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A Sit-Down with Sondos

Sally Sampson sits down with the resilient and inspiring, Sondos Shabayek. An amalgam of talent, Sondos shares her experiences of harassment, revolution, and internal struggles she faced in carving a place for political dissent in theatre.

“We are brought up in a society that constantly conditions you to compromise and sacrifice. So knowing what you want and going for it becomes a foreign luxury. And it’s not just about doing something; it’s about being happy! Otherwise, why do I exist?”

Sitting at Beanos, chatting away with Sondos Shabayek, I couldn’t help but feel a giddy excitement brewing in my stomach. Extremely warm and friendly, while also incredibly intelligent, focused and articulate, Sondos is an incredibly inspiring woman to be around.

Hailing from Alexandria , she initially came to Cairo with her heart set on becoming a journalist; however, Sondos has gained her popularity (and notoriety) from her amazing ability to put pen to paper and tackle some of the toughest, yet poignantly relevant, issues of our time. She has spearheaded theatre works such as the Tahrir Monologues and the BuSSy (بصي) monologues (the latter of which was recently listed as one of the top 15 Acts of Women’s Activism that are Changing the World, on Buzzfeed) and has shown that she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty and delve right into the heart of any issue. Her passion and her determination combined with her grip on reality make her activist spirit all the more effective. Inspired by her incredible work, I was of course delighted to jump at the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with her. 

How did you get to where you are now? Tell me a little bit about yourself growing up.

I wanted to be a journalist for a long time and so, back in the day, I started setting my sights on studying mass communication; and in order to do that I had to come to Cairo. So I remember in high school, this was an argument I had with my family, because for them, me moving to Cairo wasn’t an option. But for me, there was no other option. It took me a year to push for it and get my father to surrender.

Had you expressed before high school that you wanted to be a journalist?

When I was very young, I would say to my mother, ‘I want to go to Palestine’ and she would say somewhat rhetorically ‘No,’ and add ‘When Palestine is free, then you can go!’ And I would respond with ‘No, I’m going to go! I’m going to be a journalist and I’m going to go!’

And I did go! I went in 2009 and I went to Gaza behind my parents’ backs. It was during the time when Israel had formed a blockade and that barred access in terms of food or anything at all. Everything had to move through Israel by law, so out of hunger, the Palestinians had broken through the Egyptian borders and destroyed them completely. And I got a message from someone saying ‘We’re organizing a convoy to Gaza tomorrow. Do you want to go?’ And I said, ‘yes’.

I didn’t tell anyone, I got everything in order and I went. It was a 24 hour trip because it was so risky, but when I got back I wrote about what I’d witnessed and that’s when I told my parents, because I knew that they would end up seeing the article anyway.

So why Journalism?

When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor, like many others. I liked the idea of helping people. But when I grew up, I realized people weren’t sick in their bodies, they were sick in their heads!

I felt that the media was such a powerful tool and I used to love to read and write. Sometimes I would feel angry about things and when I would sit and write, I would feel calmer and be able to make sense out of them more than I could by speaking. I wanted to say things to people, and I felt that if I went out and wrote about the things that I witnessed, I might be able to help them. And that’s why I wanted to be a journalist for the longest time, until recently, when I gradually lost my interest in the field.

The thing is, journalism is hard and it pays you peanuts, so if you don’t want to do it, you have no reason to do it! I started losing interest when I realized that there is no such thing as independent media and the only time I was kind of able to control what was being published was when I was the editor of a small magazine with little circulation. But once you want to reach a wider audience, and if you approach big publications, they will dissect and reassemble your work to match what they what to say…and that shocked me! Particularly around the time of the revolution, I realized how much the media is politicized with its own agenda, and it disgusted me! All those things made me gradually lose interest.

What was the impact of the revolution in 2011 on you?

I think, generally, it made us all braver. We became risk-takers, we were less scared, we didn’t censor ourselves as much… and all because we were braver. Also, it made us more empowered. I remember that’s what I felt on a very individual level and I think that applied to my friends as well. 

When was the first time you felt ‘braver’?

Well being on the street, at the centre of it all, every time I got close to being beaten up or to brushing shoulders with violence, was a test for me. During these moments I remember wondering, ‘how far are you able to go?’

This is very emotional for me. I think, yes definitely, you surprise yourself, in terms of how close you are able to get to the violence. You are literally battling with your fear of death and of getting hurt.

I want to hear about your experience as a woman in Tahrir during the revolution.

I was incredibly happy! For the first time, I felt that my gender was accepted and that I was welcome and not in danger.  And I was never harassed within the 18 days of the Revolution…afterwards yes, but I would scream out “HE’S HARASSING ME!” and the people around me would sort the harassers out.

What were some ‘defining’ moments for you, from being on the street during the revolution?

Well many of those defining moments went into the Tahrir Monologues.

A lot of people often talk about January 25th or January 28th (Friday of Anger) but I talk about the 26th. I remember on the 26th of January, I decided to go downstairs because I was very angry with what had happened to us on the 25th.

I couldn’t imagine that things would happen the way that they did. I was standing before they (the police forces) attacked, I could see them and I kept saying to myself, “There’s no way they’ll attack the Square. There are far too many of us. They would never do that to us. There’s going to be a lot of blood if they attack.” And when they did attack, I was so full of anger. So I went out on the 26th with the idea of keeping the momentum going.

And there was this moment in Ramses Street, when all of a sudden, the police appeared everywhere and my biggest fear during protests was falling down, because I knew that if I fell over, that was it. That was my biggest fear, more than getting beaten up or anything. I knew if I fell over, something bad was going to happen.

I was wearing UGGs, which you can’t run in, and I did fall over. And it felt like I was falling in slow motion…and because the police had just appeared and people just started running, I didn’t have time to react and I tripped. And for a few minutes, I was on the ground and the guy that was with me also got knocked over next to me. Almost cinematically, I saw his glasses fall off his face as he fell over and I knew he wasn’t going to be able to help me up.

Lying there, I said to myself, “Okay, I’ve fallen over and people and police are running on top of me and so, I can’t get up”. I won’t say, ‘my life flashed before my eyes’ because it didn’t, but I felt that I was going to get arrested and there was no air down where I was, so I thought I might faint…and then there was a sudden coming to peace with the circumstances.

How long were you on the ground for?

I’m not entirely sure, like I said, because I really did feel time slow down. I’m sure it’s a lot faster than I imagined, but it felt like such a long time. Then I don’t know what happened, but things suddenly calmed down and the tear gas started to be less thick. I looked next to me and there was a green wall that I used to help myself up, and I helped the guy with me as well…  then we set off running again. It was later on that I realized that my trousers were all torn up and I was covered in footprints where people had stepped on me.

But this moment moved me so much because the thing that I was most scared of happening, happened. And when that happens, something within you changes. Until now, I can’t express how much this has affected me.

How long did it take you to write the Tahrir Monologues?

We started in February and our first performance was in May. And that’s because I wrote things down and we started rehearsals, but then I would go back and edit again and again and again.

Was it all in your words or were the Tahrir Monologues developed through a workshop of people telling their stories?

There were stories that I remembered and stories people had told me. I’d also recorded events on my flip-camera and I had footage of people recounting things. And when we thought of the project, I sat down and wrote the stories. People would also individually, and during rehearsals, tell their stories and I would record and write them down.

How were the audience on your first performance?

Well our first performance was at Rawabet Theatre and the audience was amazing. I’d never seen that before in my life. Lots of people showed up at the venue, so we had to do two performances, one right after the other.

In 2011, people were in a state of euphoria and I’d never witnessed that before. Everywhere we performed, we had a full house, with the least amount of publicity, because people wanted to hear stories from the revolution and everyone was emotionally available, whether it was the audience or the actors.

The stories themselves also weren’t stories of heroes and martyrs, but of ordinary people, so anyone who saw the performance could relate. It was very close to the people, I think. 

Let’s talk about women’s issues. When did they become a priority for you?

Well everyone talks about the things that are relevant to them. As a woman, automatically, women’s issues are relevant. I have to talk about them because, as a citizen, I want my freedom and women’s issues are a part of that freedom. I value my independence and my free space, and wherever there are attempts to limit that, it affects me. These things touch me and so they move me, but it was never a conscious decision to have women’s rights as my focus.

I’ve been subjected to a lot of incidents of harassment, like any other girl, and they have affected me and my self-esteem more than I would’ve liked them to, and more than I had imagined. Every once in a while I discover a new aspect of how much they’ve affected me, and girls in general.

Like the way we walk in the street. If you’re a woman and you travel outside of Egypt, think about how you walk on the streets there and how you walk here. Here, I feel like all women walk funny. We’re all sort of hunched over; we have a problem. And this, of course, impacts our self-esteem and brings it all the way down because we always feel like there’s something wrong with us and we have problems with our sexuality because we always feel like we have to hide certain body parts. 

No one is allowed to know we have breasts, even though everyone knows we do. It’s nothing special; we’re born that way! It’s not like we have a special surgery to get them. So we cover up because they make us feel like we’re walking anomalies. And if not, then they define us by the part of us that is showing. And both these things motivate a woman to want to cover up. 

How do you respond to harassers?

I always respond. I didn’t at first and then I gradually started. Sometimes I would answer and sometimes I wouldn’t, but the anger was always there. But after the revolution, I just don’t stay quiet! And when I scream back at them, some are taken aback and others respond in return. And there are others who want to be violent. One man once wanted to slap me and another time, this guy pulled out a knife.

This all fits perfectly with the theories because these men see women as public property; they think it’s their right to harass them and they expect them to stay quiet.

Let’s talk about the BuSSy Monologues. How did you get involved?

Well it started off in the AUC as a student project. I saw its first performance by coincidence in 2006 and I was so moved. I interviewed the director and the founder and I cried in her arms. I was shocked that stories were being told that had happened to me and at how relevant they were.

And it gave me courage so I wrote down a story of harassment that I’d never shared with anyone or that I’d shared in small parts, and I sent it along with a story I wrote that had to do with the way girls walk in the street, hoping that the group might perform it.

They ended up calling me three weeks before one of their performances in 2007 and said “Hey, the girl who was going to perform your story dropped out at the last second. Do you want to join us?” So I went for it and then the next year I directed the show…so I began to write and direct all at once. I ended up running the project... It fell into my lap, and I embraced it.

 BuSSy incorporates men and women in the performance. Was it like that from the beginning?

Yes, it was, but overtime the number of men in the show has increased. At first, the show would usually feature two guys playing roles in the stories being told from a woman’s perspective, but there weren’t any men’s stories. And then later on, we began including stories from the male perspective as well.

How are the monologues or the sketches formed?

Sometimes people send us their stories, sometimes we go around hunting for stories and interviewing people, and then sometimes people tell their stories when we start a workshop. Eventually, you get all the stories and you start to edit them.

What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced when trying to bring BuSSy to the public?

Every year, we used to hold our performances at AUC and then in 2010, we decided that we wanted to perform off-campus. So we started rehearsing outside AUC and broke-off our ties with the university; and it was our first encounter looking for an actual venue to perform in. No one would take us. 

Some places like Sakiat El Sawy disapproved of the name of the project and of some of the content of the script. Rawabet theatre, our only potential venue, was fully booked and so we ended up performing on a makeshift stage in the open-air cafeteria area of the Opera.

After the first performance, there were complaints made because people said that girls were ‘taking off their clothes on stage’ when really it was just a skit about a girl who chooses to take off her veil. They also said that it was religiously offensive because these matters are of course taken very seriously.

So we chose to continue with our performances, but we performed them in mime. And I chose to do it in mime to show that we weren’t performing it in full, and after the performance I got up on stage and announced “The performance you just saw was incomplete and not the original version. The other half of the performance that was mimed has been taken out on account of censorship”.

Khaled Aboul Naga is very involved with BuSSy, so when did he step into the situation?

On the night of one of our performances, I was talking to one of my partners and collaborators in BuSSy, Mona ElShimi and I said to her “We haven’t invited any celebrities”. So she said, “I think I can reach Khaled Aboul Naga”, and she sent him a message.

The next day he came to the show. He sat through it and it was an awful performance! The mics weren’t functioning well and people couldn’t hear us, not to mention, people didn’t understand why we were miming.

But afterwards, he came up to me and said “I want to produce this show. I want to film it properly so you can get the chance to share the stories.” So I took him backstage and the actors were already devastated and had been crying because of everything that had been happening, but as soon as they saw Khaled and I told them what he’d said, everyone was over the moon with joy. And we ended up filming the BuSSy monologues properly.

What’s your vision for BuSSy?

I want to develop it. I want to duplicate it in different cities and different countries so each place can have its own BuSSy. I want all stories to be documented and shown everywhere. And I want to offer a free and open space for whomever to talk about their experiences freely in order to establish a transparent mode of communication and understanding when it comes to social and political issues.

Lots of people are critical of what ‘art’ or ‘performance’ can do in actual terms of changing the reality of our situation in Egypt. What are your views on activism through theatre?

I have not met a single person that’s attended either BuSSy or the Tahrir Monologues who wasn’t really moved.

I remember a man once came and saw the Tahrir Monologues, back in November 2011 and, at the time, we were thinking of not performing it again. We didn’t have a lot of money and I was so drained after working on the project for one year without having any sort of income. I was drained and stressed. And so this man, who was a relative of one of the actors, came to the performance, our last performance on November 18th.  And I found out later that on November 19th, the day of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, this same boy, moved by the performances he’d seen, went out there to protest and got arrested.

And when they took everything away from him and they put him in jail, all that he had left on him was the program from our performance. On the program, there was a quote from one of the stories that said اضربونا بالنار عشان نبقى أخر الاجيال الجبانة” (Shoot us so that we may be the last generation of cowards) and he wrote that on the wall inside the prison. And when he got out of jail, he told us what had happened.

For a while, I couldn’t imagine that our performance had had that effect, but even the actors who share their stories on stage are changed forever. For the longest time, I’ve wanted to produce a documentary about how storytelling changes the person: both the person telling the story and the person hearing it.

Something just changes in you. You see how people grow and are freed because when you tell your story, you become braver and more confident. So for me, theatre is magical because its impact is different than anything else you can witness and can be more profound than watching something through a screen. No matter how hard I try to affect and reach people through different mediums, it’s never the same as theatre, when it comes to storytelling.

And I’m tired of being told that it’s not personal! Everything is personal and everything is emotional! Theatre allows me to make it personal.

Check out the Tahrir Monologues fanpage here

Main photo courtesy of Ahmed Hayman.