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Pantomime in Egypt: Cairo’s Mimes Speak About Their ‘Lost Art’

Pantomime in Egypt: Cairo’s Mimes Speak About Their ‘Lost Art’
written by
Hend Salah

It isn’t a stretch to label pantomime is among the least mainstream forms of performance art; not to be confused with what ‘pantomime’ is in the UK, it’s a lost art that seems to becoming less and less relevant, because very few people understand its nature. In Egypt, however, there are signs that it will still be around for sometime; local mime artists roam Cairo’s streets and even public transportation systems with their performances, reviving it as street art.

Pantomime can be traced back to Ancient Greece, though some have argued that it’s an art deviating from the Ancient Pharaohs. Charlie Chaplin is of course the most well-known mime artist to date who shot to fame through theatre and film during the silent era and though there have been others such as Buster Keaton and Marcel Marceau, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever reach similar heights of fame now.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope at all.

According to veteran Egyptian mime artist, Ahmed Nabil, the best thing about pantomime is that it speaks a universal language that can be relatable to the audience, irrespective of their culture.

“People tend to forget words, but they never forget people’s actions. You can remember someone from the way they act – that’s why pantomime is the most believable type of art,” argues Nabil.

Nabil studied pantomime in Russia and attended the ‘Marceau School of Pantomime’; one of the most influential mime foundations founded by Marcel Marceau.   

His act has taken him across the globe to Germany, India, Italy and Australia, where some of his biggest performances have taken place in Cairo Opera House and he’s received several awards.

Just like other artistic genres, pantomime needs to be enriched with social and cultural awareness, which is why pantomime artists study disciplines including yoga, psychology, sociology and philosophy to strengthen their knowledge and performance.

“A pantomime artist needs to be cultured and well-educated about the world. I need to know my audience before I perform to them. A performance about someone dying from hunger might be well-perceived in an underprivileged society rather than a privileged one because it’s more relatable, for example” Nabil said.  

While its mainstream popularity may not what it once was, it’s still a relevant discipline in Egypt; El Sawy Cultureheel, for example, hosts an annual mime festival.

According to another mime artist, Amr Abdel Aziz, pantomime is still an alien art genre that is still met with a great deal of confusion by Egyptians. 

“One man thought I was a woman because of my white face paint and another mistook me for a beggar,” Abd ElAziz said.

In 2013, as part of El Mefakaraty, a pantomime project funded by the British Council to promote street theatre in Egypt, Abdel Aziz was miming in El Darb El AhmarTaht El Rab’ as well as old Cairo –essentially the underprivileged neighbourhoods whose locals aren’t accustomed to engaging in this type of art.  

“After a while, people were starting to laugh at my performance and interact with me. They just needed time to get used to it and understand that what we do is art and that it can be very entertaining,” Abdel Aziz added.

Mohamed Abdallah, another mime artist and one of Nabil’s students, argues that one of the reasons that pantomime is slowly becoming more popular in Cairo is that some of the performances not only touch upon our daily lives but also expresses our feelings in a meaningful, entertaining and human way.   

“Pantomime is the type of art that enables you to communicate silently – it beats the language barrier,” Abdallah told us.

Despite more pantomime seeing the light of day in Egypt, the artists we spoke to are under no illusions and agree that the country’s artistic and cultural intuitions will have to play a role moving forward. But that doesn’t mean standing still for the artists themselves.

“Mime artists are just like any other artists. They need to be educated, they need to pay attention during rehearsals and they need to have motivation and perseverance to grow artistically,” Abdallah concluded.