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.

"War after war! Where are all our men?"

Check out RSC Associate Director Deborah Shaw’s eloquent piece on Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, the play created by her husband Monadhil Daood for the RSC’s upcoming World Shakespeare Festival.
I’m looking forward to seeing it in May.  Here is Shaw’s argument about intercultural appropriation:

At home I am often asked about the foreign-language productions that will be performed during the festival. A common question is: “How do they cope with Shakespeare’s complex language?” I wonder if there is an expectation inherent in the question that they will produce beautiful, literary translations, which will stay as close as possible to the original text. Do we expect them to perform close approximations of British productions, but in foreign clothes? Because they won’t.
Serious artists encounter Shakespeare as a playwright, his work to be transplanted and made sense of through the prism of a different reality and set of culture references. They tell the Shakespeare story they are compelled to tell, appropriating characters, narrative, moral dilemmas, symbolism and themes in a way that, I would argue, embodies the true dramatic spirit of Shakespeare.

What she describes is still a one-to-one encounter (which is what an RSC commission might tend to produce) rather than what I’ve been calling a national or regional “Shakespeare tradition.”  But I find this an attractive and convincing statement of how any “serious artist” (including an Anglophone one) would approach the task of adapting or even producing Shakespeare.

Shakespeare at the Alwiya Club – a bygone Baghdad era

My colleague Kecia Ali alerted me to this beautiful reminiscence by Abdul Sattar Jawad, an Iraqi literature scholar who was forced to flee Baghdad in 2005. Titled “Shakespeare in Baghdad,” it just appeared in Duke University’s student paper, The Chronicle.

There are some spiky details under the surface of the piece.  For instance, “Iraq” functions as a metonym for everything in the Arab world (just as “Egypt” does for Egyptian intellectuals), including a late 19th c adaptation of Romeo and Juliet adapted by a Lebanese migrant for performance in Cairo.  Also there is curiously no mention of the great Palestinian-Iraqi poet-novelist-critic-translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who did so much for Arabic reception of Shakespeare (and of Abdul Sattar Jawad’s other great love, T.S. Eliot).  But who wants to quibble?  The piece is a lovely evocation of a cosmopolitan Baghdad paradise very similar to Jabra’s and now, unfortunately, lost for the forseeable future.
Here’s the opening: 

Shakespeare in Baghdad

It has been nearly thirty years since I drove to Oxford to visit its celebrated university and pay tribute to Shakespeare’s mausoleum in Stratford-upon-Avon in the heart of England. I was greeted in what seemed unthinkable: “Hey Sheikh Zbair, how’d you do?”
It was really a surprise to me although I am well aware of the Iraqi myth alleging that William Shakespeare is an Iraqi from Zubair, an Iraqi city bordering Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This myth was disseminated by Iraqi scholar and poet Safa Khulusi, who did his Ph.D. at London University in the 1940’s and then settled in Oxford as Chair of Islamic Studies. Of course this funny theory was very popular among Iraqis from different walks of life, who loved Shakespeare through his plays and poems taught at high schools and colleges.
Similarly, when I first came to Duke in 2005, Bruce Lawrence, professor emeritus of religion, extended his hand to me at the John Hope Franklin Center and said: “Welcome Sheikh Zbair.” From that time I realized that the Iraqi myth had crossed the Atlantic and become a source of fun, if not laughter. To the Iraqis and Arabs, Old Will is perceived as a bringer of much delight and gladness to mankind and the only author read or staged everywhere. He is, as Harold Bloom, one of America’s leading critics, said, an international possession transcending nations, languages and professions. Through invention and originality Shakespeare has notched the highest popularity and survived migration from country to country.
Old Will always manifests himself as a force that continues to activate the potential of other languages, in terms of grammar, vocabulary, register, rhythm and tone. In Iraq, Shakespeare was received as the most popular playwright and poet who taught us how to understand the human nature. His plays were performed even in the Iraqi vernacular: Othello retrieved his Arabic name Utail, Iago was Arabized into Yaccoob and Romeo and Juliet took a new title, Martyrs of Love, to attract public attention and boost the box office.
Read the whole thing…

Saadi Youssef poem: Elsinore, Hamlet’s Castle

Elsinore, Hamlet’s castle
The trench with green water
is criss-crossed by twigs and birds,
by the shoes of tourists
and the ghosts of shipwrecked sailors . . . 
I cross it too
feeling the moat’s wooden boards,
soft, and water-logged.
Like blood within blood,
the castle resides within itself.
But now you will not caress a wooden board
or a stone, you will not enter history
to enjoy the paintings exhibited in the hall
while you listen to the
swashing sea.
Now you will withdraw into yourself
like a snail into its shell.
You will listen to footfalls in a distant night.
To stifled breath, to the staircase
rising toward the questions.
So,  then, beware!
Translated by Sargon Boulus. Reprinted from Banipal No 15/16.  With thanks to the Arabic Literature (in English Translation) blog.

ٍSee also Youssef’s very long poem “Hamlet’s Balcony” – شرفة هاملت – (in Arabic).

Monadhil Daood to produce Romeo and Juliet in London 2012

Among the works commissioned for the RSC-produced World Shakespeare Festival, directed by the RSC’s Deborah Shaw and coming up next year (April to September) as part of the London 2012 Festival associated with the Olympics:

Romeo and Juliet, directed by Monadhil Daood – Iraqi Theatre Company, Baghdad

Shakespeare’s great love story, set against a backdrop of conflict between families, communities and generations, finds new purchase in the soil of contemporary Iraq, where sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia, ignited and fuelled from outside, has left its population exhausted by a cycle of violence and revenge. Baghdad’s Iraqi Theatre Company will create a Romeo and Juliet for a new generation, infused with Iraq’s rich traditions of poetry, music and ritual.

For Monadhil’s previous work, see the Baghdad Iraqi Theatre‘s web site.  He also played a hammy Polonius in Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Al-Hamlet Summit and a terrifying Catesby in Al-Bassam’s Richard III.

UPDATE 7/8/11: Full details of the RSC’s World Shakespeare Festival to be announced in September, but it seems the RSC is one of the collaborators in the London 2012 festival; it’s listed as a partner on this show and others. There’s also going to be an RSC production that is explicitly international, provocatively titled, “What Country, Friends, is This?”

Comparing Iraqi politicians to Othello

Writing on the Sotaliraq (Voice of Iraq) web site, op-ed writer Majid `Anqabi compares Iraq’s governing elite to Othello (in Arabic). The headline is “Shakespeare’s play Othello and the Fear of the Liberation Square Demonstrators.”
`Anqabi mentions the theory “held by specialist scholars” that Othello was insecure about Desdemona because he was unable to satisfy her sexually, and thus became vulnerable to jealousy and had to kill her. His analogy is that the ruling Iraqi elite, unable to satisfy its people (e.g., by providing normal state services) is insecure and feels forced to crack down brutally when they demonstrate in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. A new twist to the woman-as-nation analogy.  Also more evidence that most Arab readings of Othello are concerned with the spousal relationship, NOT the West.
Incidentally, the writer also invokes Safa’ Khulusi and his nickname for Shakespeare, Shaykh Zubayr.

Richard III in Kurdish northern Iraq?

Salah Qasab, one of Iraq’s best-known directors Shakespeare (Hamlet, The Tempest, Macbeth, etc.), is talking about staging an adaptation of Richard III in Irbil, Sulaymaniye, and other venues in the Kurdish region of Iraq, if he can get enough support from Kurdistan’s ministry of culture.  A few details in his interview with Al-Sabah al-Jadid newspaper (in Arabic). 
But apparently he has had this plan for a while.

Hamlet Without Hamlet planned in Iraq

Monadhil Daood, who plays Catesby in Al-Bassam’s Richard III, confirmed to me that he plans to direct an adaptation of the play Hamlit bila hamlit (“Hamlet without Hamlet”) at the Iraqi National Theatre in the coming months.

The 1992 absurdist Hamlet spin-off, by Kirkuk-born poet-playwright Khaz’al al-Majidi (b. 1951), opens with news of Hamlet’s death by shipwreck on his way from Wittenberg to his father’s funeral. (Full text here: http://www.masraheon.com/294.htm) Directed at the Iraqi National Theatre in 1997 by Naji ‘abd al-Amir, Hamlit bila hamlit continues to be produced throughout the Arab world. Michel Cerda and Haytham Abderrazak directed it in Paris in 2007. Monadhil Daood says his version, which will be the inaugural play for his Baghdad Theatre Company, will adapt al-Majidi’s script quite a lot and will incorporate aspects of ta’ziya (Shi’a passion plays for the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn). Incidentally, Daood’s doctoral dissertation on ta’ziya theatre, written in Arabic and defended in Moscow in the late 1990s, is available through interlibrary loan.

Updates on the Iraqi National Theatre available here.

Article on Arab Hamlets in Iraqi National Congress paper

This survey from Al-Mu’tamar newspaper, a daily (formerly) published by the Iraqi National Congress.

هاملت في المختبر التجريبي العربي
عواد علي
حظيت مسرحية “هاملت” لشكسبير، باهتمام الكثير من المخرجين، سواء في الغرب، أو في الشرق، فأقبلوا على تجريب رؤاهم الإخراجية المختلفة عليها، وتقديم مقاربات وتأويلات جديدة لأحداثها وشخصياتها وفضاءاتها. وكثيراً ما أثير تساؤل مفاده: ما الذي يدفع هؤلاء المخرجين إلى تكرار إخراج هذه المسرحية، أهي الرغبة المحضة في التجديد فحسب، أم العبقرية التي تنطوي عليها النص ذاته، بحيث يسمح بقراءات ومقاربات معاصرة ليس لها حدود، وتنفتح على شتى النزعات والرؤى التجريبية، والتطبيقات المختبرية الحداثية، وما بعد الحداثية؟ وقد ركزت أجابات بعض المشتغلين في المسرح، والباحثين على الشق الأول من التساؤل، في حين ركزت إجابات أخرى على الشق الثاني منه، وهو ما أميل شخصياً إليه، فلو كانت الرغبة المحضة في التجديد فحسب هي الدافع لوجد هؤلاء المخرجون أمامهم عشرات النصوص المسرحية الحديثة التي تلبي تلك الرغبة. ولكنهم ماداموا يسعون إلى الخوض في تساؤلات إنسانية وسياسية كبرى تفرضها تعقيدات العصر، وأيديولوجياته، وصراعاته، ومصالحه المتشابكة

Read more here: http://www.inciraq.com/pages/view_paper.php?id=200817948