A Woman's Life on an Algiers Stage

by Susan Slyomovics
published in MER166

Algeria’s Islamist challenge to secularism and the populist revulsion against the corruption of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) form the background to “Fatma”, a one-woman show which premiered May 23, 1990, at the El-Mouggar theater in Algiers. “Fatma’’ recounts a day in the life of an Algerian washerwoman who is a maid and a servant to the state, to her employers and to her family.

Wtitten by M’hamed Benguettaf, “Fatma” is the second production of an independent theater troupe formed in 1989, called Masrah El Qalaa (Citadel Theater). Founding members are Ziani Cherif Ayad, M’hamed Benguettaf, Sonia, Azzedine Medjoubi, Amar Belaouar and Sid Ali Layachi. The play stars Sonia and is advertised as the first one-woman show in Algerian theater history (“pour la premiere fois dans l’histoire du theatre algerien, une comedienne seule sur scene”).

Sonia’s 70-minute monologue is framed by the opening dawn call to prayer, adhan al-fajr, and the sounds of the afternoon prayer, adhan al-‘asr. A shaft of sunlight slowly illuminates the stage which is arranged to resemble the roof terrace of the city’s poorer quarters: a bent television antenna, discarded bricks, corrugated iron posts and, everywhere, laundry. Sheets hang from ropes, drapes crisscross the roof, and clothes are piled high in soapy tubs and straw baskets. Fatma, her back to the audience and her dark, luxuriant hair flowing freely, slowly rises from her chair, stretches, then briskly covers her hair with a flowered kerchief and begins energetically to knead, soap, rinse, squeeze, hang and press the laundry. She turns mundane household tasks into a ballet of frenzied movements adorned with graceful gestures as she sweeps, mops and cleans.

“Only on the roof terraces can I breathe, move freely, work freely, most of all speak freely,” she tells the audience. “Down below I feel choked: same people, words, problems. Mornings I clean staircases at the ministry, evenings at the municipality. All that time no one sees me and no one speaks to me. Me and the floor-rag I squeeze speak to each other. I’m not crazy. I want administrators and secretaries to ask me about my health, my problems, to reply to my ‘hello.’ I never realized that a ‘good morning’ is valued according to its speaker. So now I talk to my parents when I visit their graves. In the cemetery I don’t feel exiled, the sky is near to me, to the earth and to people. The sky is big, its spirits large. If we cover our ears, the sky opens its arms and lets you breathe and speak.”

In Fatma’s strong hands, twisted, folded and laundered sheets are magically transformed into shrouds, veils and wall partitions so that Sonia the actress can people the stage with characters from Fatma’s world. We hear the beatings suffered by her neighbor at the hands of a traditional husband, the venal voices of corrupt bureaucrats and her own shrill despairing tones when her father dies in a job-related accident, thereby forcing her into a life of servitude at the age of 16. Another white sheet is quickly transformed into the screen of a traditional shadow-puppet theater; behind it Fatma discreetly mimes, through dance and song, her single brief and hopeless love affair.

Only above the world, in the rarefied heights of her terrace roof is the free to spit, scream and moan while acerbically commenting on the housing crisis, adolescent unemployment and other affairs of the state from the viewpoint of the underling, the marginal and the female. In the supple, colloquial Arabic of Algiers, Fatma tells her dreams, sometimes hallucinating in incantatory, vivid phrases, and her fantasies in which she achieves her hopes for an education and a good marriage.

Sonia, an actress whose childhood nickname serves as the stage name for Sakina Mekkiou, superbly realizes the character of Fatma. The absence of a surname signals her intention not to embarrass her family, for whom the theater remains an unacceptable profession for their daughter even to this day. Born in el-Milia to parents who farmed the land, she was raised by a childless aunt in the city of Constantine. At the age of 16, she discovered the regional amateur theater, Centre Regional d’Animation Culturelle a Constantine. Against the wishes of her parents, who have never seen her perform, she left for Algiers by concealing her intention to study for four years (1969-1973) at L’Ecole National d’Art Dramatique at Bordj El-Kiffan. After graduation she acted in an experimental group funded by the Ministry of Youth, then for a year with the regional theater of Annaba, and from 1977-1989 in the National Algerian Theater.

Sonia is famous for her roles as the storyteller (gwala) of “Galou El Arab Galou” (1983) and as Khedidja, the symbolic conscience of the revolution, in “Les martyrs reviennent cette semaine” (1987). Her texts and performances, she says, are not censored; theater, unlike television, is perceived to be a local medium with small audiences and limited influence. (The few videotaped plays broadcast on television have been heavily edited.)

Parallels between the lives of Sonia the artist and Fatma the character are striking in the light of current election results. For Fatma the maid, traditional boundaries that define feminine space -- whether the high enclosures of urban rooftops or the communal visits to the cemetery -- continue to frame those rare occasions when a woman can speak in freedom, even if it is only to herself. For Sonia, it is by means of the recently created space of theatrical performance (recent in Sonia’s personal history and recent in the history of Algerian culture) that a representation of a traditional Algerian washerwoman permits a woman to speak freely to an audience while pretending to speak only to herself. Yet for different reasons, both Sonia and Fatma’s freedom of expression and movement has become all too fragile.

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