DROWNING IN CAIRO Drowning In Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf. Golden Thread Productions at Potrero Stage. Photo credit: David Allen Studio.
Articles, Reviews, Volume 13

Performance Review: Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf

Drowning In Cairo. By Adam Ashraf Elsayigh. Directed by Sahar Assaf. Golden Thread Productions at Potrero Stage, San Francisco. April 8, 2022.

Reviewed by Samer Al-Saber, Stanford University

On the opening night of the world premiere of Adam Ashraf Elsayigh’s Drowning in Cairo, the atmosphere feels like the COVID pandemic persists, but an excited audience is resisting its tyranny. With masks worn, at a sold-out two-thirds of maximum capacity, the pluralistic audience chat in multiple languages, including Arabic, English, French, and Persian. The house at San Francisco’s Potrero Stage packs a magnificent opening night crowd that includes Golden Thread Production’s illustrious board of trustees, founder Torange Yeghiazarian, artistic director Sahar Assaf, Marin Theatre Center’s Associate Artistic Director Nakissa Etemad, and Egyptian star actor and director Kal Naga, to name a few. While occasionally glancing at the set depicting a large door reminiscent of older 20th-century apartments in Cairo, the audience is treated to a carefully curated playlist of Egyptian music from the golden era of the 1990s.  In a nutshell, Golden Thread’s production sets the stage, the audience, and the senses for a culturally competent journey to a remarkable time in Egypt’s contemporary history.

At rise, novelist Taha Darwish, played by Martin Yousif Zebari, shows up on stage to tell us about his novel, Drowning In Cairo, the story of Moody and his friends. Before long, we begin to hear about the Queen Boat, which functioned as a floating gay nightclub in the late 1990s in Cairo. The background story is well-worth recalling here. On May 11, 2001, the Egyptian police arrested 52 men on the Queen Boat and began a long trial based on accusations of debauchery, contempt of religion, and other activities deemed illegal and un-Egyptian. Human rights groups suggested that the 52 men were tortured during the arrest, trial period, and afterward in their respective prison sentences. Internationally, the Queen Boat incident and the Cairo 52 trial became a rallying cry and a reminder of the cost of being publicly gay in the so-called Third World. Although Drowning In Cairo does not depict the historical incident as its overriding arch, the play manifests the terrible cost and consequence of being arrested on that night through a fictional account narrated by Taha.

Elsayigh’s play follows a fairly traditional structure to tell the larger-than-life story of three boys who explore their sexuality at a young age, experience the trauma of government persecution, and unravel in different directions in their lives, always connected by their past. Although tempting and present in the text, it would be a grave mistake to assume that the playwright intended a neo-liberal-friendly plot of a love triangle, a tell-all scandalous narrative against a Middle Eastern government, or a coming-of-age story in difficult circumstances. This play is far more complex than the critical filters often applied to Arab theatre in a western context. Elsayigh layers his plot development through critical junctures that speak of class distinctions, religious disparities, national dreams, and on occasion, egotistical and maniacal moments of human indiscretions, all to a political time-line that respects a Middle Eastern audience’s understanding of contemporary events in Egypt.

Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf. Golden Thread Productions. Photo credit: David Allen Studio.

Because of the play’s engagement with the volatile history of the Cairo 52 trials and exploration of non-heteronormative sexuality, it is unlikely to be performed in Arabic in the Middle East. Thus, to an Arab watching this production, the opening night performance played like a voyeuristic opportunity to hear Egyptian men in the throes of a stratified nation and the distressed passions of teenagers and young men as they grow into their unpredictable potentials. As audiences navigate the world of Taha, Moody, and Khalid, they must overcome the estrangement of the private language that Elsayigh imagines onto the stage, for it is seldom heard in the Arab public sphere. The characters range in their conversation from the elite circle’s casual naming of alcoholic drinks to the flirtations between desirous parties and the illegal vocabularies of drugs and sexual practices. The Arab audience benefits from the playwright’s style of argumentation that affirms the traditional, almost orthodox, Egyptian points of view while simultaneously challenging them without flinching.  In one telling moment, one character states with unapologetic homophobia: “if gays acted just like everyone else, then people wouldn’t hate them so much.” When challenged about his identity, a traumatized Taha insists: “I spent three years in prison for being gay, therefore I am gay.” When hitting rock bottom, and being threatened with imprisonment, Khalid resorts to reciting verses from the Quran like any Egyptian might. These moments of transparency and self-negotiation elevate the play beyond a pitiful beg for America to help Egyptian gays to a powerful drama that earnestly reflects a condition for the sake of a people and their discourse. If anything, this play is not about Egypt. It is for Egypt.

Drowning In Cairo’s powerful throughline of the encounter of teenagers, leading to complex relationships, and ending in trauma, triumph, and tribulations, emerges forcefully as the characters attempt to reconcile their existence with the functional preferences of familial circumstances, social networks, and the Egyptian state apparatus. Throughout, the young men are primarily concerned with managing their living practices in relation to their parents. Taha dreams of freeing himself from his working-class family by learning English and educating himself.  Moody’s upper-class aristocracy allows privacy and freedoms that his friends envy. Khalid’s government class, represented by his powerful father, haunts his every choice. This despotic power lifts from his consciousness the moment his father dies, clearly signaled in a line uttered in Arabic, “Baba mat.” All these circumstances are challenged by the Egyptian revolution in a scene of defiance. Moody leaves a message for his mother, speaking to her in a hopeful, honest, and rebellious tone. Khalid speaks to his son, telling him of a future that breaks his father’s cycle of violence. Taha begins his trajectory to find his own class and social position as a researcher, writer, and intellectual. In effect, the play responds to the revolutionary sentiments of Jan 25 to Feb 11, 2011, by capturing a common psychological mindset in Tahrir Square: a new Egypt is possible.

Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf. Golden Thread Productions. Photo credit: David Allen Studio.

Sahar Assaf’s production of Drowning In Cairo gracefully transitions across three decades with the mastery of a cultural insider. In her capable hands, the play radiated with gravitas as characters searched for unconventional paths out of their trauma in Elsayigh’s deliberately constructed Egyptian reality. She expertly moves actors from scene to scene on Mikiko Uesugi’s simple set without the use of additional crew members, always transitioning in view with bold theatricality. Becky Bodurtha’s costumes, complemented by Kate Boyd’s resourceful lighting, tell the story of young men who constantly battle between their private desires and public personas. George Psarras’s sound design transports the audience, competently signifying time, space, and atmosphere. Amin El Gamal expertly manages the emotional highs and lows of a vulnerable and unassuming Moody, who struggles to survive the love of his partners and the hate of his own family. Wiley Naman Strasser steals the audience’s heart with Khalid’s teenage stutter early in the play, only to assault them with his violence and earn their respect with his repentance in surprising turns of events. Martin Yousif Zebari’s Taha bookends the tumultuous story with scholarly gravitas that contrasts brilliantly with his portrayal of Taha’s humble childhood as a servant fighting against all odds to study, self-improve, love, and live in a world that hates him.

Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf. Golden Thread Productions. Photo credit: David Allen Studio.

To witness a skillfully directed and produced production of an Arab play such as Drowning In Cairo in the San Francisco Bay Area is a privilege afforded to the audience by the existence of the historic Golden Thread Productions. Theatrically, Assaf’s production uses the Arabic language in informative and alienating ways, while simultaneously capturing a complex plot that conveys national and human concerns beyond the Arab’s place in the American empire. The production signals a departure from the anti-stereotype plays of the post-9/11 era. It also eschews American theatre’s desire to produce Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern content that appeases the emotional needs of the contemporary liberal class, which has skewed Arab-American cultural content to become predictable, always begging for a representational and tokenizing place in the public sphere. Effectively, the institution of American theatre has rendered ethnic plays toothless as it forced them to aspire to “bridge” cultures, “educate” white audiences, and beg Americans to avoid stereotyping. Drowning In Cairo demonstrates the possibility and promise of producing Arab theatre in the United States on its own terms, addressing the needs of local diasporic communities, and challenging long-held beliefs in both the contemporary American theatre and the national realities of these communities back home.

Samer Al-Saber is an Assistant Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University.  He is affiliated with the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at the Stanford Global Studies Division.

Arab Stages
Volume 13 (Fall 2022)
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founding Editor: Marvin Carlson

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor: Edward Ziter

Performance Reviews Editor: Katherine Hennessey

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, 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.

Managing Editors: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo


Table of Contents:

Playing the Street: Syrian Musicians in Istanbul by Jonathan H. Shannon

It’s Only Funny with Stage Directions by Laila Sajir, Introduction by Andrew Goldberg

Hotter Than Egypt by Yussef El Guindi, directed by John Langs, reviewed by Michael Malek Najjar

English by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Knud Adams, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Wish You Were Here and First Down reviewed by Renate Mattar

Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, directed by Robert Schuster, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf, reviewer by Samer Al-Saber

Arab and Middle Eastern Productions at the Avignon 2022 Festival by Philipa Wehle and Marvin Carlson

Review of Stories Under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine edited by Samer Al-Saber and Gary M. English, reviewed by Zeina Salame

Review of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula written by Katherine Hennessey, reviewed by George Potter

Review of Middle Eastern American Theatre: Communities, Cultures and Artists written by Michael Malek Najjar, reviewed by Robert Myers

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