Suburban theatres around Paris have the unenviable task of trying to balance a season that will attract a mix of local audiences and Parisian theatregoers, but with J’aurais voulu être égyptien, Nanterre’s Les Amandiers has certainly fulfilled its mission statement. This adaptation of Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany’s 2006 novel Chicago takes both post-9/11 America and the pre-Arab Spring atmosphere in Egypt by the horns, and the result is political in the best possible sense of the word: deeply relevant, nuanced, an open invitation to try and grasp the complexity of the world we live in.
Chicago was Al-Aswany’s first novel after the successful Yacoubian Building, and it takes the reader to the University of Illinois, where the author was a student and where most of the Egyptian protagonists work. The story prefigures in many ways the 2011 Egyptian revolution, which Al-Aswany was heavily involved in, and Jean-Louis Martinelli’s staging is true to its complexity. The first few minutes are slightly contrived, forcing as they do the actors to play the part of a theatre troupe about to start a reading. The set, with its Ikea-style white furniture and rails of costumes, works like a blank canvas, and the adaptation blends dialogue with third-person narration in the voice of each character, an effective choice to keep as close as possible to the novel.
And once the introductions are over with, the production captures the dilemmas and contradictions of Egyptian emigrants in America with compelling force. There is Nagui, the dissident student who plots revolutionary action ahead of a US visit by the Egyptian president; Karam Doss, a surgeon driven out of Egypt 30 years earlier because, as a Copt, he wasn’t allowed to practice. The play’s couples highlight gender conflicts: one feels for Maroua, brought to Chicago by her husband Danana, the nauseating president of the Egyptian Students’ Union and government spy who invokes Sharia law to assert his right to physical violence towards her.
Over the course of three hours, the production deals provocatively with many such issues, including the matter of tolerance in Islam or the ties between the US and dictatorships around the world. Crucially, there are no heroes in J’aurais voulu être égyptien. In every character, we see the fissures left behind by emigration and a tendency to hijack religion or ideals for self-serving purposes. The seeds of the complexity of the Arab Spring and its aftermath are here; “Sometimes men fight to conquer their fear, and they fall short,” is how one of the characters sums things up.
Martinelli is served by a strong cast that features French actors of Arab origin, and Farida Rahouadj (Maroua) and Azize Kabouche (Karam Doss) in particular are excellent. Sadly, the auditorium was half-empty for the opening night of this run; if only unsold tickets went to local schools in the Nanterre area, as this is exactly the type of play that is needed to show that the world isn’t black and white.