Hamlet’s Arab Journey Review

hamlet_04042012In 1949, Ali Bakathir published The Tragedy of Oedipus. His Oedipus was not the one that we are familiar with. This Oedipus knows from the beginning of the play that he is Laius’ murderer and that the Oracle says he is the cause of the pollution that has lead to Thebes’ plague. As a mid-twentieth century Oedipus, he believes that the corrupt priesthood only wants to fill their pockets and do not care one iota for the people who are suffering. This is until Tiresias, who has been expelled from the priestly order for suggesting that maybe it would be nice to give some money to the poor, talks to him. Tiresias convinces him that the cabal of Theban priests are all false prophets and that the one true God is the God of Islam. Oedipus is convinced, and together Tiresias and Oedipus defeat the corrupt religious authorities and save Thebes by bringing the message of Islam.

This kind of ‘Arabicization’ of a ‘Western classic’ like Oedipus Rex may sound rather bizarre, or unlikely. However, alterations of this kind to texts considered part of the Western classical canon are central to the twentieth century Arabic tradition of engagement with seminal works of theatre. From the lowbrow to the sophisticated, every Western theatrical import was given a distinctly Arabic character. To give another example, one of the most respected poets of the age, Ahmed Shawqi, created a version of Antony and Cleopatra, called The Death of Cleopatra (Masra’ Kliobatra), in which the character of Cleopatra is turned into a patriotic, virtuous Egyptian who dies for the sake of her country.

Central to this translation and adaptation movement, too, is its focus on the clash between the modern world of the audience and the past of the original version. The most important question for these writers seems to be: how do the morals and messages of the texts relate to contemporary Arabic society? This answer to this is normally, not very well. The Arabic versions consciously exploit these tensions and contradictions in their texts. In his post-modern Food for Every Mouth, Tawfiq al-Hakim exploits the Hamlet and Elektra stories in this way. A young man comes home from university in Zurich to find that his mother has taken a new husband and probably murdered his father. He decides that instead of seeking bloody vengeance, they should talk it out like modern, more enlightened human beings. “Believe me, Nadia, my plan is Justice … Justice as the atomic age understands it … and as the future will understand it … the justice of Hamlet and Electra is just a pretty word. It is no longer worth anyone in our age giving their life for it.” We are frequently given the sense that the simple world of these plays just does not work as a model anymore.

Scholarship on these plays is, however, surprisingly sparse (Martin Carlson’s edition of Arab Oedipus plays and Ahmed Assam ad-Din’ Translation Movement in Egypt in the 20th Century [in Arabic] stand out as rare exceptions). Considering this dearth of academic work on the subject, Margaret Litvin’s Hamlet’s Arab Journey is a very welcome book. L. traces the history of the play from its first performance in 1901 to a recent Egyptian performance in 2009. She not only picks the most salient examples of the play’s Arabic adaptation but also examines the ways in which the play has been used in Arab political thought and discourse; for example, the reappropriation of Hamlet’s signature phrase, “Something rotten in the state of Denmark”, being used as political commentary in the wake of the controversy over a Danish cartoonist’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad.

The Hamlets that Litvin presents to us exemplify the diversity of these adaptions and the ease with which Arabic theater can perform tragedy, comedy, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, or tragical-comical-historical-pastoral. In fact, the very first Arabic Hamlet of 1901 is a musical comedy with a happy ending. This was translated by Tanyus ‘Abdu from French (probably Dumas’ as Litvin points out), though translation might be a strong word. Litvin quotes Moosa (paraphrasing Salim Sarkis) describing ‘Abdu’s composition style:

[he] did not really translate but Arabicized what he read. He never followed the original or tried to convey its meaning … He carried with him sheets of paper in one pocket and a French novel in the other. He would then read a few lines, put the novel back in his pocket, and begin to scratch in a fine script whatever he could remember of the few lines he had read. He wrote all day without striking out a word or rereading a line.

It is from this foundation that Litvin goes on to discuss a myriad of other ways in which the play and the character have been used. In his century-long sojourn in the Arab world, Hamlet has been a hero of Arab nationalism, the victim of tyrannical regimes, a Hammam worker turned corpse washer, and more. Perhaps my favourite is his Syrian incarnation, written by Mamduh ‘Adwan, which Litvin summarizes thus: “Drunkard theatre-director prince awakens too late to the political implications of his father’s murder, uncle’s dictatorship, and kingdom’s impending peace deal with Fortinbras; he is condemned in a show trial and executed.”

Let us now turn to Litvin’s interpretative strategies. In a bold theoretical move, considering the context of predominant scholarship on modern Arabic literature, she largely—and consciously—eschews a ‘post-colonial’ approach. Of course, she admits that it is one possible lens through which to view this body of work, but notes that Hamlet is “perceived in the Middle East as a long-ago-successful transplant from Europe rather than as a threatening import”. Litvin coins the phrase “global kaleidoscope” to refer to Hamlet’s import into the Arab world. By this she means, that the English version was seldom the key model. In the early 20th century, the French model was key. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet filmGamlet, directed by Kozintsev, was a key model for alternate interpretations of the play; even those Arabic playwrights who didn’t speak Russian watched it upwards of 10 times. This brings to mind Michael Bogdanov’s controversial view that Shakespeare is often better in translation because we are not held back by his stuffy Elizabethan English. A more pleasing way to put this might be that, just as Dr. Johnson said Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time”, Litvin argues he is “not of a place, but for the whole world”.

Presumably, this will not sit well with all readers. Some may feel that Arabic theater should tread its own path and not be dictated to by Western models; there has after all, since Ibn Daniyal in the 13th century, been evidence of an Arab theatre. Others may simply feel that this is cultural imperialism of the highest order: the Arab world is doomed to interpret itself using the model of a British play. Others still might say that to ignore the post-colonial undertones of performing Shakespeare is to ignore much of what motivated these playwrights. However, Litvin anticipates these criticisms and posits her work as a challenge to what she sees as reductive analyses of Arabic cultural production. Why, she argues, must the Arab world be always reduced to a post-colonial space? Perhaps the best defense against people who want see a strictly post-colonial Hamlet is not one she directly asserts, but one that arises in a version of the play that she cites. The Jordanian Nader Omran’s A Theatre Company Found a Theatre… and ‘Theatred” Hamlet is about a theater company putting on a version of Hamlet in order to catch the conscience of the king. i.e. Hamlet becomes the play within a play. When they tell him it is an English play he reacts badly and says, “Maybe you want them to say about us that we are encouraging the colonialist and disseminating their culture”. The players explain the plot and the audience realizes that it concerns the king himself. “Be sure to DERIDE COLONIALISM as much as you can” says the king. The players then chant “Down with Colonialism”, as they proceed to perform a play that has nothing to do with colonialism but everything to do with the king.

To my mind, a positive consequence of this decision not to focus on the possible post-colonial readings of these adaptations is that Litvin spends much of the book examining how we might fit Hamlet into internal Arab politics and an independent Arabic intellectual consciousness. As we might expect, Egyptian Arab Nationalist leader Gamal Abdul Nasser features very prominently. Litvin asserts that “Nasser underlies and enables the region’s Hamlet tradition…the heroic Hamlet was largely a product of Nasser’s revolution and the way the revolution was lived out.” The ministry of culture (/propaganda) in Nasser’s time was deeply fixated on theater, infusing theater companies with large amounts of capital, building new theatres, and more. Nasser himself was deeply influenced by theater. Litvin includes an anecdote of a 16-year old Nasser, which we are asked to see as formative. His school put on a version of Julius Caesar. A young Gamal not only played Caesar but played him as a liberator from colonial rule who was “assassinated as though by accident”. Thus began his long career as a charismatic stage presence.

True to form, then, the figure of Nasser can play nearly every part in Hamlet. He could clearly be seen as a Hamlet figure that has liberated the people from a tyrannical regime. Yet this also contained a potential danger; productions had to be careful not to portray him as Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius – a tyrannical and illegitimate ruler – or a Fortinbras, a man who happened to be in the right place at the right time after the dust settled. After his death, he could be recruited to play Hamlet’s father –the ghost who has return to demand justice for his kingdom. In a slightly bizarre case of life imitating art, in late 2010 Mohammed Heikal, a former stalwart or Nasser’s media apparatus, circulated rumors that Nasser had been poisoned by Anwar Sadat. Though I must stress these have little or no basis in fact (Sadat’s family is surprisingly litigious), it does coincide very nicely with the model of Nasser as Hamlet, or indeed Claudius who both die of poisoning at the end of the play.

Yet instead of concentrating solely on Nasser, Litvin includes a wider Arabic consciousness in her dramatis personae. Firstly, in the early ‘70s the Dane comes to represent the “Arab Hero” fighting against oppression. “By the late ‘70s”, however, “…the Arab Hero Hamlet was a stock character, predictable and even a little passé” symbolizing instead the uselessness of resistance. Tellingly, many adaptations from the late ‘70s to the ‘90s alter the ending to make Hamlet fail in his revolution. In the years after 9/11 and the second Gulf war, Litvin argues, the ‘West’ rears its head again. In I am Hamlet, a 2009 play, Fortinbras comes in at the end dressed like a U.S. president to the sound of helicopters, who then declares that he has ‘interests in the region’. It is to her credit that Litvin does not hurriedly tack on an epilogue about the ‘Arab Spring’, though she will presumably be able to publish an interesting article in a few years.

This relationship between Hamlet and the Arab intellectual consciousness is a “consummation devoutly to be wish’d”, but at times it feels too devoutly wished. Some will presumably dispute the fact that there is an Arab consciousness or Arab audience. Litvin argues, “the century of Arab nationalism is spent, but as an imagined community brought together by satellite television, ‘the Arab world’ has more reality than ever.” What I remain uncertain about is how much the theater audience represents anything except an elite point of view. Theoretically, in a country like Egypt that (especially in the ‘60s) had a high level of illiteracy, the theatre could have a wider audience than the newspaper. However, despite the efforts of the state, it is unclear how democratized the theater truly became, with many performances still done in classical Arabic. In February 1968, for instance, an article in the Egyptian Al-Ahram entitled “Three plays in search of an audience” lamented that three plays in the last month had done performances to an empty house. When Tawfiq al-Hakim, probably Egyptian theater’s most important author, entitles a collection of essays View from the Ivory Tower, it makes one wonder.

The consciousness that Hamlet taps into, then, is likely to be an elite one. However, it is unclear whether even this is monolithic. Litvin argues that Nasser himself and his theatrical revolution were key in the formation the Arab Hamlet. Yet she also says that,“despite the growing popularity of topical plays in the Nasser years, Hamlet’s predicament was not used to represent political or social problems on the Egyptian stage before 1970”. Also she quotes Nehad Seleiha, saying that the 60s “left that stultifying Shakespearean cult untouched”. Equally, the Al-Hamlet Summit, a post-9/11 discussion of terrorism and freedom, is in fact English and written from “outside the Arab theatrical tradition”.

Of course, it is the prerogative of the book to try to find wide-reaching themes and patterns in the performances of Hamlet in Arab countries. However, the key to the Arab readings is how diverse they can be. Litvin is clearly an excellent reader of the texts, but in a book that discusses kaleidoscopes so centrally, one can feel that too much order is imposed, too many patterns are set in stone.

20Raphael Cormack is an MA student in the MESAAS department at Columbia University, and is working on attitudes of Greek literature and culture in 20th century Egypt.