Articles, Reviews, Volume 4

Two Egyptian Playwrights in Boston: Hany Abdel Naser’s They Say Dancing is a Sin and Yasmeen Emam’s The Mirror

Two Egyptian Playwrights in Boston:
Hany Abdel Naser’s They Say Dancing is a Sin 
and Yasmeen Emam’s The Mirror
A Theatre Review by Sarah Moawad
Arab Stages, Volume 2, Number 2 (Spring 2016)
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publication

As we wait to see how another installment in Egypt’s revolutionary saga unfolds, a more silent, subtle revolution has been underway in Boston, where in late January, Egyptian playwrights Hany Abdel Naser and Yasmeen Emam flew in from Cairo to attend English-language readings of their plays at the city’s Huntington Theatre.   Abdel Naser’s They Say Dancing is a Sin and Emam’s The Mirror are one-woman monodramas that explore themes of corruption, class inequality, and contradictory social and cultural norms, especially as they pertain to women. The two plays have been translated from Arabic into English for the anthology Tahrir Tales: Plays from the Egyptian Revolution. Last week marked the second time they were performed by American actors.

Providing intimate glimpses into the lives of two very different women – a self-assured, experienced, street-smart belly dancer and a troubled, insecure young woman – the monologues transcend cultural specificities to become universally relatable. This was an explicit goal for the production’s director and co-translator of the anthology, Rebekah Maggor, who wanted to present Egyptian theatre in a way that makes it relevant to American audiences, without sacrificing or diminishing its authenticity and particular subjectivities.

As someone who regularly straddles these two worlds, the production at the Huntington Theatre was, in my opinion, both complex and sensitive, self-aware and relatable, yet still, undeniably Egyptian.

The protagonist of They Say Dancing is a Sin is a belly dancer who shares with the audience the wisdom she has accrued over many years of moving seamlessly between Egyptian society’s multiple layers. She tells stories that reveal the duplicity, greed, and hypocrisy of wealthy patrons and religious types who shame her for her occupation. “These eyes have seen it all,” she says, as she recounts tales of corrupt businessmen and treacherous government officials, pharmaceutical companies that charge ungodly sums for life-saving medication, the rich and powerful who stomp on the working class. “And they say dancing is a sin!” she says ironically of these men, as well as a society that looks down on belly dancers (who are viewed as akin to prostitutes) while wallowing in its own vices.

It is easy for those with privilege to judge her when they have never had to make the difficult choices she has, because, as she says, “When a person lives in luxury and doesn’t have to worry about making a living, she can lead any kind of life her heart desires.”

Everyday stories of injustice, like that of the belly dancer, are what served as catalysts for the revolution – stories of class inequality and exploitation, of profit over people. As Maggor writes in the introduction to Tahrir Tales,

For Egyptian theatre artists, the events of January 2011 and the occupation of Tahrir unleashed a surge of creative energy. Their participation in protests opened the floodgates for bold experimentation with a broad variety of theatrical forms.

This experimentation is apparent in The Mirror, a play that has evolved several times over the past eleven years, as playwright Yasmeen Emam tells me. Its main character is haunted and ultimately crippled by the voices of parents, relatives, friends, and love interests who try to police her behavior. Written immediately after Emam graduated college, and drawing upon her personal experiences, The Mirror tackles the various pressures and expectations placed upon young women in Egypt (and, as the actress in this production pointed out, on young women everywhere). What to wear, when to marry, who to marry, how to behave, where to work, how to think – all of these are societal commands and orders hurled at girls and young women in the form of “advice” and protection.

With regard to the initial concept for the play, Emam explains, “I began with the question, ‘What if I did all the things they are telling me to do? Where would that lead me?’” Would she have become the character in The Mirror, an insecure young woman racked with self-doubt, uncertainty, and heartbreak as she prepares to watch the man she loves marry her cousin?

Aila Peck in "The Mirror" at the Huntington Theatre. Photo Credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliantpictures inc.

Aila Peck in “The Mirror” at the Huntington Theatre. Photo Credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliantpictures inc.

While Emam initially wrote a multi-character play, she eventually opted for a monodrama, with a single actress switching between the multiple voices in her head. The result is a disturbing, visceral, highly emotionally charged (and even uncomfortable) experience. As we watch the main character spiral into depression, her vulnerability and anxiety become heightened along with the noise in her mind. She repeats the refrain “a good girl does as she’s told,” interspersed with tidbits of fashion advice from friends, romantic advice from men, and stern parental warnings. She compares herself to her cousin, Sarah, who “does whatever she wants and doesn’t care what people think.”

But she is different, because Sarah is rich, and, according to the character’s father, “we know our place.” Again, the question of class comes into play, and the constraints that come along with it; those with privilege, with material stability, are afforded the luxury to “lead the life their heart desires.” Unlike her rich cousin, The Mirror’s main character does not have a private driver, and must dress modestly so she is not harassed while taking public transportation.

Addressing these class issues, Emam reflected on “middle class respectability,” saying that “once the middle class was leading both [upper and lower] classes, but now the middle class is crushed between them. So, you are stuck between what will people say [at the top] and what will people say [at the bottom].” The main takeaway of her play, however, is that, before a revolution can be successful, “the people have to find their own way” and address deeply ingrained societal norms:

Although I am among the artists and the new generation, I think revolutions will not be very effective. The revolution must be on the individual level first, then it goes everywhere. I don’t understand how we can remove a president or a system while the system is innate inside us.

For both plays, the question of agency – the ability to do what you want, when you want, and challenge the constraints of society – is an important one. In the case of the belly dancer in They Say Dancing Is a Sin, Abdel Naser describes the character as a daring woman who demands her rights in an unjust society, who “can stop people when they need to be stopped, who knows how to hurt when she needs to hurt, how to defend herself, and how to build that shield around her.” As for The Mirror, the main character admires and envies her cousin’s independence and seeming indifference to society’s rules, but must be a “good girl” and “do as she’s told.”

Both of these female protagonists are preoccupied with how the privileged and the powerful are deceiving them, using them, judging them, controlling them, and deciding for them. They are also concerned with how to be a good person in the face of society’s relentless, scathing criticism. The struggle for genuine agency, without necessarily possessing the luxury of privilege, is one so many of us can relate to, and perhaps it is the struggle upon which real revolutions are built.

This review appeared, in slightly different form, the January 22, 2016 issue of the online journal Muftah.

 

Sarah Moawad is co-editor of Muftah’s Egypt & North Africa pages. Born in the United States, raised in Saudi Arabia, but with her heart and roots in Egypt, she holds a BA in Political Science and Global Studies from the University of Pittsburgh, and recently completed a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University, where she focused mainly on religion, politics, and forms of resistance in contemporary Egypt. She currently works with RISE Egypt, a non-profit dedicated to empowering Egyptian social entrepreneurs.

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Arab Stages
Volume 2, Number 2 (Spring 2016)
©2016 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, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Meir A. Farjoun

Assistant Managing Editor: Nina Angela Mercer

Table of Content
Essays

  • Khalid Amine & Marvin Carlson – Tayeb Saddiki and the Re-invention of Tradition in Contemporary Moroccan Theatre: An Obituary
  • Ziad Adwan – The Local Otherness: Theatre Houses in the United Arab Emirates
  • Michael Malek Najjar – Yussef El Guindi’s Arab Spring – Revolutions, Upheavals, and Critical Critiques
  • Torange Yeghiazarian – On Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced
  • Jamil Khoury – Parsing Disgraced: An Assault, A Critique, and A Truce
  • Chloë Edmonson – Body Politics in Adham Hafez Company’s 2065 BC
  • Joachim Ben Yakoub & Fida Hammami – A Counterpoint Reading of the Moussem Cities@Tunis Festival

Reviews

  • Marvin Carlson & Philippa Wehle – The Last Supper by Ahmed El Attar
  • Margaret Litvin – Arab Angst on Swedish Stages
  • Heather Denyer – Heather Raffo’s Noura in Progress
  • Sarah Moawad – Two Egyptian Playwrights in Boston: Hany Abdel Naser’s They Say Dancing is a Sin and Yasmeen Emam’s The Mirror
  • Torange Yeghiazarian – On Michael Najjar’s direction of Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad
  • Michael Malek Najjar – AB: Beit Byout by Tahweel Ensemble Theatre in Beiruth
  • Safi Mahmoud MahfouzReview of Four Arab Hamlet Plays by Marvin Carlson & Margaret Litvin (eds.)

Short Plays

  • Hamed Almaliki – The Cart
  • Ali Abdulnebbi Al Zaidi – Rubbish
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