Volume 1

Coptic Christian Theatre in Egypt: Negotiations Between The Minority and The Majority

Coptic Christian Theatre in Egypt:
Negotiations Between The Minority and The Majority
by Mohammed Musad
 Arab StagesVolume 1, Number 1 (Fall 2014)
 ©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Coptic theatre is rich in contradictions. Its presence challenges the official speech of the modern state that has been based on the negation of religious identity to favor national and patriotic identity, as well as the negation of cultural, regional, religious, and ethnic identities, for the sake of the patriotic identity.

In spite of these negative forces, certain Egyptian researchers and critics have focused on studying the pre-theatrical Coptic forms such as the Mass, examined by Dr. Adel Alelimy in his two books The Contemporary Egyptian Folklore Theatre (1992) and The Egyptian Popular Drama (2005), which consider some Christian religious/performative activities in Egypt.  Also a number of researchers, such as Asem Staty (Introduction to The Coptic Folklore, 2010) have studied the Coptic folkloric and popular performative activities.

But despite these studies, most researchers and critics of the Egyptian theatre have remained uninterested in the Coptic theatre for many reasons, headed by the Egyptian state’s interest in including Coptic within the economic, political, and social mosaic of the Egyptian state. So, since the middle of the nineteenth century, the policy of the Royal family was director toward “the complete destruction of the ancient social systems of that time.”[1] The Egyptian state retained this attitude, although the political regime turned from the royal regime into the republican one.

Thus the phenomenon of the Coptic theatre was not officially acknowledged until the last decade of the twentieth century. Well before that time, however, Coptic (Christian-Jewish) writers, directors, and actors took part in the theatrical society. Their ideological and religious beliefs did not prevent them from doing so.

Even so, the official discourse of the state, and the ideological, religious, and academic discourses that were dominant continued their inclusion of the Coptic minority. We find that most studies that mention Coptic culture confirms that Coptic manifestations are part of the general mosaic of society. For example, the study by Yusuf Abu Seif concludes: “The definitions of the western sociological studies regarding minorities cannot be applied to Coptic.”[2]  Pope Shounouda III (1923–2012) states that: “Copts do not think for a while that their small number prevented them from claiming their political rights.”[3]

The first attempt at studying the causes of a developing  sectarianism conscious within Arab society and the corresponding increase of disunion within that society was undertaken by Burhan Galion in 2013.  He argues that the secularism of the Arab elite “supported contemporary despotism. It appeared to introduce a legal, social and class cover for formal equality between classes at the cost of the confiscation of the freedom of expression. As a result of this, it remained a creed drawn from the sanctification of power and authority.”[4]

The thesis of Galion is based on the belief that the ruling authorities with dictatorial inclinations in fact seek real equality or achieving citizenship for all citizens. Indeed they use the formal equality between groups as a means for removing differences and oppositions and, accordingly, enhancing the regime of the civic or military elite that represents the small and dominating bourgeoisie class that is committed to Western culture. Accordingly, going back to sectarianism was the means of societal resistance because of a separation between the social and political horizons. As Galion argues: “Every division in the political regime leads to upheavals in civil society and creates separated identities.”[5]  This elite itself has suffered from both internal and external pressures as its project has disintegrated. At the same time, sectarian discourse has increased and has taken a central position as the only solution for the defeated and troubled society.

Perhaps the apparent relation between the military defeat of June 1967 and the progress of sectarian religious discourse within society and then its coming to the fore during the era of the Second Gulf War (1991), that destroyed the Arab national project as an ethnic and linguistic choice, is an alternative to the Islamic sectarian project in the region as a whole and in Egypt particularly.

The 1990s were the age of the great defeats of the project of the Egyptian state: Egypt lost its Arab national project and its project as a state that sponsors social justice. As a result of this, it lost control of those alternative relations which the ruling elite attempted to introduce (health care, economic support, equality, freedom of expression, and democracy). It was obliged, by degrees, to accept the conditions of a world reality that is more powerful and able than it is. It also became obliged to accept the conditions of its presence: economic globalization, invasion of the means of modern communication and the internet, the growth of the civil society that is supported by the West, as well as a civil society that has a sectarian background.

Against this background the modern Coptic theatre arose to a new prominence.  The evangelical Churches, called the Societies of Christian Youth, introduced during the 1980s more open shows and productions more related to social issues than did the Orthodox Church. Still these performances followed a traditional pattern earlier employed by writers such as Joseph Wahpy and Naguip Al-rihany. Then the Cathedral in Youth episcopate headed by Oonba Moses established a theatrical company named the Coptic Theatre. This company of Christian professional artists introduced two major productions in 1985 at the Theatre of the Cathedral in Abbasya: The Silent Witness, directed by Nagy Anglo, and You Can Achieve Triumph in This Way, directed by Gamil Barsoum. Then the company stopped working. After this, the churches themselves began producing plays, considering that the shows of the cathedral were a blessing for the art of drama. This in turn encouraged the major churches in Cairo to introduce shows by the young playwrights in the churches. Theatres were built in some churches. As a result of the emergence of the trend toward free theatres in 1980s and development of the festival of the experimental theatre, the number of the theatrical companies in churches has steadily increased.

The theatre of the Egyptian church developed quickly as a result of the experiments conducted under the supervision of the Cathedral in Abbasya (the papal residence in Egypt). It developed quickly in both of content and artistic achievement to catch up with the independent theatre, which was more open to world experiments and more rebellious against the dominant discourse of the official Egyptian theatre that was—during the1980s—primarily dedicated to patriotic and nationalistic concerns. Its works were strongly influenced by Brecht and by European realism, but they also quoted the Arab and folk heritage.

The shows of the independent theatre, the Cairo International Festival for Theatre, and the quick development that affected regional theatres—through the project of theatre clubs at the beginning of the 1990s—opened the door to Coptic artists to get an idea about the techniques and aesthetics of the post-modern theatre.  The increased artistic openness worked hand in hand with the increased congestion and sectarian violence that gradually came to its climax in the 1990s. As a result of this, the Church collaborated with Mubarak’s regime, for the sake of preserving a Coptic consciousness and returning to its religious identity as a reaction against the growing of Islamic religious influence.  This notably increased after the destruction of both the socialist ideology and Arab nationalism at the beginning of 1990s after these trends had taken the place of these ideologies against the ruling regime, the West, and Israel. The Church found that theatre provided a means of resistance against the strict Islamic project that is opposed to arts. This realization grew quickly during the 1990s, and developed in a manner independent from the main trend of Egyptian society. As a result of this, the archbishopric of Shubra Al-khimah established a theatre festival in 1993 that was developed later when as the archbishopric built an academy (part of an educational project) where one could study the arts for two years with specialist trainers and lecturers.

But this unobtrusive and rapid development could not escape current political reality. In the autumn of 2005, at Cairo University and on the first day of Ramadan, a group of young people distributed CDs. On their covers was written: “CD: a present for Ramadan.” The students of the university who accepted this present found that the CD contained a play performed in the Church of Mary Gerges in Alexandria. It was entitled I Was Blind but Now I Can See. Young people told each other about this CD through internet chat groups. They added that every act of this play contained an offense to Islam and Prophet Muhammad. Copies of this CD reached Al-Mansura University. Two nongovernmental magazines published the text of the play from the CD, and these articles were widely distributed among students.  Quickly everything slipped out of control: demonstrations, protests, and attacks on the Church proliferated until the police were called out to restore order.  The reaction of the Egyptian police was severely criticized: it was accused of failure and collusion.

The show, created by a group of young Coptic men in the Church of Muharam Beck in Alexandria, concerns a Christian young man who adopts Islam and joins an extremist Islamic group because the group promises him money, marriage, and a job.  When he discovers that these promises are false and the members of this group are religiously and personally corrupted, he decides to return to his family, and adopts Christianity again. But a member of the Islamic group fatally shoots him in the presence of his family.

The show clearly urges belonging to Christianity and attacks the phenomenon of Christian people adopting Islam by unveiling negative aspects of Islam—from the point of view of the Coptic church—how its believers are violent, full of lust, and ignorant, in addition to their inconsistency.  It also a call for protecting the minority from separation and division within the Muslim majority that practices great pressure through its complete hegemony of the whole educational, media, and political associations.

To achieve this, both text and performance make their theatrical space that of an extremist religious group with their stereotypical image (as it is represented by mass media, drama, and TV). The main setting is the house of the leader of the group where the members gather to learn the principals of the group from him, as well to give reports about their activities regarding the spread of the principals of the group and the sources of its sponsorship. It also establishes the changing character of Ahmad—who convinces Mina to accept Islam—but who comes to believe that the distribution of money inside the group is unfair.  Clearly, most of the show is devoted to the criticism and refutation of Islam before a Coptic audience: Muslims are represented as a pure evil in contrast to Christianity and its devotion to charity.

The insistence on showing this negative image of the Islamic extremists and the non-representation of the Orthodox can be readily understood, as that the Coptic theatre is a mainly closed theatre that is created for this minority and does not aim at discussing the concerns of the minority before the public. This theatre does not deal with the problems of the minority in the frame of a public or open discussion. It aims primarily at keeping the religious coherence and unity of the minority through negating the more extremist and closed discourse of the majority.  This encourages their non-interaction with the religious and cultural identity of the majority on one hand, as well as developing the caution of the minority concerning the dangers of these groups. This is confirmed by the drama’s insistence on showing the coercive actions against the Coptic minority and the leader’s incitement of the group to destroy churches, killing Coptic believers or convincing them to adopt Islam.

The central character Taha/Mina explains his conflict in these words:

Is it possible?! How have I come to leave our house, my mother, and my sister crying for me? I do not know what happened to my father, why I must sleep on the floor without having my dinner. I was not convinced by this religion. My father’s answers to Ahmad’s questions taught me many things. This was my only choice:  to live from hand to mouth. It was my choice. Will they fulfill their promises to me or not? (He grows more cautious) Oh, if they do not fulfill their promises, I will lose both my worldly life and my life in the hereafter.

This monologue reveals a number of the central concerns of the play.  It begins with a lament over the results of separation from family (as well as from the minority group) including the uncomfortable place where Mina now sleeps, as well his increasing suffering from hunger, both the results of his destroying the unity of his minority by separating from it.  The monologue goes on to highlight the reasons that may lead a person to renounce his Christian faith and adopt Islam.  This comes from a desire of life (the life of earth involving money, marriage, and a job) which the hero has been led to consider as an alternative to the life in the hereafter.

His justification for giving up his Christian faith is thus essentially economic, but it is shown to be an unfortunate choice because the disbeliever finds that the promises made to him have not been fulfilled.  He finds himself, despite his conversion, hungry and sleeping on the floor.  The monologue stresses that the life of members of the minority is based on relationships, on religious and family ties. Accordingly, preserving one’s identity involves belonging to the family and the church. This means rejecting all other social ties, such as class, culture, or language, or at least placing them on the margins. The play contains no real discussion about or testing of the social, class, or economic conditions that push Mina to lose his belief in his own religion and adopt that of the majority.

This is achieved on the level of the text and production by the stereotyping of the Muslim characters. The Muslim, according to the text, is a religious extremist. This is a dramatic choice that expresses on one hand a concern about the hegemony of political Islam and the groups of calling for Islamic control over the general public space with coercive treatment of the Coptic minority. On the other hand, there is also a concern about the separation of all groups from social and economic issues because of their focus on religious issues.

Moreover, the text reflects some of the distinctive features of the minority theatres. The décor of this show is a real one: the house of the leader of the Islamic group. It is painted in yellow and brown. These colors reflects the view of the Coptic minority about Islam (associated with the desert and lifelessness). The setting also suggests a location for the leaders in power (who operate in the depth of the middle of the stage), which helps to define the power relations that control this space.

The show also utilizes a video to show the process of Mina’s running away from the house of the leader that is isolated in a desert area and surrounded with walls.  This contrast with life in city (where the church and family are located) from which Mina runs away.  Only a single spot of light falls on the members of Mina’s family, as Mina dies in their presence.

The show continually makes use of the stereotypical image of the character of the extremist Muslim as it is represented by the world and local media, as a person who is separated from reality and uses an old language (as we see in the scene in which Taha/Mina is taught how to recite the Holy Qur’an), adopts violent and irrational ideas, and lives separated from reality.

Clearly, the play makes use of this image to support the church discourse that calls for state control of this group.

Central to the production was a negative portrait of the religious majority in order to confirm the religious identity of the minority.  Naturally this aroused feelings of anger in the circles of the Muslim believers, who felt that this show sought to attack Islam as a culture and religion seeking to control the Egyptian secular state and to represent the Coptic Church as the ally of this state and the representative of the Christian West.  This helps to explain the violence that resulted from this production following the distribution of its video recorded copy two years later, when the show was violently attacked and severely criticized.

The show of I Was Blind, but Now I Can See became, as a result of the political disturbances it generated, one of the best known of recent Coptic plays, but in general, the Coptic theatre prefers not to discuss the problematic and divisive issue of majority and minority religious relationships.  More commonly, Coptic plays circulate only among the Coptic community and do not deal with the presence of the majority. However, the show remains ultimately (despite its artistic weakness) an important statement of the concerns and fears of the Coptic minorities in Egypt.

It was possible for the distinctive features of this show to be generalized, but for violence and demonstrations that pushed that church to impose a strict control over theatre. However, the show remains in the end (in spite of the weakness of his artistic level) a very clear model of the discourse of the theatre of the Coptic minorities and its attitudes during the first decade of the twentieth century.

The revolution of January 25, resulting in the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, vastly altered the political landscape of Egypt, but not its structure of majority and minority relationships.  The continuing tensions are clearly reflected in a Coptic drama presented on the stage of a small civic organization later this year.  This was Death’s Agents, by Michael Mossad and Vivian Magdy. The show is built around three dead victims of a terrorist explosion (two Christian girls and a Muslim young man) who search for their relatives among those still alive.  They discover the role of the religious extremists in increasing hatred and violence inside their society through their control over the media and the political process.  Not all Muslims are associated with this position, however.  Central to the play is the character of Karim, the Muslim man who loses his life defending a Christian family.

The show opens with a monologue by May, one of the dead victims, who sets the tone of religious majority/minority conflict as central to the hatred and violence inside the Egyptian society, and to the tragedy of this play itself: accordingly discussing the reasons for increasing the sectarian identities inside the society.

When I was a student at school, we had to be sent out of class whenever the subject of religion came up. Why? Because we were always the minority. Always our number was smaller. Even the teacher used to deal with me in a negative way. Moreover, I had to ignore most of the bad words that were said to me by my friends, because these words were painful ones. They made me dislike them (my friends) and even feel deep hatred towards them. Do you know why? Because I was the only Christian girl among them and they were unable to respect my religion.

A speech like this would probably not have been allowed before the January revolution—a speech directly dealing with the crisis of the Christian minority inside the Egyptian society. It contains phrases that could not have been used before, such as “they made me hate them.”  Such a phrase, dividing the society into self and other, would have been prohibited before, for the sake of maintaining the unity and coherence of the elements of the Egyptian society. The closed world that characterized the Coptic theatre and the relations that organize the reality around it changed after the revolution so that it became possible for a Christian character to express frankly his or her identity and oppression that they faced as a representative of a religious minority inside the society. This could now be presented not only within the borders of the closed world of the minority that is controlled by the Church, but before the general public.

The fragility of this new freedom was clearly indicated in October of 2011, when a peaceful demonstration of Copts protesting the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt was attacked by security forces and the army, resulting in 28 deaths and hundreds of injuries.  Among those killed was Michael Mossad, co-author of Death’s Agents, who was run over by a military vehicle.  His co-author and fiancée, Vivian Magdy, who witnessed his death, become a prominent figure in the ongoing protests which followed what came to be called the Maspero massacre.

Their play was revived at the Faisal Nada Theatre in Cairo in November, 40 days after Mossad’s death, and the massacre in Maspero continues to be a central image of Coptic uneasiness in today’s Egypt.  In October 2012, a play entitled A Martyrs Album, depicting this event and being presented in a Coptic church in Shubra El-Kheima, a city just north of Cairo, was stopped when the priest himself shut off the electricity in the midst of a scene depicting an Egyptian army member shooting peaceful demonstrators.[6]

Surely, we cannot consider a clergyman stopping a show that attacks the Egyptian army as a model of a real change in the nature of the relation between the Church and the Coptic theatre. But it may be an indicator of the development of a different awareness inside the Coptic minority that tries to reduce the roles played by the Egyptian Church in the political life of the nation and the theatrical representations of the Coptic minority in this political life.

Egyptian society today, after a series of rebellions and the rise of a military leader to the post of president of Egypt, may well be reproducing pre-revolution reality, once again isolating and besieging the Coptic minority, even while the political role of the Church increases. This is hardly a positive development for a theatre that continues to resist the conservative trends that seem to be devoted to reproducing the Egyptian state that was found before the revolution.


Mohammed Musad currently serves as a researcher with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and an editor, journalist, and blogger for many theatrical periodicals in Egypt. He received his degree in Theatre Criticism from the Academy of Arts (Egypt) in 1999, where his masters thesis was titled, Minority Discourse in the Egyptian Theatre. Musad is an avid advocate for feminism, minority studies, and theatrical production systems in Egyptian and Arab theatre. His recent research project is, The Erosion of the Theatrical System in Egypt: Developmental Orientation of Theatre and the Crisis of Duplication Discourse.


[1]  Jack Tagger. Christians and Moslems (from the Arab Opening to 1992) (Cairo: The Egyptian General Assembly for Books, 2010), 240.

[2] Yusuf Abu Seif, Yusuf (1987). Coptic and the Arab Nationality. A Questionnaire  Study (Beirut: The Center of the Studies of the Arab Unity, 1987), 198.

[3] Abd El- samie’. Coptic and the Difficult Number (Discourses about the future). (Cairo: The Egyptian General Assembly for Books, 2001), 64.

[4] Galion, Burhan. The Issue of Coptic and the Problem of Minorities. (Beirut:  The Arabic Center for Researches and study of Policies, 2013), 31.

[5] Ibid., 49.

[6] Michael Fares, Michael (2012). “A Clergyman in the archbishopric of Shubra Al- khimah prevents introducing a play that attacks the Egyptian Army and Coptic Movements Depart” Al- youm  Al- Sabe’.  Sunday, October 7, 2012). Online publication. http://www.youm7.com/News.asp?NewsID=1718230


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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