A conversation with the Egyptian theatre director Laila Soliman about the possibilities and limits of theatre to fight official truths .
Cairo, November 26th, 2011
Two of your recent theatre works deal with the political situation in Egypt: “No time for art” and “Lessons in Revolution”. Both were also presented in Europe. Is there a danger of pieces like that to be commodified as mere representations of the revolution, as exotic?
Yes, that´s what kind of happened with “Lessons in Revolution” – and that´s why we decided to stop the project after some shows. Our aim was to create something that was constantly updateable – depending on the unfolding of events in Egypt. A tool that helps us to investigate and to comment on what is happening, to understand our own role in it and to re-define it. We wanted to create a show that portrayed the images and visions we had. Our idea was to just start with it and then adapt to the circumstances. If you find a poem about the 1967 war with Israel that you identify with, you could add it. If one wanted to refer to the British massacre of 1919 that would be possible as well. It was supposed to give us the flexibility of connecting material from the past with the now. But what happened was that our very different artistic practices, our different political opinions and our different views on the relationship between politics and art created so many conflicts that in the end it was impossible to continue. We created an okay show – but it was not what we had aimed for.
The show involved artists with very different backgrounds: choreographers, dancers, film makers, activists, a clown, an actor, singers, musicians, a slam poet, street artist….
The common denominator was that all were very active in the political events in Cairo. The idea came out of the fact that we were all meeting on Tahrir Square – some were already friends, others only met during the occupation. We experienced a lot of important moments together, happiness, danger, anger, fear. This was the base for the project. But when we worked on it, it turned out to be constantly compromising. No one was completely satisfied with it, neither politically nor artistically.
Seems a bit like a metaphor for the masses on Tahrir Square: It looked like one big crowd, but indeed the visions and believes turned out to be very different.
In the show, that became most visible on October 9th, when peaceful protesters in Maspiro were attacked by the military police and at least 25 people died. This made two of our scenes completely invalid. There was, for example, a monologue about how we would have attacked the army if they had attacked us. Suddenly this was impossible to say, because now they really had attacked us. They killed people completely in cold-blood. For me that was the darkest moment in Egyptian history, something we will always feel ashamed of: It was the moment, when the army ruthlessly killed its own people. But it was also the moment, when the rest of the people did not care about this attack on a minority. We discussed if we should continue the show, Amsterdam was the next stop on our tour. We decided to go on with some changes; but then not everybody was okay with these changes, and it became clear that this was an impossible project. It was an experiment in collaboration, artistically, politically, but it was just too much to handle at this moment in time.
What exactly was it that you wanted to achieve with this work?
There was a moment, when we all realised that the media and the official institutions were rewriting history. How they told the story was not how we experienced it. So it became one of our main priorities to comment on that, to document certain events that were supposed to be forgotten: Like this stain of April 9th, when officers, who had decided to join the people and to stand against the army, were shot on the square. That day is a complete taboo in the media. But there is a responsibility to talk about these things. For us as artists there was a certain feeling of guilt. And the question of usefulness. Of course we were thinking: Is it more necessary to be on the street or is it more necessary to make a play. We wouldn’t have done it, if we hadn’t thought it made sense. The re-writing of the events by the media and the government made many people turn against the protesters. Suddenly their argumentation was: You are not the real January-25th-revolutionaries because they were peaceful, they would have finished their revolution and gone home. So we wanted to do this show mainly for Egypt, also for the Arabic world and Africa. We wanted to say, that this was still going on. And that we still needed to mobilise people.
Your other work, the series “No time for art” about police and military violence had already started before the revolution.
Yes, I wanted to find out what I could do artistically with the methods of documentation. I had the testimony of a friend, an actor, who had been in prison. One day after he came out he wrote down in all detail, what had happened to him during this week, how he was imprisoned and tortured. It read like a super theatrical monologue and it was very shocking, because the people in Egypt still believed in the moral integrity of the army. I got interested in what would happen if I put this testimony together with other ones. So I started this series of documentary performances. Now everybody is speaking about the violence of the military, but this was in March and April 2011: the military censorship was even more active then. But there also was a lot of self-censorship – even by activists and journalists I know. All criticism of the SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was formulated very carefully – and even if the SCAF was criticised, people would always stress that the SCAF was not the army, and that the army is our people. I just did not understand, why everybody was tiptoeing so much around this issue…
… Yes: why?
It was a psychological thing. Already in January soldiers were arresting and torturing people. But they were very discrete and these incidents were mainly related to the police. Gradually more and more people experienced direct violence by the military and started to speak out. Everybody was used to talk about the army with respect – due to the war against Israel and the great history of the military. This was celebrated in a ridiculous way and everybody knew it. But you were brought up with these shallow romantic notions in schoolbooks about our wars and our military. It was everywhere, in the streets, in war films. I generally don’t trust men in uniforms. So I was not cheering when the tanks with the soldiers arrived during the revolution. I did not understand what was going on and was very sceptical. Now when I see the photos of people giving their babies to the soldiers to kiss them – it makes me cry. People were so naïve. It is a complete nightmare – like in a horror film when something sweet and too good to be true turns into a beast.
The title “No time for art” suggests that art is not functioning anymore – and that it might be time for something else.
Well, for me it meant: It is time for art used as a tool. I am at the moment not interested in experimenting for the sake of the process or for ultimate goal of self-expression. Art is a tool. For me the main priority with this project was to spread the information. How to frame these testimonies, not to change them but to get them across. My tools are the tools of the theatre. It might reach less people but it can have a much more piercing, more direct effect than a YouTube video.
The first testimonial you got from a friend. Where did the other material come from?
We mainly got the information from human rights organisations like the initiative “No military trials”. They have the official reports, they also have a very good website in English and they link to other organisations like the El Nadeem Center and Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which have been my absolute heroes for ten years. They were the first to fight the military regime legally, they were the first to file complaints and to help poor people bring their cases against the regime in front of the courts. I got a lot material from them and then worked closely with lawyers, activists, went to press conferences and interviewed people. “No time for art” is a question for me. I don’t know if it is time or not. But there is a necessity to get things known and to talk about them. Maybe the tools of theatre aren’t as good as other tools. But they are the tools I have.
The revolution was followed by a kind of “Arab Spring tourism” – of which we are also a part, I guess. There is big interest in the West to understand what is happening here – that also brings a danger of instrumentalization. But from both sides: You have the need to talk about what is happening in Egypt – and in Europe there is a need to hear about it.
I was awarded the “Willy Brandt Preis” by the SPD, the German Social Democratic Party. It was a very long process for me to decide if I should accept it or not. But I could give a speech there, so I used it to attack this kind of awards and the reasons for which they were given. There is a video on their website, where you can see Gerhard Schröder’s expression when I was criticising their support of the military and Mubarak for so many years. But still I had a feeling I was not really deserving it.
Because there are many others who could have gotten it. But I speak German and English, I am a woman, I am unveiled, I look secular, I am sexy and I am an artist.
So you fulfil a certain image, an useful image. In that regard it was a save choice to give you the price?
Exactly, because they could relate to me. In the end I was not important – there were other reasons to give me this prize. And so I also accepted it for other reasons: I wanted to talk about what was happening in Egypt now and how the violence continues. It was after October 9th, and I wanted to explain why it was such a big deal to me and not a minority problem but that the military killed people. I wanted to tell them that they should change their role in foreign politics, where they support dictators for many years, selling them arms, shaking their hands. That this was now their chance to do something – not by giving prizes to people like me, but by really playing a different role in the region and by supporting the people rather than their investments.
In terms of art works related to the revolution in Cairo we were often confronted with concerns about objectivizing the revolution, of fetishizing it, of exploiting it for individual purposes.
Obviously that is an issue. Especially in “Lessons in revolting” we had a lot of discussions: was it made for Egypt or the Arabic world, or was it made for abroad? If it is for an audience abroad, isn’t it weakening our struggle? Aren’t we using it for other purposes? That’s why we did not want to make a show about these eighteen days. That’s why it was supposed to be updateable, to be used itself – not a wrap-up of something. But this was difficult to communicate: Wherever we sent a promo text explaining that “Lessons in revolting” was not a show about the revolution but a reflexive continuation, they changed it. If we didn’t write Tahrir Square they added it. They didn’t understand what we meant. They thought the revolution was finished and could be put on stage – but for us it was only the beginning.
But is this only bad? If your goal is to rewrite the official history or legitimize other versions of it, you need to reach an audience. Of course there are some buzz words drawing a certain interest.
Yes, but the connotation is already there – everything is already labelled, we don’t need to continue it. We were to find out how to open it up. I don’t need to show certain videos, because you have already seen them! Can’t I just rely on your memory and your associations and continue from there? That’s what we are trying to do: continue from there. Move on.
Interview by Florian Malzacher & Joanna Warsza
Laila Soliman is a theatre director and playwright from Cairo, Egypt. She is mainly interested in an independent, socially and politically aware theatre and also in the role of art as a tool that can empower the individual; e.g. her performance “Lessons in Revolving“ tells and reflects on experiences made on Tahrir Square in Cairo in January 2011 during the demonstrations against the regime. In 2009 she participated in steirischer herbst as dramaturg of Rimini Protokoll´s „Radio Muezzin“, this year she will play an active role in „Truth is Concrete“.