One wonders whether it s more fitting to marvel or feel agitated at the striking relevance of the greatest literary and theatrical treasures of the 60s and 70s, which relied heavily on confrontational political themes or subtext.
There are more than passing similarities between the works of that era – from the likes of Yusuf Idris, Naguib Mahfouz, Naguib Surur – and works produced today. Corruption, a constant state of confusion, autocracy, lack of transparency and violation of the rights of the average citizen are issues that still exist in the current political and social arena.
Among the most controversial playwrights of the 60s is Mikhael Roman. Born in 1920, Roman worked as a journalist and a literature critic prior to embarking on his writing career. Between 1961 and 1971, he managed to produce more than 14 plays, some of which are considered among the greatest Egyptian plays of the 20th century.
The contentious nature of his plays created a rift with the censors. His play El Hesar (The Siege), for example, was discontinued in 1965 after only one performance, while El Moaar Wal Ma goor (The Lent and the Rented) was scrapped during rehearsals. Lilet Masraa Guevara (The Night of Guevara s Assassination) is his most acclaimed play.
His last play was published in 1986, 13 years after his death. Isis Habibty (Isis, My Love) is currently being revived on the stages of the American University in Cairo theater.
Isis opens with Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim Hafez s romantic classic Ahwak (I Love You) echoing from the corners of the small stage. Hafez s gentle murmurs fade in to a young woman singing as she ponders the meaning of the lyrics.
The woman is Gamalat (Amina Khalil), a starry-eyed young wife dreaming of legendary romance and the perfect kiss. Her husband, Hamdy (Hany Samy), is an idealistic petit-bourgeois aspiring to break his daily routine by attempting to commit a mutinous, heroic act.
The two engage in flirtatious, affectionate conversation, which gives the impression that their scheme might not be more than just a game to entice the heat of their marriage.
In one irrational incident, Hamdy refuses to follow the rules of his superiors – who are simply referred to as them – and the gates of hell open wide on the helpless government employee.
On a second storyline that will eventually converge with the first, Farida (Nagwa El Saadany) is a married belly dancer and an aspiring actress. She is having an affair with Ali (Ahmed Omar), a crooked, insecure high-ranking police official. Ali is unable to establish a healthy relationship with anyone due to the overwhelming sense of doubt and uncertainty his job has instilled in him.
Hamdy and Farida are two sides of the same coin. At one point, they both assume that they are capable of penetrating the cold, unrelenting shell of the dominating authority. They are looking to instigate a change without harming themselves or their loved ones. Hamdy continuously cites the gallant resistance of Ahmed Orabi against Khedive Tawfiq and the British invasion in his blazing speeches. Ultimately, he realizes that the age of heroes is gone.
Ali, the most intriguing character in the play, embodies the conventional notion of the blindly cruel, immoral police official. Gradually, his cruelty intensifies as justifies his actions both to himself and his victims. We get a brief flash of his moral uncertainty, and slight vulnerability, during his intimate dialogues with Farida, who tries to persuade him to elope and leave his world behind.
The stage where the play is performed is barren. Few props and accessories are used and the production, overall, is not as elaborate as some of AUC’s major productions. However, this is what the nature of the play and its characters demands – an eye-catching set would ve been distracting.
The only flaw in the production is the accompanying music. Employing western 70s rock melodies was totally off-point and in discordance with the setting, mood and texture of Roman s story.
All of the performances are notable, but not revelatory. Samy is flawless as Hamdy, a man torn between leading a peaceful existence maintained by ethical compromises and a strong desire to act like the man he s always wanted to be. Samy s performance is strong, but his character is quite standard and there s little freshness to it.
El Saadany, in her theatrical debut, is the most accomplished among the bunch, interjecting the stereotypical belly dancer cloak with moments of pure honesty and naturalism.
Omar s performance is the enigma of the play. His character is complex and demanding, and Omar nails it at several distant intervals. The concealed perplexity and external calm of his character is one of the most memorable moments of the play even though his feigned accent is difficult to disregard.
His stoic face and failure in capturing Ali s conflicting emotions reduces the powerful impact his character could have had.
Isis Habibty is a story about a basic, embedded fear and hatred for Egyptian authority. The fear of being dragged in the middle of the night, escorted to no man’s land and disappearing for failing to comply or uttering the wrong words. The 70s play was updated to suit the circumstances of our present day without, unfortunately, losing any of its relevancy or effect.
Catch Isis Habibty tonight, 8 pm, at the AUC s Falaki Studio Theater until Nov. 3. Box office is open from 2-10 pm. For more information, please call (02) 2797 6372 or (02) 2797 6935