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From Tahrir to ‘Tahrir’: Some Theatrical Impulses toward the Egyptian Uprising1


In November 2011, on the brink of a new wave of conflict over Egypt's future, an obviously energized audience crowded into Cairo's Rawabet Theatre for The Tahrir Monologues, a documentary play celebrating the Eighteen Days leading to Hosni Mubarak's ouster. Apparently a premature celebration, the show turned out instead to be a self-conscious nostalgia exercise meant to register the decay of revolutionary ideals. This essay analyses The Tahrir Monologues and several other theatrical responses to the unfolding – not to say unravelling – situation in post-Mubarak Egypt. Amid the grotesque improvisations of power, I ask, what can scripted theatre still say? For an answer I turn to an American University in Cairo production of Sa'adallāh Wannūs's 1994 masterpiece Rituals of Signs and Transformations – one of three productions of this play worldwide in 2012–13. Why this play now? The answer lies in its ingenuity, its passion and, ultimately, I argue, its prophetic pessimism.

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I am grateful to Ken Seigneurie for organizing the MLA session that provoked this paper and to him, as well as Hazem Azmy, Marvin Carlson, and two anonymous reviewers at TRI, for helpful comments and encouragement.

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2 McLoughlin, Kate, Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

3 See, most recently, the category of ‘elegaic humanism’ in Seigneurie, Ken, ‘Discourses of the 2011 Arab Revolutions’, Journal of Arabic Literature, 43, 2–3 (2012), pp. 484509.

4 Cameron Hu, ‘The Ambivalent Archive’, paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, Denver, November 2012. I am grateful to Cameron Hu for sharing a copy.

5 See Litvin, Margaret, ‘When the Villain Steals the Show: The Character of Claudius in Post-1975 Arab(ic) Hamlet Adaptations’, Journal of Arabic Literature, 38, 2 (2007), pp. 196219.

6 See, e.g., Martin, Bradford, The Theater Is in the Street: Politics and Performance in Sixties America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004).

7 Personal communication, November 2011.

8 In 2011 and 2012 these included 18 Days (ten narrative shorts by Egyptian directors), Back to the Square (dir. Petr Lom), Bloody Wednesday: The Battle of Tahrir Square (dir. Omar Robert Hamilton), In Tahrir Square: 18 Days of Egypt's Unfinished Revolution (dir. Alpert and O'Neill), Egypt: The Story behind the Revolution (dir. Khaled Sayed), Stories from Tahrir (dir. Khaled Sayed), Tahrir: Liberation Square (dir. Stefano Savona), Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician (dir. Amin, Ezzat and Salama), The Women of Tahrir (dir. Yasmin Moll); Words of Witness (dir. Mai Iskander).

9 Details on this project and links to reviews are at Video is at

10 For a wonderful process photograph see Daniel Finnan, ‘Cairo's street artists defy authorities with graffiti protest’, RFI English, 25 May 2012, available online at For analysis of the murals’ evolution at two different points in time see Mona Abaza, ‘An Emerging Memorial Space? In Praise of Mohammed Mahmud Street’, Jadaliyya, 10 March 2012, available online at; and Soraya Morayef, ‘The Mohamed Mahmoud Mural: Whitewashing Cairo's Memory of the Past’, Atlantic Council EgyptSource, 21 September 2012, available online at See also Morayef's blog at For a helpful broader perspective see Winegar, Jessica and Schielke, Samuli, ‘The Writing on the Walls of Egypt’, a photo essay in Middle East Report, 265 (Winter 2012), available online at

11 See Sherif Tarek, ‘Egypt's Islamists Dominate Tahrir Square's Dense Friday Protest’, ahramonline, 18 November 2011, available online at

12 On the notion of cultural repertoire in this context see Elliott Colla, ‘The Poetry of Revolt’, Jadaliyya, 31 January 2011, available online at; and especially Colla, Elliott, ‘The People Want’, Middle East Report, 263 (Summer 2012), available online at

13 See subtitled trailer at

14 See Basiouny, Dalia, ‘Performance through the Egyptian Revolution: Stories from Tahrir’, in Houssami, Eyad, ed., Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre (London: Pluto Press, 2012), pp. 4254, here 43. For one audience member's account see

15 Quoted in Sara Elkamel, ‘The Performer: Sondos Shabayek’, GlobalPost, 1 August 2012, available online at

16 Rowan El Shimi, ‘Tahrir Monologues: A Trip Back in Time to the 18 Days That Changed Egypt’, Ahram Online, 27 May 2011, available online at–Culture/0/Tahrir-Monologues-A-trip-back-in-time-to-the–days.aspx

17 For the poem and several translations see Samia Mehrez's class blog, ‘Translating the Revolution’, avalable online at

18 Rowan El Shimi, ‘Tahrir Monologues’.

19 Sometimes spelled Wannous. For background on his career see Judith Miller, ‘Saadallah Wannous, 56, Arab Playwright’, New York Times obituary, 17 May 1997.

20 Elias Khoury, ‘Foreword’, in Houssami, Doomed by Hope, pp. x–xv, here p. xi.

21 Performances are scheduled for May–July 2013. See For Al-Bassam's reflections on Wannūs see his essay ‘Shakespeare, Global Debris, and International Political Theatre’, in Houssami, Doomed by Hope, pp. 123–37.

22 See Myers and Saab's essay in this issue. See also ‘AUB Professor among Group Awarded $50,000 Grant by MacArthur Foundation’, American University in Beirut News, 29 November 2012, available online at

23 ‘One of the highlights of that movie was a catchy, satirical song, written by Salah Jahin, put to music by Kamal El-Tawil and sung by Soad Hosni, the star of the film. Adapted for the screen by Jahin from a play by Shawqi Abdel-Hakim, which he in turn had based on an old, popular ballad centring on an honour killing, the film made the play into a powerful indictment of political oppression, social injustice, the exploitation of the poor and dispossessed and the thorough corruption of rulers and their circles.’ See Nehad Selaiha, ‘Wannoos Revisited’, Al-Ahram Weekly, 17 November 2011, available online at

1 I am grateful to Ken Seigneurie for organizing the MLA session that provoked this paper and to him, as well as Hazem Azmy, Marvin Carlson, and two anonymous reviewers at TRI, for helpful comments and encouragement.

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Theatre Research International
  • ISSN: 0307-8833
  • EISSN: 1474-0672
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