Writer: Tom Coash
Director: Pamela Schermann
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Women’s lives during periods of war are poorly understood and, while there is considerable focus on male combatants in understanding the human impact of fighting and commemoration of losses, women only tend to feature as grieving widows and mothers. Yet, as armies move across regions they encounter local women often nothing to do with the fighting, who are beaten, raped or brutalised by their contact with war.
Tom Coash’s play Veils examines the lives of two female students in the build up to the Arab Spring and Egyptian uprising of 2011. Samar is a native Egyptian studying at the American Egyptian University in Cairo and ends up sharing a room with American Intisar. Both are Muslims but take very different views on how to conduct their lives, their plans for the future and on the subject of wearing the veil. As the two grow close they become embroiled in the changing political landscape, each discovering that the Egypt is not the place they expected it to be.
Coash cleverly subverts our (entirely wrong) expectation by swapping the personality of the two characters so Samar (Zelina Ribeiro) is the outgoing, tactile, party girl, enjoying her youth and freedom, railing against the idea of women being forced to wear the veil and enjoying Western pop culture and attitudes. Intisar (Isaura Barbe-Brown) by contrast is incredibly devout, wears a veil almost always and comes to Egypt seeking the opportunity to learn from the temples while escaping the prejudice she faces in America.
The right or requirement to wear a veil is hotly debated between the two characters but Coash finds ways to weave the arguments coherently into the story in a way that feels impassioned on both sides but also natural. Coash utilises social media practices – vlogging, Facebook, blogs and Twitter – to give his characters the opportunity to voice their opinions, while also subtly referencing the prevalence of these tools in Egypt at the time which proved to be so important to the spread of the uprising.
There are also plenty of interesting debates about the relationship between gender and faith, with Intisar being groped by teenage boys in the street and ignored by the men in the temple despite her belief that she’s a ‘good Muslim’ – at odds with her expectations of Egypt, while Samar endures accusations that she’s a ‘bad Muslim’ because of her clothing and attitude, but actively wants to join the burgeoning protests in her country.
The relationship between the performers makes the burgeoning friendship seem likely and engaging, while their occasional arguments are heated but stem from their contrasting personalities. Ribeiro is particularly impressive in showing the slow change in Samar as the story unfolds as she becomes more politicised, especially after a shaming assault. Although we see Intisar learn greater tolerance, the character has less to do in the final third of the play with no proper resolution, but while many in the audience may well disagree with Intisar’s arguments Barbe-Brown does well to make them reasonable and comprehensible, allowing us to see both sides of the dispute about veils.
There’s a long debate about when an event formally becomes ‘history’ and with the aftermath of the Arab Spring still very much alive, it’s vital that dramatists can find ways to interpret and question events for a wider audience. As part of The So and So Arts Club’s Women and War Festival, Veils is a thought-provoking 75 minutes that gives us an insight into a very recent conflict, the aftermath of which continues to affect millions of women in a place that is still their home.
Runs until 30 July 2016 | Image: Contributed