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?"
They convene an Arab League-like meeting to decide what to do, which quickly breaks down into finger-pointing, drink-throwing and arguments. "I suggest we write a strongly worded statement," the Algerian says, and the missive begins to emerge:
"We strongly protest in the strongest possible words. . . . If you don't bring Fayez (the Palestinian) back to us, we'll get very angry."
Nor is the infamous tyranny of Arab regimes, a forbidden subject until now in most artistic enterprises, exempted from scrutiny.
"The only thing your governments can agree on is to oppress your people!" declares an Arab TV announcer, as the audience applauds.
In the end, the British police inspector says all the Arabs, and not just the Palestinians, are suspects in the library burning. The Palestinian's girlfriend, gone mad, swirls around the room and sings, "Now you've all become victims. How happy my heart is!"
Frightened, the Arabs appoint the Egyptian to call the Arab League attorney to help them. The Egyptian screams into the phone: "Come save us!"
The play marks new ground in Egyptian drama because its cast of 40 was recruited among young men and women who had never acted before, breaking Egyptian theater's history of depending on stars to draw crowds. It won a $10,000 prize last week from the Ibn Khaldoun Foundation, headed by a sister of the Kuwaiti crown prince, the top theater prize awarded in the Arab world.
"The play could not have been written before the Gulf War," Nihad Seleiha, drama critic for Cairo's Al Ahram newspaper, said in an interview. "I think the shock the Gulf War caused to all the Arabs had to be crystalized in a work of art, and in a popular medium like theater."
"In the past," she said, "people stopped at a particular point. You could attack the sort of behavior, the way people went about realizing Arab unity, but nobody dared before to question the very idea itself, the legitimacy of the concept. What Mr. Ramly did was to put a question mark over the idea of Arab unity. Also, I think he put on the stage in a very condensed dose some of the shortcomings of the Arab personality."
Ramly, a 46-year-old author of a series of social satires who began working on the play briefly 20 years ago, said "In Plain Arabic" represents "my point of view about the Arab world in 1970. The reality has almost not changed."
He produced the play with director Mohammed Sobhi, a well-known comic actor and director with whom Ramly has collaborated in the past.
"What I am doing is urging Arabs to think about the problem within them," Ramly said. "The play does not answer any questions, it poses them."