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.

"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.