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.

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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…

Qadhafi: Shakespeare Was an Arab Named Shaykh Zubayr

I’ve been looking for a source for the widely known fact that Muammar Qadhafi claimed Shakespeare was not a native-born Englishman but, in fact, an Arab named Shaykh Zubayr.
Cork Milner’s site on the authorship controversy gives us this:

The most bizarre of all the pretenders is Muammar al-Qaddafi’s choice, Sheik Zubayr bin William. Quaddafi came up with his champion in 1989 when Radio Tehran announced that Libya’s “Great One” had declared that an Arab sheik named Zubayr bin William, who had been born in the sixteenth century, was Shakespeare.

I should point out that Qadhafi did not originate the bizarre claim that Shakespeare was a crypto-Arab.  Usually cited in jest, the Shaykh Zubayr “theory” holds that Shakespeare was actually an Arab Muslim living in Britain.  Various authors cite “evidence” including Shakespeare’s full lips and “Islamic” beard in the supposedly “un-English” Chandos portrait(above); his many treatments of mistaken or doubtful identity; and his allegedly unflattering views of Jews, Turks, and the British (supposedly clear in The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and the history plays).  Who but an Arab could harbor unfavorable views of precisely these three groups?

M.M. Badawi (“Shakespeare and the Arabs,” 1964) and Ferial Ghazoul (“The Arabization of Othello,” 1998) trace the Shaykh Zubayr authorship theory to a mid-nineteenth-century Lebanese satirical writer, Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq; it was later taken up in earnest by Iraqi scholar Ṣafā’ Khulūṣī and then painstakingly refuted by Ibrāhīm Ḥamāda in a book-length essay, عروبة شكسبير (“The Arabness of Shakespeare,” 1989). Qadhafi drew Western headlines by mentioning it (perhaps jokingly? who can tell with such a lunatic?) in 1989.  

But the conceit of an Arab Shakespeare has also appealed to all kinds of intercultural writers addressing Western readers.  My favorite is Wole Soyinka in his essay “Shakespeare and the Living Dramatist” (replublished in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage). In a similar vein, Jordanian-Irish-American novelist Diana Abu Jaber in her novel Crescent has an Iraqi-American character invoke the theory, tongue-in-cheek, speaking to an American graduate student: “Did you know that Shakespeare’s favorite food was stuffed eggplant?  And there’s some who say that Shakespeare’s name was actually Sheikh Zubayr . . . There’s a nice thesis for you.’”  (132).  Sulayman al-Bassam resorts to a similar opening gambit in a 2005 Guardian column. So the authorship theory can be a playful bid for intercultural understanding, not only (as with Qadhafi) an insane claim of Arab cultural priority.
By the way, the would-be Arabic name preserves the phallic imagery of spear-shaking.  Zubr = penis.  So the diminutive zubayr, on one reading, is “little penis.”  Shake it, Will, habibi!