Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare in the Arab world


Extract from Richard II, performed in Arabic at the Globe, July 2012

TANJIL RASHID: The author of these words, if not the language, will be familiar to all of you. They were written by one William Shakespeare in Richard II, in that instance performed in Arabic at London’s Globe theatre as part of the Globe to Globe festival that saw the Bard of Avon performed in 37 different languages. Curiously enough, there were more performances in Arabic than in any other language.

I’m Tanjil Rashid and I’m in the garden of Cairo’s historic Dutch Cultural Institute to explore this curious fact – and the phenomenon of Shakespeare in Arabic – with one of the rising stars of comparative literature, Prof. Margaret Litvin of Boston University. Her book, Hamlet’s Arab Journey, has recently been published to great acclaim. In fact, it’s been recommended in The Guardian as a “quirky Christmas gift”. It charts the incredible path trod by Shakespeare from England to Egypt, along the way becoming the most authoritative body of work in the Arab world, after the Koran and the Prophet’s own sayings.

Prof. Litvin, this summer’s been quite a treat, a Palestinian Richard II, a Sudanese Cymbeline, an Iraqi Romeo & Juliet – do you want to start with those performances?

MARGARET LITVIN: Sure. First of all with the World Shakespeare Festival, let me say this: it’s interesting, because all three of those productions were really in different languages. One was in Iraqi Arabic, one was in very classical Arabic (the Palestinian production), and one in Juba Arabic was very purposefully in a South Sudanese dialect to separate itself from the Khartoum dialect. This gives you a hint about the diversity of Arab Shakespeare. That should be the background of everything I’m going to say that will try to depict it as a unified phenomenon, or organised around a single theme.

TR: Let’s start at the beginning. How far back does Shakespeare go in the Arab world?

ML: Shakespeare has been present in the Arab world since the 1890s in Arabic, although before that there had been productions in English (including one off the coast of Sacotra, now in Yemen, in Shakespeare’s lifetime!) But we won’t count those, it wasn’t really Arab Shakespeare.

Arab Shakespeare became important first of all as fodder for the stage, which people had discovered in the nineteenth century. First Arab rulers like Khedive Ismail in Egypt, then emerging middle classes, discovered there was this thing called ‘theatre’ you could go see.

TR: Was it part of the Westernisation processes happening around that time? For example, the opera…

ML: Yes, I wouldn’t say ‘westernisation’, but the same thing as the opera: modernisation. It was seen as becoming equal with the West, it wasn’t seen as joining with the West, although that may have been how Ismail looked at it. And then after that, it gradually became domesticated and took root here and the type of Shakespeare productions that were done changed.

TR: There are even stories that Shakespeare himself was an Arab by the name of Sheikh Zubair. Were you ever taken in by that myth?

ML: Well, no! This originated as a joke by an Iraqi literary critic, not a serious argument! But it was later made into a chauvinist serious argument that ran, “how could someone who hated Jews, Turks and Englishmen so much as Shakespeare did, not have been an Arab?” It is nonsense! But it’s indicative in a way of the affinity that people feel towards Shakespeare.

TR: That’s right, because in that other nation of Shakespeare-lovers, India, there is also a myth that Shakespeare was an Indian, a saint called “Sheikh Pir”.

ML: Wonderful!

TR: So why do you think Shakespeare is so prone to appropriation by other cultures?

ML: I’m going to have to work really hard to avoid saying anything about the universality of Shakespeare, how he captures the whole possible range of human emotion, because that would be the obvious thing to say. If I do want to say that – which is a deeply politically incorrect thing to say, as after all Shakespeare is a British product often foisted on people in a colonial context – I would say it’s because Shakespeare drew from so many different sources. I mean, he’s got stuff that can be traced to the Thousand and One Nights and to the medieval storytelling traditions. He has things set in Italy, where he never went. So because he stole so widely, people recognised bits of themselves.

TR: At the start of your book, you quote the critical wisdom that “every nation sees her visage in Shakespeare’s mirror”. How have different nations seem themselves in Shakespeare?

ML: Well, what’s really happened of course is that every nation has turned Shakespeare into mirror images of itself or of its alter-ego or counter-self. For instance in France, Shakespeare was un-French, the drunken British sauvage, who nonetheless had this overflowing talent you had to deal with.

TR: So why did the French not take to Shakespeare while the Germans did very quickly?

ML: You know it depends so much on the individuals who are influential in a cultural context at a certain time. All it takes is one Voltaire to develop an allergy and there you go, the French response. It’s very individual, and then it becomes a tradition.

TR: Your book, Hamlet’s Arab Journey, is about Shakespeare in the Arab tradition. It’s a journey that begins right here in Cairo, doesn’t it?

ML: Yeah, that’s right. It began in the Syro-Lebanese immigrant community here that was writing for this new thing called the ‘theatre’ that I mentioned. They needed script fodder and they didn’t think of Shakespeare as this towering idol to do justice to or to be treated carefully with special tools – they just adapted whatever came to hand through the French. Shakespeare was introduced here through French sources. That was in the 1890s, early 20th century. Then later enough people needed as a priority to learn English and translate directly from the original, that there came to be translations directly from Shakespeare.

TR: And there are some rather funny productions of Shakespeare around that time? For example, a musical…

ML: Well, the earliest extent Arab Hamlet we have is a musical with a happy ending! I don’t want you to blame the ‘backwardness’ of Arab theatre-goers for that, which a lot of Arab critics have done for a hundred years. It’s really the fault of the French! It’s all Dumas, as I discovered in doing this research for the book – which I thought would be superfluous. Everybody knew that it was translated from the French but no-one knew what the sources were. Once I looked into it I saw it was all Dumas: he has love story, he has a happy ending between Hamlet and Ophelia.

TR: Many foreign productions were also doing the rounds in Cairo at the time, especially film productions. Would you like to talk a little about that?

ML: Yeah. We could talk about Laurence Olivier. His Hamlet film was screened here widely. But from the beginning Soviet, for instance, Yutkevich’s Othello won a prize in Damascus in the 50s. It wasn’t simply a British phenomenon. Films and plays came from all over the theatre-speaking world.

TR: Did the Egyptians appear to demonstrate any preference for one film over the other, for example the Russian over the English?

ML: One of the things that surprised me as I was doing this research was that the single most influential Hamlet text in Egypt is not an English play, but a Russian film. I don’t know if people preferred it, or simply knew Olivier by heart by this point and were looking for an alternative, a third way. Politically they might have been interested in something non-English for that reason – for its being non-English. But whatever the reason the Russian film resonated; it was about dictatorship, it posed stark moral choices, it wasn’t about a man who couldn’t make up his mind.

TR: And that would be Kosintsev’s?

ML: Yes, that would be Grigorii Kosintsev’s film from 1964. And of course people don’t know Russian at that point very much. Not a lot of people know Russian, but they can still hear Pasternak’s translation, and they know who Pasternak is, because of Doctor Zhivago. And they can hear Shostakovich’s score. How do you quantify these things when it comes to Shakespeare appropriation?

TR: Did all that help Shakespeare become shorn of his colonial associations?

ML: For sure. I think this showed people a path as to how they could domesticate Shakespeare to their own political circumstances. In the case of Hamlet, this was very obvious once you see it: ‘The time is out of joint’, ‘something is rotten in the state’. In the case of other Shakespeare it took longer. I think the comedies haven’t been domesticated yet. But certainly the Soviet and Eastern European appropriations of Hamlet showed a way which Arab directors could make Shakespeare their own.

TR: It’s very interesting that in some parts of the world, famously in the Indian subcontinent, Shakespeare was introduced in the colonial classroom. You’re saying it wasn’t the case in Egypt?

ML: It was! But… to whom? To what portion of the population? And also that created a background against which these other, non-British remakes became all the more influential, because they were familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

I talk a lot in the book about Youssef Chahine, who of course has a huge obsession with Shakespeare, particularly with Hamlet throughout his career (the film-maker Youssef Chahine). And the way that he shows that his encounter with Shakespeare at Victoria College in Alexandria…

TR: Victoria College being a colonial school…

ML: Yes, very much so! I do think, though, that that was the exception. I don’t know, maybe we can posit a spectrum of colonialness, where the English department of Cairo University is less colonial, and people are doing Shakespeare because their professors, who are Egyptians, love it.

TR: And the influx of Soviet productions was also part of the Soviet Union’s drive of cultural diplomacy?

ML: Yes, the push was Soviet cultural diplomacy and Nasser’s rapprochement with the USSR after 1955. Again the pull was ironically that people saw some similarities between their own respective situations.

TR: The Soviet relationship with the Arab world is very interesting. Your next book is about that relationship?

ML: I can’t tell you much yet in great detail, because there’s so much to this Russian-Arab relationship, even predating the USSR. Mikhael Na’imah, one of the founders of modern Arabic literature and the Mahjar school, from the USA,  in fact spent a few formative years around 1905 – a very significant time to be there – in Russia or in Ukraine, at a seminary in Baskinta. So modern Arabic literature is involved with Russian literature from the beginning, modern Arabic thought, the Nahda, or renaissance school beginning in the 20th century is involved too. Muhammad Abduh, the Islamic thinker, is corresponding with Tolstoy. “To the great prophet and thinker, Leo Tolstoy, whose thoughts have enlightened our world…” I’m not quoting right but you get the idea!

From that to a very, very different relationship in this Nasserist period we were talking about, where it was a question of study-abroad missions. A question of leftist young men, some of whom had been imprisoned under Nasser for their communist convictions, then being sent to the USSR to study. In many cases they were disappointed or surprised when coming across not only the official culture, but also counter-culture, samizdat, etc, and also world culture – getting access to Hemingway – in the Russian intellectual context.

TR: And has this at all declined with the times? Has anything replaced it?

ML: The love for Russian literature is oddly persistent even among Arab writers of my generation and yours. I don’t know if that part has declined. The love for Dostoevsky, for instance, and identification with Dostoevsky. It’s well known that Naguib Mahfouz drew on Dostoevsky, and everybody writing in prose in Egypt is still in the shadow of Mahfouz. As to replacement, I don’t know if you can identify a single centre now of cultural…

TR: …production?

ML: of cultural radiance.

TR: One of the main reactions to your books was one of surprise. It was mentioned in the Guardian as a ‘quirky book’. But you’re saying that we shouldn’t really be surprised at the way global culture can come to an Arab country?

ML: Well, and the way an Arab country… I want to insist on the active side. It’s not just a passive reception, sitting and watching what the waves bring. It’s also the way Arab countries can or Arab writers in particular do this. I want to talk about individuals and their agency and their interests. Whatever has influences them, they’ll have chosen to be influenced by. How Arab writers have appropriated world culture needn’t be linear or bilateral. That’s why I’m writing the Russia book. It’s not because I’m from Russia and I happen to have the language – I never thought I’d write anything on Russia, until I came back to it through Arab writers. Just to say: “Look guys, it’s not only postcolonial and it’s not autochthonous and only about Arab literary classics. It’s also about an engagement with the literatures of the world.” From the beginning, with Persian literature in the Abbasid period, there’s always been an interlocutor culture.

TR: Is this what you call the ‘global kaleidoscope’ in your book?

ML: Sure that’s the metaphor I adopted in my book. It has advantages and disadvantages. The idea you never see a cultural object pure, you see it through a kaleidoscope of previous appropriations of it by other people. The Thousand and One Nights – any period of the appropriation of that text by any culture at any time would provide an example of this argument.

TR: Returning to Hamlet, through which kaleidoscopes have Arabs seen specifically Hamlet?

ML: There was the period when the main interlocutor culture was French, and it was about neoclassical, then Romantic culture, Victor Hugo and his obsession with Shakespeare as the Romantic counterweight who subverted classical norms – this really appealed to Romantic nationalists in the Levant opposed to the Ottoman Empire. People knew from early on – this is one of the things about not being Anglophone – is that people were aware of the global kaleidoscope, of the multiplicity of versions. Very early in the 30s people were writing columns and critiques saying, “Oh there’s a German Hamlet like this and a British Hamlet like that…” They were aware of the options.

TR: What have Egyptians or Arabs seen in Hamlet, what messages have they taken from the play?

ML: The main message has been about justice. About the pursuit of justice in a world that is ‘out of joint’, a state that is ‘rotten’, in a dictatorship that is rigged against you. I mean look at Hamlet: his election was stolen, his stepfather married his mother… The Arabic proverb for pragmatism, the Arabic way of encapsulating pragmatism is, “Whoever marries my mother I’ll call my uncle”, so Hamlet spoke to that rejection of pragmatism, the standing up for principle, even if you get – as Hamlet is perceived to have been – murdered.

TR: I suppose that’s quite different from the individualist icon idolised in the West?

ML: Obviously, this is a very different Hamlet from the one many of my readers in the Anglo-American tradition will have grown up to expect. Their Hamlet will be a kind of Houlden Caulfield, Coleridge…

TR: Stephen Dedalus…

ML: Sure, sure, yes, absolutely, and so coming back to the surprises and quirks, obviously there are those who will be surprised the Arab world has theatre at all, but the biggest surprise should be for people who know and love Hamlet in this other incarnation, to find that he can be a firebrand, he can be a hero, Che Guevara. And when he does stumble and hesitate, that’s not a fulfilment of his role as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it’s an abandonment of it

TR: What role does the context of Nasser and Nasserism play in the reception of Hamlet?

ML: This is something that surprised me. It turns out to resonate very deeply. One of the anonymous reviewers of my manuscript drew my attention to the fact that I was disproportionately quoting Nasserist intellectuals and that was when I really started to think deeply about why is it that hamlet has not been homogenously appropriated? I’ve been talking in very general terms, ‘Arabs think this, Egyptians think that….’ But it’s a particular cadre and generation that it turns out has really taken this most to heart, this identification with Hamlet this feeling of political betrayal. And a lot of them are Nasserists, people for whom the death of Nasser and his replacement by this sort of odiously pragmatic, economically-opening-up, making-peace-with-Israel, Sadat figure, represents the biggest betrayal. So Nasser becomes the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The one whose mission he cannot carry out because it’s impossible, but whose legacy you can’t reject because that’d be immoral. And so the post-Nasserist Hamlet had a brief flash of heroic “Don’t worry, we’ll avenge you Daddy!” and then towards the late 70s fades into despair, ironic, sarcastic, hilarious, wonderfully-written despair.

TR: And does the ghost of Nassser still overshadow Hamlet in the Arab world today or are interpretations really beyond this legacy?

ML: The ghost of Nasser is very much present in Arab political discourse. Not now, not today, but other days you’ll have seen his photo in Tahrir Square. However, the Hamlet interpretations I’ve seen recently have moved away from that, more onto social conventions. The preoccupations have been more, “Oh Hamlet is this ordinary kid riding the metro and it’s overcrowded and his apartment is too small and he can’t move away from his family and realise himself as a man because of the economic situation…”

TR: You of course know the Arab Shakespeare scene better than anyone. Do any contemporary interpretations from the Arab world stand out?

ML: The play I was just summarising to you without naming was Hany Afifi’s play, “I am Hamlet”, which was conceived as a light little graduation project from directing school, a young, creative, quirky if you will, outgrowth of a state theatre institution. And yet his Hamlet is a young man haunted by a historical legacy that he doesn’t even fully understand. So unlike the Hamlet that his father would have produced, Hany’s Hamlet is just downtrodden by the crowdedness of Cairo and the dirt and the impossibility of doing anything moral at all.

TR: You mentioned Tahrir Square and that Nasser frequently apprears in Tahrir Square. But Hamlet also turns up there every now and then, does he not?

ML: I mean, yes! Hamlet doesn’t turn up, but the slogan “to be or not to be” has been detached from Shakespeare and people use it who may not even know it comes from Hamlet, although some people use it very conscious of the Shakespearean background. It shows up on signs in English and in Arabic – I’ve blogged some of them on my Arab Shakespeare blog. They do turn up and that’s because “To be or not to be” is not a hesitation about whether or not to kill yourself, it’s a determination about whether or not to live…

TR: …“Shall we be or not be”?

ML: Yeah, shall we seize our destiny and exist in a historical way or shall we just be wiped from the pages of history by our own passivity. So it’s read that way, and always collectively – it’s the nation, or the Egyptian people, Syrian people, who will be or not be.

TR: When the Islamic fundamentalist presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail was disqualified, I notice he was dubbed in the press as ‘Hamlet Abu Ismail’. Why do you think that…

ML: Oh I think that was an old-school use of Hamlet, like he was deciding to run or not to run. That discourse persists too. Interestingly, that was I believe a Western journalist or a journalist with a Western audience, ‘The Arabist’ blog, if I’m not mistaken. But yeah, look, just see, if Hamlet is used for instance in The Economist, he will always be the hesitant Hamlet, Obama deciding whether or not to do something or other.

TR: So it has nothing to do with Hazem’s complex family scandals and…

ML: mother and step-mother issues! I don’t know!

TR: The intriguing twists and turns Hamlet’s Arab journey continues to take. My thanks to Prof. Litvin, whose book, “Hamlet’s Arab Journey” is published by Princeton University Press. I’m Tanjil Rashid, cheers for listening!

Extract from Richard II, performed in Arabic at the Globe, July 2012

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,