Eating your politics: dates for Ramadan

From one site that collects Shakespeare quotations related to various foods:

The Winter’s Tale, IV, 3:
CLOWN: I cannot do’t without counters. Let me see; what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice,–what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on. She hath made me four and twenty nose-gays for the shearers, three-man-song-men all, and very good ones; but they are most of them means and bases; but one puritan amongst them, and he sings psalms to horn-pipes. I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates?–none, that’s out of my note; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many of raisins o’ the sun.

Sounds like the shopping list for an iftar feast, doesn’t it?  (Never mind about the puritan.) What got me curious about Shakespeare and dates in the first place was a prior curiosity about the Cairo dried fruit market. Every year at Ramadan, merchants name their wares after politicians and other celebrities, both to attract customers and to show off their sense of humor.  So I wanted to see what they were calling them this year.  Disconcertingly, no individual names seem to have emerged – the principle of “the revolution” has not yet produced any actually plausible leaders.  Still, it’s nice to see the post-Mubarak spirit finding its way into the market, according to this article published on July 26:

   One brand of dates is called ‘Revolution’, another ‘Martyrs’, a third “January 25” and a fourth ‘Freedom’.

   “All the brands are expensive, because they stand for something special,” [one customer] told the Egyptian Mail in an interview. 
This year, as Ramadan approaches, dates have assumed proud revolutionary names, which show that this revolution, for which people were longing for decades, has developed a commercial flavour. The most expensive dates on the markets, the above-mentioned ‘Revolution’, sell for LE15 ($2.50) per kilo. 
The cheapest dates are called ‘Tora Prisoners’, reflecting the popular anger at scores of former officials and ministers who are now in Tora Prison in southern Cairo. 
But none of the brands is named after the former president, who is hospitalised in Sharm el-Sheikh, or his wife and his two sons, although the latter are indeed Tora prisoners.

Well, Egyptians can have very short memories sometimes – at least that’s what the Date Market Index suggests. In 2009, Gulf News reports, the most succulent and expensive dates were named after President Obama

Quite a change from 2001-2, when I last lived in Egypt.  At that time, Ramadan was in November-December, date prices were very high, and Al-Ahram Weekly had this report:

There are six kinds of dates to be found at the market: Sakouti, Baladi, Gandillah, Gargoudah, Malikani and Bartamouda. Others, Nashed says, are given names by their sellers who often draw on current events or famous people. As the attack against America and the war in Afghanistan are today’s main topics of conversation, “Osama Bin Laden is the king of the market,” one merchant told Al-Ahram Weekly. According to this seller, the price of a kilo of Bin Laden has reached LE16 [at that time about $4.50] within the market and LE20 outside. And what about Bush? “He has no place in the market,” was the final and decisive answer.

شكسبير في التحرير (Shakespeare in Tahrir)

You knew it was coming, but here it is. As the post-“revolutionary” (I still think it was largely a military coup) situation in Egypt becomes more intense, with a tug-of-war between the military and the protesters, between secular-state and Islamist protesters, and between different branches of Islamists (traditionalists vs. neo-fundamentalists) — as all this heats up, could Hamlet be far from the conversation?

Tweeted about three weeks ago at

Opening of first "soliloquy" in Tanyus ‘Abdu’s Hamlet, 1901

أبتي أين أنت تنظر ما تم            صار عرصاً ذاك الذي كان مأتم
وغدت بعدك المآتم اعياداً           وذاك الثغر الحزين تبسم.

Why are the publishers having so much trouble getting this quotation to appear correctly in Arabic in the forthcoming issue of Shakespeare Studies?  Right-to-left issues are a pain.  My article on ‘Abdu will be in Shakespeare Studies Vol. 39, accessible via full-text humanities search engines as well as Google Books and the like.

"I’m Hamlet" to play in London 2012 Festival

Young Egyptian director Hani Afifi will stage his Hamlet adaptation, انا هاملت or I’m Hamlet, as part of the London 2012 festival around the Olympics, reports the Seventh Day site (in Arabic).  The play premiered at Cairo’s Creativity Center in the summer of 2009 and was well received at the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre that September; Muhammad Fahim, in the role of Hamlet, won the festival’s Best Actor prize.  My favorite line is where Hamlet asks Ophelia (in the equivalent of the nunnery scene, which takes place at Cairo’s upscale Cafe Cilantro: “But how can I date someone who has 500 friends on Facebook?”

Hamlet and Hamlet satire postponed in Egypt

A protest strike by young theatre people (in Arabic) has postponed the presentation at Cairo’s high-profile Tal`ia (Vanguard) Theatre of three plays including Hamlet and The Dance of the Scorpions, Mahmoud Aboudoma’s 1989 postmodern political Hamlet offshoot.  The three were apparently scheduled to run for a full week — which is a big deal since experimental and youth (or other amateur) plays typically only get to play for one or two nights.

Revolutionary Egypt: a "To Be Or Not To Be" moment

A couple of samples from online articles that quote Hamlet to underscore the urgency of events in Egypt.

From an alarmist FoxNews (of course) interview with Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris, who actually supported the Tahrir protesters and even bought them tents and blankets: 

When the protests began, Sawiris, a Christian billionaire who owns everything from hotels and construction companies to cell phone and investment interests, was out of the country. He chose to return, unlike other businessmen who have already fled.
“I came back because this was not a revolution of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This was the young people of Egypt doing what we failed to do … There is not a single other businessman who has supported it because it’s very dangerous for their interests; but the country is in a position to be or not to be,” he said.

Toward the end of a long, passionate article  by Mariam Saad in something called The Peninsula: 

Generations grew up within the armed forces and were trained to obey the government and surrender to its resolutions. However, if the situation deteriorates and becomes desperate, the challenge poses itself to the individual; to be or not to be? How will the situation resolve itself?

You can easily find many more of these in English and especially in Arabic.

To some ears, even the protesters’ chants had a Shakespearean ring to them! Al-Hayat column by Abdel Ghani Talis, in Arabic, here.

Nehad Selaiha rereads my dissertation…

Hamlet galore: Nehad Selaiha enjoys a Hamletian feast at the Creativity Centre

Of all the foreign dramas translated into Arabic, including Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet has been the most influential since the 1950s. Not only has its language, particularly Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy and phrases like “The time is out of joint” or “Frailty, thy name is woman”, found its way into the rhetoric of political writers and intellectuals and even in the daily speech of the educated, it has also haunted the imagination of playwrights, directors and actors, appearing in different guises to address different needs at different historical moments. Echoes of Hamlet abound in many of the best dramas produced in the 1960s, and at least three tragedies, Alfred Farag’s Sulayman Al-Halabi and Al-Zeir Salem and Salah Abdel Sabour’s The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj, modeled their heroes on the Prince of Denmark, giving them more or less the same moral/political/ existential dilemmas. While the play itself has not received many ‘textually unadulterated’ productions — the most famous and memorable being Sayed Bedeir’s at the Opera house in 1964/65, starring the late, great Karam Metawi’, and Mohamed Subhi’s 1978 one, in which he also played the title role — it has inspired a spade of stage adaptations, original plays and what can be best described as ironic, inter-textual engagements.

In her extensively researched, well informed and deeply insightful doctoral dissertation on the appropriation of Hamlet by Arab culture between 1952 and 2002 (entitled Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Adventures in Political Culture and Drama, soon to be published in book form), American scholar Margaret Litvin demonstrates that the different Arab Hamlet-appropriations since the 1952 Egyptian revolution ‘fall into 4 main phases’ that ‘have corresponded to the prevailing political moods in the region’. The first phase (1952-64) was one of ‘euphoric pride after the 1952 revolution’, and in it ‘Arab dramatists’ preoccupations with Hamlet were focused on [achieving literary and theatrical] international standards’. The second phase (1964-67) was one of ‘soul-searching and impatience for progress’ and ‘Hamlet’s incorporation into Arab political drama’ then took the form of what Litvin calls (in the manuscript of her thesis, which she has graciously sent me, and from which all the above quotations and the ones that follow are taken): a ‘”Hamletization” of the Arab Muslim political hero’. ‘Such Hamletization,’ she goes on to say, ‘was an easy way for Arab playwrights to emulate (and borrow) Hamlet’s complexity of characterization and to obtain the moral and political standing it conferred. Thus the critical demand for deep, complex, yet politically topical characters encouraged serious dramatists to weave strands of Hamlet in their heroes — in turn linking the character of Hamlet with the theme of earthly justice in the audience’s imagination’ (Litvin, pp, 12, 13. 82).