Shakespeare at the Alwiya Club – a bygone Baghdad era

My colleague Kecia Ali alerted me to this beautiful reminiscence by Abdul Sattar Jawad, an Iraqi literature scholar who was forced to flee Baghdad in 2005. Titled “Shakespeare in Baghdad,” it just appeared in Duke University’s student paper, The Chronicle.

There are some spiky details under the surface of the piece.  For instance, “Iraq” functions as a metonym for everything in the Arab world (just as “Egypt” does for Egyptian intellectuals), including a late 19th c adaptation of Romeo and Juliet adapted by a Lebanese migrant for performance in Cairo.  Also there is curiously no mention of the great Palestinian-Iraqi poet-novelist-critic-translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who did so much for Arabic reception of Shakespeare (and of Abdul Sattar Jawad’s other great love, T.S. Eliot).  But who wants to quibble?  The piece is a lovely evocation of a cosmopolitan Baghdad paradise very similar to Jabra’s and now, unfortunately, lost for the forseeable future.
Here’s the opening: 

Shakespeare in Baghdad

It has been nearly thirty years since I drove to Oxford to visit its celebrated university and pay tribute to Shakespeare’s mausoleum in Stratford-upon-Avon in the heart of England. I was greeted in what seemed unthinkable: “Hey Sheikh Zbair, how’d you do?”
It was really a surprise to me although I am well aware of the Iraqi myth alleging that William Shakespeare is an Iraqi from Zubair, an Iraqi city bordering Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This myth was disseminated by Iraqi scholar and poet Safa Khulusi, who did his Ph.D. at London University in the 1940’s and then settled in Oxford as Chair of Islamic Studies. Of course this funny theory was very popular among Iraqis from different walks of life, who loved Shakespeare through his plays and poems taught at high schools and colleges.
Similarly, when I first came to Duke in 2005, Bruce Lawrence, professor emeritus of religion, extended his hand to me at the John Hope Franklin Center and said: “Welcome Sheikh Zbair.” From that time I realized that the Iraqi myth had crossed the Atlantic and become a source of fun, if not laughter. To the Iraqis and Arabs, Old Will is perceived as a bringer of much delight and gladness to mankind and the only author read or staged everywhere. He is, as Harold Bloom, one of America’s leading critics, said, an international possession transcending nations, languages and professions. Through invention and originality Shakespeare has notched the highest popularity and survived migration from country to country.
Old Will always manifests himself as a force that continues to activate the potential of other languages, in terms of grammar, vocabulary, register, rhythm and tone. In Iraq, Shakespeare was received as the most popular playwright and poet who taught us how to understand the human nature. His plays were performed even in the Iraqi vernacular: Othello retrieved his Arabic name Utail, Iago was Arabized into Yaccoob and Romeo and Juliet took a new title, Martyrs of Love, to attract public attention and boost the box office.
Read the whole thing…

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