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Roger Allen

From An Introduction to Arabic Literature
© 2000 Cambridge University Press
Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press


Tawfiq al-Hakim must be reckoned one of the most significant figures in twentieth century Arabic literature. The triumphs and failures that are represented by the reception of his enormous output of plays are emblematic of the issues that have confronted the drama genre as it has endeavoured to adapt its complex modes of communication to the societies of the Arab world. Sent to Paris in 1925 to complete a doctorate in law, al-Hakim chose instead to steep himself in Western culture, imbibing the sense of the role and power of the dramatic medium in its Western form and determined to replicate it in the context of his own society. He returned to Cairo in 1928 without a law degree, but filled with ideas for literary projects, some of them already in draft form.

The cause of 'serious' drama, at least in its textual form, was in the process of being given a boost by one of the Arab world's greatest literateurs, Ahmad Shawqi, 'the prince of the poets', who during his latter years penned a number of verse dramas with themes culled from Egyptian and Islamic history; these included Masra `Kliyubatra (The Death of Cleopatra, 1929), Majnun Layla (the name of a famous ghazal poet, 1931), Amirat al-Andalus (The Spanish Princess, 1932), and `Ali Bey al-kabir (a ruler of Egypt during the eighteenth century), a play originally written in 1893 and later revised. However, between the popular traditions of farcical comedy and melodrama and the performance of translated versions of European dramatic masterpieces, there still remained a void within which an indigenous tradition of serious drama could develop. Al-Hakim's desire to replicate the European tradition was thus timely in the extreme, and it is for that reason that the publication and performance of his play, Ahl al-Kahf (The People of the Cave, 1933) is such a significant event in Egyptian drama.

The story of 'the people of the cave' is to be found in the eighteenth surah of the QuĞran as well as in other sources. It concerns the tale of the seven sleepers of Ephesus who, in order to escape the Roman persecution of Christians, take refuge in a cave. They sleep for three hundred years, and wake up in a completely different era - without realising it, of course. In its use of overarching themes - rebirth into a new world and a predilection for returning to the past - al-Hakim's play obviously touches upon some of the broad cultural topics that were of major concern to intellectuals at the time, and, because of the play's obvious seriousness of purpose, most critics have chosen to emphasise such features.

Within a year al-Hakim produced another major work, Shahrazad (Scheherazade, 1934). While the title character is, of course, the famous narrator of the Thousand and One Nights collection, the scenario for this play is set after all the tales have been told. Now cured of his vicious anger against the female sex by the story-telling virtuosity of the woman who is now his wife, King Shahrayar abandons his previous ways and embarks on a journey in quest of knowledge, only to discover himself caught in a dilemma whose focus is Shahrazad herself; through a linkage to the ancient goddess, Isis, Shahrazad emerges as the ultimate mystery, the source of life and knowledge.

When the National Theatre Troupe was formed in Egypt in 1935, the first production that it mounted was The People of the Cave. The performances were not a success; for one thing, audiences seemed unimpressed by a performance in which the action on stage was so limited in comparison with the more popular types of drama. It was such problems in the realm of both production and reception that seem to have led al-Hakim to use some of his play-prefaces in order to develop the notion of his plays as 'théâtre des idées', works for reading rather than performance. However, in spite of such critical controversies, he contiued to write plays with philosophical themes culled from a variety of cultural sources: Pygmalion (1942), an interesting blend of the legends of Pygmalion and Narcissus; Sulayman al-hakim (Solomon the Wise, 1943), and Al-Malik Udib (King Oedipus, 1949).

Some of al-Hakim's frustrations with the performance aspect were diverted by an invitation in 1945 to write a series of short plays for publication in newspaper article form. These works were gathered together into two collections, Masrah al-mujtama` (Theatre of Society, 1950) and al-Masrah al-munawwa` (Theatre Miscellany, 1956). The most memorable of these plays is Ughniyyat al-mawt (Death Song), a one-act play that with masterly economy depicts the fraught atmosphere in Upper Egypt as a family awaits the return of the eldest son, a student in Cairo, in order that he may carry out a murder in response to the expectations of a blood feud.

Al-Hakim's response to the social transformations brought about by the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 was the play Al-Aydi al-na`imah (Soft Hands, 1954). The 'soft hands' of the title refer to those of a prince of the former royal family who finds himself without a meaningful role in the new society, a position in which he is joined by a young academic who has just finished writing a doctoral thesis on the uses of the Arabic preposition hatta. The play explores in an amusing, yet rather obviously didactic, fashion, the ways in which these two apparently useless individuals set about identifying roles for themselves in the new socialist context. While this play may be somewhat lacking in subtlety, it clearly illustrates in the context of al-Hakim's development as a playwright the way in which he had developed his technique in order to broach topics of contemporary interest, not least through a closer linkage between the pacing of dialogue and actions on stage. In 1960 al-Hakim was to provide further illustration of this development in technique with another play set in an earlier period of Egyptian history, al-Sultan al-haĞir (The Sultan Perplexed). The play explores in a most effective manner the issue of the legitimation of power. A Mamluk sultan at the height of his power is suddenly faced with the fact that he has never been manumitted and that he is thus ineligible to be ruler. By 1960 when this play was published, some of the initial euphoria and hope engendered by the Revolution itself, given expression in al-Aydi al-na`imah, had begun to fade somewhat. The Egyptian people found itself confronting some unsavoury realities: the use of the secret police to squelch the public expression of opinion, for example, and the personality cult surrounding the figure of `Abd al-Nasir (Nasser). In such a historical context al-Hakim's play can be seen as a somewhat courageous statement of the need for even the mightiest to adhere to the laws of the land and specifically a plea to the ruling military regime to eschew the use of violence and instead seek legitimacy through application of the law.

While al-Hakim's earlier plays were all composed in the literary language, he was to conduct a number of experiments with different levels of dramatic language. In the play, al-Safqah (The Deal, 1956), for example - with its themes of land ownership and the exploitation of poor peasant farmers - he couched the dialogue in something he termed 'a third language', one that could be read as a text in the standard written language of literature, but that could also be performed on stage in a way which, while not exactly the idiom of the colloquial dialect, was certainly comprehensible to a larger population than the literate elite of the city. There is perhaps an irony in the fact that another of al-Hakim's plays of the 1960s, Ya tali` al-shajarah (1962; The Tree Climber, 1966), was one of his most successful works from this point of view, precisely because its use of the literary language in the dialogue was a major contributor to the non-reality of the atmosphere in this absurdist drama involving extensive passages of non-communication between husband and wife. Al-Hakim continued to write plays during the 1960s, among the most popular of which were Masir sarsar (The Fate of a Cockroach, 1966) and Bank al-qalaq (Anxiety Bank, 1967).

Tawfiq al-Hakim is one of the major pioneer figures in modern Arabic literature. In the particular realm of theatre, he fulfils an overarching role as the sole founder of an entire literary tradition, as Taha Husayn had earlier made clear. His struggles on behalf of Arabic drama as a literary genre, its techniques, and its language, are coterminous with the achievement of a central role in contemporary Arab political and social life.

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