Theaters of Citizenship. Aesthetics and Politics of Avant-Garde Performance in Egypt
By Sonali Pahwa
When the dust of a revolution settles, its sense memory lives on in protest songs, poems, and chants. In the years leading up to the Egyptian uprising of 2011, performance also cultivated repertoires of dissident citizenship. In the free-spirited theater of public university students and unemployed or under-employed graduates, a generation of critical debates on the norms and forms of state power found a lively public forum. Theaters of Citizenship analyzes pre- and post-revolution movements for free theater in urban Egypt (2004-2014) as an embodied means of staging the relationship of critical youth to autocratic cultural and political authority.
Long before the recent Egyptian revolution, satirical and political theater had been a rite of passage for urban youth. Eminent writers like Yusuf Idris and Tawfiq al-Hakim wrote on the need for distinctly Egyptian dramatic literature, and political leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser not only reminisced about their university theater days but funded state theaters with full-time staff including playwrights, directors, and actors. When Hosni Mubarak launched a program of economic and cultural globalization in the late 1980s, theater was a key target of his reforms. The new Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater (CIFET), under the stewardship of Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, reinvested state money in a glittering showcase of transnational performance for ten days each September.
Amateurs in their twenties and thirties who saw their chance for employment in state theaters thwarted, used CIFET as a space for gaining recognition. They also framed a manifesto toward a sustained platform for independent theater, with legal recognition and without censorship. Theaters of Citizenship traces the evolution of this manifesto movement, particularly its gender and generational politics, as dramatists moved from claiming the right to intellectual freedom with state support, to forming institutions that were independent of the Ministry of Culture. As a civil rights initiative embedded within a theatrical movement, it was a cultural as well as political avant-garde.
In Europe and the United States, theatrical avant-gardes are associated with moments of political crisis, such as the 1960s student movements with which the Situationist International was allied. Egypt’s independent theater was a longer phenomenon, formed during decades of Mubarak’s dictatorship. The dramatists I followed during my research made theater in an alternative infrastructure of cultural production they had developed, encompassing university theaters and state-owned Cultural Palaces as well as foreign cultural centers. This movement at the margins of formal institutions fostered dramatists who were more critical of state power than the elderly administrators of state theaters and their docile protégés. I borrow Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s concept of the Undercommons, a space where minority activists gather and plan, to conceptualize the free theater movement as a subaltern avant-garde. It was a space sustained by generations of independent-minded young intellectuals and artists linked by their outcaste status with respect to state theaters. They formed an “undercommons of Enlightenment,” in Harney and Moten’s term, that theorized revolution in structures of artistic and intellectual as well as political authority. My book examines the interplay of aesthetic innovation and political ideology in independent theater, situating revolutionary practice in different sites of generational identity performance.
The politics of identity during neoliberal transformations in Egypt’s early twenty-first century played out in performance genres ranging from festival theater to “personal development” workshops (al-tanmiya al-bashariya) focused on bodily discipline. Independent dramatists participated in many of these venues as performers, educators, and organizers. My concept of avant-garde performance follows their varied efforts at using art to center questions of youth identity amid political and economic change. Their politics were not exclusively leftist, but like the mass of revolutionaries in 2011, dissented in various ways against the state’s abandonment of the citizenry. In this respect, the twenty-first century theatrical avant-garde was part of the undercommons of neoliberal culture and politics. The inclusivity of this youthful dissensual space that included novelists, poets, and activists as well as dramatists, made it a recognized part of intellectual life in Egypt’s cities.
A key way in which independent theater dissented against the Mubarak regime that oversaw cultural globalization was by staging cosmopolitan culture on its own terms. Egyptian theater had been shaped by transnational exchange since the nineteenth century, when the national theater was built alongside an opera house, for festivities inaugurating the Suez Canal. Syrian troupes adapted French and Italian drama here, and polyglot dramatists from Alexandria and Cairo wrote plays that drew on popular theater genres of the Mediterranean. Even after the nationalist cultural reforms in the mid-twentieth century, including the founding of a network of state theaters, the distinction between foreign and Egyptian drama remained blurred. Each of these theaters featured mixed repertoires of translated and Arabic drama, European and local avant-garde styles. Eclecticism flourished in theater even as television was increasingly defined by state ideologies and nationalist concerns. Theater was an art primarily for the educated, and carved out a space for them to translate modern cultural phenomena in embodied terms. The plays that I study in this book took up themes of media globalization and feminism, for example, grounding these phenomena in the experiences of young urban Egyptians. At the same time, independent dramatists used the cultural authority of translated texts and foreign collaborators to assert themselves as transnational intellectuals.
Transnational cultural networks have ways of supporting national rights movements, and Egypt’s independent dramatists gained support from connections they made at CIFET over the years. Theaters of Citizenship traces the formation of repertoires of citizenship across national and transnational, aesthetic and political modes. Since theater had long been a meeting point for critical intellectuals, it was a natural venue for developing these repertoires in relative freedom from state repression. After all, what political harm could urban students and graduates do? When the Egyptian state got an unexpected answer to its rhetorical question in 2011, it clamped down on free theater severely. This movement is no longer as lively or free in the era of counter-revolution, but remains a holding ground for aesthetic and political imagination. Its practitioners continue to engage in critical thought and practice in the undercommons of social institutions, and hope for a chance to stage these when the time is ripe.
 Stefano Harney/Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Wivenhoe et, al.: Minor Compositions, 2013.
Sonali Pahwa is Associate Professor of Theatre Arts & Dance at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Theaters of Citizenship: Aesthetics and Politics of Avant-Garde Performance in Egypt (Northwestern University Press, 2020). Holding a PhD in cultural anthropology from Columbia University, she studies the social life of live and digitally mediated performance in the Arab world. Sonali was a Fellow of the research program Europe in the Middle East – the Middle East in Europe (EUME) in 2009-10.
Citation: Sonali Pahwa, Theaters of Citizenship. Aesthetics and Politics of Avant-Garde Performance in Egypt, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.10.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25188.