Khartoum, Sudan - Not far from the junction of the White and Blue Niles in Khartoum, a large billboard outside the Chinese-built Friendship Hall grabs the attention of passers-by. It is an advertisement for a comedic play: “The Regime Wants.”
No, it is not a typo. It is the title of a play that is meant to take a satiric jab at the Arab Spring’s popular chant.
In 2011, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the height of The Egyptian Revolution, protesters came up with the catchy and straightforward chant that would spread like wildfire among the revolting youth of the Arab World: “The people want to bring down the regime!”
Through Arab satellite TV news reports, YouTube, and Facebook, the chant spread from Egypt to Yemen, Libya, Syria and wherever protests broke out against aging Arab dictators.
“The title is the opposite of what people called for on the streets, but it points to it,” says playwright Mustafa El-Khalifa. “We approached it an inverted way.”
Not isolated from events in the region, El-Khalifa explains, and frustrated by the same set of problems such as dictatorship, humiliation, poverty and war, “The Regime Wants” reflects the same realities peoples throughout the Arab World live.
“We either create an Arab Spring or theatre for the Arab Spring,” El-Khalifa said jokingly.
Reality and fiction
“The Regime Wants” is the story of an imaginary Arab military dictator, President Jalal Barud al-Julla of the imaginary Republic of Majamrata. “Majamrata,” a Sudanese Arabic colloquial word, means “messed up”.
President Jalal has been in power for 32 years. As he follows news reports on Arab satellite TV stations of popular revolts in the region and the overthrow of Arab leaders, he begins to worry.
In a scene, President Jalal steps down from his throne and asks his prime minister: “Do the people love me?”
“Of course they do!” the prime-minister replies, to which the audience in the theatre laughs hysterically, mocking overthrown Arab dictators, many of whom were under the impression that they enjoyed their peoples’ love and support.
President Jalal, however, remains concerned and comes up with a master plan that marks the plot’s climax: “I am going to change the people!”
And the audience again laughs, whistles and claps in amusement.
In the satirical play, the president contacts a corrupt power broker to import a group of more "suitable people" [Isma'il Kushkush/Al Jazeera]
President Jalal seeks the assistance of a corrupt brokr, to help choose and manage the importation of a “suitable people”.
“Bring me a people that go right when I say so, left when I say so,” President Jalal tells the broker.
While President Jalal spends his time assessing videos of samples of peoples the broker suggests to him, it is too late. The masses of the Republic of Majamrata rise in revolt. President Jalal, his family, and his assistants are swept away and flee the country.
“It was the first time I play a president,” said actor and producer Jamal Abdelrahman with a laugh. “It gives you an idea what power can do.”
“But at the end of the play, you also understand how it feels to be defeated,” Abdelrahman added.
The play, Abdelrahman and other actors say, is not specifically directed to the Sudanese government, but to all leaders in the region who witnessed the uprisings in the region, but did not make the necessary reforms to meet the demands of their populations.
Columnist Osman Mirghani, however, does believe that the Sudanese government is the subject of the play’s satire.
“It is a political play without mentioning Sudan directly,” says columnist Osman Mirghani. “To avoid security complications.”
|Actor and producer Jamal Abdelrahman has an important role in the play [Isma'il KushKush/Al Jazeera]
Early in 2011, anti-government protests broke out in Sudan but were immediately crushed. In the summer of 2012, with rising prices and belt-tightening austerity economic measures, protesters took the streets again calling for the government’s removal. While better organized this time around, the protests did not materialize into a revolution.
In 2013, Reporters Without Borders ranked Sudan’s press freedom to be in a “very serious situation” and Human Rights Watch criticised the Sudanese government’s “stepped- up assault on media freedom.”
So how was the play permitted to show?
“I think as long as there is no reaction from the audience in the form of chants or protests, the government will allow the play to go on,” Mirghani said.
Political satire has long been a vibrant tradition in Sudanese arts with theatre playing an important role early on. The art of theatre came to Sudan in the early twentieth century with expatriot communities from Europe, the Levant and India, and Sudanese picked up on it.
“Sudanese love theatre,” affirms Dr Abdel-Hakim El-Tahir of the The Music and Drama Institute.
The heyday of Sudanese theatre was in the sixties and seventies, but it witnessed a decline because of underfunding and the overall political and economic instability in Sudan.
“An entire generation has not seen theatre,” said Abdelrahman.
But theatre in Sudan has slowly been making a comeback, and “The Regime Wants” has made a contribution.
“It certainly has helped revive the interest of people in theatre,” confirmed El-Tahir.
Muhammad al-Hasan, 53, said he has already seen the play twice and is willing to see it again.
“I’ve never seen the theatre full like this in a long time,” he says. “You laugh, but it is meaningful.”
Israa Ahmad, 25, said she hadn’t been interested in theatre in Sudan before, but after hearing from friends, decided to attend a show of “The Regime Wants” with her family.
“It was very professional and similar to reality,” she says. “I think it will inspire other artists.”