Neglected Treasures: Tawfiq al-Hakim’s /The People of the Cave/

I understand and appreciate (and share, really) the American obsession with the new.

What books came out in 2009? What will be released in 2010? Who’s the next Sonallah Ibrahim/Naguib Mahfouz/Elias Khoury/Hanan al-Shaykh/Mahmoud Darwish? Forget the old-and-greats, show me the new and soon-to-bes!

My understanding is that even the American human rights community is like this, and the “coolest” human rights issues are ones no one had even heard of last year.

Once upon a time, I did focus on the oldies, books that had outlived me at the very least, that had held their ground against time. Of course I found very few publications interested in an essay about a book that came out in 2002, or 1983, or 1973. (The last would be my elder, by a hair.)

But after I picked up The People of the Cave at Diwan (for fifteen Egyptian pounds!), I read it twice on the plane, and re-read parts while we were in Paris. It was published first in 1933—making it older, even, than my parents—and Mahmoud el Lozy’s English translation came out in 1989, from Elias Modern.

Admittedly, this doesn’t tell you anything about the “post 9/11 world” or “why they hate us,” which I assume are the reasons why Arabic literature in translation has received a sudden boost. The People of the Cave (Ahl al-Kahf) is interesting for its treatment of time, of love, of exile and boundaries, and of the human ability (or inability) to maintain relationships across time and space.

Three men and a dog sleep for more than 300 years, in a cave, after fleeing a tyrant. When they awake, everything is different—or, well, some things are eerily the same.

The relationship between Priska and Mishlinya is the richest part of the play. Mishlinya was wildly in love with a Priska before his 300+-year sleep; when he awakes, one of her descendants bears an eerie resemblance to his former lover, and is even named for her. Can Mishlinya renew himself and grasp this reality, or does too much time—and history—stand between him and love?

This play has the admirable ability to raise questions instead of answering them, something I rarely find in contemporary Arabic literature. Or, I suppose, anywhere. This was what spurred me to read the play again, to toy with all these questions the play had raised.

The only moment I found awkward was a monologue tying the story to (ancient) Egyptian reality.

More of al-Hakim’s work can be found in The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim, available from AUC press. Surely someone would like to do their PhD work on al-Hakim…someone less lazy than me….