A bittersweet remembrance of Cairo’s dream for a British audience
The large blocks hanging over the stage recreate graffiti from 2011 Cairo. The soundtrack takes the audience - in a manner that seems skillfully scripted - from the loud and festive Mahraganat street music, to the dreamier and nostalgic Abdel Halim, and finally to the politically conscious Sheikh Imam, bitterly singing about broken dreams under oppressive rule.
And then the play starts.
The speech of a chorus representing the city takes us back to a time when we “were able to imagine the possibility of tasting freedom”. But “this story isn’t about that dream”, the city chorus tells us, “this is a story about death. The death of that dream.”
The play’s title, You Bury Me (or Toqburni in Arabic) refers to this bittersweet, love-hate relationship to Cairo, to the dream of freedom and to the death of that dream. It is also an Arabic term of endearment that is not used in Egypt.
In Syria and Lebanon, it means "may you outlive me" but it also carries a sacrificial element, implying: "I am willing to be buried for your sake." At first, the title seemed like a misappropriation of the Levantine term in a context where it did not belong. Eventually, it turns out the playwright is using the term to refer to the characters' sacrificial love towards a Cairo that sometimes suffocates and buries them.
The play shows an intimate familiarity with Cairo - its rhythm, its traffic, its soundscape, how at times it feels suffocating and how, at times, especially when that time is 2011, it becomes a space to dream. The playwright’s pen name, Ahlam (literally dreams), is perhaps a tribute to this last aspect.
The play is about six characters as they navigate Cairo and the dying out of the dream. There's Osman, an activist and writer who is clearly depressed but holding on to the belief of the revolution and to blogging as his last expression of freedom; and Rafik, who graduated with a degree but holds little hope of employment. Then there's Alia and Tamer, an interfaith couple - Muslim and Coptic Christian - who swing between romanticism, lust and prohibition and whose love cannot escape the shadow of politics as Alia comes from a family of police and army officers. And finally, there are the two younger sisters of Tamer and Osman, Lina and Maya, two high-schoolers in an international school who are growing up in the wake of the collapse of the dream and are driven instead to a life of hedonism.
The characters are very real, but they all come from the same bubble, which the play doesn’t fail to highlight. In a moment of rising tension between the two friends, Rafik taunts Osman. “The problem … isn’t about who’s in power or which fascist side you want to side with … It’s us and people like us. It’s our comfortable little messed-up bubble," he says.
"The vulnerable are still vulnerable. The poor are still dying … They continued dying while we played revolutionaries.”
Yet for all its references to the layers of Cairo, its intimate familiarity with the city, and its conscious denunciation of the bubble that ensconces its characters, the narrative of the play doesn’t take them out of this bubble.
The play, like its characters, runs away from the collective dream to limited individualistic concerns
In a place like Cairo, it is easy for such a bubble to burst. The year 2011 was such a moment, when people from different classes, neighbourhoods and backgrounds rubbed shoulders and shared each other’s concerns.
The play makes a cursory, though potent, reference to this fact in one of its Tahrir scenes: the uprising was “a city getting to know its neighbours for the first time”. And yet the narrative seems to remain unaffected. The story of the revolutionary decline since 2011 is also the story of the re-bubbling of this class, which this play fails to tell.
Instead, the play, like its characters, runs away from the collective dream to limited individualistic concerns. The collective dream keeps coming back in haunting - and wonderfully scripted and staged - scenes, but it remains a haunting spectre the characters are running away from rather than rekindling.
There is an undeniable poignancy in the story of the death of the dream affecting the personal lives, down to intimate details, of the characters. The characters were already "in freefall. And then the revolution happened", giving purpose and meaning to their lives.
Its defeat meant the return of the characters to their freefall, which we witness on stage. And yet something is lost in this personal and intimate narrative of the legacy of a [failed] revolution.
Despite being punctuated by political notes harkening back to the Tahrir uprising, one of the major drawbacks of this play is how it subdues the political to the individualistic, focusing on sexual escapades and prohibitions.
Eventually, it is Rafik, who refuses to keep a low profile concerning his homosexuality, and not Osman, the outspoken political activist, who is forcibly disappeared. In reality, it would be the other way around. But western audiences obviously prefer to hear about individual coming-of-age and coming-out struggles rather than about political struggles. The play beautifully harkened back to a dream, only betraying it for the sake of its western audience.
But the private concerns of the characters are also betrayed. An unsettling scene where Alia accidentally breaks her hymen and slowly but dreadfully realises what this entails, drew laughter from the audience.
The scene may indeed be well-scripted and well-played out, but the task of dramaturgy, of testing how the content on stage would fall upon the viewers’ sensibilities, is missing. An Egyptian’s tragedy becomes the laughingstock of a British audience.
Unlike the relatability of its beginning, the play’s ending feels alienated and far from reality. Alia and Tamer, who in reality would be faced with a set of difficult - but not impossible - choices, are put in a nonsensical scenario whereby they attempt to flee to Europe on a boat - a bad-taste appropriation of the plight of undocumented immigrants that remains unfaithful to the story being told.
False, liberal hope
Alia, who would "want to do something and then suddenly doesn’t", is contrasted by Maya, who embraces life, with all its pleasures and all its risks, to the fullest, and who is also “much braver … much wiser as well” than her brother, Osman.
The vignette of Lina and Maya presents the story of a new hope that buds despite the difficulties, and that is embodied in a new generation that was inspired by the uprising but is not as burdened by the trauma of its failure.
Lina’s sexual revolution, nonetheless, is all about her individual indulgence, not about finding systems of support
Lina’s sexual revolution, nonetheless, is all about her individual indulgence, not about finding systems of support and modes of acceptability that would make the lives of young people, and women in particular, easier in that regard. Any hope the play provides is a hope of escaping from the collective dream.
The play ends with Lina and Maya, now lovers, dancing together as the city watches. The young girls, unlike Rafik, are not eager to lock themselves in a search for “identity”. They even make fun, in exaggerated American accents, of "coming out" scenes, as something that belongs to the cliches of US television rather than to their own experiences.
But even in its defiance of the imposition of western sexual identities, the imposition of the western-liberal notions of freedoms upon the Egyptian dream as the last hope leaves a bitter aftertaste; an uneasy feeling that our dream was momentarily revived, only to be sacrificed.
You Bury Me is showing at the Orange Tree Theatre in London from 27 March to 22 April
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.