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We Do Not Live In Cairo

I am a son of Tahrir

Born into hope, into heat, into thousands of voices

I am a son of Tahrir, out in the crowd on the street

Our pain, our pride, our choices

Tahrir is now

And, now is here

We’ll wait an hour, a day, a month, a year

We have cracked the wall of fear

We’ll see it crumble

“Tahrir Is Now,” a song from the musical “We Live in Cairo,” was playing in the background as I read the news about the controversy over the local elections in Turkey. The ruling party, which has been in power for 17 years now, lost the municipal elections to the opposition in Istanbul. However, the newspaper wrote, the ruling party was refusing to accept the election results, alleging that there had been fraud. “Do our choices really matter?” I asked myself.  

“No,” the state replied, as it overturned the election results after a few weeks.  

I was disappointed and frustrated. Then, I heard the Lazour brothers, creators of the musical, which is currently in production at the American Repertory Theatre, sing “Tahrir Is Now.” In this song, I heard the refrain: “Yes, your choices matter.”

I have never been to Tahrir, a square in Cairo known as the location of the 2011 political demonstrations. I do not speak Arabic. In fact, I did not even know “Tahrir” meant “freedom” until I enthusiastically played the song for a music-savvy friend of mine who happened to speak the language. How, I wondered, can a song whose title I do not even understand mean so much to me? Why was I so excited to see the production of “We Live in Cairo?”

This musical is written by Daniel and Patrick Lazour, brothers and collaborators of Lebanese descent. Its plot follows the story of six students as they fight to bring down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak on the streets of Cairo through various means: Hany and Amir write protest songs while Karim and Hassan paint murals; Layla takes photographs at the protests that Fadwa organizes. Inspired by the actual young Egyptians who took over Tahrir Square in 2011, the musical tells a fictional story rooted in reality.

This reality was that 846 protesters were killed and 6000 more were injured by the police during the 18 days of protests in Tahrir Square, protests that nevertheless persisted under the slogan “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice,” fuelled by the hope for a better economic and political system. It was the reality behind its story that rendered “We Live in Cairo” particularly moving for me. I could not dismiss it as a yet another art piece that romanticizes activism; it was real, and I felt empowered.

As someone from Turkey... –– I found myself prefacing every opinion I expressed about the show with this phrase. It felt right to me and nobody else questioned it, but I could not pin down what about my Turkish identity served to connect me so directly to the Egypt of 2011 represented onstage — especially given that Egyptian culture actually shared relatively few commonalities with my own. But when I talked to Sharif Afifi, who plays Karim in “We Live In Cairo,” his words clarified the link.

Although it is never explicitly vocalized in the play, Karim is a gay man. I asked Sharif if he felt the need to talk to gay men in Egypt while building his character. He explained that the danger of being openly queer in Egypt made this endeavor impossible, but that he was able to draw upon his personal experiences as an openly gay Anglo-Egyptian.

“As much as the details of suppression and oppression are specific to a country,” he added, “there is something universal in that feeling of imprisonment of self.”

There was my answer. The number of people who were killed and injured during the 2013 protests against the government in Istanbul was different than in Cairo, but violence is the same. The number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey for speaking up was different than in Egypt, but censorship is the same. The deep-seated fear that unconsciously lowers your voice while talking about politics in public is the same. The need to cover your face with a scarf against tear gas before going out to protest is the same.

If the imprisonment of self could be universal across national borders, perhaps so could the imprisonment of ideas and ideals.

Dana Saleh Omar, who plays Fadwa in the musical, told me that she has been searching for something like “We Live in Cairo” for her entire life.

“‘Why aren’t there stories about me and where I come from?’ I kept asking myself,” she told me over the phone the day after I saw the show. Dana is not from Egypt; her parents are Jordanian-Palestinian immigrants. Yet she feels that “We Live in Cairo” is still her story. As it is my story, and the story of Taibi Magar, the show’s Egyptian-American director, and of Samar Haddad King, its choreographer based in Palestine and New York City, and certainly that of its Lebanese-American writers. As it is for all those living under authoritarian regimes. Regardless of our hometown, we, as people with ties to countries suffering political oppression, have come to own the story “We Live in Cairo” tells.

During our conversation, Sharif pointed out how uncommon it was for people with Middle Eastern heritage to be given the opportunity to tell their stories through theatre. We see stories from Chicago, from Paris and even from the Scotland of the 17th century, but it is rare to see a story from Egypt on stage. It is even rarer, I thought, to find a musical produced by a creative team entirely made up of artists with Middle Eastern roots.

The team’s familiarity with the culture of the region manifested itself in the production down to its smallest details. Before the musical began, a plastic chair greeted the audience from the empty Loeb Main Stage. The chair was absurdly red and absurdly bright. It reminded me of all the unimportant items I saw in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. All these cheap plastic objects came in ostentatious hues as if their colors could reclaim their significance. The chair appeared out of place in front of the dark gray wall where it was standing, but its brightness was unapologetic. Its red was beautifully disruptive.

Once the show started, the chair got lost in the array of bright colors. Rugs and cushions of every tint covered the surface of the stage; the décor alone could lift spirits. Soon, all these glowing items were pushed to the side, and the audience was left with a dark stage and a high wall that dwarfed the actors. The wall was not like the chair; its color was dull. It did not disappear like the chair did; it stood still while everything else slowly fell apart. When the red chair reappeared on stage, the play had covered not only the Tahrir Square Uprising, but also the election of Mohamed Morsi, former president of Egypt, and his resignation a year later.

I wondered how the performers tasked with embodying the experience of revolutionaries could internalize two years of political turmoil that is not only complicated but also violent. Both Dana and Sharif told me about the timeline of the events in Cairo posted on the wall of their rehearsal room, supplemented by a collection of reference books. Sharif noted that the first few weeks of rehearsal were “an intense learning process, as [the actors] were being fed with the details of the events.” Dana recalled one of these details as particularly difficult to digest: the death of Khaled Saeed.

Khaled Saeed was a young Egyptian who was beaten to death by the police, though the police  claimed that Saeed had died of asphyxiation as he attempted to swallow a packet of hashish. However, a photo Saeed’s brother took of his body in the morgue went viral online, helping to incite the 2011 uprisings. During the rehearsals, Dana said, the actors were asked to look at this photo of Khaled Saeed’s disfigured corpse. After our conversation, I could not help but google the photo. Before interviewing Dana, I had already known Saeed’s story, but looking at his damaged face, I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach.

I had likewise known the history of the Egyptian Revolution before seeing “We Live in Cairo.” Yet there was something powerfully inspiring about watching the musical retell this story and something deeply touching about hearing the notes of “Tahrir Is Now.” I cannot identify that something, but I can tell you that “We Live in Cairo” is about that thing. It is about what made Egyptians in 2011 go outside and fight for justice after hearing melodies like Amir’s and lyrics like Hany’s. It is about what made them build tents in Tahrir Square and wait for freedom for 18 days, after seeing paintings like Karim’s and photos like Layla’s. “We Live in Cairo” is about the thing that photos, songs, and paintings ignite in us and the change they fuel; in Egypt, in Istanbul and in all the other lands of oppression.