A man with a mane of curly hair pulls out from behind his ear a well-concealed joint. A camp hairdresser does a woman’s hair as he listens to a taxi driver from Upper Egypt declare his love for one of his passengers — a prostitute. A woman lies down, coughing, and then stands up — on the bar that has become part of the performance — to move her arms as if flying, an angel.
The staging of Khaled al-Khamissi’s “Taxi,” first published in 2006, at new downtown Cairo bar and performance space Vent, was full of engaging moments like these.
The work is the first production from The Thousand Tongues, a new Cairo-based theater company that creates interactive performances founded by Brian Farish with Rewan al-Ghaba and Yasmin Galal.
It was refreshing. It felt like being in a bar with something fun going on around you, and after every sketch there was a three-minute break to get drinks. The acting was very good, some of the sketches very amusing, and the changes in perspective — the actors moving around, or you moving — made for a nicely paced hour and a half.
Yet, while I had my laughs, ultimately I found it disappointing.
First off, we were promised an immersive installation-style performance. But surely immersive theatre is about more than just moving around.
The venue’s pillars were often obstacles to a good view; the production behaved for the most part as if they were not there. Had such specificities of the space been incorporated, the experience would have been more immersive and engaging.
There were a few chairs but the audience mostly stood. They often had to move to get a good view, though the sketches staged on the bar and elevated stage were easier to see.
Co-director Farish describes this type of performance as being primarily about sharing and community, as viewers make way for each other. Often, though, it was less about sharing than resigning yourself to a restricted view or shoving through the crowd for a decent angle.
Secondly, I found one sketch that utilized the bar troubling. A cab driver picks up a young woman wearing niqab. She takes it off and adjusts her hair — as the driver ogles in the mirror. It turns out she cannot leave her neighborhood without it but works as a waitress, a job for which she cannot wear it. She tells him she’s a respectable woman doing a respectable job, defending herself not only from his judgemental look, but that of society at large. The choice of the bar for this sketch seemed ill thought out, unless it was meant to imply she was lying and was actually a sex-worker — as is often thought to be the case with such women.
Then there were certain elements that were lost in the translation to stage. One of the nice things about the book is Cairo. The city and the author carry us through, as they encounter different characters. But in the production, Cairo is lost. And for all this talk of taxis, the “taxi-ness” has also disappeared. Conversations with cab drivers have a temporal quality — usually once the conversation starts it goes on until you arrive. It rarely comes to a natural end, often dragging on as you will the traffic to clear so it will end soon, or you feel it has ended too soon, and sometimes even linger to talk more. This is present in the book, but in the translation, it was lost.
Another major issue was the approach to language. Central to The Thousand Tongues mission is working bilingually, as the promotional material tells us, “because it builds a cultural connection between different Arabic and English-language communities of artists and audiences.”
I’m not entirely sure about this somewhat tired talk of cultural bridges. But that aside, I was disappointed to learn that all it meant in this production was that some performances were in English and some in Arabic. Separating English-speaking audiences from Arabic-speaking ones doesn’t seem that conducive to bridge-building.
Asked on a press night before the opening about the possibility of incorporating sketches in both languages into one performance — as occurred on that night — Farish’s response was “I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Why mix the two? You will only befuddle your audience,” he said.
Yet there are a number of interesting, productive and challenging ways to deal with translation and more than one language that are not befuddling. Indeed, one trend in translation to English today is an increasing acceptance of polyglossia, or the presence of different languages.
In “No Exit,” a play of three characters directed by Omar al-Moataz Bellah and his Teatro Independent Theatre, performed at Falaki Theater last October, each character spoke a different language, and each understood the others. This interesting proposition ended up as three interrupting monologues with an odd pace and energy. But it was an interesting attempt to play with language nevertheless.
The “Taxi” production could have been more successful with the more basic form of bilingual production that they were working with.
Body language must also be translated; on stage, movement is an essential part of the sentences uttered. And this was a problem: When performing in Arabic, the actors were far more convincing, while in English there was something stilted despite their linguistic proficiency. It shouldn’t be inevitable that the English comes off as less natural. Here, it appeared little work had been done in the English-language performance to make the movement part of the script. As if the director simply assumed that the paralanguage — intonation, speed, hesitation noises, gestures, facial expressions and so on — would automatically catch up with the script’s translation.
There is also a tension that goes back to the book itself. Farish says the production explores “the vastness of the Cairene experience,” and the promotional material suggests an “honest reflection of Egyptian society that remains relevant and timeless.”
Personally, I don’t think any reflections of society are “timeless” — societies are by definition changing. But that aside, something doesn’t quite wash about these claims of insight.
In the book’s preface, Khamissi says part of his aim was sociological. Describing himself as “a prize customer of taxis” who likes to talk with drivers, the author offers 58 vignettes based on some of these conversations. In other words, from the start, there’s a tension between the documentary value the texts seem to offer and the fact that we know there is some fictionalization.
The book’s opening three stories set the documentary tone; the first is about economic precarity and faith in God, the second about bribery and police abuse of power, in the third a Kefaya demonstration opens into a conversation about the 1977 bread riots and possibility of revolutionary change in Egypt.
In recent years, Khamissi has shifted to putting more emphasis on the fictional side of the literature-sociology continuum, but the book was widely hailed as ethnographic and marketed as offering insight into Egyptian society at a particular moment in time.
Something about projecting the cab driver as this doorway into Egyptian society makes me uncomfortable.
It’s not only foreigners visiting Egypt who rely on taxi drivers as conduits to the views of the “man on the street.” It’s the middle and upper classes too. The very fact of reliance on the cab driver is itself a product of and testament to the social isolation of the teller of taxi drivers’ stories — regardless of the content.
Yes, I know taxi drivers in Cairo can be talkative and communicate on a daily basis with diverse people. They and their passengers, however, do not come from across the social spectrum, as those who enthusiastically praise the notion of taxi driver as voice of the “Egyptian street” claim. Many, many people never get cabs or drive them.
Also, I hate to state the obvious, but taxi drivers tend to be men. That’s fine, but such grand claims cannot be made when we only hear men’s voices.
The fact that the stories are all collected by one person, who is himself a man, compounds this. Surely cab drivers speak differently to men than they do to women; to older people as opposed to younger people? The audience matters.
Finally, The Thousand Tongues suggests that what they are doing is almost entirely new in Egypt. It isn’t. Al Khayal Al Shaabi, for instance, have been doing performances in the street and in private spaces such as homes for a decade. Al Warsha have been working with storytelling from all parts of Egypt in fresh and exciting ways for some time now. As far as I am aware, there have not been performance parties, but it might be better if the work were framed as adding to the innovative work already happening in the local theatre scene.
Such big claims are a little grating — an experience of theater we’ve not had before, building bridges through bilingualism, offering an incisive mirror of Cairo life. And if I assess the work against them, it essentially fails. Perhaps if the claims were more modest, I would have appreciated it more.
“Taxi” is showing at Vent on January 20, 22, 25, 26, 27 and 29 and February 5 and 9. There are plans to perform at other venues in and beyond Cairo.