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.


Something rotten

In Syria, meanwhile, recent Higher Academy of Dramatic Arts acting program graduate `Arwa al-`Arabi عروة العربي has directed what seems, according to this review in Al-Akhbar (also reprinted on the Iraq-based web magazine and maybe elsewhere), to have been a really awful production of Hamlet.  Mustafa al-Khani starred. Produced by the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Theatre and Music, it opened at the Hamra theatre in downtown Damascus. 
Does the young Syrian intelligentsia really have nothing better to do??  Last February (is it possible?) the same young director seems to have put on a funny J.B. Priestley play. The text of his Hamlet was edited by none other than Dr. Riad Ismat, who himself directed a “contemporary” Hamlet in 1973, and who is now Bashar al-Asad’s minister of culture. 

After a catalog of the new production’s shortcomings (and alas it fell short only in quality, not length), the reviewer concludes:

كل ذلك، أضاع بوصلة المشاهد عن مقولة العرض التي أراد العربي إيصالها إلى جمهوره: جميعنا الآن نعيش صراعات وحالات ارتياب وتأمل مثل هاملت في بلاد تحوّل فيها الموت والقتل إلى وجبة يومية.

All this has ruined the show’s chance to get across the play’s message, which al-Arabi had wanted to communicate to the audience: we are all now living through power struggles and amid doubts and hopes, like Hamlet, in a country where death and killing are daily fare.
Rehearsals began this past February. For a glowing announcement in the government newspaper Tishreen, see here.

Mounir Abou Debs’ Hamlet

Just wanted to draw attention toBlogger ImproBeirut‘s helpful comment on a much earlier post, alerting me to a photo just posted on the Mounir Abou Debs Facebook fan page:
“Check this link… you can find a picture from the 1967 production directed by Mounir Abou Debs of Hamlet, on the right hand side is Michel Nabaa along with Antoine Kerbage playing the king and Reda Khoury on the far right as Hamlet’s Mother.”
Great! Now anyone feel like tracking down and examining Adonis’ translation?

"5) Do you agree that Hamlet can be a typical Palestinian guy? How?"

An obviously talented and dedicated university English teacher in Gaza, Refaat Alareer, posted this question last month as one of 12 Shakespeare questions for his students to answer on their class blog.  You can read all the questions and their responses here.  Here is the personal blog of the teacher; he’s also on Twitter at @ThisisGazaVoice. And here is my favorite of his students’ answers:

Can Hamlet be a typical Palestinian guy? Why?
Yes, he can.
Hamlet and an ordinary Palestinian guy have some things in common but also differ in other things. First, they resemble each other in the fact that, metaphorically speaking, the mother is presented as Palestine, Hamlet senior as a dead father and the uncle “Claudius” as Israel. The ghost of Hamlet tells Hamlet junior that “Claudius” killed him to marry his mother and take over the kingdom. This is found in act 1 scene 5 “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life 
    Now wears his crown
 Consequently, the feeling of revenge as a result of the death of the father reveals for Palestinian guy the facts that Israel came to take over Palestine to enjoy its great riches and resources and make it their own. Thus, both Hamlet and the Palestinian desire to avenge the deaths of their fathers. However, they differ in two things. First, why the two couldn’t at the beginning avenge for the deaths of their fathers. Second, Hamlet managed to take revenge at the end. On the other hand, the Palestinian guy either died trying or still can’t. For further explanation, Hamlet couldn’t kill or delayed killing his uncle ’till later on for several reasons. First of all some say that these lines of Hamlet in act 3 scene 3″Now might I do it pat, now he is a-praying, and now I’ll do’t. And so goes to heaven, and am I re[ven]ged. That would be scanned. A villain kills my father, and for that, I his sole son do this same villain send to Heaven.” Prove that he was a religious man. So how can he kill the king? The God’s spokesman on earth. Second, he wasn’t very sure that his father was the ghost and what he had told him was true. Finally, some say that Hamlet didn’t want to hurt his mother. First his father dies and now her new husband. His love for her is found in act 3 scene 2 “I will speak daggers to her but use non.” The Palestinian couldn’t avenge his father’s death not because Israel is Allah’s representative on earth, or because he is not sure that Israel was the reason behind the death of his father nor is it because he didn’t want to hurt “Palestine” his mother. But because he simply doesn’t have the means to and if he could at this moment to get out there and avenge the death of his father he would do it without any delay or hesitation. The second thing they don’t have in common is that Hamlet at the end of the play manages to kill his father’s killer. Unlike the Palestinian guy who is still trying, hoping and wishing. So again yes Hamlet, in a way, can be a typical Palestinian guy.

Other students give a more politically universalizable youth-centered reading:

Of course, any Palestinian at one day of his life will face the same as Hamlet.
What Hamlet faced is called The identity crises .Your parents want you to be something you don’t want ,or against your future plans and the only thing is available to you is to follow them. Father wants you to be a doctor and your intelligence is linguistic you want to be a writer .To sum up you will do something for your father as Hamlet did.

As with teaching everywhere, it’s humbling to see what students get from the assignment, what they don’t get, what they appropriate as their own and what passes them by.  Of course there are local constraints too.  The student who wrote the long response above also posted: “But plz stop increasing the number of questions !! 3 weeks won’t be enough to answer them all !! First, no electricity. Second, no enough hours in the day !”

The Grammar of "Being"

From an article in the Dartmouth campus paper describing a fun recent event on campus:

Profs. reconsider Hamlet’s dilemma

That Hamlet’s famous dilemma of “to be or not to be” resists translation across languages is a result of linguistic, cultural and social differences, elements discussed by professors from the Asian and Middle Eastern languages and literatures department at Wednesday’s colloquium, “To Be or Not To Be, That is the Question: The Problematics of ‘Being’ in Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew and Japanese.”

The four languages represented in the lecture are characterized by contradicting conceptions of grammar, time, religion and philosophy that all diverge from those of English. The difficulty in translating the phrase lies not only in verbal conversion but also in fundamental differences between each culture’s conceptualization of life, according to the panelists.
Professors Kamal Abu-Deeb, Sarah Allan, James Dorsey and Lewis Glinert represented the Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Hebrew departments, respectively.

Sounds like a great way to advertise a language department. (Though my favorite grammatical fact about Arabic in this context – that it has no infinitive form – was not mentioned.)

Shakespeare on Palestine on Fox News

Here’s a totally unreadable piece on the Fox News web site by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center published in the runup to Mahmoud Abbas’ speech at the United Nations.  Cooper recycles all the old cliches – “backed by Iran,” “they teach their children to hate,” etc. As though it were a matter of Palestinians recognizing Israelis’ rights! Of course no such screed would be complete without an appeal to Shakespeare (the only universally agreed-upon scripture we’ve got on this planet) to buttress the opinionator’s authority.  In this case, he invokes both Julius Caesar and Hamlet.

In Shakespeare’s words, “The fault lies not in our stars, but ourselves.” The Palestinians might as well be relying on astrology rather than looking in their cracked national mirror.
Despite their attempted charade at “unity” by Fatah and the Hamas a few months ago, the Palestinians (like Hamlet) are fatally unable to make up their minds. There are two Palestinian presidents, two prime ministers, and a legislature that neither meets nor passes laws.
As it happens, the context is interesting. Julius Caesar and Hamlet were written one after the other, and what is striking (as I learned from David Bromwich in his excellent Yale seminar on “Political Shakespeare”) is the similarity between the two plays. The sulky insurgents Brutus and Hamlet, at varying speeds, both “make up their minds” to – hello, Rabbi Cooper! – take up arms against a corrupt, unaccountable, increasingly arrogant autocrat.  Here’s the speech spoken by Cassius in Julius Caesar 1.2:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Both plays, alas, end with the death of the hero and various other corpses littering the stage as well.  So I’m not endorsing that approach. I just want to point out that the general intellectual laziness of rote-Zionist discourse extends to its sloppy citation of Shakespeare.