Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare in the Arab world

This is a podcast from Pod Academy with Prof Margaret Litvin, looking at the curious phenomenon of Shakespeare in the Arab world. In it you’ll learn whether or not Shakespeare was an Arab called Shaykh Zubair, that Shakespeare had already been performed in Yemen within Shakespeare’s own lifetime, and that the most famous Shakespeare ‘text’ in the Arab world is not an early modern English stageplay, but a 20th-century Russian film.

http://podacademy.org/podcasts/hamlets-arab-journey-shakespeare-in-the-arab-world/

 

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The elections and their aftermath in the Western press

Published in The Daily News Egypt

While most Egyptians’ sights have been homed in on the future after the election of Muhammad Morsi to the presidency, it was through the prism of the past that the Western press viewed this week’s news.

“Named Egypt’s Winner, Islamist Makes History” declared the headline in The New York Times. CNN described Dr Morsi as “the first leader in Egypt’s history to win a democratic election”. The Guardian called it a “landmark for Egypt”. The USA’s leading Arab neoconservative Fouad Ajami even claimed in the Wall Street Journal that “Egyptian history can be said to have closed a circle”, striking a note of Fukuyama-esque optimism; not so for The Independent’s Robert Fisk who was left pining for the days of Saad Zaghloul.

In case you were unsure about all the different ways Egypt made history this week, Israel’s Ynet clarified all three of them. First: it noted that “the country’s government adheres to blatant religious-Islamist ideology.” Secondly, “the era of secular colonels who ruled Egypt since the 1950s has officially ended.” Then, it failed to give the third reason mooted at the start of its analysis.

Ynet’s analysis represented the most predictably puerile reaction to the historic news. This is an Egypt, where “the infidel” would be “a second-class citizen”. Naturally, “a heightened terror threat” is also cited. Yet there has been a thankful divergence of opinion among the West’s anti-Islamist, Mubarak-backing neoconservatives. The aforementioned Ajami cautioned his fellow “Western observers not to consign Egyptians again to a despotic fate”, at least not before “a decent interval”.

Interestingly, the latter category included the highest ranks of the Israeli government. “Israel plays down fears of an Islamist government”, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported, quoting Prime Minister Netanyahu as “expecting co-operation with The Brotherhood”. Anticipation over the future of the peace treaty with Israel looms just as large in the Western press; throughout, the prominently-displayed headline, “Morsi vows to respect international treaties”, was the coded evidence of their shiftiness on the subject.

But in some quarters the Western viewfinder was in admirable alignment with actual Egyptians’ actual interests, moving beyond their preconceived, anti-Islamist standpoint to examine what the future may hold for Egyptian aspirations. As The Guardian’s Ian Black noted, “expectations of change are now greater than before the great drama of Tahrir Square began last year.”

But from this vantage point, there was much that did not bode well. Black goes on to describe “the soft coup anchored in a constitutional declaration that gives the supreme council of the armed forces (SCAF) unprecedented powers after a court ruling dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament.” The superficial smokescreen the new Presidency creates is also laid bare. “It will be surprising if the generals do not retain their financial clout and privileges, and their powers to make war, conduct foreign policy and maintain internal security – the holy trinity of Egypt’s deep state”, says Black. “And it will suit them perfectly to blame the civilian president for the parlous state of the economy.”

Roula Khalaf inThe Financial Times outlined a similar state of affairs, concentrating on the stasis of Egypt’s institutions. “By assuming legislative powers following the constitutional court’s dissolution of the Islamist-dominated parliament, and grabbing some of the powers of the president, the generals might have already set Mr Morsi up for failure.”

As for the man himself, profiles were amusingly samey, assembled together from an identikit toolkit of vocabulary: “bearded”, “bespectacled”, “US-educated” and “university professor” were present in nigh every article. There were minor variations: The Telegraph noted his commitments to Copts and women, but failed to note The Brotherhood’s history of reneging on these commitments in the past. There was a surprising tendency all-round to parrot Morsi’s PR spin without questioning the veracity of his vision for “an executive branch that represents the people’s true will and implements their public interests”, as he told CNN’s resident Middle East dunderhead, Christiane Amanpour. This, I suspect, had more to do with journalistic laziness than any bias.

There was, however, one interesting thought on the subject, from the blogosphere. An anonymous blogger noted the parallels between Qutb’s infamously influential educational stay in Colorado and Dr Morsi’s own in southern California, about which very little is known. Into this little-noted curiosity much future commentary – sound or unsound – is likely to be read, especially in the Western press. Sometimes the prism of the past can refract light onto the future more than reflect on it.

SCAF’s transition in the Western press

Published in The Daily News Egypt

The Western press was this week gripped by the electoral drama in a Mediterranean nation with a history of military meddling now in the midst of a national crisis. I am talking, of course, about Greece, whose elections pipped Egypt’s to the front pages.

Not that the great game of Egypt’s own electoral politics hasn’t attracted its fair share of commentary. They all knew something was up when the Supreme Court’s rulings in favour of Ahmed Shafik’s candidacy and the dissolution of parliament were announced.

“A counter-revolution in all but name”, declared David Hearst in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, while The Economist proffered a similar analysis: “this amounts to a soft military coup through the proxy of the country’s most important court.” About a move by SCAF to crush dissent, there was fittingly no dissenting pro-SCAF voice in the Western press – an anti-Contitutional Court consensus that was surprising in the context of the anti-Brotherhood hysteria that flourished, not without reason, in some quarters of the Western media.

(It made a small re-appearance this week in a silly report on Britain’s Telegraph newspaper that re-iterated theories in the Israeli media that the Brotherhood were responsible for two missiles fired into Israel by a band of Bedouins in the Sinai.)

The New York Times struck a more moderate note about SCAF’s politicking, asserting their constitution-related decisions merely amounted to a “blow to transition”. However, David Kirkpatrick, the piece’s author, also placed them in a rather dramatic context, citing other instances in Middle Eastern history “when secular elites have cracked down on Islamists poised for electoral gains, most famously… the dissolution of Algeria’s Islamist-led Parliament”. That started a civil war.

Although no-one offered quite so overblown a prediction, talk of a second revolution was revived. Charles Holmes in Foreign Policy magazine boldly predicted that “a much bloodier uprising is inevitable”, while Robert Fisk, in Britain’s The Independent, reproved “the belief among journalists and academics that Tahrir Square would fill once again with the young of last year’s rebellion, that a new protest movement in its millions would end this state of affairs, has… proved unrealistic.” If the last few days are anything to go by, Fisk appears to be correct.

In neglecting to cover the current elections with as much aplomb as previous ones, the Western press was perhaps afflicted by the same malaise and indifference that afflicted the Egyptian electorate, only 15% of whom – according to some reports – deigned to vote in the second-round.

The usual, tiresome narrative of army vs Islamists was served up for their readers’ delectation. Prizes for the most facile exposition goes to Holmes in Foreign Policy, who sees Egypt, appropriately enough, as a pyramid of “the three M’s: the military, the mosque and the masses”. While Shafik can reasonably be termed the military’s candidate, is it sound to reduce Mursy’s support to the clerisy?

France’s Le Monde parroted that same narrative: “60 years of struggle between Islamists and the military”, a feature was entitled. But it also went on to speculate on impending arrangements, if – as now seems very likely – Mursy accedes to the presidency and becomes chief of the army. Le Monde’s analyst Christophe Ayad believes co-operation to be perfectly plausible, even citing (un-named) “Islamist sympathisers in the military”.

This is a contention that swims against the tide, as most commentators are revelling in “prospect of a dramatic showdown within the highest institutions of the state”, as Jack Shenker puts it in The Guardian, reporting on The Brotherhood’s angry reaction to SCAF’s Constitutional Declaration.

It would appear that a view of the Brotherhood pitted in opposition to the military has taken hold of the Western media, transforming these shrewd Islamists into unlikely poster-boys for democracy. Even that bastion of Western liberalism, The Economist, has endorsed Mursi: “Vote for the Brother”, read their editorial. The endorsement was not unqualified: “If they opt for Mr Morsi and the Brothers, they face a future full of risks.” But they echoed many Egyptians in warning against “a return to the oppressive past under Mr Shafiq.”

But even a Mursy victory, Robert Fisk explains astutely in The Independent, will be no guarantor of democracy. “Mubarak’s 300,000-strong army of thugs remains in business despite elections”, he declares, and despite the Brotherhood’s fighting talk, no-one believes they have the wherewithal to pose a serious challenge. “The Arab Spring may be dead”, Fisk wonders. The electoral aftermath will provide us with an answer.

The Mubarak verdict in the Western press

Published in The Daily News Egypt

In the Western imagination, Egypt has a long pedigree when it comes to tyrants. Stories of the pharaohs figure as prominently in the Bible as they do in the Qur’an, and it was a fallen statue of Rammesses II in Luxor that inspired the poet Shelley’s famous poem about a transient tyrant, Ozymandias.

Unsurprisingly, such motifs loomed large in the Western press’s coverage of Mubarak’s sentencing to life imprisonment this week; “From Pharaoh to Prisoner!” proclaimed Nick Meo in Britain’s Daily Telegraph while the New York Times’s David Kirkpatrick dubbed Mubarak “a modern Ozymandias”.

A jubilatory tone marked their reportage, marred only by the odd factual inaccuracy (Kirkpatrick claimed Mubarak as “the first Arab strongman to be brought before the law”, forgetting the small matter of Saddam Hussein’s trial and execution).

More cautious voices were to be heard at Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Jack Shenker painted a vivid picture of the post-verdict upheavals at Tahrir Square, including the anger at the acquittal of Mubarak’s associates as well as a few startling pro-Mubarak sentiments: “he should never have been on trial anyway”, Shenker quotes one demonstrator.

Many commentators also grasped the ambiguities of the trial. Most incisively, William Dobson, writing for the US online magazine Slate, pointed out “the shallowness of the changes to the Egyptian security state that Mubarak left behind”. This minority of commentators raise the possibility that the Mubarak sentence may well prove a smokescreen to distract attention from further repression, or as Shenker quotes the popular blogger who calls himself The Arabist: “cutting off the heads of the regime to preserve the rest”.

At the same time, all the Western papers heartily wheeled out Mubarak’s literal hit parade of crimes, including the killing of hundreds of demonstrators and his corrupt business dealings. But no Western paper, in its news reports, deigned to mention the tacit support of Western governments to both Mubarak’s megalomania and the security state that Dobson criticises. Certainly, no British newspaper had the wit to ask former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s opinion on the demise of his friend.

The Associated Press does deserve credit for shining a spotlight on this spurious agenda, reporting the resignation of employees of US-funded democracy programmes “to protest what they called undemocratic practices”. Documents obtained by the AP have revealed how State Department funding has picked and chosen when it comes to “building democracy”, favouring liberal groups.

Commentary of the run-up to the second-round of Presidential elections has, predictably, reflected the same bias. Magdi Abdelhadi, in the Guardian, called it “a game of the least bad option”. The most pithy summation of the situation came from Amr Bargisi in the American Jewish magazine Tablet: “Islamist repression vs. repression of Islamism” While practically no-one disagreed with this outlook, some sounded an optimistic chord. Nathan Brown, also in The Guardian, believes “the door to democracy is wide open”.

How long for remains to be seen, as two candidates from political traditions with a history of suspicion towards democracy vie in the country’s first democratic duel. If Shelley were to visit Egypt again, he will have surely noted the irony. Not that it takes a poet to realise this.

Why the Middle East embraces Edward Albee

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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.

The Arab Edward Al-Bee

Published in Pulse Media, April 2012

Cairo’s culture vultures were surprised this month by a curious quirk in the state-run Gomhouria Theatre’s programme: a new production Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Amid electoral strife, martial rule and the precarious politics of the Arab Spring, one might have thought the metropolitan, mainly Muslim, audience who flocked to see it would have had more crucial things on their minds than the works of the gay, absurdist American dramatist Edward Albee.

This production was no anomaly, hot on the heels of one last September at Cairo’s Sawy Culture Wheel, making two professional productions in the last year–that’s more than London. But it wasn’t last year’s revolutionary politics that kindled the curiosity in Egypt about this revolutionary playwright: Albee’s Egyptian encounters began as early as the 60s. Indeed, so enthralled have Egyptians been even by Albee’s obscurer works it seems – fittingly for one dubbed the ‘American Samuel Beckett’ – absurd. For example, in 1970 there was an acclaimed production of Albee’s arcane play Everything in the Garden, which Egyptian state television even saw fit to broadcast.

Albee’s Arab allure extends well beyond Egypt. “Everything in the Garden was so popular,” its director Mahmoud Haridy tells me, “they sold it to other TV stations in the Middle East”. Most remarkably, Albee’s work has even given rise to original Arabic works. Zoo Story’s popularity in Morocco spawned Yusuf Fadhil’s bestselling novel Qissat Hadeeqat al-Hayawan (‘The Story of the Zoo’), about a troupe of actors performing it in 1970s Casablanca (incidentally, as drink-sodden and bureacratic as in Humphrey Bogart’s day).

But what appeals to the Middle Eastabout this purveyor of absurdist Americana? Certainly, Albee doesn’t betray any demonstrable interest in the Middle East. His only references to the region comprise a throw-away criticism in his collected essays of US sponsorship of “King Farouk and co.” and a casual, figurative allusion to Egyptian camels in Seascape, a play otherwise about giant lizards discussing evolution on New Jersey’s Montauk beach. What appeals to Arabs about this purveyor of absurdist Americana?

It is possible that his popularity is a mere matter of deference to the Western literary canon, like another Western dramatist, William Shakespeare, so well-loved that he has been claimed as an Arab bard named Shaykh Zubair. But this seems a stretch: Albee’s name has divided both the academy and the audiences. In leading critic Fintan O’ Toole’s authoritative words: “Albee’s standing as a dramatist has been extraordinarily insecure” Moreover, last year’s staging of Eugene O’ Neill’s populist play Anna Christie at Cairo’s Al-Talia Theatre proved that a solid literary reputation is not enough to draw in the punters; Nehad Selaiha reports that when she went to review it for Al-Ahram, she was the sole member of the audience, this despite the pulling power of soap star Said Abdel Ghany.

Albee’s popularity in the region, then, must have something to do with the themes his plays treat. Maybe it’s the play’s best-known repartee, 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? Perhaps Arab audiences couldn’t ignore Albee’s naming of the fictitious campus town in which Virginia Woolf 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?

The American critic C. N. Stavrou’s even imaginatively conceived Peter and Jerry’s encounter in the New York of Albee’s debut Zoo Story as the encounter between Christianity and Islam in theMiddle East.

Clearly, mining for Middle Eastern resonances in a classic American play can be a tenuous endeavour, especially as the American context fundamentally grounds Albee’s plays, from the New Englandcampus drawing-room of Virginia Woolf to the Central Park of Zoo Story. When the latest scandal in Egyptian politics is yesterday’s revelation that Egypt’s leading Islamist presidential candidate, Hazem Abu-Ismail, has been ruled out on the xenophobic justification that his mother held a US passport, the Arabic Albee seems all the more absurd. 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?

In fact, Albee’s popularity here persists not in spite of his works’ distinctly American identity, but because of this. In Zoo Story, America is Peter, the middle-class executive, but America is also his vagabond interlocutor, Jerry. They are gradually exposed as moral doppelgängers: American nihilism laid bare. That unpopular message ensured Zoo Story couldn’t find a producer within the States (the play premiered in leftist Berlin). In 1961 Republican grandee Prescott Bush, George W. Bush’s grandfather, even denounced it on the US Senate floor as filthy and tainted by communism.

But Zoo Story‘s unpopularity at home underwrote its Middle Eastern esteem. The play is, for example, a staple of the Syrian stage, from the Soviet-trained doyen of Damascus drama Walid Kowatli’s 1978 production to Dar al-Assad’s 2010 production that toured the region, including Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Zoo Story has never been produced for television in the US, yet Syrian television had already broadcast a version by 1979. (Interestingly, The Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s state broadcaster got there first, with a 1968 television adaptation by a then-unknown Cambridge graduate called Salman Rushdie). Zoo Story is the most celebrated of Albee’s plays in theMiddle East because it best satisfies the Arab penchant for the leftwing playwright’s caustic critique of American bourgeois respectability.

Albee’s Arab acclaim is analogous to the enormous enthusiasm with which Muslim misery memoirs like Ayaan Hirsi-Ali’s are received in the West; they confirm prejudices about the other. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s (quite literal) stab at literary criticism is the mirror image of Prescott Bush’s admittedly fatwa-free fury. The correlation between Rushdie’s popularity in the West and his Islamic infamy is, in some ways, the converse counterpart to Albee.

Trust a teacher, Maureen Flanagan, to draw the right lesson. Following a spell at Alexandria University, where her Egyptian students singled out 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.” 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.