Arabic Shakespeares: From Theatre to TV to YouTube

There should be a longer piece on the Arab and Arabic Shakespeare tradition appearing today in Al Araby Al Jadeed:

The cover of the wonderful new collection of Arab Hamlet plays, ed. Margaret Litvin.
The jacket of the wonderful new collection of Arab Hamlet plays, ed. Margaret Litvin and Marvin Carlson with Joy Arab.

Aspirationally, it begins:

It was 1608 when the crew of the Red Dragon, under the leadership of Capt. William Keeling, set down on a small island that was then part of the Sultanate of al-Mahra and Socotra, now part of Yemen. While there, according to scholar Graham Holderness, they put on a performance of a relatively new play called “Hamlet.”

Meantime, we have events and a Q&A with the two authors of the Shakespeare in the Arab World site, its founder Margaret Litvin and its current torch-carrier, David Moberly.

First, Margaret will be hosting two events at the University of Bristol on April 25 and 26, the first called “Arabic Shakespeare: Three Lessons.

Next, out-takes from the aspirational Arabic Shakespeares piece on Al Araby Al Jadeed — an email Q&A with Shakesbeare scholar (my apologies) David Moberly.

Is the Arab Shakespeare tradition in film as interesting as on stage? 

David Moberly: Short answer is yes. Most of what I know right now deals with adaptations of Shrew, and I am fascinated by the way in which Egyptian film adaptations of Shrew have tended to follow the trajectory of women’s rights progression in Egypt over the last half-century. It’s as though the films are a way of saying, “This is what women in Egypt are doing nowadays. How do we all feel about that?” Early Shrew films, to use just one example, repeat and highlight the image of the shrewish woman driving a car. Other women don’t drive, but the shrewish female character does (this is in the 50s and 60s). So it’s as though these Shrew films use these scenes provide a way for Egyptians to step back and ask themselves how they feel about the increasing number of female drivers.

Can you tell me about gender, Shakespeare, and the “Arab world”? 

DM: Prior to the late 1920s, especially in Egypt, Shakespeare inhabited a domain largely exclusive to the male, educated elite within the Arab World. His plays, when translated, were performed only in fusha, and few women received the education required to understand them or appreciate them. From the late 1920s onwards, a number of factors, including the roles women such as Fatima Rushdi and Soheir El-Calamawy increasingly played in the production, performance, and translation of his work, dramatically increased his accessibility. This shift in access steadily diversified not only Shakespeare’s audiences, but the content of his adapted texts and the body of people authorized to re-produce them.

If you were going to give some narrative arc to Arabic Shakespeare adaptations, 1920s to 2020s (or almost the 2020s), what would be the backbone of their story, how they’ve changed?

DM: The backbone of my work deals with access, and perhaps the biggest change we have seen in Arab Shakespeares in the last century is that he has steadily become more and more accessible to an increasingly diverse group within the Arab world. Egypt’s “theater boom” in the 1920s, when the government placed relatively few restrictions on theater companies, was an early contributor to this. Later, the rise of Egyptian cinema, with its many adaptations of Shakespeare’s works in the colloquial dialect, also contributed. Today, perhaps the most significant medium revolutionizing the Arabs’ access to Shakespeare in their own language is the Internet, where universities and secondary school throughout the Arab World have, for example, uploaded performances onto YouTube, tried their hand at their own translations, and disseminated past films and radio productions of Shakespeare in Arabic.

Now when I think of contemporary Cairo theatre I am, forgive me, thinking of Laila Soliman or BoSSY or other contemporary productions. Are Shakespeare adaptations still invigorating contemporary Cairo theatre? 

DM: This is something I know somewhat less about. I attended a performance of Midsummer in Cairo earlier this year, but other than that my experience with the contemporary theater scene in Cairo is limited to what I can gather from the Internet. A very new production is an adaptation of Shrew entitled جميلة ( I also know that there was a performance of Othello in Cairo earlier in the summer (late July), and that the Globe to Globe Hamlet performed in Alexandria in Jan 2015. The group also performed in every other Arab country (except Yemen, Libya, and Syria) in 2015 and 2016, most recently in Iraq on April 5. The tour included performances in the West Bank, at a Yemeni refugee camp in Djibouti, and at the Syrian refugee camp in Za’atari (