FIND 2016 The Last Supper: A Q&A with Ahmed El Attar
by Joseph Pearson
4 April 2016
Egyptian director Ahmed El Attar is bringing »The Last Supper« to FIND 2016. I had a conversation with him from his office in Cairo.
Joseph Pearson: How is the »The Last Supper« contextualized in terms of recent events in Egyptian history?
Ahmed El Attar: How I reacted to revolution, as an artist, is different from me reacting as a citizen. I was very much for the revolution, also as an artist: but the questions posed are different. My work is not political, I don’t do agitprop.
The first phase of consciousness, after the revolution, was that now things are resolved. Now, we are free of this regime: the role of artists is one of engagement, our work feeds on that.
The second phase came a few months later, when we started realizing that nothing has been resolved, the real issues that go beyond politics remain the same. As artists we don’t just focus on politics, it’s not about politics. Politics comes at a later stage in the whole equation. The issues that we see as artists, as people working in the arts sector that affect the political and social conditions, have to do with justice, individual rights, and individuals’ appreciation and vision of themselves and their place in the society. The issues have to do with the struggle between classes, genders, family power dynamics; these shape our existence and our lives and are what we artists deal with. They are at the core of any change, whether political or otherwise.
The third phase for me, as an artist, was: I cannot do something about the revolution, because I am too involved as an individual, as a citizen. I was there, but I am not an activist. I am not going to do something about the revolution, because as an artist I could not possibly match the intensity of such a massive act. I didn’t think it was necessary, or even good for artists to engage with that right away. Art needed to take distance to take a more objective view of things, a deeper analysis.
The final stage was the realization that some things never change: a group of people who never change. The world could collapse or evolve, but there is a group of people, part of society, that is not affected, that stays the same: nothing beyond the surface, the core of their lives is intact. It is here that I found the starting point for the play.
Could you tell us more about this world that does not change? Could you tell us about the social milieu of the dinner guests?
We’ve grown up collectively, been raised on a discourse, very subtle, of saying the problems of the Arab World are the poor ignorant masses. If they were better educated, things would be different. I think completely the opposite. One of the things the revolution showed us is that the problem of Egypt, of the Arab world, is the rich and powerful classes. They have the means to change things, to become models for their societies, they can pave the way for everyone else, but they do not. If everyone fails, everyone shares in the failure, but the fault doesn’t fall mostly on the poor peasant with five children, six siblings and a diseased old mother in a remote village. The people who are responsible are those who have exterior material wealth, live in clean, well-designed houses, go on European holidays, and stay in fancy hotels on the beach. I see that class as the cause of where we are in Egypt right now, that 5% that hold the wealth, the possibilities. These people are empty from the inside, bored, and have nothing to add to society – they are only profiting from everyone else. This is the main issue of »The Last Supper«. These elites are no better than the person who has not gone to school. On the contrary, when a poor person makes a first step, he or she is much more valuable because he will have taken that step with nothing. Out of the revolution and its reversal, it was clear that some things never change: a group of people never change and that the core of their lives remains intact. The world can collapse or evolve, but there is always a part of society that is not affected.
Could you tell us more about the relationships in the piece?
I work with what I know best; the family as a topic. I always believed that struggles of power within the family represent a miniature of society. You see this in the relationships with servants, the relationship between the haves and have-nots. Egypt is a classist society, the Arab world is. I would say that class discrimination, rather than religion or race, is the largest division in these places. A rich woman, for example, is more powerful than a poor man. The father meanwhile becomes an omnipresent, all-powerful, almost divine figure.
You are known in your early works for using language minimally. What is your approach in The Last Supper?
This piece I’ve done is the opposite of minimal. I am sceptical of language as a tool of oppression, of discourses that are false and misleading. You realise that everyone around you believes them, and you start to get sceptical. From the beginning, I started to meddle with language. The first two plays I wrote were absurd. I used repetition, created new words that sounded like other words, tampered with sentence structure. I took that further by using found writing in some plays, a lot of textbook material, republican oaths, old songs, everyday material, making something out of it. I stayed away from fiction, from the adaptation of theatrical texts, and instead used a political speech or things from recorded telephone conversations. I tried to destroy the divinity of the text and place it on our level. I do the same here, in this piece, but use a technique different from minimalism. Here, I overwhelm the text, so the characters don’t stop talking; sometimes they are all speaking together. And by doing this, I think I am also breaking or minimising the status of the text, showing that it is not very valuable. By giving so much of it, I dilute its value. It is the same concept as before, but with a different technique.
Are you worried about the reception of your work in Egypt?
I am at a point in my career that kind of protects me. But it has become more difficult. If you make things harder for artists, they learn not to do it again. This piece, in particular, causes unease, because it deals with class. And I’m not criticising the morality of this class, but its very existence. And that is a shock. For many reasons: because there is a horrible discourse blaming everyone else but them. All of a sudden, I turn the tables around and look at the problem of the rich. And it is the rich who come to see my play. The older generation is frozen by what they see, left speechless. The younger generation feel someone is expressing the suffering they feel during these long dinners. Most interesting are the reactions of others who have not lived with this class, dined with it, but look at it, guessing that it is corrupt and useless, without proof. Then someone opens the door and shows them how corrupt they are. I am writing not for the people from the elites, but for these »others.» They leave the theatre ecstatic. The guilt is no longer put on their shoulders.
The case of the Italian researcher and Cambridge University student, Giulio Regeni, who was tortured and killed in Egypt has featured prominently in European headlines over the past two months. Is there any connection to the themes of your piece?
The case of Regeni connects with the way that Egyptian society continues to deal with issues with force. A society that uses violence to solve its problems gets into the habit of doing so. If you continuously slap your son for every little infraction, whack him on the head, kick him, beat him up, you will create a violent individual. Society functions in the same way. If you have criminals shooting, of course cops should retaliate. But if you use force in everything you do, from a small grocery theft to a bus bombing, violence becomes the only way. It is the answer on every level, in dealing even with oneself.
How might your piece speak to a Berlin audience?
The Berlin audience is a tough audience, one that has seen plenty of international productions, that has high standards. But we have been touring a lot, with positive reactions. Europeans might associate the Arab World with radicals and immigrants, but we allow audiences to see a side of Arab society they might not know unless they have lived here. Of course, this class is universal: the jet-setters, the Paris Hiltons, the Kardashians, the Trumps. Western élites work within different parameters – they don’t beat their servants – but they commit other injustices within the restrictions of their countries’ laws.
What is Europe’s implication in the world of »The Last Supper«?
Unfortunately, Europe does not learn, and always seems to find the wrong answers to its questions. Immigrants become the problem, instead of the level of injustice that immigrants feel in Europe. How does Europe justify its relationship, for 50 years or more, with totalitarian regimes in the Arab World and Africa, going against all its beliefs, all its contemporary thought? How does it think this will result in anything different than a high level of bitterness and disbelief, aggression against the West and its ideology, because of this double standard? And today, we are back at square one: Europe is only looking out for its own interests in the Arab region and nothing else: selling weapons to kingdoms, and giving them loans, but not thinking about who they sell their weapons to, or how much damage it does. So when these nations fall apart and bring to life monsters like Daesh [ISIS], the answer should not be limits on immigration. We need to take a completely different perspective on international affairs.
Concept and Direction: Ahmed El Attar (Egypt)
Premiered on 7 April 2016