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.

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?]

M.M. Badawi RIP

I didn’t realize that the groundbreaking scholar Muhammad Mustafa Badawi had died last month until a few minutes ago when, searching for his contact info to share with a documentary producer interested in Shakespeare translation, I looked him up online. Allah yarhamhu.

Long interested in the topic of “Shakespeare and the Arabs” (on which he gave a much-quoted lecture on the occasion of the quadricentennial in 1964, later published in Cairo Studies in English, 1964/65), Badawi turned late in life to translating Shakespeare’s plays. I have several of his texts at home: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello (partial text online), and I believe he’s also done a Macbeth and maybe a Richard III.  You can find these at the National Center for Translation bookstore at the Opera complex in Cairo.


Some Arabic press on Ashtar’s Richard II

Look at this wonderful review from The Guardian‘s Lyn Gardner. So I can only hope the play will come soon to a theatre near you. See it in Oxford tonight if you can.  (The Oxford site also has a Flickr slideshow.)

The play is good anywhere. It has clearly found an admiring niche here in Britain. But the primary (though not the only) audiences for Ashtar’s Richard II, I would argue, are Palestinian and Arab audiences.  So what did the Arab papers think of it?  The Jericho reviews were very strong, but in London most couldn’t get past the symbolism of it coming to London.

A richly informative report on the earlier show in Jericho is reprinted in the Iraq-based online cultural magazine Alefyaa. The reviewer quotes from Ghassan Zaqtan’s very gracious translator’s note, as well as from the program note:

وجاء في كتيب وزع قبل العرض ليل الاربعاء “ريتشارد الثاني احدى مسرحيات شكسبير التي تدور احداثها حول السلطة والسياسة وتملؤها الدسائس والخيانات كتبها شكسبير عام 1595 وتدور احداثها حول سقوط عائلة مالكة بريطانية وظهور عائلة مالكة جديدة بمساعدة لوردات البلاط… حكاية مثيرة تظهر لنا ما معنى ان يكون المرء ملكا وكيف تفسد القوة المطلقة صاحبها في نهاية الامر.

According to the flyer handed out Wednesday night before the show: “Richard II is one of the Shakespeare plays whose action turns on power and politics; it is filled with plots and betrayals. Written in 1595, it revolves around the fall of a British ruling family and the rise of a new ruling family with the help of the lords of the royal court… an interesting story that reveals to us what it means for a person to be a king, and how absolute power ultimately corrupts its holder.

The report also quotes interviews with several actors, including Jordan-based Sami al-Mutawasi, who came from Jordan to star as Richard. Al-Mutawasi notes the cast members’ broad international experience and draws connections from the play’s plot to recent political events not only in the west but, to his surprise, in the Arab world:

واضاف “كل عمل مسرحي يوجد فيه رسالة سياسية قوية… والاحداث السياسية تتشابه عند الشعوب. وكما ان هذه المسرحية تشبة اشياء كثيرة في الغرب صادفت ان تشابه اشياء كثيرة تحدث الان معنا وهي مراة لواقعنا.”

Writing the only real review I found so far, on the BBC Arabic site, Anwar Hamid praises the show’s “splendid” performances, noting the cast’s “confident” movement on stage and the rapt enthusiasm of even non-Arabic-speaking groundlings. All he finds to take issue with (and this is a fairly typical cultural fetish) are some cast members’ pronunciation errors in classical Arabic: “because language, gramatically and phonetically, is the most important element of theatrical performance”: 

مأخذي الوحيد كان على تكرر الأخطاء النحوية على لسان ممثلين رئيسيين، وهو شيء مؤسف، فاللغة، نحويا وصوتيا (فونيتيكيا)، هي أهم أركان الأداء المسرحي. حتى يكون الأداء مؤثرا يجب أن تكون المعارف النحوية للمثلين المسرحيين على مستوى عال، وكذلك يجب أن يكونوا متمكنين من مهارات النطق الأساسية: المخارج الواضحة للحروف والتلون الدرامي للصوت.

More PRE-view coverage is here (Shorouk), here (reprint of a BBC piece in which several actors are interviewed, invoking the cultural arrival marked by playing Shakespeare in fuSHa, and director Connall Morrison is interviewed, invoking the Arab Spring), here (Al-Youm 7), here (Fatah – there’s also one on WAFA), and here (reprinted from, apparently more interested in the composition of the cast and the event of the festival, with Palestinian Ambassador to London Dr. Manuel Hassassian and the Palestinian charge d’affaires in attendance, than in the show itself).

Also in Shorouk, from the “Mommy how come they get to go and we don’t” department, this plangent piece bemoans the “demoralizing Egyptian absence from the World Shakespeare Festival”: “This absence … notably contradicts the history of Egyptian cultural preoccupation with the works of Shakespeare…”  Ramses Awad’s book is used for background on the commemoration of the tercentennial of Shakespeare’s death in 1916:

واللافت أن هذا الغياب المسرحي المصري عن مهرجان شكسبير العالمي، يأتي وكأنه مضاد لتاريخ اهتمامات ثقافية مصرية بأعمال شكسبير حتى أن الجامعة المصرية احتفلت في عام 1916 بمرور 300 عام على وفاته بتظاهرة ثقافية بالغة التميز بمعايير ذلك الزمان.

 A sad al-Ahram preview makes the same point: at this “international cultural event,” Egypt will not be represented, though Palestine and Iraq will. Al-Afaq and El-Gornal note it too.

Fahmi Al-Kholi’s post-Camp-David "Merchant of Venice"

Sometimes, to be naughty, before the Arab Spring, a reader would ask me: “It’s all very well what the Arabs have done with Hamlet. But what do they do with The Merchant of Venice?”  I have generally avoided focusing on this question; it’s not my favorite Shakespeare play anyway.
And yet: Could it be the case that Arab theatre’s response to the Camp David Accords challenges my basic historical claim that there was no space for “real” (i.e., aspiring to have an effect on policy) political theatre after about 1976? 
I met last night with the Cairo-based theatre director Fahmi El-Kholi, whose production of Shakespeare in Ataba I had written about in my book. Just wanted to (belatedly) check some hunches on scenography, allegory, and reception.  But before I know it, he launches into a description of a Merchant of Venice production he directed at Cairo University in 1978, right after the Camp David Accords, and revised/reprised in 1979-80 with amateur actors at the Workers’ Theatre at the Nasr Automobile Company.  Recall the context: huge demonstrations against Sadat, and resolutions by most of the relevant professional organizations (Writers’ Union, Cinema Union, Musicians’ Union, Theatre Makers’ Union) to condemn and oppose any sort of “normalization” effort that would involve cultural interaction with the Zionist Entity. Anyway, El-Kholi said it enjoyed an unbelievably warm reception, sliding past (probably sympathetic) censors and inspiring audience members to come see it with Palestinian flags on their lapels and keffiyyehs on their heads.
His description included:

  • Modern dress; Shylock, in black shirtsleeves “like an accountant or merchant” carried a calculator and used it to sell weapons to a long line of buyers from different nationalities. Later he would calculate the pound of flesh which was, of course, a slice of land.
  • The set was a bare stage punctuated by two crosses: one placed horizontally/diagonally (rising at a slight angle) from downstage to upstage; the second vertical, upstage, made of olive branches with a Palestinian keffiyyeh on top where the crown of thorns would be. At crucial moments in the play the keffiyyeh would start to drip little drops of blood thanks to a specially attached mechanism.  Because the Palestinians, you see, were crucified on the olive branches of the peace accord.
  • The actor playing “the big brother” Antonio impersonated the speech patterns of Nasser in Act I, then (after N’s death) acquired a pipe and glasses to become Sadat in Act II. 
  • A young woman called Palestine, bleeding and fleeing her captors in a torn white dress, appealed for help to her fiance Yasser (Arafat), then to her big brother (Egypt).  They ultimately failed to help her.
  • Shakespeare’s text (in translation) was used “word for word,” except that loaded translations were chosen for certain key terms. E.g., Shylock’s “bond” became اتفاق, which means “agreement” or (the term used for Camp David) “accord.”
  • Shylock became, in the 1979-80 restaging, Shylock-Yahu in honor of (then also) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahyu.  
  • In the 1979-80 workers’ restaging, the set included the dome of al-Aqsa mosque, with 14 men chained to it by ropes coming off different sides. (Ropes are a recurring element in El-Kholi’s scenography.)  The ropes acted mainly as leashes (El-Kholi described them as “like umbilical cords”), but at the crucial moment (at the end, when the Arab world rises) were activated to allow the men to defeat Shylock.  Most of Shakespeare’s script was dumped, leaving only the scene of Antonio’s deal with Shylock and the trial scene.  Other parts of the script were taken from public recordings of UN and Arab summit meetings, historical documents, and Sadat’s famous speeches leading up to his peace initiative. At other times, quotes from the Israeli news media and Israeli leaders’ speeches were reproduced by actors dressed as rabbis, sitting on onstage toilets, evidently suffering from diarrhea, pulling the chain after every one-liner. In both productions the trial scene was played as a UN meeting, with the Duke a figure for the UN Secretary-General.
  • Oh, and did I mention that the play went all the way back to 1948? That was the scene with the torn white dress.  The 1967 defeat was figured as all the 14 men lying around sleeping with model planes balanced on trays on their bellies; Shylock fished for these planes with a fishing rod, and when he caught one, it blew up. The 1973 “victory” was figured too. 
  • “And I forgot to tell you,” El-Kholi said. “I opened the play with a somewhat flashy opening scene. It was in Damascus, and a Muslim man disappeared, and a small Christian boy disappeared. This actually happened. And it was found that…” The scene he described was an enactment of the “blood libel” myth of Jews grinding up Christian boys to enrich their Passover matzoh (he called it “fateera“): the victims were hung upside down, dripping the same small red drops of stage blood, while a group of rabbis performed some kneading motions to the tune of (he hummed it for me) Hatikva. The matzoh they ate was, of course, supposed to represent the Arab lands, “from the Nile to the Euphrates.” El-Kholi then added, unprompted (I wasn’t even going to get into it – where would you start?): “Oh but we have no problem with Jews. Everything was fine before 1948. There were Jewish families in Egypt, Jewish businesses, department stores, everything.”  
  • What about censorship, I asked?  Surely this blood libel scene would have violated two of the major state censorship taboos (politics and religion), especially in the volatile aftermath of the peace accords?  Well, he said, we took out the scene in the script shown to the censors, and then we reinserted it for the performance.

All this left me, as a scholar of theatre, with only one question: with so much strong imagery available, why enlist Shakespeare at all?  I asked him, and he didn’t really give an answer. Not a ticket past the censors. Not high-cultural cred for a sketchy contemporary message. (In fact I think it was both those things. Despite every expectation that the audience and even the actors would not know Shakespeare’s text, the big-name pedigree would impress them.) Fahmi El-Kholi said only: “Well, Shylock is generally associated with Israel, with Zionism, with the pound of flesh being the slice of Arab land.”  He and I were both able to cite several plays along these lines, both by older (Ali Ahmad Bakathir, Shylock al-Jadid) and by younger (Ibrahim Hamada, Ratl al-Ard) playwrights.

And then the conversation moved on to other things.  Have you seen his latest Shakespeare effort, Measure for Measure, produced in Doha in 2006?  Reviews here and here.  Or what about Jerusalem Will Not Fall, an elaborate agit-prop historical starring Nur El-Sherif, in 2002?  El-Kholi was also honored with this year’s State Distinction Award in the Arts in a surreal mid-revolution awards ceremony in July.
El-Kholi’s current projects? Either a play called Hulagu about the U.S. occupation of Iraq (“as soon as I can find a good person who will fund it” – sounds like this one has been on the drawing board for some years now) or, responding more immediately to the 2011 Egyptian “revolution” and its uncertain aftermath, a revival of Salah Abdel Sabur’s play Leila and the Madman (1970).

"Shakespeare, friend of Arab democracy"

Thanks to all who helped organize or who attended my recent talks at Cairo U, Ayn Shams (Al-Alsun and Drama Dept), and/or AUC. It was humbling and mind-sharpening to do them in light of everything that was happening in Cairo. And is still happening. Happy (to the limited extent possible) Election Day!
Thanks also to Sameh Fekry Hanna from whose dissertation I lifted the 1912 image at left: “Shakespeare, the democratic English dramatic poet.”
One more talk coming up at Helwan U on Dec 8.

Mohamed Sobhi’s Hamlet – video now online

The Global Shakespeares web archive has put up QuickTime video of Mohamed Sobhi’s Hamlet, a landmark production first staged at the Art Studio Theatre in 1971 and then reprised and filmed for television in 1976-7.  Filming was directed by Nur al-Demerdash.  The full-length video is here – it runs over two hours.  Helpfully, they’ve posted some excerpts too — individual scenes that are more convenient to use in class.

I should say, “landmark” does not mean it’s great theatre. Critic Hani Shukrallah memorably summed it up in a 2001 column about Sobhi on the occasion of the latter’s controversial (and awful) Ramadan mini-series dramatizing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. 

Meanwhile, we are supposed to look forward to Egyptian “character actor” Mohamed Sobhi performing no less than 14 roles in a TV serial dramatising the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which apparently has had millions spent on it and is to be broadcast in many parts of our glorious Arab nation. The casting is apt. Sobhi is symptomatic of “the state of the nation” — or is it civilisation? Several years ago I had to suffer through a Hamlet performed by this man, hailed as one of our great actors. I’m no drama critic, but even I could recognise that Sobhi’s acting skills seem to lie precisely in “saw[ing] the air too much with… [his] hands” and “tear[ing] a passion to tatters.” Little wonder, perhaps, that he is so well admired; tearing a passion to tatters seems to be a particular predilection of “our civilisation” these days.

Later I’ll try to comment on particular scenes, either here or in the metadata on the Global Shakespeares web site.  Meanwhile, I just wanted to tell the story of how I obtained this video.

Sobhi has, in case you didn’t notice from the quote above (he played all the parts in his own miniseries!), a certain sense of his own importance. And Egyptian society has rewarded this attitude with all kinds of celebrity and adulation. When I made a trip to Cairo in 2007 while working on my book, a theatre scholar friend managed to find me Sobhi’s cell phone number.  Someone else tried to give me Sobhi’s number too, but it was incorrect.  Anyway I called and made an appointment to meet and talk about his Hamlet.  But he wasn’t in Cairo.  He had built himself a studio complex way out in the desert along the Cairo-Alexandria road.  He had called it Sonbol City for the Arts, after a character in one of his films. Okay.  I hired a car-and-driver and made the trek.  It was about an hour and a half.

Sonbol City included film editing facilities, a swimming pool, health club, various meeting rooms, etc. But it was a pretty surreal – sprawling and empty, except for Sobhi himself, who was editing his latest Ramadan series, attended by a skeleton staff of a couple of dozen people. I don’t know if it has filled up since then.

 I don’t know if you can see the images of Sobhi in these photos – they were everywhere.

 Along with comedy/tragedy masks and vignettes from his films, etc., including from the period of his collaboration with Egyptian playwright Lenin El-Ramly (the two split up quite a while ago).

 Plaster casts of the greatest Egyptian entertainers: that’s Umm Kulthum second from right with the sunglasses.

 And on the walls, stylized portraits of Sobhi in his most famous roles…

 …including Hamlet.  (You can see in the film… he looked a little better than this.)

Anyway, I waited for a while and then the man himself came out to talk with me. He was tired and unshaven, in the middle of that Ramadan serial. But he gave me a great interview – we talked for over an hour, discussing many details of his Hamlet production — of which, at that point, I had only read reviews.  Most reviewers had focused on the play’s opening scene: it starts with the epilogue, Hamlet’s funeral. Sobhi said he did this in order to make the audience think: “I didn’t want them to sit there wondering what would happen, but asking themselves why it had to happen.”  When I remarked that this sounded like a Brechtian desire, he said: “No, it wasn’t Brechtian or anything.”  Finally I asked if he could share a recording.  Yes, he said.  There was an old videotape.  It was from the 1970s.  It was film but then had been converted to VHS.  He didn’t have it with him.  Could I meet him in Cairo in two days?
I could, but stupidly I somehow spent the whole day calling the incorrect cell phone number.  When I finally called  the right one towards evening, it was too late — he was already back at Sonbol.  But he had taken the VHS tape with him.  Could I come pick it up?
Fortunately, the driver remembered the location and was able to go without me.  He picked up the tape and brought it back to Cairo.  Then he nearly refused to accept money, so thrilled was he to be able to meet the great actor in person, to actually shake Mohamed Sobhi’s hand. Back in the US, I had it converted to a DVD, and now the good people at Global Shakespeares have posted it online for your delectation.  Enjoy!