By Chitra Kalyani
Phillipe Vincent pinches bits of air around the table when describing his play to Daily News Egypt. Despite what the title suggests, “An Arab in My Mirror” does not provide a reflection of one community in another, but rather several impressions of characters in both worlds.
“The present is an air pocket,” said the director. The play aims “just to have a little light” on the complex relationship between the West and the Arab world.
The characters in “An Arab in My Mirror” provide Arab and Western points of view of the past 50 years in an impressionistic form. Over a dozen texts were penned by Libyan-French Riad Gahmi and the French Phillipe Vincent and translated into Arabic by Gahmi.
The project initially began as a play called “Black Box” that would echo voices in the wake of September 11. Yet the Arab spring took over those plans, said Vincent, “the world had changed at this moment.” It created an even more complex kaleidoscope, even more difficult to encompass.
In the dimmed lights and sparse setting of the Rawabet on Sunday night, you find the sole figure of Riad Gahmi singing out Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year.” When he reaches the age of 35, he stops and Egyptian actress Solafa Ghanem steps in from the dark. Further from being an enactment of the text, the play is a dance, where the performance adds yet another layer of meaning.
One text dramatizes the thoughts of a stewardess Betty Ong in the 9/11 flight. A water bottle is swayed on screen as a pendulum to indicate the passage of time, and is as menacing as the sword of death hanging over the passengers. Actress Florence Girardon remains silent, while her thoughts and voice are embodied by Gahmi, who holds a hand to her head, and leads her through the aisle, as their monologue is disturbed constantly by a passenger requesting a whiskey.
The following monologue juxtaposes an almost identical movement yet the voice has changed. Ghanem plays the terrorist who is to bring the flight down.
“The point in not to justify terrorism but to explain it; why it is like this,” Gahmi told DNE.
The text alludes equally to the destruction of the Buddha in Afghanistan as it does to the burning of the Quran. “No one is innocent,” said Ghanem.
“She calls it an ‘accident,’” Vincent points out, noting the word Ghanem uses as she speaks of the Lara Logan incident.
“We needed Solafa because we speak mostly in French. We are in her country to make a play with her and we need her. It is interesting to have our point of view through her,” said Vincent.
The Lara Logan ‘accident’ is seen through two points of view. The first of an imaginary harasser, a police officer. Ghanem takes on his uncouth mien and perspective onstage. “I want my piece of the celebration. I will take it,” goes the performance in Arabic.
The speaker points to “these dogs of international journalism licking their lips, happy, like at their own celebrations. This blonde from CBS posing with one man after another…I also want to pose — pose in front of the camera with my arm against her waist because my hand is attached to her ass. We’ll see well whether she smiles again.”
In the following monologue, you hear a radio voice of Lara Logan that grows increasingly robotic. Flags are folded ceremoniously and opened up again, used as a rug mimicking the prayer ritual. One dancer has increased bouts of spasms as the speech progresses.
Some monologues give voice to material and ethereal matter, such as the right shoe of Muntadhar Al-Zaidi, the Boeing 767, laughter and sobs, and Tahrir Square.
Props too add to the array of impressions: passports and money are exchanged. Anne Ferret’s character offers the French constitution like a donation which Ghanem refuses. Chairs are shifted around, a bottle of water threateningly circles around characters, shoes abound, water is sprayed from a bucket mimicking the streets of Cairo.
All props are thrown into the background by the other actors while Ghanem continues, “I am in Tahrir Square. I’m Solafa Ghanem. I have hope.” Toy bicycles ride on one side in the background to be met by toy soldiers shooting from rifles on the other.
The program officially announces that they “cannot do a performance on the Egyptian revolution. The first act of the performance has already taken place on the main stage of Tahrir Square.” Yet in the moment of chaos, as the stage is strewn with odds and ends, flags and shoes, ‘toy people’ from two sides, bikes versus guns, and an impassioned Ghanem speaking, the chaos and courage of Tahrir could never have been recalled as eloquently.
Yet, true to what Vincent says, the play should only be understood as an attempt at understanding the other.
“We can’t change the world, and I can’t be more intelligent about the [Arab-French] problem. I can just show what I see,” says Vincent.
“I still feel cynical,” says co-director Girardon about being in two different worlds. “I don’t feel very comfortable in my French position here, and my position as a woman.”
Gahmi would agree, despite his half-Libyan heritage. “I cannot speak from an Arab point of view. It was my main purpose to come and work here, but I’m French before all. I am raised French, I speak French, and I think in French.”
“I believe it is now time for art in Egypt,” Vincent nevertheless offers, disagreeing with the (albeit ironic) title of another play.
“An Arab in My Mirror” will travel to Castillo in New York in September and will also later be performed in French with American and French actresses respectively to replace Ghanem’s character.