Scholarship on stage

The cast of "We Live in Cairo" performs

The cast of “We Live in Cairo” performs a scene onstage./Courtesy of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.)

3 min read

Interdisciplinary collaboration across Harvard usually takes the form of co-authored papers or perhaps jointly chaired conferences. Tarek Masoud’s latest collaboration found him not in a classroom around campus but working with writers and directors of “We Live in Cairo,” a musical set during the 2011 protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the tumultuous years that followed in Egypt. The show made its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) last spring.

For Masoud, professor of public policy and Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), the chance to apply his scholarly background studying the Arab Spring and the fate of democratization in the Middle East to such a topically relevant production was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. “As academics, we speak in disciplinary language to disciplinary audiences. The arts are completely different in that they are meant to appeal broadly. A work of art about the Egyptian revolution can get people to care about it in a way that pure scholarship never could,” Masoud said.

Having conducted extensive fieldwork in Egypt during the past 15 years, Masoud was well positioned to work with “We Live in Cairo” writers Daniel and Patrick Lazour and director Taibi Magar to ensure that cast members accurately portrayed the revolution and the young idealistic activists who made it happen. “Tarek is passionate, patient, and a serious lover of musical theater, so in our spirited conversations — which could go on for hours — he paid close attention to how our six characters would intersect with complex political situations and historical events,” Daniel Lazour said.

For Masoud, “We Live in Cairo” doesn’t just provide a unique and vivid retelling of Tahrir Square and its aftermath — it also demonstrates to audience members the depth and durability of the democratic yearnings that exist among young people in Egypt and in the Arab world more broadly. Even as the country has sunk back into the clutches of authoritarianism, said Masoud, “the desires and passions that created that dramatic revolution still exist, and they remain unfulfilled.”

“Many around the world have come to view the so-called Arab Spring as a failure, and have written off the prospects for Arab democracy” Masoud said. “‘We Live in Cairo’ reminds us that the Arab Spring was a process, that it is still ongoing, and that the people who sparked it are not going away.”

“We Live in Cairo” runs through June 23 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. Tickets are available online and at the A.R.T. box office.