Arab Shakespeare

July 25, 2013

Written by Graham Holderness, University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom

Presented at British Shakespeare Association Conference ‘Local/Global Shakespeares’
King’s College, London, 2009

There’s still something of novelty about that concatenation “Arab Shakespeare”. Compared to many topics under discussion in this conference programme, “Arab Shakespeare” is a relatively new and unfamiliar concept.

We have to ask why this should be so,  since it has been long established that Shakespeare was not a man from Stratford, or a peer of the realm, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or a dark-skinned Jewish Italian woman. He was in fact an Arab Muslim living in Britain, and named Sheik Al-Zubir. Look at the Chandos portrait: the full lips, the dark complexion, the Islamic beard. See the evidence in his plays of how much he disliked Jews, Turks and the British.

This idea began as a joke with a nineteenth-century Lebanese comic writer called Al-Shid-yaq; it was later taken up in earnest by an Iraqi scholar, and then painstakingly refuted by Ibrahim Hamada in an extended essay, ‘The Arabness of Shakespeare.’  Colonel Qadhafi invoked it (again probably jokingly) in 1989.  But it has continued to catch the imaginations of intercultural Arab writers in the United States and Britain. The joke’s persistence, mainly in the West, suggests that it taps into some real intercultural anxiety. The fact that it seems so outrageously unthinkable, while equally unconvincing attributions of authorship keep scholars perennially busy on the Shakespeare Authorship question, indicates that there’s some deep-rooted problem with the very notion of ‘Arab Shakespeare’.

I should say at the outset, acknowledging of course that all such terms are contested and ideologically loaded, that what we mean by ‘Arab’ has to do with language, ethnicity and cultural geography.  So we’re talking here about a relation between Shakespeare and the Arabic language, classical and demotic, and with the culture of Arab territories in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. (Clearly, the topic of Shakespeare and Islam is also central to this project, though it’s a larger, overlapping category).

Studies of international Shakespeare appropriation have mushroomed over the past 15 to 20 years, and are of course at the heart of our conference this year on “Local and Global Shakespeares”.  In the 1990s several lines of academic inquiry began to converge.  Marxist scholars had for some time focused on the fetishization of Shakespeare as a British cultural icon, which was used to confer cultural legitimacy on the project of capitalist empire building.  Scholars of postcolonial drama and literature were exploring how the periphery responded.  Scholars in performance studies were noting how sharply local context could influence a play’s staging and interpretation, and saw a need to account for ‘intercultural’ performances of Shakespeare in various languages and locales.  Translation theorists found in Shakespeare’s plays a convenient (because widely known and prestigious) test case. All this scholarship developed quickly, and Shakespeareans in many countries have contributed: it’s been very much an international project.  By now, there is a rich bibliography on Shakespeare appropriation in India, China, Japan, South Africa, Israel, and many countries in Latin America and Eastern and Western Europe.

Until recently, scholars of Arabic literature and drama were mainly passive participants in this growing Shakespeare conversation.  The Arab world went unnoticed in the numerous edited volumes on international Shakespeare reception and appropriation.  Arab scholars were rarely represented at the major congresses on the subject.  The World Shakespeare Bibliography Online, which catalogues materials in 118 languages, has had only one active Arabic-speaking contributor in the past decade. In English, a handful of articles and dissertations has represented the field.  When scholars in Europe and the United States have occasionally mentioned ‘Arab Shakespeare’ to their colleagues, they have presented it as I did at the beginning of this talk as a novelty, drawing a cheap laugh with the old ‘Shaykh Al-Zubayr’ joke. For which I’m now publicly reprimanding myself.

However, this situation is changing quickly.  In 2006, the World Shakespeare Congress in Brisbane formally embraced Arab Shakespeare. The WSC opened with a panel on Arab Shakespeare, and staged a rehearsed reading of Jawad Al-Asadi’s play Forget Hamlet, translated into English by Margaret Litvin. In 2007 the Royal Shakespeare Company staged its first production in Arabic, Sulayman Al-Bassam’s wonderful Richard III: an Arab Tragedy.  Shakespeareans and Arabists alike are taking a variety of approaches to the question of what Arab readers, translators, rewriters, producers, directors, critics, and audiences do with Shakespeare. Work has been done on global Arabic Shakespeare, facilitated particularly by Sulayman-Al Bassam’s adaptations, which move around the world, in and out of Arabic and English, and sometimes the local language of the territory in which they’re performed. Work has been done on local Middle Eastern Shakespeares, by for instance Mark Bayer, who has used Shakespeare to trace some of the tensions of politics and cultural geography between Israel and Palestine . Rafik Darragi has done work on early Arab Shakespeare adaptations. Work has been done within translation studies on the complex mediations involved in moving Shakespeare into Arabic and back out again (see the work of Sameh Hannah).  In 2007 Margaret Litvin edited the first collection of essays devoted to Arab Shakespeare in the journal Critical Survey, of which I am General Editor (19:3 [December 2007], Arab Shakespeare). Research students are starting to do PhDs on the topic, and so on.

So one way of looking at this is to say that Arab Shakespeare was just another domain of international, intercultural, Shakespeare reproduction that was waiting to be studied. And all that was needed was for some scholars in the west with an interest in the language and the culture, to meet up with some people in the east and to politely get a conversation going. And in a way that is true and it’s begun to happen. But if you look at the inertia that slumbered over this field for so long, and at the sudden urgency with which it’s now all happening, there is obviously a major ‘9/11’ catalytic factor at work here. The movement in Shakespeare studies is a mere symptom, we might say, of a paradigm shift in Western intellectual culture, which has energised itself in momentous ways to seek understanding of, and accommodation with, the sources of terrorist violence. And though it is perhaps regrettable that the international debate has to be conducted partly over that ground, it’s mere foolishness to ignore it, and indeed ignorance to see it as all that unusual, as if it’s the first time culture and violence have ever been formally introduced.

Let me now summarise some of the difficulties that have clearly constituted obstacles for the development of Arab Shakespeare studies, and that still make it a problematic field. These problems are mentioned not in the way of excuse or even explanation but rather to indicate what critical and theoretical tools we need to advance this vital field of knowledge.

The textual and performance history of Arabic Shakespeare is almost as old as the history of Arabic drama itself: but that’s not a very long history. Classical Arabic did not have drama as a genre. There is no equivalent Arabic word for ‘drama’; the Graeco-Latin term is phoneticized.   Dramatic form as it is known to Western audiences first appeared in the Middle East in the mid-nineteenth century. The importation of dramatic works from the West was urgently required to help formulate an Arabic dramatic tradition. Shakespeare’s works, among others, were assimilated into the language and he, like other European playwrights, played a significant role in establishing an Arabic dramatic field of study.

Shakespeare entered the Arab world in the late 19th century as theatre; that is, the plays were translated and adapted specifically to form the repertoire of dramatic companies in Egypt and other Arab countries. Hamlet was first performed in Egypt around 1893, and was immediately popular with local audiences, who had a strong taste for ghosts, revenge and madness. Productions were based on translations derived from 18th century French versions of Shakespeare. Hence the play was radically adapted, with whole scenes deleted and songs introduced; with Hamlet making love to Ophelia in the language of Arab love poetry, and with all obscenity discreetly purged. Above all the play was converted from Shakespeare’s tragedy into a historical romance, in which Hamlet defeats his uncle, ascends the throne, and reigns with the Ghost’s blessing. In Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hamlet flourished as a stage show, independently of textual scholarship, and appeared in radically revised, rewritten, and reconstructed adaptations.

Shakespeare’s absorption into Middle Eastern culture was not therefore by any means a simple process of imperialist transmission and passive colonial reception. ‘Shakespeare’ wrote Nadia Al-Bahar ‘was transplanted into Arab soil’.  ‘Transplanted’ indicates not a simple exchange but a cross-cultural migration across borders, in which the artefact becomes rooted in different soil, and there adapts itself to the local climate and conditions. Hamlet has been ‘assimilated’, said Mahmoud Al-Shetawi, thoroughly woven into the ‘fabric of Arab creative processes’ . This performance tradition did not produce anything like a consistent ‘Arab’ interpretation of Hamlet. ‘The play’, writes Al-Shetawi, ‘has always been known to the Arab audience and frequently staged in the Arab world’; but it has also ‘always been adapted to suit the conditions of local Arab theatres and native culture’.  The “global” became “local” so immediately and wholeheartedly that it turned into something quite difficult for us tor recognize as really ‘Shakespeare’.

So insofar as Arab Shakespeare is a difficult field of study, the problems lie between the global, or at least the international, and the local. Behind contemporary theatrical practice in this region lies a complex set of histories that is still being researched and documented: histories of imperial conquest and national revival, of intercultural engagements, of complex international relations. Egyptian Shakespeare through a combination of Napoleonic conquests and Soviet influence, is in many ways closer to French and Russian cultures, than it is to anything English or British. Arabic is a global language, but its globalized form is bound up with classical traditions and religious institutions in ways that clearly cause problems for contemporary Arab dramatists as well as curious westerners. As a spoken language, Arabic has many local variants between different Arab countries. Local cultures are very diverse, so a Shakespeare reproduced in Tunisia or Morocco or Libya is unlikely to be the same as a Shakespeare reproduced in Iraq or Jordan or Kuwait.

So to pursue this work of Arab Shakespeare we need a lot of good, independent minded, cultural history of this region, its countries and its peoples. We need theoretical tools capable of handling cultural transactions of unusual complexity: we’ve used Marx, and Bourdieu, and some very good social science work on globalisation (e.g. in ‘Arabesque’). But we also need the language – let’s overstate the obvious again and affirm how much we Shakespeareans need Arabists ; and we need a local presence in the field to really get inside Arab Shakespeare. In order to write the paper “Rudely Interrupted”, which analyses the terrorist bombing of a theatre performing 12th Night in Qatar, I needed Bryan Loughrey on the spot, to talk to the people who’d mercifully survived the blast, as well as the global perspective we derived from the world media, and the in-depth understanding of Shakespeare which is our normal professional equipment (‘“Rudely interrupted”: Shakespeare and Terrorism’ [with Bryan Loughrey] Critical Survey 19:3 (December 2007), pp. 126-142.

Let me in the time that remains give just two examples from my own recent work that seem to me to symptomatise the key problem of “Arab Shakespeare”. These examples concern the presence or absence of Arab characters in two adaptations of Shakespeare plays, a novel and a film. Both are highly regarded, critically acclaimed, award-winning works in the West.

My first example is a novel, Caryl Phillips’s The Nature of Blood. The book is constructed from separate narrative strands which flow in parallel. The novel begins and ends with Stephan Stern, a Jewish activist who at the beginning is seen working with displaced Jewish refugees held by the British on Cyprus in the late 1940s, and at the end is living in the newly-established state of Israel. Stephan is uncle to Eva, whose story, which carries strong echoes of the story of Ann Frank, takes us through the atrocities of the Nazi death camps in the later years of the Second World War.  Interwoven with these modern narratives is the true story of the Jews who were tried and executed for child-murder in Venice in the 1480s; and at the centre of the novel is the story of Shakespeare’s Othello which runs from his arrival in Venice to his successful mission against the Turks in Cyprus.  

The novel documents discrete historical experiences of racism and persecution involving blacks and Jews, and implies that they all share a common origin and cause. The experience of mediaeval and early-modern Jewry in Venice is framed within the 20th century experience of the Holocaust, the dispossession of European Jews and the foundation of the modern state of Israel.  The Jews herded in the 16th century Venetian Ghetto parallel both the 15th century Portabuffolo Jews, imprisoned in the Doge’s palace awaiting their trial and execution, and the 20th century victims of the Nazi extermination camps.

The Nature of Blood twins the African and the Jew. The Jew is located in the Ghetto and the Nazi death camp, both seen as parallel models of incarceration; and the black man, as in the dominant ‘Othello’ tradition, is associated with transatlantic slavery and with America. In Shakespeare’s time the term ‘Moor’ could mean generically, an African:  but  used in its most precise topical application ‘referred quite specifically to the Berber-Arab people of the part of North Africa then rather vaguely denominated as “Morocco”, “ Mauritania”, or “ Barbary”’ It could also be used as a religious identifier to signify a Muslim. Iago associates Othello with Mauritania in north-west Africa.

But in the course of the play’s stage and screen history, Othello became indelibly associated with the non-Muslim African, through defining performances by black African-American actors.   Laurence Olivier even gave Othello a West Indian accent, suggesting he went a very long way round to reach Venice. While in the West, Othello’s identity became mapped along the slave-trading routes between Europe and the Americas, in the Middle East, Othello is, and always has been, an ‘Arab’. The very first translation and production of a Shakespeare play in Arabic was of Othello in Egypt in 1884. The Arab Othello (At-Allah, or ‘Utayl, as he is called in different translations) has never taken that journey to the West

Nowhere in The Nature of Blood is Othello given any orientation towards the East. Nowhere is he associated with Arab ethnicity, or with Islamic religion. Yet the novel’s framing context, with which it opens and closes, is the violent founding and more violent defence of modern Israel.  Phillips depicts a world in which the Venetian prison, the British refugee camp for European Jews, and the Nazi extermination camp together symbolise a longue duree of persecution for the Jews. By insisting on repeated parallelisms between blacks and Jews  he implicitly claims this narrative of suffering as his own. He does not seem to see any trace of refugee camps containing Palestinians. By the same token, his Othello, despite the Shakespearean character’s marked associations with the Arab and Muslim East, is never accorded any potential connection with those dispossessed by the forced expropriation of Jewish settlement. Suffering is quarantined, confined to racial type, the black and the Jew. Othello the Moor, the Arab, is written out of the story altogether. Phillips’s novel presents a Jewish Shakespeare, and a black Shakespeare, but “Arab Shakespeare” is nowhere to be seen.

My second example is the portrayal of the Prince of Morocco in Michael Radford’s film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is of course played here by Al Pacino, who invests the role with enormous tragic dignity and universal humanity, and who commands from the spectator, as one critic puts it, “unambiguous sympathy”.  The prince of Morocco however is very different.  As Morocco says to Portia ‘dislike me not for my complexion’ – Portia and Nerissa can barely keep straight faces, as if the idea of such miscegenation is hilariously inconceivable. Morocco sports Bedouin garb, turban and flowing robes, and carries a scimitar. His manner is exaggerated and pompous, the actor relishing the rhetoric assigned to the role, producing the comic effect of a foreigner overplaying his hand, impervious to the amused astonishment of his hostess. He speaks with a strong Middle Eastern accent, though Shylock never sounds like a Yiddish comedian, and Bassanio has no accent of Italy.

Morocco is accompanied by an entourage of turbaned, black-robed North African men, all armed with daggers and scimitars. These weapons are drawn and brandished as Morocco and his bodyguard march through the gardens of Belmont, disturbing the civilised peace, to the accompaniment of distinctively Middle Eastern, desert music.  The Arab is uncivilised, gauche, loud and overbearing. Much of his speech is directed to his men, as if his natural element is the male camaraderie of the battlefield, rather than the lady’s salon.

Over the silver casket, he smugly acknowledges his own deserving. Shakespeare’s text reads: ‘I do in birth deserve her, and in fortunes/In graces, and in qualities of breeding’. But the film script substitutes for that last word ‘valour’, which prompts the prince and his men to draw and brandish their weapons with a loud war cry.

Portia herself is cleared of the more obvious signs of racism by the cutting of her line ‘Let all of his complexion choose me so’. Much of Shylock’s racist language is also cut: his first verse speech, 1.3.35-47, is reduced to the one line ‘How like a fawning publican he looks’. But the parodic language assigned to the Arab Muslim is left intact as an extraordinary instance of directorial partiality. In Renaissance Venice the Muslim had as much, and as little, protection and liberty as the Jew. In Radford’s contemporary film, the Jew is all tragic dignity and universal humanity, while the Prince of Morocco is the butt of a broadly comedic treatment that caricatures the Muslim Arab.

Othello is described in the play as ‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger/Of here and everywhere’. Othello is presented as a nomadic and itinerant figure, elusive and unreliable, unpredictable and vagabond. One knows not whence he came, or whither he is going; he has been everywhere and nowhere. Later Iago uses the same language of unrestricted itinerancy, calling Othello an ‘erring barbarian’: errant as well as meaningless (from the Greek barbaros, an unintelligible babble, the equivalent of blahblahblah), a wandering Arab crossing and recrossing the desert wastes.  The stranger, the alien, the foreigner, the ‘turban’d Turk’.  These examples suggest that the Arab in Shakespeare is just as hard to fix and identify as Othello is in the play.

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