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Theater to the people: Al-Warsha’s unusual venues

No song better depicts the struggle for Cairo’s streets than Salah Jahin’s "Al-Sharaa Lemin?" (For Whom are These Streets?).

“These streets are ours, and ours only, and as for these others, they are not of us,” goes the chorus.  For Cairo’s protesters, these “others” are the black-uniformed amn markazy, the central security officers that contain demonstrations.

These thoughts must have plagued Dina El Wedidi when she was asked to perform at an amn markazy camp in Al-Gabal Al-Ahmar as part of a Ministry of Culture-sponsored initiative to “take theater to the people.” A singer and actor in Al-Warsha theater troupe, Wedidi is also an activist for whom the amn markazy represent the ultimate barrier to change. “I hate them, and will never accept them. I couldn’t stand the idea that I had to do this,” she said.

But the performance changed her mind. “I stood there looking back at them, the atmosphere about us charged with an incredible energy, and I thought, if this is what it means to be an artist, I will sing until I die.”

Al-Warsha, one of Egypt’s first independent theater troupes, was established in 1987. It consists of singers, storytellers, orators, and stick fighters, both born-and-raised Upper Egyptians and AUC drama graduates. Al-Warsha draws upon traditions researched all over Egypt in their places of origin. To co-founder Hassan al-Geretly, Egypt’s unified soul is in its stories.

“My aim has always been to see different members of our fragmented society together on stage. For it is during such performances that the barriers between us melt, even if the differences remain. The effect is momentary, even fleeting, but still, it changes us,” said al-Geretly.

The night in Al-Gabal Al-Ahmar began with a composed audience of officials and soldiers. As the performance went on, and particularly during the epic "Abu Zeid Al-Hilaley" (an Upper Egyptian "Iliad" in song), the soldiers grew more animated, some emerging from their barracks to watch.

“It wasn’t long before a talented soldier asked if he could join us on stage, and the auditorium exploded with his and their energy,” recalled al-Weididi. Al-Warsha’s performance reminded the soldiers, many of whom were from Upper Egypt, of home.

Another recent, unconventional venue for Al-Warsha was Al-Qanater women’s prison. This experience was more structured, preceded by hours of speeches, with Al-Warsha feeling “as though we were a small performance within a larger one,” according to Marwa Seoudi, projects coordinator. Prisoners and their children sat to the side of the officials, five meters from the stage. “We had a small slot to perform in, and we tried to move off the stage so we could be closer to the audience for a more intimate experience.”

The women were most taken with the performance of "Yanna Yammak"  (It’s Either Me or Your Mother), an adaptation of two songs from the 1920s depicting a face-off between a married couple. Two actors start sitting on chairs with their backs to one other. As the story goes on, the wife’s complaints match the husband’s anger and the actors climb onto the chairs, taking the dialgoue to a comical peak.

According to Naguib al-Goueily, writer and co-founder of Al-Warsha, the work in prisons is intended to inspire hope. “We live in a world that continually develops its means of punishment and where, though God forgives most sins, society barely forgives a sinner, especially a prisoner,” he said. Through theater, a prisoner can accept his or herself. They can imagine a different life. And that night, so could the performers.  

Seoudi said, “As we walked in, all our stereotypes of criminals and prisoners played in our heads. But we were surprised at how simple and friendly people seemed.” The women talked about their daily lives and hopes for the future. “I asked the least sensitive question I could think of: How long had [a prisoner] been there. ‘Thirteen years,’ a woman replied matter-of-factly," related Seoudi. The woman then led the group to look at some handwoven carpets. “As she walked away, I sat down to let the weight of each of those years register.”

The success of these events was two-fold. By taking art to the people, the performers contemplated their own stereotypes and preconceptions. They found themselves impressed by the audience. “There is nothing more difficult than performing before a captive audience,” said al-Geretly, talking about the self-consciously rapt Cairo elite. The irony of finding a more open environment in front of an audience which is literally captive was not lost on him.

For both artist and audience this was a moment of freedom.

Another such moment came days later as al-Geretly walked along al-Qasr al-Eini, a wide boulevard in the heart of Cairo that is known for its government institutions, the amn markazy that protect them, and regular strikes and protests.

When an amn markazy approached al-Geretly, he expected the guard to restrict his progress. Instead, he was told, “Afarem!” (a word for “bravo” used mostly by Upper Egyptians). The amn markazy had attended Al-Warsha’s performance. “There are 40 of us on duty here, do come and visit,” exclaimed the guard, before running off.

Al-Warsha’s work had changed the dynamic of the street. “Something happened,” recalled Hassan. “And you can’t turn back the clock.”

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