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009_00 / 28 May 2015

S: M, 

I was cleaning out some old boxes I left at my mother's... and look what tresor I found!

There are photos and stage layouts and rehearsal schedules and disintegrating newspaper articles (though not the Rose el Yusuf one). 

2004...Ten years...10yrs!?!



M: Open it for me.

(Sorry, does that sound a bit pervy?)

S: Ew Malak. 

M: Lol. But really I wanted you to send pics of first few pages. 

Sidenote: is this the beginning of our epistolary recall? 


A: Ooooh! 

Many apologies for my malfunctioning yesterday--- so sorry not to catch up with both of you but thanks safi for the run down of the convo.

My Little Red Vagina Book aaaahhhh!!! Your genius combined! It looks beautiful and I'm looking forward to being part of the conversation in a whatever way you think it makes sense---

The images you have sent are all amazing and I'm sure we can work out a way to present the convo and materials with the help of Ajay (he's the digital genius of Ibraaz and will tech support how we put this online)

<3 I happy <

Thank you!!!!!!!



S: Ok so I'm airborne somewhere over the North American Badlands now. The book is stowed in the big white belly of this beast. So ima improvise here and send you  a couple Qs. I was reading this Cookie Muller book called Edgewise and its full of interviews/reminiscences of people and places in Baltimore of she and Mink Stole and Divine etc. And it occurred to me that we may be nearing the age in which we can (gag) historicise or at the very least mythologise our 'youfs'. Fuck Sex in the City. Thirty is not the new twenty. I want to enjoy my grey streak. 

My favourite description thus far in edgewise of Cookie is this hillbilly glamour puss sneering in an ultra mini skirt with pubic hair showing. she was so punk before punk existed. mad as hell. 

Anyway that reminded me of us. Mad as hell. Wild nights. Exposure.

Except we didn't have John Waters to film us doing terrible things to chickens or dog feces. 




We decided to stage VM not long after we met didn't we? 

I feel like we met when your sister brought you over to Tarek's who lived upstairs. Is that when? There was a mean ass grey cat and I think you and I smoked on the balcony. Then only a few group hang-outs after that we were at yours a d you miraculously cooked roasted chicken in that toaster oven somehow. And Kenne Dibner was there and I had just read about VM somewhere online and she said, "it's totally easy all you have to do is x y z" and we decided then and there. How do you remember the spark? 



A: Can I reignite the spark of this conversation?

What happened after the toast chicken?



S: Womanzees, I can't remember. But I do know at some point we held auditions on the top floor of Greek campus. It was a weird room where it seemed like they stored the old dark wood desks with built in seats. We also opened a bank account. For our proceeds to go to charity. And found that charity which was a battered women's shelter. I remember going to an office a few times. They said they'd buy blankets and pots and pans...I wonder if they ever did...M? 


One thing. It does occur to me that maybe it would be good to discuss the climate (maybe it's a more systemic geological structure than a climatic phenomenon) of oppression we felt we were responding. Penile facism. There were some deep feelings of rage we all felt. Or we wouldn't have gathered so easily. Or done what we did.



M: Penile fascism! Yes. 

The fascism I found most interesting was from our male friends who were supposedly sympathetic to the kind of shit women received around their sexuality and bodies in Cairo, but when we came to do VM they very strongly resisted and regarded it as being crass, extreme and out of context. And somehow they felt like viable critics because they were intellectually more open than other men (but ultimately not much more) and because they had travelled around they also felt like we felt it was relevant only because we were overly Americanised.  Which is why it was so satisfying that it ended up being so popular and ringing so true with many, indicating that a- the stories collected in VM were quite mixed in their sites of origin, (and I guess we chose a few which we felt worked into the context), and also that stories rung true with many regardless of the context and that the act of telling these stories in a group and publicly was so viscerally attractive and necessary to so many that the details of the content of each story itself became of lesser consequence. 


Though i must say the details were performed beautifully, each reader embodied their character incredibly well and had so much baggage to get off their chest from their own lives that was emotionally transmitted through any of the stories. 


Around BuSSy and how that developed I guess we should talk to Naaz because she really took that on board. 


Could also talk to Rebecca about the charity bc she was working with them at the time, wasn't she?


S: Good idea! I'm looping Naaz into this conversation. Naaz, update:


Malak and I have been asked my Amal (cc'd here) to rehash the events around and experience of staging the Vagina Monologues in Cairo eleven years ago (11!). And BuSSy came up. Would you mind sharing the genesis of that project? This would be on record FYI.


Meanwhile, about our privileged penile fascist friends - the troublewas and still is, that even if they were ostensibly left-leaning, they saw our fledgling feminism as irrelevant somehow. How many times have you had that conversation belittling your complaint? Even post revolution I had conversations with certain individuals who saw violence and aggression against women as an essentially bourgeois problem that was one notch down in the pecking order of issues to fix - as if it didn't have any place in the larger context of poverty and other inequalities. I certainly didn't have the language for it in 2004 and barely do now but we were behaving like revolutionary feminists (albeit educated university students with all the privilege that comes with that) who saw 'us' as a class and 'them' as an oppressor class. Which I actually still believe to be true. I'll admit having Pam and everyone yell 'Cuss!' on an imaginary subway car was perhaps abrasive. But didn't it feel right?


PS I should maybe clarify that I mean our reasons for wanting to do this was the rage that fuels revolutionary feminism. However the fact that we were using an American play was problematic but ultimately it was a convenient format we made our own. And as Malak said, each of the cast members brought real, lived fury and despair and humour to each monologue which took it far, far from it's western context. The cast was wildly varied in background - mostly Masri but also Japan, Saudi, USA, I can't remember the name of the Bohra girl but she was amazing! -  and I think that year the whole show was to be dedicated in solidarity for women in Juarez, Mexico. So there is a globally felt resonance to the subject matter which I hope transcended the otherwise irksome connotations of using a play written in a very western feminist context.  But that's where BuSSy comes in!



A: Hello mews, hope things are going well ----x 

How is the Vagina Monologues conversation going?


I am meeting with the rest of the editorial team on Wednesday at noon and want to present them with something as we are going to begin formatting (or deciding how to format) each of the projects in the next two weeks to go online.  The launch of the new issue will be at the end of May and Stephanie wants it all to be ready for online as soon as possible.  


It would be great to get a sense of ETA, though I know that with the addition of Naaz there is still more to talk through. I really like where it is going, how political it is and how there are links to other projects that were happening at the same time that have progressed in different ways.   I would love to know a bit more about how the performances actually went, where they happened and more on how everyone came together and maybe reactions to it? I didn't want to interject in the conversation too much so don't worry if you don't feel like those things are relevant but these are a few questions I had in my head as I reread the strand.  It would also be great to collate some visual materials/documents from your archives to complement the email exchange, so we can decide how the project manifests on the website. 

I know there are already some things that have been sent as part of the email chain but thought I would mention the visual element too. 



M: There is a chance we might find some video footage of the performance with one of the performers.

Your suggestions make sense. Lets press on! 




So no, the video recording has disappeared into the black hole of a breakup. 


I want to try to find the cookbook too, I had seen it again a few years ago and was pretty impressed with the attention to all details of the vagina - including what it likes to eat. It had recipes for vaginal and general good health. 


Its funny, I was just remembering us on stage in your red suit and my black one and I don't seem to recall having any stage fright at all. Which is strange because I tend to get that a lot. But I seem to remember it all being super calm and under control and composed. Am I misremembering or is that how it was? I am thinking of how stoic and determined certain performers were - Diana Brauch, the Buhra girl whose name I forget. They had incredible stage presence.



S: The lack of stage fright was an unexplained incident in my public speaking career but I didn't have any either. Like much of the process it all seemed to be articulating itself on its own. A strange sort of collective will to say something, anything. 


And with Naaz's iteration of getting Bussy together in the beginning, what was being said grew more focused. I am horrified I can't remember her name either. I will come to me if I relax my brain. Or maybe it's in the book. I'm going to check when I'm back in the UK. Amal, you think we have enough here? Or do we need to seek out a constructive end? 


PS I still have that ugly corduroy suit and btw I just remembered Goldschlager brought back from Beirut was the reason I didn't have stage fright (and possibly the fuel for Diana's performance). 


N: Hello All and wow, how crazy that all of this was 10/11 years ago?!?!


Happy to answer any and all questions. Went through all the older e-mails but think it might be helpful to get a little clarification on what you need, what the intention is, and who the audience is.  Happy to help in any way I can!


And Malak! Hi! How are you?! Where are you?!


Really sorry about the delayed response with the BuSSy story. I was initially unclear on what you were looking for and then just got swamped with life. Not sure what angle or approach you're looking for but I figured I'd share an excerpt from the  "About BuSSy" section of our first performance in 2006 and also share some personal thoughts from now (9 years later). If you have any questions or concerns, I'd be happy to re-write something, Skype or chat over the phone if you'd like.


From the Program:


A few years ago, 2 AUC students directed a rendition of the Vagina Monologues - a controversial play based on interviews with 200 women about their memories and experiences of womanhood. The monologues written by Eve Ensler "[give] us real women's stories of intimacy, vulnerability, and sexual self-discovery." The AUC performance provoked a variety of positive and negative reactions including excitement, shock, and anger.


Wile some felt they could relate to the stories performed, others felt that such issues were irrelevant to the greater AUC community. In an article written about the performance, one cast member noted that, "there is plenty that is relevant and interesting for Egyptian...but I would love to see it adapted into something more culturally relevant."


We wanted a Vagina Monologues, but something that felt a little closer to home, something that was undeniably relevant to the greater AUC community. And so, an idea turned into a flyer. "If you have a story about yourself or a woman you know, please pick up a submission form and share it." And here we are, five months later, sharing these stories with you.


This performance is not an attempt to establish ourselves in the world of theatre. Most of us have had little if any experience in theatre, much less directing or scripting. So why a play? Because we felt that this would be the best way to reach a large body of people. This has also provided women with a broad range of ways to publicly reclaim the truth as they experienced it.


Putting this play together has been a challenging experience for everyone involved. Most stories were contributed anonymously. Some stories that were initially contributed were taken back. Over time, writers dis approach us to claim certain stories as their own and were given the opportunity to be involved in casting and directing. Others shared their stories for personal reasons - as a way to heal from challenging experiences.


On a personal note, I was also taking a class with the Refugee Studies Department at the time this project was coming into fruition. One of the classes I attended (and loved) was a Psycho-Social Issues class, which at one point discussed the healing power of the arts to overcome traumatic events. As a young woman who had experienced something deeply painful in regards to women's issues, I also found myself pouring my heart into this project as a way to heal from my own experience. I turned in my own story, anonymously, and a friend of mine ended up performing my piece, not knowing that it was mine. It was incredibly powerful to hear my own story on stage, and I remember on the last day of the performance, going home and re-writing the end of my story in a way that felt more empowering and healing.


Healing was really the core component of the project. We even told actors that if a story-writer on the day of the how did not want their story told, the actor needed to respect that wish. The intention of healing trumped everything, including the integrity of the production.


It's interesting to think of how BuSSY has grown now. Initially it felt almost impossible to get her offer her feet. No one took my, or the crew/cast very seriously, especially since none of us had a theater background. No one showed up to the first 2 or 3 meeting that I tried to have, and there just wasn't too much of a belief in the project, except from dear friends (including Safi).


Despite the lack of support, I just knew in my gut and heart that it needed to happen. And the women (and 2 men) who were part of the team were absolutely incredible with just taking a chance, going with the flow, and being open to learning, discovering and growing together.


The day of the performance, half an hour before show time, I looked outside of the theatre and saw that there was no one there. And while I was a bit disappointed, at the end of the day, I knew that I was doing this for myself, and the women who had written their stories. They were the people that mattered most. We were all just really doing this for ourselves, and I was at peace with that.


5 minutes before the doors were going to open, I took another peek, and it was absolutely packed! And I was blown away. I had no idea it would get the kind of interest it did.


After the first performance, I still remember being teary eyed from the folks who came up to us afterward...with stories of their own, with thank yous. And to this day, I feel immensely blessed for all their love.


Sondos, who was a journalist at the time, and is now the Director of BuSSY, ended up interviewing me a few days after the first performance. We connected, cried, hugged, and a year later she got involved in the 2nd production of BuSSY.


Honestly, she's been the real gardener of the project. BuSSy wouldn't be what it is today without her. My intention was very small, and particular to a certain time, place, experience and circumstance. I planted a seed, but she really made it bloom.


Would be happy to put you in touch with her if you'd like.


I know this was kind of rambly, but hope you find it helpful.


Let me know if you have any questions or would like to chat about anything.


With peace,




M: Eee, I feel a bit hesitant adding anything following Naaz's reply because it actually ends the conversation on such a beautiful note: on where the project would have ideally gone down the line, and that it did go there through the work of BuSSy.


It makes me think of many of the conversations I had at the time, with individuals who had reservations around our doing VM in Cairo, which we spoke about before already, that had to do with this issue of re-contextualizing. And I remember the usual response was- yes, ideally that's where it will go, but it this opens a door and then those later steps can happen. And in any case, there is beauty in being able to perform and embody someone else's experience, and who is to know what is more familiar to what person and what context. So much of it too was about the difficulty, pleasure and solidarity in telling these stories from your body and your mouth about being a woman to a public.


I've been thinking too about them being borrowed stories retold again and again that made the act of telling and sharing them that much easier (than collecting and presenting locally sourced stories). I didn't think of this at the time, how that one step removed can actually act as a small safety net (to the audience and the performers), a small distance that maybe allows an initial openness, even while everyone knows they feel a deep affinity whether it be to the sexual content, the orgasms performed on stage or the narrations of brutal rape.


What I find exciting and important to walk away with after having this performance then was that a safety net wasn't desired a second time. The response wasn't to make another VM in Cairo, which they well could have done. But rather it was to take that experience and move it further, the desire to own those stories, to come out and tell them, to share both the anger, the pain, the intimacy, the sexuality, the desire, that is ours and here. That desire is radical. And it also stands strongly in the face of critics of the time who believed VM would shut things down and trap discourse within its structure rather than being overwritten by these brave and determined women later who knew how they wanted it to grow.


It so nice to hear from you Naaz, its been too long xx


On another note:

I just read an article from back then, Saf, on Ahram Weekly, about the performance, where you mention that it was only the night before our first performance in Cairo that we got our hands on a recording of a VM performance in another city - somewhere in the US perhaps. And how surprised we were to find that the way it was performed and treated there was far more humorous and far less sexual than it had come to be in Cairo. I remember that. How it was a much heavier performance in Cairo. How we were also really happy that we hadn't really seen those other renditions while rehearsing and so it really became its own thing.


I might be misremembering, but I think one of the stories that was super funny to the US audience was the one on HAIR while in Cairo the performer had been interpreting and reading it as being quite a traumatic and sad story. It was funny when we saw that, how heavy it was to the performer here in comparison -- whether it was because hair is that much more dramatic in these regions, or maybe it was exhaustion of having pubic hair problems along with all the other bullshit. But the point is that these stories take on new meanings in different bodies because they suddenly become stories that carry the weight of entirely different memories, collective and individual.


And look what I found! 

Also, I am glad to discover that yes it was full of very well though out, healthy and arousing dishes!  Do you remember who made it Saf? Was it you? It's very thoughtful. And full of lovely quotes. 



S: I can't remember who made it!



A: That's beautiful!!!! Do you also have the ahram article? Could you include some scanned/photographed extracts? 



M: How weird is this! Look what just showed up on my FB feed:





S: And I found this in an old trunk




Our production of the Vagina Monologues in Cairo in 2004 was a hot mess of disorganisation and naivety but also it was born up on a swell of love and collaboration and a profound collective complaint. We have lost touch with many of hte people who helped to make the VM possible in 2004 and who carried BuSSy on into the present and so, if you should read this please be in touch via the comments below. We would love to form a less myopic picture of how it all happened and why as well as the reasons such forms of expression are increasingly relevant and vital to pushing for change.

About the author

Malak Helmy and Sophia Al Maria

Malak Helmy is an artist living in Cairo. Her work has been shown in places including 64th and 63rd Berlinale Expanded Forum, Aspen Art Museum, Camera Austria, EVA International, Bienal du Mercosul and the Gwangju Biennial. She co-initiated Emotional Architecture, a writing project whose first two publications are released this year.


Sophia Al-Maria is a writer who lives in London now. In 2012 her first book, The Girl Who Fell to Earth received high praise in the United States from The New York Times to Elle Magazine and is being published in Arabic as Between the Earth and the Sky this year. In January 2015 Sophia was selected for the Sundance Institute's Screenwriting Lab where she worshipped her Egyptian revenge thriller, Beretta. Her first solo show Virgin with a Memory at Manchester's Cornerhouse drew on the subject matter of the film and the un-making of it.