Letter From Egypt: Rave (Islamic) reviews for Egyptian theater troupe

Letter From Egypt: Rave (Islamic) reviews for Egyptian theater troupe

The Sanna Sharq theater company in Egypt draws crowds to its political plays flavored with sharp anti-American rhetoric.

The attention isn”t focused so much on the plots or message, though, as on the absence of female characters. The troupe”s strait-laced style prohibits faux alcoholic beverages, vulgar language or anything else that goes against Islamic practices.

Sanna Sharq reflects an effort among Muslim activists in the biggest country in the Middle East to infuse the arts, fashion, business and even popular culture with Islamic values. At the same time, the government is working hard to keep Islam out of politics. So when the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest opposition group, endorsed Sanna Sharq, the troupe became a source of controversy.

“It probably would not have gotten much notice if it wasn”t for the context,” Rafiq al-Saban, a critic and the author of the book “Islam and Theater,” said in an interview. “The Brotherhood is challenging the government”s hold on power.”

Eighty years old, this Islamic organization has been formally banned from politics since 1954, when it was accused of attempting to kill Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser, who later became president. Nonetheless the Brotherhood controls a fifth of the lower house of Parliament through deputies listed as independents.

The group is a prominent advocate of the idea that culture and Islam are compatible. It promotes pop bands that provide “a touch of religion, politics, love and revolution,” according to its Web site, ikhwan.org. Five are all-girl, so the sexes don”t mix on stage.

In September 2006 the Brotherhood issued a statement that endorsed theater generally and pointed out that in the 1920s and 1930s the brother of its founder, Hassan al-Banna, wrote plays that were performed at the Cairo Opera House.

So in February when Mohsen Rady, a Brotherhood member of Parliament, encouraged the public to attend Sanna Sharq plays because they were “clean and have a valuable spiritual message to portray,” government-controlled and independent newspapers alike took it to mean the company was an Islamic front.

“Of course, it is absolutely Islamic theater,” said Saban. “It preaches morals and prayer.”

A veteran actor and troupe member, Abdel-Aziz Makhioun, insisted that the company had no connection to the Brotherhood and blamed journalists for stirring up a false storm. “It”s just because we”re something new,” he said in an interview.

Ahmed Mursi, who writes plays for the company, said, “We are in a Muslim society, so any work I produce will be based on the values in which I live.”

Current theater in Egypt covers the spectrum from foreign classics and experimental pieces to vaudeville farces filled with music and sexy double-entendres.

Political theater grew up as a reaction to domination by Britain from the 1920s to 1952, when army officers overthrew the British-installed monarchy. Lately, several stage and movie productions have taken an anti-American bent. In one, actors portraying U.S. marines pretended to shoot members of the audience.

Sanna Sharq – the name means Eastern Ray of Light – began in 2002. It is part of a small business with the same name that produces Islamic preaching shows and recordings of religious songs. “We”re a counter to cheap, crude entertainment,” said Mursi, 38.

His latest play aroused the conjecture about a new Islamic school of theater. “The Code” presented a fictional invasion of Basharistan (Egypt) by Robotica (the United States). It ran for 25 performances in February through April – long by the standards of Egypt”s commercial theater, where plays come and go within a week.

The leader of Robotica dressed in silver lamé; hapless rebels in Basharistan wore ragged street clothes. During the last performance in April, an actor playing a waiter in a teahouse got the most applause. He delivered Greek chorus-style speeches about the need for prayer and lamented that Basharistan”s troubles came from having forgotten God.

“The message is that our problems are of our making and through Islam we can resolve them,” Mursi said.

Sanna Sharq has a peculiar marketing style: It sells tickets first, and when it fills enough seats, it puts on a play. So far, it has presented “Wake Up, People,” a drama about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and “Vietnam 2,” depicting clueless American troops in Iraq, in addition to “The Code.”

The company”s schedule follows the rhythm of Egypt”s seasons: no productions during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month; none during school exams, when families stay shut in at home; and none during August vacations.

Although women don”t appear on stage, they do attend the shows. At a few recent performances, all wore head scarves in the current pious style.

Makhioun, 60, dismisses the absence of female cast members. “The plays so far simply had no roles for them,” he said, noting that “The Code” was set in a working-class coffee shop, a place women seldom venture.

Mursi said he was wrestling with whether to include women in his future scripts. If he does, he said actresses would dress in head scarves, long sleeves and ankle-length dresses.

“Women certainly can”t be showing off their bodies,” he said. “Look, an actress”s job is to make the audience believe in a role. Whether she”s in a scarf is not important.”