EIF theatre review: Niqabi Ninja
In Sara Shaarawi’s audio drama Niqabi Ninja (****) - now playing in Edinburgh as part of the International Festival, and in five other locations across Scotland - the story begins with an image of Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess, raging for revenge at the violence visited on her family. If Shaarawi’s story is rooted in Egyptian politics, though - and particularly in the moment of liberation for women that seemed to accompany the revolution of 2011, followed almost immediately by a horrific backlash of organised street violence and rape - its implications spread far and wide, to encompass the experience of every woman who has ever walked in fear down a city street, or had to calculate the risks involved in ordinary activities like taking a late-night taxi.
Presented as a lone audio promenade around the streets near the Traverse and Festival Square, Niqabi Ninja also features six powerful graphic-novel-style artworks by Gehan Mounir, displayed on walls and in shopfronts along the route. The first image is of a winged Isis, towering over the Cairo skyline; and at first, it seems almost disappointing to hear her story disrupted by a wrangling argument between the storyteller, Hana - played by Rebecca Banatvala - and another magnificent and many-faceted voice, played by Juliana Yazbeck, whose identity gradually becomes clear.
Yet as we walk - along Morrison Street, round into Gardner’s Crescent, then back via the towering new office buildings of Conference Square - the dialogue between the two voices becomes ever more powerful, driving Hana first to talk about the everyday harassments of her life as young girl and a young woman in Cairo, about her experience of living in London, and finally about what happened during the second Cairo uprising in 2013. At every turn, we are forced to meditate on the harassment faced by young women in our towns and cities, and on how little difference supposedly more enlightened attitudes in the West often makes to that experience. At times, small groups of listeners - mainly female - gather around the powerful images, particularly Mounir’s horrifying evocation of an organised rape scene in Tahrir Square; the mood is both meditative and troubled, as if Hana’s story represents a call to action that is impossible to ignore.
For above all, Shaarawi’s play makes no bones about the towering rage caused by these attacks and constant harassments. For centuries and even millennia, women have had little option but to turn that rage against themselves and one another; but now, it is beginning to break the surface. In the end, the final frame in Lothian Road offers us an image of Isis reinvented as a Niqabi Ninja from the world of a graphic novel, driven by fury, destroying her enemies without mercy; and although the image is a dark one, it seems - like the whole show - an unforgettable snapshot of this critical moment, when women across the world are beginning to share their rage, and perhaps to act on it, at last.