In the deafening Egyptian capital, a small group of independent artists quietly present an art relying on everything the performer has to give — except their voices.
Egyptian pantomimes have a movement going on. Although it’s not the most visible of art forms, dozens of artists are performing improvised sketches in public spaces, participating in mime festivals at various non-governmental theaters, and training others to spread what they passionately believe in.
In pantomime — not to be confused with mime, nor with the interactive musical children’s comedy of the same name — only actors grace the stage. There can be music and minimal lighting, but no scenography or props. Pantomimists are dressed in black and white and their faces are painted black and white, creating a neutral base to be colored by the audience’s imaginations and actors’ skills.
It’s largely a young person’s art form, with around 10 stars who devote themselves to mime, barely engaging in other performance arts. A dedicated Facebook group connects around 100 Egyptian mime artists, but when I start speaking to them, each recommend a handful of new names.
A short history of pantomime
In 2007 Nehad Seleiha, Egypt’s most respected — and feared — theater critic, wrote an overview of El-Sawy Culturewheel‘s third annual mime festival and weaved it in with a strong academic background primer on mime in Ahram Weekly.
Seleiha mentions that according to Annette Lust’s book From the Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond: Mimes, Actors Pierrots and Clowns (2000), three schools of mime recently developed in Europe — mainly France, although mime has existed since ancient times.
White-face illusion mime, portraying concrete emotions and situations through stylized gestures, existed since the early 19th century. In the 1920s, Etienne Decroux developed corporeal mime, which is not based on text (although it can contain text) but abstract, universal ideas through movement. This school included props and other theatrical elements. In the mid-20th century, Jacques Lecoq’s movement was incorporating elements of mime into more physical theatre. The actors would also use dance, clowning and movement.
On the other hand, the term “pantomime” is very specific when used by the mime community. It includes the classic black-and-white outfit, and clear, perfected everyday movements using just the body.
Actors often use mime and pantomime in performances. Even Marcel Marceau, one of the most famous French mime artists, mixed styles. The Marceau school is the one that most contemporary mimes incorporate in Egypt and beyond.
Mime has also gone beyond the stage: When films were silent, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were considered the most iconic mime actors of their time. And in many countries, mimes can be found performing in public spaces.
On Egyptian pantomimes
While most scholars trace mime back to ancient Greek and Roman times, Ahmed Nabil claims it goes back to Pharoanic times.
Nabil, at 76 Egypt’s oldest and most famous mime artist, told Ahram Weekly in 2009 that temples had drawings showing mimes telling battle tales to the king and foreign visitors.
Now retired after receiving much recognition abroad, Nabil had a long mime career. He started training in Alexandria in the 1960s, with an American cultural counsellor — who happened to also be a mime artist. After much training and overcoming various obstacles, he went on to study the techniques of directing pantomime in Azerbaijan.
From his return in the 1970s, Nabil performed on stage and television — in addition to taking minor cinema roles outside of pantomime — and trained young actors. He was always disappointed that most of his students gave up pantomime the moment a film or television offer came their way.
One artist Nabil trained is still recognized as one of the most prolific mime artists in Egypt: Mohamed Abdalla. The 29-year-old got involved in mime in 2005 when he attended the Culturewheel’s first mime festival. He trained on his own for some time until meeting Nabil and begging to be allowed to join one of his mime workshops for free.
Since then, he has continued his mime studies in Greece and been nominated by Nabil as the region’s best mime artist several times.
Abdalla has worked with many mime artists in Egypt, though he prefers solo work. He’s currently working on a lengthy performance with Mostafa Hozain, 32, who’s currently considered the most active experienced actor in the independent mime scene.
He also works with 30-year-old Oscar Nagdi. The two have pooled their efforts to establish the Mime Unit Group, under which they perform as a duo, in addition to involving and training other actors.
Abdalla learnt from Nabil that the measure of a mime performer’s success is the audience understanding his movements, thus grasping the story and the feelings it conveys.
This is not easy, according to most mime artists I speak with. It can take months of training to convince the audience that one is holding balloons, sitting on a chair or pressing one’s palms up against a glass window.
Amr Abdel-Aziz, a respected 26-year-old mime artist, is famous for being the first to take pantomime to the Cairo Metro with Mahatat’s 2012 public art project Shaware3na (Our Streets). Before that, he presented mime sketches on stage, including a performance at the Cairo Opera House during the Modern Dance Festival in 2010 — the first time either a young artist or a pantomime show were included in the festival.
His eight performances in the metro with Mahatat — challenging as they were — inspired him to continue working in public space.
He has since performed mime in various neighborhoods under the title Al-Mefakaraty (The Reminder). In the first iteration he presented sketches showing how Ramadan was celebrated in the past, and the second demonstrated how different Egyptian handicrafts complement each other.
Abdel-Aziz has never met real problems performing in public space. In one incident in the metro a man told him what he was doing was sinful, but others enjoyed the performance despite that. Another time a police officer stopped him, but when he came across the same officer again later, he smiled and watched the show.
A recent incident of police-mime interaction caught media attention when Sheetos (Mohamed Saeed), 21, who dubs himself Saheb al-Saada (owner of happiness), was stopped for an ID check by the police on the street in December 2014. Privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm caught the incident on camera and the footage went viral on Facebook.
Later the Associated Press ran a feature on the artist with captivating images of him performing pantomime on the Cairo Metro. Sheetos, also trained by Nagdi, is a university student whose passion for mime drives his on-the-go performances on Cairo’s streets and public transportation.
Besides the Culturewheel’s mime festival, various churches in Egypt host regular theater festivals. The Angel Mikhail church in Imbaba produced a mime troupe calling themselves Thabet Qalbi (Fasten my Heart) and consisting of a number of young people, and it’s now independent from the church. They perform pieces regularly in the Culturewheel’s festival, but also in the AFAC Theater Festival and Al-Rab3’s sporadic pantomime festival.
Raghda Raafat, a member of this troupe, tells me their performances usually touch on social issues, and her individual work as an artist tends to include issues relating to women’s rights. Her performance Youm Fi Hayat Ontha (A day in the life of a female) highlights harassment and society’s double standards toward women.
Raafat also says Thabet Qalbi train themselves as a troupe, and that she doesn’t really know the difference between mime and pantomime — but that if a training opportunity with an experienced artist arose, this would help them develop further.
The duo that gets the lion’s share of media coverage among Egypt’s mime artists consists of Ahmed Borei and Safaa Mohammady. They run the Esmo Eih? (What is it called?) mime troupe and are the founders of the Egyptian branch of 100 Thousand Mimes for Change.
They found each other by coincidence when Borei was seeking a female performer for his performance Mama, Baba Wel Bazaza (Mom, Dad and the Baby Bottle) for the Culturewheel’s 2011 mime festival. The show — which the two perform variations of to this day — is about a couple who have a baby and the issues that arise from this.
During a commissioned performance during the International Day of Peace celebrations with the organization Masterpeace, Borei and Mohammady discovered their passion for both performance art for social change and public space performance. Performing at the now halted public art event Al-Fan Midan cemented these interests.
They went on to establish Egypt’s 100 Thousand Mimes for Change, part of the international movement 100 Thousand Poets for Change, founded in 2011 by American poets Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion. The duo communicated with its sister organization for mimes and quickly adapted the concept to Egypt, organizing the first edition in 2012: six days of performances in cultural centers and on Cairo’s metro, inspired by Abdel-Aziz.
Every year they get permission from the Cairo Metro Authority to perform, which is tiresome but not impossible if one follows up on the process closely.
“We did a performance in Shubra al-Kheima, and a few days later kids from the neighborhood came to another performance we were doing in the metro with their parents,” Mohammady tells me with a smile, giving further examples from their experience to show that when artists reach out to audiences, a genuine interest in theater can develop.
Besides the three editions of 100 Thousand Mimes for Change so far, the duo perform their variations of the skit. They’ve performed in public spaces in neighborhoods, children’s hospitals and orphanages, but also in malls and in resort cities.
Speaking with several mime artists, I realize that there are a number of others performing, training and learning. However, the opportunities to learn this art are limited in spite of its importance for both actors and audiences.
In 2011, theater director Hany al-Metenawy and others invited mime trainers from the Netherlands to train actors in the Cairo Acting School in both old-school and contemporary mime over two years. Abdel-Aziz was one of the school’s students.
Sadly, however, the school and the mime courses came to a halt due to funding issues.
Likewise, Nabil previously taught at the Culturewheel and the American University in Cairo, but the courses were expensive so many were not able to attend.
In an attempt to make pantomime more accessible, Abdel-Aziz has retired since 2014 from performing to study Spanish. He’s preparing himself to study mime academically in Spain. Afterward, he wants to translate books to Arabic and work on spreading the principles of the art form.
But both Abdalla and Abdel-Aziz say the actor has a responsibility to learn, seek and find alternatives to the obvious lack of education opportunities. The information is available in books, online and in various other places, they say, and people need to make the effort to study the art to perform or add to it.
Both also say that in order to spread the art rather than tarnish its reputation mime artists must perform with careful consideration for mime’s history and principles. Abdalla adds that he did not start training other mime artists until he had been performing for seven years, yet many others who don’t have a strong grip on mime can also be found teaching it to others.
Abdalla says the government is slowly beginning to pay attention to mime. Together with Mostafa Hozain, he is currently preparing a mime performance in government-owned Malak Theater and getting state funds to do so. But more needs to be done. Abdalla mentions Maysarra Abdel-Meguid, an artist he says is performing and training mime artists in Upper Egypt with almost no support or attention.
Borei and Mohammady believe mime artists should spread out and perform in public spaces, for children, with NGOs — anywhere so that the art spreads.
“The Egyptian audience needs to see a new type of theater. People equate theater with comedy. If we show them mime they’ll relate to it, as it employs everyday situations on the stage,” Metenawy says. “It can support the entire theater movement in Egypt.”
“Actors are responsible for performing, while the audience is responsible for using their imagination,” Abdalla says. “The most important element of silent acting is the idea. The simpler the idea the better.”
“For us mime was the closest thing to a new horizon in theater,” says Metenawy, “for theater to develop.”
It develops both the actors and the audience, he explains — actors have to use their whole bodies on stage, be precise and capture the audience’s attention, while the audience have to use their imaginations and be present in a silent room without checking their phones or speaking to each other.
A society without imagination is a society with no future, Raafat tells me.
“If we don’t have an imagination we will not be able to develop,” she says. “People wait to be told what to do and are not able to figure it out for themselves. Pantomime challenges that.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Thabet Qalbi as “W Lissa.” This was corrected on August 10, 2015.