When looking through the large corpus of modern Egyptian theater and choosing what to translate, Maha Swelem writes that she decided she wanted to shed more light on the under-appreciated theater of 1920s and ’30s Egypt:
In her introduction to a new translation of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Secrets of a Suicide, Swelem writes:
As an Egyptian, I always wanted to shed light upon the Egyptian society during that specific time period. Hence, came the choice of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Ser al-Muntaherah (Secrets of a Suicide) for two main reasons: First, to focus on the middle class in the Egyptian society in the late 1920s and second, to show, through this play, the extent of Western influence on intellectuals and writers together with the educated Egyptian upper middle class portrayed in the play.
Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898-1987) was born to a well-to-do but financially cautious family in Alexandria, about whom al-Hakim writes amusingly in his memoir The Prison of Life. As Swelem writes, “When Tawfiq’s parents discovered his relationship to the theatre, they decided to send him to Paris to obtain a master’s degree in law. But in Paris, he fell deeply in love with the theatre and he befriended many artists of the time.” Al-Hakim — who died the year before the “Arab Nobel” — was a pioneering force in modern Egyptian theatre, while also a novelist, short-story writer, and memoirist.
About the play, Swelem writes that it was “published in 1929 when Egyptian theatre was going through a very sensitive time,” and while al-Hakim considered it a comedy, Swelem believes tragicomedy is a better description.
It opens, in Swelem’s translation:
An elegant examination room in a doctor’s clinic. Dr. Mahmoud Azmy is sitting at his desk busy writing. Dr. Azmy is over fifty years old but is energetic and keeps some of his youthfulness. Salem who is both Azmy’s nurse and manservant enters. [Dr. Azmy will be referred to as Mahmoud throughout the play].
Mahmoud: Salem!… close the doors and do not open to anyone whomsoever…
Salem: And if that young lady came…
Mahmoud: If that young lady came… do not open! … Understood?
Salem: What about the patients?
Mahmoud: Sick or healthy, all the same…. Understood?…