I first began studying Arabic fourteen years ago in part because, on my first trip to San Francisco, I had randomly met Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh’s cousin Nabil and immediately afterwards, walking into a used bookstore, stumbled on a copy of Shehadeh’s memoir, The Third Way. That’s part of what helped inspire my interest in the language and, eventually, in Arab appropriations of Shakespeare.
I want to quote Shehadeh here to illustrate how deeply the imagery of Hamlet — particularly but not exclusively the young angry Hamlet of Act I — has become interwoven with formulations of Palestinian identity, Arab identity, and the conflict over Palestine. This is from Shehadeh’s interview in David Grossman’s 2002 book The Yellow Wind (also reviewed here). He says:
Of the two ways open to me as a Palestinian — to surrender to the occupation and collaborate with it, or to take up arms against it, two possibilities which mean, to my mind, losing one’s humanity — I choose the third way. To remain here. To see how my home becomes my prison, which I do not want to leave, because the jailer will then not allow me to return.
I believe it is no stretch to read Shehadeh’s refusal to “take up arms” as related to Hamlet’s hesitation during the “to be or not to be” soliloquy — how to commit oneself to fighting an evil so huge that, like a “sea of troubles,” it will simply swallow up the humanity of anyone who engages with it? Shehadeh’s “to surrender… and to collaborate” are symbolically identical, in Arab political discourse, with Hamlet’s “to die, to sleep.”
Two unsatisfactory options which leave him searching for a “third way,” one that lets his essential humanity be recognized and gives him (at least) a voice in shaping how his history comes out. You can see where the impulse comes from. Even if you question its efficacy. (And now his latest book, ever searching for a place to stand, seems to be harking back to the Ottomans.)