Two years before the revolution, the French director Jean-Louis Martinelli contacted me and told me he had decided to produce a play based on my novel Chicago. Martinelli is one of the most important theatrical directors in France, has managed several important French theatres, and is now the director of the famous Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers in Paris. He is known for his refined culture, his liberal ideas, his commitment to humanitarian causes, and his defense of human rights regardless of the official position of the French government. Artistically he is distinctive for his creative ideas and his constant innovations in theater, with an emphasis on the humanitarian aspect, offering a form of theater that is new and accessible to everyone. Martinelli gave the play the title J’aurai voulu être égyptien (‘I would have liked to be Egyptian’). It opened at the Amandiers theater on September 16th and will run until October 21st. Watching the play, I felt a mix of happiness and amazement: these characters, that I had imagined and had spent months depicting in words, suddenly appeared before me in the form of actors moving and talking as I had imagined them.
Besides that wonderful feeling, I was thinking about something more important: that an Egyptian writer now has his works performed in one of the most important theaters in France. This is the place Egypt deserves. The lights went out for the start of the performance but suddenly a group of men and women burst into the auditorium, shouting in an unpleasant manner, to the objections of some of the audience. But we quickly discovered that these were the actors themselves. The great Martinelli was up to his magical tricks. He had decided that the actors should enter the theater through the stalls and not from the wings. The whole concept of the play was original. We saw a group of actors sitting at a long table to read their parts in the play, so that the director could control the plot as he wished. One moment an actor would move into position to perform his role, then retire to a corner or go back to the table as another actor stood up to perform his part. Martinelli also adopted an original and surprising method in casting the actors, choosing them without reference to their appearance. In the novel, there’s a character called Ahmed Danana (an Egyptian studying for a doctorate in Chicago and simultaneously an informer for State Security), and he was was played by French actor Eric Caruso, who wore a fake paunch to match my description of Danana in the novel. Why didn’t Martinelli choose an Arab actor to play the part of Danana? He wanted, he told me, to emphasize the character’s universal nature, because he believes that all humans share similar characteristics, and literary characters recur everywhere and in all ages, and so he decided to challenge the audience’s stereotypical thinking by having a French actor play the part of an Egyptian from the depths of the countryside. Within minutes the actor succeeds in convincing you that he is indeed Ahmed Danana. When the play ended the audience burst into enthusiastic applause. The director invited me up on the stage and I shook hands with all the actors. I met them again and chatted with them after the show, and I sensed that they had a deep and genuine understanding of the value of what they were doing. They believe that we need art now more than ever. They are all professional actors but they see themselves as people with a cause in art and in life, not just people who are hired to act, as one of them told me.
I should mention here that the Amandiers theater and most major theaters in France receive government subsidies. There is an established principle in France that the state cannot leave the theater to private funding alone because then it would seek profits at any price and this would lead to two outcomes: firstly, high art would be sacrificed for the sake of entertainment and possibly sexual titillation, and secondly, ticket prices would be so high that only the rich could attend and sectors of society would be deprived of serious theater. The tickets in the Amandiers theater and French theaters in general do not cost more than a meal in a cheap restaurant. Culture is the people’s established right. This principle is entrenched in France and rightist governments have not been able to change it. On top of that, Martinelli and most of the major directors in France are leftists who overtly and publicly oppose the policies of President Sarkozy, but they continue to receive subsidies from the French state to perform their duty as artists in the service of the people. The reason for that is that no one in France sees the president as the father of the French people or as a symbol of France or any other of those vapid and useless expressions that were used for years to justify despotism in Egypt.
After I came out of the theater I had to think about this question: What does Egypt lack that would enable it to make such artistic progress and become like France? The truth is that Egypt’s artistic resources are no less than those of France. We have talented writers and directors and we have an artistic tradition of which we should be proud. One only has to review the history of the cinema in France and in Egypt. The first film in the world was shown in Paris in December 1895, while the first film show in Egypt was in Alexandria in November 1896. In other words, the cinema came to Egypt only eleven months after it started in France, which means that Egyptians were familiar with the cinema before many European countries. Egypt has all the resources for an artistic renaissance but it was held back for years because of despotism and extremism. Despotism put people in jobs they did not deserve and made officials loyal to the ruler rather than to the people, which led to corruption and cultural decline, as we saw when Farouk Hosny, Mubarak’s minister of culture, sought to buy the honour of intellectuals and turn them into mouthpieces of despotism, and concentrated on trying to please Mubarak and his wife with spectacular cultural activities devoid of content. I remember how, when my friend Martinelli met me after attending the Alexandria Film Festival in Mubarak’s time and I asked him his impression, he told me, “I felt they had invited me to take some commemorative photographs and after that they didn’t know what to do with me.”
The second danger threatening Egyptian culture is the proliferation of the Wahhabi concept of Islam, backed by oil money. This Wahhabi concept is hostile to all art. Art uses imagination to portray reality with all its flaws, whereas the extremist mentality is by nature unqualified for any kind of imagination. The extremists in Egypt operate outside the framework of civilization in the true sense of the word. They attack the great Naguib Mahfouz because in his novels he portrayed people who frequent bars, and they do not understand the value of Pharaonic antiquities. They want to cover up the faces in Pharaonic art in case Egyptians worship them as idols. These mentalities need remedial work so that they can join civilization. In the play directed by Martinelli and performed by his actors, among all the powerful emotions that swept the audience, the only things that would capture the extremist’s attention might be the fact that an actress was not wearing the hijab or that one of the actors held her arm as part of the play. There is a basic contradiction between extremism and art. An extremist cannot appreciate art and someone who appreciates art cannot be an extremist.
Yet I am more optimistic than ever about the future of art in Egypt. The Egyptian revolution deposed Mubarak and he is now on trial for his many appalling crimes against Egyptians, but the battle is not over. It has hardly begun. There is an attempt to recreate Mubarak’s regime, and the counterrevolutionary plots to prevent change and put pressure on Egyptians to abandon the aims of the revolution have not stopped. But the torch of the revolution is still burning and, God willing, it will triumph. I advise anyone who imagines he can prevent change, or deceive or suppress Egyptians, to draw a lesson by looking at Hosni Mubarak and his sons as they stand in the dock in criminal court. Egypt has set out toward the future and it will never go back.