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EGYPT: Play shines a light on Egypt's realities

March 3, 2009 |  7:48 am


Although they looked like mafia ringleaders convening in an aura of mystery in a cave to lay out the details of their next crime, they turned out to be Egyptian businessmen, all in black, standing in a dimly lit mosque that was built exclusively for the filthy rich in one of Cairo’s posh suburbs. Each raised his hands to the sky begging God to grant some wicked wish.

“O, God! I hope I can win the auction and get the 10,000 acres. I did my homework and bribed the whole (government) committee in charge. However, I am still not sure I will get it. Please God, help me,” prayed one of them.

This was one of the most powerful scenes in the play "Coffee, No Sugar," which has recently raised eyebrows for its biting criticism of Egypt’s malaise. In a series of sarcastic vignettes, the play romanticized Egypt’s past, lamented its present and voiced pessimism over the future.  This agony was well conveyed through the play’s name, "Coffee, No Sugar," a ritual drink in Egyptian memorial gatherings. 

The play begins with scores of weeping men and women, all in black, walking in a funeral procession, laying photographs of Egypt’s prominent deceased economists, actresses and actors,  and political leaders on a sandy grave symbolizing the Egyptian past.

The play mocks a plethora of flaws, including bread queues, the chasm between rich and poor, corruption, unemployment and the failure of state institutions. By mocking businessmen, the play hit a sensitive nerve with large segments in Egyptian society that believe the rich survive on tight networks of corruption that drain national resources to serve the vested interests of the few at the expense of the many. 

“Coffee, No Sugar” offers a ruthless depiction of the sweeping social chasm. On one hand, it depicts a businessman who prayed to God to inspire him with a solution to his dilemma of whether to build a square or rouund swimming pool at his villa. On the other hand, the play shocks spectators with a scene of a bunch of young men who threw themselves into a deadly fight over few loaves of bread.

Surprisingly, the production is not the product of a meticulously written script. It a collection of improvised scenes by a group of talented beginners who succeeded in attracting thousands of theater-goers in less than a year. In recent months, finding a ticket was a hopeless endeavor.

Coffee_no_sugar_2 “The play cries over our current situation now and invites us to cry as well. There is no other piece of art that grabbed that much attention in 2008,” wrote Soliman Gouda in the independent Al Masry al Youm daily in December 2008.

“You are strongly invited with each other citizen to drink a coffee with no sugar to express your disappointment over your conditions and the conditions of your country.”

Despite explicit political tones, the play’s director refused to classify his play as political.

“I don’t politicize the play, we are not the opposition. We speak as lay citizens who express their sorrow over high values that they lost in their lives,” Khaled Galal told The Times. “It is a humanistic show, I don’t classify it as a political one. It does not carry a condemnation of a specific era.”

The play also shed lights on the brutal influence of the Gulf on the Egyptian media and culture. On this, “Coffee, No Sugar” shares the agony of many liberal Egyptian intellectuals who contend that the Gulf exported many negative attitudes to Egyptian society, including consumerism, materialism as well as extremist conservatism.

Although the play carried an explicit condemnation of President Hosni Mubarak’s political regime, no ban has been enacted. On the contrary, the play seems to be widely tolerated. The first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, and a number of ministers had reportedly attended the play. It is also worth mentioning that that the play has been performed in a state-owned theater.

The regime’s response is not so surprising. On the contrary, it is in line with Mubarak’s general strategy that leaves the door open to freedom of expression, as long as it does not translate into action or any organizational activity. Nevertheless, this strategy did not prevent the regime from launching sporadic attacks on outspoken journalists who have pushed the ceiling of political criticism too high.

-- Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo

Photos: Scenes from "Coffee, No Sugar." Credit: Khaled Galal