The Egyptian National Theater’s latest production for the ongoing season is an adaptation of Bahaa’ Taher’s novel “Khalti Safiyya wal Der (Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery). Incarnated in various forms in theater and TV, Taher’s award-winning novel has proven to be timeless with its incisive portrayal of the relationship between Copts and Muslims.
Taher’s popular tale about love, revenge and the camaraderie between Muslims and Christians charts a few years in the life of a small village in Upper Egypt. The book’s central figures are Safiyya and Harbi, a young couple in love since childhood. The villagers expect them to get married, but when Harbi prepares to propose, his aging uncle, the landlord who controls most of the village, sees Safiyya and decides to take her for himself instead.
Devoted to his uncle and convinced that Safiyya would be better off financially with him, Harbi sacrifices his love. He persuades her to marry his uncle and becomes their loyal servant.
The story then takes an even more tragic turn. Feeling abandoned by her only love, Safiyya turns against Harbi, growing to be a loving wife as her hatred towards Harbi intensifies.
The renowned novelist wrote in the play’s performance notes: “This work is a message of love to the amazing nation which embraced its Muslim and Christian children for generations. Now it bestows on us the responsibility of taking care of this land for future generations. Taher believes that hatred cannot stand in the face of love for long since it’s the antithesis of the good nature of the people of the south.
The story’s message emphasizes that love is what remains when everything else dies. One the other hand, the play, which opened this season on Miami Theater in downtown Cairo, does not leave the audiences with the same impression.
Mohamed Morsi, director of the play, relies on the dramaturgy and songs of Hamdi Zeidan which keeps the plot intact. Zeidan’s adaptation attempts to be faithful to the original text, utilizing a narrator to introduce characters and events, sometimes even reading passages from Taher’s novel.
The play, which fails to capture the complexity of Taher’s text, moves swiftly through the main stages of the protagonists’ lives; placing plenty of weight on the triggering event that causes the cycle of revenge.
Safiyya (Sabreen) transforms into a schemer, filling the Uncle’s head with poisonous thoughts. She persuades him that Harbi (Hisham Abdallah) is planning to kill his newborn child in order to protect his inheritance. As a result, the uncle decides to degrade Harbi, stripping him off from his privileges and begins to physically torture him. Unable to tolerate the pain, Harbi, in a fit of anger induced by continuous whipping that tore his flesh, shoots his uncle.
The death of the Uncle drives Safiyya insane with rage; she becomes adamant on avenging her husband. Though Harbi is tried and imprisoned for the murder, Safiyya doesn’t waver from taking revenge. After his release, the only safe place Harbi finds to harbor is the Coptic monastery of the village. The Christian monk extends a helping hand to the frail ex-convict, protecting him from the eyes of Safiyya and her men.
In the role of Harbi, TV thesp Abdallah shows remarkable range with the numerous fluctuations and changing fortunes of his character’s tragic life. Abdallah is the only actor who manages to escape the classical acting trap that hampered the rest of the performance.
The star of the show, Sabreen, fails to articulate Safiyya’s transformation from a young lover to a vengeful bereaved widow. Her stab at voice coloring is not complimented by any physical changes to reflect the depth of her pain. A large portion of her energy is directed to the numerous changes of costumes in and between scenes.
Hoda El-Segini’s set is a hodge podge of styles and designs. The elaborate staircase in the center of the stage, leading up to the palace, and the details of the simple peasant house with many real village items such as baskets and rugs, contrast the glossy photos of the Virgin Mary’s statue in a garden printed on fabric to represent the monastery. The weight of the actual wood in the bulky staircase and the décor items of the village, does not match the modern print with its lack of depth and perspective.
The creators of “Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery have one clear message conveyed in the performance: Muslim-Christian relationships are an integral part of this nation.
In more than one occasion, the director presents visual scenes that add little to the course of the drama, showing a Muslim sheikh and the Coptic monk behaving congenially towards each other. Seeing them shoulder to shoulder and witnessing their unbiased communication, and later watching the monk protect the frail Muslim man, Harbi, gets the message across: the people of this land have lived for centuries as brothers side by side.
The performance might not have been a great dramatic success, but its real accomplishment is highlighting the daily partnerships that connect Muslims and Christians in Egypt.