Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
This book by the noted Egyptologist Dr. Wafaa El-Saddik, Protecting Pharaoh’s Treasures, published by The American University in Cairo Press, is about her life in Egyptology, pursuing one’s dream, overcoming corruption, sexism, and so much more. Here is the fascinating story of one who became the first woman Director General of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It is remarkable for any woman to head a major world class museum, but even more so in a Muslim country. The book also provides answers to some of the questions about the Arab Spring of 2011 and its lingering effects on Egypt’s economy through its major tourist attractions, the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum.
Wafaa takes us on a journey back to her childhood, growing up in the 1950s, in a small village in the Nile Delta. We are given a real picture of what life was like in the early 1950’s, but greatly changed for many with the Suez Canal crisis, when Israel invaded Egypt and attempted to remove President Gamal Abdel Nasser from power. We are given an understanding of the profound effect this had on the Egyptian people.
Insight into the British influence in Egypt and the many foreign Egyptologists who have staked their claims to Egypt’s buried treasures gives the reader a better understanding of attitudes reflected today.
We learn of Wafaa’s Muslim faith, a very personal one, which is about helping those less fortunate, standing up and doing what is right, and not being swayed by the corrupt actions of others. She credits her mother’s guiding words to her: “the only path is the straight path.” We see her faith put into practice in the programs she started for the blind and disabled, and in the Children’s Museum she envisioned and created in the basement of the museum.
Talking freely about her choice of not wearing a head scarf, Wafaa believes that social pressure to do so is an encroachment on her freedom and faith. To be the only woman in the Egyptian Museum who did not wear a head scarf says something about thinking for oneself while still holding to one’s principles and faith.
Originally studying to be a journalist, Wafaa switched to archeology after a field trip to Luxor and Aswan rekindled her interest in ancient Egypt which she had since a child. In pursuing a Master’s degree, she had her first trip out of Egypt in 1973, assisting a British mission in a dig in Benghazi, Libya, learning excavation techniques and gaining practical scientific knowledge. Her career in Egypt began soon after, when she was offered a position as an inspector in the Antiquities Department. From the bottom rung, she worked her way up and was tapped at a young age to be host to many dignitaries, royalty, and heads of state who traveled to Egypt wanting to learn about its ancient and glorious history. No doubt, her ability to speak several languages and her reputation as a gracious and knowledgeable host had something to do with it! She eventually continued her studies in Vienna, obtaining a doctorate in Egyptology from the University of Vienna in 1983.
There are wonderful stories of her years at the Egyptian Museum, including seven years as its Director General. She faced many challenges, from managing more than 300 in staff, to dealing with the publicity hound Zahi Hawass and many government bureaucrats including Mubarek, to the difficulties in orchestrating the traveling shows of Tutankhamen’s treasures in cities around the world. In addition to her work, Wafaa has achieved a happy marriage and raised two successful sons.
Anyone with an interest in people, archeology, and Egyptian history (both ancient and modern), will find this a book they cannot put down and gives one hope for Egypt’s future. It includes many excellent photos from the life of a remarkable woman, a role model for women everywhere. The book, originally written in German with Rudiger Heimlich, was translated by Russell Stockman.
Every mother’s dream is that her son will become a doctor. Her worst nightmare is that he will become a comedian. Egyptian-born Bassem Youssef has been both. In 2011, Bassem left his job as a cardiac surgeon and embarked on a comedy career. Tickling Giants is his story. It’s also the story of Egypt’s tentative steps towards Democracy during the period known as the “Arab Spring.”
Called the “Egyptian Jon Stewart,” Bassem was initially moved to action after helping wounded protestors in Tahir Square during Mubarik’s ouster in 2011. His first attempts at humor were on YouTube. These were an instant hit and Bassem was quickly picked up on
Egyptian network TV. His show, called, The Show [Al-Bernameg In Arabic], was a satirical look at politics, religion, and the government. And nothing was off limits – Islam and its clerics, sex, the president. Sight gags, animation, and video goofs added to the mix.
Bassem interviewing people at Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November 2011.
It was a winning combination for Bassem. His Egyptian audiences loved it, and even his mentor, Stewart, was moved to let him visit his New York set. There, Bassem’s story and his passion caught the eye of The Daily Show’s long-time producer, Sara Taksler, who committed to making a feature length documentary about him. A year later, Taksler found herself in Cairo. But shooting on location in Eqypt was fraught with difficulties. Because of budget constraints, Taksler had to become a one-man band, shooting much of the action herself, in the midst of dangerous times and risky places; sometimes from a moving car and other times from the protection of the production offices. As Taksler said, “This is a group of people who do the same sorts of things I do as a Senior Producer at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but with much higher stakes.”
Yet she also managed to capture Bassem and his staff’s humor, dedication, and sense of fun throughout it all. And she said, she found their two offices remarkably similar – the main difference being that one had lots of Ahmed’s, the other lots of Adam’s.
The show itself spanned four seasons and three rulers – Mubarik, Morsi, and Sisi, whom Bassem called, “Mubarek 2.0,” and who won his “free election” with 96.9 percent of the vote. The other 3.1 percent went to “Hummus” or so the show said. But it often put him at odds with the government. Under Morsi’s rule, he was cited for “Contempt of Islam” and “Insulting the President,” and questioned for six hours. Ultimately, the court dismissed the case amidst cheers from the public. As one onlooker said, “He’s a doctor who heals us from the political state we’re facing.”
Bassem presents Jon Stewart with a gift from Egypt.
In its hay-day, the show commanded 30 million viewers, nearly 40 percent of the population. By comparison, Stewart’s show reached two million. But Egypt is not the United States, and freedom of expression is not guaranteed.
When Sisi came to power in 2014, the tides began to turn. Protestors appeared outside the studio, there were thinly and not-so-thinly veiled threats to Bassem, his crew, and his family. Two networks, and one blackout/jammed signal later, Bassem was off the air and being sued for breach of contract for 100,000,000 pounds. It was an amount he could not pay, so he fled the country.
Today, Bassem lives in California with his wife and daughter, but he is keeping his political humor alive. His show, Democracy Handbook, a series of 10 digital episodes, airs on Fusion. And he recently published a book called, Revolution for Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring, which is taking him around the States on the lecture circuit.
It’s a long way from Cairo, and it often makes Bassem wonder whether his little girl will ever see Egypt. But ultimately, he remains undeterred as he reflects back on his show there. “It was a short glimpse in time, where people can look back and say, it’s possible.”
Top photo: Bassem visits The Daily Show in June 2012.
“Once not long ago a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”
What appears at first glance to be a slight ripple in history sometimes affects those present in profoundly unexpected ways. This gem of a musical, whose fine book buoys grounded lyrics, embraces what we have in common rather than becoming yet another platform for political social/division. That it does so with limpid delicacy eschewing Hollywood outcomes makes the piece as refreshing as it is sympathetic.
The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has been invited to open an Arab Cultural Center in Pet Hatikva, Israel. Overseen with utmost decorum “We are here to represent our country!” by their conductor, Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria (Tony Shaloub), the small troop appear somewhat dazed. Crisp, powder blue military uniforms stand out against sand and cracked cement as if landed from another planet. In fact, they are strangers in a strange land.
Tony Shaloub, Alok Tewari, Ari’el Stachel
When trumpet player/ladies man Haled (Ari’el Stachel) mistakenly arranges passage to neighboring Bat Hatikva (B not P), the men find themselves in a one horse desert town without the horse. Locals pass by means of a stage floor turntable. They’re all “Waiting”, but is it for something special or just “Looking off out into the distance/even though you know the view is never gonna change…”
Café owner Dina (Katrina Lenk), affable Itzik (John Cariani), and hapless young Papi (Daniel David Stewart) sing “Welcome to Nowhere.” As the next bus doesn’t come through till tomorrow and the settlement has no hotel, Dina agrees to put up Tewfiq and Haled. Itzik takes home clarinetist Simon (Alok Tewari) and violinist Camal (George Abud.) Others will bunk in the café.
John Cariani, Katrina Lenk, Daniel David Stewart
David Yazbeck’s infectious music embraces Middle Eastern influences with estimable skill, maintaining an atmosphere of “other” one rarely finds in musical theater. Orchestra members without speaking parts supplement hidden musicians creating inclusiveness. Stachel actually plays trumpet, Tewari, clarinet, Abud, violin. Several cast members speak fluent Arabic while others deliver dialogue in Hebrew. There isn’t a single weak link in acting or vocals. Casting (Tara Rubin) must’ve been like scaling a glass mountain.
The play evolves over a single afternoon and evening with four integrated chapters. In Avrum’s home (Andrew Polk as Iris’s father), we observe Itzak’s unemployment and a new baby strain his marriage to Iris (Kristin Sieh). Polk tells Avrum’s love story with palpable warmth. A pleasing “Beat of Your Heart” elicits memories: Love starts when the tune is sweet/And you lift your feet/to the beat of your heart…Simon unwittingly affects dynamics.
Kristen Sieh, John Cariani, Alok Tewari, Andrew Polk, George Abud
At a well staged roller rink, Papi panics around girls. Description of his state “Papi Hears the Ocean” is priceless. Haled instills the boy with confidence in a charming scene.
Curious about and drawn to her guest, the attractive Dina literally lets her hair down and engineers private time with Tewfiq. It seems she’s familiar with Egyptian film and the music of female vocalist Umm Kulthum. “Omar Sharif” is wistful and original: From the West from the South/Honey in my ears/Spice in my mouth…Dina gets the guarded conductor to begin to open up. He sings in a capella Arabic (with immense feeling), but is it about love, she wonders, or fishing? Still, this man is compelling. They understand one another on a deeper level. It’s “Something Different.”
Tony Shaloub, Katrina Lenk
The fourth chapter, an embodiment of hopeful perseverance, is played out with the Telephone Guy (Erik Liberman, good vocal) who has stood outside a phone booth every night for a month waiting for a promised call from his girl. Then it’s time for the orchestra to move on. We last see them – performing – in Pet Hatikva. It’s extremely difficult not to get up and dance. A completely satisfying experience.
Ari’el Stachel imbues Haled with gentleness that would appeal to the girls with whom his character continually flirts, yet masculinity is ever present. His paternal attitude toward Papi is lovely. And he sings. Daniel David Stewart is pitch perfect as awkward, earnest Papi.
Katrina Lenk and Tony Shaloub are a match made in heaven. Lenk’s earthy, sensual, smart portrayal make Dina a real and formidable woman. Rarely have the practical and passionate been so believable in tandem. And she has a superb voice.
Shaloub’s performance is layered and nuanced. Fastidiousness is unmistakable. Revealing his painful past, Tewfiq maintains perspective, yet at one point, we hear his breath catch. His song communicates lost illusions – I didn’t understand a word. The couple’s parting couldn’t be more convincingly manifest.
Director David Cromer has both a soulful character touch and the kind of comprehensive staging vision that never makes a false move. The turntable is wonderfully utilized. Live musicians are meticulously integrated.
Language and Dialect Coach Mouna R’miki deserves a standing ovation. Scott Pask’s flexible set evokes the desolate environment while maintaining a sense of community with flow.
Photos by Ahron R. Foster Opening: Ari’el Stachel, David Garo Yellin, George Abud, Tony Shalloub, Harvey Valdes, Sam Sadigursky, Alok Tewari
Atlantic Theater Company presents The Band’s Visit Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek; Book by Itamar Moses Based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin Music Director: Andrea Grody; Orchestrations: Jamishied Sharifi Directed by David Cromer Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20 Street Through January 1, 2017