Absolute silence and darkness surrounds the audience. Three spotlights appear and there are three stands underneath them. Three men wearing black clothes walk up to the stands, place their folders on the stands and stand. A narrator starts reading the scene directions. The audience has now been transported to Cairo.
We first meet the characters, Moody, Taha and Khalid, as adults. Khalid’s spotlight is off as Moody and Taha talk about their experiences in prison. The atmosphere is grim and taut with suspense. We learn that the three men were arrested for being at a queer party on a boat. Moody wonders if he influenced Taha the wrong way. “You don’t have to be gay,” Moody tells Taha. “I spent two years in prison for being gay. So I’m gay,” Taha responds. This queer, marginalized identity is the soul of Drowning in Cairo, the capstone project by Adam Ashraf, Class of 2018.
Ashraf’s play is about the “lives of three gay men in Cairo from the age of 13 to 33, who in that span of time fall in love and fall apart.”
Ashraf’s play stems from his own experiences in Egypt.
“Having seen the intersectionality of oppression and how class privilege and economic privileges impact how different peoples bodies are acted upon definitely dictated how I viewed the world. And it’s definitely been instrumental in writing this play,” Ashraf said.
During the span of the 100 minute play, we move back and forth in time: we are taken to the early stages of the character’s relationships and watch them discover their queerness, deny their discoveries and then slowly come into acceptance about their identities. However, none of the men’s parents accept or encourage their queer identities. While Moody settles for keeping a distance from his parents, Khalid cannot. Khalid’s father, a general who becomes the prime minister of the country, keeps strict tabs on him. Various forces, social and political, force the characters to marry women in order to appear straight. Taha, who is from a lower class, grows fond of Moody who looks out for him and teaches him English. Taha becomes a human rights activist and lawyer and is continuously trying to help queer people. Moody, a writer now writing his autobiography, has become continuously disheartened, especially as he ponders over how his relationship with Khalid has turned out.
The play is grim. The characters don’t live easy lives. There are constant barriers that threaten their status as queer people, and the government is cracking down on them. Yet, the audience found plenty of humorous moments, especially in the first half of the play. Ashraf admits that only one of the moments was designed to be humorous and the rest were pure reactions from the audience. In a play full of serious moments, humor plays an important role.
“If people are sad the whole time, the moments that are truly heartbreaking are not going to be felt,” Ashraf said. “People try to relieve themselves [through comedy] in moments when they are uncomfortable.”
A unique aspect of Ashraf’s play reading was that at certain times, lines in transliterated Arabic or Arabizi were projected onto the wall behind the characters. The difficulty in finding Arabic-speaking male actors who would be willing to play queer characters, the inability of most of the audience to understand Arabic and the fact that some individuals speak both languages interchangeably in Egypt contributed to this specific stylistic choice.The bilingualism of the characters also depicts their social class as upper or upper middle class.
In the play, Moody’s autobiography documents his experience as a queer man alongside his relationships with Taha and Khalid. Taha constantly encourages Moody to publish his book, to which Moody responds by questioning how publishing the autobiography will help any of them. As a writer, Ashraf has the same concerns.
Ashraf admitted that the topic of being queer is a sensitive topic in the Middle East.
“[Staging the play in] Abu Dhabi is a more valuable theatrical experience [to me] than [staging it] in New York because I am disillusioned with the theaters that appropriate other cultures — that’s something that [my] play deals with. If my play [were] published in New York, it [would not] help queer people in Egypt,” Ashraf said.
“In an ideal world, I would want this play to be staged in Egypt,” Ashraf said. However, it would be dangerous to pull off a production like Ashraf’s in that country. Hence, Ashraf would like the play to be produced in Berlin, where there is a sizable Middle Eastern community, or in Beirut, a city that is sensitive to the topics of Ashraf’s play but to a lesser extent than some other Middle Eastern cities are.
Towards the end of the play, Taha succeeds in moving out of Egypt and pursues his education in New York. Moody had a job for a brief period and then quit, so he is left without a source of income. He becomes more entangled with substance abuse and stops writing completely. His family is migrating abroad and it seems like they won’t take him with them. Taha, who was Moody’s constant support, has left the country. Khalid, the man Moody was in love with, is married to a woman and has a son whom he named Moody. Khalid has more freedom since his father died, but he has a government job that does not give him the freedom to be queer — at least not in the eyes of the outside world.
Sitting in the audience, I was beginning to feel suffocated. Given the political and social atmosphere the characters were in, Moody and Khalid did not seem to be able to escape from their plights. While theater capstones are usually performed within half an hour, Ashraf wanted to focus on writing a dramatic play and chose to stage a play reading instead of a full production. The characters stood at the stands during the whole duration of the reading and there was only one physical interaction between the actors when Taha and Khalid got into a fight. While the characters had hard lives, I felt like the setting contributed to my sense and the character’s senses of suffocation. The 40-member audience sat in a half circle around the three characters. Besides the part illuminated by three stage lights, most of the room was in pure darkness, a little like the prison cells that the characters spent time in.
Ashraf said that this was the environment he aimed to create.
“I want the audience to feel like they’re looking in on people’s lives and eventually [to recognize that the characters are] trapped. Trapped in the country, trapped in the legal system, trapped by their relationships to each other and to their parents — and they can’t escape that.”
I didn’t think I’d find myself in Cairo when I first encountered the play, and I certainly did not expect to find myself drowning in Cairo when the play ended.
Thirangie Jayatilake is a Feature Editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.