Red Wigs and Lettuce
Passing Through the Heart with Dalia Basiouny
I met Egyptian writer and theater artist Dalia Basiouny last year in Iraqi-Kurdistan, where we were both participants in “Women in Action 2,” an international conference organized by ArtRole. We were part of a group of women artists and activists from the Middle East and around the world. Actually Dalia, who had just come from teaching three classes and attending a student rehearsal in Cairo, was almost deported when she first arrived in Erbil, because her name was not part of the visa paperwork at border control. “They have already booked my return ticket to Cairo, and I have five minutes,” Dalia told me when I met her. “My lovely green Egyptian passport is causing trouble again. We call the conference organizer who tells them he has already sent them the letter. I sit in the liminal space. On my right side are the arrivals, on my left are the departures. It’s nearly dawn and I am in limbo! It’s so much better than being on the outgoing flight back to Cairo.”
Our Women in Action 2 group was from Iran, Iraq, Iraqi-Kurdistan, Palestine, Syria, various countries in Europe, and the U.S. As we traveled by van from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah through the beautiful mountains of Iraqi-Kurdistan, we spoke to each other in various constellations about our different and yet common worlds. When we got out of the van in Sulaymaniyah we saw that the rear window had an assortment of flashing disco lights, heralding our journey. At the bazaar in Sulaymaniyah, Dalia purchased a red graduated bob wig, which she wore and then passed along to each of us so that we could all equally share the same haircut. We parted with a promise to reunite in Cairo and work together on a project. On March 25, Dalia will be performing her one-woman play Solitaire in New York City at N.Y.U. followed by a talkback. She will also perform at Rowan University in New Jersey, as part of a book launch surrounding Doomed by Hope, Essays on Arab Theatre, edited by Eyad Houssami, for which she is a contributor.
“It’s been really rough politically and emotionally here,” Dalia tells me, from her home in Cairo. “If I even explain I will cry and won’t be able to get dressed and go attend the protest/funeral for the 12-year-old street seller shot dead by the police this week.”
Nehad Selaiha in Egypt’s weekly magazine Al-Ahram, describes Dalia and her dramatic persona Mona in Solitaire as “a Sufi at heart, in search of peace and harmony, and the founts of spiritual energy at the mystical heart of the world.” Dalia generously translated for me when I gave my talk for the Women in Action 2 conference at the U.S. Consulate in Erbil, and when I spoke about the important work of Iraqi-American playwright and actress Heather Raffo, I learned of Dalia and Heather’s friendship. In Solitaire, Mona says:
When I was young, I used to dream of the year 2000
The beginning of a new era.
I would be old enough to follow the historic change
And witness the shift.
And here is the twenty-first century.
I would have never thought it would be like this.
Is this what humanity decided to do, when it grew up and
Comes of age?
For centuries, humans lived a life of survival
From their lower energy centers.
When some of them evolved further they celebrated the age of science and jumped straight into the mind.
They forgot to pass through the heart.
This is the secret that I started to learn
To get me out of the darkness.
To continue on the path, do my work and raise my child
How to love the world as it is.
I tried to love and to accept.
In Iraq at delicious Kurdish meals, Dalia and I shared our love and acceptance for vegetables and greenery. Dalia has in fact discovered an addiction for lettuce as she travels the world doing Solitaire: “I love making theater because of its teamwork nature, and often I find myself alone, in an unknown city, unfamiliar theater space, having to create a whole performance by myself. This is when I feel I need my lettuce the most! My first trip to Northern Iraq for the Monodrama Festival, they moved my show three times. I went on a lettuce quest. Washing lettuce is very tricky in small hotel rooms. The sink is usually not large enough to fit a lettuce head or iceberg underneath, so this is when I have to ‘shower’ to wash my lettuce with me. America is easy because of the pre-washed lettuce, but think Zimbabwe, and you’ll understand the suffering I have to go through as an artist.” And then there was the arugula overdose, but that’s another story.
Solitaire is a multimedia performance which follows a decade in the story of a character in her 30s named Mona, starting with the September 2001 attacks and ending with Egypt’s 25 January Revolution. An Egyptian who moves to New York City with her husband and daughter, Mona is emotionally torn between her new life and her home country. “I had four performances of Solitaire in New York City in the summer of 2011,” explains Dalia. “The most powerful was the one at Alwan For the Arts, because there was a large group from the Arab and Arab-American community. They responded to the sections of the play about Arabs becoming the ‘enemy within’ after 9/11. They had experienced these situations first hand, so it was significant for them to see this part portrayed on stage.” From Solitaire:
I moved here in 2001.
I had been on a short visit to New York before, and I liked it.
It felt like my wild hometown, Cairo.
Al-Qahera … The Oppressor, named by its founder … to oppress its enemies.
Now it oppresses its children
Kneading and squeezing and squashing us into each other.
Whether we are in a bus, a minibus or a private car,
All squashed together in the traffic, as my sister says.
New York is just like Cairo …
It has the same buzz and over crowdedness.
Of course Egypt wins in the over crowdedness.
Over coffee last month at Cornelia Street Café I met the Egyptian theater scholar and actress, Asmaa Eltaher, who is an assistant lecturer at Helwan University in Cairo. Our discussion focused on some of the themes in Dalia’s play. Asmaa describes the system in the U.S. as, “Making boxes for things, where you can’t go out of this box. People are very excited about other cultures but also like to see it in the American frame.”
Discrimination against Arab women increased in the U.S. after 9/11. In Dalia’s monologue, Mona says she decided to wear the headscarf as a political, not a religious decision, in solidarity with thousands of female Arabs and Muslims being repeatedly searched and detained at U.S. airports. Another visiting Egyptian scholar, also with us at Cornelia Street Café, describes her personal experiences wearing a headscarf when she first arrived in the U.S. in more painfully stigmatizing terms. She moved into an apartment in Jersey City and her neighbors pepper-sprayed her door. “I am quite sure that Muslim women, veiled or non-veiled, can see and feel the humiliation that veiled girls are subjected to in the U.S. airports,” she said. “Also you can see it at any restaurant or on any means of transportation. Whenever most of the American people see a veiled girl they hurry to send an SMS to, or, call the police, as they think her existence involves a suspicious activity per se, especially if she carries any kind of bags!” Dalia didn’t believe the veil itself was such an extreme panic button, but she did believe that the entire city, Muslim and non-Muslim, were swept up by pervasive, unnatural alarm.
We were all suffering from The Color Code.
Red: Extreme Danger
Yellow: Be Careful
Every morning as we listen for the weather they inform us
“Beware! The color code is now Orange.”
What does that mean?
Inspection on bridges
National guards with machine guns in subways and train stations.
Any bag is subject to inspection.
And they are not like us … not used to police control in the streets and “show me your ID!”
Ads everywhere “If you see something … Say something”
Open your eyes wide, be vigilant and alert because you are surrounded by danger.
If the Code became red … even more hell.
They operate an emergency law which they must have borrowed from us.
The character of Mona decides to return to Cairo and participate in Tahrir protests and marches organized by university professors. Dalia recounts her performance of Solitaire in 2011 at Alwan For the Arts in New York: “Also the Egyptian Revolution was so fresh in everyone’s mind, and to hear a personal first hand account of the revolution had a very strong impact on the audience. Many commented on how this was the first time for them to see one thread connecting all these events around the world (historical, political, revolutionary, etc). There were a lot of a-ha moments.”
Then Friday prayer started.
A million Egyptians prayed together.
They prayed Goma’ then ‘Asr, then the martyrs’ prayer.
The second they finished the prayer,
A million voices, at the same moment, and without prior agreement shouted
“Asha’ab Youreed Esqaat al Ra’ees ... Asha’ab Youreed Esqaat al Ra’ees … Asha’ab Youreed Esqaat al Nezam.” (The People Want the President to Step Down … The People Want the President to Step Down … The People Want to Topple the Regime.)
“Every time I perform the play it’s completely different, depending on the location, the language I use and the political circumstances,” says Dalia. Asmaa Eltaher, the Egyptian theater scholar, tells me, “On the human level the most striking thing is how much we have in common. I do find it easy to communicate with people here, sometimes more than in Egypt.”
My trip to Iraqi-Kurdistan, my experience with Dalia and the Women in Action 2 group reconfirmed the themes of my playwriting work: we live in a world without borders; human rights are in peril; I am complicit as a U.S. citizen. After 9/11, a group of like-minded theater artists founded Theatre Without Borders, and a decade later this is what gave me the opportunity to visit Iraq and to meet Dalia. Roberta Levitow, a fellow co-founder of Theatre Without Borders, has worked for a decade with the Sundance Institute Theatre Program’s East Africa initiative. “Starting in 2012 we are expanding our international work: we intend to open our eyes and ears—our hearts and minds—to learn about the similarities and differences we will discover with our colleagues in Middle Eastern/North African countries,” Roberta says. “We recognize that these contexts are fraught with political and societal tensions within which we in the U.S. are far from neutral observers.”
From Cairo, where she is organizing political meetings, Dalia tells me, “As the Egyptian revolution takes yet another turn, and as I make sense of what goes on, I am excited to be able to present Solitaire and share some of the new developments with my new audience.” Solitaire is the first part of a trilogy and will be performed on March 25, 2013 at N.Y.U.’s 19 Washington Square North at 6pm. It is open to the public and reservations can be made here: http://nyuadi.force.com/NYEvents/EventRegistration.
If you happen to have any extra lettuce, bring it along.
CATHERINE FILLOUX is an award-winning playwright whose more than 20 plays have been produced in New York City and around the world. She is also the librettist for three operas performed in Cambodia and in the U.S. (with music by Him Sophy, John Glover, and Jason Kao Hwang.) Her new one-woman play surrounding the civil rights movement and the Ku Klux Klan will premiere at La MaMa in Fall, 2014. Filloux is a Resident Artist at La MaMa.