When British soldiers came into villagers’ houses in Nazlat al-Shobak in 1919, according to village women who accused them of rape, they said “zig zig.” We know this through archives explored in Laila Soliman’s new theater production, which uses the phrase as its title.
It was the height of the nationalist movement, and the British punished those who rebelled — by blocking railways in the case of this village near Giza — harshly. Nazlat al-Shobak was unique in that the women reported the incident. Nationalists took up the cause and some of the women’s testimonies were included in a pamphlet put together by the nationalist Wafd Party. Parts of these were then translated by the party into English and included in a dossier presented to the British.
Two months later Britain conducted its own military investigation at its barracks on Cairo’s Qasr al-Aini Street into allegations that the army had looted and burnt the village and committed rape and murder. The opinion of the military court was that the villagers’ accounts were a “tissue of falsehoods from beginning to end.”
There are no documents recording these testimonies in Arabic. Zig Zig uses as its basis documents stored in the British Foreign Office archives.
To me, the theme of archival documents revealing women’s stories that were elided from both colonial and nationalist narratives is fascinating. So I struggled to put my finger on why I found the play, which premiered at the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival last week, boring.
Zig Zig opens with five women sitting behind desks in a row at the back of the stage. One plays the violin, another reads an archival document that sets the scene, and the others mime leafing through documents. I liked this set-up. They move around and return to the desks, combining dance, song and acting. Each play different roles at different moments, reading from the archives, reflecting on them, acting as the military, the native prosecution or the women themselves giving testimony and answering harsh questions in the British military court.
The text they enact consists of extracts from the testimonies and other archival documents, as well as quotes taken from the actors as they workshopped around the archives. This approach is Soliman’s trademark — most of her works are made up not of words that she has written, but that she has elaborately arranged, whether from archives, letters or workshops.
The booklet accompanying the production states that Zig Zig “brings this historical moment to life,” adding that the “performers draw links on stage between the historical material, their personal experiences and today’s rape culture, wondering why women’s narratives of rape are so often silenced, disbelieved and belittled, and asking: how much has really changed?”
In the play, the actors wonder what happened to the women after testifying. Were they ostracized and judged as women are now? They conjecture — probably correctly — that no one would have paid attention to these women were it not for their utility to the national cause.
The testimonies are related in English with Arabic translation projected behind the actors. I appreciated the fact that Soliman did not have the testimonies recounted in Arabic as if they had been the words those women spoke. The choice of English is an acknowledgement of the unbridgeable distance between us and those women. But otherwise, I felt that this distance was ignored or even denied in the play. In the attempt to bring the testimonies to life, the distance was made greater.
Perhaps, especially in relation to sexual violence, we shouldn’t attempt to depict violence if we will not or cannot fully depict its horror. Representations of extreme violence tend to be either poor depictions (which thus fail) or something that points to the horror (and can work). I suppose pointing is what Soliman sought to do by including dance. As one woman recounts a sexual assault, another dances around with one hand pulling at her own hair, jerking her head to the side by the violence of it. At another point, accompanying a description of a rape, a woman part-simulates it with push-ups. Strangely, the stylized dance combined with the realistic impulse of the crying both minimized the horror these women faced and emphasized the distance between myself and them.
The first time the voice of one of the women broke with tears relating what happened to her, I felt an utter disconnection. I was aware I was meant to feel the opposite. I was annoyed. Did the woman at Nazlat al-Shobak cry more when she described her kitchen utensils being stolen, her jewels taken, or when her husband was shot in front of her, or when she was violated? Who are we to decide? The women crying as they relate what happened to them are the sharpest indicators of the unknowingly futile attempt at connection that underlies the production.
One actor talks about embodying these women’s pain to prevent them being forgotten again, while another states that the British soldiers’ interrogations, though terrible, enable making these women present again. At one point, an actor declares that the village women are all present, even if not with their own voices. But I felt those women only as an absence, and I felt only the presence of contemporary women trying to collapse a distance, to recuperate them according to our own desires. In trying something impossible — bridging an unbridgeable distance — and failing to reflect on this impossibility, there is an unintended violence in Zig Zig.
Toward the end, an actor imagines one woman, Aisha, living with her pain but not broken. Maybe she was broken, maybe she wasn’t. But this need to depict her as defiant and unbroken is our projection. For me, the play would have worked better as an attempt to talk about that, about what it means to try to reach back into the past to recuperate forgotten pasts, colored always by our desires.
I would have liked to feel that interplay of presence and absence were explored rather than collapsed. I wanted to sense that, in approaching the testimonies, the playwright and actors had in mind the thorny questions raised by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her 1988 essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” We remain in the midst of a cultural preoccupation with the archive and the subaltern, a term first used by Antonio Gramsci to indicate those populations outside of the hegemonic power structure. Even if Zig Zig’s makers do not agree with Spivak’s claim that the subaltern cannot speak — by which Spivak also means, in a way, that the subaltern cannot be heard — it would have been more effective to grapple with the difficult questions of representation, with the violence often inherent in simple gestures to reverse silence, in “giving” a voice to the oppressed.
Acts of remembering are also often acts of forgetting. For example, the way we are taught about America’s civil rights movement leads us to believe that history is made by visionary individuals (usually men) at key historical moments, not by collective movements. We can rediscover the importance of the collective through reading alternative retellings of the movement. We are told in Zig Zig that a plaque was built in Nazlat al-Shobak marking the events of 1919, commemorating the killing of 19 men and two women – thus leaving out the rapes. But despite Zig Zig’s potentially enlightening exploration of archives to create and alternative retelling, it too didn’t really tell me — or remind me — of anything useful. At the end, I sympathized with those I already had sympathy with, in a tale of heroes (heroines), questionable heroes (the village men) and villains (the British).
I found myself asking rather shallow utilitarian questions: If we cannot talk to the peasant woman of today, why go to the peasant woman of the past? Is recovering stories for the sake of it enough? And because I don’t like to think of myself as quite that devoid of emotion, I questioned my questions, and realized that had I been engaged, I wouldn’t have been asking them — I’d have probably been asking more interesting questions. Most of what is interesting in Zig Zig is stated at the start, but through a more careful, perhaps more unsettling exploration on the stage I too could have explored my own relationship to these women and their refracted and translated testimonies. It doesn’t have to have political utility; if nothing else, it should be a good story, an interesting tale that is spun.