“Sumeida’s Song: Giving Operatic Voice to Revolution in Egypt”

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“Egypt is heading towards civil war”, composer Mohammed Fairouz plainly states in discussion of his opera, Sumeida’s Song, which premiered at the Prototype Festival in SoHo. Civil war is perhaps too strong a word to describe the current state of affairs in Egypt, but few would argue with Fairouz that the country is going, in his words, in “a particularly bad direction.”

After a series of electoral victories, Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood effectively spent the final months of 2012 fast-tracking drastic changes to the constitution that many seculars, liberals, and democratic activists believe provide inadequate protection for women, religious minorities, and other groups, while laying the groundwork for implementation of Sharia law in the country (“Sharia law in Egypt?” Fairouz asks plaintively, before giving in to nervous laughter. “I mean, it’s not Saudi Arabia, it’s Egypt!”).

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Resolving Differences in the Desert

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Bab’Aziz, the Prince who Contemplated His Soul. Directed by Nacer Khemir. Switzerland /Hungary /France /Germany /Iran /Tunisia /UK, 2005.

“Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis (sic) in the desert.”Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Whether Thoreau really understood the religious ecstasy of Sufi practice firsthand or was offering an off-hand orientalist reference may remain debatable, but what strikes one as most compelling in the above quote is the acute contrast of the simile: a bustling intellectual center and the starkness of an exotic locale.

The desert, that powerful setting, is just the type of place where contradiction, like the one Thoreau offers, seem to resolve themselves and where paradoxes shape reality. It is a landscape where the unseen is as undeniable as the awesome forces of nature that cut the extreme terrain. Nacer Khemir evokes this leviathan of the desert sea and then tries to wrestle a harness over the beast by contrasting it against an alienating modern world.

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Hamlet’s Arab Journey Review

hamlet_04042012In 1949, Ali Bakathir published The Tragedy of Oedipus. His Oedipus was not the one that we are familiar with. This Oedipus knows from the beginning of the play that he is Laius’ murderer and that the Oracle says he is the cause of the pollution that has lead to Thebes’ plague. As a mid-twentieth century Oedipus, he believes that the corrupt priesthood only wants to fill their pockets and do not care one iota for the people who are suffering. This is until Tiresias, who has been expelled from the priestly order for suggesting that maybe it would be nice to give some money to the poor, talks to him. Tiresias convinces him that the cabal of Theban priests are all false prophets and that the one true God is the God of Islam. Oedipus is convinced, and together Tiresias and Oedipus defeat the corrupt religious authorities and save Thebes by bringing the message of Islam.

This kind of ‘Arabicization’ of a ‘Western classic’ like Oedipus Rex may sound rather bizarre, or unlikely. However, alterations of this kind to texts considered part of the Western classical canon are central to the twentieth century Arabic tradition of engagement with seminal works of theatre. From the lowbrow to the sophisticated, every Western theatrical import was given a distinctly Arabic character. To give another example, one of the most respected poets of the age, Ahmed Shawqi, created a version of Antony and Cleopatra, called The Death of Cleopatra (Masra’ Kliobatra), in which the character of Cleopatra is turned into a patriotic, virtuous Egyptian who dies for the sake of her country.

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Liberation Square

liberation_03292012Ashraf Khalil’s Liberation Square offers a gritty and engrossing account of the events that took place in Egypt in 2011, using the voices of both Egypt’s most prominent political observers and the activists who risked everything in pursuit of an ever-elusive dream. Khalil, who has covered regional politics from Cairo, Jerusalem, and Iraq for a variety of publications over the past 15 years, adds his perspective to the narrative, allocating praise and blame in careful doses. An Egyptian-American raised in the States, Khalil’s personal stake in the outcome of this upheaval makes him a unique interlocutor. As such, Liberation Square is not simply a catalogue of Egypt’s revolution; rather, Khalil, who is not afraid of colorful metaphor or bawdy language, calls for systemic change. Delving into the psychology of the uprising, Liberation Square illuminates both how corrupt Mubarak’s regime had become, and how improbable the success of the uprising to oust it was. Continue reading Liberation Square