Comedy of Sorrows

“Written in direct response to the ongoing revolution in Egypt, Ibrahim El-Husseini’s Commedia Al-Ahzaan (Comedy of Sorrows) follows a young university-educated Egyptian woman through a series of encounters with different members of society. Through these encounters, she comes to realize how little she understands her own country.”

So Ibrahim El-Husseini’s post-revolution play has been translated into English by Rebekah Maggor and Mohammed Albakry, and there have been a number of dramatic stage readings of the translated version, including at Vanderbildt and the Radcliffe Institute, the latter of which you can  watch below:

Al Ahram has some comments on the play in an article on the changes in Egypt since the revolution for artists, describing “a shift in the representation of Egypt in songs and plays.”  Mainly the article focuses on the essentialist, mythical and longstanding depiction of Egypt as woman. But it also looks at how the play works,

Written in a mixture of poetry and prose, and consisting mainly of monologues, with very little dialogue, and short, disconnected scenes that merge realism with expressionism and are arranged by a kind of cinematic montage…

This is a difficult text to translate and so, something as always is lost in translation. Here’s an article on the play by Hani Omar Khalil at Culturebot. Khalil however believes this is remedied in the adaptation:

All the characters on stage employ Classical Arabic when speaking internally, but communicate with others in the Egyptian dialect. This is a critical linguistic attribute of the Arabic language that often gets lost in translation, but is nevertheless maintained steadily throughout the story thanks to expert casting.

He goes on to analyze the play, and the reason and time for writing it:

when first approached about writing the play, El-Husseini was himself resistant. He believed, like many Egyptians, that it was simply too soon to begin offering his own dramatic account of the meaning of the events of January 2011.

I find this interesting. Over at ArabLit there was a look at the dynamic between currant affairs and literature in a different light in examine “Who has the right to fictionalize Mohamed Bouazizi?”

In the case of the Comedy of Sorrows, who has the right to fictionalize the story of Khaled Said, and Mina Danyal, and all the others?

Personally? I found the beginning of the play compelling and strong, and felt it got more and more cliched and sentimental as it headed to the end. But that’s just me. I can also see that there are points where El-Husseini achieves his goal to “provide the audience with the Arab reality.”

Khalil writes:

In an introduction to the play by translators Mohammed Albakry and Rebekah Maggor, he describes his approach as a desire to “provide my audience with the Arab reality . . . and the ways that the theatre in particular is able to absorb that reality.” In many ways, this approach is uniquely suited to dramatic portrayals of what is referred to in the West as the “Arab Spring”. Absent any exoticizing or orientalizing adornment, Comedy of Sorrows is identifiably a work about resistance and hope, and how the nature of one can very often lead to the subversion of the other.”

This reflection of an Arab reality is exactly what older plays like Mohammad Maghut‘s Kasak ya Watan (“Toast to the Homeland”) attempted to do. Except in this case, it was less pan-Arab in scope, more intensely focused on Egypt. Just Egypt.

But I think I agree that this is not some uncomplicated celebration of what has been achieved. As Khalil notes

Rather than celebrating the Egyptian Revolution as historical moment–with a focus on why it happened, and what it was intended to accomplish–El-Husseini instead calls the audience to a less obvious and much more vexing inquiry: who was the revolution for? And whatever happened to them?

Take a look at Masrah, a wonderful resource in Arabic which is devoted to being a hub for Arab playwrights  for more on Arab drama. Also, watch this blog, there will be a lot more on Arab plays.

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