By Ahmed El Attar and Tarek Abou el Fetouh

This article was published in «Beyond Borders», magazine of the European Cultural Foundation Crossing the Mediterranean number 5 - november 2003 (p18-20)

In the seventh ECF R.O.O.M. (‘Resource of Open Minds’), two important figures in Egypt’s cultural life, Ahmed El Attar (independent theatre director and playwright) and Tarek Abou El Fetouh (arts manager and architect) discussed the issue of free art spaces in the Southern Mediterranean. Ahmed cast some light on the contemporary theatre scene in Egypt and the history of its development, while Tarek described some of the ‘alternative spaces’ with which he had been involved.


The determining factor in Arab theatre history is that, though they translated most of the Greek heritage, the Arabs never translated the Greek tragedies or comedies. Which is understandable, since Greek tragedies and comedies were based on pagan gods - exactly what the monotheistic religion came to fight.

And if we add to this the fact that, within the Arab Islamic heritage, the representation of the body - not the body itself - is problematic, we can understand why theatre as we understand it today did not arrive in the Arab world until the mid-nineteenth century, though all through that time there were local forms of performances: shadow players, circus-type acts, and so on.

In the early nineteenth century, states like Egypt and greater Syria became more open to the West, sending students to France and Italy to study. These students in turn introduced Western theatre to the Middle East: Cairo and Alexandria became the focus. Theatres were constructed and the first opera house in the Arab world opened in 1869 in Cairo. Nonetheless, theatre was still not accepted in many neighbouring Arab countries.

The first plays performed were translations and free adaptations of Italian and French drama - Moliere in particular, because of the comic, social aspects of his work. French and British occupation of the Middle East brought more exposure to Western influences.

Then there was a Middle East Arab renaissance. By the time of the Revolution in 1952, theatre was a fully developed art form in Egypt. People had got used to going to see actors perform. Local Arabic theatre also emerged and became part of the Arab literary world. The arts flourished with the social and political changes in Egypt during the 1950s and 60s. There was a socialist government in power: the democratisation of culture that took place produced a strong artistic movement. The first modern Arab theatre - inspired by the likes of Bertolt Brecht and the Theatre of the Absurd - began there and then.

The regime soon showed its repressive face, however: artists and intellectuals were jailed, expression curtailed. And with the humiliating defeat of the Six-Day War with Israel, many left for neighbouring Beirut. Defeat fractured the aspirations of a generation of artists - and of Arabs in general.

Lebanese theatre became the centre of Arab theatre, since a certain amount of freedom prevailed in Beirut and different ideologies could co-exist there. That was until the War in Lebanon persisted and it became Tunisia’s turn to be the new centre, thanks to its greater economic stability, low illiteracy rate, and strong contact with the West. Nowadays the modern Arab theatre movement is more scattered.

You have in Egypt the government theatre on the one hand, with everybody on the payroll of theatres belonging to the State. In a country that has had a military regime under emergency laws since 1981, this is a very touchy, ‘iffy’ subject for artists. The State’s main premise is that the other opinion is always wrong. Of course it’s not such a clear-cut thing. People talk in the West about censorship, but the regime is more intelligent than that. For instance, I make plays which don’t undergo censorship. The reason is simple: my play might show to a hundred people a night, and run for twenty nights, reaching two thousand people in all. In a city of 16 million people, who cares? It’s the same with books. But with the film industry it’s different. There strict censorship really does take place. On the other hand, the private sector is an entertainment industry that only listens to money, like the West End or Broadway. That’s where the independent theatre movement comes in.

Father: For example do you think that I am living like this without a strategy and clear goals that allow me to put everything in it’s right perspective.. and to achieve the dreams... pains.. illusions ... and movies which are the foundations of life... the conceived strategy is as clear as the sun... there is no hesitation... it has been researched with supreme precision and infinite care... in it are all the essential elements... and filaments.. the practical and theoretical.. which would make all things fall in their right place...look here for example you will find that it’s only a matter of a few days, weeks, months, years and everything will be fine... I will get every one of you a new car with metallic colours... with airconditioning, power steering, center lock, and a pioneer stereo... a pioneer stereo... it will of course have a CD a safety belt and an airbag... and a place for putting your tea mug in the morning and your mobile in the afternoon ...and not only this because the plan is completely integrated everyone will also have a mobile phone no no no two mobile phones.. one for work and one for home... the newest models and the best makes... each mobile will have the ability to buzz and fuzz and ruzz and muzz and luzz and it would change its colours with the sunrays and glow under the moonlight when you call it, it answers and if you don’t it bites,,, it records numbers, addresses, dreams, mattresses through it you can connect to the world and the world can connect back to you.. and not only that I will get for everyone a flat in the most luxurios areas away from the noise and the boyz the madness and rashness... fully equipped............
Younger son: Dad ... dad...
Father: Yes.
Younger son: Can I say something?
Father: Say whatever you want.
Younger son: And you will not get angry?
Father: No.
Younger son: And will not get annoyed?
Father: No.
Younger son: And will not shout?
Father: No.
Younger son: Are you sure?
Father: I said yes.
Younger son: So you will get angry??
Father: I said no no tell me and get it over with.
Younger son: I want blue Levis jeans for 180 pounds.
Father: WHAT!!!

Text and photographs: from ’Life is Beautiful, or: Waiting for my Uncle from America’ by Ahmed El Attar. First performed in Cairo, 2000.


Tents. I began to research how to use the ancient technique of constructing tents in order to build alternative theatre spaces. This is a special Egyptian technique. I looked into how the tents could be made on a large enough scale to accommodate the stage and the audience. Between 1993 and 2000 I constructed several tents for several theatre groups. When I became a theatre producer with the Young Arab Theatre Fund, I began to combine my work as an architect with my work as a producer. I started a programme for the rehabilitation of spaces - one such space was a garage in Alexandria

Garages. In a garage in Alexandria we put on a performance of a Lebanese play. The concept behind the event was contextualisation: we had several activities which introduced this unfamiliar play to the city before it was actually performed. Since the set was a sewage drain I asked four visual artists to make relevant installations and put these into the space, along with the set. We also held a workshop on four cities that had undergone dramatic architectural changes: Berlin, Beirut, Rotterdam, and Alexandria. We had a Lebanese film programme. In terms of publicity, the whole thing was a great success. Theatre, cinema, and visual arts audiences, as well as students of architecture, came along. Since the garage belonged to the Jesuits who wished to keep its function as a summer camp, we had to build with components that were modular, moveable, and inexpensive - just as I’d had to do in my work with tents.

Cinemas. A cinema in the Jordanian city of Amman provided an alternative theatre space. Originally owned by a bourgeois Palestinian family, it was now run as a porn cinema, showing as much porn as possible from 9 in the morning to 7 at night. Another cinema space we are working on, this one in Beirut, had been turned into a porn cinema for the militia during the war before housing an infamous war criminal. We started by excavating all the rubbish. Although it was set alight, the structure is still good. There is graffiti everywhere, mainly political statements: of course we shall keep it.

The ECF R.O.O.M. ‘Southern Spaces’ took place on 25 June 2003 at Witte de With centre for contemporary art, Rotterdam. View a short video record of the event at (click ‘Advocating Culture’, ‘The R.O.O.M.’, ‘Southern Spaces’).

Modified on Wednesday 14 April 2004