Caught in the Act

A 1960s play about corruption resonates in today’s Egypt.

In the final scene of Askar we Harameyya, a comedic play penned by the late Egyptian playwright Alfred Farag and staged at the American University in Cairo in November, the protagonist, Fahim, is whisked offstage by police officers after being set up by his colleagues in a food cooperative for trying to foil their embezzlement scheme. Wearing nothing but his undergarments, he yells out to the audience: “I am the question, and you are the ones with the power to respond!”

Director Mahmoud El Lozy says he staged Askar we Harameyya, which in English translates to “Police and Thieves,” because corruption is something that is very much on people’s minds in Egypt today. “It’s so flagrant that you can’t even sort of rationalize it or defend it,” explained El Lozy. “It’s something that’s in the air, so to speak.” He cited bureaucrats charging parents for “free” birth certificates and private interests importing contaminated food with little government oversight as examples of the pervasiveness of corruption in the country today.

Askar we Harameyya employs cartoonish, often slapstick, characters and scenes that serve as a playful backdrop for Fahim, a tragic character motivated by honesty and integrity yet openly denigrated by coworkers who are driven by greed and social standing. El Lozy had two endings to choose from. The first version of Askar we Harameyya was written in the 1960s and ends with Fahim’s exoneration after a coworker agrees to entrap him by tricking him into undressing in the office but has a change of heart and confesses to the plot against him. A second version, the one El Lozy opted to stage, is dark and pessimistic. Farag rewrote the ending in the 1970s, El Lozy explained, intending to make a statement by leaving the outcome unclear. Rather than justice being served through an individual’s actions, such as the coworker’s confession, justice is left hanging in the hands of the people. Fahim’s last lines, El Lozy said, are a direct challenge to the audience—and to Egyptian society.

El Lozy, a professor of drama at AUC, is an actor, playwright, and translator in addition to being a stage director; he was an acquaintance of Farag, an eminent Egyptian playwright, literary critic, and social commentator for a half century, who died in 2005. El Lozy’s decision to stage a Farag play about corruption amid an ongoing clampdown on free expression could be seen as a not-so-veiled attack on Egypt’s post-revolution regime. El Lozy doubts a single play can inspire action, but says that the value of producing a comedy such as Askar we Harameyya is in enabling theatergoers to release frustration as they live through troubled times. “You laugh at something, so you no longer think of it as threatening, and maybe it reconciles you with reality,” he explained. “You laugh at something, why should you do anything about it? It becomes just an entertaining thing. It becomes a sign of your own impotence and you can cherish it and enjoy it. Humans like to laugh, and it’s good for them.”

Up to a point, perhaps. Noting that the corruption scheme in Askar we Harameyya is “child’s play”—the employees of the cooperative cooking the books in collusion with an unscrupulous vegetable merchant—El Lozy muses that if Farag were penning a third version today, he instead might have portrayed the corruption at the heart of the state system. “I think it would have been a much more threatening play,” he said.

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