I wish I was French

Photo by Sherif Sonbol
Photo by Sherif Sonbol

Published in Al Ahram Weekly.

J’aurais voulu etre egyptien (I Wish I Was Egyptian), recently performed in Egypt, is a theatre adaptation of Alaa El-Aswany’s Chicago. Directed by Jean-Louis Martinelli, the play premiered in September 2011, a few months after the January Revolution, at the theatre of Nanterre-Amandiers in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.

Immediately the production received a positive response from the French critics who praised way that El-Aswany created a microcosm of Egypt within a university department in Chicago, and how the novel was transformed on stage.

A year later, the French troupe was invited to perform the play in Cairo’s El Gomhouriya Theatre on two consecutive evenings: 6 and 7 November (in addition to a performance in Alexandria on 8 November). For Jean-Louis Martinelli, the director who also did adaptation of the novel for theatre, this is not first visit to Cairo. Martinelli reveals in the programme notes that over the past years he had visited Egypt a number of times and been in touch with Alaa El-Aswany since he decided to turn Chicago into a play. The Arab Spring could only accelerate the realisation of his plan.

Martinelli’s interest in El-Aswany’s work as well as the positive response by audience and critics is hardly surprising. Well executed in many aspects, the play responds to the French people’s interest in events taking place in the Arab World and Egypt in particular. Literature and by extension theatre is among many channels that allow the international arena to understand Arab societies going through political transformations.

While the French media is involved in the presentation of news, a number of meetings and discussions about the Arab World are organised across the city, bringing the Arab world closer to French viewers. Bookshops respond to this interest with volumes written by Arab writers: novelists, journalists, historians and political commentators. One’s eye catches a few titles referring to the Arab world, among thousands of used-book treasures in the long row of bouquinistes installed along the banks of the Seine in the Notre-Dame Cathedral vicinity. This is where I found a French translation of El-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, in a neat transparent cover protecting it from the November rains.

David Tresilian wrote on those pages that The Yacoubian Building “sold an estimated 125,000 copies in France in the 12 months following the appearance of its French translation.” He continues by saying that El-Aswany’s collection of articles from the El-Sherouk and Al-Dustour newspapers are also of interest to French readers.

According to one accomplished French journalist, Alaa El-Aswany and Khaled El-Khamissi top the sales, a fact he explains by those writers’ language: simple and clear, “the language of the television”. Not to forget that El-Aswany and El-Khamissi both speak good French and make frequent appearances on French TV channels – such as France 24 – commenting on Egyptian political and social transformations.

One cultural critic from France 24 Online points to El-Khamissi’s Taxi and Sonallah Ibrahim’s The Committee as works that predicted the Egyptian Revolution. As much as the juxtaposition of those two novels seems to Egyptian readers a bit awkward — and one may agree or disagree with that critic — we cannot deny that since January 2011, the French media and people have shown particular interest in Egyptian political and social realities.

At the same time, El-Aswany possibly has the greatest impact on regular readers outside the Arab World, including French readers. What makes him especially fashionable is the fact that, apart of his political commentaries, El-Aswany aims to understand people, something especially evident in Chicago.

Accordingly Martinelli’s choice of Chicago was successful even before it reached the stage of the Nanterre-Amandiers’ theatre. The real challenge remained in the transformation itself: from literary to dramatic material. With its appealing if not unusual structure and easy language, Chicago carries clear thematic lines simplifying the political and social phenomena of a closed Egyptian community living in Chicago. As the French critics put it, the play presents Little Egypt in Chicago.

It is obvious that El-Aswany studied his characters profoundly and drew distinctive personalities, mirrors of the cliché Egyptians. Many of them, especially the protagonist Nagui Abdel-Samad, use even common statements, in order to transfer clear messages and meanings: “All Egyptians are persecuted. The regime in Egypt is despotic and it persecutes all Egyptians, Muslims and Copts. Religious persecution is a direct result of political repression.”

For international readers not involved in Egypt’s life on a day-to-day basis, such sentences give basic lines to a whole sketch of a society that El-Aswany depicts in his novel. Political oppression, social restraints, relationships between man and woman, wife and husband, taboos, the role of religion, corruption, distorted sexuality, are among many topics tackled by El-Aswany through the actions or conversations of his characters.

Taking into account that the novel was published in 2006, a number of its thematic elements seem to an international arena prophetic as they depict clear examples of accumulated problems that, exhausting Egyptian society, will  eventually lead to the January 2011 uprising.
Martinelli chose the main themes and the most significant characters in order to build as full and simplified as possible a tableau of the Egyptian community in Chicago. He ended up with almost four-hour long material, a real challenge for the actors and the audience. Due to the needs of adaptation, understandably he had to omit a few minor characters, along with more significant ones such as Shaymaa and Tariq.

The final play, I Wish I was Egyptian, is based on nine distinctive personalities with small intercalations of secondary characters appearing here and there throughout the performance. Those small intercalations help Martinelli keep the theatrical rhythm and rescue the play from falling into a long and monotonous read of El-Aswany’s text on-stage.

Actors perform in one fixed set, which serves as the university’s office, street, the characters’ homes. The variation of realities within one set adds an interesting dynamic to the performance. In his adaptation, Martinelli chose to remain as faithful as possible to El-Aswany’s text, juggling different forms of narration. Continuous shifts between different narratives are done swiftly and at times surprisingly, while they remain coherent. Moreover, changes of narration allow the characters to look at themselves from the perspective of El-Aswany, a former student of dentistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an observer of Egyptian realities and communities.

For instance, the dialogues Marwa Nofal (Farida Rahouadj) carries out with her husband Ahmad Danana (Eric Caruso) are strengthened by Marwa’s own narration, in the third person, commenting on her state and marital disappointments. Danana is a greedy and manipulative Egyptian, ready to do anything to please the security officer Safwat Shakir (Laurent Grevill), including offering him his own wife. Caruso captured this almost caricatured character with masterful skill, emphasising all the characteristics of a corrupt and despicable man. At many points in the play, Caruso stole the show.

A lot of narrative games are found in the parts carried by Nagui Abdel-Samad (Mounir Margoum), the protagonist. Nagui embarks on a number of long discussions about Egypt, its politics, corruption and social limitations with other characters. While interacting with many major and secondary characters, Nagui becomes the nucleus of the story, as if compensating for characters and details that have been removed.

Yet, in El-Aswany’s novel, Nagui shows the many shades of the passion of youth. His idealistic character fluctuates between passion, determination, and is topped with a dose of naivety. Nagui’s part carried a lot of challenges which were mostly faced by Margoum, though with a few limitations, and his performance was stained by occasionally forgetting his lines. Margoum could have turned this role into a life changing opportunity had he underscored Nagui’s personality polarisation in which he is trapped, a fact that was well captured in Chicago and somehow flattened in I Wish I was Egyptian.

An interesting performance was delivered by Abbes Zahmani in the role of Saleh, an old man who seems lost while re-examining his life. He lives between his collapsing marriage to Chris (Sylvie Milhaud) and nostalgia for the Egypt he left many years ago and with it a woman named Zeinab. Zahmani kept building the character throughout the whole play, and by the end of the evening, one could only applaud him for all the tones and accents he managed to induce in Saleh all along.

Martinelli managed to transfer many messages from El-Aswany’s Chicago. At first glance his choice of adaptation – with multiple narrative forms – gives a sense of a safe play aiming to stick to El-Aswany’s text. What saves him from recitation of the text on-stage were the mise-en-scene and other creative ideas aiming to keep the dynamism high. The whole troupe managed to deliver a captivating performance.

Even though, Martinelli omitted many details – a fact that renders I Wish I was Egyptian more elementary than Chicago – his adaptation adds an important artistic richness to El-Aswany’s work. Let’s not forget inserts of Arabic music fragments: echoes of Om Kolthom or Fairouz… They are not in any way illustrative elements but serve as sporadic flavours. Martinelli also added a few humourous numbers that were definitely nurtured by El-Aswany’s text yet gained an important glow when cleverly executed at the theatrical level.

But there is another, equally important aspect of Martinelli’s work. For French viewers, apart from theatrical satisfaction, I Wish I was Egyptian is an important breakdown of the Egyptian personality; it adds an important angle of thought about the reasons behind the revolution. On the other hand, for the Egyptian viewers, I Wish I was Egyptian is an important aesthetic refreshment.

Martineli’s troupe brought with them a scent of the theatrical craft, where everything finds its place and purpose. I Wish I was Egyptian is a true joy to attend and a rarity on the Egyptian theatre stage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s