Gaza on my mind

The latest of the theatre director’s ‘strange days’ in Cairo, while waiting to hear if he and his partner have permission to enter Gaza; caught in stasis while extraordinary events unfold around them. Updated.
Jonathan Chadwick
21 April 2011

Cairo, April 20,
The twenty five year invitation to coffee

We spoke to our colleague Jamal Al Rozzi from Gaza's Theatre for Everybody yesterday on Skype from the internet place across the road from where we are staying here in Cairo.  The drama sessions with young people we were going to Gaza to film and which we have been working with the Theatre for Everybody to organise and support are in full flow.  He sent some great photographs today. It's like a beautiful relief.  It's all happening.

He spoke about the dreadful murder of Vik Arrigoni.  He was very upset.  His grief is combined with his sharp concern that Arrigoni was a guest and a friend and for him it is a dreadful scar on Gaza's honour.  He wanted to make it clear that all over Gaza there were gatherings  to mourn and protest.  His apprehension is that Gaza will appear to be populated by brutal murderous fanatical people.  It is this image which is used by the Israelis to justify their continuing murder there.  The killing of Arrigoni plays directly into the hands of the Israeli military state. The backhanders that some Egyptian 'security' personnel must have been paid to permit the transport of Iranian arms to Hamas through the tunnels into Gaza might just as well have come out of an Israeli state coffer.  Yes, I know it wasn't Hamas that killed Arrigoni.

There is something else at issue here.  The January events here in Egypt have changed the global image of Arab people and culture. But there is a truly remarkable aspect of this culture that remains stable.  In a way this reveals itself in the way the traffic works.  There is no system but an intense heightened awareness of space, the space of the other.  Our friend here told us as we beeped our way through the jams back from the Italian Embassy where there had been a vigil for Vik Arrigoni that the whole feel of the Cairo traffic had changed since the January revolution.  People would be in a rage but now, she explained, there was nobody to scream at. There was just ourselves. The British are all systems and these are internalised like our political regime.  We behave. Traffic lights are sensible.  Here little notice is taken of these blinking things. But it is the deep generosity and hospitality of people here that connects to Jamal's apprehensions. While being moved as a recipient of this social warmth I am trying resist stereotyping.

I knew I would get on with Ahmed.  I had heard from the mutual friend who put us in contact that although he was a director with the National Theatre his life's work was in the town in the Delta where he was born.  He'd trained in the Academy in Cairo but immediately went back to his birthplace and started a work that had stretched over nearly forty years working to create theatre with local people, especially the youth.  That was really where I learnt about acting, he told me. It was the weird alliance between religious conformity and the dictatorship (make no mistake, in all instances of dictatorship in the Middle East Islam has been used to counter progress and collective social advancement) that he and his fellow townspeople had to fight against to create their theatre.  One one occasion some 'security' official simply walked on stage and told them that what was taking place could not happen.  Ahmed immediately confronted this man and told him as an official he should go and talk to other officials and leave them to get on with their work.  His counterattack was so strong and cohesive that the man had to leave the stage.  From that day twenty five years ago the 'security' apparatchiks in the district had continually been inviting him to come and have coffee with them.  For twenty five years he has been refusing.
We stayed up talking until the early morning then he leapt in a taxi with us, taking us back to our hotel.  The following morning he telephoned and told us he thought he could get us into Gaza.  Our hearts missed a beat.  We were returning to the UK in two days time.  Just get me a description of the project, he said. When we found out what he had in mind, we explained how we had tried every avenue. Next time.
So our last night in Cairo was spent outside the Italian Embassy in a candlelit vigil listening to our friends singing Bella Ciao and songs from Tahrir Square. As the traffic slowed down by the 300 or so people along the embankment of the Nile, you could see them asking with their eyes what was going on, what new move was afoot.  This time the placards people were holding simply said: We are all Vittorio Arrigoni.


Cairo,  April 16,

Liberation Square

People come with their own slogan or grievance or story. They write it on a card or a placard. They show it to others. This is what I think. Maybe they come as a group with friends or family or neighbours. On the Fridays of the revolution these various and diverse fragments of human experience and impulses are shared.

There are many sound stages with people giving songs or speeches and the slogans become songs. Often the songs are rhythmic rhymes with collective refrains. At crucial times when the internet and mobile phone networks were down people came to the Square and as the different groups and individuals shared their lines and refrains, gradually after hours, the whole assembled multitude – “more than a million people were in unison. It was magic.” Many people have told me this.  

I am very obvious in the crowd, obviously northern European. Every few metres of my movement through the crowd I am stopped. I will try to describe the space that occurs between me and the people that stop me.  “Welcome to Egypt! Tell us what you think of what is happening here?'” A small group of eager, joyful young men (usually) surround me. There is an immediate circular crowd formed, physically close.  t is a space of magical possibility, a space of truth. In the middle of it is the vibration of what has been created by them. In other circumstances it could be a magical infant baby, an object of wonder. This event is a deep presence of energy.  The origin of the word energy lies in rhetoric, the sustaining persevering power of fluent speaking out. What did I think? I tried to tell them soberly that I thought it was wonderful and that they had changed their world and that what had happened would change my world.  When things got difficult because of language my friends who spoke Arabic would help. “But we are worried about the Army government.  Are they to be trusted?  What do you think?”

On so many occasions people have told us about their experience of coming to the Square and the marvellous surprise of discovering that so many people thought like them. And also of this process of integration of individual into collective demands. Now things are in a state of waiting.  Last Friday's demonstration was the largest since the ousting of Mubarak.  The main demand was for his prosecution.  The main movement of the people was for justice and 'purification'.  The next day the Army placed Mubarak and his sons under arrest. The process is moving forward.

There are anxieties.  People say that there is no coherent alternative. There is no unified programme. I recall that before the big march against the cuts in the UK that the TUC called for March 27, various pundits appeared in the media to point out that the movement at the head of which the TUC had placed itself had no real alternative to the cuts.  I think I remember some former speech-writer for the dreadful Blair speaking thus. It struck me when I was on the march that this criticism was so irrelevant.  What I experienced was a strong sense of unity that I can sum up in the phrase: ‘Do you think we're stupid?'.  The government was pressing ahead with its cuts while undertaking a military campaign that was costing £2.5 million a day. The alternative will emerge from the activism of people who are not motivated by self-interest but by a feeling of outrage and a claim for dignity.  We weren't born yesterday. Surely.

Last night we went to hear some Egyptian folk music. Tanboura were playing at Tanboura Hall. Ten men who hail from Port Said and have been singing and playing together (two percussion and three stringed instruments, one like a bass harp) for years.  The repertoire is late nineteenth and early twentieth century maritime songs: “We have been going 23 years and we will continue until we drop”. They are dancers too. We settled down in the small studio-type space with low bench seating and on they came. Men who looked for all the world like the seamen and dockers they had probably been.  They sung with gusto and beauty about Tahrir Square and told us in between about the recent history of their home city and how the revolution had released them, “If you want to build something strong, you have to build it deep, if you want to build deep you have to build it together” (They are appearing at the Barbican on July 20/21 as part of a celebration of the January 25 events).

How deep does it go? How wide will it spread?  Today we heard Amir Eid and his group Cairo Kee sing in a special mini-festival for one of the people killed in the January events at an arts centre called Darb 17/18 right near the Coptic quarter here in Cairo: “Our revolution is spreading, it's happening everywhere, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain who knows maybe London or the Vatican". I give you the gist. People keep telling us how transformative the events have been.  People have been changed in their very core, in the centre of their being.

The key demands during the eighteen days following January 25 were 'Go' (Irhal which means leave, depart) and 'The people want a change of regime'. ('El Shaab yureed isqat el nidham'). Of course everybody knows the joke about Mubarak being told that the people were saying goodbye and him asking why, where are they going.  But the regime is inside us like a personal habit, like a tendency in our thoughts, like the shape of our emotions, a dependency.

Nowhere is the regime more deeply integrated into our lives than in the UK. Because, as an adolescent, I was instinctively revolted by the monarchy and the kind of inherited privilege that it represents I can't believe I have grown old and this idiotic militaristic institution still sits like a dreadful rotting garland over our lives. In the UK we don't even know what the regime is.  It seems like the natural order.  The closest we have come in my lifetime was the two million march against the Iraq War.  

The friend we talked to this morning has been in the thick of it from the very beginning and it has made her fall in love with her city again. But she was worried, worried about the fractious fragmented nature of the movement, apprehensive that the old regime was going to pull some big event that would throw the movement off course, concerned that the Islamists may gain the upper hand in framing the new constitution. Less than a week ago before he was taken into custody Mubarak made a broadcast on Al-Arabiya, the Saudi-financed TV station proclaiming his innocence. People didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  It was freaky.  It is clear that they have not given up and won't finally give up without a fight.

Across a bridge 50 metres along the Nile from where we are staying there is a billboard: 'Don't betray the martyrs of the revolution, No to bribery and corruption. No to the thugs, No to provocation, to begging, to negligence, to pollution'. This is the message of the Culturewheel riverside cultural centre that has a performance space under the bridge. We've just been to hear one of the Presidential candidates make his initial presentation there. He started by telling the assembled 500 or 600 people that the Egyptian Judiciary had rescinded the deal to sell gas to Israel at a reduced price. Cheers. He went on to say how much more difficult it would be to build a new regime than to get rid of the old one.  

When questions were asked at the end of his plausible speech the first two were about Israel and directly addressed the issue of the Camp David agreement.  The presidential candidate told us that the Camp David agreement was something that could only be altered by the people in a referendum. Another question: how come the judges can rescind the gas deal but the Camp David agreement has to be put to a referendum? The gas deal was made under the table by Mubarak but Camp David was approved by the parliament. He said that he wanted to see an end to the humiliating relationship that Egypt had taken up with Israel and opposed Egypt's support for the blockade of Gaza.

He said many other interesting and engaging things about Egypt's regional role and the example shown by Lula's government in Brazil and the importance of housing. Many things. But Gaza is still on my mind.

Questions and answers. The news of the murder of pro-Palestinian human rights and peace activist, Vittorio Arrigoni, is dreadful.  Another painful contortion. The grief of his friends and his family is shared in international solidarity.


Jonathan Chadwick’s first blog, read here:

Saturday, Cairo, April 9 – 13 Gaza theatre


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