The one and the many

David Stanford
6 Min Read

Palestinian writer Maliha Maslamani’s new play, scheduled to be performed at Cairo’s Rawabet Theater next week, is a continuation of her ongoing fascination with the question of identity, an issue she has explored in both prose and play form before.

The one-woman show titled “Monodrama sees Maslamani take on a series of characters in a rolling procession of mimes and Arabic-language monologues, each representing one aspect of a woman’s personality, each fighting for supremacy over its rivals.

“The monodrama is about a woman trying to find herself among the many characters inside her, she told Daily News Egypt after rehearsals earlier this week.

“She’s searching for the best role to take in her life. She’s confused between many roles and identities, political, social, personal. She’s not sure whether to be the lover, the mother, the intellectual, the fighter or nothing at all.

The woman in question is a nominal one, and yet aspects of the playwright’s own background, both personal and political, can be glimpsed among the various roles.

The show opens with Maslamani as a child, standing at a chalk board and practicing her alphabet to a well-known educational rhyme. She calls to an apparently absent father then begins to play a game, acting the part of a wolf creeping around in search of its prey.

Unlike many of the other characters, the child’s monologue is not spoken but written on the chalk board in the child’s own hand. It tells of memories of a loving father, of holding his warm hand on winter walks around Jerusalem or curling up in his lap to sleep. Then of soldiers arriving to take the father away, just as they did with Maslamani’s own father, who still resides in an Israeli prison.

Another of the characters that links quite obviously with Maslamani’s own background in Palestine is that of the fighter, wielding an over-sized catapult as if during an intifada riot. She rattles out her views at high speed, telling of the compulsion to resist, transformed into the compulsion to kill. Later, the character performs a macabre dance to the chant of “blood, blood…

Watching Maslamani in rehearsal is somehow like watching a tornado move across a landscape, flashes of lightning and rolls of thunder followed by destructive winds. Here and there the sunshine peeps through the clouds.

The old woman knits in her rocking chair, anticipating death while recalling her first love and subsequent stale marriage; the pregnant mother puffs her way comically about the stage, declaring her horror at the “really embarrassing events; the intellectual bursts onto the scene and asserts her dominance with the power of psychological theory, backed up by some serious reading.

Indeed, the show might well suffice as a series of disparate characters squabbling to be understood above the din. But what lends the piece an overarching consistency and meaning is the presence of the ‘specter,’ the one personality that is not acted out physically, but appears by way of video projection.

“The specter is the real theme of the play, says Maslamani. “It’s the only unrealistic character, and it moves through the various characters and comments on them. It represents the idea of solving and reconciling all of these identities. It’s like the Sufi idea of transcending your real life; you admit that these problems exist but you find peace with them.

Ultimately, the specter concludes that the problem is not the variety of identities themselves, but the environment that has caused them to come into being in such a chaotic manner.

“It’s our bad times, the war, the social problems and personal problems that combine to create inner conflict. The specter doesn’t say this directly, but she says it’s a bad time to exist and so refuses to manifest physically, says Maslamani.

As the writer points out, the notion of a ghost appearing among living characters is nothing new in the story of drama. Consider, for example, the dead king in Shakespeare’s Hamlet returning to seek justice. But for Maslamani, the specter is more than a borrowed tool.

“The specter is not just a theatrical technique. It’s me, it’s inside me, part of my character, she says.

“It takes us back to the starting point, back to the point before asking: ‘Who am I?’ There is a point before that, when you ask whether to be or not to be. After that, you have to decide exactly who you are going to be.

“If you decide to be a journalist, a doctor, or whatever, this is a decision you take after having decided that you want to exist in the first place.

Catch “Monodrama on Jan. 19 and 20 at Rawabet Theater, 3 Hussein Al-Me’mar Pasha Street, off Mahmoud Bassiouny Street, Downtown, Cairo. Tel. 2576 8086. Tickets LE 15.

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