are often amused by players of low and ridiculous farces which are called al-Muhabbizun. They are frequently performed in the festivals prior to weddings and circumcision, at the houses of the great and sometimes attract auditors and spectators in the public places in Cairo. Their performances are scarcely worthy of description; it is chiefly by vulgar jests and indecent actions that they may amuse, and obtain applause.” (An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, London: 1890, p. 384).

5.  An extract from Hazem Azmy’s English translation is currently available on the website of the US-based webzine Words Without Borders (

6.  For a better understanding of this point, see, for instance, Hazem Azmy, “Salam El-Nisaa le-Lenin El-Ramly: Men El-Nass Al-Moqtabass ila al-Waqeh El-Moltabes” (Lenin El-Ramly’s Peace of Women: From the Adapted Text to the Confused Reality). Al Mohiet Al Thakafy 40 (February 2005): 112-116. Also available online at ( arabic/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=779)