A Home for the 'Wandering Jew'?

Banned from the Egyptian stage for 39 years, a play that looks at the Palestinian problem through the case of Robert Kennedy's assassin is to be mounted in Cairo next week.

Of all the names given to the "Wandering Jew" over the generations, Egyptian-Syrian playwright Yusri El-Guindi chose "Isaac Laquedem," the hero of Alexandre Dumas' eponymous novel. Next week, when the Second Egyptian National Theater Festival kicks off in Cairo, El-Guindi's Wandering Jew will finally have a chance to show his face.

That is no small matter. The play, which was written in 1968, was banned in Egypt for 39 years. Once, in 1988, during the reign of Saddam Hussein, it was staged at the National Theater in Baghdad. This past February, when it was performed by the al- Hanager Theater at Cairo's Opera House, it was closed down after a three-week run, despite its commercial success. Even during the selection process for the upcoming festival, it was anything but certain that it would ever see the light of day. Finally, it was decided that the play could compete for a prize. But that is still no guarantee that it will actually be performed.

Why is there a sudden interest in the play just now? The original version of "The Wandering Jew" consisted of 20 scenes. Nehad Selaiha, Al Ahram Weekly's theater critic, called it "heavy going, too long and dramatically unwieldy." In its new version, the play has been cut down to six scenes. Ostensibly, it is a historical drama that tries to explore the roots of the Palestinian problem, while adopting the standpoint of the "religious genetics" of the Palestinians' enemies. Whereas Israel was perceived as the main enemy up until September 11, since the Al-Qaida attacks, the United States has also been added to the conspiracy.

But this play should not be judged from a contemporary perspective. It was written after Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert Kennedy, exactly a year after the Six-Day War. There is no doubt that this incident influenced El-Guindi in his writing. In the play, he tries to understand Sirhan's actions from a Palestinian and Arab viewpoint, which stands in contrast to the widespread assumption in the West that he was insane. Although El-Guindi presents a regional viewpoint, he complicates matters by trying to incorporate the whole history of Judaism, Zionism, Christianity and the West. The play's new version contains everything but the kitchen sink - from Jesus and the "wandering Jew" who taunts him on his way to the cross, to the American attack on Iraq and Afghanistan, to the hanging of Saddam Hussein and Christian hymns.

But it is not just the play's quality that is now under scrutiny. The reason why it was banned for a long time was because it exposed the nakedness of the Arab regimes. The play contains more than one hint suggesting that these regimes collaborated with Israel and the United States. In this context, it could be seen as part of the bitter railing against the government that followed Egypt's defeat in 1967. That explains why it was censored.

This year, however, another dimension has been added. In February, after the play's short-lived run at the al-Hanager Theater, Hoda Wasfi, the theater's director, said that Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni had shut it down due to "external factors." Since then, the minister, the director and head censor Ali Abu Shadi have all denied that any censorship took place. They all cite a technical reason for the cancellation of further performances.

These explanations have not convinced the critics or the political opposition. In Egypt, the term "external factors" is usually used when referring to the United States and/or Israel. Journalists associated with the opposition hastened to report that the Israeli Embassy in Egypt had demanded that the play be axed.

The U.S. administration was added for good measure, and "all this at a time when the Israeli public is burning with anger and calling for revenge on the traitor, and the Israeli media is demanding an official explanation for this barbaric operation," writes Maher Zuhdi of the Nasserist weekly al-Arabi. He was referring to the scandal over Ran Edelist's TV documentary, which suggested that soldiers of the elite Shaked commando unit had shot Egyptian POWs during the Six-Day War.

But this criticism, leveled five months ago, was of no avail. "The Wandering Jew" (Al-Yehudi al-Ta'eh), now renamed "The Problem, 2007" - alluding to the Palestinian problem - did not return to the stage. Now all that remains is to wait and see what happens when the festival ends. Will the play continue to be performed and attract audiences, or will it go back to the drawer for another 39 years?