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In tough times, Egyptian theater troupe pushes boundaries

The Egyptian theater group Outa Hamra works with local disadvantaged communities to develop theater as a medium for expression and social change in the country.

By the middle of Outa Hamra's show at the Syrian Woman Association in Cairo, nearly all the women were in tears. By the end, they were singing patriotic Syrian songs and laughing in their seats.

It was a sunny Sunday in December and Outa Hamra (Red Tomato), an Egyptian theater troupe, had come to the association to perform one of their signature acts: a playback performance, in which they use music and acting to improvise stories shared by audience members. It started out light: What did they do that morning? Then it went deeper: What personal problems have they overcome?

"All of our stories are sad," responded one Syrian woman in the audience, her voice rising as she spoke at the performance attended by Al-Monitor. "We all have the same stories of war. The bombs, the arrests, the dead."

They spoke of the sorrow of houses and places destroyed. The pain of putting on airs for the children. The anxiety of waiting for visas and paperwork and family and funds.

Throughout the performance, the women and teenagers moved from laughter to tears and back to laughter as Outa Hamra guided the experience. "I don't laugh a lot like this," said one woman from Aleppo after the show. As she spoke she kept an eye on her 3-year-old daughter across the room.

Outa Hamra works with disadvantaged communities — mainly low-income Egyptians, street children and African and Syrian refugees — to develop theater as a medium for expression and social change. The troupe performs plays, clown shows and workshops all over Egypt to address social issues related to refugees and marginalization, and to expose children and adults to new ideas and forms of expression. Outa Hamra’s work can also be controversial — implicit in their comedic and musical acts are messages critical of authority and uniformity.

Since the Egyptian military returned to power in July 2013, Egypt’s artist and civil society communities, both large and small, are facing more restraints. Legislative changes and the tense political climate, for example, make it harder for Outa Hamra to acquire funding for their projects and to receive official permits for their shows. The street-theater troupe now finds performing in the streets increasingly precarious. In the most serious incident, police shut down a show in Alexandria in June, despite prior coordination. At the same time, the need for these kinds of collaborative efforts between Egyptian and Syrian and African communities is only growing greater, as the region's refugee crises worsen and the Egyptian government, facing its own turmoil, continues to obstruct work with vulnerable populations.

Outa Hamra's theatrical work with marginalized communities has, of course, never been easy in Egypt. The troupe formed after the founding members met in 2009 and 2010 during workshops with Clowns Without Borders. Outa Hamra now has a core cast of four, with many periphery members joining in to collaborate. Over the years, the troupe’s original focus on underprivileged Egyptian communities has shifted to include refugee and migrant populations. Outa Hamra has received grants from nongovernmental organizations and groups like the Spanish Embassy and British Council. Most recently, they collaborated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

An estimated 300,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt since the 2011 Syrian uprising descended into a bloody civil war. Unlike in neighboring countries, in Egypt there are no refugee camps. But in Egypt the Syrians have faced a host of problems, including illegal detention and deportation, along with the trauma they’ve already endured. Only around 137,000 Syrians in Egypt have registered with the UNHCR. The Egyptian government does not afford refugees the right to work or the right to receive a public education. As such, their care is primarily left to the over-stretched and under-resourced UNHCR and its similarly underfunded and overworked partner organizations.

For years, refugees and migrants from countries like Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia have also flowed into Egypt to flee persecution or to seek better economic opportunities. Many see Egypt as a stopover on the way to Europe or Israel; for others, the temporary escape turns permanent. Recently, Egypt's lawless Sinai Peninsula has developed a terrifying trade: Bedouin smugglers kidnap Eritreans and hold them in torture camps for ransom. Many of the Africans that make it to Egypt lack proper identification and settle in poor areas, where they often clash with neighboring Egyptians — who are themselves barely getting by.

Egyptian organizations that work with refugees and marginalized communities have long faced government scrutiny and suspicion alongside absurd bureaucratic restraints, including restrictions on domestic fundraising. Now, Egypt’s NGO law implemented in November requires all nongovernmental organizations to register with the government and comply by certain rules. Critics say the changes are just a means for the state to control and curtail activities and funding. The law in particular targets foreign funding, which has long been a lifeline for many nongovernmental organizations.

These legal changes don’t directly affect small and independent projects like Outa Hamra, according to troupe member Noha Khattab. But they make the overall climate for Egyptians trying to do social work that the state doesn’t explicitly sanction that much more difficult. The effect, Khattab told Al-Monitor, is “going on through the different channels that we work through. Getting access to funds is getting more and more difficult.” She added, “It’s more that the general atmosphere is not really very pro-freedom of expression and artistic development.”

Still, the show goes on.

On a Thursday night in December 2014, the group gathered at a youth center in the lower-class Soraya al-Kobba to perform for around a hundred Egyptians a comedic play with a heavy message, “Going to the Neighbors.” The play was collaboratively written in a workshop between Outa Hamra, refugees and social workers and has evolved over the years. In it, a stereotypical Egyptian family in Cairo meets African and Syrian refugees and hears their stories for the first time — an experience that challenges previous stereotypes.

The children at the youth center performance Al-Monitor attended laughed at the Egyptian families’ off-color jokes, like calling the Sudanese man “chocolate.” And the crowd grew a bit quieter as the troupe re-enacted the beating of the Somali character by a Somali policeman. “Hurriya [Freedom],” he shouted, “Hurriya” — for many Egyptians, an all-too-relatable scene.

Nahid Adel from Ain Shams, had come to the play with her children, who had sports practice at the center. She doesn't have any problems with the refugees, but she could understand why many Egyptians, struggling themselves, felt differently. “The door is open to anyone who wants,” Adel told Al-Monitor. “As long as they are peaceful.” She repeated twice, “We just don’t want problems.”

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