Ahmed el Attar is no stranger to the challenges of working in Egyptian theatre. Over the past two decades he has battled limited funding, poor rehearsal facilities and weak professional networks, navigating a path between the rigidity of state-funded public theatre and the commerciality of private troupes to emerge as one of Egypt’s leading directors. His provocative and inventive works have offered insight into major social, political and economic issues, and have questioned the nature of acting, theatre and performance itself.
Born in Cairo, el Attar graduated from the capital’s American University with a BA in theatre in 1992. He was part of a generation of young playwrights determined to escape the overstaffing, bureaucracy and declining popularity of public theatre, and shift public perceptions of the medium’s content and form. From early in his career, his path towards the so-called ‘independent’ theatre was set.
“I was already someone who was very critical of my environment and culture, and I was seeking independence on a personal level,” he said in a recent interview with Culture+Conflict. “Theatre balanced that and channeled my desire for change to something more productive. I felt I had a voice, and wanted to find it. The independent scene was the place to do it.”
El Attar’s voice is certainly distinctive. The questions of space, mistrust of language and meditations on the family which recur in his productions have their roots in the social and political context of early 1990s Egypt. It was an era when official government rhetoric was rarely challenged: national television channels offered only credulous acceptance of the utterances of politicians which bore little resemblance to the socio-economic realities of life in the country. Satellite television and mobile phones didn’t exist, and contact with foreigners was limited.
“Myself and a lot of other artists in my generation had a very sceptical approach to language. We grew up with a complete prostitution of language, a political and social discourse which completely contradicted what we were living. We were told Egypt was a beautiful, safe place to be, but when you stepped outside social and political injustice were everywhere. My personal desire to not conform led me to become sceptical of the world…to break the narrative.”
The questioning of reality is a dominant theme in el Attar’s work, and in the context of the conformist early 1990s, the power of his early work Oedipus the President (1993/4) is easy to imagine. El Attar recreated the myth with contemporary political references, using three languages and innovative stage design, including a catwalk and constructing a stage behind the audience. The experience was formative in both creative and practical terms. “It allowed me to free myself from the linear narrative; it came out as a collage where one could take what they wanted,” he says. “But it also broke me for about two years… there was no government or foreign funding, and I fell apart for professional, personal and financial reasons. It taught me how to work with what I had, but also [led to] a time of reconstruction and reassessment.”
After Oedipus, el Attar left theatre to work as the head of the Egyptian Culture Development Fund. In this period he wrote his first text, The Committee, which deconstructed narratives of work, employment and power relations, and in its criticism of Egypt’s army attracted the attentions of state censors. The controversy sparked international interest, and the play was later shown in Oman.
After moving to Paris to study a Masters in Cultural Management at the Sorbonne, el Attar received funding from the Dutch Embassy and wrote Life is Beautiful or Waiting for My Uncle from America (2000), a piece of absurdist theatre which made heavy use of repetition, invented words and altered grammatical structure. The production was critically acclaimed in Egypt, and later toured in Germany, Oman and Lebanon. Offers of funding increased, and el Attar’s career took off. The productions Mother I Want to be a Millionaire (2004), Othello, or Who’s Afraid or William Shakespeare (2006) and Fuck Darwin, or How I’ve Learnt to Love Socialism (2007) followed.
In 2009, el Attar wrote what has become his most well-known work. On the Importance of Being an Arab is his deepest exploration of narrative yet: a conceptual monologue performed by himself, alone onstage, reading from sets of recorded telephone conversations between himself, friends and family. It represented an important shift in technique: instead of using an original or adapted script, the play used three sets of material: first conversations about the preparation for his second marriage, then discussions on Barack Obama’s speech at the American University in Cairo in 2010, and lastly – as Tahrir Square became the crucible of Cairo’s protests against the Mubarak regime – the Egyptian revolution.
On the Importance of Being an Arab was planned as an exploration of Arab identity. Its focus quickly shifted from the general to the specific, falling on el Attar himself. Its script is, in effect, non-scripted: a collection of verbatim, private reactions to personal events and current affairs which force the audience to consider the nature of reality and performance. “I’m not an actor, and I was put on stage, and we made a point of not making me act. It puts the question forward: where does acting stop? It’s a challenging piece for the audience.” After premiering at the 2009 Sharjah Biennial, the play was performed in nine countries, including Germany, France and the UK.
El Attar has in the past spoken of the inability of artists to represent accurately through their work the power of events such as the Egyptian revolution, stating that the intensity of the collective emotional discharge which followed the fall of Mubarak can only be approached obliquely. The idea echoes that of the German writer WG Sebald, who was convinced that the recent history of his country could not be approached directly, as the enormity of its horrors paralysed the ability to consider them rationally. El Attar often examines power in the context of family relationships, using for example motifs of the patriarch and servant to engage with historical events such as Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. His forthcoming production The Last Supper, due to premiere in October 2013, will take a similar approach to examine the Egyptian and Arab bourgeoisie.
El Attar’s approach to major social and political issues raises an important question. How should artists react to the immense social and political changes affecting the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring? For the first time, power lies with those who lack experience in ruling, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and although economic and political issues are top of the agenda the relationship between government and culture is bound to soon arise. El Attar sees the arts are crucial to the construction of a new Egyptian identity. “There will be a battle very soon between art and culture and whoever is in power. We have broken out of one narrative, and anyone who wants to control again needs to create a new narrative. It’s up to us to see whether another story can be created.”
For el Attar it is axiomatic that for the arts and culture to influence Egypt’s path in the post-Mubarak era, greater support must be given to emerging practitioners. Alongside his creative activities, he has been working to encourage the development of young performance and visual artists. In 2005 he founded Studio Emad Eddin, a centre that offers rehearsal, training and residency spaces to independent artists and troupes from Egypt and the Middle East. The studio provides training, residencies and educational programmes, and exposes performance artists to new working techniques. In the west such opportunities are taken for granted, but in the context of state-controlled theatre in the Middle East, the shift represents a real step forward.
El Attar regards the youth and diversity of the organisation as symbolic of the potential for positive change that lies in Egypt’s younger generations. Of its 2700 members, around 65% are under twenty-five and around 40% are female. “We are part of the young society; it’s getting younger and exposed to a multitude of things. Another narrative is bound to come out of us.”
From the 4th to the 28th April 2013, the second installment of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival will take place. The inaugural festival, organised by el Attar, went ahead in spite of limited funds and a febrile political environment, and offered lessons for this year’s installment. “Everyone was very insecure in the chaos and insecurity, and we made many mistakes – the programming was very dense, with nine concerts in two and a half weeks. We are now more organised, more coherent.”
The festival aims to re-appropriate public spaces to present concerts, theatre and performance art, workshops and lectures from over 150 Egyptian and international artists. In seeking to give artists access to new audiences and build international networks for collaboration, it is an ambitious undertaking. El Attar believes that the engagement of all levels of Cairo society with the festival is essential for its success. He will have to draw on the depths of his contacts and experiences to make it happen, and is looking forward to the challenge.
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