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.

Mimes perform in public
Mimes perform in public
Rowan El Shimi

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.

Expanding pantomime

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."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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