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.