Fragment from promotional material – Courtesy of event official Facebook page
CAIRO – 27 December 2017: The performance “Taa’ Sakena” (Silent Letter), directed by Nada Sabet, was shown at the British Council last Wednesday and Friday. “Silent Letter” is a play that attempts to recreate and retell the real stories of eight Egyptian women dealing with depression and mental illness, and explores the attitudes of the Egyptian society toward mental illness in relation to women. Behind this production is “Noon Creative Enterprise”, an organization that works through performing arts, using it as a tool for developing civil society with a focus on children, youth, and women.
“Taa’ Sakena” literally means “The quiet letter taa”. In the Arabic language, it is a grammatical term that refers to the punctuation for a feminine past tense verb. In Arabic, the letter “taa’” is used to end feminine words. It is supposed to be an obvious signifier, in the same way that women and their struggles should be obvious and visible in their communities.
The title refers to a number of issues: the “silencing” of women in Egypt, the “silence” on issues of mental illness and disability in Egypt, and the lack of a proper language and approach for discussing these problems.
Nada Sabet, the director, explained to Egypt Today during an interview on December 23 that the title fits the “mood” of the performance, in which the suffering women are forced into silence while everyone else feels free to talk about them however they please.
“Silent Letter” follows the stories of eight real women who participated in a theatre workshop conducted by “Noon Creative Enterprise”’ at the Abbasiya Psychiatric Hospital. Sabet explains that the women were not checked in at the hospital, but were there to accompany children who were receiving treatment. Of the eight women, some are mothers, but others are sisters, or aunts, or caretakers, in general.
“Noon Creative Enterprise” had been requested to provide their services at the hospital for the families of patients under care. The theatre workshop was intended to serve as a source of much-needed positivity, but also as a way to build solidarity between the women affected.
Sabet emphasizes that the workshop was never considered as therapy; it is a tool to help women find support in other women dealing with similar situations. Throughout the workshop, the eight women were able to share their personal experiences with mental illness and disability with full trust and confidentiality, giving permission for their stories to be portrayed on stage.
These stories were performed by three actresses: Abeer Soliman, Mona al-Shimy, and Mona Soliman. The play is plotless and non-linear, and focuses on retelling the women’s stories in a realistic yet highly artistic way. The three actresses take on many different roles that encompass the experiences of the women, providing perspective on the different aspects of Egyptian women’s lives.
Throughout the performance, the audience witnesses the three actresses play the parts of the women themselves, who are mothers, employees, aunts or sisters. The actresses also play the roles of the women’s children, school teachers and principals, disapproving families, inner thoughts and fears, and the voices of society. In one of the scenes, the mother’s character stands speaking to the audience about her intellectually challenged son’s experience at school, while the two other actresses quietly act the parts of the son and his teacher in the background, illustrating her words. The performance is quite personal and interactive, and the actresses do an effective job of connecting with the audience.
The idea of a “silent letter” is challenged in different ways throughout the performance. One of the main tools used in the show is sound and noise. The first thing the audience hears is an ear-piercing whistle, signaling the start of the performance. The sound reappears often, coming from the whistles hung around the actresses’ necks, all blown at the same time. This sound is heard after each “story” has ended, or when a particularly intense scene takes place. The sound seems to “break” the performance, startling the audience and demanding attention for what comes next.
Sabet gives a number of reasons for this choice: the sharp sound of the whistle is an obvious contrast that comes suddenly, symbolizing the women’s objection to their treatment in society, and it is also quite “dictatorial” and “military”, referring to the way women are used to being treated in Egypt. Sabet further explains that the whistle might remind the audience of military training, and allow them to make the connection that Egyptian women are being “trained” into silence, fear, and shame. At the same time, she says, it is like a game, in the sense that the women are almost being “played” into accepting their communities’ attitudes toward them.
Sound as a main theme is also recurrent through music. In a certain scene, the characters sing an upbeat but double-edged song in a melancholy, slow manner that highlights the reality of the words being said: “I smile out of love for the world, I smile out of fear and cry over it,” from “Babtasem” (I Smile) by Youssra el-Hawary. Specific choices of music and song are used to draw compassion and sentiment from the audience, explains Sabet. This is unlike the actresses’ use of the whistles, which is meant to shock the audience.
The set of the play is quite simple and practical. The only props used are a large wooden box containing pieces of sheer cloth in dark, dull shades of blue and gray, and a pile of car tires. The props used in different ways. In a number of scenes, the three actresses each sit on a tire, folding cloth as though doing laundry, and talking about their struggles. In other scenes, the cloths represent other objects; for example, in a scene where the character of a mother angrily attempts to discipline her children, the characters of her two children run around, playing and pulling the cloth. These tools all contribute to the sense of reality shown through the performance.
The women whose stories were portrayed actually attended the performance, though they remained anonymous in the audience. The performance was attended by more women than men, although a considerable amount of men were among the audience. Though the performance was in Arabic, most of the attendees were also English-speaking and middle-class. The audience ranged from young to old, and included a number of children, among whom were probably children whose mothers were among the eight women portrayed in the performance.
“The most important thing,” says Sabet, “was that the play pay proper respect to the women and their stories.” Sabet explains that the biggest challenge for the actresses was to accurately and honestly re-enact the stories in a way that would not expose the women to more pain or undesirable memories. “The whole idea of the performance is to actually listen to the women,” Sabet further emphasizes. The theatre is a perfect place for this sort of goal, as audiences will be able to see themselves in the performance and relate to the characters in different ways. The three actresses themselves added their input and personal experiences to the performance, combining their own stories with those of the eight women.
When asked about her goal for the play as its director, Sabet said, “My goal is to deliver the women’s stories in an honest way that is not over dramatic or mocking, and in a way that does not hurt them more than they have already been hurt.” She confirms that the eight women enjoyed the performance and approved of the actresses’ portrayal of their stories and characters, who all remained nameless throughout the play.
Through these performing arts tools, which combine real experiences with artistic approaches, the eight women may finally feel that the burden of silence and shame is somewhat lifted. It is important to realize the presence of harmful and damaging attitudes toward mental illness and disability that contribute to the marginalization of Egyptian women within their own communities. In the end, it is these women who give power to the stories when told in different ways, and it is based on their trust and support that such tools may be employed for this important cause.