Seven things I witnessed while watching "shahid ma shafsh haga"
Published: October 10, 2017
One of the most looked forward to events of the day at al-Waha was “waqt al-musalsal,” during which al-Waha counselors put on a short theatre performance under the late afternoon sun. What you may not know is that there is a rich history of entertainment in Egypt (and the rest of the Middle East!), which sparked the idea of “waqt al-musalsal.” In honor of the fun musalsal times we had together at al-Waha, I decided to watch one of Egypt’s most famous plays: 1976’s “Shahid Ma Shafsh Haga” or “The Witness Who Didn’t See Anything.” The play follows a rather hapless 28 year-old man named Sarhan Abd il-Baseer, who works as an actor for a children’s television program called “Hayya Bina Nal’ab” or “Let’s Go Play.” Sarhan, an innocent guy whose chief hobby is visiting the rabbits at the local zoo, gets accused of murdering a cabaret dancer who lives in the apartment below him, and this event turns Sarhan’s world upside down. The main character is played by the hugely famous comedian and actor Adel Imam, who is partly responsible for Egypt’s long-standing reign as the best producer of Arab entertainment.
Here are seven things I witnessed while watching “The Witness Who Didn’t See Anything”:
1. The play was first performed over 40 years ago. There was quite a bit of slang that I did not understand, and even my mother didn’t quite get everything. Nevertheless, the play is funny! Even I, born many years after the play’s opening, and having lived most of my life in the United States found the play undeniably hilarious, and even those with little knowledge of the Egyptian dialect can delight in the main character’s comedic body movements and facial expressions.
2. The comedy is different from what I am used to, because there is a lot of repetition. For example, in the opening scene, as Sarhan walks into the zoo, a good thirty seconds is devoted to Sarhan dropping first one parcel, then another, then another, as the zookeeper hopelessly picks up after him. Later, in one of the funniest scenes in the play, Sarhan, in describing to Madeeha, the girl who’s interested in him, why he doesn’t go to films, tells a winding story filled with repetition. The film he went to was called “al-yateem” or “The Orphan,” and Sarhan explains, “the rest of the viewers in the audience told me to cheer up, and I kept crying, and the usher came out and told me to cheer up, and I kept crying, and the manager of the movie theatre came and gave me free food, and I kept crying, and the police came and all the traffic outside stopped and more people came in and I kept crying...They all thought I was crying because of the film.” The play’s audience is held spellbound by this explanation, partly because of Adel Imam’s storytelling acumen, and partly because it knows that with such a long, drawn-out story, there has to be a punchline. It turns out that Sarhan was crying because his shoes were too tight, and not because of the film he saw.
3. Much of what Sarhan says doesn’t really matter. Part of the reason for this is because Sarhan himself is so nervous, dealing with the police and judges, that he can’t help but stutter and switch around his words. There are also times, however, when what Sarhan says makes perfect sense, but simply isn’t relevant. For example, in the court scene, the judge, wanting to know a basic timeline of events, asks Sarhan to tell him where he was around the time of the murder. Sarhan isn’t able to tell the judge when he left his house to go to the TV station or when he left the TV station or when he left for the zoo after coming home, but he is able to tell the judge that he used two, no two and a half spoons of jam in his sandwich.
4. Sarhan is a dynamic, if somewhat confusing character. At first glance, he is an extremely unfortunate fellow, so nervous that he can’t confidently tell you what happened to him in a day. As the play progress, we begin to see Sarhan’s wiliness, from the jokes he makes while rebuffing Madeeha’s attempts at getting closer to how he quickly befriends a police officer and just as quickly turns him against his captain. Whether this subtle show of intellect is intended by the show’s writers to be part of Sarhan’s character or whether it is a byproduct of the actor’s own keen intelligence shining through is uncertain.
5. Adel Imam himself remains a household name in Egypt and the Arab world to this day. He is well-known for his improvisational comedy skills, and his ability to make his fellow comedians laugh during performances. It is no different in “Shahid Ma Shafsh Haga,” and just as we are tickled by seeing the actors on Saturday Night Live break character, the play’s audience also delights when Adel Imam succeeds in making his fellow actors laugh.
6. The play is undeniably a comedy, but it also has a serious element. Aside from the fact that the play revolves around a murder, Sarhan’s character undergoes a significant transformation. The image of a rabbit is associated with Sarhan from the onset of the play, as we see his friendship with the rabbits at the zoo. He has a stuffed bunny toy at home, which he cherishes. At the courthouse, every time he is asked a question, he becomes startled, stuttering and wide-eyed, like a rabbit, to the point where the judges seek to soothe his nerves, offering him a drink to calm him down. After his job as witness is complete, the judge advices Sarhan to gain more confidence, lest he have no hope of marrying. Later, we see Sarhan deeply shaken by his experience at the courthouse. He vows to be a lion, rather than a rabbit, and to him, that means a descent into vice. Where before, he rebuffed Madeeha’s attempts at intimacy, now he initiates those movements; where he once wore muted tones of blue, he now wears an ostentatious pink bathrobe; where once his leisure was filled with visits to the zoo, he now calls his drunk friend over to plan a murder. It is only when the police chief and his children visit to snap Sarhan out of his self-inflicted misery that Sarhan begins to accept that perhaps being a rabbit is not so bad after all.
7. The play reflects on the state of government and society at the time. As I mentioned earlier, Sarhan’s character undergoes a transformation from a rabbit figure to a lion figure. Aside from simply being disappointed in himself and ashamed at the judge’s advice, it seems that Sarhan forces himself through this transformation, because he doesn’t think he can survive otherwise. During his monologue after the courthouse scene, we hear him saying that it is only ever rabbits that get eaten, and commenting that he has never heard of “molokhiyya bil osood,” only “molokhiyya bil aranib” (molokhiyya is an Egyptian soup-like dish that is sometimes made with rabbits, Sarhan notes that there is no molokhiyya made with lions). Other than this transformation, Sarhan, in his conversation with the rabbit at the zoo, mentions that he suddenly received a telephone bill, even though he has no telephone, and was told to pay now or else pay a fee, alluding to a dishonest society. The woman who was murdered is a cabaret dancer who entertains men at night in the apartment below Sarhan’s. Even the police chief, who is initially a stout symbol of good, urges Sarhan to give a false testimony that he saw the suspect or else risk being locked up himself. In one sense, what Sarhan says means very little, but in another sense, if we pay enough attention to what he says, we catch a glimpse of what life was like in Egypt in 1976.
Watch the full play here: