NORA AMIN IN MALTA
Workshops and Performances
by one of the most engaging young artists in the Mediterranean today
Malta, 16- 26 September, 2004
with the support of the Embassy of Egypt
a multi-media solo performance
by Nora Amin
an attempt to question definitions, break the rules and taboos,
shift the borders between cultures and genres
Saturday 18 - Sunday 19 September
St. James Cavalier Theatre, 8pm
Tickets: Lm3 (tel. 2122 3200)
For more info: http://inizjamed.cjb.net - tel. 2131 5562
Inizjamed has invited the highly acclaimed Egyptian writer, performer and theatre director Nora Amin to Malta to lead a series of theatre workshops and to perform “ARAB” at the St. James Cavalier Theatre on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 September, 2004, at 8.00pm. Her visit to Malta is being supported by the Embassy of Egypt.
Nora Amin’s multi-media solo performance “ARAB” (in picture) is based on four poems from the collection "Muslim" which she wrote in the USA in 2003-2004, all of which were originally written in English. This 50-minute performance also includes an element of Arabic.
Nora Amin describes her production “ARAB” is “an attempt to question definitions, break the rules and taboos, shift the borders between cultures and genres, and finally re-create the cultural identity of the artist through its live and artistic performance.” It starts by “exposing the labels of identity (Arab Muslim woman), and the look of the other; then goes towards a live exploration of how one can find his/her profound self beyond the layers of the outside images imposed on her/him, and - above all - through the foreign language that allows more proximity in the description of the experiences that create the specificity of the self, and since these experiences are themselves taboo in the native (Arabic) language of the person, they seek their liberation in another language that does not forbid them.” To Nora Amin this reveals a serious paradox: "I can only write myself truthfully in the language of the other who labels me."
“ARAB” includes video clips from two short films shot by the writer in the USA, "Space Within" (in collaboration with Meg Kowalski), and "Project ME: I in U (sa)". Music is by Nader Sami, who will be in Malta to give workshops in October as part of Inizjamed’s Rhythm Diversity Euromed Youth project. Neveen Mohamed plays the Oriental drum.
An Extraordinary Artist
Nora Amin, who graduated in the department French and comparative literatures, Cairo university in 1992, is a well-known writer who has published two novels and four collections of short stories. An Empty Pink Shirt (2000) was chosen as the best novel by an Egyptian writer under 40 years. “Convex Roads” (1996) was chosen as best short story in Egypt, while “A Long Black Shirt” (1996) won the award for best short story in the Arab world.
In 1999, Richard Woffendon, writing in the influential Cairo Times, had already described her as “one of the best-selling authors of her generation and a darling of the critics.” Her collection of short stories, Halat Al Taa'tuf (Episodes of Sympathy) (1998), sold out not long after it was published, but her reputation “had already been sealed” by her first novel, Qamis Wardi Faaregh (An Empty Pink Shirt) (1997). Apart from the honesty and self-exposure of her style, Woffendon argued that one thing readers found refreshing about her writing was its structure. Both the novel and the collection of short stories “are solidly composed - a long way from the more impressionistic work of some of her contemporaries.” Amin says that most of her understanding of structure comes from her work in theatre: “It's the structure that makes fiction based on events more powerful than life itself.”
Her most recent books of fiction are the novel The Second Death of the Man of the Watches, (2000, 2003) and the collection of short stories, The Third Half (2003). But she has also published The Egyptian Theatre and Human Rights: The Art of Claiming our Right (2002), the first book on human rights and theatre in Egypt, and translations into Arabic of 12 books, mainly about theatre, from English and French, two languages she knows well. Several reviews and excerpts of her works have been published in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish.
Nora Amin and Augusto Boal
Nora Amin has been trained by international theatre masters, among whom Augusto Boal, the master and theoretician of the “Theatre of the Oppressed”. Nora is the Arabic translator of his method and of his book Rainbow of Desire. “In Rio De Janeiro, I reunited with the old notion of art as a tool for political and social change. I knew I wanted to become a joker ever since I translated Rainbow of Desire, although the theoretical impressions are something totally different than what I lived and witnessed through the Center of the Theatre of the Oppressed.”
“The experience with Augusto Boal,” she says, “has been an eye opener, I have done work in mental and psychological hospitals, in a prison for men, in a rehabilitation institution/prison for teenagers, in communities deprived of the basic conditions of life… In short, as a person I have discovered the other side of the world in person, in flesh and bone.”
Photo by Meg
Kowalski from "Space Within,"
a section of "ARAB,"
Nora Amin has worked for 9 years as part of the organizing committee of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre in addition to her teaching position at the Academy of Arts in Cairo. She has conducted several theatre workshops around the world, and directed over 12 productions, half of them international collaborations, through her theatre company, “Lamusica independent theatre group,” which she founded in 2000.
She started her career as a founder member of the Modern Dance Company of the Cairo Opera House. She now focuses mainly on issue-based theatre, biographical theatre (incorporating personal histories and stories of performers and non-performers through physical theatre), and intercultural dialogue through theatre and mixed media.
In November 2000 Nora Amin took part in the Malta Festival of Mediterranean Literature held at the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity in Malta where she gave a performance in English of her long poem "The Text." This poem was originally written in Arabic, and Nora Amin translated it in collaboration with James Woodall. Nora Amin performed "The Text" with Hany Al Metennawy.
Nora Amin has been awarded a UNESCO-Aschberg laureate of internship at the Center of the Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio De Janeiro (2003) and a fellowship in arts management at the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts, Washington DC (2003-04). She is the current recipient of the Samuel-Fischer Literary Award, Berlin, Germany, in conjunction with a Professorship at Freie University, Berlin (2004/2005). She has also been granted a Ford Associateship at the Theatre Department of Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts (2004-05).
Workshops inspired by the Theatre of the Oppressed
During her stay in Malta, Ms. Amin will be leading a series of workshops with a group of students at Sir Luigi Preziosi Girls Secondary School. In an interview with Dr. Adrian Grima, she talks about these sessions: “I would like to emphasize the importance of the group, and by that I mean not a number of individuals, but an entity that is formed from those individuals, an entity that is in harmony and mutual understanding, and one that shares the same issues and objectives. The group in that sense creates the character of the work, holds the key to its development, and to its growth.”
“In the method of the theatre of the oppressed, and other improvisational work for non-performers, it is important to work within a steady group, therefore the very first step for such workshops is to create a group, or rather the conditions of having a group in the sense that I described. So working with several gatherings of individuals would not have created any long term character for the work, nor would it have provided a solid entity that can carry on with what it has learnt, and develop it, and perhaps even transmit it to other groups.”
The theatre-in-the-round built inside a 19th century water cistern
where Nora Amin will be performing "ARAB"
The workshops at Sir Luigi Preziosi Girls Secondary School in St. Andrews are being coordinated by Marcelle Teuma of Inizjamed who is a drama teacher at the Drama Unit with the Curriculum Centre of the Education Division. They are being held with the support of the Roberto Cimetta Fund for artistic mobility in the Mediterranean.
Tickets for "ARAB" at Lm3 are available from the St. James Cavalier booking office (tel. 2122 3200). For more information about Nora Amin and Inizjamed go to http://inizjamed.cjb.net or phone 2131 5562.
23 August 2004
Nora Amin has been awarded:
A UNESCO- Aschberg laureat of internship at the Center of the theatre of the oppressed in Rio De Janeiro, 2003.
A fellowship on arts management at the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts, Washington DC, 2003-04.
Recipient of the international literary award of Samuel Fischer, 2004-05.
Recipient of a ford Associateship at Mount Holyoke College, theatre department 2004-05.
Visit Nora Amin's website at http://www.noraamin.tk
Some recent Work by Nora Amin
2004, January: Led dance and physical theatre workshops and a public performance with Egyptian and British female performers at the Ludus Dance Company, Cairo, in collaboration with the British Council.
2003, June: A new version of “NINE”presented in collaboration with the British council, in Minia, Egypt.
2001, July-September: “The Box of our Lives” at the Transformation Independent Theatre Festival, Leipzig, Germany, and at the Lofft Theatre at the International Theatre Festival of Mercosur, Cordoba, Argentina.
2001: “Message to my Father”, written & performed by Nora Amin, directed by Arianna Economou, presented in Cyprus, Egypt, Syria, at the Theatre Academy in Boston, the University of Massachussets and the Access Theatre in New York.
2001, January: "Faces of Me", Meta –Teatro, directed by Nora Amin, Rome, Italy.
2000, October: Reading performance of "The text" at St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity at the International Festival of Mediterranean Literature, Malta.
2000, November, (and January 2001): "The Box of our Lives", written and directed by Nora Amin, in English and Arabic, financed by The Prince Claus Fund, Netherlands, presented at the Town House Gallery.
2000, June, "The Trip to the Soul", a collaboration with Dutch dancer and choreographer Angelika Oei, written by Nora Amin, co-directed with Angelika Oei, financed by the Zuidplein Theatre, Rotterdam, and presented at The Town House Gallery.
Nhar is-Sibt 18 u l-Ħadd, 19 ta’ Settembru, 2004, il-kittieba, attriċi u direttriċi teatrali Eġizzjana Nora Amin se tippreżenta x-xogħol teatrali u poetiku tagħha ARAB fit-Teatru tal-Kavallier ta’ San Ġakbu, fit-8.00 ta’ filgħaxija. Iż-żjara tagħha qed issir bil-għajnuna ta’ l-Ambaxxata Eġizzjana f'Malta.
ARAB huwa bbażat fuq erba’ poeżiji mill-kollezzjoni tagħha ‘Muslim’ li kienet kitbet fl-Istati Uniti fl-2003 u l-2004. Amin tiddeskrivi r-rappreżentazzjoni ARAB bħala “tentattiv biex niddubita d-definizzjonijiet, nikser ir-regoli u t-tabù, inċaqlaq il-fruntieri bejn il-kulturi u l-ġeneri, u fl-aħħar nirrikrea l-identità kulturali ta’ l-artista permezz tar-rappreżentazzjoni ħajja u artistika ta’ ARAB.
ARAB u l-Workshops Teatrali
Ir-rappreżentazzjoni tibda billi “tesebixxi t-timbri ta’ l-identità (mara Għarbija Musulmana), u l-ħarsa ta’ l-Ieħor. Imbagħad tersaq lejn l-esplorazzjoni ta’ kif persuna tista’ ssib il-jien profond tagħha taħt is-saffi ta’ xbihat esterni imposti fuqha. U, fuq kollox, permezz tal-lingwa barranija li tħalli aktar prossimità fid-deskrizzjoni ta’ l-esperjenzi li joħolqu l-ispeċifiċità tal-“jien”. Ladarba dawn l-esperjenzi nfushom huma tabù fil-lingwa Għarbija tal-persuna, allura jfittxu l-ħelsien tagħhom f’lingwa oħra li ma tipprojbihomx.” Għal Amin dan joħloq element ta’ paradoss għax “Jiena nista’ nikteb lili nnifsi biss permezz tal-lingwa ta’ l-Ieħor li timmarkani.”
ARAB tinkludi siltiet minn minn żewġ films li l-istess Amin ġibdet fl-Istati Uniti, “Space Within” (b’kollaborazzjoni ma’ Meg Kowalski), u “Project ME: I in U (sa)”. Il-mużika nkitbet minn Nader Sami, kompożitur Eġizzjan li se jkun f’pajjiżna wkoll f’Ottubru bħala parti mill-proġett Rhythm Diversity ikkoordinat minn Inizjamed. Neveen Mohamed idoqq it-tanbur Orjentali.
Barra minn hekk, matul iz-żjara tagħha ta’ għaxart ijiem f’Malta, Amin se tmexxi sensiela ta’ workshops teatrali ma’ grupp ta’ studenti mill-Iskola Sekondarja Sir Luigi Preziosi St. Andrews. Hi tisħaq li għaliha l-grupp huwa importanti ħafna. Għaliha grupp “ma jfissirx sempliċiment numru ta’ individwi, imma entità ffurmata minn dawk l-individwi, entità li tinsab f’armonija u ftehim reċiproku, entità li taqsam l-istess temi u għandha l-istess miri. F’dan is-sens il-grupp joħloq il-karattru tax-xogħol, u din hi ċ-ċavetta għat-tisħiħ u l-iżvilupp tal-grupp innifsu.”
“Fil-metodu tat-‘Teatru ta’ l-Oppressi’ importanti li taħdem fi ħdan grupp b’saħħtu. Jiġifieri l-ewwel pass f’dawn il-workshops hu li jinħoloq grupp, jew li jinħolqu l-kundizzjonijiet biex jinbena grupp fil-kuntest li spjegajt hawn fuq. Jekk taħdem biss ma’ individwi ma jinħoloqx karattru fit-tul għall-grupp, u lanqas ma tifforma entità b’saħħitha li tista’ tkompli tibni fuq dak li tkun tgħallmet, u tiżviluppah, u forsi anke tgħaddih lil gruppi oħra.”
Nora Amin iggradwat fid-dipartiment tal-Franċiż u l-letteratura komparata, fl-Università tal-Kajr fl-1992. Hija l-awtriċi ta’ żewġ rumanzi u erba’ ġabriet ta’ novelli. An Empty pink Shirt (2000) intagħżel bħala l-aħjar rumanz minn awtur jew awtriċi Eġizzjana ta’ taħt l-erbgħin sena. L-aktar kotba riċenti ta’ Amin huma r-rumanz The Second Death of the man of the Watches (2000, 2003) u n-novelli fil-ġabra The Third Half (2003).
Amin hija wkoll l-awtriċi ta’ l-ewwel ktieb dwar it-teatru u d-drittijiet tal-bniedem fl-Eġittu, The Egyptian Theatre and Human Rights: The Art of Claiming our Right (2002), u ttraduċiet 12-il ktieb mill-Ingliż u l-Franċiż għall-Għarbi.
Nora Amin tħarrġet fit-teatru ma’ mgħallmin teatrali ta’ fama internazzjonali, fosthom Augusto Boal, il-moħħ wara t-Teatru ta’ l-Oppressi. Amin hija wkoll it-traduttriċi għall-Gharbi tal-metodu teatrali ta’ Boal u tal-ktieb tiegħu Rainbow of Desire. “F’Rio de Janeiro, (fejn twieled dan it-tip ta’ teatru) ingħaqadt mill-ġdid ma’ l-idea ta’ l-arti bħala għodda għall-bidla politika u soċjali.”
Amin tgħid li l-esperjenza tagħha ma’ Boal fetħitilha għajnejha għal realtajiet u esperjenzi ġodda. “Ħdimt fi sptarijiet mentali, f’ħabs għall-irġiel, f’istituzzjoni ta’ rijabilitazzjoni u ħabs għaż-żgħażagħ, f’komunitajiet neqsin mill-affarijiet bażiċi fil-ħajja… Fi ftit kliem, bħala persuna skoprejt u messejt b’idejja n-naħa l-oħra tad-dinja.”
Amin ħadmet għal disa’ snin fil-kumitat organizzativ tal-Festival Internazzjonali għat-Teatru Sperimentali tal-Kajr. Dan flimkien mal-pożizzjoni ta’ għalliema fl-Akkademja ta’ l-Arti fil-Kajr. Idderiġiet aktar minn 12-il produzzjoni teatrali, nofshom kollaborazzjonijiet internazzjonali, permezz tal-kumpanija teatrali tagħha “Lamusica independent theatre group,” li waqqfet fl-2000.
It-Tieni Darba f’Malta
Din hija t-tieni darba li Nora Amin qed tippreżenta x-xogħol teatrali u poetiku tagħha f’Malta. F’Novembru tas-sena 2000, kienet ħadet sehem fil-Festival tal-Letteratura Mediterranja li kien sar fil-Kavallier ta’ San Ġakbu bix-xogħol tagħha "The Text." Din il-poeżija twila kienet kitbitha oriġinarjament bl-Għarbi u ttraduċietha għall-Ingliż ma’ James Woodall. Ma’ Nora Amin kien ħa sehem ukoll Hany Al Metennawy. Dan ix-xogħol kien intlaqa’ tajjeb ħafna mill-udjenza preżenti u Amin kemm-il darba wriet ix-xewqa li terġa’ żżur Malta u tibni kollaborazzjoni iktar fit-tul ma’ artisti Maltin, speċjalment fl-oqsma tal-kitba u t-teatru.
Il-workshops teatrali ta’ Nora Amin l-Iskola Sekondarja tal-Bniet Sir Luigi Preziosi f'St. Andrews qed jiġu kkoordinati minn Marcelle Teuma ta' Inizjamed li hija għalliema tad-drama fit-Taqsima tad-Drama taċ- Ċentru tal-Kurrikulu fid-Diviżjoni ta' l-Edukazzjoni, u qed isiru bil-għajnuna tal-Fond Roberto Cimetta għall-mobilità artistika fil-Mediterran.
Biljetti għal ARAB jiswew Lm3 u jistgħu jinkisbu mill-uffiċċju tal-Kavallier ta’ San Ġakbu (2122 3200). Għal aktar tagħrif dwar Nora Amin u Inizjamed żur is-sit http://inizjamed.cjb.net jew iċempel fuq 2131 5562.
Adrian Grima u Norbert Bugeja
L-14 ta’ Settembru, 2004
Adrian Grima interviews Nora Amin, a writer, performer and theatre director who arrives in Malta on Thursday 16 September
The highly acclaimed Egyptian writer, performer and theatre director Nora Amin has been invited to Malta by Inizjamed to lead a series of theatre workshops and to perform “ARAB” at the St. James Cavalier Theatre on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 September, 2004, at 8.00pm.
Nora Amin has been trained by international theatre masters, among whom Augusto Boal, the master and theoretician of the “Theatre of the Oppressed,” and she is the Arabic translator of his method and of his book Rainbow of Desire. During her stay in Malta, Ms. Amin will be leading a series of workshops with a group of students at Sir Luigi Preziosi Girls Secondary School in St. Andrews.
Her multi-media solo performance “ARAB” is based on four poems from the collection "Muslim" which she wrote in English while she was in the USA in 2003-2004. This 50-minute performance is in English, with an element of Arabic. “ARAB” includes video clips from two short films shot by the writer in the USA, "Space Within" (in collaboration with Meg Kowalski), and "Project ME: I in U (sa)". Music is by Nader Sami, who will be in Malta to give workshops in October as part of Inizjamed’s Rhythm Diversity Euromed Youth project. Neveen Mohamed plays the Oriental drum.
Nora Amin is also a highly acclaimed writer who has published six novels and collections of short stories. The Cairo Times has described her as “one of the best-selling authors of her generation and a darling of the critics”. She has translated a number of books mainly about theatre from French and English into Arabic, and in 2002 she published The Egyptian Theatre and Human Rights: The Art of Claiming Our Right (2002), the first book on human rights and theatre in Egypt.
In November 2000 Nora Amin visited Malta for the first time to take part in the Malta Festival of Mediterranean Literature held at St. James Cavalier. During the festival she performed her long poem "The Text,” which was originally written in Arabic, with Hany Al Metennawy.
Nora Amin's workshops and performances in Malta are being run by Inizjamed in collaboration with Sir Luigi Preziosi Girls Secondary School and with the support of the Embassy of Egypt, St. James Cavalier, and the Roberto Cimetta Fund for artistic mobility in the Mediterranean.
Tickets for her performance cost Lm3 and are available from the St. James Cavalier booking office (tel. 2122 3200). More information about Nora Amin and Inizjamed are available at http://inizjamed.cjb.net or by phoning Inizjamed on 2131 5562.
AG - In Malta you will be conducting a series of workshops with a group of female secondary school students. Why have you chosen to work with one group rather than several groups of youth?
NA - To start with I would like to emphasize the importance of the group, and by that I mean not a number of individuals, but an entity that is formed from those individuals, an entity that is in harmony and mutual understanding, and one that shares the same issues and objectives. The group in that sense creates the character of the work, holds the key to its development, and to its growth. In the method of the theatre of the oppressed, and other improvisational work for non-performers, it is important to work within a steady group, therefore the very first step for such workshops is to create a group, or rather the conditions of having a group in the sense that I described.
So working with several gatherings of individuals would not have created any longterm character for the work, nor would it have provided a solid entity that can carry on with what it has learnt, and develop it, and perhaps even transmit it to other groups.
I am saying this knowing that the duration of my workshop in Malta is somewhere between an introduction and an early development phase - a more profound work would need a trainer from the community to continue over months if not years, and that is what I am hoping Inizjamed would realize, but I can also add that the detailed program of exercises can be very useful if it is taken over by the group. For that a decent amount of sessions of work is needed with the same people following the model of this introductory week, especially because it takes a while before each of them establishes a personal link with the others, a link that is based upon their prior knowledge, but one which functions through the new medium of the theatre workshop.
What I do with every group is different even if I apply the same training program. Everything has to be adapted to their character, their needs and what they want to express.
AG - You have trained with Augusto Boal in person. How has your encounter with him and his “theatre of the oppressed” affected you as a person and as an artist?
NA - In Rio De Janeiro, I reunited with the old notion of art as a tool for political and social change. I knew I wanted to become a joker ever since I translated Boal’s Rainbow of Desire, although the theoretical impressions are something totally different than what I lived and witnessed through the Center of the Theatre of the Oppressed.
The experience with Augusto Boal has been an eye opener, I have worked in mental and psychological hospitals, in a prison for men, in a rehabilitation institution/prison for teenagers, in communities deprived from basic conditions of life…etc. In short, as a person I have discovered the other side of the world in person, in flesh and bone. The revelation has not been happy as you may have guessed, but it definitely gave me – again as a person – big reason to live, to get back to the meanings of humanitarian acts, of political struggle and human solidarity.
Boal is a man who believes not only in changing the world, but in every human’s ability to make that change, for that he taught me that it is neither scary nor tragic to see what I saw, it is just rational to know the truth and to assume your responsibility towards it, towards changing it. It is amazing how much humour and energy he has and manages to project to his team in the face of all the sadness of the world. And so as an artist, I was able to see again political art as REAL, not just as a reminiscence of the socialist times and ideologies, not even an intellectual luxury, but as a solid tool and method that helps change, and takes theatre out of its traditional/elitist borders. Although most of my work as a director is oriented towards abstraction and metaphor, I somehow shifted to being able to induce a political sense into that work without aesthetic sacrifice.
AG - Has the “theatre of the oppressed” managed to empower the young and deprived that you have worked with in Egypt and elsewhere?
NA - I can definitely say that it has, although with the definition of “deprived” I want to be accurate as to say that I have not worked with economically deprived people, but rather with groups who were deprived of a self-representation, a self-expression, and a statement of their rights and opinion.
It has been a fantastic experience for everybody. Yasmine and Nader – the two members of my company, Lamusica Independent Theatre Group who will be taking part in Inizjamed’s Rhythm Diversity Training Course and Festival of popular music and dance in October - will tell you about it. The empowerment of those young women that I have worked with, for instance in Cairo and in Upper Egypt for 3 years, starts from “knowing who they are”, exploring their capacities in all senses, and therefore realizing their strength.
It is not an easy start in a society that continuously deprives you of your self-confidence, imposes models of female images and roles, and negates the power of thinking and reconstructing knowledge. The questioning process is not necessarily a habit for cultures that are still under patriarchal power and a traditional absolute value system, but this is how it all must start, eventually leading to a presentation and public expression of the self, a sort of active citizenship that acquires a voice and a clear presence. From there, each of the young women realized their hidden potentials, whether in decision making, in affirming a vital role in their community, or simply in creating their own path away from the easy alternatives and the inherited options.
Then comes the power of the group, the powerful terrain that adopts all those new energies and provides them with shelter, support and healthy growth. I am proud of my girls – they sometimes make me feel like an old mum (!!) – they have managed to win over their inner fears, frustrations, taboos and inhibitions, and they have created a model of young Egyptian women who know they can make a difference and realize change for the better.
AG - Writing literature often means breaking away from the mainstream, challenging the established order, be it literary, political, social, cultural, moral... And yet “high literature” is often a literature for those who have made it in society, those who have
little interest in challenging the order within which they have established themselves. Do you see a contradiction here?
NA - First of all, let us not forget that writing literature has many meanings, motivations and contexts, thus there have been writers who have written in favour of their powerful rulers and believing in them; there have been others who were paid by the existing governors to attack the former governors…etc. The history of each country is full of them, and they are considered as a bench mark most of the time due to the quality of their writing which was high, but had nothing to do with the quality of their ethics or socio-political commitment. Sometimes they just wrote for money, a fair business deal back then, and an equivalent to the mass media publicity for the government today (!!).
Second, let us distinguish the writing that challenges the status-quo, criticizes the existing value system, and breaks away from the mainstream aesthetics, by calling it ”New writing,” or writing that comes out of an opposition and produces one, a revolutionary kind of writing. In that case, it is almost by definition that this writing would never be considered as “High Literature,” since the concept of “High Literature” in the first place is produced by the hierarchy of the system and is its loyal mirror, which defines everything in the terms of that vertical hierarchy, and so a “High” literature is a literature that belongs to the High society, High politics, and High citizens.
On the other hand, the opposing literature is defined by its being against all that, and hence cannot be under the umbrella of what it is opposed to by definition. I want to say that if our writing comes under a “High literature” it would mean that we have failed, we have been tamed or embraced by the power. And so, our fate, and power, is to be the marginalized literary opposition that can - by accumulation and hard work - become the torch of change and an evidence for a new alternative cultural, political and social order.
AG - In literary theory we talk a lot about the vital role of the reader in the writing of the literary text. How have your readers interacted with your literary work?
NA - I have the privilege of being both a writer and a performer, and so my readings were fuelled by a performative sense of the words that helped find a great connection with my readers. It is always a pity that writers never happen to see their readers, while performers do everyday. This is why I am so keen on making as many readings of my work as I can, it has always provided me with a kind of feedback and support that triggers the next step in my writing. I do have a strong and almost personal relation with my readers, partly because of the nature and style of my writing that is accessible to everyone, but also because of the topics that I deal with, which speak to everyone in a personal tone, and create a kind of intimacy versus the hierarchy between the old writer (often male) in possession of knowledge and kindly educating the reader (!!).
I like to think that my readers and I are on the same platform, equal citizens searching for communication and exploring the world, as much as we explore who we are in the mirror of the others. In that sense, the way my readers see me, or connect with me, recreates who I am, gives a new social identity, “re-writes me.”
AG - In your poem “The Illiterate Writer”, you describe the writer as “Struggling like an immigrant / Or a native illiterate / To create loss [...] With words / That nobody knows / Nobody reads / And even she – he – cannot / Understand.” And yet, despite this sense of loss, you continue to write. Is it because you want to feel that you are somehow countering the “sudden slowness,” of “death taking hold / of its territory,” as you write in “Sudden Slowness”?
NA - ...!
AG - In your work as an educator working through theatre you believe that one cannot work with marginalized groups without dealing with, or taking stock of, the economic, social and political context in which they live. Doesn’t the same apply to non-marginalized groups?
NA - Of course, only the difference is that with the marginalized groups of non-performers, these conditions become also the material of their work, the topics of their performances and the source/motivation of their improvisation, so these conditions acquire more importance because they are everything in the process. With performers/non-marginalized people, these conditions are considered as factors, but we know that they will not be as vital as in the other case. We know that these people would play any role, and get into any character because it is what they do, and so while the marginalized present themselves in person and realize a socio-political presence in their society, the others are only representatives of them.
AG - Are the “arts” viewed as marginalized activities in Egypt? Do they inspire an elitist direction?
NA - Egypt has such a great history with arts and culture, everybody knows it. Yet - as it is the case all over the world now - the culture of daily consumption, of pop art, has prevailed. This means that commercial movies, second rate pop songs, cheap video clips and void theatre shows, are ruling everywhere, at least ruling where money rules. So “Arts” which do not belong to that context are of course on the fringe, and I do not think that is synonymous with being elitist, because many of those artists come from social classes that are not elite at all, whether in the living pattern or in the thinking and values.
We must also take into account the fact that Egypt is a poor country, and so the economic conditions do not allow for fringe arts to become central, because they cannot answer the market’s demands on one hand, and on the other there is no economic, charitable or non-profit, structure to support them.
© adrian grima – nora amin
This interview appeared in The Sunday Times on September 19, 2004
We are not what you say we are. Is that a tongue twister? No, says Stanley Borg. It’s ARAB, a multi-media solo performance by Nora Amin
This is a time when multiculturalism is as fashionable as Formica kitchens. Even V S Naipaul has recently minced and mashed his words, referring to multi-culti as being ‘absurd’. This means that the name-dropping of other cultures could mean cold shoulders and immediate expulsion from our wine-blossomed social circles. Arabs? They’re either terrorists or illegal immigrants ripe for witch-hunting. Illegal immigrants? The garbage of globalisation.
This is a time of fear and loathing, when a little knowledge can both be funny and dangerous. Just look at Michael Moore. The fat man - symbol of that capitalist America, which gave us palm oil and obesity - knows enough to arouse suspicions in American voters and punters worldwide. Yet he doesn’t know enough to make a point.
So it’s particularly courageous for cultural organisation Inizjamed to invite the highly acclaimed Egyptian writer, performer and theatre director Nora Amin to Malta to lead a series of theatre workshops and to perform ARAB at the St. James Cavalier Theatre.
In Amin’s words, ARAB is “an attempt to question definitions, break the rules and taboos, shift the borders between cultures and genres, and finally re-create the cultural identity of the artist through its live and artistic performance.” It exposes the underbelly of labels and explores the backwaters behind layers of tags imposed on us by contemporary society. ARAB is about what is not on the label, and in a very roundabout way has the same effect as Felicity Lawrence’s latest study, Not On The Label.
Before you read the award-winning journalist’s haunting diatribe, you’re in a state of stupid ignorance where you think chicken is chicken and fruit is fruit. Five pages into the book and busy projectile vomiting your guts out, it will dawn on you that, for instance, many brands of processed chicken products are injected with pork and beef proteins. That ready-to-eat bagged salad has been washed in a solution of chlorine twenty times stronger than that of a swimming pool. BSE, chemical residues, battery hens, obesity – they all blur into a nightmare of hazard, cruelty and how far the food industry will go to increase its margins. Not On The Label will change the way we eat and the way we think about what we eat.
Similarly, before you witness ARAB, you’re in a state of ignorance, caught in a wave of Arabophobia which has been part of western culture since the Crusades. Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, the stone-thrower and the suicide bomber are only the latest in a long line of Arab bogeymen. For centuries the Arab has played the role of villain, seducer of our women, hustler and thief – the barbarian lurking at the gates of civilisation.
Five minutes into Amin’s 50-minute performance, your attitudes will seriously be questioned as will the negative stereotypes of Arabs that have become deeply imbued in western popular culture and which have evolved into wars of aggression against ‘crazed terrorist Islamic fundamentalists’. Your fingers will be closer to a more creditable pulse than western media and politics.
There’s no better place to take the pulse of Arab and Muslim sentiment than Cairo, hub of the two great movements which swept the region in recent times, the pan-Arab secular nationalism of which President Nasser was the champion, and the ‘political Islam’ which came into its own with Nasserism’s failure and decline. Amin, born in Cairo in 1970, certainly knows where the pulse is.
Graduating from the Faculty of Art at Cairo University having studied French and Comparative Literature, Amin is a writer, performer and theatre director. She started her career as a founder member of the Modern Dance Company of the Cairo Opera House and worked alongside Waleed Aouni and Hassan Al Geretli.
Amin has also written and performed in several plays as well as in eight short films. She has conducted several theatre workshops around the world and directed over twelve productions, half of them international collaborations, through her theatre company, La Musica Independent Theatre Group which she founded in 2000. In addition, she’s part of the organizing committee of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre besides her teaching position at the Academy of Arts in Cairo.
In 1999, Richard Woffendon, writing in the influential Cairo Times, described her as “one of the best-selling authors of her generation and a darling of the critics.” Her most recent books of fiction are the novel The Second Death of the Man of the Watches and the collection of short stories, The Third Half. She has also published The Egyptian Theatre and Human Rights: The Art of Claiming our Right, the first book on human rights and theatre in Egypt. Her reputation has grown over a number of years but was really sealed by her first novel, Qamis Wardi Faaregh (An Empty Pink Shirt). This was chosen as the best novel by an Egyptian writer under 40 years.
From French writer Marguerite Duras, author of The Lover and Hiroshima, Amin learned that a person could make her life into a book, a sort of self-documentation. “Writing my feelings in a book became my life, since I couldn’t be myself,” she said in a recent interview. “As well as the problems that are faced by women in the Third World, I had to deal with the social image of an actress. Here a woman is always under accusation of having a bad reputation until proved otherwise.”
Thanks to her internship at the Center of the Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro, Amin has been trained by the master of the Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal. Amin is the Arabic translator of Boal’s method and of his book, Rainbow of Desire. As Amin herself states, the experience with Boal was an eye opener: “I have been to work in mental and psychological hospitals, in a prison for men, in a rehabilitation institution for teenagers, in communities deprived from basic conditions of life… In short, as a person I have discovered the other side of the world in person, in flesh and bone.”
During her stay in Malta, Amin will be leading a series of workshops inspired by the Theatre of the Oppressed with a group of students at Sir Luigi Preziosi Girls Secondary School. In an interview with Dr. Adrian Grima, Inizjamed’s coordinator, she talks about these sessions: “I would like to emphasize the importance of the group, and by that I mean not a number of individuals, but an entity that is formed from those individuals, an entity that is in harmony and mutual understanding, and one that shares the same issues and objectives.”
Amin’s performance ARAB is based on four poems from the collection ‘Muslim’ which she wrote in the USA in 2003-2004, all of which were originally written in English. This 50-minute performance also includes an element of Arabic and video clips from two short films shot by the writer in the USA, ‘Space Within’, in collaboration with Meg Kowalski, and ‘Project ME: I in U (sa)’. The music in ARAB is by Nader Sami, who will be in Malta to give workshops in October as part of Inizjamed’s Rhythm Diversity Euromed Youth project. Neveen Mohamed plays the Oriental drum.
Nora Amin’s workshops and performances in Malta are being run by Inizjamed in collaboration with Sir Luigi Preziosi Girls Secondary School in St. Andrews and with the support of the Embassy of Egypt, St. James Cavalier, and the Roberto Cimetta Fund for artistic mobility in the Mediterranean.
Nora Amin will be performing ARAB tonight and tomorrow at the St. James Cavalier Theatre, 8.00pm. Call 2122 3200 to make a reservation. Tickets cost LM3. For more information visit www.inizjamed.cjb.net and www.noraamin.tk
“ARAB starts by exposing the labels of identity of the Arab Muslim woman and the look of the other. It then goes towards a live exploration of how one can find his or her profound self beyond the layers of the outside images imposed on her or him. Above all, these layers are imposed through the foreign language that allows more proximity in the description of the experiences that create the specificity of the self. Since these experiences are themselves taboo in the native (Arabic) language of the person, they seek their liberation in another language that does not forbid them. In itself, this is a paradox since it means that I can only write myself truthfully in the language of the other who labels me.”
Adrian Grima, Inizjamed Coordinator
Over the past few years we at Inizjamed have been working hard to establish strong links with leading Mediterranean partners which would allow us to deepen our focus on the creative process and to deal with our multiple identities in more dynamic ways. Nora’s unsettling performances of ARAB (and her engaging workshops with a group of teenagers) will help us to do just that. Like many of the projects run by Inizjamed, Nora’s work tries to come to grips with the complex identities we all have to deal with, whether we are aware of them or not. In this sense, Nora herself sees ARAB as a work that “searches in the dark places of a self often mistaken as being representative of its native culture, yet also living in its homeland in disguise." ARAB promises to be an extraordinary experience.
This article appeared in the Weekender section of The Times on Saturday 18 September, 2004
The Malta Independent on Sunday
(10 October, 2004)
The highly acclaimed Egyptian writer, performer and theatre director Nora Amin was invited to Malta by Inizjamed, to lead a series of theatre workshops and to perform a multi-media performance “ARAB” at the St. James Cavalier Theatre, at the end of September. She was interviewed by Gillian Bartolo.
1. In one of your poems, you say of yourself in the US where you spent a year::
Who has never been so
Until I lived in this distant land
Where anything is everything
And yet nothing.”
Does this mean you felt a Muslim in America, or that you were labeled as one?
It means both. I first started feeling the effect label, which happens almost automatically, but later I started understanding how there might be a Muslim inside me, but one that does not meet the label at all. To make it clearer: I can only realize that I am Egyptian when I am put in the middle of people from another nationality, or from several nationalities, the same happens with feeling Muslim, things get more present by contrast, there are many cultural specificities that I have lived in Egypt without realizing how special they were till I was abroad. It is an interesting process of re-understanding things from a distance. But yes, I have never felt so close to our Islamic rituals for instance till I lived abroad during that year, they represent and fulfill some kind of romantic nostalgia, and can be used also for identity affirmation for some people.
2. You have said in another interview: “I can only write myself truthfully in the language of the other who labels me.” Why is this? What is it you cannot say in English that you cannot say in your own language?
Language is part of culture and the culture creates its own politics and strategies to protect the value system. So my search for another language was also a search for a flexible vehicle to express experiences and ideas that are not usually part of what I can/am allowed to express in Arabic. There is a linguistic difficulty if you want to write my poems and perform them in Arabic. If the experience is not culturally usual in one culture it is difficult to express it linguistically. There is a certain freedom in the English language as it doesn’t come from a sacred source, like Arabic which comes from the Koran. Also my personal history contributes to my ease with English. I was raised in a family where my mother spoke English to me because she was a comparative drama professor. I read Shakespeare and Edward Albee and English was my introduction to the theatre and literature. Although I went to a French school, English was taught there too… and of course there were the perennial American movies. My mother was a free-thinking woman and my father was a cultured man too.
For two years before I wrote my collection of poems in the USA, I hadn’t written anything and I was a very prolific writer who published a book a year. I thought I had dried up, but when I lived in the USA I realized my writing had been waiting behind a gate eager to come out. I had been trying to impose Arabic on my work but it came out like gibberish. In 2003 I was awarded a fellowship to the J.F Kennedy Institute in Washington. I realized then that each of my books in Arabic had been a step forward in how I saw myself and what I aspired to be. Each book broke boundaries, but I could no longer express myself fully in Arabic. It is out of fear that our ideas are not developed and writing in English was like breaking out of a shell. The things that I expressed then, and which I had not expressed in my earlier Arabic writings, were mainly about ideas and experiences that represent a very radical opposition to the current value system, these were also linked to finding a more profound vision, philosophically and politically, one that I could not have found without taking that opposition to its most honest limit and eliminating even my own personal censorship. This has resulted, I assume, in a new style in my writings, one I could consider a turning point....
3. What was being an Egyptian in the USA like?
Being an Egyptian in the USA wasn’t easy. Culturally I was very privileged to be at the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts in Washington DC. But it was upsetting to see how much ignorance about the other cultures of the world, exists, especially when that ignorance is a back up for fear or suspicion in the other, as in the case with American vis-a-vis Arabs and Muslims.
In America, I noticed that labeling was not only related to you being an Arab, Muslim or Egyptian, but also related to others in their own culture. So for example in the US society, the hierarchy of power is such that it is comforting for a black person who feels he lives in a racist society, to have another class of citizens to look down on, but he doesn’t face the challenge of fighting the oppressor above. When there wasn’t this attitude, people were satisfied with simply seeing us as stuck in ancient Egypt with the pyramids, the sphinx, the pharaohs. But this is only a part of Egyptian history. The younger generation in Egypt are promoting a different kind of thinking and have very progressive and different values that could create a common ground with westerners
We have a civilization as Egyptians and culture that is very rich, but no-one looks at it, although there are Arab and Egyptian philosophers who played a vital role in developing the thinking in Europe and the western world, especially with their contributions that led to the Enlightment age, like Averroes for example, although he was persecuted and threatened in his own land (!!). I feel that the international part of our job as Arab artists is to present and represent our culture and rich heritage. We have a lot to give and it is time to clear up misunderstandings and to try and remove labels. Most of my performances are about this - labels are an obstacle to seeing the real person.
4. What is your understanding of Islam?
My family was Muslim but there are many different interpretations of Islam. They presented Islam as one alternative, and never imposed it on me. I had to read the Koran and learn about Islamic culture and choose. So I saw the Koran not simply as a sacred text but a book that offers an interpretation of humanity and possibilities about laws and how to govern. What I dislike are the politics created around the books by institutionalized religious power - the guardians make it political, they often function by depriving you of your own interpretation and relation to religion, they impose and serve what they as absolute truth, which lessens the spiritual and personal relation with Islam, but this is the case with any other religion as well. At a time of historical chaos the Koran provided the guidelines for social order. Now we should use only what is positive in the book but should create our own value systems. If we stick to the old interpretation eliminating the relativity, we become literal and fundamentalist. In Europe the Age of Enlightenment played a vital role. The relationship towards the Bible changed and secular states were created. In the Arab world we never had an Age of Enlightenment in the same sense as Europe did. We cannot have a secular state, yet the example of Tunisia remains outstanding.. Egypt instead has added civil laws which for example give important rights to women, the law is a very clear image of the society anywhere. There is a strong feminist movement and several NGO's which play a serious role in development.
5. You have said you prefer to express certain feelings in English? Are there others where Arabic is more appropriate?
I prefer to express certain experiences in Arabic. One of my novels, my first An Empty Shirt is in Arabic. It is about its own construction as a novel parallel with the development of a love story between a writer and a movie maker. Both the love story and the book writing process are there to help the writer move on with her life and create a new identity as a writer and not simply a divorced woman. Literature becomes a form of empowerment. It couldn’t have been written in English or outside Egypt because it is all about rooting myself in the Arabic language and creating a new presence there. It broke new ground because it brought out the hidden feelings in relationships. It talked about how a divorced woman is looked down upon in society, how she would think that her love life is almost over, as if she is a virus in her community. But the novel also dealt with some philosophical interpretation about the female-male relationships which gave it another dimension that was not present before. The book was received with much acclaim, as were my later books. There was a new wave of writers in Egypt in the 90s of which I am a part, who were embraced by the big critics because they played a role in changing values promoted. For the first time there were novels that didn’t talk about the ideological and political struggle but about daily problems of the average person and their personal quests. The 90s writing also has a political implication. It changed the relationship between reader and writer. The writer was no longer the holder of Knowledge, but a person in search of knowledge just as the reader is. - the reader could see his mirror in the book and this changes the relationship drastically.