by Nourhan Tawfik

[quote] No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are no more than starting-points, which, if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or black, or western, or oriental.  Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities.No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about.  Survival in fact is about the connections between things; in Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the “other echoes [that] inhabit the garden.”  It is more rewarding – and more difficult – to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us.” But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how “our” culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter).”       -Edward Said [/quote]

[image_slider link=”#” source=””]  Director Ahmed El Alfy [/image_slider]
[image_slider link=”#” source=””] Performance of Alexandra Wood’s Unbroken.
Photos by Jamie Scott Smith. [/image_slider]
[image_slider link=”#” source=””] The performance of Third Floor. Photos by Elyse Marks. [/image_slider]

[image_slider link=”#” source=””] Hong Kong performance of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. Photos by Albert Cheug [/image_slider]

[image_slider link=”#” source=””] English adaptation of Egyptian playwright Ali Salem’s The Comedy of Oedipus, performed at Shubbak Festival in London, 2013. Photos by Ali Salem [/image_slider]

[image_slider link=”#” source=””] Performance of Dennis Kelly’s Orphans. Photos by Albert Cheug [/image_slider]

[image_slider link=”#” source=””] Performance of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room. Photos by DeeLee [/image_slider]

[image_slider link=”#” source=””] The performance of Luigi Pirandello’s 6 Characters in Search of an Author. Photos by Albert Cheung [/image_slider]


[dropcap color=”#00000″ type=”square”]E[/dropcap]l-Alfy Theatre Company is a new company based in both London and Cairo aiming to bridge the cultural gap between both countries through a renegotiated identification of the other.  The company produces bold and cutting-edge theatre, complemented with creative adaptations that add cultural relevance. Community Times spoke to Ahmed El-Alfy, theatre director and founder of El-Alfy Theatre Company, about his philosophy and dreams over a cup of coffee.

After graduating with a BA in political science, El-Alfy had no initial interest in undertaking theatre as a career.  In fact, he was interested in becoming a diplomat and chose to minor in theatre, believing that it would help him perfect his performance in the political domain.  But these aspirations eventually subsided, and he moved to Dubai, then to Hong Kong where he worked in the shipping field.  Later, when approached by a friend and asked whether he would consider a directing opportunity, El-Alfy decided to revisit his old interest.

“I remember quite well, it was Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and luckily enough, Time Out magazine of Hong Kong was present and wrote a very positive review about it,” says El-Afly.

Soon enough, El-Alfy was receiving recommendations from friends for potential directing projects.  A number of plays followed, and before he knew it, he found himself leading a double life: he would go to work during the day, and then head off to work in the theatre, often finishing around one in the morning.

But the real turning point came when he was working on a play titled Orphans by Olivier Award-winner Dennis Kelly.  “It was one boring night at the office. I found myself emailing Kelly, who was based in London, and invited him to come to Hong Kong to attend the play.  To my surprise he accepted my invitation and flew in to watch the play.”  As El-Alfy explains, what happened next would change the course of his life.  “Kelly loved the play and advised me to direct my full attention to theatre and seriously consider it as a profession.”

Inspired, El-Alfy decided to ditch his corporate life and move to London where he earned his MA in theatre directing from the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.

“It was sort of a reckless decision – my parents were shocked when they heard the news.  But I was determined to do it because I despised the idea of spending the next 30-35 years until retirement working in the corporate field,” he says.

Bridging Cultures

Upon completing his master’s degree, El-Alfy, who up until then had focused only on western productions, began to incorporate his own Arab background into his work.

This decision was fueled with his observation that London-based Arab directors always fell into the trap of adapting Arabic theatre productions inundated with the classical clichés of what it means to be an Arab.  According to him, these attempts are often misplaced, and hence lend themselves to misrepresentation of Arab culture.  “I disliked the fact that an actor had to dress, sound and look like an Arab.”

What aggravated the problem, El-Alfy adds, was that in their adaptations of Arabic plays, British directors would always search for Arab-looking actors who mastered the Arabic accent.

“I was wondering why this was the case in Arab productions, but not in adaptations of Russian plays, for example,” he says. “You often have a British actor speaking with a British accent while playing the role of a Russian, and the audience has no problems with that.”

El-Alfy therefore resorted to creating English adaptations of Arabic plays, looking at the plays of Tawfik El Hakim, amongst others for that purpose.  It was during a vacation in Egypt that he stumbled upon The Comedy of Oedipus, written by Egyptian playwright Ali Salem, whose work is banned in Egypt.  “I immediately fell in love with the English version of the play and found it to be really funny.  It was even funnier when I read it in Arabic.”  El-Alfy was determined to translate the play and and perform it in London.  “I approached the Shubbak festival in London and began working on the adaptation.  And it happened; an adaptation of an Arabic play with a completely English cast in London!”

While El-Alfy’s intention was to challenge orientalist misconceptions of the East, he was also as determined to bring about this two-sided bridging of cultures, refusing to limit himself to the confines of his own culture and choosing to revisit, complicate and problematize mutual misperceptions.

“We always fall into the trap of believing that we are being misunderstood by the West, but do we really understand them as well?  Because we don’t,” he says.  “For example, look at the Arabic adaptations of English plays which ended with Shakespeare and Molière.  Since then, no real effort has been made to re-visit such translations and adaptations, which surely produced this knowledge gap between both societies.”

As El-Alfy notes, this cross-cultural philosophy is reflected in the company’s multi-cultural team.  “It is a great asset to have such a team, and it is growing as I’m currently trying to recruit more people from here.”  Once an English play is translated into Arabic, or vice versa, El-Alfy tells me, a process of co-writing ensues, bringing team-members together to add the necessary adaptations to bring in the cultural flavor.  “In doing that, we try to unearth reality.  This is not to say that we are interested in preaching to the audience about what should constitute their conscience.  We leave this up to them to decide.”

Theatre in Egypt

In his attempt to fulfill this two-sided bridging of cultures, El-Alfy chose to initiate his Arabic adaptations of English plays with an Arabic version of Barry Keeffe’s English play Gottcha,  “Afashtak”  a hearty, beautiful and emotional roller-coaster of a play, supplemented with a bit of roughness.

But as El-Alfy explains, an Egyptian theatre scene inundated with limitations thwarts the smooth implementation of this process of adaptation.  As he says, the political atmosphere in Egypt is now much more relaxed than before, the deteriorating status of theatre and a dearth in professional networking platforms render this artistic pursuit a difficult one.  “In Egypt, theatre has lost its prestige, compared to London where people still respect theatre and would take note of my name the moment I mention that I am a theatre director.”

El-Alfy adds that Egyptian theatre makers themselves share responsibility for this problem.  “Many regard theatre as a second-hand profession and are therefore ready to abandon it the moment they come across any opportunity to work in the film industry, where pay is much better.  Furthermore, these theatre makers pursue themes that interest them, neglecting the taste of the audience and whether they would be able to relate to the topic or not.”

As to the inexistence of professional channels or platforms where directors can find potential crew members, El-Alfy attributes the problem to casting agencies, which place an emphasis on physical appearance rather than talent.  In doing that, they try to circumvent the lack of talent of the auditioners by resorting to acting classes. “Add to this a lot of fraud, and the resulting lack of trust that people have in auditions and casting calls is actually justified.  There’s also the problem that talented people are unable to market themselves.”

Despite dealing with very real difficulties on a daily basis, El-Alfy stands out as a dreamer.  He tells me that his aspiration is to produce an Egyptian play in London’s West End.

“I want it to reach the mainstream, for people not to even bother to find out whether it’s originally Arabic or not, because the way I see it is that an Arabic play should be treated as a work of art, regardless of its nationality.  My dream is to have the audience say: ‘we’re going to this play’ instead of we’re going to ‘this Egyptian play,’” he says.

As for Egypt, El-Alfy hopes theatre re-claims its position as an esteemed yet accessible domain.  His dream is a humanist dream, which renegotiates pre-formed ideas about reality, the state of being and cemented identities, all with the aim of bridging gaps between people.p

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