Cairo's Mimes, A Silent Minority Make Themselves Heard
In the deafening Egyptian capital, a small group of independent artists quietly present an art relying on everything the performer has to give ... except their voices.
CAIRO — Egyptian pantomimes have a movement going on. Although it's not the most visible of art forms, dozens of artists are performing improvised sketches in public spaces, participating in mime festivals at various theaters, and training others to spread their passion.
In pantomime — not to be confused with mime or with the interactive children's musical comedy of the same name — only actors grace the stage. There can be minimal lighting, but no scenography, props or music. Pantomimists are dressed in black and white, and their faces are painted black and white, creating a neutral base to be colored by the audience's imaginations and actors' skills.
It's largely a young person's art form. A dedicated Facebook group connects around 100 Egyptian mime artists, but when I start speaking to them, each recommend a handful of new names.
On Egyptian pantomimes
While most scholars trace mime back to ancient Greek and Roman times, Ahmed Nabil claims it goes back to Pharoanic times.
Nabil, at 76 Egypt's oldest and most famous mime artist, told Ahram Weekly in 2009 that temples had drawings showing mimes telling battle tales to the king and foreign visitors.
Now retired after receiving much recognition abroad, Nabil had a long career. He started training in Alexandria in the 1960s with an American cultural counselor who happened to be a mime artist. After much training, he went on to study the techniques of directing pantomime in Azerbaijan.
After his return in the 1970s, Nabil performed on stage and television and trained young actors. He was always disappointed that most of his students gave up pantomime the moment a film or television offer came their way.
One artist Nabil trained is still recognized as one of the most prolific mime artists in Egypt: Mohamed Abdalla. The 29-year-old got involved in mime in 2005 when he attended the Culturewheel's first mime festival. He trained on his own for some time until meeting Nabil and begging to be allowed to join one of his mime workshops for free.
Since then, he has continued his mime studies in Greece and been nominated by Nabil as the region's best mime artist several times.
Abdalla has worked with many mime artists in Egypt, though he prefers solo work. He's currently working on a lengthy performance with Mostafa Hozain, 32, considered the most experienced actor currently active in the independent mime scene.
He also works with 30-year-old Oscar Nagdi. The two have pooled their efforts to establish the Mime Unit Group, under which they perform as a duo, in addition to involving and training other actors.
Abdalla learned from Nabil that the measure of a mime performer's success is the audience understanding his movements, thus grasping the story and the feelings it conveys.
This is apparently not easy. It can take a mime months of training to convince his audience that he's holding balloons, sitting on a chair or pressing his palms against a glass window.
Miming on the Metro
Amr Abdel-Aziz, a respected 26-year-old mime artist, is famous for being the first to take pantomime to the Cairo Metro with the Mahatat art collective"s 2012 public art project Shaware3na (Our Streets). Before that, he presented mime sketches on stage, including a performance at the Cairo Opera House during the Modern Dance Festival in 2010 — the first time either a young artist or a pantomime show were included in the festival.
His eight Metro performances with Mahatat, challenging as they were, inspired him to continue working in public spaces.
He has since performed mime in various neighborhoods under the title Al-Mefakaraty (The Reminder). In the first iteration, he presented sketches showing how Ramadan was celebrated in the past, and the second demonstrated how different Egyptian handicrafts complement each other.
A recent incident of police-mime interaction caught media attention when Sheetos (Mohamed Saeed), 21, who dubs himself Saheb al-Saada (owner of happiness), was stopped for an ID check on the street in December 2014. Privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm caught the incident on camera, and the footage went viral on Facebook.
The Associated Press later ran a feature on the artist with captivating images of him performing pantomime on the Cairo Metro. Sheetos, also trained by Nagdi, is a university student whose passion for mime drives his on-the-go performances on Cairo's streets and on public transportation.
Besides the Culturewheel's mime festival, various churches in Egypt host regular theater festivals. The Angel Mikhail church in Imbaba produced a mime troupe calling themselves W Lessa (Not Yet) and consisting of a number of young people, and it's now independent from the church. They perform pieces regularly in the Culturewheel's festival, but also in the AFAC Theater Festival and Al-Rab3's sporadic pantomime festival.
Raghda Raafat, a member of this troupe, says their performances usually touch on social issues, and her individual work as an artist tends to include issues relating to women's rights. Her performance Youm Fi Hayat Ontha (A day in the life of a female) highlights harassment and society's double standards toward women.
Raafat also says W Lessa train themselves as a troupe and that she doesn't really know the difference between mime and pantomime but that if a training opportunity with an experienced artist arose, this would help them develop.
The duo that gets the lion's share of media coverage among Egypt's mime artists consists of Ahmed Borei and Safaa Mohammady. They run the Esmo Eih? (What is it called?) mime troupe and are the founders of the Egyptian branch of 100 Thousand Mimes for Change.
They found each other by coincidence when Borei was seeking a female actor for his performance Mama, Baba Wel Bazaza (Mom, Dad and the Baby Bottle). The show, variations of which they still perform, is about a couple who have a baby.
During a commissioned performance during the International Day of Peace celebrations with the organization Masterpeace, Borei and Mohammady discovered their passion for both performance art for social change and public space performance.
They went on to establish Egypt's 100 Thousand Mimes for Change, part of the international movement 100 Thousand Poets for Change, founded in 2011 by American poets Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion. The duo communicated with its sister organization for mimes and quickly adapted the concept to Egypt, organizing the first event in 2012: six days of performances in cultural centers and on Cairo's Metro, inspired by Abdel-Aziz.
Every year they get permission from the Cairo Metro Authority to perform.
"We did a performance in Shubra al-Kheima, and a few days later kids from the neighborhood came to another performance we were doing in the Metro with their parents," Mohammady says.
Besides the three editions of 100 Thousand Mimes for Change so far, the duo perform their variations of the skit. They've performed in public spaces in neighborhoods, children's hospitals and orphanages, but also in malls and in resort cities.
There are a number of others performing, training and learning. But the opportunities to learn this art are limited despite its importance for both actors and audiences.
In 2011, theater director Hany al-Metenawy and others invited mime trainers from the Netherlands to train actors in the Cairo Acting School in both old-school and contemporary mime over two years. Abdel-Aziz was one of the school's students.
Sadly, the school and the mime courses came to a halt because of funding issues.
Likewise, Nabil previously taught at the Culturewheel and the American University in Cairo, but the courses were expensive and registrations limited.
In an attempt to make pantomime more accessible, Abdel-Aziz has retired since 2014 from performing to study Spanish. He's preparing himself to study mime academically in Spain. Afterward, he wants to translate books to Arabic and work on spreading the principles of the art form.
But both Abdalla and Abdel-Aziz say the actor has a responsibility to learn, seek and find alternatives to the obvious lack of education opportunities.
They also caution mime artists to perform with careful consideration for mime's history and principles. Abdalla adds that he didn't start training other mime artists until he had been performing for seven years.
Abdalla says the government is slowly beginning to pay attention to mime. Together with Mostafa Hozain, he is currently preparing a mime performance in government-owned Malak Theater and obtaining state funds to do so.
"The Egyptian audience needs to see a new type of theater," Metenawy says. "People equate theater with comedy. If we show them mime, they'll relate to it, as it employs everyday situations on the stage. It can support the entire theater movement in Egypt."
It develops both the actors and the audience, he explains. Actors have to use their whole bodies on stage, be precise and capture the audience's attention, while the audience must use its imagination and be present in a silent room without checking their phones or speaking to each other.
A society without imagination is a society with no future, Raafat says.
"If we don't have an imagination, we will not be able to develop," she says. "People wait to be told what to do and are not able to figure it out for themselves. Pantomime challenges that."