Not all the world is a stage…

The sign reads: “A Living Egypt is Not a Play”
 
(In Arabic the two expressions, “living Egypt” and “theatre play,” differ by just one letter.)

Advertisements

"Jihadist Hamlet": Western commentators catch up to Hamlet’s political dimensions

In a Counterpunch piece with the bizarrely alluring subtitle “Anders Breivik, Amy Winehouse, Hamlet and Tahrir Square,” commentator Caroline Rooney (who holds some sort of academic position in Kent, with the enviable title of “RCUK Global Uncertainties Fellow”) finds some striking similarities between the character of Hamlet and that of the contemporary militant Islamist jihadist. Her point in making this perhaps “odd” or “to some, discordant” claim is to humanize the jihadist, to show that far from being some kind of brainwashed automaton with a very shallow subjectivity quite unlike our own, can quite possibly be a deep character, on par with the quintessential deep character of western civilization.  Excellent observation!  (And I make a very similar point in my book…)

One of the intriguing things about Shakespeare’s plays is how they have the capacity to assume, time and again, a contemporary relevance.  In terms of the concerns of our times, it is surprisingly not hard to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet as exhibiting the psyche of a Jihadist extremist. In brief, Hamlet is dismayed by the socio-political corruption he finds all around him and in relation to this he develops a savior complex: he believes that it is his almost divinely appointed task to set the world to rights. He believes that the wrong he has to address is betrayal of a divinized father ideal: that to which all loyalty must be fanatically owed. Hamlet is puritanical; he is disgusted by sex and berates his mother for acting on her sexual desires while he orders Ophelia to veil herself, more or less, in his ‘get thee to a nunnery’ speech. Hamlet also has a paranoid attitude, one of intense distrust of ‘infidel’ types such as Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and, of course, especially Claudius.
The reason that I put forward this odd—and, possibly to some, discordant— proposition of a Jihadist Hamlet is to challenge some of the reductive post 9/11 framings of Islamic extremism by politicians and the media. One of the particularly reductive features of these framings has been the widespread simplistic inference that extremism is culturally other, and specifically Islamic.

 You can see where this is going, and it’s praiseworthy.  Not only as a reconsideration of violent Islamism (highly salutary) but, I would argue, as a reconsideration of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  It’s only a few years ago (starting, say, about 10 years ago?  Around September of 2001 perhaps?) that Anglo-American critics, led by figures such as Linda Charnes and Margreta de Grazia, have begun to write about the political dimensions in Hamlet, which had been long obvious to critics and audiences in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Arab worldAnd now, since our times have gotten far enough “out of joint,” also to us.
Rooney takes this mirroring as her explicit subject:

While the figure of Hamlet has been taken by some literary critics to be emblematic of the emergence of the modern Western subject, what does it then mean to notice that such a subject would seem to exhibit Jihadist tendencies? It means not only that the repeated othering of extremism is untenable but also that extremism accompanies the modern subject as the effect of its emergence. In other words, if the modern subject is a Dr Jekyll then Mr Hyde is his extremist double: not another as such but a phantom other of refused identifications. While the West currently produces a phantom of Islamic extremism, this paranoid structure comes to be inhabited by the Jihadist who attempts to invert it, that is, in producing the West as its demonic other.

From here it gets rather weird, though: it turns out the Crusader is just the Jihadist in a funhouse mirror. 

In terms of this logic of opposing mirrors, the Jihadist fighting the Crusader is just like the Crusader fighting the Jihadist. Or, Hamlet the Jihadist could also be Hamlet the Crusader. With this turn, it becomes possible to account for the political psyche of Anders Breivik , not Anders the Dane but rather Anders the Norwegian. Like his literary counterpart, Anders the Norwegian considers the rulers of the state to be corrupt and considers his role to be one of setting the world to rights. From his website, Anders appears to have been mesmerized by the specters of idealized military manhood: here, we might recall that the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears precisely as a suit of armor.

 I’m not saying she’s wrong, just a bit too breathy perhaps.

Anders and Amy [Winehouse] may be said to embody the sadism and masochism of our cultures or, politically, the ever-present potential for fascism.

Still, nice to see Hamlet taking his rightful place in that conversation.

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 http://yfrog.com/kil04ngj

Huffy "expert" on Shakespeare and Middle East tyrants

Forgot to blog about this HuffPost column when Google alerted me to it a couple of weeks ago.  Who is this (self-anointed?) “expert” Shai Baitel, and why do his dyspeptic ruminations on Kevin Spacey as Richard III (under the pompous title “Power and Downfall — Between Shakespeare and Arab Tyrants”) merit placement as political analysis?  Ah, but this is the magic of invoking Shakespeare to discuss contemporary politics.  Any hint of today’s political violence adds the spice of perceived relevance to a simple run-through of an old history play.

But can Shakespeare’s Richard III, in Mendes’s thoughtful interpretation and irresistibly brought to life by Spacey, compare to the ilk of the rulers of Iran, to Bashar al-Assad, to Hassan Nasrallah, to Muammar Gaddafi?

And referring to Shakespeare’s plays automatically gives depth to otherwise incoherent ponderings on the Middle East.

But unlike Richard III our Middle Eastern despots have a larger arsenal at their hands: they are a 21st century variety of ruthless sovereigns, with propaganda, mass media, surveillance and intelligence agencies, sophisticated weapons and technology, as tools to keep their people in check and secure their rule. Richard III was left with shamelessly sowing terror. He did not hesitate to kill, including members of his own family, to reach his goal. Whoever had the temerity to disagree with Richard III’s opinion or argued with him went to prison — at best — or had to die. And he had the absolute power of the armed forces, which he used against his enemies. In that respect there are parallels indeed between Richard III and the modern-day Arab tyrannical leaders.

Whatever.

Raja Shehadeh channels Hamlet

I first began studying Arabic fourteen years ago in part because, on my first trip to San Francisco, I had randomly met Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh’s cousin Nabil and immediately afterwards, walking into a used bookstore, stumbled on a copy of Shehadeh’s memoir, The Third Way.  That’s part of what helped inspire my interest in the language and, eventually, in Arab appropriations of Shakespeare.
I want to quote Shehadeh here to illustrate how deeply the imagery of Hamlet — particularly but not exclusively the young angry Hamlet of Act I — has become interwoven with formulations  of Palestinian identity, Arab identity, and the conflict over Palestine.  This is from Shehadeh’s interview in David Grossman’s 2002 book The Yellow Wind  (also reviewed here).  He says:

Of the two ways open to me as a Palestinian — to surrender to the occupation and collaborate with it, or to take up arms against it, two possibilities which mean, to my mind, losing one’s humanity — I choose the third way. To remain here. To see how my home becomes my prison, which I do not want to leave, because the jailer will then not allow me to return.

I believe it is no stretch to read Shehadeh’s refusal to “take up arms” as related to Hamlet’s hesitation during the “to be or not to be” soliloquy — how to commit oneself to fighting an evil so huge that, like a “sea of troubles,” it will simply swallow up the humanity of anyone who engages with it?  Shehadeh’s “to surrender… and to collaborate” are symbolically identical, in Arab political discourse, with Hamlet’s “to die, to sleep.” 
Two unsatisfactory options which leave him searching for a “third way,” one that lets his essential humanity be recognized and gives him (at least) a voice in shaping how his history comes out.  You can see where the impulse comes from.  Even if you question its efficacy.  (And now his latest book, ever searching for a place to stand, seems to be harking back to the Ottomans.)

‘To Be or Not To Be’ in Lebanon?

Here’s the slide from my AUB talk that the Daily Star reporter was alluding to. I took this photo in late Feb 2005 – it’s the graffiti around Martyrs’ Square (later Liberty Square) in downtown Beirut, where people were commemmorating the Valentine’s Day 2005 car-bomb assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Can you see the faint writing, in English, right at the bottom of the photo? 

“To be or not to be now is the time.”

And here’s another example of Lebanon-related “to be or not to be” rhetoric: Walid Jumblatt (this was before he broke with the March 14 grouping) saying a rally was absolutely crucial to the existential future of Lebanon

“Notre combat c’est “être ou ne pas être.” No hyperbole or anything.

Flew home from glorious Beirut yesterday.  Sigh.

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.