Everyone calls me Layla Al Gamila (Beautiful Layla). I have told no one my secret of Quran Green, actress Dalia El-Guindy announced in the Howard Theater, “but this is not a story about me. This is a story about words.
Layla Al Gamila stands in center stage in a white galabeya and a distinctive green glow coloring her eyes. The story she tells is of her father, a calligrapher who had handwritten several copies of the Quran. The play centers on the wisdom he once passed on to her.
The one-act play “The Calligrapher’s daughter: A Voyage Into Green is written by Shems Friedlander, an award-winning graphic designer, photographer, painter, author, documentary filmmaker and lecturer at the American University in Cairo.
Friedlander’s name is often associated with Sufism. Whether you’ve seen his documentaries, attended his art shows, read one of his books or simply met him; you would immediately understand his passion for religion and his gift in capturing its beauty. Thus, it didn’t come as a surprise that the topic for his second play is closely related to the essence of Islam.
“I need to do things that express the inner meaning of man and the necessity of inner knowledge and where that can lead us, Friedlander told Daily News Egypt.
Friedlander takes note of anything that catches his attention; whether it’s something he reads in a book or hears from a Sheikh. He recently found a note he had taken, that said that in the old days women used to take green paint used in writing diacritical marks in the Quran and use it as kohl for their eyes.
With this passing fact, he created a story of exploration of the esoteric aspect of calligraphy. His lead character Laila guides the audience through history, introducing pioneers of calligraphy.
The script is brought to life by director and set designer Elissa Stankiewicz. She chose to focus on creating an aura rather than simply displaying it on a stage through props.
“I thought why not make the entire space the stage? Laila is telling this story to her calligraphers . so why not make all audience members calligraphers? Stankiewicz said.
The stage is set up like an old ‘madrasa’ (school) where audiences are seated on the floor among some of the performers, working on their calligraphy.
Laila’s vision comes to life through the calligraphers who illustrate her words with their movements, acting out the stories she is telling.
The show is tactically designed to immerse the audience in this otherworldly mood from the beginning. When audiences enter, they’re asked to take their shoes off, and abandon the real world behind. The walls are covered in finished works of calligraphy, as actors sitting among the audience, industriously work on their calligraphy.
Arabic music – composed by Ahmed Salah and performed by Maqam band – along with the magical voice of Amina Khalil added a dream-like sensation to the setting.
The final moment shows the letter “alif’ (the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) glowing in an amazing shade of green. The letter, extensively referred to throughout the play, is the one Friedlander is most fond of.
Halfway through the play, Laila declares:
“From a Sufi sheikh he learned that the alif, which represents the Creator, attaches itself to no letter but all letters can attach themselves to the alif. The alif, dal, mim, the name of Adam, represents man in the position of salat (prayer). From these experiences he learned the hidden meaning of the written word, was taught to appreciate the secrets and beauty of letter form, and taught this to me.
“I thought it was a beautiful story, well written and well staged, says Stancil Campbell, Chair of the Department of Performing and Visual Arts at the American University in Cairo.
“Taking some time before it started and listening to the music so that by the time the play begins, we are all kind of in a meditative mood, ready to listen to the story putting the audience in the very receptive frame of mind, he adds.
Abdullah Schleifer, distinguished professor and senior fellow at the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research, found the play “extraordinary. He remembers years ago introducing Friedlander in a photography exhibition as “a renaissance man, “and again, tonight, we have a demonstration that he is in fact Cairo’s Renaissance man.
The Calligrapher’s DaughterHoward TheaterMain Campus, the American University in Cairo Playing tonight at 8 pmS