Varying Shades of Desert Talent: Experimental Theater in the Middle East

By Elsom, John | The World and I, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Varying Shades of Desert Talent: Experimental Theater in the Middle East


Elsom, John, The World and I


Experimental Theather in the Middle East

A Cairo festival bridges the gap between Western ideas of progress and Islamic cultural traditions. Such an event best takes place in the land where time is a censored eternity.

In the West, we have gotten into the habit of thinking of time in a linear way, from past to present to future, step by step, forward. And although we may stumble or lose our sense of direction, the process continues forward. But one lesson to be learned from the extraordinary jumble of companies that annually gather at the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theater is that Western notions of progress are not universally shared.

In some societies, time is more circular than linear or zoned into divine epochs. In some, it can be regressive rather than progressive, with godlike ancestors sitting in judgement on their inferior descendants, where the present (but not the past) is history. For Post-Modernists everywhere, time is a matter of opinion, how societies impose ideas form upon the multi-dimensioned nature of reality.

Time, in short, is censored eternity; and as we travel from place to place, we move from one kind of censorhips system to another. In Britain, we have a well-constructed, if not always accurate, image of our past. It comes to us from our literature, paintings, and history books that, when I was at school, filed whole epochs under the names of British monarchs. We know what Jane Austen's England looked like, and that it has gone forever, which is why we have heritage sites to protect its remains; but if we take a four-hour flight to the villages of the Galician plains in Ukraine, we can find ourselves in a pastoral landscape similar to what ours was in the late eighteenth century, with long-nosed sheep, oxcarts with wooden wheels, and peasants selling apples and walnuts beside roads that are little better than dirt tracks.

We assume that ours is the modern world and theirs the primitive one, but why should we so casually believe that the rest of the world is heading in our direction? It could be the other way round. If we come across a village in a foreign land that looks like Austen's England, we overlook the fact that by the same token Austen's England is looking at us.

In Cairo, as a member of a three-man preselection panel, I had the task of choosing which thirty productions (from about sixty) should be shown to the international jury that handed out the prizes. My colleagues were Richard Martin, the actor-director from the Toursky Theatre in Marseilles, France, and Ricard Salvat, theater director and university professor from Barcelona, Spain--all three of us (in Egyptian terms) from the West--and we were asked to ignore performances that were not experimental.

We being looked upon as Western "experts," modernity was considered to be our kind of thing. But some companies--such as the Chapel of Change, from Melbourne, Australia--were looking for their roots in a holy Eden, where the rites of passage between life and death were eased by a new shamanism. Others--such as Dance Hotel, from Austria--were so skilled in techniques once considered to be avant-garde that they could almost have qualified as a new classicism. Experimental was an odd word to apply to their almost breathtaking self-assurance.

Nonetheless we included them--but had to draw the line at the ultratraditional Chimilidique. This was a comedy about what happens in Uzbekistan on the first night of a marriage. The happy couple sit in a curtained side room, the bride modestly veiled and the groom covered mainly in frustration, while their families discuss the future of the marriage outside. A matchmaker pops in from time to time to offer them advice, the aim being (according to a program note) "to develop sex education and assert a respect towards their elders." We were speculating about whether this custom might not have improved the ill-fated British royal marriage when the news broke of the tragic death of Princess Diana, and it was as if all our worldviews had strangely collided and fragmented like the speeding car itself. …

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