Marionettes for social evolution
Océane Besombes / Egypt
Océane Besombes / Egypt
June 6th 2017, in the heart of Bayt Al-Sinnari in Cairo, the Pergola Theater showed its new production “Rehana”. A puppet show to raise awareness among the young and old of violence against women and children, and in particular for sexual harassment or “taharosh” in egyptian.
At the raising of the curtain, the marionettes come to life in a colorful environment to tell the story of Rehana to an attentive audience. Rehana is a little girl, she has a sad demeanor, dressed in a pink school uniform. One fine day she announces to her parents that she doesn’t want to go to her private lessons, she says she is too tired from soccer practice the day before. But, faced with the insistence and incomprehension of her mother, Rehana gives in. Thus the spectator discovers the true reason for her reticence. She is the victim of sexual harassment at the hands of her professor.
Throughout Rehana’s story, the Pergola Theater exposes the heavy psychological consequences of such acts on a child. From an excellent student, happy and blossoming, Rehana has become taciturn and withdrawn, her scholastic performance declining. The young girl’s suffering is equally betrayed by her silence. She doesn’t talk about it with her friends, nor with her parents until her classmates encourage her to tell them what happened.
A grave subject, addressed by marionettes through dialogues and songs so as to allow for distance to be created and to render the issue accessible to all, children and adults. Parents are the primary targets that Rania Refaat wishes to touch, even more so than the children, and that which most interests her are the conversations which often take place between family members about that which they have just seen. A way of prolonging the show and spreading her message.
The use of these small objects for the millennial story was all natural for Rania. She has loved marionnettes since early childhood. Each one she had at the time had a name and birthdate. A passion that has not dried up in adulthood. More than simple puppets, these marionettes are really a part of her life.
The use of marionettes is equally a practical advantage since it eliminates the need to depend on human beings as actors. For Rania, “teaching anyone to manipulate marionettes, is simpler than finding actors on whom you can count for a lifetime in Egypt”.
She has finally thrown herself into starting her own marionette theater, after having acquired the expertise and understanding of the different tools necessary to pull off such a project, whether it be writing a piece, acting, or even the creation of marionettes.
The need to change mentalities as a motivator
In the introduction of the show, Rania Refaat, the director of the Pergola Theater, reminds the audience that in Egypt, in the years 1960-1970 women freely wore clothing such as mini-skirts on the street. In this era, sexual harassment was not widespread through the country. Today the majority of Egyptian women are covered. A simple hijab or niqab, light dress codes exist. With that, harassment has become endemic. A finding that for Rania Refaat is enough proof that the problem does not come from clothes or attitudes of women. For her, it is the mentalities that must evolve.
Campaigns for sensitization for this cause have been developing all over the country. HarrassMap, one of the numerous partners of Pergola Theater, are part of these organizations that fight to put an end to sexual harassment in the egyptian society. The show “Rehana” is the fruit of a collaboration with the Women’s Union in Egypt, directed by Dr Hod Badran. But sexual harassment isn’t fought only in the theater.
Since its creation in 2011 by the lawyer, Rania Refaat, the shows of Pergola Theater always has addressed political, legal, and social issues that touch Egypt.
Its first shows took place at the bus stop Rawd Al Farag, in the Shubra Masr neighborhood. The show, entitled “Fatah Einak Takol Malban”, - an Egyptian expression that can be translated as “Open your eyes to see the truth” - its purpose was to raise awareness for the juridical issues and to address in particular the issue of the Constitution, a few months prior to the beginning of the revolution.
It was in Tahrir square that she would go to chose her first puppeteers, among the numerous militants of the revolution. Since then, the troop has renewed, they have numerous marionettes and they produce them throughout the country, so as to reach all Egyptians. This theater has already performed several dozens of plays.
Street children, differently-abled persons, child brides, domestic violence, the themes addressed in the different plays are various with always the same objective, to raise awareness in the Egyptian streets. For Rania, knowledge of the law holds an essential place in society. She hopes that Egyptians will access this knowledge. She believes that it should be the law that governs above all and that each person should understand, for example, custody laws or the concept of being caught in the act so that they can know when an officer may ask to see their identification. Particularly important notions in the current context of an Egypt in an age of urgency.
To work, the theater counts only on sponsorship and collaboration since all the shows are free. A choice that allows them to make the shows accessible to all and thus to reach a greater number. It is equally for this that the theater prefers to perform shows on the street or in public spaces that are easily accessible.
Interaction to open a dialogue
Interaction with the audience is an equal integral part of the work of the Pergola Theater. After every show, the audience is invited to participate, to debate. A way to open a dialogue and to involve the audience even more. A moment of fundamental importance in the marionette theater.
It is thanks to this privileged moment that at the end of the premier of “Rehana”, a small 12-year-old boy, himself a victim of sexual harassment, come up on stage, to talk about his own experience. The show, just as the discussion that followed, allowed him to leave his silence.
With the Pergola Theater, Rania Refaat was able to develop an interactive theater. A project that allowed residents of unfavorable areas to handle the marionettes. The theater has organized workshops to teach them the art of writing, of puppeteering, or acting. Supported by the Gothic Institute, she has conducted a project with the residents of Manshiyat Nasser. These residents live, so to speak, in the garbage of Cairo. This shantytown, better known as the “neighborhood of the dressers of Cairo” or “Garbage City” is famous for having put in place over the years, one of the better performing recycling systems in the world, which allows almost the totality of the waste produced by the whole population of Cairo to be managed. They have been able to tell their own story, to address their own problems in a show that they created themselves.
It is in addressing all Egyptians, especially those who do not go to places of culture, that the Pergola Theater hopes to make things change. Sometimes in going directly to perform in the street, to seek a change from below, which touches above all individuals, so that in the end it will be the whole society that evolves. “Even if it will take time,” adds Rania.
Reality as a starting point
Every creation of this marionette theater is equally profoundly anchored in reality. For the last show, Rehana’s name for example, was not chosen by chance. It gives homage to Reyhana Jabbari. This young Iranian girl was imprisoned in 2007 and executed in 2014 for the death of her assailant who had tried to rape her. This is not but a taste of the importance of reality in the creative work of the Pergola Theater.
According to Rania, Egypt is a fertile land of inspiration taking account of the numerous social and political problems that plague the country. So to write each of these pieces, she builds above all on the everyday life of people.
To write, she goes to meet Egyptians, to converse with them so as to build on their reality. To create her last show for example, she visited some psychiatrists who had followed children who had been victims of sexual harassment.
With the marionettes of the Pergola Theater, fiction is an open door on reality which attempts to breathe change, soft, but no less powerful, on Egyptian society.
Report done in the frame of the project WAR with the support of the Anna Lindh Foundation and the France Foundation
English translation by Sidney Cavaricci WhiteTweet