To be an artist in Egypt right now

An Egyptian theater company puts on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in colloquial Arabic. The choice was no error.

A still from the Egyptian "Les Miserables."

On the last Sunday of January, an Egyptian musical theatre group performed a bare-bones rendition of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in colloquial Arabic to a standing room only crowd in New York City’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia. In fact the venue, part of Symphony Space on the Upper West Side, was so packed that following the first act, the audience was requested to try to find room for those who had been waiting outside the theatre doors to enter.The crowd, although predominantly Arab, had a respectable smattering of English speaking attendees, their presence perhaps in part an affirmation of the creative choice. Les Misérables, as well known as it is, has a certain resonance with the current political and social climate in Egypt. The choice was no error. And as evidenced by the success Fabrica has seen both in Egypt, and throughout their just-finished US tour, it worked.

The group was brought to the US by the New York and Vermont based artistic exchange nonprofit Izdahar, in cooperation with the US Embassy in Cairo and Meridian International. Fabrica’s US tour is only Izdahar’s second project. In fact, the group was part of the inspiration behind the organization’s establishment. Founder Yasmin Tayeby, having recently left her music management job in New York, wanted to bring her Egyptian roots back into her next endeavour. After seeing Fabrica perform on the popular, and currently suspended, Egyptian political satire program El Bernameg, Tayeby decided she wanted to bring them to the US.

“When I watched the Bassem Youssef show, it was so passionate and emotional. It was during the time that the Brotherhood was cracking down on the arts. They replaced the head of the Opera with their own guy, and they would say: ‘We’re going to do away with ballet and all these Western art forms that aren’t representative of Egypt…so it was right in the middle of all that.”

Two weeks later, Izdahar was born.

For Fabrica the US tour was their first time performing outside of Egypt. Any initial reservations about how an Arabic translation of Les Mis would be received in the US quickly dissolved with the overwhelmingly positive response they received during their performances in DC, Boston, and New York. When asked what he hoped to get out of the US experience, Hany Mustafa, who plays Jean Valjean in the production, replied:

“Of course a little recognition would be nice, but [above] anything else, the respect. The respect for this particular notion of art; that you are coming from Egypt, going all these miles to do something that has already been done here a million times – but in a different way. We don’t have a big budget of course, we don’t have many clothes, we don’t have props, so we did it in our own little way…if anything I just want the appreciation, this kind of respect that people are coming from different places [to watch] and realizing how much talent Egypt has.”

Fabrica itself is a relatively new undertaking. And as the founder and members of the group will tell you, musical theater is all but non-existent in Egypt. Founder and conductor Neveen Allouba, an opera singer and teacher with a career spanning over 30 years, started the organization a few years ago.

“I was worried about the fact that at home in Egypt, we don’t have musical theatre … you teach these students and they’re wonderful talents and then in the end they have nowhere to go. That’s why I dreamt of making an organization that could help them, launch them on stage, and give them a chance to show what they can do.”

Fabrica’s first performance, an Egyptian colloquial rendition of The Magic Flute, took place just days before the start of the Egyptian revolution of January 25, 2011. After that, Allouba explained, things quickly changed.

“When the revolution happened, of course we didn’t work for a while, it was a big drop in all artistic fields in Egypt for at least a year, during that time I decided I was going to do Les Misérables.”

On the choice, Allouba articulates, “Les Mis is a story about a revolution that also didn’t succeed, and I consider that our revolution is not yet finished, we are still going on and still looking for our democracy and our freedom … it’s a human story, it can happen anywhere … I didn’t want to do something that was fantasy, this talks to the people. When we did it in Egypt our first time, people couldn’t believe it, they thought it was written for [them], not that we had taken it and translated it.”

Allouba credits the dedication of the group members for much of their success thus far. As of now, none of them are paid for their work, neither is Ms. Allouba, nor their director. “They all sing for the experience and for the fun of it.” Ms. Allouba explains. “I am very thankful to them because…they have other jobs, we always rehearse in the evenings, when everyone is done with their school or their jobs. They come and they work very hard, sometimes under very [difficult circumstances]. Sometimes when there were demonstrations, because our [rehearsal] space is in the middle of the city…we hear them and we see the tear gas, but they still come. Sometimes the electricity was cut because they want people to go home and so we use lamps and we still continue working. It’s been hard, especially for the girls because their parents don’t agree to them going out in the evenings [with the turmoil], but they insist on coming. I’m very thankful that they believe in what we’re doing. When the parents saw them they realized that it is very important work for us, and for the country I suppose, to show them art, because art has really been suffering a lot.”

For Fabrica, the appearance on El Bernameg was a game changer. “It was big…we knew when we were getting on that program that everybody was going to see it.” Mustafa explained. “For us it was very good exposure,” Allouba said, “because Bassem Youssef is seen in all Arab countries.”

She continued: “We had three days of rehearsals there, and he (Bassem Youssef) used to come and stand in the back, and he never said anything. Then when we were on the program at the end…he said, “Look, I don’t cry.” He was crying, all the people [in the studio] were crying. And then he decided to hand out the lyrics and the [audience] sang the last song, the whole studio.”

In addition to Egyptian Arabic translations of foreign works, Fabrica has performed Naguib Mahfouz’s Miramar, and is planning a production of the short stories of Yusuf Idris. For more information on the group visit here. For an impression of their stage presence, see their performance on El Bernameg here.

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