Storytelling group The BuSSy Monologues was forced to cancel their new performance 500s on Sunday due to content deemed inappropriate by a state-run venue.
The work was set to premier on the same day, during the fifth edition of the Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children at the Cairo Opera House’s Hanager Theater.
“Technical problems” — often code words for the practice of censorship — were cited by Hakawy on Facebook, but 500s director Sondos Shabayek confirmed to Mada Masr that the show was halted because the theater’s management disapproved of it.
BuSSy usually focuses on gender issues, and this show, which was co-produced by Hakawy and BuSSy, is based on telling real stories from teenagers on the issues they face. The BuSSy crew worked with several high-school students to collect the stories, which revolve around topics such as gender and struggles to fit in.
According to Shabayek, it was one story in particular that the head of Hanager Theater, Amany Youssef, did not approve of. The story is about masturbation, and the specific point of contention was the use of the colloquial — non-deregatory — term for masturbation, which translates as “the secret habit.”
As 500s had an age restriction of 13+, an age when young people are aware of masturbation, Shabayek said she could not understand why the reference was frowned upon.
Shabayek told Mada Masr that a technician working at the Hanager Theater was present during rehearsals the day before the opening show, and reported hearing “indecent lines” to Youssef.
When Hakawy’s director, Mohamed al-Ghawy, and Shabayek refused Youssef’s request to sit in on a rehearsal, saying they oppose censorship, the show was cancelled to allow for the rest of the festival’s activities to continue peacefully.
This is not the first time BuSSy, originally established in 2005 as a club at the American University in Cairo, has been stopped from performing at the Cairo Opera House. In 2010 the group decided to perform outside the university, so they headed to the opera after failing to be included on programs at other cultural centres.
They could not find an available stage to present their performance, but Emad Abu Ghazi, head of the Supreme Council for Culture at the time, said he would allow them to set up a stage at the cafeteria outside the council’s building at the Cairo Opera grounds.
However, audience members reported the group and the morality police came. On the second night of performance, the council told them they had to censor two lines from the stories. Rather than cancel the show, the group decided to mime the two stories in question — one on inter-family sexual molestation and another about a girl removing her veil.
Shabayek told Mada Masr that that play had also been rejected by El-Sawy Culturewheel.
“At first they told us they needed permits from the censorship authority. Once we presented them with the permits, they still refused,” Shabayek said, noting that Mohamed El-Sawy, the space’s founder and short-lived post-revolution culture minister, did not approve of their group’s name.
The BuSSy Monologues announced that 500s will premier at another independent venue at a later time.
Although it is a taboo in Egypt, masturbation has been discussed in cultural productions before. It was a main theme in Mohamed Amin’s Film Thakafy (Cultural Film, 2000), as well as other films, and indirectly for Okka and Ortega’s more recent hit song Haty Bosa Ya Bet (Give Me a Kiss, Girl), also known as Al-Wesada al-Khaliya (Hollow Pillow).
Correction: This article originally stated that 500s, rather than the 2010 play, was rejected by El Sawy Culturewheel. This was corrected on March 18.