White-turbaned men stand in a V-shaped phalanx, faces solemn, jaws set. Their leader, in false beard and leather vest, lifts a scimitar the length of a human child and raises it above his head. His soldiers follow suit, swords curving in the air like crooked smiles. To the rear of the stage, a group of monumental sculptures stands in silhouette, representing the soon-to-be-annihilated idols of non-believers: A Buddha, an Assyrian goddess, an Egyptian king. The people who worship them are gathered just out of sight, fated to be slain. Around us builds a melody, rising to a chant: “Now the infidels will come to their judgment at the willing hand of God, with the blessings of Islam and of true faith.”
You would be forgiven for thinking that I am describing the sequel to the Islamic State’s official feature film, but I am not. Nor is this a pantomime staged in the basement of a self-avowed Islamophobe. It is the climactic, celebratory battle scene of a production that opened on June 7 at Egypt’s state-subsidized Balloon Theater — a performance sanctioned and attended by a Ministry of Culture representative.
I am not here to critique the play’s technical aspects. There’s a separate article to be written about malfunctioning microphones and polystyrene set-pieces and the distraction of a live bat that spent most of the evening flapping between the stage and the back of the auditorium. Mohamed, written by Gamal Yaqout and directed by a young, earnest Sameh Bassiouni, purports to be a retelling of the life of the prophet and his quest to spread the faith. Anyone who’s ever encountered a biopic, let alone tried to write one, knows that the endeavor creates a minefield of choices: What to brush over, what to emphasize, what to omit. What Mohamed chooses to spotlight about the early days of Islam are not the philosophies that inspired its first followers, nor the prophet’s intriguing personal journey. It is bloodshed; most notably, his conflict with Mecca’s polytheistic Quraysh tribe and their mass conversion at the tip of a sword in 630 CE.
The story unfolds in a series of heroic vignettes, framing what it repeatedly claims is a justified holy war. The arms of Mohamed’s soldiers are explicitly stated to be guided by God, their idol-worshipping victims played by actors in comedy beards who spit insults and wave their arms and belly-laugh at their own nefarious plots with the subtlety of early-talkie Draculas. It is a manifestation of Edward Said’s nightmares, a brutal home-grown Orientalism. The unfortunate reality of these battles is not explored as escalating and regrettable acts of survival in the face of oppression, a product of intricate historical context, or a mournful waste of life. This is no struggle between groups of fully realized people. This is a war between Us and Other, between believers and dehumanized caricatures. I cannot tell you how many times the word “infidels” (kuffar) was spoken during those excruciating 80 minutes, because I had to stop counting. The only Christians portrayed positively are those who take Mohamed for a messiah — the sole satisfactory compromise. The resistors in Quraysh are systematically cut down. Forgiveness, at last, is magnanimously bestowed only upon those infidels who see the errors of their ways and agree to convert — “Proving,” lead female actor Fardous Abdel Hamid asserts nonsensically three minutes before the curtain, “that Islam is a religion of peace, and not a tool for terrorists.”
There is something reductive and ridiculous about blunt hypothetical comparison, but here it may drive a point: Imagine that you find yourself sitting through a triumphant hour-and-a-half-long retelling of the Crusades, replete with sparkly-armored soldiers smiting down villainous “heathens” while a heavenly choir sings their praises for doing God’s work; and then, in the final moments, the lead actor steps free of an immovable heap of heretic bodies and takes center stage to remind us all that, “Christianity is a religion of charity and loving thy neighbor.” Anyone watching would, I hope, laugh at the irony, but also feel infuriated by its contradictory message — those without Christian heritage for obvious reasons, but additionally those with it: For the distilling of their history to its most regrettable parts; a gross misrepresentation of what they admire in their faith.
Now, what happens if this crusading production has not been staged by some lone supremacist in his aforementioned basement, but has been sanctioned and vetted by a government censorship authority so robust it jails writers and film producers for the crime of “indecency”? What happens if it is lauded by a senior representative of the National Cultural Center, who joined the cast and director onstage after the curtain call to offer public congratulations? What would it be striving to teach us? For Mohamed is teaching, make no mistake: the actors playing the prophet’s followers literally preach, voices aquiver, smashing straight through the fourth wall to the audience they have skewered to their seats by lack-of-intermission.
Mohamed self-identifies as a chronicle of history, which is a political object. History is mutable, changeable; whether in its real-world rewrites by, say, the Romans or the current rulers of North Korea or in the fictional manifestos of George Orwell’s 1984. Winston Churchill famously asserted that history would treat his actions kindly “because I shall write [it].” It looks different to the oppressor and the oppressed, the victor and the defeated. And it usually falls to the former to determine the official version, which, in an authoritarian environment, is passed down as immutable fact, consigning any contradictory evidence to fiction or, in some cases, resistance. Traces of this politicization weave through the fabric of Egypt’s public education system at least as far back as the reign of Mohamed Ali, and in the early 1900s, Lord Cromer (the country’s British consul general) determined that courses on Egyptian history — both ancient and modern — should not be taught at all to “lower” orders. Its absence in the curriculum was attacked by nationalists, who recognized this as an instrument of colonial subjugation. “Who controls the past controls the future,” opines 1984’s Ministry of Truth. The past provides precedent, fuel, inspiration: It changes “well, this could never be done here,” to “why not? It’s been done before.” This is why the colonizer feared it. This is why bygone revolutions and acts of dissent are often mocked or vilified by the state (see the recent scrubbing of the January 25 revolution from schoolbooks, hastily reversed in the face of uproar) while figures of historical compliance are canonized.
War is a significant facet of the narrative of Islam, as it is of many faiths. It should not be omitted, just as other painful fragments of the past should be subjected to constant scrutiny. I do not feel this alone: The struggle to acknowledge conflicting sums of ourselves is global and ongoing. In 1992, Pope John II apologized, 350 years too late, for the torture of Galileo at the hands of the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Since 2012, one can tour both the relics of US Founding Father Thomas Jefferson’s libraries and the quarters where he kept his numerous slaves at Monticello. Many of Germany’s cities are deliberately pockmarked by reminders of the Holocaust, culminating in a vast, heart-rending memorial in full view of the Reichstag. Our regrets do not fix; they never could. But they confront. They foster dialogue, a measure of reparation and, hopefully, an awareness that precludes repetition, dissuading future generations from committing the same atrocities again by teaching them to recognize these atrocities for what they are.
By re-enshrining the principles of Islamic Sharia as the main source of legislation in its 2014 constitution, the Egyptian government claimed this Islamic heritage as our collective “own,” sidelining our Christian and Jewish heritage and others it does not recognize. Which must beg the question: What does the government believe is the true nature of that Islamic heritage? What does it encourage Egypt’s 70 million Muslims to admire in their forebears, in whom there is much to admire? Has it coaxed any to seek out the beautiful, celebrated poetry of a caliph’s daughter, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, who walked the streets hair uncovered and verses embroidered into her robes; the manuscripts of Abu al-Qasim al-Iraqi, who labored to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs 500 years before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone; the illustrated medieval love-saga of Bayyad and Riyyad?
How does a government-approved play called Mohamed feel about the slaughter of “infidels”?
The answer is clear, and it is terrifying. And it is not isolated to that Monday evening in the dome-shaped auditorium, the trapped bat banging repeatedly against the walls and my eyes glued to the company’s sole dark-skinned actor who stands onstage in nothing but leopard skin, his hand wrapped around a papier-maché spear (there is also another article to be written about racism in Egyptian media; suffice to say it is alive and strong). I do not believe that the company and crew of Mohamed are willfully calling for violence. Indeed, I think they hope that Abdel-Hamid’s eleventh-hour disavowal of terrorism — which is spoken passionately and was, I am told by a cast member, a late addition for this purpose — absolves the production of this responsibility. But, unfortunately, it does not. Nor does it absolve its sponsors. Coming after an hour of visual spectacle that suggested the opposite, the reversal was fleeting and came off as unwittingly insincere. Some audience members applauded it; others laughed out loud.
Theater is part of our centuries-old oral tradition; it is how we have told and preserved our stories, our foundation myths. Mohamed, a production supposedly within the bounds of the censorship authority’s measure of decency, is, to put it bluntly, a play in which violence against those who disagree with “us” is not only glorified, but performed with the expectation of applause. The Egyptian government has appointed itself the protagonist of a self-proclaimed war on terror, blaming attacks on unsupervised muftis and using its mandate to shutter NGOs, stifle press freedoms, and bomb both Libya and its own citizens in Sinai. Yet a script that condones the same killings it purports to condemn, participates in the othering of non-compliers, and twists “our” narrative into a monolith of fear-inducing propaganda is being performed under our watch, in the heart of the capital, in a country with a shameful tradition of sectarian crime. And it does so with ministerial approval. Who controls the past controls the future. This production should alarm us all.