Making a scene

The state of Egyptian education in general, and sex education, is so bad that it’s the stuff of high drama. On a bare, dimly lit stage in downtown Cairo, a couple of actors were discussing how their teacher flubbed his way through a class on the birds and the bees. They’re part of a scene from Spring Awakening Egypt, a play by Laila Soliman, a young Egyptian director, which presents fragments from the frustrated lives of its teenage characters. Rasha, the heroine, sees her sphere of freedom rapidly shrink now that she’s reached menarche: “Don’t talk to boys or young men”, “You must forget riding bicycles”, “Don’t go out wiggling like that” are just some of the rules she is expected to obey. Otherwise her mother is tight-lipped about sex and school is even worse. Eventually Rasha is raped by a distraught schoolmate, and dies from a botched abortion, organized by her mother to save the family honor. Lula, on the other hand, revels in her sexuality, her blossoming body and adult lovers, despite the scorn of her female peers. Youssef is baffled by sex and terrified of failure; he dies while trying to prove his manhood in a dare. Meanwhile schoolboys Salah and Tamer are having sex with each other, imitating a porn video they downloaded from the internet. Child abuse, corrupt teachers, wet dreams, group masturbation— with this much combustible material, it’s a wonder Soliman’s audience didn’t explode. Quite the contrary, in fact: the show, which played to small but full houses in Cairo and Alexandria in 2010, was well received. “People 16 or 17 years old identified with the play, but were a little embarrassed,” Soliman told me. “Very few people walked out.”

Soliman’s Spring Awakening Egypt is based on a famous work of the same name by Frank Wedekind, a Swiss playwright, which debuted more than a century ago. Soliman came across the play as a university student in Cairo, and was struck by how its themes of youthful angst and social repression from 19th Germany resonate in 21st century Egypt. This Spring Awakening, however, is not a simple translation across time and space. Soliman and her colleagues spent months collecting stories from young people in rural Lower Egypt and Cairo schools, as well as acting out parts of the original play with them to capture their ideas and language. With this work, Soliman was out to shock, not offend. “I don’t want to be in front of the line,” she said, referring to borders of acceptability. “Or behind it. I want to be right on it.” Soliman’s play could be read as an indictment of the mess Egypt has got itself into over sex, but that was not her intention. “My main issue is the impact the play has on the individual. To [get them to] question the institutions, the given that is not to be questioned. I don’t have answers for myself, let alone for others. It is not my place to suggest or decide the end, but rather to stir and question.”