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A passage to Cairo: do whatever you have to do to get to this theatre festival, a playwright urges.

  "Oh Boatman, of your favor,
  take me across
  To see my love once, then bring
  me back across.
  His land is far, and who will
  take me across?"
  --from Tides of Night by
    El-Warsha Theatre Company

The annual Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre, known as CIFET, is a mess, in some ways deliberately so--and welcome where our coarser voice might have estranged us. It's a timing thing--at an historical moment when we are crushing out every humane premise for hospitality, this opportunity to show face, to sustain dialogue, to meet, scheme, commiserate and aspire with fellow artists sets a table, sustaining a small but crucial option for discourse.

Find a way to get there.

Egypt, enough history in it to make you cry into your breakfast, struck me on my first visit as a brilliantly energetic, troubled and canny country. It seems to manage the incredible trick of holding key-player status on the contemporary political and cultural scene without getting beaten purple. The country burns hot trying to keep its shit together; "experimental" and "theatre" have a hard time getting loose.

But after centuries of use/abuse, Cairo is positioned extremely well for exchange: The government works through a heavy political legacy, behind cracked walls, old-utopia gray, eczematous in the sun, and, down the same alley, the gorgeous, extensive demands of Islam. Cafes are freighted with head-in-hands exhausted men trying to figure how to get money, innovation and humor to flow through the adamant of the day. Women hit a very low ceiling; black Africans, too.

This and not this: cooling down with pomegranate juice on a Nile bridge ... clarinet-crazy weddings ... religious but not pervasively fundamentalist, authoritarian and nationalist without being fascist ... a massive sense of the State, but room to get around it.


Cairo is much too much to take in in 10 days, but the 15th edition of CITEF provides me a window onto blaring experience--a small window, a fast-moving cab. I realize quickly how much thinking I've done about the Middle East with how little content. A well-meaning American strain in me wants to see the rest of the world as proto-Saved, in need of a back-thump and some self-control. But a short time here seals the absurdity of the notion that anything but this place could possibly be in charge of this place. I wasn't thinking at all; I was listening through a blister-popped speaker. Drop all the bass and reverb out of almost any pop tune and the sound is sour; what we tweak to extremism is the treble in a much more complex sound.

The festival is unashamed of its censorship and righteousness (kin of disorder). A mess, and so vital. Sixty-six groups from 41 countries. Go with work, go to deliver a paper or judge on the panel or to watch; suggest with presence that Americans have their bodies in the world as much as they have their heads in the airline magazine version of it.

THE FESTIVAL IS STATE-TO-STATE; countries are allowed one official entry apiece, and the entries come through government agencies. From the start, one senses that the event is designed to present the feel of political openness versus cultural openness, without achieving either. The "experimental" in the title is a very stinky red herring; panel discussions went around and around on this word and got nowhere. Playwright Mac Wellman, whose paper I proxied in, is apt:
   The crisis in experiential theatre is emblematic of the larger
   political patterns of our time. All theatre, especially that of the
   highest order, is local, of one special place and time. And I would
   add that all theatre of the highest order is experimental.
   Experimental in conception, experimental in execution, experimental
   in the effects it hopes to achieve. In this sense all theatre,
   especially experimental theatre, is    profoundly political.
   Political intrinsically, whether the message and content be
   political or not.

This cuts to the quick in circumstances where efficiency is not the order of the day. If granted an official position by the three-member selection panel (in this case, all non-Egyptian), a visiting group is given room, board and technical help. But notice of acceptance this last round was not given until four days prior to opening day. If granted permission to perform without official recognition, varying degrees of technical support may be available: Companies are steered to spaces (a number of fine venues around town) and are listed on the schedule. But the schedule is some times inaccurate, incomplete and hard to get hold of ... A festival about the appearance of a festival?


This is ideal, in a way--inefficiency plus a concentration of resources opens the Feast of the Cunning, the unstoppable fringe. There you can sniff around persistently, find out who's on next year's panel, say hello, and you can likely manufacture enough of an invite to wheedle your way over, if on your own dime. Knowing someone (friend, friend of a friend) on the ground who speaks Arabic, or is at least a sporty traveler, will ease the way.


The intrepid can break Cairo down to a kind of Brooklyn reasonably quickly: The subway is limited but clean and hits the highlights; buses are occult (better the cabs, which are everywhere). Crime is low, food is cheap; though tobacco is well liked, alcohol consumption is low, so that sullen violence is elided. Scams are run on tourists, as they probably should be. An exhausting pressure: avoiding sales, as if pop-ups and spam were suddenly walking around talking at you; but the chatter threads with the traffic noise, threads with the calls to prayer, threads with silence. It doesn't take forever to pull to perspective.

Despite CIFET's efforts at limiting the discourse to its frame (heavily produced, TV-friendly opening and closing ceremonies), rich rewards stream through. There are some fine performances. Algeria presents an amped-up folk piece along the lines of the San Francisco Mime Troupe but with a deeper sense of historical convention (coupled with vivid, slang-hot glee). South Korea weighs in with a beautiful piece called Karma that wins the festival prize. Rwanda is represented by an amateur group (Izuba, "The Sun"), wholly moving: this band of refugee survivors enacting murder with a cardboard machete and real, puddling terror yields full, actual drama; their play is called Wipe Off Your Tears and Keep Standing. Inad Theatre of Palestine is successful with My Dreams Have No Limits, a well-rendered, well-received play on the life of Che Guevara. The physical act of being there to watch shows it is not hard to make the world small; the Internet supports intimacy, but is not intimacy. Each fine show, each deep conversation, is a reminder of how important it is to shift our selves from virtual to actual.

SMALL CAIRENE GROUPS HAVE A HARD time retaining independence--take government money and you have to submit your work to government censors (who bar nudity, profanity, homosexuality, e.g.). Even if you don't take money, the state pounds the censors to get to you, and if they don't, you "get" yourself, censoring preemptively. Workers find it difficult to find and sustain voices, to maintain collegial conversations. Local theatres were shunned by CIFET and shunned it back--but there was access via the midnight house-party dinner circuit to El Warsha. El Warsha ("The Workshop," Hassan El-Geretly, artistic director) is a company one can really learn from, work with and admire; they are agile on the tightrope between official and independent; as large as they can be outside the mainstream; expressive, authentic, but cagey (Laura Farabough wrote a fine piece on them for TheatreForum in the early '90s). They tour extensively, and are not pimping the local. At the same time, a slow and thorough method augers them deep into Egypt: They are absorbed by indigenous forms, from stick dancing, story-telling and shadow puppets, to cabaret songs of the '20s--and they are game to experiment, with dance-forms, non-linear narrative and urban soundscapes.

After a few especially long days of smoke machines and academic gas, a group of us found our way there and heard El Warsha company members--young, rock-sexy singers--wail on old Egyptian love songs, backed by a tight acoustic band (the tabla player almost literally out of this world, neck a loose garden hose, undisguised, public bliss). I'd struggle back to Cairo for another couple of meals with El Warsha alone: The city is 16 million deep and there is much, much life to contact.

Reasons to scheme passage: for a flash-card appreciation of work from a part of the world that is typically ignored or demonized or ridiculed here; as an excuse to get to Cairo's rough-and-tumble, anxieties, secrets (City of Big Smoulders), thrills; to intersect with some hard-working people; to eat late, hear good music, lay groundwork for collaborations. And next year's festival will take place in November--much cooler.

Playwright Erik Ehn is on the staff of California Institute for the Arts.
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Title Annotation:Postmark: Cairo; Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre
Author:Ehn, Erik
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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