‘Drowning in Cairo’ about gay rights in Egypt and universality of repression

World premiere of Adam Elsayigh’s play also marks Sahar Assaf’s directorial debut at Golden Thread

When playwright Adam Ashraf Elsayigh was four years old, growing up in a religious Muslim family in Egypt, the police raided the Queen Boat, a gay nightclub docked on the Nile River in Cairo. By the time Elsayigh was 12 or 13, a self-professed bookworm looking for literature and Googling “gay” and “Arab,” he read about that seminal incident. And by the time he was a theater undergraduate at NYU Abu Dhabi, the Queen Boat incident had fired his imagination.

It led to the drama “Drowning in Cairo,” a world premiere now opening at Golden Thread Productions, the nation’s first Middle East-focused theater, founded in 1996 by recently departed artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian.

The play weaves in and out of the lives of three (fictional) gay men who were arrested and imprisoned that fateful night on the Queen Boat. In a non-linear chronology comprising 11 scenes, we see the men from age 14 onward over almost two decades. Khalid and Moody are educated, privileged; the third, Taha, is the son of the concierge in the building where they all live.

Elsayigh himself comes from a privileged background; his parents are doctors. After receiving his B.A. — which included semesters abroad in London, Florence and New York — he knew he wanted to emigrate to New York.

Now, happily entrenched in the theater scene as he completes his M.F.A. in playwriting at Brooklyn College, he is finally seeing the fruits of five years at work on “Drowning in Cairo,” after a process that included a workshop at the Indian Ensemble Theater in Bangalore, India, in 2017 and readings in Abu Dhabi, New York, Cairo and at Golden Thread’s New Threads Festival in 2018.

Looking back on the development process, Elsayigh, on the phone from his office at NYU in Manhattan — where a newer play of his, “Memorial,” is about to open at Tisch School for the Arts — he says that “Drowning in Cairo” has changed enormously over the years, although he did consistently follow a few guiding principles: The play would be about several men, not just one; and it would about being gay in Egypt with the proviso that “I cannot speak to all of queer life in Egypt.”

Nor, he emphasizes, can he claim to speak for Arabs or Muslims. “I do not represent ‘how hard it is for gays over there,’” he writes in a strongly worded note in Golden Thread’s program. “This is a single story by a single writer. It’s a story about three people who can’t be themselves in their community… It’s a story about a broken, fragile chosen family that perpetuates toxic cycles of violence. None of these realities are unique to Egyptians or Arabs or queers.”

“I was interested,” he elaborates on the phone, “in these relationships to family, career, romance — how that would evolve …” A decision to not open the play with the pivotal arrest scene led to the non-linear rolling out of scenes: “I don’t want to identify people through their moment of trauma,” he explains. “I want to see these characters first.”

The lives of Khalid, Moody and Taha are clearly shaped by a variety of factors, not just their growing up gay under a restrictive regime and their unlucky presence on the Queen Boat that night, but also by class, family relationships, personality and other factors.

The play’s complexity, the span of time that it covers and the fact that the characters speak some Arabic make it a staging challenge. But Golden Thread’s new executive/artist director, Sahar Assaf, chose it as her first play to direct here, and the first play at Golden Thread after the two-year shutdown.

It was a natural choice for Assaf, who came to Golden Thread from acting, directing and producing in her home country, Lebanon. She is especially interested in documentary theater, so “Drowning in Cairo”’s basis in a real-life event attracted her. She also felt a personal connection — her son is three years old. What must it be like, she wondered, for a young man, just starting to explore, to be “crushed by a system that couldn’t see their humanity?” She herself was 20 at the time of the Queen Boat arrests, and knew of it, but when she went back to read about it in preparation for the play, “it shook me to the core,” she says. “It’s important to remember these incidents and not let them fall into oblivion.”

Directing it presents challenges, starting with casting. All three actors need to speak some Arabic. As it happens, Amin El Gamal is of Egyptian descent and grew up speaking Arabic; Martin Zebari, who is Iraqi American, speaks some Arabic; and the only local actor in the cast, Wiley Naman Strasser, had to learn it. In the play, Khalid and Moody go easily back and forth from English to Arabic, as Elsayigh himself does, having learned English from the Disney channel starting at age 3; Taha is being taught English by Moody.

Elsayigh says he has found himself profoundly influenced by the different actors who have played the roles over the past five years of workshops. The play, he says, has changed radically because of their insights.

And he has also been hugely influenced by the audiences who’ve seen the earlier incarnations. At an early reading in Egypt, in a friend’s house, strictly word-of-mouth, about 40 gay Egyptians showed up on a sweltering night with no AC. “That’s the one audience that matters to me most,” he says. “If they didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have touched it, I’d have shelved it.”

Assaf says the play spoke to her as a straight Lebanese woman: “I did not need to be gay or an Egyptian… . It’s about repressive systems no matter where we are in society. I’m hoping the audience will be able to see the universality of the story. We make sure of the cultural specificity — the world of the play is Egyptian — but we fail if it’s only seen as an Egyptian story. It’s not a story about there; it can be a story of here and now. This is Golden Thread’s interest: putting the light on our shared humanity. This play is a case in point.”

IF YOU GO:

“Drowning in Cairo”

Where: Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., S.F.

When: April 8-May 1; also video on demand

Tickets: $15-$100

Contact: (415) 626-4061, goldenthread.org

Playwright Adam Ashraf Elsayigh and Golden Thread Productions Artistic Director Sahar Assaf with the actors of “Drowning in Cairo,” (left-right) Wiley Naman Strasser, Amin El Gamal and Martin Zebari. (Courtesy Amal Bisharat Photography)

Playwright Adam Ashraf Elsayigh and Golden Thread Productions Artistic Director Sahar Assaf with the actors of “Drowning in Cairo,” (left-right) Wiley Naman Strasser, Amin El Gamal and Martin Zebari. (Courtesy Amal Bisharat Photography)

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