The Nubian: The Cause of Censorship on Art in Egypt
By Hassan Ahmed
Sayed Suleiman is an Egyptian artist with Sudanese origins and a monologist born in Nubia in 1901. The late artist Sayed Suleiman was born in the Nubian lands in the South of Egypt to a family with a decent income, with his father working as a lawyer after attending The Frère Schools and mastering the French language. Until his father faced a financial crisis that forced him to leave his studies, he turned to simple crafts. In his youth, Suleiman showed artistic talent, as he could mimic celebrities of that time, then he started looking for theater groups to join. And sure enough, he joined the group “Badia Masabni,” one of the most popular groups of artists then. He then started performing his monologue, which impressed many, and people began flocking to hear his monologues.
Sayed Suleiman is considered one of the main causes that led to censorship of artwork after he performed one of his famous comedy monologues, “Al-Sheikh Al-Aayek,” in 1927, where he was addressing the phenomenon of verbal harassment of women on the streets, which said:
It’s me Johnson Al-Aayek
a gentleman powerful in his presence
walking and frolicking
to the promenade
in a good mood
and then I saw
a pretty thing in front of me
and like a duck
I approached her smoothly
winked at her, so she jumped
and said hehe
I said oh my lord
you’re killing me
you’re my dolly
This monologue gained immense popularity, and despite the monologue lyrics being normal, Suleiman wore a bizarre outfit consisting of a shirt, pants, vest, suit jacket, and a silk scarf on top, with a turban on his head like the Sheikhs from Al-Azhar, which was a mix of all the trending articles of clothing at that time, including the outfit for Al-Azhar. The goal behind this mixture was to highlight the societal diversity and the spread of the harassment phenomenon throughout its layers. Still, with the monologue becoming popular in Egypt, Al-Azhar considered this an insult to the men of religion and attacked Suleiman in the newspapers. They filed a complaint against him in The House of Representatives and the Ministry of Interior until a formal decision was made to present his artworks to a specialized committee before performing them to an audience. This decision was generalized to cover all works of art. This incident began what is now called The Censorship of Art Platforms.
Suleiman is then mentioned in an article which was published in Al-Kawakeb Magazine in 1952 with the title “The Monologue That Created Censorship,” in which he said: “One night, I was on my way to the theater, where I saw three Azhar students standing with one of them telling another: “You can only deal with his kind by using force,” I opened the curtains while feeling danger, and I started performing my monologues, but the audience shouted “We want Johnson!”, so I had to sing the monologue.” The monologist continued his story: “After the curtains closed, the students approached me, and I tried to explain to them the intentions of the monologue and that it wasn’t poking fun at them, it’s only a comedic critique to what happens in real life, and that the clothes I wear are simply a physical caricature with no offense intended, but they were not convinced.”
He added: “The reports continued to The Ministry of Interior complaining about Al-Sheikh Johnson monologue, and at that time, some explicit songs were being broadcasted like the monologue “Close That Curtain in Front of Us,” which is what helped the ministry enforce Al-Azhar’s request for censorship on songs, so they sent a warning to not perform any monologues before presenting them to the committee, and an order to stop performing Al-Sheikh Johnson monologue, the cause of this crisis.” Suleiman moved between the theater groups “Badia Masabni, Al-Kassar, and Beba Ezz Eddine.” His theatrical and cinematic works totaled 41 artworks, which he started in silent cinema with the movie “Why Is The Sea Laughing?” in 1928, directed by Stephan Rosti, leaving his fingerprint in the history of Egyptian cinema despite scarcely appearing in cinematic roles, and ending with the play “To Five.”
Even when discussing art censorship in Egypt, the Al-Sheikh Al-Aayek monologue incident is mentioned. First, Egypt knew censorship for the first time during Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt, where the French made the theater performances and supervised them, which was an enforcement of an active law in France since 1790. And in the era of Muhammed Ali Pasha, the first laws for controlling theater and obligating the presentation of theatrical scripts to a committee for checking them were passed.
And it seems that the first enforcement of this censorship was in Yaqub Sanu’s play “The Co-Wives,” which opposes polygamy, and made the Khedivate angry, so Sanu’s friends advised him to stop performing it, and he to save his theater. After that, he performed three plays that were highly successful and were liked by the Khedivate himself. Until some people of high status convinced the Khedivate that the plays contained hidden signs and hints that opposed him and his government, he ordered the theater to be closed.
As for Khedive Tawfik, he also decided to lay the groundwork for the Publications Act, which also regulates theater censorship. The act included a section that gave the government the right to confiscate and seize all artworks that conflicted with public order, moral order, or religious beliefs. A publisher, holder, or presenter of these works is punished with a 200 to 2000 piasters fine. During that era, theater censorship rejected “Youssef” as an example of a religious play, “Adham Pasha” as an example of a political play, and “Lovers’ Pole” as an example of government defamation.
In 1911, a law was passed to form the first theater committee – an Art Censorship Committee as known today – consisting of a president who is a governor of the police, and members who are a city health inspector, an electrical engineer from the Ministry of Interior, an architect from a government or municipal council, and a commissioner from the precinct within the theater’s radius. All of that confirms the internal control over art censorship, so it’s no surprise that the committee rejected the play “Donshuway,” about the infamous incident and crime towards the country’s peasants. The censorship kept getting stricter on Arabic theaters, and the government used several secret police officers to prevent acting out forbidden plays. It seems that the committee has stopped rejecting plays starting from 1936 and until the fifties of the twentieth century until censorship law No. 430 was passed in 1955.
Al-Azhar then officially joined as an art supervisor in 1994. As law No. 121 passed by the General Collective of Edicts and Legislative Sections of the State Council, Al-Azhar must partake in the examinations of literature and works that address and analyze Islam and the obligation of the Ministry of Culture and other bodies entrusted with its decisions.
After this history brief about art censorship in Egypt, we find that it is always imposed on art and creativity with political and religious motives, whether to preserve the prestige of Al-Azhar or the political system and to ensure obedience to authority figures and benefactors from it. There is no goal for this censorship other than maintaining the current authority status, regardless of what might result from this censorship in the future, since the last thing the censorship cares about is refining the public taste or discussing societal issues. What is noticeable is the continuation of this type of censorship, as after the January 25th and June 30th revolutions, the Supreme Council for Media was founded in 2016 according to law No. 92 as a final try to impose censorship on online spaces, especially after the state took complete control of the media sector using its security devices. It is a council that practices censorship in the era of information technology, so in addition to blocking rights and news sites under the guise of lack of necessary licensing, or receiving multiple complaints against them, on September 7th, 2020, the council issued regulations and licenses for online platforms, which include abiding by the country’s societal traditions and morals by these platforms.