Performing Dissent

Sarma 25 Jan 2021English

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Contextual note
This text is part of the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection and publication series 'Cairography', which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt) and supported by Sarma (Belgium). It features in Cairography #2, also referred to as the 'Emergency Edition' (January 2021), edited by Adham Hafez, Ismail Fayed and Myriam Van Imschoot, and supported by Moussem Nomadic Arts Center in response to a year of losses, between a deadly pandemic and a series of political catastrophes.

2011 was ten years ago. It is hard to believe that ten years have passed since the moment popular uprisings shook Arab cities with waves of dissent demanding political change. Some of the uprisings continued and transformed into a military coup, a war, a refugee crisis, or second waves of massive uprisings and protests. During this decade of political hope and turmoil, the uprisings signaled multiple problems, and called for freedom, and social and economic justice. Yet, they equally signaled a long term problem, a problem of representation. This problem of representation manifested within two regimes of power, the political and the aesthetic. Governance and performance were terrains of conflict and of embattlement, between the sovereign and the subject in the Arab world. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o writes in ‘Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space’ that:


The struggle between the arts and the state can best be seen in performance in general and in the battle over performance space in particular. Performance is representation of being-the coming to be and the ceasing to be of processes in nature, human society, and thought. If before the emergence of the state the domain of culture embodied the desirable and the undesirable in the realm of values, this was expressed through performance. The community learned and passed its moral codes and aesthetic judgments through narratives, dances, theatre, rituals, music, games, and sports. With the emergence of the state, the artist and the state become not only rivals in articulating the laws, moral or formal, that regulate life in society, but also rivals in determining the manner and circumstances of their delivery”.

It is almost as if Ngugi Wa Thiong’o writes about today’s Arab art conflicts.

With new autocratic regimes resuming power, an unprecedented number of Arab artists and intellectuals were placed in prison, were exiled, or fled their lands as refugees headed mostly to western capitals, such as Berlin, New York or Brussels. The artists, many of them were active members of the protesting masses during the earlier years of this decade of dissent, are fundamentally in conflict with the modern Arab state, before and after 2011. Indeed, the state sees the artist as a rival in articulating and performing life. The state wishes to monopolize the exclusive rights not only to representation, but to performance and its spaces. The state wishes to expand its performance privileges outside of representative assemblies and into theatres, galleries, concert halls or cinemas. Through direct censorship or by instituting regulatory bodies on artistic practices, or even through subtle and strict funding laws as we have seen in Egypt, spying on artists as we have seen in Syria, and policing culture like in Tunisia, the modern Arab state continues to expand its performance space beyond its habitual architecture of parliaments or city halls.

With the contemporary performance scene in the Arab world split between those who stayed and continued to perform within these embattled grounds, and those who left and continued to carve space for their work in foreign cities, contemporary performance serves as an archive of minoritarian discourse, the struggle for political agency, the complexity of gender politics in the Arab world, and simply of dissent. Performance becomes also an alternative to formal forms of political protest, in a world where political protesters have been shot at, arrested, beaten, tortured, raped, imprisoned and killed. This does not mean that theatres and galleries have been safe havens recently. These spaces of performance and of representation continue to be raided, shut down and heavily policed. Yet, artists ‘at home’ and ‘abroad’ continue to maneuver and develop survival strategies, and also continue to fight for their representative rights within the aesthetic and political regimes of power, as they continue supporting the existence of  their performance spaces, through literal architectural and institutional ways, or in symbolic and metaphoric ones.

How do you create a space for your work in the diaspora? Do you have to set up institutions, literally? Do you represent the notion of performance space within your practice, conceptually or choreographically? And how do you continue fighting over this embattled right to performance, and the space to perform back home, and continue to engage a public with your urgent questions?

If we look at Radouan Mriziga’s work, for example, it reminds us of postmodern choreographers from New York such as Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer. The seemingly effortless quotidian body gestures forming dance sequences, slowly reveal that they are complex choreographic systems, that are extremely difficult to learn and to execute, that take a lot of mastery, training and rehearsals to present. Radouan’s choreography is one of commitment. An ethic of labor permeates his work, with the promise of new aesthetics. And while he works with how choreography creates space, and specially the relation of choreography to architecture like in the work of his mentor Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker, unlike Anna Teresa’s work (for instance Violin Phase, set to the music of the minimalist American composer Steve Reich), Radouan directly allows choreography to become an architectural practice. One where the process of dancing leaves eventually a blueprint for what could become a building, but he suspends it there. He references Islamic architecture, uses the body as a measuring unit, and during the performance, his dancers use their bodies on the floor to leave traces with chalk and tape, culminating in revealing intricate designs on the dance floor gradually, a design of a building that will not be built, yet we cannot but think what this building could be, and how the ephemeral choreography of the human body produces architecture, the way architecture produces movement. 

Mriziga’s work can be mostly noted for the aesthetic canons and cosmologies it invokes that challenge a monolithic performance of Arabness. As a Moroccan artist working and living in Belgium, he embodies a history of Arabness that a normative representation driven art market does not expect, or even comprehend. He investigates histories of the Amazigh people, at times when Arab nationalism continues to obfuscate the multiplicities that create what we call the Arabic speaking region, or the Arab world. In fact, for someone not familiar at all with the complex racial and ethnic history of the so-called Arab people, Radouan’s work is a shocker to many in the West and in the Arab world as well, who would (re)discover through the work the presence of diverse non-Arab ethnicities in the Arab world such as the Amazigh people, and the dense aesthetic canons that so many of us Arab citizens have been deprived from learning about. And while there have been artistic movements in the 1960’s that worked with the Amazigh identity and canon in North Africa, the pan-Arabism political discourse of that era contributed to producing singular narratives about identity in the region. With the rise of modern Arab nation states post independence from the colonizers, unity between budding nationstates sought refuge in the classical Arabic language that seemingly brings us together, but such unity let go of our multiples. For instance, the case of the Berber people, or the Imazighen. 30 Million citizens of North Africa belong to that group of people, and speak these languages, and yet they have been ostracized from the modern project of the Arab nation, where their languages were pushed aside, their aesthetics washed out by a seemingly monolithic homogeneous performance of Arabness. And while a gradual process of Arabization and Islamization took centuries prior to the arrival of Nasser and Pan-Arabism, this became a clear discourse problem in recent decades. It transpired equally within institutional settings. Until very recently it was banned to name your child with a name in Tamazight in most of North Africa, Qaddafi banned teaching Tamazight, and Morocco witnessed two uprisings in 2016 and 2017 in what was known as the Hirak El Rif, addressing such problems of representation. Only 4 years ago did Algeria include Tamazight as an official language of the state.

Mriziga’s work makes us ask the question on why these languages, aesthetics, and cosmologies have been hidden, obfuscated and forbidden. In his latest projects Ayyur and Tafkut, he openly asks the question ‘can performance act as a tool of resistance, and allow us to understand the past so that we can work towards a more inclusive future?’ He complexifies what it is to be an Arab choreographer today, and he does so in the heart of Brussel’s renowned contemporary dance scene, a center of contemporary artistic trends and markets, and he does so at times when Arab migrants in Europe continue to be vilified, and seen through singular narratives.


And on tackling singular narratives, Lamia Gouda has been creating malleable and uncategorizable propositions around problems of gender and political representation, that equally challenge how we can think of performance in a city like Cairo today. Born in Jeddah, and living and working in Cairo, Lamia Gouda creates video, performance, works in contemporary dance and performance art, as well as working as a professional translator and researcher in performance. As a ‘renaissance woman’, Lamia took to the streets in 2014 and staged a performance protest with her colleagues, within a large scale feminist and anti-sexual harassment march. In Lamia’s intervention, she wore what could be considered in Egypt today as a revealing dress, together with colleagues of hers, and stained their skin with blood. They walked silently, staring at men passing by. By making her and their bodies vulnerable to the male gaze, and to potential aggressive acts of sexual harassment which is a phenomenon that is estimated to have been directly witnessed by 99% of Egyptian women, Lamia’s solo is risktaking on a visceral sanguine level. 

Together with her female co-protesters/ co-performers they created something that is hard to grasp in performance terminology. It escapes genres, it is urgent, and it is a political risk immediately. Most interestingly is that it sits within a semantic field of impossibilities, where in Egyptian modern language there is no word for performance or performance theory that would correspond to and invoke the same genealogy in English. She challenges not only the notion of performance and political performance, but she suspends the male gaze from sexualizing her body, by covering it in blood. The inside is turned outside, skin becomes flesh in a sanguine, utterly human, and utterly unappealing way. She breaks free from sexual politics of the female body in Egypt today by bringing us a performance of the body as a biological ecology, by painting herself in a bodily fluid. A simple gesture that reorganizes our senses. When interviewed about this intervention, Lamia Gouda said that she did not think that she was creating a performance, nor even staging a protest, but she was simply embodying an image of everyone’s mother and grandmother when back in the recent past it was common for many social classes to dress in short revealing dresses while taking public buses and going to work, without this inciting any sexual harassment.

A strategy often present in Lamia’s radical work, to embody images from the past and take them out on a walk through the streets of amnesiac cities, and allow the friction between the embodiment of bodies from the past and today’s biopolitics to happen, and to point us towards the epistemological and ontological ruptures in our own histories.

Jump to Damascus in Berlin, Raja Banout together with Mey Seifan and Layal Seifan founded the ‘Haneen Choir’, a project where women refugees displaced in Western cities are invited to come sing together, and later perhaps discuss politics, gender and sexuality in Arab communities, or discuss representative rights and nonviolent communication, and take a workshop on public speaking. The choir that now has branches all over Germany, in Turkey, and Canada to name a few places, gave birth to NESWA Association: a project that uses the choir structure to perform political work. What Rajaa and Mey did is that they understood the political potential of a singing choir, and allowed it to be used as a representative assembly. The choir rehearsal becomes a rehearsal of political work, as they think and plan of feminist political parties for Syria’s future, and of ways refugees could gain political representation within cities such as Berlin or Montreal. The singing becomes a tryout of what could truly become a representative assembly if these people made it one day into the parliament as they actually do plan. As they continue now to hide in plain sight, their joyous steps and movements of gathering and vocalizing are exercises towards a new Arab democracy, and a process of embodied feminist politics in practice.

Equally engaged with gender and representation through performance, one must think of the work of Tunisian choreographer and dancer Rochdi Belgasmi, an artist whose movement practices went through transformative years during the decade of Arab political unrest and glorious revolutions. Rochdi Belgasmi invokes a queer critique of dance history with every step he takes, or with every shimmy he performs. By centralizing the male figure back into exhibiting dance, inviting the audiences to look at the body of a dancing Arab man, who is performing seductively and playfully, and at times performing what we think is associated with women in terms of choreographies of so-called ‘Belly dance’, Rochdi takes risks many Arab male choreographers would not dare take.

In his solo ‘Ouled Jellaba’ we see a figure dressed in a belly-revealing glittering top, balancing an object on his head, waist wrapped in a large belt as he shimmies and shakes his hips. We see him working on two things at the same time, challenging the gender norms associated with popular Tunisian dance, and challenging the canon of contemporary dance and its references in the Mediterranean today. Rochdi’s references are the Tunisian cabaret, the street entertainers, and the old masters. He invokes an early 20th century dance history of the Tunisian capital, where men crossdressed and danced publicly. By doing so a hundred years later in post-revolution Tunisia, Rochdi pushes the limits not only of gender discourses within the capital, but within the art scene itself. Who is represented, who is marginalized and what are the lacunae in dance history when it comes to transgressive gendered performance? His work questions gender bias today, and forgotten histories of Tunis’ roaring 1920’s drag performances, unsettling not only how the city imagines itself today, but how it has been constructed in western media over the past decade.

Across the ocean, another artist is figuring out possibilities for new organizing and mobilizing through drag. Ana Masreya, an Egyptian drag performer that immigrated to New York from Cairo, stages unfamiliar drag performances in Brooklyn. Ana Masreya in Arabic means I am an Egyptian woman. The artist stages a semi-regular cabaret show, called ‘Nefertities’. Unlike other drag performances one can see in New York, this one references Arab cinema, pop music and culture. Unlike other drag performances in the city today as well, Ana Masreya’s show gathers feminist writers, poiltical activists and artist to share the stage with the star of the show, and share their views about politics, performance and revolution. Several videos are circulating on the internet of feminist author and journalist Mona El Tahawy sharing the stage with Ana Masreya as she utters her ultra-feminist emancsiaptory statements. 

Ana Masreya had struggled at first wondering where her/ his place in the New York scene of drag and of performance was. She is clearly inspired by a whole other set of cultural references. Drag and crossdressing are a main staple in Egyptian and Arab entertainment. Iconic theatre directors like Mohamed Sobhi or Samir Ghanem who lead heteronormative lives have been in drag in their plays repeatedly, on mainstream stages. Last year’s Christmas and New Year Eve’s parties in the United Arab Emirates were hosted by the most famous drag artist from Lebanon, Bassem Feghali who enjoys a large TV presence back in Lebanon. Yet all of these references become invisible in a sea of market aesthetics heralded by RuPaul’s televised show and by Todrick Hall’s songs among others. What Ana Masreya tries to establish through her performances, is to carve a space in the queer performance scene in New York for Arab aritsts, as well as insist on being specific as an act of resistance against being normalized into industrialized mainstream drag or whitewashed queer performance. At times when an Egyptian person in the US is still seen as a political threat, Ana Masreya stands on very high heels and creates platforms of togetherness in alterity. 

Before this text gets any longer, I would like to state the obvious again. Ten years of political struggle, of war, of revolutions, and of displacement have also given birth to ten years of questions, of experiments, of risky business, of alternative communities and of learning. Whether it’s Alexandre Paulikevitch belly dancing in Beirut, Nancy Naous staging critiques of Lebanese masculinity in Paris, Amira Chebli’s revisitation of Tunisian feminism through her contemporary dance scores, Noura Murad continuing to practice choreography in shelled and destroyed buildings in Damascus, Mona Gamil performing safety guides on how to survive the temperamental art economy, Ziad Adwan’s theatre of mistakes in Berlin, Younes Atbane telling a history of colonial conquest in the heart of Europe while drawing relations to western curatorial practices and geopolitics of economic interest, and to the girls and woman performing on TikTok in Egypt, these are revolutionary artists. With a heavy heart filled with the aches of the memory of the revolution(s), its impact, the stutters after a life altering event, and the longing for its brilliance to resurge again in an act of political healing, let’s look forward to all the maddening and beautifully radical work that is still possible. Happy tenth anniversary. 


Adham Hafez is a theorist, choreographer, composer and performer based in Berlin, New York and Cairo. He writes on non-western aesthetic canons, the anthropocene, and decolonial practices. This text is based on a paper Adham Hafez presented at the Middle East Studies Association conference in 2020, Washington DC.