"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.

Bra tops in the London chill (Cymbeline)

After mentioning the requisite linguistic issues, this very supportive review by Yeganeh Torbati quotes co-director Derik Uya Alfred on a different aspect of cultural exchange:



While Juba reaches springtime temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius, an unseasonable London chill had audience members sitting in the open-air theatre wrapped in coats, scarves, and blankets.
Actors ran around on stage barefoot, the women often wearing skirts and bra tops, never betraying even a shiver.
“It was a very big challenge, that weather,” Alfred said. “If you change the costume, if you put something under it you will be destroying the culture. We told them, ‘Don’t feel the cold. Just feel warm and send that warmth to the people in the auditorium and they will also feel that warmth.”

 To counteract the depersonalizing connotations of the phrase “ran around on stage,” you can get to know the company here.

I did find it striking how certain things were intentionally NOT localized to South Sudan (the knighting ceremony for Belarius & sons: “I dub thee” etc.) but the costumes were.  In many cases they seemed designed not to convey character (except for the khaki-shorts imperial police uniform) but to showcase local traditions: not only the bras & beads but things like the doctor/soothsayer’s animal headdress. The production synopsis promises:

Costume that distinguishes between north and south Sudanese gestures at the history of empire and the struggle for nationhood on equal terms.

It quotes Alfred again:

We have brought in and bought a lot of costumes from different tribes that we have to celebrate the cultural diversity of southern Sudan. People in London are going to see something very different.

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 al-Jazeera.net, 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.

Three days, three plays: on allegory

I have been privileged, for the first time in my life, to see three Arabic Shakespeare plays in three nights. All came from places lately known in the UK more as political hotspots than as theatre centers: South Sudan, Iraq, and Palestine. Each took a different approach to the question of Shakespeare and national allegory. All were great fun to watch, in completely different ways and for different reasons. (Incidentally no one else is analytically lumping them together as “the Arabic plays” at the World Shakespeare Festival and Globe-to-Globe; only I’m doing that, mainly for the simple logistical reason of seeing them back to back. There will also be a Tunisian Macbeth in July; I hope to report on that too.)
In the South Sudanese Cymbeline, the main political statement was the presence of this production, hence of this language and these African costumes, at the Globe, hence on the world stage. (“QiSSa qadima min balad jadid” as they put it.) The plot was secondary; it only mattered for a moment that Caesar (Sudan) was trying to extract tribute from Britain (South Sudan (how’s that for a post-postcolonial reversal)) and that the last words of the play in Arabic were “ittifaqiyat al-salam” (peace accord). Allegory was an excuse for the much more impressive fact of literal physical presence. See, we’re here.
In Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad in Stratford-upon-Avon (on which at least one full post to come), allegory was handled more straightforwardly. Parallels were explored, equivalencies and correlates found. The two families had been at war for nine years: since 2003. Romeo was Shia; Juliet was Sunni; old Capulet nearly married her off to Paris, a mujahid with al-Qaeda (on whom everything could conveniently be blamed at the end). Old Capulet and Montague were brothers, estranged after 30 years of Capulet cheating Montague of his rightful profits of their shared boating or pearl-diving business, while now after nine years Old Capulet longed to “feel his hands on the steering wheel” again – ship of state anyone? (First-cousin marriage is fine in Iraq, sometimes even preferred, so that change didn’t confuse the star-crossed lovers.) And so on. There were other things going on too, such as the way the casting hearkened back to a golden age of pre-Saddam Iraqi culture, but I won’t go into them here, because they would work best for an Iraqi audience.  Here I’ll stick to the allegory of “in Baghdad” as presented in Stratford.
In this allegorical setup, the departures from Shakespeare’s R&J signified as much as the parallels: for instance, the fraternal relationship between the two feuding families; the absence of a Rosaline plot; the prior relationship between R&J, who had loved each other and been kept apart since childhood; an original and moving scene in which Lady Montague rouses the conscience of her brother-in-law Capulet, who then curses surrendering his country to al-Qaeda/Paris (Sunni Awakening anyone? the musicians even played “Frere Jacques” to make sure everyone got it); the fact that no sententious wrapup is spoken at the end after the final explosion (al-Qaeda blows up a church) in which the young couple is killed. Of course this setup also allowed aspects of Iraqi realia to be smuggled into the sedate premises of the Swan Theatre: notably a lot of VERY loud explosions and gunfire.  Also some costumes, some wedding customs, adoration of the Barcelona soccer team, and of course the Iraqi colloquial Arabic language.  See? those elements seemed to say, this is our reality, here it is, try to understand it. 
The Palestinian show (al-Ashtar theatre, again at the Globe) was the most intriguing. It sidestepped allegory almost entirely, presenting a “straight” and quite beautiful production of Richard II that happened to be performed in (modern literary) Arabic. Performing for Londoners who had taken the trouble to see a play in a foreign language (and now wanted some ethnography or political commentary for their trouble), this was a risky move.  It prompted an eminent Shakespearean who saw the show to ask what the company had “added to the play.” But I loved it. For me it recalled the best aspects of the 1960s Arab dream — not of Arab unity, but of a seat at the table of world culture. The lovingly deliberate conservatism served to reclaim the metropolitan voice – the right to stand before anyone as an equal and with no discount made for being “from” somewhere. It was simply a good performance. On the way out I heard the couple behind me discussing the ingenious (and it really was) way the production represented characters’ onstage deaths – nothing about Palestine at all. See? We are not simply “local” Shakespeare. We have art just like you.

If there were elements of the Richard II production that alluded to contemporary Arab reality, they mostly stayed far from Palestine, instead pointing vaguely to Arab military dictatorships as such, Saddam Qaddhafi, whatever (as you can see in the picture – this is Bolingbroke shortly before his coup, with Northumberland and Ross). This was done through the costumes and in the Jericho performance it must have been reinforced through the ruined-castle setting. But there was no effort to assign one-to-one Shakespearean labels to particular Palestinian characters or groups (e.g., Hamas or Fatah) or Arab events (e.g., the way Mubarak was deposed only to be replaced by his own top generals).  None of that even seemed to matter. The company’s main work, according to the pre-show talk some of them gave (on which more later), had been to work back and forth with their director, who is Irish and knows no Arabic, to find the right Arabic equivalents, not cultural but mainly just linguistic, for each dense Shakespeare line (and it’s a very dense play with a lot of rhetorically scintillating bits). They succeeded wonderfully in places; apparently members of the Jericho audience told them it sounded as though Shakespeare had originally written the play in Arabic.

A few moments of political-allegorical resonance emerged organically, non-systematically from this process of working through to a poetic prose translation. For instance, my friend Katie and I both found it impossible not to hear John of Gaunt’s famous speech about his self-betraying homeland

 This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,


Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm…  [etc etc]

as a lament about more contemporary losses. As the actor knelt and crushed imaginary soil in his fingers, one could feel exactly what this speech would mean to a Palestinian cast and audience. And then the play moved on, without belaboring the point, without forcing a one-to-one assignment of allegorical labels.  (Remember Iman Aoun’s comment that I quoted in an earlier post: “Yes, at some point you could see a Palestinian dress onstage, or you could see people dressed in Middle Eastern outfits, but it does not particularly say that this is happening here in Palestine or in a particular Arab city. We want the audience to concentrate and think.”)  The Shakespeare text was allowed to reshuffle, perhaps slightly to deepen, the recurring disappointments of Middle Eastern politics: divine-right kingship, military coups, out-of-touch yet image-obsessed leaders, the overvaluation of rhetorical beauty, etc. Because the acting was so strong, it worked.
Pictures, info, and reviews of Ashtar’s Richard II are on Facebook. Best of all, see it for yourself in Oxford on Monday or during what I hope will be a long run in Palestine and internationally.

Between Arabics (Cymbeline)

My friend Katie and I saw the South Sudanese Cymbeline at the Globe tonight.  More thoughts on the show later when I’m less jet-lagged, but I just wanted to start by saying something about the language.  Katie lived for six years in Palestine and also frequently uses Iraqi Arabic and other dialects in her work (for an awesome British nonprofit, Reprieve).  I’m proficient in Egyptian and have a working knowledge of Lebanese.  And I must tell you how little we both understood of the language of this show.  Had I not reread Cymbeline this afternoon, I might have understood even less.
There were many energizing aspects of the show, but I’m sure there was a big chunk of the audience for whom the physical fact of hearing this language spoken onstage — and at a venerable theatre in London! — was the most exciting thing. The actors took obvious pleasure in using the language. And at many points they spliced in English words or short phrases to connect with their audience or for comic effect (Cymbeline about the Queen, on hearing the report of her death: “Crazy woman!”), which further drew attention to the underlying fabric of the South Sudanese Arabic.
It made me curious. Aside from the classical-colloquial question: How different is South Sudanese from other Sudanese Arabic?  Is it like Serbian and Croatian, which used to be called Serbo-Croatian until, suddenly, they weren’t?

To my very untrained ear, many of the most commonly used words sounded identical to Egyptian (kways, 3ashan kida) and many of the nouns including most of the abstract vocabulary comes from “modern standard” fuSHa Arabic (mushkila, sharaf, but also samm, da3wa, etc. etc).  But much of the rest was as opaque to me as Portuguese to a Spanish speaker.  And it seems this distance may be deliberately increased in the next few decades.
According to a fascinating recent article by Emmanuel Monychol, there is considerable debate in South Sudanese intellectual circles about the merits of learning “Africanized” vs. “Khartoum” Arabic. Not sure if people use Khartoum to mean fuSHa or North Sudanese colloquial. Joseph Abuk, who helped adapt Cymbeline for this production, is quoted as follows:

Joseph Abuk states that Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is relevant to South Sudan. Joseph Abuk seems to be in support of an Africanized Arabic. During my short chat with him, he said that there are two types of Arabic language that people must always bear in mind. There is the classic Khartoum Arabic, spoken by Khartoum and the local or Juba Arabic, which is lacking in classic Arabic [lexemes]. According to Joseph Abuk, lack of Arabic [lexemes] in Southern Arabic was due to the “Closed District Ordinances” which barred Northerners from travelling South and Southerners travelling north. It was a policy made by the British and Egypt in the 1930s.

Other aspects of the production – the costumes and dancing – certainly appeared to take the Africanizing, not Arabizing, route.  More on these later.  Photos coming, too.
Meanwhile, more comments from Abuk on the translation in this preview in the Independent.  Tons more media coverage here.  There’s of course a whole shelf of books on Shakespeare in Africa; start here.

Interview with Ashtar director on "Palestinian" Richard II

Thanks to Marvin Carlson for pointing out this intelligent interview with Iman Aoun, artistic director of the Ashtar theatre group in Palestine, done by Sarah Irving at Electronic Intifada. The conversation gets into issues of language (classical vs. colloquial), interpretation, local reception, and normalization vs. BDS.  Here’s one interesting exchange:

SI: Some of the other Shakespeare plays being performed in Arabic during Globe 2 Globe — such as an Iraqi version of Romeo and Juliet set in Baghdad — are very obviously trying to take Shakespeare’s drama and find specific Arab settings for it. Is this what Ashtar has tried to do with Richard II? Or have you left it more to audience to see for itself the modern message that the play might have?

IA: I think we have attempted to do the second. We have tried to be very faithful to the story and to the text itself. We did not add to it, we did not change it. We tried to put it in a modern setting in terms of the costume and flavor, very subtly, you cannot really see one place in our performance, but you could sense, if you want, many places. It is anywhere there is political turmoil, the greed of power. Yes, at some point you could see a Palestinian dress onstage, or you could see people dressed in Middle Eastern outfits, but it does not particularly say that this is happening here in Palestine or in a particular Arab city. We want the audience to concentrate and think.

“Fidelity” discourse aside (and we can easily see that as the counterswing of a certain pendulum), it sounds really worth seeing. One of the peculiarities of the Globe festival is that companies are asked to create these plays essentially on speculation — for just a few UK performances and maybe one or two back home — and then hope someone picks it up.  It would be so great if this play, since it appears to be really good and not just ethnographically curious, could tour to the US somewhere. Are you listening, Chicago?

Ashtar’s Richard II resonates in Jericho

Thanks to Daniele Ranieri for sending me Reuters’ excellent writeup on the reception of the Ashtar troupe’s Richard II production in Jericho (playing there before coming to London’s Globe-to-Globe fest):

“Are you contented to resign the crown?” the rebelling Lord Bolingbroke, leaning impatiently on the already usurped throne, asks the King.

“Yes, no. No, yes,” Richard stutters, igniting a roar of laughter from the local audience too familiar with similar jibes aimed at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh in their waning days.

“Was this the face that, like the sun, used to make those who looked upon it blink?” the king then blubbers into a mirror, echoing the ranting self-praise of Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi before revolt, as it did with the title character, led to his murder last year.

 TIMELESS, UNIVERSAL

Organisers said the Palestinian company’s production was not about the Arab Spring per se and worked in themes, though manifest in the current uprisings, not bound by time or borders.
“We were amazed how deeply the play delves into the psychology of people and this moment in history,” said actress and producer Iman Aoun.
“It’s as if people and politicians don’t learn. They keep repeating their behavior and it makes us realise how much the play resembles the present,” she said.

More reports here (Ma’an) and here (WAFA).

Happy Shakespeare Day, everyone!

South Sudan Cymbeline

I was amazed last fall when a theatre person contacted me looking for an Arabic translation of Cymbeline for the purpose of translating it on into Juba Arabic for a production by the South Sudan Theatre Company.  Now it’s really happening! 
England-based folks: join me at the show on May 3, and meanwhile check out the publicity and fundraising efforts of the London-based support staff, most recently here. Trailers and company info are here: http://www.southsudantheatre.com/.  And here’s a BBC World Service report: just the sort of story the BBC would be attracted to.
A blog post by British Council director and “friend of the project” Tony Calderbank (is this the same Calderbank whose luminous translations of Arabic novels I’ve so enjoyed teaching?) writes movingly of the South Sudanese cast’s determination to “stand for an hour or two on the world stage.” Something not to be forgotten as various critics (including, no doubt, me) write various snarky things about the Globe-to-Globe and RSC festivals’ framing and presentation of hot-spot Arab Shakespeares for their own self-serving rhetorical purposes.