Ahmed El Attar, Egyptian Theatre, and the Belonging of Global Artists within a World of Sociopolitical Frenzy Part II (2017)
By Salma S. Zohdi
As you can read in Part I of this two part interview with Ahmed El Attar, over a year ago, I interviewed Egyptian theatre maker, Ahmed El Attar, as part of my research for my MFA thesis. I went back to Egypt during my annual visit to my hometown, Cairo, and met with Attar to pick the brain of a theatre maker who thrives naturally as an artist in a world that is now new – in terms of socio- political territory – to many theatre makers in America. A world with which he is very familiar.
SZ: Last year, you spoke of Egypt’s closure policy, and how that is detrimental to its cultural development. Now, this “closure” is no longer inclusive to Egypt, and could apply on a global level. In the context of Brexit and Trump’s election, the world seems to be taking that same direction. How do you see theatre making in this environment on a global level? And a local level? And what kind of new opportunities do you see for theatre makers within those new challenges?
ATTAR: At least America chose Trump, whether it's a popular vote or not, that's where their reconciliation and work comes in the works. They did choose him.
SZ: But this seems to be global direction as well
ATTAR: Of course! This is the result of extremely bad economical, social, and political policies for decades and now it’s resurfacing. This is what it came to; the complete hypocrisy of backing up totalitarian regimes all over the world, just for the West's interest. Without them pointing out the totalitarian rule in those parts of the world that they supported. It’s blatant hypocrisy. That said, I think societies on the other hand are in fact a lot more conscious than we think they are, even the ones who are poor, uneducated, and underprivileged. That’s why this is all happening; the terrorism, violence, and hatred towards the West from the Arab world. We might have a high illiteracy rate, but people have an instinct towards detecting what is false and what is not true. There is an instinct towards detecting and recognizing what is unjust.
SZ: Speaking of, you were in France showing The Last Supper with your ensemble when the terrorist attack took place in November 2015. How did this experience have an impact on your interactions there?
ATTAR: A friend of mine, a French playwright, once asked me about the source of that emerging hatred recently. It was on a day after one of the attacks in Europe, not the November attacks though, we were sitting in a cafe and having coffee at a very nice cafe in France, then he asked me: "Why all that hatred?" And I thought about that question long after I left him, and I found that the answer is quite simple. It’s because our society, like other societies around the world, might not understand the very complicated dynamics of politics that govern the world. They might not understand the intricate analysis of the political, economic, multinational stakes, and all these complicated concepts all around the world. They do, however, understand the very basic truth, which is that the West with all its grandeur, and intellectual superiority – for the time being, because every society and every culture has its moment of glory – and with all of our admiration of that, there has been a double standard for the last 50-60 years. The Palestinian issue is one of them, the Serbian war is another, and there are endless examples; even in Rwanda and the civil wars that are happening in Africa. Those are all examples of this double standard. This too happens in the West; the segregation of Arabs is almost a way of life in countries like France; add to that what’s happening to the black communities in America, and what's happening with the poor all over the world. In addition, what's happening in the Arab world, with the West supporting totalitarian regimes, sometimes-extremist regimes, like Saudi - it’s not a regime in anyway that is compatible with any of the human accomplishments we celebrate. Not just the Western way of life, but rather the human accomplishments and values such as freedom and rights. But at the same time, the Western governments keep maintaining that discourse of superiority of the moral and the intellectual. The double standard is obvious, and it's obvious to the very simple people, and that is what creates the hatred, and that’s what creates the anger, that kind of fueled anger that people have in the Arab world towards the West. Because they feel cheated, they feel duped, they feel like they've been taken for granted, or used, or taken for idiot simple minded folks, and that's their reaction. It just shows from what you see now, nothing changes, regimes come they “change,” then we go back to square one. We give weapons to dictators; we support their stability, their so-called "stability," knowing that this is not stability, but rather a very short-term status quo.
Art however, within all these conditions and circumstances, tends to thrive.
SZ: Last years, you told me that when you are wearing the theatre director hat, you don't think of the bigger picture, in regards to socio-political functions of the piece. But, how does that come about when you are approaching these same projects and festivals when wearing the cultural operator hat? Especially now, with all the current circumstances, how does that play as an opportunity for international artistic bridging?
ATTAR: As an artist/director I do think of the bigger things/themes, but they do exist however in the back of my mind. There has to always be a starting point, like in The Last Supper I wanted to address social segregation, the injustice, the class system, and the discrimination. So that was the bigger picture. I don't however come in to every rehearsal thinking about that. For example, in another piece I'm working on for next year, Mama, I am focusing on the role of women in the Arab world, and their own segregation, in creating/upbringing the male that eventually becomes the oppressor, and that vicious cycle of control, the struggle of their control of that young boy who eventually, because of that control, becomes a monster. But again that's the bigger picture, I'm not doing a play about that, I mean I am doing a play about that but it’s not about that per say. It's about much more intricate and subtle interactions between people. Because I look at that as a concept and then there is the translation of it in everyday moments, stories and actions and so on.
As a cultural operator, it is the same thing, I'm not there to discuss policies, it's not my job, it's a job of politicians, intellectuals, political and economic pundits and writers etc. etc., I am there however to try and push trends and boundaries. So for example, in doing [Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival] DCAF, and trying to bring artists from all around the world to Cairo to present new and contemporary works, I think that I am contributing in keeping the door a little bit more open than it "should" be. So with the world shutting its doors, I am putting a foot in, that's what we are doing. We do want the door to be open, but we are not trying to discuss politics & policies.
SZ: Could we say that while not discussing the policies, you are exposing the impact of the policies on people’s day-to-day lives? For example the effect of Female Circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on the lives of the girls that suffered from it.
ATTAR: Yes, but I'm not really into that kind of direct approach. Because that directs us towards a more social theatre – which I have nothing against – I'm just more interested in the role of art, the historical role of art, in the sense that. I believe that when people start to think, when people start to feel, when they start to care; then things become possible. Because this is what it comes down to. Like for example, FGM, it’s based on traditional norms and beliefs, but it's also based on not thinking about those beliefs. It's also based on not questioning, it’s based on following, and these are the concepts and notions behind those actions. That's what I'm interested in, changing those notions, because I believe that when people start questioning these norms and traditions, they start questioning them across the board! They're not just going to select what they question. If they start to face the issues, and start thinking about their conditions, then they will think about other people's conditions. So for me, this is more effective, it’s less evident in terms of measuring results, less obvious, but it's more powerful at the end. When you choose to pinpoint something like FGM, then you shouldn’t make it the main issue; the issue is how the society treats women. With that, you create a level of empathy and a level of understanding; I think these are the bigger issues. This then allows you to cover larger subjects or topics. So when you tackle that, you then are able to tackle so many things simultaneously. Because when you only cover FGM, you almost always fall under the trap of reducing everything to this.
SZ: And not necessarily making it relevant to everyone by making it address a very specific issue.
SZ: How do you see art thriving within this new world? Do you think there is a significant role for theatre within that?
ATTAR: I don't know exactly, but I do know that in times of hardship, people automatically try to find a way out. They try to feel better about things. So for example, this year, we've had the highest attendance to the Falaki theatre, from all the other years. Our increase of audience attendance to DCAF is remarkable. Since we started in 2012, people have been coming and the numbers have been increasing to 10-15% every year, which is an indication. With the economic hardship, and all that's going on, people want to break free. They want to do something different. They want to change their mindsets. They want to watch a movie or see a play. They want to be challenged, and they also want to find answers. Some want to escape, some want to find answers, and some want to forget. Art is there to do all of those things for all those audiences. So, the arts do thrive in those moments. Now, on another level, on the level of the artist, I think in moments like these we are questioning all concepts, because we are. We've already brought down Communism, and I think capitalism is not far behind, if it's not already down and we are trying to resuscitate it because the world is stuck in this economical equation that is extremely complicated and very risky, but we are not far behind. After the 2008 collapse in the world system, it's not a coincidence that revolutions in 2011 happened 3 years later. They happened because of that shock that hit the entire systems of the world, which were like little earthquakes that ripple and spread all around the world. The real benefit of the January 25th revolution in 2011, and all that period that followed it, is that we started to question the social structure of our own families, we started to question the power structure within the family, which is the nucleus of the society, which is the reproduction of the power structure within the country. This even happens now in a place like Saudi Arabia where there is a much stricter regime. That's why regimes are extremely terrified. At the bottom of the revolution, laid the change of that structure. This was the essence of it all, and it's not gone. It's there, it’s growing, and we are already seeing it in manifesting in the younger generations.
That applies on both the micro and macro levels. Whether it’s on the level of Egypt, Tunisia, or even on the world level, we are now questioning larger world concepts. Every time the world re-creates itself with new ideas about everything. So at a time, there was Marxism and capitalism, then they fought, and people followed whomever. But today, today we are in a void; we are in a real intellectual void. We have witnessed, seen, and lived a version of Marxism collapsing. We are now seeing a version of capitalism collapsing, and Trump is somehow the epitome of it all. He is the sign of the end; he's like the Messiah of the end of time. He is the capitalist world's worst nightmare. The guy is . . . well, I'm not going to call him anything. But he is the worst byproduct of the capitalist system. He's not Soros, he's not Buffett, he's not Bill Gates, he's not many other people – regardless of whether we agree with their concepts about the world or not, because they at least attain certain concepts about the world, they have visions, they have developed economically and financially, and tried to impose/push those concepts – Trump has NO concept, no vision. Hence, him being the worst byproduct of Capitalism. He is now the head of the biggest and most powerful nation in the world. This is a crisis, a world crisis. Not just because of the economics and politics, and what he will do with Jerusalem. It's an intellectual crisis. It's a crisis where the world is faced with that void. We have nothing to fill it with. Capitalism is coming to an end, Communism has already failed, and we don't have an alternative.
This is when art steps in, this when Dadaism happens, when all kind of changes happen within the actual essence of artistic presentation, and what we believe about art, in moments like these. In these moments of complete insecurity, instability, and inability to understand the world and really define it, the art starts to reinvent itself. So all of the sudden you'll see this in traditional paintings and representation of works, you'll move into Abstraction and Cubism, etc. etc. It doesn't happen right away, but this is when art steps away from beauty and Romanticism, and you move to art being surreal. Dadaists were completely deconstructing art and the notion of what art is. This however, isn't something that is immediately evident, especially with the fast paced media and social media world; I find it harder to identify today than before.
SZ: With everything being Googled or a fingertip away, we tend to have a lower attention span now.
ATTAR: Exactly, and then you are overloaded with information, and you miss a lot more in the process. Because before you weren't exposed to that much information as you are today. Information was more valuable. There are of course positives and negatives to everything, but I think this is definitely a moment of change. But that's exactly why I'm saying that this is when art thrives. Because art starts asking questions before everyone else. It actually asks them in a different way, and without all the strings attached of politics and economics – which seek results – and artists don't want results. They don't have the desire to fix something, there's nothing to fix, and that's why it becomes more intriguing and human.
SZ: Speaking of the strings attached. I’ll be specific about Egypt for a second; while we are used to things getting censored, it seems that now the military has taken interest in investing in productions and media networks. Do you think that will have a spillover on theatre? Or is their control over the State theatre enough? Or do they not care at all?
ATTAR: Theatre isn't really looked at as a mass media tool. They would want to reach millions of people, and theatre doesn't function like that. I mean it does, but it does so in a longer span of time, it could take up to 10 yrs. How many CATS productions did it take for it to reach millions of audiences? Almost 20 yrs. You can easily achieve that with one TV show. So, theatre really isn't on their radar. Actually, it is, but not in that regard.
SZ: Do you think they might eventually show interest in that, especially with the influence of the underground arts movement on the January 25th revolution?
ATTAR: Not really. And I don't think they are interested in film either. It's actually TV, that inferno machine, which they are utilizing to reach the masses they want to. They can get the message out in 10 minutes to millions in one go. So, of course they will prioritize investing in that. The problem is, again, that these are all shortsighted solutions, because this never saved anyone, and has been proven to fail over and over. It will last 2, 5, 10 years? But it won't last forever. There are core questions that need to be answered and the more they are not ‘answered or addressed, the more they will get amplified. The more they avoid it, and shove down and pretend they don't exist, the more they are not dealt with seriously and honestly, the more they become bigger and bigger and bigger, to the point of blowing up and becoming more of a problem than when they had to be dealt with from the beginning.
SZ: I guess no one's learning.
ATTAR: Human beings don't learn - they hardly learn anything. Or they do learn but then what they learn gets forgotten after a generation or two. And then we start all over again. The world is on a brink of a World War even when we have not yet celebrated 50 years of the last one. That's exactly the time span of humanity's memory.
SZ: Do you have a recollection of a specific A-H-A moment within a rehearsal process?
ATTAR: It's very hard to pinpoint that moment. I've been actually thinking about this recently, but I also try to keep that mystery. I don't want to discover how I end up where I end up at the end of the production. Because, at the end of the day as it evolves in its many elements, it’s about various things I see. That's why I take a long time while working on a new piece, because very different things inspire me, and also I'm inspired by rehearsals, by actors’ discoveries. And I can never put my finger on where or what a certain idea came from or happened. I never ask myself, where did this line come from, or why did I ask this actor to do this? Etc. etc. As much as I would like to know, I also don't want to know . . . completely. I don't want to find out the mystery, in fear of losing it or taking it for granted. I'm afraid if I put my hand on how it really works, then I will know it and then it will not be something so mysterious, and it will be actually me doing it. It will be rehearsed as opposed to organic.
SZ: You'll be very conscious about it.
SZ: Then let's not discover it.
Let's get technical for a second; it’s not easy planning a touring piece, especially with the limited resources that are available here in Egypt to support a tour. That said, your work has a major presence in international festivals all over the world. How do you approach that when you are initiating a project? Let’s take Last Supper for an example
ATTAR: Actually when we did the Last Supper we didn't think it was going to tour because it’s too big. 11 actors and actresses, including two kids, and we were about 18 people on tour. It was at Falaki's main stage at AUC old building, but now that we took it to so many places, we don't perform it in the same big way. That wasn't transportable, these sheets of plexi are 5 meters high, and they can't be either bent or rolled. We don't really think of these things before we start, at the end of the day, this was a big piece that cost too much to produce, I didn't have "touring" at the back of my mind when I started, of course I'd like to tour and I want everyone to see my work, but that's not a premise to my plan. I don't create a piece with the goal of touring in mind. It doesn't work that way for me. For example, I'm doing Before the Revolution with two people, not because I want to tour it, but because I have a concept behind that choice, a specific vision of how I see that piece. Mama however, is much bigger, maybe 11-12 actors, and again not because I want to re-produce the Last Supper, but it’s because this piece has to have this number of people. If it ends up touring, great, but if it doesn't, it’s not a problem because it wasn’t the goal from the get-go.
Wrap-up and UPCOMING PROJECTS
Attar is currently working on three pieces; Before the Revolution is the first in line. It is small in regards to production, requiring only two actors. It's before the revolution; it’s a different premise and a different challenge. Attar has always had a sacred relationship to the texts he develops, and this isn’t different with Before the Revolution - in fact, it may be more sacred, and he is championing the text to the maximum. He described it to be a bare stage, with 2 actors talking, very text heavy, completely still, and not moving an inch for the entirety of the play. 15 minutes. In this new work, he considers the text to be the star of the performance. The characters will be discussing and addressing various things that occurred before the revolution (January 25th, 2011), “it is about everything before the revolution, from the very personal, to the national,” he explains. Before the Revolution is scheduled to be developed by June – early July 2017.
The second piece he is working on is called Being and Arab. It is not a static set piece, as the text itself keeps changing because it’s based on Attar’s telephone conversations. So every time it’ll be performed, the conversations will be new. The text is informed by telephone conversations he actually records with everyone; his father, his wife, his ex, his son, his friends, whatever, depending on the time. He described it to be about his life, so it is based on what's going in his world and those who are in it. It’s a different set of conversations. So it's always up to date in some regard.
The third piece is Mama, an ensemble piece which is “like and unlike the Last Supper,” he says. In the Last Supper the actors were constantly on the stage, but with Mama people will be moving in and out of the stage. It’s more focused on women, on many facets and layers. It will explore a wide range of women relationships; the power dynamics between a mother and her stepdaughter, a little girl and a boy, a son and a father, etc., all from a woman's perspective. The male is intended to play a limited role in this world. In regards to size, it is similar to the Last Supper as it will be requiring a big ensemble and a big set. Attar hopes to finish Mama by the end of 2017.
Mama rehearsals have already started. Attar starts working with his actors without a script; he works first on developing the relationship between his ensemble members, and continues to do so for a few months before venturing into script development.
He mentioned that he will start focusing more on Before, and then he'll pick up Mama after Edinburgh festival in September, and plans to finish it by the end of the year. Before is touring in Europe next fall, and Mama should be touring starting May 2018.
In addition to this, D-CAF 2017 wrapped up in April, and 2-be-continued started the workshop phase in February so that it’ll be presented for work-shopped projects in January 2018.
Ahmed El Attar is an Egyptian independent theatre director and playwright, Ahmed El Attar is the artistic director of D-CAF and Falaki Theatre, as well as the founder and manager of Orient Productions, Temple Independent Theatre Company and Studio Emad Eddin. With several degrees under his belt and having received recognition and awards from institutions worldwide, his work has been performed all over Europe and the Arab region. In 2005 El Attar was chosen by the Arabic edition of Newsweek as one of forty-two personalities who’ve influenced change in the Arab world. In 2010, El Attar received the prize for best theatre text from the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development for his play ‘Life is Beautiful or Waiting for My Uncle From America’. His latest play ‘The Last Supper’ was in the official selection of the 69th edition of the Avignon International Theatre Festival (2015) and the Festival D’Automne in Paris (2015) making it the first Egyptian play ever to be programmed in both festivals.
Salma S. Zohdi is a Dramaturg based in New York City. Until recently, she was the Communications Associate at Theater Communications Group. She is a Columbia University Dramaturgy MFA graduate and a recipient of two international fellowship awards from the American Association for University Women. She also holds a MA in English & Comparative Literature from the American University in Cairo. When she lived in Egypt, she was an Assistant Director in the Egyptian feature film Al Kobar (trans. The Bigshots), she then joined Alumni Community Theatre as their PR & Marketing Manager. She worked as a producer, teaching artist, stage manager, playwright, dramaturg, translator, and assistant director. Highlights from her work in Egypt include: The Marriage Proposal, Jack or the Submission, The Dinosaur Play, ART, Waiting for Godot, and El Gaw Gameel (trans. The Weather is Nice). Her credits at Columbia University include: The Next War, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, UNDROWN’D, and The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Over the summer of 2015, a reading of her original play, Disposable Promises, was staged at Columbia University. In 2016, she got her first off-Broadway credit as the Arabic translator for Classical Stage Company's production of Nathan the Wise. In 2017, she dramaturged an evening of “Arab Classic Plays” at The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center.
HEADSHOT: Ahmed El Attar, Photo by Mostafa Abdel Aty
SECOND: Love's End, DCAF 2017, Falaki Theatre, Cairo, Photo by Mostafa Abdel Aty
BLOG SALON CURATOR
Ruth Margraff is a playwright and writing program chair at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Margraff's plays, poetry and opera works include Anger/Fly; Three Graces; Temptation of the Fresh Voluptuous; Cafe Antarsia Ensemble; Seven; Stadium Devildare; The Cry Pitch Carrolls; The Elektra Fugues; Night Vision; Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon, Voice of the Dragon 1,2,3; Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling; All Those Violent Sweaters; Red Frogs; Night Parachute Battalion; The State of Gristle; Centaur Battle of San Jacinto; Wallpaper Psalm. Her work has been performed at various festivals and venues throughout USA; UK; Canada; Russia; Romania; Serbia; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Greece; Turkey; Slovenia; Czech Republic; Croatia; France; Austria, Sweden; Japan; Egypt; India, Azerbaijan. She is recipient of numerous awards from institutions including Rockefeller Foundation; McKnight Foundation; Jerome Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Theater Communications Group; Fulbright; New York State Council on the Arts; Illinois Arts Council; Arts International; Trust for Mutual Understanding of New York, CultureConnect.