Struggling like an Immigrant

Babelmed | 23/09/2004

Adrian Grima interviews Nora Amin, an extraordinary writer, performer and theatre director who arrived in Malta on Thursday 16 September.

The highly acclaimed Egyptian writer, performer and theatre director Nora Amin has been invited to Malta by Inizjamed to lead a series of theatre workshops and to perform “ARAB” at the St. James Cavalier Theatre on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 September, 2004, at 8.00pm.

Nora Amin has been trained by international theatre masters, among whom Augusto Boal, the master and theoretician of the “Theatre of the Oppressed,” and she is the Arabic translator of his method and of his book Rainbow of Desire. During her stay in Malta, Ms. Amin will be leading a series of workshops with a group of students at Sir Luigi Preziosi Girls Secondary School in St. Andrews.

Her multi-media solo performance “ARAB” is based on four poems from the collection “Muslim” which she wrote in English while she was in the USA in 2003-2004. This 50-minute performance is in English, with an element of Arabic. “ARAB” includes video clips from two short films shot by the writer in the USA, “Space Within” (in collaboration with Meg Kowalski), and “Project ME: I in U (sa)”. Music is by Nader Sami, who will be in Malta to give workshops in October as part of Inizjamed’s Rhythm Diversity Euromed Youth project. Neveen Mohamed plays the Oriental drum.

Nora Amin is also a highly acclaimed writer who has published six novels and collections of short stories. The Cairo Times has described her as “one of the best-selling authors of her generation and a darling of the critics”. She has translated a number of books mainly about theatre from French and English into Arabic, and in 2002 she published The Egyptian Theatre and Human Rights: The Art of Claiming Our Right (2002), the first book on human rights and theatre in Egypt.

In November 2000 Nora Amin visited Malta for the first time to take part in the Malta Festival of Mediterranean Literature held at St. James Cavalier. During the festival she performed her long poem “The Text,” which was originally written in Arabic, with Hany Al Metennawy.

Nora Amin’s workshops and performances in Malta are being run by Inizjamed in collaboration with Sir Luigi Preziosi Girls Secondary School and with the support of the Embassy of Egypt, St. James Cavalier, and the Roberto Cimetta Fund for artistic mobility in the Mediterranean.

Struggling like an Immigrant

Adrian Grima – In Malta you will be conducting a series of workshops with a group of female secondary school students. Why have you chosen to work with one group rather than several groups of youth?
Nora Amin – To start with I would like to emphasize the importance of the group, and by that I mean not a number of individuals, but an entity that is formed from those individuals, an entity that is in harmony and mutual understanding, and one that shares the same issues and objectives. The group in that sense creates the character of the work, holds the key to its development, and to its growth. In the method of the theatre of the oppressed, and other improvisational work for non-performers, it is important to work within a steady group, therefore the very first step for such workshops is to create a group, or rather the conditions of having a group in the sense that I described.

So working with several gatherings of individuals would not have created any longterm character for the work, nor would it have provided a solid entity that can carry on with what it has learnt, and develop it, and perhaps even transmit it to other groups.

I am saying this knowing that the duration of my workshop in Malta is somewhere between an introduction and an early development phase – a more profound work would need a trainer from the community to continue over months if not years, and that is what I am hoping Inizjamed would realize, but I can also add that the detailed program of exercises can be very useful if it is taken over by the group. For that a decent amount of sessions of work is needed with the same people following the model of this introductory week, especially because it takes a while before each of them establishes a personal link with the others, a link that is based upon their prior knowledge, but one which functions through the new medium of the theatre workshop.

What I do with every group is different even if I apply the same training program. Everything has to be adapted to their character, their needs and what they want to express.

You have trained with Augusto Boal in person. How has your encounter with him and his “theatre of the oppressed” affected you as a person and as an artist?
In Rio De Janeiro, I reunited with the old notion of art as a tool for political and social change. I knew I wanted to become a joker ever since I translated Boal’s Rainbow of Desire, although the theoretical impressions are something totally different than what I lived and witnessed through the Center of the Theatre of the Oppressed.

The experience with Augusto Boal has been an eye opener, I have worked in mental and psychological hospitals, in a prison for men, in a rehabilitation institution/prison for teenagers, in communities deprived from basic conditions of life…etc. In short, as a person I have discovered the other side of the world in person, in flesh and bone. The revelation has not been happy as you may have guessed, but it definitely gave me – again as a person – big reason to live, to get back to the meanings of humanitarian acts, of political struggle and human solidarity.

Boal is a man who believes not only in changing the world, but in every human’s ability to make that change, for that he taught me that it is neither scary nor tragic to see what I saw, it is just rational to know the truth and to assume your responsibility towards it, towards changing it. It is amazing how much humour and energy he has and manages to project to his team in the face of all the sadness of the world. And so as an artist, I was able to see again political art as REAL, not just as a reminiscence of the socialist times and ideologies, not even an intellectual luxury, but as a solid tool and method that helps change, and takes theatre out of its traditional/elitist borders. Although most of my work as a director is oriented towards abstraction and metaphor, I somehow shifted to being able to induce a political sense into that work without aesthetic sacrifice.

Has the “theatre of the oppressed” managed to empower the young and deprived that you have worked with in Egypt and elsewhere?
I can definitely say that it has, although with the definition of “deprived” I want to be accurate as to say that I have not worked with economically deprived people, but rather with groups who were deprived of a self-representation, a self-expression, and a statement of their rights and opinion.

It has been a fantastic experience for everybody. Yasmine and Nader – the two members of my company, Lamusica Independent Theatre Group who will be taking part in Inizjamed’s Rhythm Diversity Training Course and Festival of popular music and dance in October – will tell you about it. The empowerment of those young women that I have worked with, for instance in Cairo and in Upper Egypt for 3 years, starts from “knowing who they are”, exploring their capacities in all senses, and therefore realizing their strength.

It is not an easy start in a society that continuously deprives you of your self-confidence, imposes models of female images and roles, and negates the power of thinking and reconstructing knowledge. The questioning process is not necessarily a habit for cultures that are still under patriarchal power and a traditional absolute value system, but this is how it all must start, eventually leading to a presentation and public expression of the self, a sort of active citizenship that acquires a voice and a clear presence. From there, each of the young women realized their hidden potentials, whether in decision making, in affirming a vital role in their community, or simply in creating their own path away from the easy alternatives and the inherited options.

Then comes the power of the group, the powerful terrain that adopts all those new energies and provides them with shelter, support and healthy growth. I am proud of my girls – they sometimes make me feel like an old mum (!!) – they have managed to win over their inner fears, frustrations, taboos and inhibitions, and they have created a model of young Egyptian women who know they can make a difference and realize change for the better. Writing literature often means breaking away from the mainstream, challenging the established order, be it literary, political, social, cultural, moral… And yet “high literature” is often a literature for those who have made it in society, those who have little interest in challenging the order within which they have established themselves. Do you see a contradiction here?
First of all, let us not forget that writing literature has many meanings, motivations and contexts, thus there have been writers who have written in favour of their powerful rulers and believing in them; there have been others who were paid by the existing governors to attack the former governors…etc. The history of each country is full of them, and they are considered as a bench mark most of the time due to the quality of their writing which was high, but had nothing to do with the quality of their ethics or socio-political commitment. Sometimes they just wrote for money, a fair business deal back then, and an equivalent to the mass media publicity for the government today (!!).

Second, let us distinguish the writing that challenges the status-quo, criticizes the existing value system, and breaks away from the mainstream aesthetics, by calling it ”New writing,” or writing that comes out of an opposition and produces one, a revolutionary kind of writing. In that case, it is almost by definition that this writing would never be considered as “High Literature,” since the concept of “High Literature” in the first place is produced by the hierarchy of the system and is its loyal mirror, which defines everything in the terms of that vertical hierarchy, and so a “High” literature is a literature that belongs to the High society, High politics, and High citizens.

On the other hand, the opposing literature is defined by its being against all that, and hence cannot be under the umbrella of what it is opposed to by definition. I want to say that if our writing comes under a “High literature” it would mean that we have failed, we have been tamed or embraced by the power. And so, our fate, and power, is to be the marginalized literary opposition that can – by accumulation and hard work – become the torch of change and an evidence for a new alternative cultural, political and social order.

In literary theory we talk a lot about the vital role of the reader in the writing of the literary text. How have your readers interacted with your literary work?
I have the privilege of being both a writer and a performer, and so my readings were fuelled by a performative sense of the words that helped find a great connection with my readers. It is always a pity that writers never happen to see their readers, while performers do everyday. This is why I am so keen on making as many readings of my work as I can, it has always provided me with a kind of feedback and support that triggers the next step in my writing. I do have a strong and almost personal relation with my readers, partly because of the nature and style of my writing that is accessible to everyone, but also because of the topics that I deal with, which speak to everyone in a personal tone, and create a kind of intimacy versus the hierarchy between the old writer (often male) in possession of knowledge and kindly educating the reader (!!).

I like to think that my readers and I are on the same platform, equal citizens searching for communication and exploring the world, as much as we explore who we are in the mirror of the others. In that sense, the way my readers see me, or connect with me, recreates who I am, gives a new social identity, “re-writes me.”

In your poem “The Illiterate Writer”, you describe the writer as “Struggling like an immigrant / Or a native illiterate / To create loss […] With words / That nobody knows / Nobody reads / And even she – he – cannot / Understand.” And yet, despite this sense of loss, you continue to write. Is it because you want to feel that you are somehow countering the “sudden slowness,” of “death taking hold / of its territory,” as you write in “Sudden Slowness”?

In your work as an educator working through theatre you believe that one cannot work with marginalized groups without dealing with, or taking stock of, the economic, social and political context in which they live. Doesn’t the same apply to non-marginalized groups?
Of course, only the difference is that with the marginalized groups of non-performers, these conditions become also the material of their work, the topics of their performances and the source/motivation of their improvisation, so these conditions acquire more importance because they are everything in the process. With performers/non-marginalized people, these conditions are considered as factors, but we know that they will not be as vital as in the other case. We know that these people would play any role, and get into any character because it is what they do, and so while the marginalized present themselves in person and realize a socio-political presence in their society, the others are only representatives of them.

Are the “arts” viewed as marginalized activities in Egypt? Do they inspire an elitist direction?
Egypt has such a great history with arts and culture, everybody knows it. Yet – as it is the case all over the world now – the culture of daily consumption, of pop art, has prevailed. This means that commercial movies, second rate pop songs, cheap video clips and void theatre shows, are ruling everywhere, at least ruling where money rules. So “Arts” which do not belong to that context are of course on the fringe, and I do not think that is synonymous with being elitist, because many of those artists come from social classes that are not elite at all, whether in the living pattern or in the thinking and values.

We must also take into account the fact that Egypt is a poor country, and so the economic conditions do not allow for fringe arts to become central, because they cannot answer the market’s demands on one hand, and on the other there is no economic, charitable or non-profit, structure to support them.

Adrian Grima

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s