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  • War Stories, Language Games, and Struggle for Recognition
  • Margaret Litvin (bio)
20th Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre , Cairo, Egypt, October 10–20, 2008.

Located on the Nile Corniche, the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel reveals only a picture-window slice of Cairo. Guests of this year's Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre (CIFET) entered a security fortress: concrete barriers, bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, and handbag searches. Inside, the cappuccinos were perfect; the sunset, through a double filter of pollution and tinted glass, looked magical. Some visitors wondered if this wasn't too sumptuous a place for the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to lodge the foreign guests it had invited for the festival's accompanying three-day seminar on "Challenges Facing the Independent Theatre and Threats to Its Survival."

Having lived for a year (2001–2002) as a student in a rooftop flat in downtown Cairo, listening to a constant din of mosque loudspeakers and taxi horns, I appreciated the change of scene that came with being an invited seminar participant. Even more welcome was the conversation. The organizers had assembled a wonderful international group of eleven jurors, eighteen seminar speakers, and eleven "honorees"; the group included Lee Breuer (United States), Paul Chaoul (Lebanon), Baz Kershaw (UK), Rolando Hernandez Jaime (Cuba), Hans-Werner Kroesinger (Germany), Rodolfo Obregon (Mexico), and others. Left largely to their own devices (the honorees had no obligations at all), these diverse talents lingered over leisurely breakfasts, trading impressions of the previous night's shows and telling each other about their work. Laptops were pulled out; bits of video were shown and eagerly discussed. Moroccan, Jordanian, Iraqi, Greek, Spanish, Italian, American, and some Egyptian theatre people joined in these discussions on an equal footing, creating a multicultural theatre conversation that would have been difficult to replicate outside the Arab world.

But where were the performers? All the troupes participating in the festival, it turned out, had been parceled out to less fancy hotels scattered all over the city and even out by the Pyramids in Giza. Aside from the performances, they [End Page 65]

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Yahya Ibrahim and Abdelsattar Albasry in Sub Zero at the 20th Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. Photo: Courtesy Samir Atoun.

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Falso, Sidi Bel Abbès Theatre (Algeria) at the 20th Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. Photo: Courtesy The Experimental/Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre.

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were left alone. Several foreign troupes regretted that they found no way to connect with their Egyptian and other Arab counterparts—a primary reason for coming to Cairo. (Both American casts, the Mugwumpin Company from San Francisco and Margo Lee Sherman from New York, mentioned this as a disappointment.) Many of the foreigners (even the Arabic speakers) said they could have benefitted from better information, orientation, and perhaps a central gathering place for festival participants—a need already identified by Marvin Carlson in his review of the festival nearly a decade ago in a May 2000 issue of Theatre Journal.

War Stories

In its twentieth iteration, CIFET has continued to attract a range of companies from student troupes to professionals. (A full list is at Arab and former-Soviet countries were especially well represented. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of this year's seventy-five or so plays dealt with the theme of war. Approaches ranged from the crudely literal (The Fairy of Abu Ghraib by the Spanish Teatro El Mercado) to the self-indulgently narrative (Sherman's one-person What Do I Know About War? based on interviews with American Iraq veterans but somehow making Iraq sound almost exactly like Vietnam) to the generically allusive (The Tale of Antigone by the Italian Mistral Modern Dance Company, which juxtaposed, rather than integrated, some evocative choreography with a flatly acted script assembled from Sophocles, Brecht and Zambrano). The most subtle treatment of the theme was the Iraqi entry, Sub Zero. Directed by Emad Mohammed and produced by the newly resurrected Iraqi National Theatre in Baghdad, Sub Zero was nominated for the Best Director and Best Performance awards; its two performers shared the...


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