Protest Music

APR 4, 2019

A.R.T.’s Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director Diane Paulus in conversation with the creators of We Live in Cairo

At the 2018/19 Season Preview, Diane Paulus spoke with Daniel and Patrick Lazour, the authors of We Live in Cairo, and Director Taibi Magar. In this conversation, they discuss their inspiration and writing process for this world-premiere musical.

The A.R.T. 18/19 Season closes with We Live in Cairo. This new musical follows a group of young people through the events of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, when millions rose up to overthrow the president of thirty years. Could you tell us about your initial inspiration for this piece?

Patrick Lazour: The impetus for the show was actually an incredible photo [below] that I saw when I was in a course at Boston College called International Relations of the Middle East. It shows a group of young activists in 2011, during the eighteen days of protests, in a flat above Tahrir Square.

Daniel Lazour: The New York Times termed it the “Facebook flat,” because it was a crash pad in a central location where these revolutionaries could come together with internet access to have a free exchange of ideas. We were inspired by the collection of stories evident in that photo and that place. Also, Patrick and I are of Lebanese descent, and we’ve always wanted to create a show incorporating Arabic musical influences.

Taibi, how did you get involved as the director of this production? What about the subject matter interested you?

Taibi Magar: When I first read the script and listened to the music, I fell deeply in love with the show for a few reasons. First of all, it is closely tied to my Egyptian-American heritage. Secondly, I read the piece shortly after the current US administration had moved into Washington, DC. It felt exciting to work on a piece asking deep questions such as, “What do you do when you’re unsatisfied with your government, even finding it to be dangerous?” It was also great to dive into the stories of the revolution and realize the magnitude of what they accomplished: amid a thirty-year dictatorship, a bunch of twenty-year-olds started a Facebook group, which sparked demonstrations by millions of people.

Daniel Lazour, Patrick Lazour, Taibi Magar, and Diane Paulus as the A.R.T. 2018/19 Season Preview.

Can you tell us about the characters we meet in this show?

PL: We Live in Cairo follows six young people through the revolution and its aftermath. In scenes set in 2011, we tell the story of the community and the activism that it took to overthrow Mubarak. Then, we examine the disillusionment that followed elections in 2012, and the danger and violence following the military coup in 2013.

TM: The revolution was extraordinary—but as extraordinary as it was, it has failed, at least for now. We traveled to Egypt in preparation for the production, and it was hard to look at these activists’ faces, knowing how many friends and family members they had lost. It was hard to hear people say that, in many ways, the country is in a worse state now that it was before 2011. The play navigates between these moments of extreme hope and extreme loss, asking “how do you keep moving forward?” It reminds me of a Samuel Beckett quote: “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” In moments of despair in protest and revolution, how do we get to the point of “I’ll go on”?

You mentioned an impulse to explore Arabic music. What were some of your specific influences for this piece, and how are they incorporated into the show?

DL: In our early work on the show, we thought about the incredible beats and rhythms in the Arab world that we aren’t exposed to in the West, and we thought that it could be exciting and theatrical to bring those to the stage. We experimented with layering Western chord progressions on top of Arabic rhythms—which is a mixture happening extensively in contemporary Arabic pop music, too. We’re trying to offer something new to American theater and also reflect a conversation that’s already taking place.

PL: I would also say that what—maybe surprisingly—screamed “musical” about this topic is the deep tradition of protest music both in the Egyptian revolution and also in our country. Especially during the eighteen days in 2011, there was a serious communication between Western protest music and the music of the Arab World. While we were in Egypt, a lot of the students we interviewed mentioned that they loved bands like Rage Against the Machine or the Pixies. And if you look at the student in the back of the photo, he’s wearing a Johnny Cash T-shirt. It’s all to say that there’s a dialogue going on within the new generation, and contemporary Arab music really reflects that.

A group of activists in 2011 in a flat above Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Can you say a bit about how your experience of this photo came to life on that trip to Egypt and in those conversations with students?

PL: The trip was profound in so many ways. First of all, the students we worked with knew all of the kids in the photo. Now—even more than when Mubarak was in power—there’s a lot of censorship of art in Egypt, so we were concerned. But we did a private reading at the American University in Cairo, and afterwards, it was incredible to hear how much the students wanted this story to be told, and how they saw this show as one opportunity for that to happen.

What has it been like to develop the piece in the US in relation to everything that’s currently happening here?

DL: One thing that’s been really exciting for me is that the creation of the show has brought Middle Eastern people together and fostered conversations about our perspectives. There’s not one singular Middle Eastern experience, so the more we can participate in those conversations in honest and thoughtful ways, the better the piece will be.

PL: The contemporary US context has made the show feel more urgent for me. This country is facing many challenges today, but I think it’s important to be aware of the freedoms we have here that the Egyptian people continue to fight for. It’s never a one-to-one with these things, but I think bringing the story of the Egyptian revolution to people in the US at this point in time will help to broaden and illuminate the innate human desire for progress and change.

TM: In Egypt, it really felt like they’re dealing with a gaping wound, compared to the bruise that we have here in the US. It was frightening to be there and to understand how the tortured relationships between the people, the government, and the media feeds fear and destabilization. I feel that every day now.

Second, I’ve been so inspired by moments led by youth here in the US, such as the students from Parkland, Florida. It has been great to follow their stories and see videos of them, because they remind me of the Egyptian students in our story. After a reading of the play in the US, I got a note from a friend who left the show thinking how great young people are. I think that’s a very valuable takeaway from this production, because they’re the generation that’s going to help us get out of the current situation.


Interview by Diane Paulus, Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater.


Image credits
A.R.T. Season Preview: Liza Voll
Egyptian activists: Ed Ou/New York Times/Redux Pictures

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