During the first months of 2011, Sondos Shabayek often found herself at the front lines of Egypt’s revolution in Tahrir Square, where clashes between protesters and security forces marked the last days of Hosni Mubarak's regime. It was a chance to experience fear firsthand, she says now.
Shabayek joined thousands of Egyptians throughout weeks of demonstrations that began on Jan. 25, 2011, as they shared in their frustrations and chanted demands for bread, freedom, social justice and the downfall of the Mubarak government.
Driven by "incredible adrenaline," Shabayek quit her job as a journalist to start a theater project that honored the personal experiences of Egyptians who joined the protests. With a passion for storytelling and a firm belief that the revolution was affecting individuals differently, Shabayek staged "Tahrir Monologues," featuring stories of fear, courage and hope from the revolution.
"Tahrir Monologues" particularly focused on the first 18 days of the revolution -- a period Shabayek has described as "utopian" -- when Egyptians believed that overthrowing Mubarak’s regime would also end police brutality and oppression, and expand personal and political freedoms. But the leaders that followed -- the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Mohamed Morsi and now Abdel Fattah El Sisi -- have left many Egyptians feeling dispirited and disenfranchised.
Overcome by disappointment in the post-revolution reality of Egyptian politics, Shabayek found it difficult to think about, let alone continue to stage stories from, Tahrir. It was "purely painful," to revisit these memories, the artist says.
Soon after coming to this realization, and still deeply enthralled by the power of the stage, Shabayek picked up "BuSSy," a storytelling theater project she had been working on before the revolution. The term "BuSSy" comes from a translation of the Arabic word for "look," and is a play on a slang word used to refer to vaginas. It's a storytelling platform for Egyptian women and men to share and explore stories on gender issues, including topics such as sexual harassment, domestic violence and masturbation -- all of which are still largely taboo in Egypt's conservative society.
Shabayek spoke with The WorldPost about the revolution’s imprint on her life and career, and the hopes she has for her latest project.
You’re known for "Tahrir Monologues" and now the "BuSSy" project. Can you describe what they have in common, and what you’ve been trying to accomplish with each?
I was working on "BuSSy" before the revolution, and I think the reason I decided to go full-time with theater was "Tahrir Monologues." But until 2011, I was working on "BuSSy" in parallel. I was doing it on the side, with my full-time job as a journalist and editor. Working on "BuSSy" before the revolution is what gave me some insight about storytelling generally. I was unintentionally going around recording stories. Obsessively. So I think that the fact that I was doing that motivated me to start "Tahrir Monologues."
What have you learned from "Tahrir Monologues" or the revolution at large that you were able to carry over to your work with "BuSSy"?
I think the biggest lesson for me was that I discovered that I wanted to be working in theater and that I didn’t want to be doing anything else. I don't think this would have happened if the revolution hadn’t happened, and if "Tahrir Monologues" hadn’t happened. As stupid and adolescent as this will sound, because it was, I literally dropped everything in 2011 and decided: No. I want to do "Tahrir Monologues." And there was no money in that. And it wasn’t logical. I decided I didn’t want to write. At the time, I was freelancing with [Egyptian newspaper] Al Masry Al Youm. I stopped responding to calls. I had another job as an editor at a magazine, which I also quit two months later. It wasn’t just that I wanted time off, I was completely giving it up. And this seemed very illogical to me, because for 15 years, I wanted to be a journalist.
By March, I was jobless and broke. All I knew was that I wanted to do "Tahrir Monologues" that year, and I wasn’t thinking of what would come next. I didn’t consider whether that meant that I would work in theater or not. Until the end of 2012, I was struggling to identify myself. So I didn’t know how I should introduce myself to people. Until after a series of workshops, people started telling me that I was a theater director. So I said, oh, I’m a theater director! OK! Seriously. This wouldn’t have happened without everything that happened in the country, or without "Tahrir Monologues." I think there was this euphoria and incredible adrenaline that gave birth to "Tahrir Monologues."
You said that "Tahrir Monologues" resulted in an intimacy between audience and actors. Is it the same with "BuSSy"?
"Tahrir Monologues" had a very specific feature that was different from "BuSSy": We had the same team for almost two years. It was horrendous, of course, because we’re talking about a group of volunteers. But people started getting attached to them, because they saw them in one performance after the other. And those who came to the first performance in May 2011, came to the last performance of that year in December 2011. So they could trace how the performance had changed. We gained a loyal fan base. And it was emotional because of the topic.
“You’re talking about a woman’s relationship with her vagina, for example. As opposed to someone’s relationship with state security.”
"BuSSy" is different in the sense that it’s more shocking. "BuSSy" needs more guts. And even though "Tahrir Monologues" is a project about the revolution, I always consider "BuSSy" to be more political than "Tahrir Monologues." We didn’t face the resistance and problems we faced with "BuSSy" with "Tahrir Monologues." The problems we faced with "Tahrir Monologues" were limited, compared with "BuSSy." I remember being shocked at the extent to which people were welcoming. I performed in places I would never take the "BuSSy" performance to. At least not before another revolution.
As you watch the audience during "BuSSy" performances, what is the impression you get about the effect it has on them?
Unlike "Tahrir Monologues," which mainly addresses a collective emotion, a collective experience, "BuSSy" has a very individual impact. It is experienced on an individual level. You receive it alone. You may be sitting among the audience, and you come out saying, this is my story. Not our story. Of course, "Tahrir Monologues" definitely does that to a certain degree, but still, not like "BuSSy," because "BuSSy" is still very individual.
“To surrender to self-inflicted censorship and outside censorship is something that kills you.”
Sometimes it’s more moving for women. You’re talking about a woman’s relationship with her vagina, for example as opposed to someone’s relationship with state security, you know? In "BuSSy," there are a lot of things that we talk about that were never discussed openly. So I remember that some people didn’t quite get what constitutes sexual harassment. When they would watch the monologues they would realize, and say, "Oh, I discovered when I heard this story that I was also harassed." And you didn’t know that before?
What it exposes is much much much deeper, much much much more problematic to face and deal with than "Tahrir Monologues."
You’ve said that it was challenging to keep working on "Tahrir Monologues" after the revolutionary events got complicated, and people’s positions became more fragmented. Is that why you decided to end the project?
We had reached a point where we could no longer talk about the 18 days. At the same time, it started becoming very difficult to share new stories, because there were too many; they were too intense, and ongoing. We started thinking it wasn’t safe and I didn’t have it in me. I don’t know how else to articulate it. I didn’t have it in me. When I agreed to make a filmed version of it, it was so difficult to work on the editing. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t think about these stories again. And when I did, it was just so fucking painful. Purely painful.
Do you have a favorite Tahrir monologue that you keep thinking back to?
These questions are making me cry. I’ve cried nonstop working on "Tahrir Monologues," and I’ve cried nonstop watching the performances. I feel like a pathetic loser. I’ve worked on all the stories, so all the stories touch me. Even the ones that no one expects to be touching. I don’t feel that there’s any one story that has a hold over me. Every now and then a different story comes to mind. I guess my own personal story in "Tahrir Monologues" always comes in flashbacks. And it upsets me when I recall it. Because whether it’s my story or other people’s stories -- they remind me of moments of courage that I’m not sure I’ll ever experience again in my whole life.
They all touch me in different ways. Even the absurd ones. The one with the man who stole a gas barrel from [Mubarak’s] National Democratic Party building and ran out on the street. He entered the building and picked the heaviest thing he could find, and he took it. Because he felt that he owns it and he wanted to take what belongs to him.
You told me last time we talked that during the protests, you would move closer to the front lines each time to test the limits of your fear. Do you feel that with the "BuSSy" project, you’re testing the limits of creative expression in Egypt?
In a very different way. I’m not gambling with death directly when I do that in "BuSSy." I’ll tell you something. I don’t know how to describe it, but to surrender to self-inflicted censorship and outside censorship is something that kills you. I feel like if I do do that, I’d turn into a cucumber -- something dead, limp. I feel that I can’t not do this. Because, where we got today in terms of freedom of expression -- even though it’s still appalling and everything -- where artists stand now is because of artists before them who pushed the limits. Where I personally stand now is because of the boundaries I previously pushed. If in 2011 I hadn’t decided to refrain from removing profanity from performances, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now.
“If I include stories on same-sex relationships, then I would be giving up these storytellers, and giving up the project, to the government.”
I don’t feel that I’m gambling with death, but I feel like I’m walking a very thin line. At a time we know a project may be unceremoniously killed at any time, I want to know that I’ve done the right thing. I want to know that until the very last breath, there was a set of values that the project believed in and held onto. If we have a tiny impact I just want to make sure that this impact has integrity.
What do you feel that the impact of "BuSSy" has been?
I don’t think that I could ever give an objective answer to this question. I can only tell you what I’m hoping would happen. That is to expand the margins for people, to remove shame and stigma from stories and start talking about issues openly and honestly, and stop this policy of hiding our dirty laundry.
If I’m being more specific, I wish for the project to be a source of solidarity and empowerment for women generally, to tell their stories and go watch stories of other people telling stories, so that we would dig ourselves out of the hole of "she had it coming to her." We’re dealing with a generation of women who were beaten up as kids when they got sexually harassed. We are so far behind. When someone once asked me, Why don’t you pose solutions? I told him, What solutions? Watch out for this next metaphor. I told him: It’s like you’re dealing with people who are sick, but they don’t even know that they’re sick. And they don’t see their bruises as bruises. They see their bruises as just colors. We’re trying to tell people: By the way, you’re hurt. So tell people you’re hurt.
So this is so far away from giving solutions. I don’t think it’s my role to give solutions. I think there are other people whose role is to do that. But you’ll never solve a problem if you don’t even acknowledge it’s there. So the fact that people are talking about harassment, and the fact that there’s awareness, for me, is progress, even if that only happens in Cairo. Walking down the street now is very different. If I stand on the street and scream, "I’m being harassed," the harasser would be severely beaten up. Of course, there are still incidents and catastrophes. And harassment in homes by family members and relatives and friends is still rampant. But at least we know what harassment is.
While your work so often has focused on gender and sexuality, you have yet to tackle same-sex relationships. Why is that, and what are the obstacles to approaching the subject?
If I include stories on same-sex relationships, then I would be giving up these storytellers, and giving up the project, to the government. I had people with very diverse sexual affiliations in workshops, and a few of them valiantly volunteered to go up on stage and tell their stories. I said no. Forget it. Yes, I want to remove shame and stigma and all, but I would never place a human being’s life in danger to do it.
“They don’t see their bruises as bruises. They see their bruises as just colors. We’re trying to tell people: By the way, you’re hurt.”
This is one form of censorship that I’m still doing. And I’m not doing it because I’m scared, I’m doing it because I know that before I get a chance to actually have any impact, the whole thing would be shut down. Maybe it’s a mistake, I don’t know. The things I don’t do are always running around in my mind. Whatever I decided to leave out haunts me. There’s a lot of guilt.
Finally, what is your personal silver lining from the revolution?
I believe very much in the individual impact that the revolution, as a collective event, had on human beings. The effect that no one talks about. No one talks about how an event like that changed people’s personal lives. Many people shifted careers and ended relationships and traveled and came back, triggered by that event. When I think back to where I would have been if the revolution hadn’t happened I find that I would have been someone else. I’m grateful for the moment of truthfulness that the revolution gave me, about who I am, what I want to be doing, what life is, and who the people around me were. We lost a lot of friends, and we gained a lot of friends during that time. But I feel that the real silver lining was that pure moment of truthfulness with oneself. When you find yourself very close to death, all that’s left is the truth.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This post is part of a series looking back at five years after the start of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. More in the series: