About ml

A comparative literature professor interested in how Arabic literature has worked, throughout its history, as a part of world literature

SCAF decrees that it can rule by decree (2am prelim wrapup)

As I sat with friends today in the chic, laid-back and very upscale Cafe Cabana in Maadi, a woman sat down with her laptop at a well-located table in the shade, near the bar. “That’s her table,” my friends told me. “She comes every day, sits there for hours. But if someone else takes her table, she raises hell, or just stands there glaring until they leave. They always do.”  Apparently she’s a good enough customer to make it worth the management’s while.  And indeed — how does one remove a power figure who simply (unlike my two-year-old) lacks the manners to know what sharing is?

Tonight it is becoming clear [update 3am at least it seems?] that SCAF has decided not to rig the presidential elections: preliminary tallies, from manual vote-counting being shown live on TV, show the Brotherhood’s Morsi with a strong early lead. (Live tallies here; have not seen tallies of spoiled ballots anywhere.) Instead, SCAF has decided to string up the whole presidency on puppet strings: a supplementary Constitutional Declaration, revealed tonight (Arabic here), takes away virtually all of the future president’s powers, including the power to act as commander-in-chief, name the defense minister, oversee the military budget, or declare war.  It seems constitutions are being lowered from the sky here article by article, as the need arises; new articles abrogate the old ones; sound familiar maybe?

And there’s this bizarre status of forces declaration:

Article 53/2: If the country faces internal unrest which requires the intervention of the armed forces [ya’ni ey, dah?], the president can issue a decision to commission the armed forces – with the approval of the SCAF – to maintain security and defend public properties. Current Egyptian law [i.e., the martial law declaration revealed last week?] stipulates the powers of the armed forces and its authorities in cases where the military can use force, arrest or detain.

Also SCAF has revealed that it plans to push through a new constitution and install a new parliament in the next two months, i.e. force elections (yay! another pointless referendum! more pointless elections! and during the heat of Ramadan, why not?):

Article 60 B: If the constituent assembly [i.e, constitutional convention] is not completely formed within a week’s time, the SCAF will form a new constituent assembly – representative of all factions of society – to author a new constitution within three months from the day of the new assembly’s formation. The newly drafted constitution will be put forward after 15 days of the day it is completed, for approval by the people through a national referendum. [What if they reject it?] The parliamentary elections will take place one month from the day the new constitution is approved by the national referendum.

All of which gives SCAF at least two and a half branches of the government – three if Cairo goes for Shafik. Then what? Some revolutionaries and fellow-travelers are proclaiming that the revolution must continue. But the grisly news from Syria is an effective cautionary example (just as the example of US-led “maqrata” in Iraq probably delayed by several years any Syrian efforts to pursue democracy).

As I came into my hotel a couple of hours ago, the two men at the desk (the older one had voted for Shafik holding his nose and fearing theocracy, the younger for Morsi holding his nose and hating military dictatorship) were watching returns on TV and eager to vent. We went back and forth for a while: could the Brotherhood be trusted to relinquish power four years from now (but what power?), having broken every promise they’ve made in the past year and a half?  But then it was the Shafik supporter who said, commenting on the Constitutional Declaration and the figurehead presidency it creates: “We’ll be like England now. He’ll be like the Queen.”  I said maybe we could celebrate his birthday every year. We all laughed ruefully and said good night.

Writing the revolution’s obituary or planning its education?

Pretty quiet at Zamalek polling stations this morning. Older ladies, experienced now, come with stools for waiting in line – but barely need them.  It seems that people who are boycotting (spoiling their ballots as a protest vote) will tell you they’re doing so; Morsi voters will tell you they are voting for the Brotherhood; but people who are voting for Shafiq (like one Coptic colleague I ran into, who displayed her inky finger but wouldn’t tell me how she voted) will sometimes hide their shame behind the sanctity of the secret ballot.  (Others brag about it, couching their decision as fear of the MB or a reasoned critique of Brotherhood hypocrisy.)  It seems likely Shafiq will win.  Somehow the logic of “preventing an Islamist takeover” by counterbalancing the MB parliament, sold very hard by the Shafiq camp in recent weeks, seems to have outlasted that parliament itself.

But I could be surprised.  I haven’t seen any journalist be entirely right about any phase of this election process so far, starting with mis-predicting the parliamentary vote last fall (overestimating the felool voice, undercounting the Salafis) and of course continuing into this presidential process. Did anyone predict the runoff would be between Morsi and Shafik?  (On walls in Zamalek you can still see, ripped and tired now, posters of Amr Moussa and Abdelmoneim Abolfotouh – remember them?)

Was jet-lagged last night so got to read various wrapups of the revolution: either flat-out obituaries (including Sarah Topol’s cogent piece from 10 days ago, before the parliament was dismissed, this analysis of voters’ impossible situation between the known evil and the feared one, and a bunch of articulate folks self-criticizing to the NYT) or attempts to spin the Bitter Choice into something positive, or at least take stock of the lessons supposedly learned.  Activists are, rightly, suffering from what they call “Tunis envy.”

Speaking of counterbalancing: If Shafiq wins, as people keep pointing out, the military will officially control all three branches of government again. It will not seem too early to write the obituary. One of the main “lessons learned,” one fears, will be about the futility of trying for change.


Egypt’s unhappy many

“Once More Unto the Breach” is the headline of Sarah Topol’s wonderful analysis piece from Cairo, written before the latest developments in Egyptian politics (like the dissolution of the parliament) but already capturing the sense of disillusionment and self-reproach among the activists who helped propel — and then allowed the military council to squander – the Egyptian revolution.
Alas: despite the Henry V-quoting heading, much of the rest of the mood in the piece is hardly Shakespearean.
“We fucked up a lot,” one leading activist tells Topol. “We’re always fucking up. Since day one, it’s all a series of being fucked over by our own decisions. Since March 2011, it’s downhill all the way from there.”
More hand-writing abotu current Egyptian politics, for the next week or so at least, on my other blog.

Back to Cairo, briefly

BU’s spring semester is over and I am at the Frankfurt airport, en route to Egypt for a brief visit. I’ll only be there a little over a week.  It might look like I’m flying in now in order to report on the presidential election runoff (or, more accurately, on the third round of military coup since the revolution, the first two having been SCAF’s “constitutional declaration” last summer’s and violent crackdown on Maspero/Tahrir last October-November  — and we could make it the fourth if we count the Feb 11 coup itself) but actually — shall I tell you the truth? — it’s because my daughter’s babysitter’s sister is visiting the US from Nepal, so the babysitter took next week off, so Ken and the kids went to Wisconsin to visit grandparents and… I bought a ticket to Cairo. Some politics (not all) are local.

Excited to see friends and actually do some interviews for my literary-historical research project, but… I wonder if the rising tide of ham-fisted authoritarianism will just swamp all other conversations, as it did last November. Lots of outrage flying around. One liberal Egyptian expat friend told me he’s glad about the Supreme Constitutional Court ruling that called for the dissolution of the (MB-dominated) lower house of Parliament.  And, albeit reluctantly, he hopes SCAF pushes forward with the election and Shafik wins. That seems to be what will happen, but no one should be happy about it. Certainly the Brotherhood’s behavior at every point has been arrogant, opportunistic, even craven.  Certainly those planning an election boycott, without some way to be counted and make a statement (e.g., the option of a write-in candidate), will just marginalize themselves. But abandoning any hope of democracy and falling back into the arms of the military, after everything Egypt has been through…!

Can’t wait to arrive and read in. From afar it all seems very confusing and seems legally topsy-turvy: how is it the political isolation law is being ruled unconstitutional only now (and under what constitution?? it’s like playing croquet with a flamingo!), after former VP Omar Suleiman was disqualified from the first round, denying him the chance to split Shafik’s vote? Meanwhile El Baradei has (very belatedly) formed a political party, calling (yet again) for a temporary president and a national salvation government or a presidential council. Calling for it where? On Twitter.  The MB, denied the presidency, will push for a top spot in the Cabinet, maybe a more parliamentary system overall. Meanwhile the putative separation wall between the military and the police has come down, collapsing the difference between foreign enemies and domestic opponents. And so on.

At the newsstand here only the International Herald Tribune had Egypt on the front page (David Kirkpatrick continuing the excellent reporting he’s been doing) — none of the European papers did.  It’s all Greece. Seems they’re up to Angela Merkel’s eyebrows in Eurowoes.

Is Shakespeare, after all, a Palestinian?

Perhaps you’ve seen my exchange with Gaza-based English professor Refaat Alareer on the idea of Hamlet as a “regular Palestinian guy.” Now we can broaden the identification to Shakespeare himself.
Eschewing any hint of the “Shaykh Zubayr” nonsense,  Palestinian director Amir Nizar Zuabi lays it out:

It is a well-known fact that Shakespeare is a Palestinian. And when I say “is” I do mean “is”, not “was”. The man might have been born in Stratford-upon-Avon four centuries ago, but he is alive and well today in Aida refugee camp, not far from the church of the nativity in Bethlehem. Shakespeare scholars may dispute this. But the reason I say this with such conviction (and even dare, sometimes, to believe it) is that, reading his plays, I have a sense of familiarity that can only come from compatriots.

When I think, too, of what Shakespeare writes about, I become totally convinced by his Palestinian-ness, preposterous though this might seem at first glance. There are not a lot of places where the absolute elasticity of mankind is more visible then in the Palestinian territories. In the span of one day, you might find himself reading a book in the morning, then in the afternoon be involved in what feels like a full-scale war; by dinner you and your wife have a lengthy discussion about the quality of that book, and just before you slip into bed there is still time to witness another round of violence before you tuck the children into bed. This mad reality blends everything – injustice with humour, anger with grace, compassion with clairvoyance, comedy with tragedy. For me this is the essence of Shakespeare’s writing; and the essence, too, of being Palestinian.

Read the rest: it’s great.  There’s some cultural generalizing all right, “blazing sun” and “rhythms of the Quran” and all that… but artists, unlike academics, are allowed such thinking. 

It strikes me that the kind of identification Zuabi is performing works in the opposite direction from Prof. Alareer’s.  Whereas the teacher aims to get his students to care about Shakespeare by bringing it closer to their lives (a domesticating or appropriation move, in the best sense), the director wants to get Brits to rethink what they “know” about the Palestinians, appropriating the great cultural hero of Western drama to do it. (I’m just guessing “elasticity” is not top on the list of qualities most Brits, even Guardian readers, tend to ascribe to Palestinians.)
Zuabi’s is a classic national-liberationist or recently postcolonial appropriation of Shakespeare.  (My book, in a different way, makes the same move: using something my Anglo-American intended readers think they know to defamiliarize and reorient what they know about “Arab culture.”)  Check out the toxic reader comments under Zuabi’s post, and you can see why this sort of possibly neurotic-seeming self-identificatory move might still be necessary.  The comments also highlight that Zuabi’s appropriation works in yet another opposite direction from one like Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Al-Hamlet Summit: one reader absurdly (he thinks) quips: “Hard to imagine Hamlet with a suicide belt, somehow” (he obviously didn’t see this one).  The difference is that Al-Bassam’s show reoriented how some Brits saw Shakespeare, not how they saw contemporary Arab realities.

Zuabi is currently directing Comedy of Errors at the RSC. I won’t get to see it, but you should. (It might be interesting to compare his production to the Afghan one in London. Hey you grad students out there!)

 Many thanks to Amahl Bishara for the link.

Heading back to Cairo, briefly

I’ll be in Cairo briefly June 15-23.
Just found this image from Feb 5, 2011 – from the demonstrations in Tahrir that “toppled,” as the phrase goes, the dictator Hosni Mubarak. With the bitter wisdom of hindsight we might erase that “toppled” and write in: “allowed the Armed Forces to self-interestedly remove.”  The poor girl in this photo – what kind of country will she grow up in?
[Update – image has vanished from Transterra Media web site… this is just a Google cache thumbnail; anyone know how to get it back?]

"Shakespeare in Kabul"

Outside the Arab/ic focus of this blog, but subject to a similar cultural tug-of-war (and I don’t mean anything to do with Islam), is the story of “Shakespeare in Kabul.”

In the bookshop of the National Theatre in London two weeks ago I saw a book by this title; alongside a photo of a gorgeous Afghan actress silently painting her eyelashes are the names of the authors, Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar. In self-consciously dramatic prose (with section headings like “Exposition” and “Climax”), the book tells the story of an Afghan production of Love’s Labour’s Lost directed by French actress and Peter Brooks Mahabharata alumna Corinne Jaber.  It has been well received, with good distribution and very warm reviews so far.  (Preview it here – and do download the “annex.”)

I had a chance to meet Mr. Landrigan during Jaber’s brief residency at my university last spring. He showed up to her events wearing a pakol (Afghan hat – think Ahmad Shah Masood) and kept interrupting the conversation, waxing nostalgic about the rehearsal photos, generally taking rhetorical ownership of a production in which his actual role seems to have been limited to helping adapt the script.

Later he went to Ms. Jaber’s hotel. He was, apparently, trying to persuade her to collaborate on the book. She refused, but somehow he enlisted Qais Akbar Omar (whom I haven’t met and whose story I don’t know), who I believe was the production’s assistant director.  Their finished book carries a self-serving postscript acknowledging Jaber’s non-cooperation and “wishing her well.”

Anyone else want to exploit Afghan Shakespeare for reputational gain? Take a number!

As Corinne Jaber’s follow-up show, a Comedy of Errors in Dari developed for London’s Globe-to-Globe festival, prepares to take the stage later this month, the Globe’s web site is touting the Afghan company’s work as “a theatrical miracle.”  Meanwhile, I was just forwarded (by two separate friends) a query from an academic listserv asking which theatre- and Mideast-related journals might want to review Shakespeare in Kabul. Well hidden (edited to sound bites) but still findable in all this promo are the voices that are really refreshing to hear — not so much Ms. Jaber’s, though she is a very warm, resourceful, and ferociously articulate artist — but those of the women and men who took a certain reputational risk to act in these shows.They don’t make it sound so miraculous. This from the interview with actor Nabi Tanha reprinted in the online appendix to the Haus volume:

1. How did participating in the play affect your life?
Normal. Nothing special.

2. Had you heard of Shakespeare before deciding to take part in the staging of Love’s Labour’s Lost?
Of course. When I was in Kabul University, Faculty of Fine Arts, we did many plays by Shakespeare. But the ones I remember very well, and which we rehearsed for weeks, were Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Apart from Shakespeare’s plays, we did other plays by other playwrights too, such as Prometheus Bound by a Greek playwright, Aeschylus, and some plays by M. Gorki and Brecht, who I believe is a German playwright. Beckett was another playwright whose plays we worked on.

The female actors had pretty similar things to say, depending what generation they were from. As with every theatre project, the youngest participants were the ones whose lives were changed most.  But almost everyone was pretty matter-of-fact, avoiding the chance to pontificate in response to silly questions like “What impact do you think staging Shakespeare in Afghanistan might have on the relationship between two cultures?” (What two cultures?)

Want more info before you make up your mind about the shows, the book, and the project? The Christian Science Monitor’s 2005 review of LLL is here. The Economist called it “magic.” You can find links to more press coverage of that production here (scroll all the way down), under a puffy interview with Shakespeare appropriation scholar Irena Makaryk.  Disregard the tone set by her university’s PR department: Makaryk has published a thoughtful article wondering, among other things, whose cultural agenda/s the Kabul production served: Makaryk, Irena R. “’Brief candle’? Shakespeare in Afghanistan.” Multicultural Shakespeare: Translation, Appropriation, Performance 6 (21) / 7 (22) (2010): 81-113.
And an interesting piece by my colleague Bill Carroll draws on interviews with Jaber to analyze directorial choices such as what to do about the “masque of Muscovites” (!) and why foreigners, but NOT the Afghan participants, would tend to read the young lords’ ascetic vows as Taliban-like. See Carroll, William. “Love’s Labour’s Lost in Afghanistan,” Shakespeare Bulletin, 2010.