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Culture : Smash Cairo Play Gives Arabs an Unvarnished Look at Themselves : The searching public exploration became possible after the Persian Gulf War finished off any lingering sentiments about unity.


CAIRO — A young Palestinian staggers into the room, blood dripping down his face, his breath coming in broken heaves. "He insulted me. He insulted all of us," he announces to a roomful of dumbstruck friends. "He called me . . . " he pauses for the indignity of it all . . . "an Arab!"

Instantly, the assembled men on the stage, the Egyptian and the Moroccan, the Saudi and the Lebanese, the Syrian and the Iraqi, hide their faces in shame. The audience watching the scene, Arabs all, laughs uproariously.

This is a play for Arabs who love to hate Arabs, and the packed houses it's playing to in downtown Cairo say a lot about how the Arab world is looking at itself in the months since the Persian Gulf War finished off any lingering sentiments about brotherhood and unity.

Increasingly, Arab intellectuals accustomed to blaming the woes of the Middle East on Western intervention and American-backed dictators--or the old standby, Israel--are flirting with the notion that the worst problems may be the ones at home.

Another example: The movie selected to open December's Cairo International Film Festival took a bruising from some critics because it dared to suggest that the killers of well-known Palestinian cartoonist Ali Naji Adhami in 1987 were not the Israeli Mossad, as conventional Arab wisdom would have it, but Yassir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.

"Why is this war raging on? Why are the 'enemies' so adamant? Why are the brothers at each others' throats? Why would an Egyptian superstar like Nour Sharif (star of the film) co-produce a picture that says that the real enemy is within?" fumed columnist Mohammed Shebl in the Egyptian Gazette.

In part, it seems, the Gulf War provided a catharsis of sorts that allowed the Arabs to explore publicly what many had long known privately: that the real experience of "Arab unity" has been a history of backbiting, jealousy, competition and indecision. It took Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait to bring it into the open, and a freer, post-war intellectual climate to allow for the first time a play like Lenin Ramly's "In Plain Arabic" to be performed on the Egyptian stage without censorship.

"It is the first frank, glasnost- like self-criticism after the Gulf crisis," said sociologist and political scientist Saad Eddin Ibrahim of Ramly's play, in which a cadre of Arab students find themselves unable, or unwilling, to aid a kidnaped Palestinian colleague and instead are each secretly seduced by Israel.

"It doesn't say anything about the Gulf crisis itself, but the timing, the themes, the phrases, the postures, everything reminds audiences that here is an artistic work that in a fresh and honest way tells the Arabs what is wrong with them. And what is wrong is the discrepancy between slogans and practices, between interests and principles, that nobody or at least no Arab has been courageous enough to face," Ibrahim said.

Part of the reason the play works so well for Cairo audiences is that it spotlights long-cherished stereotypes that Arabs have long held about each other.

The Saudi and the Kuwaiti greet each other with a smother of smooches until one stabs the other in the back, releasing a flow of oil from his veins. The curly haired Libyan screams about revolution and reads constantly from Col. Moammar Kadafi's "Green Book." The Iraqi struts around in a black Windbreaker bullying everyone else; at one point, seemingly helpless to control himself, he wrestles the Kuwaiti to the ground, stands on his back and waves a Richard Nixon-like V sign at the crowd.

The Jordanian is fond of exclaiming "My God, you're right!" to almost any point of view and offering to pay to implement the notion with the Gulf Arabs' money. The Egyptian runs around the stage in pajamas and, in the midst of the most hopeless and unpleasant of situations, lamely suggests a good joke. When there's a nasty turn of events to be dealt with, the other Arabs declare it's time to fight--then leave the Egyptian standing there to do the dirty work.

The plot itself revolves around the reported kidnaping of the Palestinian student, who is attending school with other Arabs in London, and the British authorities' threat to hold him responsible for the burning of a library on the night he disappeared. The other Arabs could bail him out if they had the courage to admit they were with him at a masked ball in a discotheque on the night the Palestinian is alleged to have committed the crime.

But that would mean admitting to each other that they'd been whooping it up in a nightclub, something Islam generally frowns on. As the play develops, the Arabs learn not only that each one was there that night, but that each had been seduced by a glamorous woman in a satin suit emblazoned with the Star of David--a woman who, to their horror, later turns out to have been exposed to the AIDS virus.

"Why did we hide it from each other?" asks the Egyptian. "Were we embarrassed, or were we afraid of each other?"

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