“As citizens, we bring it on ourselves, we censor ourselves. If we change, the censors will change,” said Sondos Shabayek, director of the annual Bussy plays, shortly after the performance concluded with much controversy on Thursday.
Before the performance began, the audience learned that nearly half of the stories constituting the play were omitted by the censors.
This year’s performance featured a piece which I had co-written, revolving around characters discussing marriage in Egypt as a financial obstacle to sexual intercourse, the un-approachability of Egyptian women and their reliance on their parents to make decisions for them.
The founders of the gender awareness group, Bussy, that started at the American University in Cairo in 2006 were inspired by Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” a play chronicling real stories of Western women. The Bussy creators used the “Monologues” template to converse the various gender problems Egyptian women continue to face.
The controversial stories staged by Bussy over the past four years centered on circumcision, rape, pedophilia and sexual harassment; issues that, according to one skit at the performance, are put away by society in a “jewelry box” with all the other secrets.
The stories shed light on common misconceptions, double standards and stereotyping. This year, the performance made an effort to explore gender problems from a male point of view.
My piece was one example. Another one represented an attempt at justifying an act of sexual harassment, by identifying and going after girls in the street or workplace who appear to “want it.”
The performance did not defend or justify the positions of the writers or our characters; it was an acknowledgement that those views, and characters, do exist.
I could not help but feel repulsed as I realized that the works of other authors were being destroyed. Stories like mine, that needed to come out of the “jewelry box” and be put on the table for all to see.
As I watched my performance being acted out on a makeshift stage, with terrible sound and speakers, just outside the Higher Council of Culture, a space managed by the Ministry of Culture, I grew even more agitated about the poor quality of the performance and the cast’s decision to conform to the censor.
Backstage, I saw Egyptian film star Khaled Abol Naga talking to the cast and crew. “The performance was well done,” said Abol Naga, “but the production was poor.” He then offered to produce the play for us.
“I thought it was a very strong and very valid statement, and I felt sad that it was not well produced. I felt a need to properly document it and record it with good audio and picture, for future generations to build on and to give the directors the chance of submitting it to international theater festivals for better exposure,” said Abol Naga.
“I feel this can be an ongoing project for years to come,” he added.
Shabayek then told me the whole story; a struggle which started earlier this year in April, when the Bussy group began searching for a venue to stage the performance outside the AUC campus.
“We wanted to stage the play outside of AUC because we wanted a different audience, other than AUCians, who are mostly aware of the issues [being] raised,” said Shabayek.
Shabayek said that the general public was the main target of the play and holding it at AUC’s new campus in New Cairo would ruin the chances of any “outsiders” attending. The directors ended up producing the play with a budget of LE 5,000 drawn out of their own wallets.
Shabayek said that the poor quality of the production was a natural consequence of the limited funds available, adding that no other venue, or institute, was willing to offer support. One of the main obstacles faced was that all venues required approval from the censors.
This year’s most controversial issues included a story about a girl explaining why she decided to abandon the hijab, in addition to some daring terms and phrases Egyptian stages aren’t accustomed to.
According to Shabayek, on the first day of the performance, the plays were all performed as intended without any meddling. What happened next was both shocking and distressing.
Appalled by the candidacy of the performance, a number of journalists and audience members called for the cancellation of the play, one concern being that the aforementioned piece was anti-religious, advocating against the hijab.
One journalist went as far as inviting the censors to attend the next night’s performance, another called Shabayek to check if the play was cancelled.
Those in charge at the place, who according to Shabayek had received overwhelming media and audience criticism over the performance, were forced to ask the organizers to refrain from staging the more controversial parts.
As the directors had taken a decision not to send some of the scripts to the censors for fear of them being omitted, they could not risk performing these parts unaltered when there was a risk that the whole project would be blacklisted in the future.
Nevertheless, they decided to carry on with the show where censorship took center stage as the actors performed the bits that were censored in pantomime. They ended the performance with all the characters shouting out their stories together on stage.
The performance was shifted from a forum to speak out against a dysfunctional society and medium for gender awareness and equality to a fight for freedom of expression.
The anchor of the performance, who made a repeated appearance in different segments, emerged once again at the end, saying that all the issues hidden away in the “jewelry box” will eventfully come out. “I will speak it” she said, “I will shout it. I will tell it.”
Words echoed in elation by the cast and crew backstage, realizing that their little project still has life in it. “I will tell it,” they shouted.