Book Cover: Female Egyptian Directors (1990-2010): A Semiotic Study
Articles, Current Issue, Reviews, Volume 14

Review of MUKHRIJĀT AL-MASRAḤ AL-MIṢRĪ (1990-2010): DIRĀSA SĪMIYŪṬĪQĪYAH [Female Egyptian Directors (1990-2010): A Semiotic Study written by Hadia Abd El-Fattah, reviewed by Areeg Ibrahim

MUKHRIJĀT AL-MASRAḤ AL-MIṢRĪ (1990-2010): DIRĀSA SĪMIYŪṬĪQĪYAH [Female Egyptian Directors (1990-2010): A Semiotic Study]. By Hadia Abd El-Fattah. Sharja: Arab Theatre Institute, 2019; pp. 277.

Female Egyptian Directors (1990-2010): A Semiotic Study by Hadia Abd El-Fattah offers an interesting encyclopedic take on the works of Egyptian women directors from the last decade of the twentieth century up until the first decade of the twenty-first century. Abd El-Fattah who is a lecturer at the Department of Theatre Studies, Helwan University, Egypt, was also a visiting Scholar at the Graduate Center, the City University of New York. She states on the back cover of the book and in the introduction her objective in documenting the work of women directors in Egyptian theatre rather than offering a reading of the main characteristics of feminist theatre. In her own words and my translation, she states: “when the theatre of women directors is discussed, my aim is not to find certain directing techniques particular to women rather than men or vice-versa. Instead, I mean to shed light on the works of women with distinguished theatre directing experiences that were relatively neglected” (7-8). 

Female Egyptian Directors is divided into an introduction, two parts, and then a conclusion, followed by notes and appendices. In the introduction, the writer begins by stating the past marginalized role of women in the development of theatre. She argues this is not only due to the lack of documentation of women’s works in theatre but also because of certain institutional patriarchal ideologies. She adds that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, women became an integral part of the system and some women directors, such as Joan Littlewood and Ariane Mnouchkine, left a good impact (6).  

Abd El-Fattah states that she became interested in documenting the role of women directors in Egyptian theatre, especially since they first began as actors and producers rather than directors. She claims a scarcity of women directors in Egypt, especially in the period between Fatma Rushdi’s role as director in the 1930s and until the late 1980s when a number of women directors emerged (6).

In the first part, titled “The Emergence of Women Directors Internationally and Locally,” the writer focuses on how women emerged as directors in the theatrical scene in the West and in Egypt. This part is divided into two chapters. The first chapter discusses the emergence of women directors in the West. The second chapter discusses the role of women directors in Egyptian theatre, documents their work and analyzes the reasons behind their tardy contribution to Egyptian theatre.

In the first chapter, the writer begins by explaining the role of the theatre director in general in orchestrating the theatrical work. She discusses the role of women in theatre in Greek theatre, Roman theatre, the Middle Ages, the commedia dell’arte, the English theatre during the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century, and the nineteenth century. She also follows theatre practitioners who combined the role of actor, director and theatre manager. Pioneer women in the tradition of the director/actor/manager, who mastered the role of choruses, groups and extras, were Caroline Neuber in Germany and Marguerite Brunet, or Mademoiselle Montansier, in France. The writer also discusses the role of feminist movements as one reason for such flourishing, and mentions moving into the autonomy of the role of the director and an interest in the scenic writer. To sum, Abd El- Fattah maintains that women excelled in innovations pertaining to the role of director. They stood side by side with male directors in the development of Western theatre (55). In Egyptian theatre, the writer also maintains that, with the rise of the dramatic theatre tradition in the nineteenth century, many women took part in the theatre experience. Many women theatre practitioners in Egypt were first of foreign origins or from the Levant. Mounira El-Mahdeya was the first Egyptian woman to participate.

In the second chapter, the writer discusses the role of women directors in the development of Egyptian theatre. She maintains that Egyptian women directors started to have an active role only in the last decade of the twentieth century (58). She then proceeds to document the role of Egyptian women and starts with the period before the 1952 Revolution. She mentions Fatma Rushdi, Amina Rizq and Zouzou Nabil. The writer relegates the paucity of the number of women directors in the period to patriarchal ideologies and the socio-economic conditions. Abd El-Fattah then discusses the period between the 1952 Revolution and the 1967 Defeat and considers the period to be representative of Realism. She notices the role of two women directors at that time: Mona Fahmy and Laila Abou Seif. The writer then chooses to divide the analysis into two periods: 1967 until 1987 and then from 1988 until 2010. It is not clear why the writer chose the year 1987 to mark a different stage though. Between 1967 and 1987 the writer mentions five women directors: Laila Abou Seif, who continued to direct into this period, Samiha Ayoub, Leila Saad, Menha El-Batrawy, Naima Wasfy and Zeinab Shemeis. Then the writer discusses the works in the period between 1988 and 2010, a period, she maintains, that sought to counter the prevalent commercial theatre and included the emergence of the independent theatre troupes such as El-Warsha of Hassan El-Gretley. The writer divides the type of theatre produced during that period into three types: scripted theatre, physical theatre and folk theatre. She discusses the works of ten women directors in the period:  Abeer Ali, Azza El-Husseiny, Effat Yehia, Dalia Bassiouny, Samaa Ibrahim, Rasha El-Gammal, Laila Soliman, Nora Amin, Reem Hegab and Dalia El-Abd.

In the second part, titled “Directing Techniques in Egyptian Women theatre,” the writer offers a semiotic analysis of representative performances of women directors in the period between 1990 and 2010 for a few Egyptian women directors who managed to remain in the theatrical scene despite the difficulties. This part is divided into three chapters, each representing a type of the theatre discussed earlier. The first chapter discusses and semiotically analyzes a play, The Box of our Life or The Hair Braid (2000), written and directed by Nora Amin as representative of physical theatre. The performance is acted by Nora Amin and Reem Hegab. It explores the relationship between a mother and her daughter. Abd El-Fattah proceeds to perform a semiotic analysis based on the work of Keir Elam. The analysis focuses on the hair braid as the main sign for oppression. The semiotic analysis focuses on the following techniques: linguistic, paralinguistic, mimic and gestural, proxemic, and musical signs.

The second chapter semiotically analyzes a play, Water Memory (2004), directed by Effat Yehia as representative of scripted theatre not withstanding its avant-garde nature. She focuses on the role of the mother in the lives of her three daughters. The analysis focuses on the linguistic, mimic and gestural, and proxemic signs.

Finally, the third chapter performs a semiotic analysis of a play, Stories from the Harem (2004), by Abeer Ali. The performance makes use of the popular tradition of the samer, or an open-air entertainment gathering. The play’s characters are a female narrator with two male performers and a female performer, in addition to the folk musicians. The play includes eleven folkloric songs and seven stories about the relationship between men and women (198). The analysis focuses on the linguistic, paralinguistic, mimic and gestural, and proxemic signs. Looking at these plays through the semiotic analyses deepens our understanding of the plays and the relationship to their culture and patriarchal ideologies. In addition, such analyses reinforce the writer’s proposition about the contribution of women directors to the development of Egyptian theatre.

In the conclusion, Abd El-Fattah sums up her results and reiterates that earlier assumptions on how women were excluded from the institutionalized theatre experience mainly because of patriarchal ideologies despite that they participated in informal performance events. Then, many women succeeded as theatre managers and directors in the West. In Egypt, women started having an active role in the development of theatre only after the seventies (222). Women specialized in theatre, such as Laila Abou Seif and Leila Saad, emerged during the second half of the twentieth century (223). The nineties witnessed a renaissance of Egyptian women directors who established theatre companies (223) and forged a place for themselves in Egypt and abroad with their innovative techniques that contributed to the development of Egyptian theatre (224). 

To sum up, Hadia Abd El-Fattah in Female Egyptian Directors (1990-2010): A Semiotic Study took the reader in a captivating journey to explore the contribution of women directors in the development of theatre. The book’s strengths include that first it combines in its two parts both documentation of women directors and a semiotic analysis of certain Egyptian plays. Second, the book manages to put together two appendices; one includes the detailed dramatic works and biographical data of the three Egyptian women directors whose plays were semiotically analyzed; and the second includes a list of all Egyptian women directors and their dramatic works during the nineties and following. The list is quite valuable and shows the amount of work the writer put, though it is not clear if the list was organized alphabetically or chronologically. Overall, this is a well-researched documentation and analysis of the works of women directors especially in Egypt and an applauded addition to literature on Arab theatre as well as women in the theatre.

Areeg Ibrahim, Helwan University, Cairo

Areeg Ibrahim is Professor and Chair of the Department of English Language and Literature at the Faculty of Arts in Helwan University, Cairo and was the Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at Effat University, KSA. She has published widely in both Arabic and English on Arabic and international Drama. She is the co-editor of a Routledge volume, Rewriting Narratives in Egyptian Theatre. She has also translated a number of Theatre books for the National Center for Translation.

Arab Stages
Volume 14 (Spring 2023)
©2023 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

Book Reviews Editor: George Potter

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, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian.

Managing Editors: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo

Table of Contents:

“Indigenous Avant-Gardes”: The Shiraz Arts Festival and Ritual Performance Theory in 1970s Iran by Matthew Randle-Bent

Up There by Wael Kadour, Introduction by Edward Ziter

Baba written by Denmo Ibrahim, directed by Hamid Dehghani, reviewed by Suzi Elnaggar

Decolonizing Sarah: A Hurricane Play written and directed by Samer Al-Saber, reviewed by George Potter

Layalina written by Martin Yousif Zebari, directed by Sivan Battat, reviewed by Sami Ismat

Mother Courage adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price, reviewed by Hassan Hajiyah

Playwright Showcase, New Arab American Theater Works, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Review of MUKHRIJĀT AL-MASRAḤ AL-MIṢRĪ (1990-2010): DIRĀSA SĪMIYŪṬĪQĪYAH [Female Egyptian Directors (1990-2010): A Semiotic Study], written by Hadia Abd El-Fattah, reviewed by Areeg Ibrahim

Review of Theaters of Citizenship: Aesthetics and Politics of Avant-Garde Performance in Egypt written by Sonali Pahwa, reviewed by Suzi Elnaggar

Review of Syrian Refugees, Applied Theater, Workshop Facilitation, and Stories: While They Were Waiting written by Fadi Skeiker, reviewed by Sonja Arsham Kuftinec


Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar