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When speech is useless: Lebanese mime in Cairo

The fans dangling from the ceiling at Rawabet Theater struggled to stir the heavy air of the late Sunday afternoon, as the audience waited for Lebanese mime performer Kholoud Nasser to make her entrance.

Invited as part of the Cultural Fund’s subprogram of the Spring Festival “Tomorrow,” Kholoud Nasser is performing for the first time on the Cairo scene, a few years since touring in Minya and Alexandria.

“Squeak” is a show in six parts, each sketch immersing the viewers in a different environment in which the body is the only medium for conveying emotions, helped by surreal sound effects and appropriate lighting.

Nasser, a Lebanese actress, puppeteer, set designer and director, studied theater and drama, and set design in Beirut and Brussels respectively. Currently studying for her master’s degree in contemporary theater, Nasser’s ten years of experience in theater led her to believe that “the emotions are better expressed physically than orally, because language is an abstract human creation.”

From the traditional street mime performer dressed in tight black and white with a white painted face, Nasser only keeps the eerie white face with her lips painted in bloody red and carbonaceous arched eyebrows.

As soon as her slender body enters the stage, cartoon-like sounds and lighting flood the stage, punctuating Nasser’s uninterrupted body motions. Pauses, hesitation, weight, resistance and surprise–the core motions that place the body at the heart of the drama–follow one another at incredible speed, leaving the audience astonished, devoid of much reference.

“I am not doing a performance to entertain people,” Nasser explains a few minutes after the show, “with mime I can touch many aspects of human lives that are often closer to black comedy.”

Sometimes disjointed like a broken toy, sometimes curled up like a scared child, her body is an inexhaustible encyclopedia of raw emotions, her face unveiling her inner struggle with honesty. “I admit that I have a strong inclination for caricature, which forces me to exploit the emotion until its limits, all the time keeping it real,” says Nasser with an after-show lipstick-free smile.

In a scene called “Rebellious Embryo” she depicts the constant amazement of a yet-to-be born baby, who marvels at what a single finger can do and how far legs can be stretched from his hands. The scene is highly poetic, when the baby, disturbed in his sleep by the loud heartbeat of his mother, encloses it in his arms in an attempt to muffle the regular pulse. His attempt fails as the heart continues to palpitate in his arms, making them adopt the same rhythmic beat.

“Mime stimulates a specific part of the brain, it needs a certain mentality able to create objects and space and the capacity to live in its own world,” Nasser explains, comparing it with acting, which she works at for theater and TV shows. “A mime artist is a careful observer of humans, often mocking tragedies to reveal them fully in front of an audience while remaining detached.”

In her sketch titled “Media,” Nasser mocks the omnipresence of computers, television and video games in people’s lives and the state of dependence they create.

Her last sketch, “Visa,” depicts the inhuman maze of government offices, the lengthy procedures and files that await anyone with a will to leave the country. She soon crawls under piles of yet to be stamped files, while she mechanically undresses before passing through the magnetic portals to join a never ending file. The scene soon turns into a terrifying nightmare highly reminiscent of passages in George Orwell’s novel 1984.

Watching Nasser perform reminds us that mime is, above all, a story of physical empowerment and a rebellious act that forces the body to gain control over its environment.

This is how Nasser, as a little girl growing up amid the Lebanese civil war, discovered her passion for mime. “I don’t want to appear melodramatic at all,” she says, “but when I was a child I was literally imprisoned in the house and one of my favorite activities was to watch ‘Tom & Jerry’ on TV and act it out for my family.”

As for the creation process that eventually gives birth to a new sketch, Nasser explains that “this is the most complicated aspect of the work.”

“It took me six months to write the script for this show, with the texts and dialogue which I have to transform into gestures and motions without crossing the thin line that exists between something funny and something plain stupid,” she says.

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