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The Fire and the Frying Pan: Censorship and Performance in Egypt
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Two Kinds of Censorship

When censorship is official and imposed by the state, one can hope that one day society will abolish it by bringing to power a more enlightened and liberal government. But when censorship is societal, that is, exercised collectively by society—whether spontaneously by its members in their daily lives, or in an organized form through the family, schools, unions, or other civil institutions—the situation becomes more serious. More troubling still is when oppressive official censorship imposed by a totalitarian political regime overlaps with conservative and bigoted societal censorship, equally totalitarian in its ideology. Then everybody, including artists and intellectuals, participates in censorship and self-censorship. This is the situation in Egypt and, I daresay, most of the Arab world today.

Official Censorship in Egypt

The first recorded instance I could find of censoring public performances in Egypt occurred in 1451 (855 H) when Mameluki Sultan Djaqmaq (his full name was Al-Dhahir Seif El-Din Djaqmaq Al-‘Alaa’i Al-Dhahiri) placed a ban on all shadow plays and ordered the burning of all shadow puppets. He further forced the players to write affidavits promising to renounce their art and never practice it again. The ban was issued on the grounds that shadow plays were often coarse and obscene, portraying the deviations and depravities of the people, over and above containing political insinuations about, and indirect criticism of, the rulers (Musa and Awad 1995:605).

Because this kind of censoring was erratic—dependent as it was on the whims of rulers—and lacked an established official apparatus, many historians prefer to date the appearance of official censorship of artistic products from the introduction of performances in the European style in Egypt during the French campaign in 1798. According to Sayed Ali Ismael, one of the earliest mentions of censorship of theatre occurred in the French-language official newspaper La Decade Egyptienne, which on 19 November 1800 published a table listing the functions of the information committee on Egypt established by General Kleber; item 3 of this table concerns the work of the police, which includes supervising, among other things, “plays, feasts and public celebrations and censoring public behavior” (1997:13). Thus, the French were the first to introduce official, organized censorship of theatre and public performances in Egypt, applying the same law that was introduced in France on 16 August 1790.

The second form of official censorship of theatre appeared during the reign of Mohamed Ali (1805–1847) when he ordered Claude Bey to send a circular to all foreign consulates and troupes stating the rules that should govern the relation between performers and spectators and stipulating how both parties should conduct themselves during such public gatherings. As a result of this circular, playhouses were obliged by law to admit members of the police force and the fire brigade to every performance. Another consequence of this circular was the first edict regulating theatre work in Egypt. Though it concerned primarily the Italian theatre established in Alexandria in Consuls Square, its first article placed this theatre, regardless of who owned it, under the jurisdiction of the local authorities, and threatened actors with imprisonment if they included in their performances or dialogue anything that “breaks the rules of decorum and respectability or causes the audience offence” (Ismael 1997:13). Article 6 of this edict requires that eight policemen and a sergeant always be present at performances in order to carry out the orders of the chief of police.

In 1869, the ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismael Pasha, built two national theatres, both in Cairo: La Comédie and the Khedival Opera House. He appointed Paolino Draneht Bey as superintendent (cum censor?) of both. The appointment was warmly praised by the Wadi El-Nil newspaper, which on 30 April 1869 declared: “The job of supervising theatres (i.e., playhouses) is one of the most important jobs in the state cabinet in France and many of the fine points that relate to the literary arts and good morals are a result of this sensitive job. We are therefore most happy that His Highness, the Khedive, who is always keen to copy the laws and regulations of the French state...



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