In the days and months that have followed the departure of former president Hosni Mubarak, it would be very easy to create a work about the January 25 Revolution in a way which prematurely capitalizes on its nostalgia. Along the fault lines of sustaining political instability, a good deal of current works in progress on the subject of Tahrir Square run the risk of being terribly weak, simplistic or celebratory.
At least this is what I prepared myself for when venturing to downtown’s Rawabet Theater last Thursday to see the “Tahrir Monologues,” a new performance inspired by a collection of personal testimonies gathered from Egyptians on their experiences of the historical 18 days in Tahrir Square.
What I was not prepared for was the sophisticated yet simple stage backdrop which adorned what is the otherwise empty black box of the Rawabet Theater. The play’s set was created from a large series of prints depicting various images from Tahrir, from the face of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders to images of army tanks and protesters with their hands raised in peace signs.
What followed from under these hanging pictures were a series of subtle and well-performed monologues. Just as one member of the large and shifting group of young actors would complete their story, a small unit of others would run across the stage reenacting various moments of Tahrir Square’s everyday rituals: young men holding plastic bags for people to put their garbage inside (comically referred to as donations for Suzanne Mubarak), protesters sardonically offering Kentucky Fried Chicken. In the first segments depicting the early days of the revolution — the play progresses in chronological order — the actors ran the edge of the stage with masks and vinegar kindly distributed among the crowds to offset the effects of tear gas.
The early moments of the play mirrored the early memories of the revolution, illustrating the physical violence inflicted on the protesters; stories of young men, of blood, beatings and bullet wounds. Then followed a scene where a line of helmeted policemen held shields and stood silently as the protesters urged them to see themselves as their brothers. Next was a monologue from a young woman named Sally, performing her own story, of being confused with Sally Zahran, one of the revolution’s martyrs.
Each monologue was admirably brief and powerful, capturing the protesters’ insecurity instead of simply highlighting their courage. Rare to contemporary Egyptian theater, the stories were well edited and performed without a sense of “performance.”
With a brisk pace and strong sense of timing from director Sondos Shabayek, the actors allowed the stories to speak for themselves. In 2007, Shabayek wrote and acted in the American University in Cairo’s “Vagina Monologues”-inspired “The Bussy Project;” and was co-director for the following three years.
The play comes to a close with a subtle yet powerful pair of monologues. The first centers on a conversation between a young Egyptian man and his American colleague. “What are Egyptians good for?” the American asked. “The Japanese are good with electronics, the Americans with business, but what contributions do Egyptians make?”
A man near me in the audience scoffed with upset. The actor within his role was also bemused. On the day that Mubarak stepped down, the American called to apologize.
The answer is that Egyptians weren’t truly searching for a successful uprising. They were searching for the “ness” of “Egyptian;” the Egyptian people, for themselves. He went on to thank Egyptians from all walks of life; "thank you doormen and drivers and thank you Hizb El-Watani (Egypt’s dissolved National Democratic Party) and police (that beat protesters with batons) for helping me to learn that I do not ever need to be afraid." A woman beside me cried softly.
The final monologue was neither cautionary nor celebratory. It was the story of a youth who understood his present task as carrying on the work of all that made those 18 days so particular, so surprisingly profound and successful; it was, in his words, to bring the revolution inside himself.
So what of this risk of prematurely capitalizing on the events of Tahrir Square? In the case of “Tahrir Monologues,” it’s clear that to share stories about those days is not necessarily a capitalization on the revolution. In these unstable weeks where protesters continue to line the square to demand justice, “Tahrir Monologues” provides both a creative and civic function.
The play was performed without subtitles in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, and the large audience was a diverse encounter of Egyptian youth — street children who scurried in without tickets were allowed to stay.
“Tahrir Monologues” shows that if a work of art is done with enough integrity and artistic skill, it can act as a strong reminder of Tahrir Square’s powerful truths. In this way, the essence of theater and people’s revolution combine: in the power of assembly, of gathering in one place to exchange ideas, to reinvigorate political agendas with beauty, to keep up pride and optimism, and to remind people that within this revolution, they are not alone.