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Egyptian Street Theatre

with Mohab Saber

Nabra Nelson: Salaam alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.

Marina J. Bergenstock: I’m Marina.

Nabra: And I’m Nabra.

Marina: And we’re your hosts.

Nabra: This season, we’ll be focusing on twenty-first-century MENA theatre, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the US. Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea or, in Arabic, shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you’ll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: Yalla. Grab your tea. The shay is just right.

Marina: On today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about street theatre in Egypt. Our guest today is Mohab Saber. Mohab is an Egyptian producer and curator, and is currently the coordinator of All Around Culture program. Working across the MENA region, his work focuses on the freedom of expression, citizenship, and the value of arts and community development. He will talk about the work he’s designed and managed, with special emphasis on large-scale street theatre projects defending the rights of minority groups. We are so excited to have him here today. Before we jump into questions though, we want to give a brief intro into what street theatre is.

Nabra: Street theatre has been a genre for a very long time in Egypt and around the world. You could argue that street theatre is the first form of theatre. Essentially, any public performance that takes place outside can be characterized as street theatre. Usually, however, street theatre also has a political or a social message. As with most things, street theatre originated in ancient Egypt. Religious ceremonies in the Pharaonic era were the earliest form of theatre in Egypt, and they incorporated music, body movements, and a form of impersonation.

Marina: To contextualize some of the giggling, Nabra would truly associate everything with ancient Egypt if she could, and she does actually frequently do that. A lot of that is earned, but—

Nabra: It’s all earned. Just we haven’t found... This time we found the article that actually said how street theatre started in Egypt. There is an article for everything out there. The knowledge is there, I know, we just haven’t found it. So I will continue to assert that everything started in Nubia or Egypt. Legends from ancient Egypt even provided inspiration for Greek theatre. In the seventeenth century, impersonation became a popular art form where small companies would do performances in public spaces, which was the beginning of modern Egyptian theatre. Puppetry and shadow theatre also became popular and integrated political elements as well.

From the article “Roots in the Sand: A Timeline of Egyptian Theatre” by Joseph Fahim, which was published in American Theatre Magazine, he says this theatre expressed “the trepidations and anger of the lower classes toward their tyrannical rulers in a sarcastic fashion that often used symbolism to avoid a direct clash with authority. Similarities to Augusto Boal theatre of the oppressed are abundant, and a combination of the Brazilian theorists concepts and the old Egyptian folk traditions continue to inform the theatre of post–January 25 Egypt.

January 25 is referring to the Egyptian revolution as part of the Arab spring in 2011. We’ll be talking a lot about post-2011 Egyptian theatre today. My mom also shared with me that puppet theatre in the streets was popular when she was a kid in Egypt in 1960s and 70s. El Aragoz was a traveling puppet show, which was just one man with a box that set up in the streets and alleys in Cairo and in some neighboring village and did puppet shows for kids. Also in Egyptian villages, and sometimes in Cairo, they had a storyteller that would come through with an instrument and sing folkloric stories. One of the most popular stories is that of Antar, a warrior man who was the son of a slave, and his conquest to marry the woman he loved, Abla.

Marina: Also, very excited for potentially next season to talk more about what your mom’s talking about with puppet theatre, because I’ve recently discovered this thirteenth-century puppet theatre Ibn Daniyal, and he’s amazing, and really there’s just so much to dive into there. So, next season. Continuing on with street theatre, it was popularized in the early 2000s about a decade before the Arab spring. However, after the 2011 revolution, Egyptian street theatre became a way of reclaiming the streets, while also serving as a space where people, especially young people, were able to express themselves away from rising restrictions and censorship, which was happening in the more traditional theatre spaces. Street theatre is a way to transform public spaces into places of protest. Street theatre in Egypt initially emerged in the 1990s and 2000s as a resistance to the traditional theatre institutions that were seen as old and elitist.

The youth at the time were already politically engaged and dissident, which helped allow for an instant audience for street theatre. Remember, these are the same people who would help fuel the Arab spring in 2011. At the time, groups like April 6 Youth and Kefaya, which means “enough,” were regularly holding protests and public debates. The September 5 movement was founded at this time, largely by artists to protest a fire that occurred in the poor province of Beni Suef, in which many lives were lost due to the failure of state institutions, including the firefighters, ambulance workers, medical staff, and the facility itself.

Nabra: A key contemporary street theatre troupe in Egypt, Hala, was founded by Helmy and Aly Sobhy, and was active from 2000 to 2010. It grew out of this generation of millennial artists that resisted established cultural institutions. They started doing shows in the streets, not just street shows with an established time and place for the show to take place and audiences show up, but also a spontaneous theatre on the sidewalks, essentially guerrilla theatre. From the article, “The Pavements Don’t Speak, Silencing Street Theatre in Egypt” by Yasmin Helal, she says: “For Sobhy, the magic of street shows was all about breaking the laws of theatre…. The actors and the audience play interchangeable roles; the limits of the former stretch as far and wide as the street allows, and the latter can have a say in how the performance unfolds.”

Love that quote. I think it captures that feeling of street theatre. This stretch, as far as the limits of the street would allow. Sobhy later co-founded Outa Hamra, which translates to “Red Tomato,” in 2011 after the disintegration of Hala. It was a clowning troupe, hence the name “Red Tomato,” like what clowns put on their noses, and the troupe brought political, interactive, comedic theatre to school, streets, and even correctional facilities and youth centers across the country. Street theatre only grew during the Arab spring in 2011, which was a movement fueled by youth and bursting with art and creativity. Impromptu theatre would happen in Tahrir Square, where the revolution was centered along with constant songs and chants that turned into full-on musical performances at times. The visual and performing arts at the time reclaimed government propaganda by twisting their messages to critique or make fun of them.

Essentially, everyone was an artist. This put a lot of energy and inspiration into the Egyptian people, it negated the need for street theatre troops like Hala. The troupe’s founder, Abdelfattah, expressed, “Sometimes the street outperforms the artist, which is what happened in 2011. We could not keep up with what the people were doing.” But that didn’t mean the death of street theatre, just a new era. The street art festival that was birthed after the revolution, El Fann Midan, which translates to “The Art of the Square,” combined newer and older types of street theatre. They used public spaces like Hala did, as well as older concepts like the Mawaled, which are traditional street festivals held to celebrate the birth and death of certain saints or prophets.

It turns out the government ended Mawaled with just a couple left in Cairo. But I remember Mawaled, they were so much fun, so I’m really sad to hear that they ended. But the decline of Mawaled left the public for a thirst for public festivals, and that craving could be fulfilled by El Fann Midan and other street artists. At its peak, El Fann Midan was funded entirely by private donations and was held in more than eighteen provinces with over 150 participating artists and a live audience of about four thousand individuals. That included live shows, public debates, exhibitions, short film screenings, and even book fairs.

Marina: In 2014, the government put into place a protest law in response to the weekly and sometimes daily protests that were continuing in Tahrir Square after the revolution. Without a protest permit, anyone could be arrested, and any form of street theatre could easily be determined to be a protest. It put an end to public gatherings, including festivals like El Fann Midan. One prominent street theatre satire troop Atfal El Shaware’, which translates to “Children of the Streets,” went to jail in 2016 for a video they released that mocked the authorities and presidential administration of Al-Sisi, who’s still the president of Egypt. Atfal El Shaware’ was formed by six students ages nineteen to twenty-five with the aim to tour the country offering street shows. Their work was a combination of in-person and virtual offerings, utilizing social media to expand their platform and appeal to younger audiences.

According to the Jimmy Wales Foundation, charges included religious contempt, incitement to participate in demonstrations and gatherings, and using the internet to promote terrorist ideas. This led to a popular hashtag and social media campaign. They were ultimately sentenced to four years in jail. Helmy from Hala articulates his view on the current atmosphere in Egypt in this way: “Any form of an open public sphere is entirely absent. There’s only one voice that is present today. It is that of the government. All those circumstances, and more are heading toward only one result, that everything comes crashing down and that everything that emerged with the revolution dies.” Now, with government restrictions on public gatherings and free speech, and a lack of funding, street theatre has effectively gone into hibernation.

Nabra: Some street theatre continues to endure however, as do protest movements, despite governmental regulations. Outa Hamra, the clowning troop that I talked about before, for instance, continued to be active until recently, including creating a play called Wara’y Ma Khalas-sh, or My Papers Weren’t Done? about being a young refugee in Cairo, which was done in 2017. They even organized an outdoor public drumming day in November of 2018. Sobhy offers an optimistic point of view on the future of theatre in Egypt saying,

A long time ago, we used to have Hakawatis, the traditional storytellers who had moved from cafe to cafe telling stories on the rhythm of the rababa. With time, this evolved to what became later known as shadow theatre, and then the Aragoz puppet show emerged. The more they try to stifle street theatre, the stronger, more unpredictable, and more diverse it will reemerge in a completely different form and style.

Marina: Yes. Now, we’re thrilled to talk more about street theatre in Egypt past and present with Mohab Saber. Mohab Saber is a cultural manager, creative producer, and curator with a long commitment to nonprofit independent cultural sector in the MENA region. He is currently the coordinator for All-Around Culture Programme, a four-year EU-funded interconnected regional program. Mohab has twelve years of extensive experience in designing and managing artistic and cultural projects focused on the promotion of freedom of expression, the empowerment of cultural operators, and the implementation of performing arts production and research. In his capacity as the former executive director of ElMadina for Performing and Digital Arts, he designed and managed several programs in the public spaces of Egypt and the MENA region.

We are so grateful to have you here with us today. Our first question for you is: How did you start doing theatre in the streets? You can also talk about how you started doing theatre too.

Mohab Saber: Yeah. Maybe I start at the beginning in 2009, working with ElMadina for Performing and Digital Arts. At this time, I was working as an actor and theatre director, then actually the infrastructure at this moment, like facing challenges in finding spaces for practicing or funding for the production, and so on. This somehow pushed me to work on the production and in the art management. This is how I can say start to work at art management. But since 2009, I was engaged with ElMadina. And ElMadina at this time was engaging with other organization working in festivals in the public spaces in Alexandria since 2005. There is some street events and collaborations to organize festivals and performances in public spaces, and maybe also organizing for the others to visit and perform in the Alexandria public spaces.

But this is since 2009 until 2011, and then after the revolution, directly in 2011, there was an intensive focus on ElMadina to work on street arts at this moment, and this is like… We aimed to fill the gap between the common people and the artists, to have projects together to train the artists outside the closed venues to make them participate with the locals and to interact, and also to have a discussion and conversation about that—challenging topics and the important topics that artists need to discuss at this time. We started training in the street, as this is how the project was since 2011 and in 2014. This was to search for freedom in streets, and to operate on training artists outside the closed venues, and to participate with the street inhabitants that we are working with.

This was an initiative after the revolution, responding to the needs of the artists and the audience to occupy the streets and to have interaction together. This idea was using the performing and digital arts to co-create and inspire people, to encourage them to participate in the composition and essential topics about the civil society, and also this project participated many trainers from Europe, and Arab regions, and Egypt, working with the people and the locals and the artists in the streets. This is how it started from my side.

Nabra: That’s amazing. You talked a little bit about this importance of finding freedom in the streets. I find that street theatre, especially, it’s so important in the Middle East, especially just activating the streets, people coming together to discuss, to do activities outside is part of our culture. What do you find as the importance of the theatre that you do in the streets, and why you choose this venue specifically?

Mohab: Actually, if we look to the Middle East, we can see the centralization of arts and culture in the biggest cities, in the metropolitan places, in the cities, and in the region. This is effect the different aspect of the artistic production and also the accessibility of the cultural productions in the MENA region, and especially in the underserved areas. Underserved of arts and culture, and also good education, and the basic infrastructure of life. This has disturbed the creation of the cultural existence, and also the idea of facing limitation of the freedom of expression, because arts and culture is a way to express ourselves. This is the main importance of having a street theatre in streets, to give the people the space to express themselves, to talk about themselves, and also to think loudly about their ideas and problems, and also to receive their rights, their cultural right, to watch a theatre piece or to listen to the music band.

Providing the artistic production in the underserved areas, this is I think one from the most important things we need in the region, and one from the main culture rights that we all I think agree about this. People entitled to have this rights and street theatre is a big chance for not only using art in public spaces, but also to express ourselves and our differences in the vital ways, by using the space and also the place around the streets. This would express and put down a new vision of the places that we are working in, and these places absolutely will not be as used as before. This is how I can see the importance, and what is the challenging points, and the basic rights to people to have street theatres or street arts in general in the MENA region in underserved areas.

Marina: In the work that you do, there are obviously a lot of artists involved, how do you involve non-artists in the process? Are they involved?

Mohab: Yes. Maybe I can give you a story about this. Could be more easier to understand how we do this.

Nabra: Yes, please.

Mohab: In training in the streets from 2011 until 2014, we were working on workshop in marginalized area in Alexandria called Karmouz, and the idea of the project is transferring the artistic production and process outsized the closed rooms of the artists, and to involve the people of the neighborhoods that we are working in. Towards working on storytelling workshop for ten days, and this was called Life Changes, the name of the workshop, in the sense of the values and the human relations and also repetition about the neighborhood, because this neighborhood was famous about intolerance and also a place for drugs and so on, so it’s not easy for people to feel safe to go through this. This was the topic we got from the neighborhood that they want to discuss, they want to change the repetition. They want to say that we are not a dangerous place.

We worked with the people to think about the ideas about the workshop and also to choose the place for the final presentation performance. The inhabitants in the street discussed that we wanted to make it beside the central mosque of the neighborhood. The idea of organizing a creative performance beside the mosque in the neighborhood, which is famous with violence and incidents of religious intolerance, this sound to me somehow intimidating, but our idea is to prove that the art is a good practice, and we can exist beside the mosque. This is not contradict arts and religion, don’t contradict, but also the idea is to support. This idea is supported by the Imam of the mosque, and he was one from the participants of the workshop. He also participated in the organization of the logistics and invited the people of the neighborhood.

He also told a story on the stage about the neighborhood and about this tolerance and how also we can be more nonviolent and so on, and this reflects the essence of how we involve the non-artist. We are going to people to collect, to co-create, the production, and also not only to show them how we work, but also to be more aware about their needs, about their topics, how they see things and how they want to discuss those things. This somehow give you small story about how we involve the normal people with the artists, and co-create the creation of the performance of the street theatre.

Nabra: It’s great to hear about an example of what that looked like in one instance. I was wondering if there are other stories that really exemplify the work you do, or perhaps the favorite project if you have one that you’ve worked on. Can you describe that for us and what that piece looked like?

A view looking down at the street where there is a circle of bystanders watching a street performance happen in the middle of the circle.

A street theatre performance in Alexandria, Egypt.

Mohab: Maybe I can remember a street carnival project, and this was highlighting on the ability of the Nubian culture to integrate to the main Egyptian culture. This is to overcome social challenges through street theatre performances. We inspired the Nubian culture because of the richness and the diversity in it. The street carnival was working on training artists to produce a tour of thirty performances to be presented in ten Egyptian cities. The performance tackled several social issues, such as discrimination and sexual harassment against women exactly here because we wanted to share the Nubian culture because it’s the tolerance and the open-mindedness about how they respect their women, and also we need to solve the big issue in Egypt, which is the sexual harassment. We are trying to, precise the overlap of this minority cultures, I don’t like to say minority cultures, maybe it’s a specific culture.

It’s somehow… We want to learn from it, so this is how we can make and add value of the difference of those cultures inside the main culture in Egypt. This is about street carnival. Actually, after we finished working on this project, we tried to test this method or theory on different kinds of cultures. We worked with the Syrians, the newcomers in Alexandria, also about the difference between the understanding of this culture, how we can also use the differences and to make and add value of them in our community, as well as we worked in Morocco with the African migrants, and also we went to Palestine and we worked with Palestinians. This is how we try to test street carnival as maybe a good practice or a theory of creation of street performances, and think about how we can precise the overlap of the cultures, and also to promote diversity and coexistence in the bigger cultures.

This is street carnival and the project ultimately encouraged some different kinds of artists from different backgrounds, from Nubians, from Syrians, from Alexandria, from Cairo, from everywhere in Egypt. This is how we encourage this, and also we created the core team of trainers so they can also take this theory or method of production, so they can also use it as a production method and so on. This is my street theatre production. Also because it came after five years of reflection on this training industry project, so we learned, we reflected, and also we developed our approach. This was like a newborn of our experience and working in different contexts. This was my favorite piece.

Marina: Wow, that’s really amazing. I’m curious to know more about the revolution in 2011 and how you used theatre in that way and how that interacted with the revolution. I’m assuming this was a way to process events with citizens, but I would love to hear more about that.

Mohab: Actually after the revolution, this was the important time for everyone to go into streets and feel safe in the street, and to feel that we own the street, it’s ours. It’s our country and we are safe, even we don’t have any security forces. This made us more feel that we have a responsibility to make sure that this is continued, and take leadership. All of us, take the leadership towards making this sustainable and be more... To use it for the good of the people. After the revolution began in the street, people were training on freedom together. They try to create peaceful techniques for expression, but over time there was threats of damage to the streets due to the lack of security. They wanted to have this kind of unsecured places, so they can also try to get it back, the country, so they can have the power on the people in the street.

This was necessary to us to rediscover the streets again, through the arts and also to practice art in the street and the public spaces, and people to reflect ideas and toward acceptance of others and human rights tolerance, differences. This was a time to get all up on the surface. This was the best time for people to express themselves and to discuss multiple meanings of the freedom and thoughts, and also the future ideas about the arts, and how this also creates and establishes a societal dialogue on the issues that need to be heard in the future. It’s somehow not easy to express this, or maybe to talk about this. After the ten years, 2011 was a very top and peak of hopes, and now it’s a different way, so it’s very, I don’t know, abstract to talk about it.

Nabra: I remember I was there during the revolution and right after. I left about four months after the revolution ended, and just that feeling of hope and joy and that reclamation of the streets was so present. I remember there were tons of street cleanups and there was street art everywhere. All over the sidewalks and on all the walls and everything. It was like suddenly Cairo—I was in Cairo you’re in Alexandria, but this was true across the country—everything was literally bright, as well as everyone’s hearts were so open and bright, and this future, this unknown future was very exciting. So you’re right that feeling of what that change was is really difficult to capture, but it was very much there.

Also the way that art played a role in that feeling of reclaiming was very present, and this legacy of that still in Egypt today especially with the street art, there’s just so much more art everywhere on all the walls and everything, some of which is from the revolution that continued to trickle out, that everybody is now able to use art to share their voice, and that’s very present, which is exciting.

Marina: I’m wondering, so now that we’re about ten years post revolution, what the street theatre looks like now?

Mohab: Actually now there isn’t any practices in street in Egypt, maybe it’s easier to go outside the bigger cities because the bigger cities is somehow controlled and you cannot get any approvals to perform. Before we didn’t get any approvals, because we work with the stakeholders in front of coffee shops without preparation, so we have experience to be very light without any equipment, so we cannot make highlights during our preparations, so to not collect any attention, so we can finish and go quickly, and if we have any problems, also we have a contingency plan to remove ourselves and go in a safe place. This is our ideas, but now, actually this is not available at the moment in Egypt. I know that some schools who have workshops for a community theatre or street theatre, they are having hard times to find places to perform in, you need to have a private base. Maybe it’s open-air, but it’s private.

You cannot go into the public without taking permissions, and you will not get permissions. After the revolution, after late 2014, in 2016 at ElMadina Arts, we made study research about street theatre in Egypt. We have a book called Street Theatre in Egypt in our website, and this was collecting the most known street artists or companies or examples in Egypt, and we made interviews with them, and we created a study about the laws and state of school of street theatre at this moment. The laws we discovered that we are facing, I don’t remember the name, but the law which is like you are under arrest if you are presenting street performance, and the same as you are making a political demonstration. It’s the demonstration law. This is also for the artist.

It’s very harmful, and it’s not logic like this. This was also used as an advocacy campaign to try to change this laws, but at this moment it wasn’t easy to find decision-makers so we can also try to lobby or to advocate for it. But this can give also the researchers or the people who want to learn about the street theatre, what is the status quo until 2016, which is now it’s worse, but it’s not that much worse. It’s the same, I think more or less.

Nabra: It’s really unfortunate to hear that. But thank you for making that book and making sure that those stories are told and documented so that that advocacy and so that street theatre can revive naturally when that is possible. Right now you’re working for All-Around Culture, which is an EU-funded program. Can you talk about that and what that entails? It seems like a really broad program.

Mohab: Yes. I’m now coordinating All-Around Culture. It’s a forty-year EU-funded program and it’s implemented by three organizations, a consortium of organizations from Europe and the MENA region. The main aim of this program is to enhance a vital cultural ecosystem in seven countries in the MENA region. It contains five components to increase access to culture, and particularly in the underserved areas, and to enhance the capacities of the cultural organization and individuals, and providing corporate productions grants, and to promote cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue. The project is encouraging the organizations to work in alliances and also to work towards having a good understanding about the ecosystem in the region on how they can reposition themselves, and to work toward accessibility of arts and culture in the underserved areas, and also we have components who support youth led initiatives by research grants and co-production grants to work in contextual community-based approaches in their areas and their context, different in context, in the underserved areas.

Also we have cross-border collaboration component, which encourage the work between the south of Mediterranean and north of Mediterranean from the Middle East and Europe to work together, and to get co-production grants and mobility grants to visit each other, to meet, and also to have a network and exchange learnings, as well as working on the tailor-made approaches for each alliance or youth-led initiative, or a collaboration to support them to be more aware and understanding, and also effective in their context. The last thing that we also work on are policy dialogues with the politicians in the Europe and MENA region. It’s somehow a big project for four years, and it’s interconnected between different levels of target groups and they are all interacted with each other in different connections, in different work packages and components, so they can, at the end, create this vital ecosystem in the future after the four years.

Or just start this understanding of their positions and how they can use the collaboration and participatory approach as to support each other to not face any problems during the political and financial challenges and pressures. This is in a nutshell project, it’s somehow big and containing many different players in the region, but it’s aligned with my beliefs and values in arts and culture, so I’m really excited to be coordinating this project towards the enhancement of the ecosystem in the MENA region.

Marina: It’s really incredible all of the threads that are there, and how it’s really working with so many different people and things, but in a really connected way. You mentioned community-engaged projects, and I’m curious if you can give us some examples of that in— I’m assuming they’re different than the street theatre examples we’ve been talking about, and I would love to know more if you can share any.

Mohab: You mean in All-Around Culture, right?

Marina: Yeah.

Mohab: Yes. Here, when we talk about that community-based, this is like this youth-led initiative. We are supporting thirty-two grants, at the beginning of research grants for thirty-two youth-led initiatives under thirty years in the seven countries, which is Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, and also the Libyan and Syrian community living in those seven countries. For individuals to support them with research grant to work toward their ideas, artistic ideas differ from theatre and music design, architecture, whatever arts or culture towards the engagement of their local community, and especially in the underserved areas. We successfully select thirty-two grants, grantees, youth-led initiatives who works in the seven countries towards different aspect of the arts and culture, and they are engaging with cinema, performing arts, as well as exhibitions.

Most of them are working in participatory approach, or they are engaging the people in their local neighborhood, and also they make participatory exhibition, or working in the refugee camps in Palestine to make movies about all the generations who attended the ’48 war, so they can also promote these values for the young in their community. It’s different, and also maybe a review of handmade crafts, which might be like vanished soon. Sometimes it’s different from many different aspects, and also the needs in different spaces in the countries. After this research grant for six months, they will apply for co-production or production grant, it’s up to twenty thousand euros.

They can have a one year to produce what they got from the research grant, working with the people, but we will only select twenty-four from the fifty-two. This is how it’s engaging arts and culture in underserved areas, and also support and capacity build the artists and researchers in the region, as well as connecting them to the other component, which is entities and organizations in their countries, so they can also have this mentorship support, and maybe access for venues, networks. It’s different, to interconnected between their practice and other practice and resources.

Nabra: Such a huge project.

Marina: Yeah, and when you talk about policy changes, is it policy changes within those seven different countries?

Mohab: Actually, we have a component about dissemination and advocacy. We have two different levels of this component, which… Trying to get the lights and to promote the impact of the grantees, and what we achieve working with the youth and organizations, as well as including that grantees and the entities in the dialogue with the decision-makers in Europe and also in the MENA region, and to create publications about the status quo, like white paper about the policies in the region, and some advocacy meetings about culture and the right of culture, the accessibility for culture. We can also include those grantees and also promote arts and culture, and to try to reach out to changing policies. This is a long-lasting goal, so it will not be changed at the project, but also we are building on another advocacy and policy dialogues. This is a continuous progress, and we are just trying to help in achieving this in the future. Fingers crossed.

Nabra: There’s just such important work and all of the work that you’ve done is so impactful and important. I’m just so thrilled to hear more about all of the different facets of especially street theatre you’re doing, but also this incredible project—four-year project—that you’re working on right now. I’m hoping that that project should happen in more regions and more places in the world. We need that. To hear about your carnivals, to hearing that you’re working with Nubian people, which of course, they’re close to my heart, I have to connect you with my family. But also all different types of cultures, bringing people together and highlighting those who are least heard, and empowering citizens, everyday people to use performance, to use arts, to use theatre, to make their voice heard, is what is going to create change in the MENA region, in Egypt. In addition to these exciting policy elements that you’re integrating right now that I’m excited to see how you continue to implement that long-term.

Thank you so, so much for joining us. These are just really exciting projects, and next time that you’re able to do a carnival, next time you’re back out on the streets, you have to let us know, because we’re going to fly over to Egypt and come see it, and come support you.

Marina: Inshallah.

Nabra: Inshallah.

Mohab: Yes, I have hopes and I’m optimistic to do so very soon. You are welcome and thank you so much for this invitation. I really enjoyed talking to you, and thank you so much.

Marina: Thank you. Thank you so much for having tea with us. This has been another episode of Kunafa and Shay. We’re your hosts, Marina and Nabra. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com.

Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons. We hope you tune in next time. Thanks for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.

Nabra: Yalla, bye!

Marina: Yalla, bye!

 

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Thoughts from the curators

Season 1 of Kunafa and Shay will focus on MENA theatre post-9/11 to today, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the United States. Theatre artist Nabra Nelson and MENA theatre scholar Marina J. Bergenstock bring their own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

The name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how: with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea (or, in Arabic, shay!). Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and, sometimes, to engage with our differences.

Kunafa and Shay

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Shukran jazeelan! Wonderful article! Best wishes to you all. May your good work continue, inshallah. My company, Pennsylvania's Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble (BTE), and I have had the honor to collaborate with WAMDA, an Egyptian puppet theatre company that still performs on the streets of Cairo and in the courtyard of the Beit El Seheimy, a beautifully restored Ottoman-era historic house, near the souk, the Khan al-Khalili. The young artists of WAMDA (an ancient Arabic word that translates as "the sudden flash of light at night in the dark desert that fully illuminates everything") dedicated themselves to reviving the authentic entertainment indigenous to their own culture. In the early 2000s, they sought out and trained with two of the only remaining street puppeteers in all of Egypt, Hassan Khanoufa (a khayal al zill, shadow puppet, player) and Am Sabr al Masry (an Aragoz, hand puppet, player). In 2018, because of WAMDA's work, UNESCO registered the hand puppet known as al-Aragoz as Egypt’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. BTE's 2007 bilingual collaboration with WAMDA, titled "Our Shadows," incorporated both Aragoz and khayal al zill, and toured to hundreds of schools and community centers all over the rural and urban Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, introducing thousands of American children, their teachers, and their families to this ancient street art. Still vibrant through all the recent Egyptian upheavals, WAMDA uses old stories to make new points, relying on sharp wit and sheer bravery to address contemporary issues. The puppets of WAMDA are playing the "under the radar" role that puppets have always played as the voice of the sha'bi, the people. I published an article about their work, titled WAMDA: Opening Doors and Shedding Light on Egyptian Shadow Puppetry, in Puppetry International, Fall/Winter '09, #26. WAMDA's facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/grou…