Interview: Adham Hafez of TO CATCH A TERRORIST at Ellen Stewart Theatre For The La MaMa Moves Festival

Adham Hafez in rehearsal at La MaMa. Photo by Mike McCormack
Adham Hafez in rehearsal at La MaMa.
Photo by Mike McCormack

Adham Hafez, Egyptian choreographer, director, creator, performer, academic and the founder of Adham Hafez Company and HaRaKa Platform, is no stranger to delving deep into controversial topics and forcing his audiences to examine everything they think they know about particular cultures, beliefs, and histories. Nor is he concerned with entertaining or spoon-feeding spectators his message or even employing traditional, easily recognizable forms of choreography or dramatic means to deliver his intentions. Hafez is a bold, highly-intelligent provocateur, deliberately messing with the minds of those who experience his work.

His last production in New York, 2065 BC - a dystopian multi-media investigation on Colonialism - was part of New York Live Arts' 2016 Live Ideas: MENA/Future festival which Hafez co-curated. Originally commissioned and presented in Berlin to mark the 130th anniversary of the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884, where the European powers-that-be decided how they were going to carve up Africa between themselves, the show commenced with Egyptian actress Mona Gamil laboriously counting to 130 with direct, aggressive monotony. When I asked about his choice, Hafez grinned, "So the audience knows right away what they're getting into!" The result is both unsettling and riveting - it demands that the viewer must engage as an active participant, not a passive watcher.

This brazen confidence and trust in his own vision and the attendees' commitment to joining him on a challenging, thought-provoking journey is the only way one can play with such a diverse toolkit that defies any obvious genre or style and yet still communicates the intent, unnerving as the process may be. Justly so, for his topics of choice are indeed as disturbing as they are revealing (or disturbing in what they reveal). Born, raised and living half the year in the agitated atmosphere of Cairo, Hafez has plenty of disquieting fodder for his work, much of which cannot be performed in Egypt due to political censorship and restrictions.

This new undertaking, dubbed "To Catch A Terrorist," is a first of many firsts for Hafez: his first collaboration with the iconic downtown arts institution, LaMama, his first world premiere in New York (and the USA), and his first explicit, head-on exploration of "Arabness," and uncovering the deep-rooted discrimination that has permeated American attitudes toward those of Arab descent or Muslim faith long before Trump's travel ban or the hysteria and fear that resulted after the 9/11 attacks.

To Catch A Terrorist uses text from real U.S. court hearings and documents from the first half of the 20th Century, exposed in such a way for the first time, revealing the outright racism and prejudices that faced Arab people applying for citizenship (which was not allowed at that time). Such blatant prejudice was hardly limited to Arabs. (Examine the Asian immigration bans well before WWII). "These are people who are on the edge, not seen," reflects Hafez. "This piece explores visibility and blindness, for how can you catch what you cannot see?"

I got to experience his process and inspiration for this powerful new piece aimed at being a "constant work in progress never to be completed," (one of his favorite methods) through observing a rehearsal and an exclusive interview:

CS: What was your inspiration and impetus for this piece and choice to present it as your La MaMa debut?

AH: Producing anything under the Trump Administration, "Muslim Travel Ban," etc. all feels very loaded and the context becomes the content. We have to "problematize" the fact an Arab artist must create political work even from a pragmatic reality. La MaMa is a truly experimental place that still take risks with form, content and context. There are not many like that left anymore. I've been in conversation with the artistic directors for years about collaborating and this year marks the 15th Anniversary of my company so it's a very special time and place to debut the world premiere right here in New York.

CS: For audiences familiar with your past work and those who are not - what is similar about it? Different?

AH: Similarities are ongoing strategies you develop over the years of what works and does not, accumulated over the past 15 years. What's different is that this is the first piece which explicitly talks about "Arabness." I have done work on being African, Colonialism and more, but have never dealt with this in a direct, concrete way.

CS: In this piece you are collaborating with renowned Trisha Brown Dance Company artist and teacher, Iréne Hultman, as a featured soloist and the only other dancer in the show. Tell me about that choice.

AH: By virtue of being Arab, I am deemed an "Arab artist." Though I have and shall continue to work with many incredible Arab artists, it was important to me to bring in someone like Iréne, a highly respected dancer and a white woman, to not make it "too Arab," narrowing the piece's reach and significance.

CS: Let's discuss your experience working with LaMama. Do you love being a part of this iconic institution's history and the downtown scene?

AH: I don't feel part of any scene in the city yet. I have great friends here and who've shaped me, but don't know what makes one part of a scene. I've won awards in Berlin and Cairo but still don't feel part of those scenes either. I'm honored to be a part of LaMama Moves Festival, but not so much for the historical context but for the collaboration and the diverse, exciting, open-minded audiences eager to discover new things. I'm less interested in what it was, more in what it is - the platform it provides and dialogues it entices, the ability to take risks and the spirit of true collaboration. It's more like working in Europe where they employ full-time dramaturges to work with the artists.

CS: What do you want New York/American audiences to know going into To Catch A Terrorist and what do you hope they will take away from it?

AH: I think the important thing is to know that these are real court hearings documenting Arab people trying to become U.S. Citizens. It's important to know this work and research should only begin with the performance and it should continue long after the debut. I'm inviting artists and thinkers to discuss and continue the exploration of what comes up. I don't think a performance is ever finished but should be ongoing. I love seeing and presenting works in progress, engaging with the audience and ever-evolving. I feel there is a lot of information we don't see about what's happening in the Middle East and how it came to be and that makes it too easy to vilify or demonize a nation or its people.

The Adham Hafez Company's "To Catch A Terrorist" world premiere will be held at The Ellen Stewart Theatre as part of the La MaMa Moves Festival, on Saturday, May 12th at 7pm and Sunday, May 13th at 4pm. For more information:


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Cindy Sibilsky is a Broadway, Off Broadway, U.S. and international Producer, Tour Producer, Marketing/PR Director and theatre, film, arts & culture and travel writer/reviewer specializing in globa... (read more about this author)