Can a story save a life? Women and the Arab uprisings

As Tahrir Square fills up again and the Arab uprisings continue, the power of words and the battle over who owns them is captured by six middle eastern playwrights whose work Arab Nights is being performed in London

Rahila Gupta
27 November 2012

The dust has not settled in the middle east. Even as I write this, the apparent entrenchment of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, newly aglow in Western approval of Morsi’s handling of the Israel/Gaza conflagration, is being challenged by popular protests up and down Egypt. Yet there is a deep seated human need to try and make sense of fast moving events even as they are swirling around us, even though you need the distance of time and, sometimes, place to put things into perspective. There have been so many stabs at understanding that a conference took place in early 2012 in Cairo to explore the narratives of the Arab Spring, ‘from academic analysis and theorising, to personal testimonies, documentation of events, oral stories of activists, chants, songs, videos, graffiti and films.’

Female actor on stage

Arab Nights. Photo: Richard Davenport

Here, in London, a group of six playwrights from across the Middle-East, brought together by Poppy Burton-Morgan of Metta Theatre, sets out to do the same in Arab Nights, currently on at the Soho theatre.  In The Lady of Damascus, the last play in the collection, Rana is writing a play about the uprisings even as they’re taking place. The director, Poppy, has used 1001 Arabian Nights to frame the six plays. ‘Using an existing framework of tales, and very fantastical and magical tales, has also allowed the writers to create hugely imaginative responses that really play with metaphor and symbolism in a much more original and inventive way than what we often think of as “Political” theatre.’

Two actors performing with a goat puppet

The Tale of Sinbad and the oldGoat. Photo: Richard DavenportThe opening play, The Tale of Sindbad and the Old Goat, by Hassan Abdulrazzak depicts with black humour and magical puppetry how the revolutionary moment has been seized and soured by Islamist forces. The Old Goat, whose political credibility rests on his exile from a country ruled by a dictator, returns on the dictator’s downfall, but turns out to be almost worse. ‘The first thing I’ll do when I get back is scrap the constitution. And replace it with Allah’s sharia law,’ says the Old Goat with his legs wrapped around Sindbad’s neck in a vice like grip. The play is amazingly prescient in that on Thursday 22nd November, Morsi issued a decree which prevents ‘any individual, or political or governmental body’ from challenging his decrees, declarations or laws. Nor can any court dissolve the constituent assembly which is drawing up the constitution.

And so, Tahrir Square is beginning to fill up again. The Muslim Brotherhood may not be as comfortable as it looked, only recently. Whether the forces of real revolution still have a chance to grab the momentum is once again open to question. Western support for Morsi suggests that these forces will be crushed. For all the West’s avowed championing of women’s rights which was their ideological cover for the invasion of Afghanistan, they have ignored the growing confidence of Islamist forces in all the Arab uprisings from Tunisia to Syria and the tremendous setback this represents for women in the region.

Just as these events are open ended, so too are the Arabian Nights which makes them the perfect framing story for these plays: a story within a story, a story in response to the questions raised by the previous story, and the possibility that the guillotine will come down on Shahrazad if her stories fail to please her tyrannical husband. When I asked one of the writers, Chirine El Ansary, whether the events in the Middle-East represented an opportunity or disaster for women, her answer too was open ended. Her first response was ‘My God how is it possible to think of these events as a "disaster" for anybody, especially for women?... Now everything is out in the air, it is clear to everyone that abuse on women is happening regardless of who she is and what she does… Now-a-days many men have taken up the cause of women openly, forcing everyone to understand it is everyone's cause. Every one is empowered by the courage, strength and perseverance shown in the past 2 years.’ At the same time,  ‘I can say that the situation scares me, for everybody: those who will not give in, who will keep fighting for freedom and dignity and the ones who, desperately aching for stability and normality will once again refuse to face the real issues and lie to themselves.’

Shahrazad and the Arabian Nights have provided a treasure chest for other writers to raid as well. The Women and Memory Forum based in Cairo reinterprets these tales from a feminist perspective by, for example, refocussing Aladdin and the lamp on his mother and her need for sexual fulfilment, even with a genie, which leads to a comic encounter between her and the genie. Like Shahrazad who asks, can a story save a life, Zainab Magdy, a participant of the Women and Memory Forum says ‘I have also learned the extent of the power of a story. Stories which speak out challenge the blind prejudices of this patriarchy and the hegemony behind it: the superiority of a specific masculine, Muslim and heterosexual behaviour.’ In Syria, a 13 year old boy was tortured, castrated and killed, ‘Just for writing on a wall’ in protest against the government  as we are reminded in The Lady of Damascus, the sixth play in Arab Nights. Women bloggers and journalists too have been arrested for reporting the revolutions. Writing becomes an intensely political act as Rana suggests in The Lady of Damascus, ‘Theatre… is a kind of demonstration in disguise. And likewise, the demonstrations are a kind of theatre in disguise.’

It is not just the power of words but who owns them. The issue of who tells the story, who has ownership of the narrative of revolution, is a concern for ordinary Arabs. In Egypt, pro-revolutionary forces have to struggle to give dominance to their narratives against attempts by the state to demonise the revolution. In the West, the Arab revolutions have been portrayed mostly favourably, even by those commentators who would normally be ill-disposed to the idea of revolution. The Western label, the Arab spring, which forcibly yokes together what is going on in all those very diverse countries was rejected by many of the participants in the Cairo conference as too Eurocentric, ‘it implied Arab stasis preceding the coming of spring; it predicted imminent decline as spring is bound to be followed by autumn.’ It is part of an orientalist narrative: not recognising the different political realities of each of those countries.

Although the situation seems bleak in Syria, although there are anxieties about how the ‘moderate’ Ennhada party will turn out for Tunisian women, or the Brotherhood for women in Egypt or the Islamists’ jockeying for power in Libya, there is optimism in the air. Ghalia Kabbani, writer of The Lady of Damascus, ‘is not worried about Syrian women in the long term, my concern is focused only on the short term now, and directly after the fall of the regime, where voice of warriors is the highest. What I see from the Women movement in Syria and abroad makes me optimistic, they are organized, know how to manage workshops and know their rights fully, further more, women voice is unified, not as the voice of men, women know exactly what they want, concentrate on the basics in preparation for what is coming, from the percentage of members in the political councils to the family law.’ There is hope in the rubble. It may still turn into a building that houses the aspirations of Arab women.




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