Hanager Theatre with poster for Night Traveler. Photo: Marvin Carlson.
Articles, Volume 9

Sabour’s Night Traveler in Cairo

Sabour’s Night Traveler in Cairo
By Marvin Carlson 
Arab Stages, Volume 9 (Fall, 2018) 
©2018 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

I have often observed in attending even the most prestigious of the many international theatre festivals that one or two local performances, not included in the festival, were as impressive as anything granted the official stamp of the celebration. This was certainly the case on my recent trip to Cairo in September of 2018 to attend the Cairo International Festival, when I had the good fortune also to see outside the festival a superb production of Sabour’s Night Traveler which in terms of acting and directing rivalled the best work in the festival and in stage design was clearly the most memorable production of this visit.

Night Traveler Musafir Lail) is one of the classics of the Egyptian theatre. Since its creation in 1968 it has received countless revivals in Egypt and throughout the Arab world thanks to its horrifying but profoundly comic absurdist depiction of the eternal dictator/oppressor and his victim. The action is simple, and much in the absurdist tradition. On a railway car a narrator introduces us to a tired, bored traveler, who soon after is approached by a rather overbearing ticket agent demanding his ticket. As the action develops the conductor becomes more and more demanding and tyrannical, removing layers of clothing to reveal himself in a variety of historical guises—Alexander, Hannibal, Tamerlane, Hitler, and others. More and more he overwhelms the desperate passenger, while the narrator retreats in fear, until at last the confrontation culminates in the conductor stabling the passenger to death. All of this is done, however, is an exaggerated comic style that increases both the humor and the horror.

For this new production, director Mahmoud Fouad Sedky conceived a marvelous new visual concept for the play. Instead of building a train interior on the stage, as has always been done in the past, he created and actual full-sized wooden train carried in the large open plaza in front of Cairo’s leading experimental theatre, the Hanager. The audience thus was seated as actual passengers in this train, with the characters moving among them. The effectiveness of this ingenious arrangement was increased by the director’s design of the car, which was not laid out in a straight line, but had a small flat acting area in the center of the car, with the sections on either side tilted slightly upward, so that the audience all had something like a conventional raked view of the central area. Most of the action took place in this area, but the entire interior was clearly part of the setting.   The effectiveness of these arrangements was increased by a continually shifting play of lights which both provided atmosphere to the evolving scenes and contributed to the illusion that the train was actually moving.

Night Traveler stage. Photo: Marvin Carlson.

The ingenious staging alone would have made this a unique and memorable production, but the three actors were as outstanding as the visual setting in which they performed. Highest honors go to Alaa Quqa as the mercurial but always menacing ticket agent, whose constant shifts in tonality, slipping into different registers, and manipulation of his hefty body, reminded me of the great American actor Zero Mostel. He well deserved the Best Acting Award which this performance gained him at the National Theatre Festival earlier this year. Mustafa Hamza, whose small and slender body contrasted nicely with the conductor’s bulk, was a perfect foil—cringing, confused, desperate to accommodate at any cost. The narrator, Jihad Abu Al-Enein, moved nicely from a neutral authoritative voice to another frightened and cowed observer, attempting to hide among the audience as the conductor grew in power and violence.

Exterior of Night Traveler stage. Photo: Marvin Carlson.

Even a modest production of Sabour’s play has a powerful resonance in the Arab world today, but this imaginative and beautifully acted production, with its immersive absorption of the audience, marked a truly outstanding experience in the contemporary Egyptian theatre.

Marvin Carlson is the Sidney E. Cohn Professor of Theatre, Comparative Literature, and Middle Eastern Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Editor-in-Chief of Arab Stages. His research and teaching interests include dramatic theory and Western European theatre history and dramatic literature, especially of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. He has been awarded the ATHE Career Achievement Award, the George Jean Nathan Prize, the Bernard Hewitt prize, the George Freedley Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has been a Walker-Ames Professor at the University of Washington, a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Indiana University, a visiting professor at the Freie Universitat of Berlin, and a Fellow of the American Theatre. In 2005 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Athens. His best-known book, Theories of the Theatre (Cornell University Press, 1993), has been translated into seven languages. His 2001 book, The Haunted Stage won the Calloway Prize. His newest book is Four Plays From Syria: Sa’dallah Wannous (Martin E. Segal Center Publications, 2014).

Arab Stages
Volume 8 (Fall 2018)
©2018 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: Maria Litvan

Assistant Managing Editor: Joanna Gurin

Table of Contents:

  1.  Obituary: Hazem Azmi (1969-2018). This is not an obituary by Nora Amin
  2.  Re-writing Theatre History, Performing Forgotten: Three Examples from Istanbul Stages by Eylem Ejder
  3. The Cairo International Festival of Experimental and Contemporary Theatre 2018 by Marvin Carlson
  4. Gurshad Shaheman, a modern day Scherazade, teller of fascinating tales that hold our attention and leave us wanting more by Philippa Wehle
  5. Civilization Is But a Veneer: Locating Yemen for the Western Stage by Hani Omar Khalil
  6. Peer Gynt in Palestine by Ashley Marinaccio
  7. New and Joyful Encounters with Macbeth inhttps://arabstages.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2018/11/new-and-joyful-encounters-with-macbeth-in-the-turkish-theatre/ the Turkish Theatre by Eylem Ejder
  8. Sabour’s Night Traveler in Cairo by Marvin Carlson
  9. Wajdi Mouawad’s Seuls: When the body performs memory by Rachel M. Watson


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

Arab Stages is a publication of the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center ©2018
ISSN 2376-1148


Skip to toolbar