‘There is no other country that possesses so many wonders…’
Herodotus, The Histories (II.35)
It was my first exorcism. I sat, slightly terrified of what was to come, as the women of the Mazaher began to play, slowly introducing us to the unique and ancient sounds of the Zar, a purgative healing ritual in which women play a leading role. The Mazaher is a rare ensemble group who play poly-rhythmic music inspired by different styles of Zar. Zar exist all over the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Yemen, Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia, but this group practices Zar influenced by the Sudanese and Nubian traditions. This ancient purification rite compels the participants to purge evil spirits, reach an altered state of consciousness, and ultimately harmonize their inner lives. A formidable woman, the kudeyit (the leader), enters carrying incense. She solemnly blesses the space with her presence and richly toned voice. The musicians are seated. The drums begin, strident and welcoming and deafening. An old man with an enormous belly straps on a wide belt made of seed pods and starts to wiggle. His vigorous wiggling produces the most extraordinary clicking sound which when mixed with the tamboura, a harp-like string instrument, and the multitude of drums starts to stir me. I find it hard to sit still, my foot begins to vibrate of its own accord. The kudeyit embarks on a solo which I can only imagine – since I don’t understand the words – is a song of torturous unrequited love. She smiles broadly, she laughs, she beckons. To me. I cannot avoid her outstretched hand and I am led to the stage to dance with her. Soon most of the audience, including our company, has been personally invited to dance. The drums become more insistent. We become drenched in sweat as we close our eyes and are compelled by the music to turn and spin and shake and spasm. The pace quickens, most of the musicians are now dancing with us driving the music faster and faster. I feel the beating of my heart altering and taking on the rhythm of the drums. At any moment, it might burst, but I can’t stop moving. Just when I can’t physically stay within the bounds of my own body, the music stops abruptly. I, like many others in the small stuffy room, feel like fainting. We sit down exhausted and I am shocked that I can think of nothing and feel that something, I can’t tell what but it was heavy, has left me.
It was our third day in Egypt and already we were overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Cairo. But it was this Zar experience which was to mark the beginning of a two month residency collaborating with Egyptian musicians and theatre artists to create a unique fusion of styles and approaches, and ultimately a version of Calderón de la Barca’s play, The Constant Prince. It is rare to be given an opportunity to tour a play to a Muslim country, especially a play about the clash of Islam and Christianity during the Crusades, written by a Spanish playwright living in the seventeenth century. So, as we embarked on our Cairene adventure, we knew there would be language barriers, cultural misconceptions, sensitivity and censorship issues, and challenges posed by being foreigners, but the mystique and legends of the historic city preceded us and we could not resist.
They look at the feet first. Triangle-shaped, barely covered by the thin strap of a flip-flop. They stop, fascinated by my bare feet. They stare, shake their heads and continue through the dust to their destinations. It’s 40 degrees Celsius and I’ve attempted to acclimate myself to the Cairo heat by wearing linen trousers and a linen shirt which covers my arms past the wrist. I can barely breathe for the humidity, but my feet, at least, feel cool. I’m rushing because I’m late for my meeting at the Sawy Culture Wheel, where we perform The Constant Prince in two weeks. The theatre is only a ten-minute walk from where we live, on the other side of Zamalek (an island in the middle of the Nile), but today I seem to be walking backwards. Even after five weeks of living and working in Cairo, I still struggle with the staring, always staring – not lecherous or critical – just staring: old men, young boys, businessmen, street-sweepers, guards....
Perhaps it is because I look like I could be Egyptian, but there’s something not quite right in the minds of the locals. They stop to think what it might be and indicate with their eyes that it’s my uncovered feet. One might think that it was my uncovered head, but there are a refreshing variety of veil options here. You walk down the Corniche of the Nile on any evening and you can see coverings ranging from the bright multi-level head-scarves to the all black scarves which cover the forehead and ears to the hijab worn mostly by Saudi or Bedoin women which veils the whole face except the eyes, continues over the shoulders, shielding the arms and hands from curious eyes. Common as well is the full-cover burqa which keeps every part of a woman’s identity hidden, a crepe net covers the eyes, black gloves cover delicate hands. (Last night we were eating in our regular haunt, El-Sid, an Egyptian restaurant off 26th July Street. Three women wearing burqas sat near us and I wondered how they would negotiate eating or drinking. They did neither, but sat in animated conversation for several hours, their mango juices ordered but left untouched, leaving me baffled, unable to determine in my nosy state who was speaking and when). The only sign of individuality is the shoes. Expensive, brightly coloured, high heeled, gemmed shoes. The staring suddenly begins to make sense. I’m basically naked and clearly without any personality at all, wearing a cheap sports sandal with straps which barely cover my feet.
I finally make it to the entrance of the theatre. As I pass through the crowd of men lining up for prayer in the Mosque next door, I rehearse my pitch: Calderón de la Barca, one of the greatest playwrights of the Spanish Golden Age, premiered his play The Constant Prince in 1629. The play focuses on the quarrel between the Portuguese Prince Fernando and the Moroccan King of Fez during the Crusades over the city of Ceuta, or Sebta as the Moroccans called it. Of course Calderón meant to glorify the Christian kingdom and emphasise its supremacy over Islam, but during these fraught times of war in Iraq and continuing conflicts in Israel/Palestine, we’ve adapted the original to expose the personal and political damage that occurs when two monolithic forces, led by strong religious convictions, refuse to compromise. The very nature of the company – with its members from Egypt, Britain, France, Hong Kong, Austria, Canada, and the United States, all coming from different cultural and artistic backgrounds including classical drama, storytelling and opera, contemporary and Middle Eastern dance – defies the divisions of religion and culture…
Just as I’m about to enter the door of the theatre, confident with my pitch, my mobile rings. I’m told that we can’t open at the Genaina Theatre in the Al-Azhar park (created recently by the Agha Khan who transformed a massive rubbish heap into a magnificent green area for the local residents, some of the poorest in Cairo) on the 7th of September. Why? I ask, worried. Apparently President Mubarak has made the theatre his campaign headquarters and intends to make his acceptance speech from the very stage we had intended to perform on, says the voice on the other end. The Mubarak campaign was gaining momentum (election day was indeed the 7th), but it was the first time during his long rule that any opposition candidates were allowed to join the ballot. Protests were expected and we are advised to cancel. Yes, of course, we’ll cancel, we’re cancelled. The administrator of the Sawy Theatre greets me, beckons me through the door, saying: “Are you Egyptian? No? You look Egyptian…”
After my meeting during which I enthusiastically declaimed how honoured we were to open our tour at the Sawy Culture Wheel (named after a pleasant and ever-present Mr El-Sawy whose name incidentally means ‘wheel’ in Arabic), I roared home. Actually, I made it about five metres in the heat and slowed down to a vigorous worried walk, ready to break the news to the rest of the company. I rounded the corner to our street, Salah El Din, and in front of the Polish Embassy I was confronted with a moment of Hollywood proportions. An Embassy guard was preparing for prayer and in the process of removing his gear bobbled his weapon which was pointed directly at me, his hand on the trigger. I froze. He froze. In that moment, I thought this could really be the end: Avery Willis, theatre producer, killed (or wounded) by accident on that very spot in a street located on the corner of Poland, Canada (an Embassy painted, may I add, in electric pink), North Korea and Libya. I imagined the newspaper headlines and thought of diplomatic rows and why wasn’t the American or British Embassy on Zamalek and how fast could the Ambassador get here to rescue me, and what would happen to the production without me… I flashback to our scouting trip to El-Minya, seven hours south of Cairo (and considered by Lonely Planet to be the most dangerous place in Egypt, certainly not recommended for foreign travel), through the desert with a military escort, a truck of armed men in front and behind and an armed soldier in the back of the Jeep who in fact was very round and sweaty and jolly; he made jokes for several hours which we – an American, a Canadian, a Frenchman and a Brit – could not understand, but couldn’t help laughing nervously anyway. I felt scared then, especially when, twenty minutes after leaving the guards, the Jeep broke down in the middle of the desert, overheated… But this was a different kind of fear. The guard froze, luckily for a split second only. He recovered his falling semi-automatic with a look of relief that matched my own. But just as I began to recover my breath and move towards our house, the guard stared at my feet.
Ragab’s hands beat solidly on his douf drum in a slow steady rhythm. He walks solemnly through the space, capturing the immediate attention of the audience. He is dressed in traditional Egyptian musician’s garb (a long gellabeya with a multi-coloured mantle), his presence seems to make the space holy. Silence prevails. Off-stage, the wispy reed-like sound of the arghoul, a nearly extinct Pharaonic wind instrument. Amin, likely to be the last man on earth to play the instrument, enters and the play has begun. The stage is bare except for a straw coloured mat the set designer uncovered down one of the narrow alleys of the famous souq, Khan al-Khahili. Four arches of varying heights and shapes linger in the back of the stage, casting the shadows of a warped skyline onto the back wall and the stage in front. As Ragab and Amin come together in a harmonious duet, three figures enter through the shadows and a storyteller (an Egyptian actor who will later play Don Enrique, brother of Fernando, the Portuguese Prince) sings a tale in Arabic. The play proceeds through a myriad of images and rhythms accompanied by the ephemeral sounds of Ragab and Amin’s instruments: the King of Fez and his court decked in royal purples and reds; his daughter, Princess Phenix, plagued by nightmares and lost love; Don Juan of Portugal’s mesmerizing dance embodying the ebb and tide of a battle; the surrender of Fernando to the King of Fez; Enrique announcing the death of their brother and a ransom for Fernando; the King refusing to release the Prince without his unconditional surrender of Sebta; Fernando, refusing to give up that same city (the one he calls Ceuta) being tortured by unseen tormenters in a dance of death; and a lasting pitiful image, Enrique mourning over Fernando, a man who drove himself into nothingness because he would not compromise. Two stubborn monarchs, led by devotion to their God, struggle over an insignificant city where their two nations had dwelled for so long a time together. In a message poignant for our own age, Enrique pleads for peace over the dead body of his brother: ‘For every Church there is a Mosque. For every rampart, there is another. Standard bearers stand arm to arm, little children are fighting children. Ceuta is Sebta and Sebta is Ceuta.’ The play ends, Ragab plays his last beat and Amin his last note and there is silence.
Afterwards, a young Egyptian student accosted our director and, though he enjoyed the show, he said he disagreed with its message entirely. He had assumed we were taking an Orientalist approach. This was outdated and offensive to him and he felt the need to argue against the play for this reason. Alexander argued that in fact we were criticising Orientalism and showing that given the very nature of our company of international members (including an Egyptian), each from a different ethnic and cultural background, a new understanding could be reached, reached in ways that international diplomacy could not hope to achieve, reached through art and music and theatre. The production, and its audience, was living proof of this possibility. An energetic argument ensued and continued far into the night in the local al-mat’am and although there seemed to be no end, no compromise, there was at least open engaged conversation.
Avery Willis recently completed her DPhil in Classics at Balliol College. She is currently working as a theatre producer in London.