x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

New play laments modern Egypt

A new play tackles contemporary issues such as the bread crisis, nepotism and religious fundamentalism.

Actors drink coffee in the opening scene from the play Ahwa Sada.
Actors drink coffee in the opening scene from the play Ahwa Sada.

CAIRO // In the opening scene of one of Egypt's most popular new plays, a group of actors holding relics from Egypt's past - an antique clock, manual coffee grinder, portraits of great deceased artists. Each lays their item on the ground and covers it with sand, symbolically burying it, before returning to their seats on the dark, empty stage, signaling the end of Egypt as the world used to know it.

Another scene highlights the financial and social barriers that young Egyptians face in getting married: a group of young men and women dance and flirt together without any prospect of marriage; the girls grow into lonely old women, tailoring wedding dresses they could never wear; one writes love letters to herself. Ahwa Sada (Unsweetened Coffee), the new play named after the bitter coffee traditionally drunk at funerals in Egypt, has taken Cairo by storm, speaking to the growing angst of Egypt's young at a time of great change and growing frustration. The show, which has seen an extended engagement at the Cairo Opera House's 100-seat Artistic Creativity Centre - explores the many problems faced by modern Egypt's young through a funeral setting that serves as a lament for the country's lost greatness.

"The play is a cry out by the younger generations who reject the present as much as they believe in the Egyptian values they want to retain for their future," said Samir Farid, a prominent theatre critic in Cairo. "The play is showing in a small theatre, but if it had taken place in Cairo Stadium [with 80,000 seats] it would be full for a year." The show opens with 36 young actors and actresses dressed in black, sipping the traditional coffee, mourning Egypt's past, bemoaning the difficult present and fearing for the future. It goes on to riproaring scenes in which male and female colleagues turn up early to their place of work so that the women can breastfeed the men, making fun of a fatwa issued last year condoning the act. The cleric, Ezzat Atteya, said at the time the act was a way to avoid breaking Islamic rules that forbid men and women from being alone together, as in Islamic tradition breastfeeding establishes a degree of maternal relation.

"They are not nostalgic for the past as much as they are searching for the endangered values they need for a better future. This is a big event in Egypt's theatre history," said Farid. The play goes on to tackle such modern day problems as the bread crisis, stifling nepotism in the public and private sectors, the lack of individual freedoms, religious fundamentalism, dire poverty and the waves of young Egyptians risking their lives to illegally immigrate to Europe or elsewhere in search of a better life.

"The success of the show exceeded what we expected, because it's touching people's daily problems and concerns," said Khaled Galal, the show's director. "I'm amazed at how many big intellectuals and artists are attending the show every night." One of the play's scenes contrasts poor Egyptians dying in bread queues with the Businessman's Mosque at Qatameyya Heights (one of Egypt's wealthy gated communities), where one individual complains to God that he had to buy a Jaguar car because the Hummer has become so commonplace. Another simply asks God to make him need something since he already has everything.

Galal's favourite scene deals with the disintegration of family ties in Egypt, telling the story of a man who dies alone without anyone noticing, and is not discovered for 10 days. "'Wow', is all I can say after watching this play," said Menna Ahmed, 25, as she was leaving the theatre. "I'm very impressed that these are the ideas of the actors, which is a reason for hope in itself." But critics maintained that Ahwa Sada has deeper implications for Egyptian society, and the direction of the country's future.

"The play might not be genius or extraordinary, but it has Egypt's spirit and charm," wrote Nabil Omar in Al Ahram, Egypt's biggest and state-owned daily newspaper. "The actors and actresses, whom we see for the first time, take us through quick painful scenes, in a journey to the future, showing us what will happen if fakeness is to prevail not only in arts, but education, preaching, love and work.

"They are not only mourning a glorious past that was replaced by trivial present, but are screaming, trying to awake us with a bittersweet coffee and play." @Email:nmagd@thenational.ae