Continued from Part 1
We arrived in Cairo a few days before our show and took some time to check out the city and go over our material. We were staying in a hotel just a few blocks from the Culturewheel venue, which was built in the concrete space beneath an overpass (what the British call a “flyover”) leading to a nearby bridge over the Nile. Large posters adorned the pillars and walls around the venue with our pictures and the heading: “Rebell Cell – British Hip-hop Band”. This may have been a “lost in translation” moment or it may have been a deliberate strategy by the venue to try to pull a crowd with the promise of a concert, but either way the result was misleading since the Rebel Cell is definitely a theatrical performance. Rehearsing the show in our hotel room the day before the gig with the Islamic call to prayer lilting through the window, the familiar material we had performed so many times in England and Scotland felt freshly provocative and alien, the outcome uncertain.
The Rebel Cell is a kaleidoscope of satirical Anglocentric cultural references, complex lyricism, and overt calls for political and creative freedom. Its political debate is not left vs right, more like left vs further left, liberal vs libertarian. How would it be received in an Arabic-speaking country with a record of dodgy democracy and human rights abuses and a socially conservative Muslim population? Our anxieties turned out to be misplaced, for the most part. At the request of venue management we had to make several adjustments including censoring the (two) curse words in the script, and Dizraeli’s freedom-invoking naked dance was done in a t-shirt and shorts instead of his usual birthday suit. This was yet another example of “phenotypic plasticity”, or the necessity of adapting to one’s environment (see my previous post about performing The Rap Guide to Evolution in the American South). It felt ironic that the political content turned out to be less controversial than the profanity and Dizraeli’s naked torso, but it also felt like an apt compromise, since swearing and stripping are luxuries when compared to voting and speaking your mind. Or, to put it another way, government oppression is a more pernicious problem in the world than simple prudishness.
And the political content of the play was very well received. The turnout was low, about 40 or so people in a venue that held over 200, but the comments afterwards revealed an engaged and politically astute audience, keenly interested in the different strategies of resistance articulated by the play. One woman said she loved our arguments but couldn’t bear to watch Dizraeli’s character limping around the stage after being beaten by police for his political activism, since she had experienced that herself. It was clear from their restlessness (and garish hip-hop attire) that some people sitting in the audience had come expecting a rap concert only to find a couple of white guys on stage having a Socratic debate in rhyme, but at least one of them stepped to us after the show (yo!) and said he was really disappointed at first but that we won him over and he really loved it by the end.
With a free day the next day we went to see the pyramids (complete with sphinx-side cypher) and the plan was to leave the following morning for Israel by bus in order to be in Tel Aviv that night for the Seder, the Jewish feast marking the first day of Passover. Noa was in Tel Aviv for the holiday and had invited us to stay at her mother’s place and join the ritual family feed, but Dizraeli and Billy (his documentary-making companion) had dropped their laundry off at a local place without checking when it opened the next morning, and it soon became clear that they would either have to ditch their clothes or miss the bus and spend an extra day in Cairo (they chose the latter).
Even though I had done all of my travel by air up until that point, I was intending to join in the overland adventure just for the Egypt/Israel portion of the trip. This was partly out of team solidarity with Dizraeli and partly to get a different view of the terrain and partly for the adventure but definitely not because I think consumer boycotts of air travel offer a viable solution to climate change. I agree that flying should be avoided when overland travel is a proportionate option, but in this case I was utterly unwilling to be held hostage and miss the Seder feast because of their laundry cock-up, so when the reality of the situation sank in I explained my position to Dizraeli and Billy (with regrets to the loss of solidarity) and hastily booked a plane, arriving in Tel Aviv the next day in time for lunch. In the spirit of his unplaned project, Dizraeli pointed out later that I wasn't really hostage to his laundry, that I could have taken the bus on my own and still made it there by dinner, and he's right. So the bottom line is that I flew for the same reason everyone does: because it was easier and faster and I didn't need the hassle.
Next: I get stuffed at the Seder feast and do my one performance in Israel, and we experience both Israeli and Palestinian hip-hop, float in the Dead Sea, and perform the Rebel Cell in the West Bank.
To be continued…