(The Great) Tawfiq al-Hakim On Writing: Novels vs. Plays

I walked into our neighborhood bookstore (more of a stationery store with a few books) yesterday, and was pleased to find a nice assortment of somewhat-dusty fiction.

True, the rack by the door was full of self-help, but I also found Essam Youssef’s popular novel “based on a true story” 1/4 Gram, other recent fiction, and a rack stuffed with inexpensive classics by Taha Hussein and Tawfiq al-Hakim.

I wanted to pick up Tawfiq al-Hakim’s delightful play The Donkey Market, but, of course, it would take me until next year to read even this short play in Arabic. It’s still Arabic children’s books for me.

Anyhow, al-Hakim on writing (from his beautiful autobiographical fragment, The Prison of Life, excerpted in The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim, AUC Press):

For all these peculiarities, my father possessed a quality that I regret I did not inherit, for it would have helped me a great deal, especially in the narrative arts. This was his inclination to dig deep into the minute details of anything in life, whether of immediate relevance to him or not.

I on the contrary can take things in only their broad outlines, their main significations and not their details. I am also inclined to rid myself of anything I can dispense with. I have never carried a watch. I have never tried to acquire any curio or objet d’art. I eat only what is strictly necessary. This is why drama suits me as a medium of expression, for—unlike the novel which concerns itself with details—its proper scope is concepts and essences.

ALSO: During a Google search for a free image of Al-Hakim, I came across a production late last year of one of al-Hakim’s plays, Fate of a Cockroach. Wonderful to see him being produced.

ALSO ALSO: You can read The Donkey Market in English in the collection edited by Denys Johnson-Davies, The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim.


  1. It is funny you mention the performance of مصير الصراصير in America. I saw one about two years ago in DC at the [in]famous Capital Fringe Festival (http://www.capitalfringe.org/).

    The problem was that translation of plays like this are poor, and so much so that the allegorical nature of his plot (which I took to be very funny and critical of Egyptian governance at one of many levels), no one got. Many people brought their kids, and saw it a cute family-friendly play. Very few understood the Egyptianisms and geniuinely clever parody that was going on. It was so much so that a couple of my friends who have studied there got it, while the group we were explaining to was kind of confused.

    So, Al-Hakim is as wise as his name implies. You should definitely read anything you can of his in Arabic, he is indeed accessible to students of college MSA courses (not sure of your level, if you were joking). Problem is that a lot seemed to be lost in translation, even for me. I could sense it, and I have never even read or seen the original. Just sayin’ . . .

  2. You raise an interesting point, because staging a play is a double- or triple-translation. There is the Arabic text, then there is the English text, then the director’s “translation” (interpretation), and finally the actors put their spin on it.

    Understanding /The Donkey Market/ as a cute play must mean it was boiled back down to the “Goha” story at its root…but the Goha stories themselves are not straightforward children’s tales.

    I think al-Hakim generally has very universal themes, and could be staged in translation, but maybe a Fringe festival is not the place to do it. Although I also see how al-Hakim would be generally quite difficult to stage (for instance, /Ahl al Kahf/) Or maybe it was just this particular theater group. If they don’t get the play, they certainly aren’t going to pass on any understanding…

    And I’m from Scandinavian America: I joke very little. I really am semi-literate. I suppose I should push myself harder to read in Arabic. Might be interesting to look at the two texts side by side.

  3. Good points. By the way, I made a typo. It is مصير الصرصار, not مصير الصراصير. Sorry about that. If you were to search not too hard, I am sure you would stumble upon a cheap and available online copy. 🙂

  4. Sorry for my delayed response, but I just started catching up some stuff.

    What I saw Fate of the Cockroach (which I actually mis-translated back into Arabic Fate of the Cockroaches). Still, I think my points still apply. I am very certain actually, because I can now remember the ridiculous cockroach suit.

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