Why the Middle East embraces Edward Albee

Published in The Guardian

It may seem odd that when Egypt’s military rulers are cracking down on American NGOs and threatening to disqualify a presidential candidate on the grounds that his mother held a US passport, a play by the gay, American absurdist dramatist Edward Albee can be staged in Cairo to such acclaim. A recent production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Gomhouria theatre in Cairo cannot but provoke the question: how does the Middle East square its farcical anti-American currents with its admiration for an arch-American farce like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It turns out the recent production was preceded, last September, by another at El Sawy Culturewheel. In fact, during the past 12 months there have been more professional productions of Albee’s plays in Cairo than in London. But it wasn’t the last 12 months’ revolutionary upheavals that kindled the curiosity in Egypt about this revolutionary playwright.

Egyptian encounters with Albee began as early as the 1960s. Indeed, so enthralled have Egyptians been even by Albee’s obscurer works it seems absurd (fittingly for one dubbed the ‘American Samuel Beckett’). For example, in 1970 Albee’s arcane play Everything in the Garden was broadcast by Egyptian state television, and later sold to other networks in the Middle East.

Most remarkably, Albee has inspired original Arabic works, like Yusuf Fadhil’s novel,Qissat Hadeeqat al-Hayawan (“The Story of the Zoo”), about a troupe of actors performing The Zoo Story in a drink-sodden, bureacratic Casablanca that would be familiar to Humphrey Bogart.

Yet Albee betrays no interest in the Middle East, bar one remark in his collected essayscriticising US sponsorship of King “Farouk & Co” and a casual, figurative allusion to Egyptian camels in Seascape, a play otherwise about giant lizards discussing evolution on Montauk Beach. What does the Middle East see in this purveyor of absurdist Americana?

Maybe it’s best-known repartee in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, when hostess Martha screams at husband George: “If you existed, I’d divorce you!” Isn’t this more or less what Israelis and Arabs have been saying to each other for a long time?

Or perhaps Arab audiences couldn’t ignore Albee’s naming of the fictitious campus town in which the play takes place “New Carthage”. Isn’t Albee nodding to the Carthaginian civilisation that flourished in present-day Tunisia: birthplace of the Arab Spring? Wasn’t Carthage itself founded by Phoenicians from present-day Syria: right now the Arab Spring’s fiercest battleground?

Clearly, quarrying for Middle Eastern resonances in a classic American play is a tenuous endeavour, especially when the American context fundamentally grounds his plays, whether in the New England campus drawing-room of Virginia Woolf or New York’s Central Park in The Zoo Story?

In fact, Albee’s works attract Arab audiences not in spite of their distinctly American identity, but because of it. In The Zoo Story, America is Peter, the middle-class executive, but America is also his vagabond interlocutor, Jerry. They are gradually exposed as moral doppelgängers, US nihilism laid bare.

That unpopular message ensured Albee couldn’t find a producer in the United States (the play premiered in leftist Berlin). In 1961, Republican grandee Prescott Bush, George W Bush’s grandfather, denounced it on the US Senate floor as “filthy” and tainted by communism.

But The Zoo Story’s unpopularity at home underwrote its Arab acclaim. It is, for example, a staple of the Syrian stage, from the notable 1978 production by Walid Kowatli (the Soviet-trained doyen of Damascus drama) to Dar al-Assad’s 2010 production which was successful enough to go on tour, including to Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

The Zoo Story has never been produced for television in the US, yet Syrian television had already broadcast a version by 1979. Credit for the first-ever TV production, however, goes to Pakistan’s state broadcaster for a 1968 adaptation by a then-unknown Cambridge graduate called Salman Rushdie.

The Zoo Story is the most celebrated of Albee’s plays in the Middle East because it best satisfies a penchant for his caustic critique of American bourgeois respectability.

The Albee phenomenon in the Middle East is perhaps a mirror image of the enthusiasm with which the Muslim misery memoirs of Ayaan Hirsi-Ali and others are received in the west; they confirm prejudices about the other. Rushdie’s popularity in the west and concomitant Islamic infamy is, in some ways, the counterpart to Albee. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s (quite literal) stab at literary criticism is the mirror image of Prescott Bush’s admittedly fatwa-free fury.

Trust a teacher, Maureen Flanagan, to draw the right lesson. Following a spell at Alexandria University, where her Egyptian students singled out Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for praise, she cautions how “presenting a worst-case scenario or engaging in fairly vicious satire” – as Albee does – “can be accepted by another culture as simply a true portrait of the entire society”. That is as much a lesson for western admirers of ex-Muslim critics of Islam like Ayaan Hirsi-Ali and Salman Rusdhie as for Albee’s Arab acolytes.

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