ADRIFT ON THE NILE
“What do most of us really know about the Middle East, outside of the outrageous clichés that fuel the absurdly named ‘war on terror’?” That line in the program of Adrift on the Nile, from the artistic directorate of neworldtheatre, provides the essential rationale for the very much improved incarnation of the script and production currently playing at the Cultch.
The version that I saw last summer at the Magnetic North Festival in St. John’s was substantially different. That adaptation of the 1966 novel by Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz was set, like the novel, in 1950s Egypt. It was filled with specific discussions of contemporary Egyptian politics and issues—Nasser, the Aswan Dam—that neither Marcus Youssef and Camyar Chai’s script nor Chai’s direction was able to make interesting, relevant, or sometimes even comprehensible to a 21st century Canadian audience.
With the help of the $60,000 Alcan Award neworld received last year, Youssef and Chai reconceptualized and rewrote the script, and significantly redesigned the production. The new version goes a long way towards fulfilling one of their original goals—to show how cynical, jaded artists and intellectuals smoking dope and mocking attempts at political reform on a houseboat on the Nile are not much different than their Canadian counterparts in our own day.
In addition the new version, re-set in the present day and centred on the conflict between secular cynicism and Islamist commitment, directly addresses many of the outrageous clichés that characterize the West’s assumption about the Middle East. Best of all, the play does these things in theatrically compelling ways for the most part, through characters who feel much less like clichés themselves, and in conversational, colloquial dialogue that no longer sounds like a stilted translation.
The central figure remains Anis (Alex Ferguson), a deeply disaffected civil servant who lives on the houseboat of popular, successful actor Ragab (Bill Marchant), smoking himself into oblivion with the aid of Ragab’s Nubian servant Amm (Tom Pickett), a devout Muslim who is at the same time obsessed with American teleculture—Deal or No Deal, the World Series of Poker—and provides Anis with dope and hookers. Anis’s stoner perspective gives the play a phantasmagoric quality, reinforced by Tim Matheson’s dreamy, surreal projections and Sam Shalabi’s live soundscape.
The other hangers-on on the houseboat are all Westernized: Layla (Kathleen Duborg), who works in the foreign service and is being hassled by an Islamic boss she calls “Jimmy Jihad”; Ali (Tom McBeath), magazine publisher and former professor, purged from the university because he’s Christian; smart-ass businessman Mustafa (James Long), who boasts of his deals buying American goods cheap in Iraq and selling back to the Americans dearer (he calls Ali “crucifix boy”); and Saniya (Laara Sadiq), a wealthy divorcée, former student and current lover of Ali.
Into their midst comes Samara (Maiko Bae Yamamoto), a socially conscious journalist who has embraced Islam, wears a headscarf, and is easily the play’s most interesting character. She challenges the decadent complacency of the others and elicits from them their prejudices about Islamic culture and politics. Saniya accuses her—a child of privilege—of being a “fashion fundamentalist.” And indeed, Samara turns out to have her own issues and contradictions.
The second half of the play is locked into plot elements and revelations from the novel that I think ultimately detract from the significant issues raised by Samara, although Chai does a good job of keeping them from turning the piece into melodrama. The acting is very good across the board, with Yamamoto, Ferguson, Marchant, and Pickett the standouts. Chai mounts a handsome production.
But for me the ultimate value of the play comes from its complex, comical, contradictory response to that question: what do we know about the Middle East? Especially through the characters of Samara and Amm, we’re told that simplistic, monolithic views are utterly wrong. Stoned Anis shrugs off the paradoxes: “In downtown Cairo you can buy a designer burqa made by Chanel with lingerie to match.” That’s just the kind of weirdness that gets a Canadian audience nodding, “Okay, we get it, they’re just people too.”