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).

Merchant of Venice in Boston

This is not about “Arab Shakespeare” per se, but I want to write about this production, so I’ll use the pretext that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice does depict an Arab: the Prince of Morocco.  Though not as well known as Othello or Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus, the Moorish suitor echoes them in certain ways, loving Portia “not wisely but too well.” Doomed by his unseemly fascination with luxury commodities (gold!), he chooses the wrong casket (all that glitters!) and quickly leaves the scene. 
The show I saw last weekend, by Theatre for a New Audience (directed by the Yugoslavian-born Darko Tresnjak) at ArtsEmerson in Boston, made the strange decision to costume the Prince of Morocco (the fine African-American actor Raphael Nash Thompson) as Gulf Arab royalty.  Here he is flanked by Portia and her staff on the left, his own weird attendants (why does his head of security look like a flight attendant for Emirati Airlines?) on the right.  Yes, that’s an engraved sword he’s presenting to Portia.

What’s up with this?  The role is unabashed ethnic caricature, and in modern productions a sort of turbaned Leo Africanus (or Moorish Ambassador) getup is typical.  But playing the Prince this way let Tresnjak emphasize that this production was really about money as much as ethnic difference.  Portia (Kate MacCluggage)’s feelings toward this suitor were ambiguous; she allowed herself several apparently heartfelt racist comments (“May all of his complexion woo me so!”), but she also seemed very attracted to him physically and comfortable flirting with him.  The exotic sex appeal?  The oil money?  Both?  Unlike her second suitor, he was a dignified and well-spoken man, a true member of the international aristocracy.  In the end she may have been a bit disappointed (though she said otherwise) that he chose the wrong box, the one labeled “Who chooses me will get what many men desire.”  Childish, conformist Moor.  What a pity. 

The odd portrayal of the Moor ties in with what was so strange about the whole production.  Tresnjak’s Venice is made to resemble New York circa 2008, a glitzy and fratty town where the tone is set by young investment bankers flying high on testosterone and Starbucks.  The phones are smart and the Wall Street boys are too, trading the smug elbow jabs of financial capitalism at its most arrogant.

The setting has potential, but why isn’t Shylock integrated into it?  He is simply a man attached to his home and his daughter and his tribe: not even necessarily a banker.  This makes him timeless, simply “a Jew.”  We never see him in anything like a work or office setting; his home is full of decontextualized Jewish kitsch (lanterns, candelabra, vague klezmer music), a weird break from the Apple-store sleekness (as my sister-in-law observed) of the rest of the set.  This — and the fact that Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham’s acting towered over that of others, especially the milquetoast Portia — makes the whole Wall Street setting with its 21st-century shenanigans suddenly irrelevant. The anti-Semitism is frat-boy cruel, but Shylock’s response is simple atavism.

Everything else the production has going for it — Portia’s evident jealousy of her Bassanio’s love for the closeted Antonio, Jessica’s visibly growing nausea at the betrayal she has committed, Gobbo’s rap antics — is overshadowed by this basic failure to integrate the production’s strongest character into its underlying premise. Incomplete allegory is the biggest risk of contemporary-dress adaptations; this show succumbs.

By the way, the ArtsEmerson folks all but announced that Al-Bassam’s Speaker’s Progress is coming to Boston next fall.  Stay tuned!

Bayer on Arab Merchant of Venice

Periodically when you’re talking about Arab Shakespeare appropriation some mischievous soul will ask: “So, what do they do with The Merchant of Venice?” It’s a good (if not nice) question. Now we can refer it to Mark Bayer’s article in the current issue of Comparative Drama:

Mark Bayer, “The Merchant of Venice, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the Perils of Shakespearean Appropriation,” Comparative Drama Volume 41 (Winter 2007-08 ), No. 4. See Project Muse for PDF and HTML.

Haven’t read it yet, but Bayer’s SAA paper on the same topic (2006) was interesting.

The Arab League translation of MV (nice cover art, folks):