A recap of “Portraits of Egypt” + an interview with playwright Yussef El Guindi

Batya here.  For those readers who don’t know me, I’m the (first!) Professional Apprentice in Theater Management at Theater J, and was the line producer for the latest “Voices From A Changing Middle East” reading series.  I interned at Theater J in ’07 before going off to college, and I’m thrilled to be back.

A Recap

Theater J closed out its latest “Voices From A Changing Middle East” reading series last Monday, with an evening dubbed Portraits of Egypt.  Such a Beautiful Voice is Sayeda’s and Karima’s City, two one-act plays by Egyptian-American playwright Yussef El Guindi (adapted from short stories by Egyptian feminist Salwa Bakr), were presented.

The readings, directed with understated elegance by our very own Shirley Serotsky, were deeply moving, at once heartbreaking and hilarious.  And the acting was tremendous.  It was a privilege to see Frank Britton, Veronica del Cerro, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Jennifer Mendenhall, and Salma Shaw breathe life into the characters who populate El Guindi’s plays.

After the readings, the audience, led by Artistic Director Ari Roth, engaged in a lively discussion.  We were lucky to hear from a number of audience members with expertise in the areas addressed by the plays.  Their responses were both insightful and impassioned.

An Interview

Literary Intern Emily Edmond, who served as dramaturg for Portraits of Egypt, sent playwright Yussef El Guindi five questions about Such a Beautiful Voice is Sayeda’s and Karima’s City.  El Guindi is not only a masterful playwright, he also responds quickly to email.  What a guy!  Here are Emily’s questions (EE) and Yussef’s (YEG) answers :

1. EE: The notes in the script say that “the forces arrayed against Sayeda and Karima are much more insidious and widespread than a prevailing patriarchy.” What are the other forces imposing on the women, besides patriarchy? Could these plays have worked with men as the protagonists?

YEG: On a macro level, of course, this sense of oppression is experienced by both men and women. Some of it’s particular to Egypt, though a lot of it’s a struggle faced by all people around the world. Especially these days. The sense of being up against it, always, in every endeavor, until that continuos battle begins to wear one down, and insidiously enters the area where one hopes and aspires – with aspirations and hopes then becoming stunted because these daily battles to secure the basics of life seem to be never ending.

 This is why the recent revolutions and upheaval in Egypt and around the Arab world have gained such traction. This was a major revival to the spirit and heart; a hope that the rules of the game might finally change, and those who looked down the road and saw no alternatives to the hardships they faced might now, finally, be in a position to create their own destinies.

But – without straying too far from the question – having said it’s pretty hard for both sexes, women do face a much tougher challenge. When I cautioned in the stage directions to avoid making men the sole villains, it’s because it’s often the case that this patriarchy seeps so deep into the culture that certain oppressive measures become the norm and become upheld by women themselves. But again, I see this in the West too (women are expected to deport themselves in a certain manner, behave a certain way here too). It’s just so much more blatant in other areas around the world. In the Middle East, the oppression of women is engineered via old fashioned terms/ ideas, whether it’s concepts of honor, or in language that’s lifted from religious sources and used to keep people in their place.

2. EE: Who do you see as Karima’s predecessors–fictional or real, Egyptian or non-Egyptian?

YEG: I think Karima is heroic – or slightly out there – because she does what heroes in most stories do.  She challenges the norm, the stagnant status quo. She doesn’t settle. She speaks up. She dares. She’s not afraid to be ostracized for what she believes in.

Of course, these people are admirable in stories. In real life, they can be very annoying – standing on principal when you want them to just relax and go with the flow. Real-life Karima’s often only become admirable in retrospect, not when they’re busy alerting people to what needs to be changed.

And for someone like Sayeda – a quiet hero of another kind – the forces arrayed against her are also the forces that are terrified of change, of seeing people stepping outside their assigned roles. Wives and mothers (and husbands, etc.) are expected to conduct their lives in some prescribed manner- all having to do with self-sacrifice in some way or another. Sayeda dares to want something for herself. Instead of the duties that she is expected to execute daily on behalf of her family, she dares to pay attention to herself, her needs. In a manner that is deemed much too expressive and disrupting. And so the obstacles put in her way are expressed as concern (“this is for your own good”); wanting to make sure she doesn’t make a fool of herself (and bring dishonor to the family). It’s much more crippling when one’s dream is crushed by someone who is “really just thinking of you. What’s good for you.”

3. EE: Did you find it difficult to write the play with a woman’s voice/point of view? How did adaptation play a role in that process?

YEG: Bakr’s stories are so powerful and evocative that I didn’t really have to work that hard in adapting them. And as far as writing from a woman’s point of view, that’s never really been a problem. Maybe because I grew up with two older sisters!

These women appealed to me because they’re both trying to find their voice. As a writer this had special resonance, of course. Both women are struggling to make themselves heard, and that seems to be upsetting the people around them.

I suppose the struggle to find one’s voice – in whatever walk of life – is a universal struggle. And it was these universal themes in the stories that appealed to me.

4. EE: Bakr’s stories were published in 1993, and Karima’s City was first produced in 2003. What has changed in Egypt–for women, for the environment, in the government–since then?

YEG: Well, beginning in 2011 (and December, 2010 for Tunisia) everything. Cynics will say that what will follow these revolutions will be just more of the same in different guises. But I do believe something has been unleashed. There are those who will try to bottle it up again, but I have a feeling they will have an impossible time trying to do so.

As long as the struggle remains a struggle, where people can voice their opinions in a public arena, and via voting, things will be okay. Messy, problematic, uncertain, but okay. As they say, it’s not the first elections that matter, it’s the second and third. As long as those who come into power don’t shut the democracy door behind them – and as long as the people feel as civically responsible as they do now, and will never allow that to happen, I think the messy road to something better will remain open.

The Sayeda’s and the Karima’s in the Middle East are beginning to have their voices heard, finally. (And yes, in spite of the religious parties that are coming to prominence.)

5. EE: Do you notice a connection between environmentalism and human (women’s?) rights? Have you noticed a change in attitudes towards the environment, since the Arab spring?

YEG: Right now, honestly, environmentalism is the last thing on people’s minds. But there are many programs being instituted, especially in the poorer neighborhoods, where recycling (something that was always done, for obvious reasons) and solar power are actively being deployed.