Theaters of Citizenship Cover
Articles, Current Issue, Reviews, Volume 14

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

Theaters of Citizenship: Aesthetics and Politics of Avant-Garde Performance in Egypt. By Sonali Pahwa. Performance Works. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press, 2020.

Review by Suzi Elnaggar
Independent Scholar and Dramaturg

In a refreshing departure from the conventionally distinct genres of analytical discourse and personal memoirs, scholar Sonali Pahwa artfully interweaves both styles, offering a compelling and immersive picture of Egyptian independent and avant-garde theatre interspersed with personal recollections of shows, conversations, and even atmosphere. These first-hand accounts, alongside her extensive research, yield a rich, multi-layered view of Egyptian avant-garde theatre. They offer readers an intimate glimpse into the experiences of those navigating the complexities of performing and staging Egyptian theatre, especially in envelope-pushing experimental styles, grounding the more theoretical aspects of the text.

In chapter one, Pahwa provides a brief history of Egyptian theatre throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Pahwa maps out the landscape of Egyptian theatre, emphasizing how each era—from the cosmopolitan intellectuals of 1919, through the state-sponsored theatre of the 1950s and beyond—has engaged with the cultural project of performing Egyptian cultural identity through artistic self-representation. This section of the book is particularly helpful in grounding the reader in the political and artistic landscape that brought forth Mubarak-era avant-garde and independent theatre. (Pahwa utilizes various terms throughout the book, whether looking from the scope of time or style.) Further, Pahwa carefully considers both the strengths and weaknesses of the Mubarak era. The author’s discussion of the gender and class politics associated with various theatrical and community movements enriches the understanding of the complex social, political, and cultural dynamics of the theatre movements examined in more depth in the following chapters.

One of the strengths of Pahwa’s approach is that she starts with a larger scope and then narrows in on various aspects of Egyptian theatre in each chapter. She begins by examining the intertwined rise of cultural and political avant-gardes and their effect on independent theatre. The author’s focus on the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) in the 1990s as a showcase for the policy of cultural democracy through performance lays the groundwork for the nature and identity of the theatre movements that followed. Pahwa then narrows her focus to explore specific cultural themes and representations of identity in Egyptian avant-garde theatre, such as the portrayal of disaffected and unsatisfied youth in plays like Messing with the Mind (Al-la’b fi-l-dimagh) and Mother I Want to Be a Millionaire (Mama ana awez aksib al-milyun), as well as the role of women in independent and avant-garde theatre in Egypt. She insightfully discusses the innovative strategies employed by women directors, such as the use of translated texts to subtly explore controversial political points and the integration of “cosmopolitanism, gender conservatism, and avant-garde thought” (93). Pahwa adds complexity to her analysis of Harem Tales (Hikayat al-haramlik) and Details (Tasfail) by underscoring the ways in which female Egyptian theatre makers navigated and challenged traditional cultural and artistic paradigms; for example, in Details, autobiographical storytelling (text and visuals, such as projected photographs) is integrated with contemporary dance, mirroring and building on traditionally feminine performance forms such as belly-dancing. Pahwa states that these female theatre artists, prioritized “perform[ing] a local woman’s world, down to the self-portraits and colloquial Egyptian lines” (77). Through thorough analysis of dramatic texts, Pahwa roots the overviews of changing cultural and artistic movements in the specifics of actual performances.

In the final chapters, Pahwa delves into the transformations in Egyptian theatre following the pivotal September 5 movement and during the seismic 2011 revolution. She examines the rise of theatre workshops not only as platforms for honing personal skills amidst widespread unemployment and societal unrest but also as a means for catalyzing social commentary and political activism. Pahwa’s examination of the post-2011 theatre scene is particularly compelling. After the stepping down of President Mubarak, Pahwa notes a fresh wave of optimism swept across the independent theatre movement, with practitioners viewing the revolution as an ongoing cultural and political task. A burgeoning avant-garde theatre movement reemerged between 2012 and 2014, characterized by popular public performances often staged outdoors and in the street. The shift from authorized spaces to public arenas symbolized this new era of theatre, with projects like “Art Is an Open Square” recreating the revolutionary fervor through diverse performances and artwork. These experimental social theatre productions not only contributed to the evolving dialogue about the future of Egyptian theatre but also articulated the collective hope of theatre makers. As Pahwa notes, “Avant-garde performance initiatives staged hopeful cross-class relations after the revolution, circumventing hardening divides in national politics,” (142). Pahwa’s sentiment encapsulates the enduring spirit of Egyptian theatre and those who make it, highlighting their capacity to navigate and persist through challenging circumstances, while meaningfully contributing to the national conversation on identity and democracy by constructing physical and artistic spaces in which people from all walks of life could actively embody the citizenship for which they hoped.

Pahwa’s Theaters of Citizenship offers a substantial and valuable addition to the discourse on Egyptian theatre. Skillfully navigating through comprehensive historical contexts and nuanced analyses of dramatic texts, the book benefits from the author’s personal insights, adding a distinct perspective to the narrative. However, the scope of the book is not aimed at providing a comprehensive history of Egyptian theatre, which readers should be aware of. Instead, the book zeroes in on a distinct era and types of Egyptian theatre – primarily the Mubarak era and the subsequent rise of the independent theatre movement. This focus might leave those seeking a more expansive history of Egyptian theatre somewhat unsatisfied, but for those intrigued by this specific period, the book is an indispensable resource.

Though some background knowledge of Egyptian history and theatre is necessary to fully grasp the intricate details and complexities of the book, it nonetheless offers valuable perspectives for both scholars and general readers intrigued by these themes. The author’s detailed exploration of specific case studies in chapters 3-6 deserves particular praise, offering readers tangible examples that encapsulate the contemporary state of Egyptian avant-garde theatre. Despite acknowledging the significant challenges confronting the Egyptian theatre community, Pahwa concludes on an optimistic note, emphasizing the unyielding spirit and resilience of Egyptian theatre artists.

Suzi Elnaggar is an Egyptian-American freelance dramaturg, performance scholar, and theatre-maker. She was a 2021 Kennedy Center Dramaturgy Intensive Fellow and works as both a developmental and production dramaturg. She holds a Master of Arts in Theatre Studies from Baylor University, where she researched the work of Heather Raffo through the lens of trauma studies. Her research interests include recontextualizing Greek tragedy,  post-colonial theatre contexts, theatre of social change, and work that centers around SWA/MENA (Southwest Asian/Middle Eastern and North African) experiences. Her scholarship and practice center community, collaboration, and context.

Arab Stages
Volume 14 (Spring 2023)
©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

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