Mohamad Ramadan in A PRESIDENT OF HIS OWN REPUBLIC, prepared and directed by Sameh Bassiouny.
Volume 1

A New Perspective on Mikhail Ruman’s Smoke in A President of His Own Republic

A New Perspective on Mikhail Ruman’s
Smoke in A President of His Own Republic
by Anwaar Abdelkhalik Abdalla
 Arab StagesVolume 1, Number 1 (Fall 2014)
 ©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Mikhail Ruman (1927–1973) is believed to be one of the most controversial dramatists in the modern Egyptian theatre. Critical evaluation has always been polarized towards his first published play Smoke. Some skeptics loved his work, whilst conservative critics called for his prosecution as they thought he had violated the dreams of the revolution. The body of his work comprises eleven published plays, which provide a moving and eloquent account of his major theme, namely; the freedom of the individual. Ruman denied that he wrote political drama, claiming that his primary pre-occupation was the freedom of the individual from all constraints, as he felt the deep greatness of the human being. However, his last play (The Night They Killed the Great Guevara, 1967) proves otherwise. Some Marxist critics even accused Roman of advocating nihilism and unbridled-anti social and irresponsible behavior.[1]

Ruman’s play titled Smoke (Al Dukhan, 1962) was widely condemned for dealing with a taboo subject, drug addiction. It is a full length play which is regarded as representing the drama following the 1952 revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Post-1952 dramas often attacked the oppressive practices of a political system that degrades human existence to its lowest level.

This paper attempts to shed light on the new adaptation of Smoke, performed in 2014 and directed by Sameh Bassiouny, who significantly changed the title to Raes Gomhoriet Nafsouh (A President of His Own Republic). Although Bassiouny claims, together with different critics, that his production offers a new perspective on the play, my own point of view is that the production does not indeed offer any new perspective. The question that should be addressed is whether a revival of any play should be a mere repetition or should offer a new perspective if the time is different and the theatre audiences are different.

Bassiouny focuses on current social issues, namely, drug addiction and consumption, as a threat to man’s freedom and existence. This paper will also examine the similarities and differences between the original play, written in 1962, and the modern adaptation with the aim of illustrating the mild changes undertaken, since the original play reflects the theatre of the post-1952 revolution.

Similar to the harsh and ambivalent criticism which was directed toward Ruman’s Smoke in the seventies, the new adaptation of 2014 reminded the critics of those previous attacks by quoting the famous statements of Mohamed Mandour and Louis Awad in Al Ahram newspaper: “This play is nothing but smoke.” Other critics in the seventies wanted to sue the dramatist, even though the play was described by some as “a step towards a new drama.”[2]

In 2014, critical reviews remained sharply divided. Some said that the play is not an accurate embodiment of the present, while others describe it as a new rebirth of the state theatre, especially after the 2011 revolution. Some critics adopted the slogan: “theatre is the people’s school.” An interesting commentary by one of the critics is that “after half a century there is still something called smoke.”[3]

In the post-2011 revolutionary period, the theatre scene remains small due to censorship and the limitation of spaces to perform; hence the burden of the state theatre to attract a middle-class audience remains heavy. The state theatre has to face the general claim that “public theatre is a thinly veiled mouthpiece for the government.” Some young dramatists believe that after the 2011 revolution, state theatre is an uncomfortable place, and it is a risky business both practically and politically to perform.

In an interview with Sameh Bassiouny, the director of A President of His Own Republic, he stated that:

It took me three years to prepare the text. In fact, I always admired Ruman’s Smoke as it addresses many important socio/political issues. It also echoes the suffering of young Egyptians now-a-days. Young people who face a bitter reality in their future often create an alternative world, thus we call them “presidents of their own republic.” The title of the play is very significant, as it reflects the young rebels, who object and reject almost everything.[4]

Different critics attempt to draw parallels between the dramas created after the 1952 revolution and those after the 2011 revolution. In the sixties and seventies, a wave of optimism swept over Egyptians as the people were expecting change, since young army officers led by Nasser ruled the country. In fact, Egyptian social realistic drama matured after the 1952 revolution. The monarchy had been eliminated and Egypt became a socialist country. Those who were downtrodden by the monarchy became the new leaders of Egypt. Accordingly the dramatists faced new social and political problems. They found themselves involved in social change. According to Gemei’an: “Theatre became a pulpit where the playwright attempted to present social problems on stage. The drama of 1952 and after portrays the social and political change in Egypt.”[5]

Young dramatists were less cautious, and eager to experiment with the form and the language of drama. They adopted socialist and populist slogans addressing the masses. The public were more attracted to the theatre to see “serious plays.” Young dramatists were inspired partially by Western theories about total theatre, epic theatre, alienation and the like. Most of them were searching for a specifically Egyptian and Arab form of theatre, perhaps because of the deepening mood of Egyptian and Arab nationalism and the interest in issues such as the freedom and dignity of the individual. Mikhail Ruman’s Smoke addresses such issues; particularly the freedom of the individual, who is crushed under social, psychological, and political pressure.

In the 2014 new version of Ruman’s A President of His Own Republic, Bassiouny, as the director and the dramaturg, addresses similar issues. The play opens in a lower-middle-class home of Hamdi the protagonist. Significantly, the scenography has a great impact on the audience. The stage is divided into three sections. On the left there is a sewing machine, where the mother works before every confrontational scene with one of her three children. On the right there is Hamdi’s bed and his old typewriter. At the center there is a sitting area with a prominent picture of Nasser hanging on the wall. Interestingly, several critics, like Amin Bakeer, suggested replacing Nasser’s picture with El-Sissi’s as it would address the current events in a more realistic way.[6]

El-Sissi is a popular leader who reminds the people of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s era. In fact, many Egyptians draw parallels between the 1952 revolution led by Nasser and the June 30, 2013, revolution led by El-Sissi to end the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both Nasser and El-Sissi are charismatic military leaders who have relied on the support of people in removing regimes. Many Egyptians note that El-Sissi is following the footsteps of Nasser. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that posters in Tahrir square show images of both El-Sissi and Nasser with statements that are reminiscent of the 1952 revolution like “freedom, dignity and social justice.” In A President of His Own Republic, director Sameh Bassiouny’s commentary is that the supporters of Nasser still exist among us. Thus, he decided to leave Nasser’s picture. This is a strong point to prove that the play is repeating its original message; indeed perhaps Bassiouny is implying that nothing has changed since Nasser’s Revolution.

In the 2014 new version, Hamdi the protagonist is still the same as the protagonist of the original play Smoke. Hamdi is an intelligent and hypersensitive young man who feels bitter and frustrated as his father forced him to study for a diploma (which is equivalent to high school education). Instead of continuing his higher education at the university, his father wanted him to finish his studies earlier and so help the family financially. After the death of his father, Hamdi was obliged to take a job as a typist, which he loathed, in a firm for whose boss he had little respect and although he managed later to study on his own for a degree in philosophy, he was still stuck in his typist’s job. Hamdi feels that this job has robbed him of his very humanity and reduced him to a mere machine.

Hamdi thus explains his hopeless condition as a typist to his fiancée Gamalat:

Hamdi: (panting) Oh Gamalat…. I wasted many years with this dirty old typewriter that dates back to Noah. I have lost every hope, every dream. Alas, no chance for me… if I told you, that you are going to get married and live in a certain district, in short your life is planned and then you refuse this… then you might consider committing suicide.[7]

According to M.M. Badawi “the last straw came when one day he lost his belief in God as a result of reading a philosophical work, so he found his life utterly without a goal.”[8] When Hamdi realizes that there is no clear goal for his life, he gradually finds his solace in drugs and becomes addicted. The first act focuses on Hamdi’s family relations with his mother, his sister Hosneya and Gamalat, his fiancée. The three female characters are pursuing him in an attempt to convince him that he should marry, but he ignores them all. Later, we learn that as an existential rebel, he breaks his engagement, robs his sister, whom he adores, and finally is fired by his firm for his drug addiction.

In the second Act, the drug dealer Ramadan and his gang pursue him at home. Unfortunately, Hamdi is completely dependent on hard drugs and without any source of income. He lives on the charity of his mother and sister, who could ill afford it. He loses his self-respect as well as the respect of his young brother Fathi, a medical student in his final year, who represents the voice of rigid morality and in vain tries to argue with him and to use rational means to save him. Hamdi asks his brother to be more charitable in his judgments:

Hamdi: Do you know why I’ve become hooked on drugs? Let me tell you, I think you should know it’s because a man’s deadliest enemies are those who sit up in their secure towers and issue magisterial decrees to the rest of mankind, thinking that human beings are no more than machines to be dictated to. You must understand, especially since you are a doctor, that every man is a world unto himself, a self-enclosed world in which he is a prisoner within his own skin, everyone is trying to escape from his prison through friendship, love or work. But when night falls and the light is turned off, a man is then utterly alone with himself inside his prison and some people can only face their loneliness with the aid of drugs.[9]

In fact, it is the powerful support of the three women characters in Hamdi’s life and their unconditional love that help him regain his freedom from drugs, together with a story that Hamdi heard about a weak and consumptive political prisoner who had the courage not to give in to his jailers while they were brutally torturing him. This helps Hamdi to “heroically reject all falsehood and shame in society and assert his independence from all constraints including the love of his mother, sister, and fiancée, which Hamdi regards as another form of pressure.”[10]

Hamdi appears as an existential rebel in both the original production of Smoke 1970 and the new adaptation of 2014. Despite the melodramatic elements in the 2014 version, Hamdi as the protagonist remains very similar to the original play. Critics such as Ali El Raei hinted at a blurred portrait of the 2014 protagonist because of the many motives behind his actions, such as the lack of intellectual fulfillment, psychological disorder, and an unclear sociopolitical message.[11] Although the director of President of His Own Republic employed more musical elements, dance, and comic gestures, he still revived some of the old memorable key scenes such as the underworld den in which Hamdi is tortured and beaten by the drug dealer Ramadan:

Ramadan: (slaps Hamdi brutally—Hamdi falls, Ramadan shouts) Beat him up, beat him … finish him…!

Hamdi: (on the floor) the political prisoner did not give in, the prisoner did not give in… Did not give in… [12]

This scene is written with considerable skill and deep feeling. Mikhail Ruman in the post-1952 drama depicts common features of his protagonist. Hamdi is a rebel against various forms of oppression, a hypersensitive man, usually creative, an artist whose extreme nightmarish experiences drives him to the edge of insanity. Director Sameh Bassiouny explains that he is attracted to the character of Hamdi since he represents the young rebels who seek to change the intellectual, social and political issues of their time.[13]

Samy Khashaba comments on a curious feature of Ruman’s work which is the name of the protagonists of five plays Al Wafed (The Newcomer, 1965), Al Mazad (The Auction, 1966), Al Mu’ar wal Maj’ur (1966), Al Zujaj (Glass, 1967) and Kom al Dab (1969).[14] The protagonists of such plays are called Hamdi and they all share similar features, reflecting the major concerns of their time, and indeed of most times: freedom and tyranny; individuality and commitment; man’s absolute right to existence and the right to hold to express and criticize political views; love, sex, and marriage; work and ethics; loyalty and betrayal of values; orthodoxy and doctrinal stagnation; death and revival; metaphysical alienation; defeat and suicide.

Indeed, after half a century “there is still something called smoke.” Drug addiction remains a sociopolitical concern, and the social tensions so clearly depicted in the original work are still clearly at the center of this revival, which continues to reflect the current sociopolitical conditions and the difficulty of the artist within them.


Anwaar Abdel Khalek Abdalla is an associate professor in the theatre studies department at Helwan University Egypt. Her areas of expertise is in cultural studies and theatre criticism. She obtained her PhD, earning a first degree honors, from Ainshams University in 1999. Since 2011, she has been an online columnist for the Washington Times communities and Communities Digital news. She was seconded to the AAST as a cultural advisor from 2012 until 2014. Additionally, she is a member of the African Theatre Association (AfTA), a member of the Egyptian Writers Union, as well as an official coordinator for the cultural exchange program between Helwan University and TSU in the USA (2011–2014). She has been a member of the Egyptian and Arab Women’s Writers Union for about eight years. Last but not least, she has worked on the English-Arabic translation works of several books (some of which were published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture) such as: Impossible Peace, Shadows on the Grass, Modern Egyptian Drama, and The Secret Rapture.


[1] Introduction by Faruq Khrshid, Introduction to Mikhail Ruman, Al Dukhan (Smoke) (Cairo, Ministry of Culture, General Egyptian Organization for Publishing and Writing, 1968), 3

[2] Mous’ad, M “There is Still Something Called Smoke.” 1983, quoted in Masrahna Newspaer, Cairo, January, 2014.3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sameh Bassiouny, interview with the author, January, 2014.

[5] Al Shetaiwi Mahmoud Gemei’an,. (1983).The Impact of Western Drama Upon Modern Egyptian Drama, University of Illinois at Urban Champion (Ph.D. thesis, 1983), 218.

[6] Amin Bakeer, “Rae’s Ghmoherit Nafsouh.” Al Qahira Newspaper (Cairo: January, 2014).

[7] Mikhail Ruman, Al Dukhan (Smoke). (Cairo, Ministry of Culture, General Egyptian Organization for Publishing and Writing, 1968), 42.

[8] M. M. Badawi. Modern Arabic Drama in Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 166.

[9] Ruman, Al Dukhan (Smoke), 98.

[10] Badawi. Modern Arabic Drama, 166.

[11] Ali El Raei, Masrah Al Dam wa Al Dumu, (Cairo: Dar Al Shaab, 1973), 195.

[12] Ruman, Al Dukhan (Smoke), 79.

[13] Bassiouny, interview.

[14] Sami Khashaba, “Qir’aa fi Masrah Mikhai’l Ruman” (Cairo: Al Masrah Magazine, October, 1969).

 


Logo_Publications

Arab Stages
Volume 1, Number 1 (Fall 2014)
©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Hazem Azmy, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Joy Arab

Table of Content
Essays

  • Brecht’s Theatre and Social Change in Egypt (1954-71) by Magdi Youssef
  • Re-orienting Orientalism: from Shafik Gabr’s “What Orientalist Painters Can Teach Us about the Art of East –West Dialogue” to Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced by Fawzia Afzal-Khan
  • ‘Now I will believe that there are unicorns’: The Improbable History of Shakespeare in Yemen by Katherine Hennessey
  • Radhouane El Meddeb’s Experiments With Gender: In Search of New Bodies by Omar Fertat
  • Coptic Christian Theatre in Egypt: Negotiations Between The Minority and The Majority by Mohammed Musad
  • A New Perspective on Mikhail Ruman’s Smoke in A President of His own Republic? by Anwaar Abdelkhalik Abdalla
  • Kheireddine Lardjam, Traveller Between Two Shores by Marina Da Silva
  • Where Theatre has failed Syrians by Rolf C. Hemke
  • The Arab Aristophanes by Marvin Carlson

Plays

  • Solitaire by Dalia Baisouny
  • The Imam and the Homosexual by Jamil Khoury

Review

  • Struggling Against Insurmountable Odds: Theatre in the Arab World/Theater im Arabischen Sprachraum A Book Review by Michael Malek Najjar

Malumat/Information

  • Malumat: Resources for Research, Writing/Publishing, Teaching, & Performing Arts compiled by Kate C. Wilson

www.arabstages.org
arabstages@gc.cuny.edu

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

 

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