Drowning in Cairo: An Interview with Egyptian Playwright Adam A. Elsayigh
by Rosy Tahan
November 1, 2018
DROWNING IN CAIRO is a play by Egyptian playwright Adam A. Elsayigh. Written for his undergraduate thesis, it was recently read at the Queer Village Reading Series in New York City, and will be part of the Criminal Queerness Festival during Pride 2019. I sat down with Elsayigh before the recent reading to talk about the play, theater and politics in Egypt, and international queer representation.
Drowning in Cairo follows three men, Moody, Khaled, and Taha through the ages of fourteen to thirty-two, as they engage with their queerness against their families’, and their country’s, harsh opposition.
“Through them I’m documenting a bigger narrative about how queerness is engaged with in a Middle Eastern context, specifically in an Egyptian context, I tried to make it very specific,” said Elsayigh. “Rather than broad strokes about ‘what does it mean to be queer in the Middle East,’ I’m looking specifically at what does it mean to be queer and incarcerated or under the lens of the law in Egypt in these particular years.”
The play is set around the Queen Boat incident of May 2001, when a gay nightclub floating on the Nile was raided by police. Fifty-two men were arrested and charged for debauchery, obscenity, and contempt for religion, and a teenager who was on board was sentenced to three years in prison by a juvenile court. While incarcerated, the “Cairo 52” endured terrible human rights abuses well-documented by international human rights organizations, particularly Human Rights Watch.
“My narrative imagines these three characters who grew up together and were going on this boat and were very excited to be in this queer space for the first time, and how getting arrested on this boat impacts the rest of their lives,” said Elsayigh.
Moody and Khaled grew up in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Zamalek in Cairo. It is through Moody that the other two characters realize their queer identities: Khaled falls for him, and Taha, the son of the help, walks in on them kissing. At the time of their arrest aboard the Queen Boat, Khaled and Moody are celebrating their anniversary. Taha is still a teenager.
“Moody is also the one who helps Taha learn English and go up in the world, within the class structure of Egypt specifically,” said Elsayigh. “I wanted to look at queerness not just as its own thing, because it’s not its own thing; queerness and gender are impacted by class, or impacted by status, or impacted by socioeconomics.”
Moody is part of the “Cairo 52,” but in Elsayigh’s narrative, there is a secret, 53rd man: Khaled. His father is high up in the police force and is able to get him out of jail before the well-publicized trials begin.
“That is not to say that Khaled does not suffer,” said Elsayigh. “But something I wanted to show is that lack of mobility in class, even when there’s the illusion of mobility, which we see through Taha. He is initially the son of their doorman and is helping [Moody and Khaled] by washing their dishes or coming to pick up their trash. Eventually he becomes an interpreter and a human rights lawyer, and he’s very much well-respected in those circles, yet nevertheless the two of them never stop looking at him as their servant.
“There’s a certain element of essentialism, specifically pertaining to class in Egypt, where your origins and where you come from are really all that matter. I show how that ends up being extremely destructive: there’s a moment in the second act when Taha realizes that he will never be perceived by them as an equal. That’s when the whole play shifts.”
The character of Taha as future human rights lawyer was shaped by Elsayigh’s reading of the Human Rights Watch’s reports of the incident, though most of his research for the play happened organically.
“Being a gay man myself, and being in Egypt for extensive periods of time, I got to hear stories. Not necessarily of the Queen Boat incident––there were a lot of incarcerations post-2013,” said Elsayigh. In 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led a coup, ending a sense of relative freedom following the January 25 Revolution of 2011. “Egypt has become one of the most criminalizing countries, engaging in active abuse of human rights pertaining to queer people, and gay men specifically,” said Elsayigh.
“I got to hear stories about why these people were incarcerated, what happened in these incarcerations, what are the different reasons that the law is pitting people against each other. Being in these spaces and hearing these things constantly was extremely—I would say was my real form of research.”
Elsayigh started writing the play in July 2017 for his undergraduate thesis at NYU Abu Dhabi, but his goal was always for other Egyptians to see it. “I think queer people, specifically in Egypt, don’t get to see realistic depictions of their own identities, of that specific intersection of Arab-ness and queerness, and so I wanted to write it for that community,” he said. “I think it’s important for people to see themselves reflected in art because it is a validating experience, to feel like your experience is not solitary, that you’re not the only person in the world that’s going through the turbulence that you’re going through.
“But I was having all these existential crises: if I write this play, and it’s produced in the U.S., what does that mean? Am I feeding into this colonial understanding of the Middle East? Am I being orientalist by presenting the play in the U.S.? How will I produce this play in Egypt––I can’t produce this play in Egypt, how will I show it to queer people in Egypt? If I can’t, why am I even writing this play? And at some point I had to—I think theory is really important, but there’s a point at which you have to push it aside and just fucking write the thing, and figure it out down the line.”
The question of audience was especially pertinent given that the play is bilingual, utilizing both English and colloquial Egyptian dialect—and language, particularly knowledge of English, is often a marker of class in Cairo.
“In the first draft there were moments where the characters were eating really Egyptian food, and I was trying to explain what that Egyptian food is, because I was worried that an American audience wouldn’t get it. But there were other moments where I didn’t do that, because I was like, this is for an Egyptian audience. At some point I had to make a decision, and I decided to just make it for an Egyptian audience, even if it can’t be produced in Egypt. That’s who I wanted to write it for,” he said.
After Abu Dhabi, Drowning in Cairo went to San Francisco in June 2018. Elsayigh also did a private underground reading in Cairo, promoted only through word of mouth in queer circles. Yet even though the Egyptian queer audience was his intended audience, he felt the play was least well-received in that context.
“My play is very comedic—there are moments that are very funny, but that didn’t really land. I think there was a lot of tension in the room, because I mean, this is Egypt. People have been arrested for writing plays or being in the presence of plays that are anti-military. I worry that a part of is that the audience was actually uncomfortable being in the space, or maybe the issues were hitting too close to home. It’s very funny to laugh at these issues when you’re sitting in a rehearsal space in New York, but when you’re actually—I mean, we were two miles from the prison where these people were, it’s very difficult to feel lighthearted about it.”
It is an unfortunate irony that censorship and various political factors prevent Egyptian—and Middle Eastern—artists from reaching the audiences they create their work for in the first place. But there is also a divide caused by arts funding and education coming mostly from abroad, and Elsayigh admits that he doesn’t think he necessarily speaks to an Egyptian theatrical aesthetic.
Having been away from Egypt for several years, he spent the summer rediscovering its theatrical scene, working as a producer and translator with the Cairo Experimental Theater Festival.
“I would say that the theater traditions of Egypt at the moment tend to converge between Brechtian theater—which is very political theater, similar to Syrian theater, like Saadallah Wannnous—and there’s absurdist theater, which is very Beckett, or the Waiting for Godot aesthetic, like Tawfiq al-Hakim, who writes in the same style as Kafka, both in his prose and his drama,” he said.
“There’s a huge dichotomy in Egyptian theater-making—not just theater-making, but art-making, theater, film, even novels. There are artists who are upper-middle-class, and who are writing to present their work in Cannes or the Venice Biennale or the Edinburgh Fringe or whatever. The artists are presenting work specifically within the American university for an international audience. Locals don’t get to see that. There’s one arts cinema in Cairo.
“And then you have the contemporary mainstream blockbusters in Egypt, which are very farcical, not politically inclined at all, more on the comedic farce side. Your understanding of what Egyptian theater or film might be is not necessarily what people engage with on the ground in Cairo.”
Nevertheless, Elsayigh believes that Egyptian queer stories can be a powerful force internationally; the Queen Boat incident, after all, made the government—back then under Hosni Mubarak—wary of committing abuses that could jeopardize international relations.
Now based in New York, Elsayigh is currently working with the National Queer Theater on the Criminal Queerness Festival, a festival telling LGBTQ+ stories from the global south.
“If we’re presenting this play in Stonewall 50,” the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York, a watershed moment for gay rights in the United States, “we’re hoping that there will be NGOs there, that these NGOs might provide monetary support to local NGOs. There are three local NGOs on the ground in Cairo that aren’t allowed to exist, but they do, and they don’t have websites,” he said. “They pay for lawyers when somebody gets arrested, and things like that.
“Egypt is not going to legalize gay marriage next year. It’s probably not going to legalize gay marriage for a hundred years. Even little incremental steps like writing a play, or hiring someone a lawyer, or starting an NGO that helps translate a collection of stories to English—and I’m not just talking about artistic word—any form of art activism or non-art activism will eventually lead to that point where in 50 years we are at that place. My goals are always that my work is putting even one extra block on the road to complete and eventual justice and equality.” ❖