CAIRO, Egypt — Sondos Shabayek is the director of the BuSSy project, a theater group that began as Egypt’s answer to Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues.”
After Egypt’s 2011 revolution the group came up with the idea for and performed the “Tahrir Monologues” — stories from the 18-day peaceful uprising in Tahrir Square. Shabayek is now directing “Five hundreds,” a new performance about the lives of teenagers in Egypt.
In March, the group was slated to perform at a state-run theater as part of a youth and children’s theater festival but was banned days before the performance. The theater director had asked them to modify the show because she had heard that some of the language and content were “inappropriate.” Shabayek and the performers refused on grounds that the request constituted censorship and would undermine the goals of the production. The play addresses topics such as sex and masturbation, which are deemed taboo in Egypt.
Undeterred, Shabayek and her actors performed last month at a space in downtown Cairo owned by the American University in Cairo and they are now touring around the country.
GlobalPost sat down with her to find out more.
What is the BuSSy Project?
The original idea was inspired by the Vagina Monologues. They founders wanted to create something that offered women in Egypt space to give voice to their stories.
We started working with different themes like sexual violence in Tahrir Square and we did a performance about perceptions of masculinity.
And then we started thinking let’s go outside of Cairo. Now we travel to cities and do storytelling workshops after the performances and have another small production.
What are its goals?
Generally it’s to provide a platform for as many women and men in Egypt to be able to share their own stories and experience storytelling as a tool of empowerment.
People generally don’t think their own personal stories are important. Most say ‘yes, but my story’s not important enough to share,’ but we say ‘no it is important.’ This is always an issue.
Tell me a bit about the name.
Written in English it’s B-U-S-S-Y and it’s a play on words, I know! I didn’t come up with it, it was the founders and they left me this and I can’t change its name! I write it in Arabic because I don’t want to always be fighting that battle. (In Arabic it means, “look” said to a woman in the imperative) but people also call it other things like “boosny” (meaning ‘kiss me’ in Arabic), and “mussy” (“suck” said to a woman in the imperative). I even had an argument with a professor at a university in the US because she wanted to host a performance but she had a problem with the name and I was like, I have to struggle to keep the name in Egypt and then when I go to America, am I going to change it for you?
Your most recent production is about what it’s like to be a teenager in Egypt. Do you have different objectives than you did with previous productions?
Well my ideal wish is when teenagers watch it they feel that they are on stage, just the same way I get told by others [in previous productions] this is my story too, I want them to be able to feel this is us, to recognize themselves on stage.
Why is it important for teenagers to see themselves on stage?
Because no one is interested in them. If you look around, what caters to teenagers? Nothing, even though whatever happens in this phase affects us for the rest of our lives. As we regress now as adults in the rehearsals and think about all the experiences that we had as teenagers and how they affected us, we all wish we had a different teenage phase, we wish things were different, we wish we knew things that we didn’t.
Did you think about using teenage actors?
Originally I really wanted to have teenagers on stage but then it couldn’t have be a professional production that tours because they have school. And it would be too much stress for them. Psychologically, sharing your own story is very overwhelming and challenging for adults, so imagine the stress it would create on teenagers. And there was also the issue that they are underage and we would have to get the consent of their parents and then we thought we’re going to get into a discussion of the BuSSy Project and parents, and we felt that it would be a catastrophe.
Do you think it’s particularly difficult to be a teenager in Egypt?
Teenage issues are universal, but I think so because of society. In other places it’s better because a teenager is not treated like a child. Elsewhere when you’re 18 no one can look at you as a teenager but here you’re a child until you get married. Teenagers are so confused and victimized, trying to find themselves. There’s an identity crisis, there’s a gender identity crisis. It’s like a prison.
I didn’t have a miserable teenage phase at all but when I remember it I think to myself I would do anything but go back to that time.
Are any of the teachers from the teenagers’ schools excited about your project?
I’m not expecting a positive reaction.
Or from parents. I’m putting on stage teenagers talking about masturbating, sex and drugs and the title of the performance is “five hundreds” and “five hundreds” is a code name. They say “five hundred” or “five hundreds” when adults walk in so that they change the subject. So “five hundreds” is basically all the things teachers and parents don’t know about.
How have performances been received outside of Cairo?
We have good and bad everywhere, even in Cairo. It depends where we do the performance. When we did performances in the metro we had very extreme reactions. We had people crying and people hugging us and we had people trying to beat us up.
How have things changed since you started doing this work?
Things are getting better. In 2010 when we performed outside it was horrible. We ended up performing in a parking space in outside the Opera House and the next day we had people from state security people and from the morality police calling us. It was a mess.
I think because people filed complaints. But also we were naïve back then and we had no experience whatsoever, plus we went to the censors.
You went to them?
Yes, because originally we wanted to perform in another space and they asked us for a censorship permit. So we submitted the script to the censors and when you submit the script they know about you, so we kind of involved them by asking permission.
Of course we gave them a script that was different from the one we were going to perform. I took out a lot of stories but still they censored it. It was crazy.
For example there was a conversation in which one character says to the other, “I want to sleep with a woman” and then his friend says, “I want to sleep with one too.” And they censored it out so it became “I want…” and his friend would respond, “I also want...” This is how much they would censor it. I still have the script and it’s ridiculous. You feel like in the censored version the audience would think the actors were referring to something much more shameful than they actually were.
Did the censors come to the performance?
Yes, on the second night. They came to see the version I sent them, not the actual version, so we ended up performing half of the performance and miming out the rest, then at the end then saying this is only half of the performance, the other half is censored out.
And have you had any issues with state security since then?
People learn; you have to have a strategy. Some people believe it’s better to use state-owned venues because then you have access to larger audiences, which is true, but at what cost? I’m at a stage when I’m not going to let a state employee who doesn’t necessarily know anything about theater decide for me what I put in and what I don’t. Now I don’t approach any government-owned venues at all.
And back then we used to do self-censorship, there were no bad words in it, it was just the topics. Now I don’t go to the censors nor do I practice self-censorship and that’s that.
What about politics, Does that enter into it?
Look, everything is political of course. And I believe that BuSSy is more political than Tahrir Monologues because for me what’s political is anything that creates any form of resistance and for me BuSSy has been a battle that’s much harder than Tahrir Monologues. Tahrir Monologues was very popular and people loved it, whereas BuSSy I always felt I was walking around with a time bomb.
With protests banned in Egypt, does somewhere like theater offer more space for self-expression?
I can sit right now and tell you I want to do another version of Tahrir Monologues but there won’t be political space to do it, but I have to tell you that I don’t have the urge to do it.
Because it’s very emotionally heavy and draining to do anything revolution-related. Even subtitling the videos of the stories from the 18 days is very draining and emotional.
Because of what’s happening now.
Do you see these battles as connected?
It feels like it’s on hold, and we feel like the only way to survive in the country is to go back to our original battles that were not necessarily directly political.
This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.