By Tom Dale
“If I Weren’t Egyptian” is a play about a young man who wants to emigrate to Italy, a middle aged German-speaking belly-dancer, a silent old gentleman who has water dripping from his trousers, and a giant robotic orange clownfish.
This critic cannot pretend to have a firm grasp on what happened in the course of the production or why, still less what it was supposed to mean. According to the program notes, the play, directed by Omar Ghayat, concerns the paradox between the aspirations of many young Egyptians to live a better life abroad in Europe, and the high suicide rates there, “especially in Switzerland”.
The surrealist gestures begin here: there are no references to Switzerland in the play, and as far as me and my companion could tell, it is unclear that the young man even makes it to Europe. It is possible that there was a representation of a suicide, but frankly, like everything else in the production, it’s anyone’s guess.
The play, part of the ongoing Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, opens with the young man denouncing Egyptian patriotic sentiment. He quotes a well known aphorism of anti-colonial activist Mustafa Kamil, “if I weren’t an Egyptian, I would have wished to be an Egyptian”. Derisively, he mimics the sort of patriotic phrases which attribute a historically or morally unique status to the nation, blessed by God with the Nile and the fertile delta. Of one of Egypt’s heroes he asks: would he have been any less heroic had he been born elsewhere? This isn’t a critical approach he applies to other national myths, however; he is convinced, for example, that the French and Italians really are particularly cultured, and the Germans and Japanese particularly precise and hard-working.
So — we gather — the guy wants to get out. He sits in a cafe drinking endless cups of tea, and preparing for life in Italy. Unfortunately for the audience, this consists almost solely of repeating the phrase “passporto pronto” scores, perhaps even hundreds of times — over and over again. The litany is only broken by his rendition of the Italian national anthem, and a break to try on an Italian football shirt. Throughout all this, he slowly pulls a string which extends from his seat into the darkness above the stage. It pools at his feat, until the length runs out toward the end of the play. Presumably this represents something. Perhaps the audience reaching the end of its tether?
The Germanic belly-dancer announces that she feels free in Egypt. Ironic, and fair enough; there are plenty of European expats who find something in Cairo, or many other places outside their home continent, which they couldn’t find back home; and that sits oddly with the fact that so many young Egyptians want a green card, or a European visa. The idea is explored further in the form of a joke she tells: A man asks for God’s permission to visit hell, just to see what it’s like. He goes and finds a decadent paradise. He returns, and because he misses it, asks God if he can go back. He doesn’t get permission, but returns anyway — finding this time hell to be full of acrid smoke and torture. Having left again, he asks God why. “The second time you were an immigrant, the first time you were a tourist.”
At one point, there is a sequence (demonstrated through a cinematic projection) involving a plane which crashes into the sea, presumably the Mediterranean, and someone slowly walks across the stage carrying an inflatable orange and white-striped fish. It is unclear who is supposed to be on board the plane. The young man had just indicated that he was going to leave, so perhaps him. The old man? It might explain why he has been asked to stand on the back right of the stage wearing a soaking shirt and trousers for the duration of the performance. The belly-dancer? She later appears wearing a silver cape of the sort given to accident victims. The clownfish? I have no idea.
Time passes, and there is a belly dance sequence. The giant clownfish makes its way across the stage again. But this time, the fish has no need of a human escort: the helium-filled construction propels itself, at head height, by means of an animatronic tail which flaps back and forth. This is probably the best bit of the play: I have never seen a remote control ballon shaped like a fish before.
This is a play heroic in its baffling absurdity and lack of concession even to the norms of absurdism. Absurdist plays don’t try to have a message; this one tried to communicate something, it just didn’t. Throughout, all the characters are thoroughly unsympathetic, with possible exception of the fish robot, which at one point was locked in a bitter struggle to free itself from the rope which fell to our aspirant émigré’s chair, and continue to the other side of the stage. As I glanced vainly toward the theater exit, I knew how it felt.
Several professional photographers snapped away noisily throughout the show. This may have been an attempt to preserve the imagery of the play for posterity on the grounds that it will almost certainly never be performed again. Or it may have been an allegory on the annoying prevalence, for Egyptians, of photojournalists in central Cairo. Who knows.
There is also a sub-plot involving a man with lots of megaphones which play dissonant notes repeatedly. Presumably this is supposed to be irritating and jarring: on that level, it is a success.
The play is, apparently, an attempt to address serious issues. Suicide does expose the anomic underbelly of Western society, and mass migration to Europe says something about aspirations in the countries from which émigrés come which sits uneasily with that. But this play doesn’t help make these things more intelligible or human. It is just confusing.