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Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit: Introduction

By July 26, 2013 essay

Shakespeare touched the Arab world astonishingly early. In 1608, during the 3rd voyage of the East India Company, on the island of Socotra at the entry to the Gulf of Aden, the crew of the Red Dragon staged a performance of Hamlet, a play then less than a decade old, and published only 5 years previously.  The ship’s captain William Keeling obviously shared Shakespearean interests with his patron (and major East India Company member) the Earl of Southampton (see Holderness and Loughrey, ‘Arabesque’, 2006).

Socotra is now an integral part of the Arab Republic of Yemen; and Hamlet needs of course no introduction. Shortly after the First World War, F.S. Boas conferred on the English Merchant Navy ‘the proud distinction of having been the pioneer in carrying Shakespearean drama into the uttermost ends of the earth’ (Boas, p. 95).  Yemen no longer seems quite so distant from the United Kingdom, but this example of Hamlet exported to the Middle East by agents of a nascent British Empire certainly confirms Michael Neill’s judgement that Shakespeare’s plays were ‘entangled from the beginning with the projects of nation-building, empire and colonization’ (Neill, p. 168)

Shakespeare re-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: ‘may you live a joyful life on earth, pardoned in heaven’ (translation by Tanius ‘Abdoh, quoted by Al-Shetawi, p. 44).  The ‘happy ending’ Hamlet of the French versions, though clearly shaped by Enlightenment views of Shakespeare, were actually more faithful to the story of Amleth in Saxo Grammaticus than was the Shakespearean tragedy, just as Nahum Tate’s notorious happy-ending King Lear restored the Lear-tale to its original romance form. 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. Early Arab Shakespeare shared this wide liberty of adaptation with the Restoration and 18th century theatres, where (as David Scott Kastan puts it):

On the stage … Shakespeare was not merely modernized, but aggressively modified to satisfy the expectations of the fashionable audiences that filled the theatres … turned … into a contemporary playwright, at once modern and highbrow, for the theatrical environment in which he was now performed …   (Kastan, p. 14).

This ungenerous view of the Restoration theatre is echoed in Mahmoud Al-Shetawi’s harsh judgement of early Arab Shakespeare: ‘Overall, the early stage productions of Hamlet were crude, vulgarizing Shakespeare’s masterpiece in order to please the illiterate audience’ (Shetawi, p. 46). Alexander Pope said much the same of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Free adaptation from French models continued to be the norm in Arab cultures:  the translation of Hamlet made by Khalil Mutran from the French (1916), in which Hamlet kills Claudius and ascends the throne, remained popular in Egypt for many years.

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’ (Al-Bahar, p. 13).  ‘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 Al-Shetawi, thoroughly woven into the ‘fabric of Arab creative processes’ (p. 60).

Hamlet was continuously produced in Egypt from the late 19th century onwards, in several different translations. This performance tradition did not on the other hand produce 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’. Appropriations have for example been sharply divided between heroic and anti-heroic Hamlets: sometime in the late 1970s, Hamlet the romantic freedom fighter of the postcolonial tradition gave way to a series of Hamlets disarmed, impotent and emotionally crippled by the weight of their destiny. These divergences can be seen in  productions and adaptations from Egypt, Syria and Tunisia: Hamlet wakes Up Late (Syria 1976); A Theatre Company Found  a Theatre and Dramatized Hamlet (Tunisia and Jordan 1984); Dance of the Scorpions (Egypt 1989); Forget Hamlet/Ophelia’s Window (Egypt 1994). All these plays deploy technical devices to challenge the norms of conventional theatrical representation; all are sceptical about the power of words to achieve change. Claudius is invariably the powerful Arab despot, while Hamlet is the ‘Arab intellectual, a figure who is commonly portrayed as impotent when it comes to responding positively to the miserable conditions of his country’ (Al-Shetawi, p. 48).

This complex tradition was one of the starting-points for Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit, first performed, in Arabic with English surtitles, as part of the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, in August 2002, where it was awarded the Fringe First Award for excellence and innovation in writing and directing. It was subsequently presented at the 14th Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre, in September 2002, where it won Best Performance and Best Director Awards. Subsequently it has played at the Riverside Studios in London (March 2004), the Singapore Arts Festival (June 2005), and at Elsinore Castle in Denmark (August 2005).

The work had previously been through various adaptations of the Shakespeare text, from 2001 onwards, performed by the Zaoum Theatre Company: Hamlet in Kuwait, performed in Kuwait (2001), and The Arab League Hamlet, performed at a festival in Tunisia (2001). The earlier versions were both adaptations of the Shakespeare text.  The Al-Hamlet Summit by contrast jettisoned Shakespeare’s language and rewrote Hamlet into modern English with a strongly Arabic flavour, producing what the author called a ‘cross-cultural construction’ (Al-Bassam 2003). Al-Bassam produced and performed versions in both Arabic and English. This edition for the first time makes available a definitive text of The Al-Hamlet Summit in both English and Arabic.

Al-Bassam’s play maps a Middle Eastern political tragedy onto the template of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The key characters carry Shakespearean names, and occupy parallel situations within their own modern Middle Eastern world. Hamlet’s father, the old ruler, has been poisoned, and his position usurped by Claudius his brother, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Saddam Hussein. Gertrude and Ophelia, Polonius and Laertes all play roles comparable to those of their Shakespearean namesakes, but redomesticated into an Islamic Arab context.  The regime is threatened, as Denmark is threatened at the beginning of Hamlet, by Fortinbras’s troops lining the borders, and internally by the ‘People’s Liberation Brigade’, which has been distributing leaflets claiming Old Hamlet was assassinated.  Where Claudius in Shakespeare’s play resolves the Norwegian threat by diplomacy, Claudius in Al-Hamlet responds with violence and atrocity:

POLONIUS: I’ve got 300 men working round the clock gathering up the leaflets.

CLAUDIUS: Forget the leaflets, burn the townships, all of them – I want them all burnt by dawn.

Fortinbras’s army is backed by the West, ‘armed with millions of dollars of foreign equipment’. Behind the suggestions of foreign intervention lies the West’s greed for Arab oil (Claudius is obsessively concerned to protect the pipelines from sabotage).

In a scene which is the equivalent of Hamlet 3.3, instead of displaying remorse and praying for forgiveness, Claudius voices what is virtually a religion of oil and dollars:

Oh God: Petro dollars.  Teach me the meaning of petro dollars. I have no other God than you, I am created in your image, I seek guidance from you the All Seeing, the All Knowing Master of Worlds, Prosperity and Order …

At the end of the play Fortinbras clearly intends to sustain this policy and this faith: ‘It won’t be easy, terrorism is not yet defeated, but the pipeline will be completed within a year’.

The West appears in the play in the shadowy persona of the Arms Dealer, who spoke English in the Arabic version, and was played by a woman in the English version. The Arms Dealer converses with Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius and finally Fortinbras.  S/he will provide weapons to anyone prepared to pay, even if s/he is arming opponents.  S/he remains in place at the end: ‘As the lights begin to fade, the Arms Dealer enters and walks downstage incredibly slowly.

Just as in Hamlet Claudius recognises that the real enemy of his regime lies within, so Claudius and Polonius in The Al-Hamlet Summit are vigilant against signs of domestic subversion. Opposition and dissent are read as fundamentalist terrorism. Polonius sees in Hamlet’s letters to Ophelia the ‘apocalyptic imagery’, the ‘yearning for violent and comprehensive change to the world order’ which are naturally linked with ‘terrorist activities’. Both Hamlet and Ophelia become Islamicised, adopting traditional Muslim costume; and both become from the perspective of the ruling regime ‘terrorists’. Ophelia is associated, as Yvette Khoury has observed, with the Palestinian cause (Khoury 2005), and dies as a suicide bomber; Hamlet (who adopts ‘shortened muslim dress and long beard’) shoots Polonius, and at the end of the play is seen leading the liberation army.

CLAUDIUS: Just two hours ago, our forces began an attack on terrorist positions belonging to Hamlet and his army.  These continue as I speak.  This conflict began when Hamlet laid siege to our democracy, our values and our people through a brutal series of kidnappings and terrorist bombings that have killed many innocent victims and shocked the world community.

The equation between Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist militant is one that Hamlet internalises. This is the equivalent of Hamlet’s revenge, a vindictive fantasy bloodbath explicitly expressed in the language of the Holy Q’uran:

I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammad is his messenger… I will clean this land, I will make it pure, I understand, I do understand, but I will cleanse it for you, I will prepare it for your return, even if it costs me my life, I will clean it, I will purge it, blood will flow, I will make blood flow in torrents, I swear in my father’s name, I swear in the name of Allah.

Where does this adaptation sit vis-à-vis both Arab Shakespeare and dominant theatrical interpretations of the play in the West?  Al-Bassam’s Hamlet is not the passive figure of recent Arab plays, but rather recalls  the hero Hamlets of the 1960s and 1970s. In some ways Al-Bassam has by-passed the previous two decades, and reconnected with an older Arabic tradition. The Al-Hamlet Summit is divided into sections corresponding to the Islamic times of prayer, which seems to echo Riyad ‘Ismat’s 1973 Damascus production, where the play was divided into three parts – huzn (sorrow), al-thawra (rebellion), al-shahadah (martyrdom) (see Al-Shetawi, p 48).

On the other hand the figure of the Islamic militant which Al-Bassam’s Hamlet grows to resemble, cannot be so easily identified with the heroes of a previous century, though he is certainly an active crusader against corruption and a militant for justice:

HAMLET: The real enemy is here, in the palace, amongst us.

LAERTES: There will be no nation to fight over unless we defeat Fortinbras.

HAMLET: We’ll have no nation to lose unless we destroy the rot that devours us from within.

Hamlet becomes wholly the man of action, rejecting language and the intellect, committing himself unequivocally to violence:

HAMLET: … the time for the pen has passed and we enter the era of the sword … No more words … Words have been killed, they died on our tongues and in our ears, words are dead. We cannot us them anymore, now we must speak with our flesh.

On the other hand, although Hamlet’s death is a significant gesture of martyrdom (‘I do not approximate God/I come closer to him/in giving of myself’), it is only one detail in the final scene of universal carnage, where a failed coup-d’etat, the converging of Western power and Fortinbras’s assumption of authority are all presented with the excited objectivity of a media event. If Hamlet does ‘clean this land’ it is only to create an empty space into which Fortinbras can move his troops. Islamic militancy has not provided a solution, only a dramatic denouement:

FORTINBRAS: I have biblical claims upon this land, it is empty and barren and my presence here is a fact that has not been invented.

Insofar as there was a separate, local Arab tradition of adapting and appropriating Shakespeare, Al-Bassam’s work is obviously part of it. But by writing also in English, Al-Bassam has also chosen to work partially inside an Anglophone culture (or set of cultures), which is, as Michael Neill phrases it, ‘saturated with Shakespeare’: ‘Our ways of thinking about such basic issues as nationality, gender and racial difference are inescapably inflected by his writing’ (Neill, p. 184). Al-Bassam has explicitly confirmed that the work is ‘cross-cultural’, speaking from an Arab perspective but also to an English-speaking audience.

The script was written from a contemporary Arab perspective. It carries many concerns and issues of today’s Arab world and its relationship to the West. At the same time, it addresses these concerns to an English-speaking audience. The cross-cultural construction of the piece creates a sense of implication in the affairs of the other. (Dent 2003)

This sounds like the cultural ‘hybridity’ that occurs when an imperial discourse penetrates a post-colonial culture and merges with local and native materials to produce a synthetic fusion. But The Al-Hamlet Summit does not fit so easily into this or any of the available models provided by post-colonial criticism. Any writer who so deliberately places his work on a cultural or national margin, or seeks to work across territorial and historical borders, is seeking a difficult and precarious balance, and is likely to find himself challenged from all sides, as Al-Bassam himself confirms:

For some The Al-Hamlet Summit was the work of a Westernised traitor that falsely approximated between Islam and the propagation of violence. For others, and I’m happy to say the majority and particularly the young, The Al-Hamlet Summit gave vital and much-needed expression to today’s Arab concerns and presented them to the West in a sophisticated and human form (Al-Bassam, 2003).

Even Al-Bassam’s admirers have found themselves questioning his position. Peter J. Smith (2004) asks:

Is it not the case that the portrayal of Hamlet and Ophelia as Muslim fundamentalists and suicide bombers will have the effect of exacerbating – even promoting – the racist assumptions typified by the tabloid press? (74-5).

But then Smith questions his own authority to make such judgements: ‘Who am I as a non-Muslim, non-Arabic speaking Englishman to tell Sulayman Al-Bassam how to write and direct his adaptation?’ (Smith, p. 75).

These critical responses are all however testimony to The Al-Hamlet Summit’s capacity to generate dialogue across borders, dialogue that challenges and questions and enters reservations, but remains fundamentally an international conversation. As such it offers an alternative, an urgently imperative alternative, to mutual misunderstanding and reciprocal violence. What Al-Bassam called the ‘cultural symbiosis’ manifest in the play was clearly designed to form a ground of dialogue between East and West. The move from the earlier versions, which were adaptations of the Shakespeare text, to a more contemporary form which allowed for the fuller expression of Arab experience, was clearly critical in this process.

The writing of The Al-Hamlet Summit  began with the experience of globalisation:

I was in Cairo with an exiled Iraqi theatre director and a Palestinian theatre troupe from Ramallah drinking coffee in the bazaar when a boy came running past us, chanting: ’Al-Kull murtabit / Am-reeca qarabit’ (’Everything is linked /

America just got closer…’). It was September the 11th and news from New York was just beginning to stream across the television screens. In all the confusion of that night, I remember the words of one of the Palestinian actors: ‘The hell in New York today will bring hell to Ramallah tomorrow’ (Al-Bassam 2003).

9/11 is the supreme instance of globalisation, viewed here from a range of different perspectives. The boy’s chant seems to celebrate with a certain triumphalism the shrinking globe and the ease with which Islamic terrorism can reach to the very heart of America’s political and economic institutions. The Palestinian actor thinks ruefully of the consequences, immediate reprisal not from America but from Israel, and against the Palestinians. Global events know no barriers of time and space.

In an article on 9/ll British Prime Minister Tony Blair echoed these sentiments exactly. 9/11 ‘brought home the true meaning of globalisation’:

In this globalised world, once chaos and strife have got a grip on a region or a country, trouble is soon exported.… It was, after all, a dismal camp in the foothills of Afghanistan that gave birth to the murderous assault on the sparkling heart of New York’s financial centre (Blair 119).

This is the negative side of globalisation. But from Blair’s perspective, globalisation also provides the potential solution to such problems. Blair reflects that the West can ‘use the power of community to bring the benefits of globalisation to all’ (121) in the form of truly universal values: ‘values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and a pluralist society… Values that are “universal and worthy of respect in every culture”’ (122). The vehicle for disseminating these values globally is economic penetration: increased trade flows, and greater involvement of the private sector in public finance (121).

Al-Bassam clearly intended the The Al-Hamlet Summit as an intervention into this fraught conversation:

The globalisation of politics is deceptive. Every Arab knows that George Bush said ‘either you are with us or you are against us’ and everyone in the West now knows that Saddam is bad. This is globalisation of politics, but it does very little to increase dialogue between cultures. All it does it promote vacuous ‘world views’. This is where culture and theatre become vital. They permit complexity and difference and they permit the weak to be other than pitied and the cruel to be other than hated. Theatre challenges the accepted world views and breaks the mirrors of authority. Shakespeare understood that power very well (Dent).

Globalisation is not only inevitable but desirable, since it is the only route to mutual understanding and a stable world. Everything really is linked, as the Arab boy recognised. The problem is how to develop those links without conflict and violence; without the supremacy of the West; without the suppression of alternative cultures and consequent global homogenisation. In this process theatre has a critical role to play:

The events of 9-11 and the political fallout since have drawn to light the inextricable intertwining of the fates of Arab peoples and those of the West.
Everything is linked and the much-touted ‘clash of civilizations’ simplifies and tries to obscure what is a complex series of overlapping and interpenetrating cultural realities that are tied together in fatal symbiosis (Al-Bassam 2003).

This is quite a different approach from Tony Blair’s vision of a universalisation of enlightenment values of liberal democracy via the spread of free-market capitalism. Though he does not speak for Islamic fundamentalism or terrorist violence, Al-Bassam shows them as the inevitable consequences of an alliance between native Arab despotism and the economic machinations of the West. In Shakespeare Hamlet is driven reluctantly towards revenge, and in The Al-Hamlet Summit Hamlet and Ophelia seem to have no option but the bloody and suicidal course they undertake.

Between 1608, when Shakespeare’s lines echoed emptily from the deck of the Red Dragon around the Arab world, and 2001, when Al-Bassam’s adaptation found a common acceptance across both East and West, empires rose and fell. But one thing changed. In 1608 Shakespeare was virtually talking to himself. In 2001 Shakespeare was the substance of a global conversation. ‘Everything is linked’ in the globalised world, either through violence or through an acceptance of reciprocal ‘implication’. The Al-Hamlet Summit opens a conversation over the ground of our reconciliation.


Works Cited

I am very grateful to Margaret Litvin, Yvette Khoury, Peter J. Smith and Sulayman Al-Bassam for providing material used in the writing of this introduction.

Al-Bahar, Nadia, 1976. ‘Shakespeare in Early Arabic Adaptations’, Shakespeare Translation, 3.

Al-Bassam, Sulayman, 2003. ‘Introduction to the publication of The Al-Hamlet Summit’ in Theatre Forum Magazine, 22 ( Winter/Spring).

Blair, Tony, 2002. ‘The Power of World Community’, in Mark Leonard, ed. Re-Ordering the World. London: Foreign Policy Centre.

Boas, Frederick S., 1923. Shakespeare and the Universities and Other Studies in Elizabethan Drama. New York: Appleton.

Dent, Shirley, 2003. ‘Interview: Sulayman Al-Bassam’, Culture Wars. N.p. [Accessed 11 November 2005]

Holderness, Graham and Bryan Loughrey, 2006. ‘Arabesque: Shakespeare and Globalisation’. Essays and Studies: Globalisation and its Discontents. English Association/Boydell and Brewer.

Kastan, David Scott, 1999. Shakespeare After Theory. London: Routledge.

Khoury, Yvette, 2005. ‘”Glaring Stare”: Middle Eastern Presentation of Ophelia’. Paper presented to the Modern Language Association, 2005 Annual Convention, seminar on ‘Gender in Arabic Interpretations of Shakespeare’, Washington DC.

Litvin, Margaret, 2005. ‘Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Al-Hamlet Summit in the Arab Hamlet Tradition’. Paper presented  to the American Comparative Literature Association, 2005 Annual Meeting, Pennsylvania State University.

Loomba, Ania  and Martin Orkin, eds, 1998. Post-colonial Shakespeares. London: Routledge.

Neill, Michael, 1998. ‘Postcolonial Shakespeare? Writing away from the centre’, in Loomba and Orkin (1998) 164-185.

Smith, Peter J., 2004. ‘Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit in an Age of Terrorism’. Shakespeare Bulletin, 22:4, 65-78.

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