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Hamlet's Arab JourneyShakespeare's Prince and Nasser's Ghost$

Margaret Litvin

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780691137803

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691137803.001.0001

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Hamletizing the Arab Muslim Hero, 1964–67

Hamletizing the Arab Muslim Hero, 1964–67

(p.91) 4 Hamletizing the Arab Muslim Hero, 1964–67
Hamlet's Arab Journey

Margaret Litvin

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines a related bid for political agency (1964–67): the pursuit of interiorized subjectivity as proof of moral personhood. As the Egyptian theatre grew more ambitious, playwrights strove to create dramatic exemplars of authentic Arab political action. This in turn required characters who were “deep” enough to qualify as fully fledged moral subjects and hence modern political agents, such as Hamlet. Looking at two landmark plays in which critics have heard Hamletian echoes, Sulayman of Aleppo by Alfred Farag and The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj by Salah Abdel Sabur, the chapter argues that the “Hamletization” of their Muslim protagonists is neither subversive in spirit nor driven by any desire to seize mastery of a colonizer's text. Rather, Hamlet serves as a model and even an emblem of psychological interiority.

Keywords:   interiorized subjectivity, moral personhood, moral subjects, modern political agents, Sulayman of Aleppo, Alfred Farag, The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj, Salah Abdel Sabur, Hamletization, psychological interiority

We have seen how Hamlet became near-ubiquitous among Egyptian intellectuals in the mid-1960s. Surrounded by a kaleidoscope of translations, films, stage productions, public discussions, and Arab and foreign literary criticism, young writers began to deploy these versions of Shakespeare in their own work. Although borrowings from Shakespeare and particularly Hamlet had long been part of Arab literary life, these now became more pronounced and purposeful. Writing in 1964, Suheil Bushrui points to several recent Arabic poems that draw on Hamlet: “Shakespeare is gradually becoming an important force in shaping the intellectual and artistic life of some of the most talented Arabic poets.”1 However, although Hamlet was everywhere, he was not yet part of the conversation about domestic politics. The Soviet and other models had been absorbed, but they were not immediately applied. When Hamlet first approached Arab political drama, it was by another door.

As the Egyptian theatre entered what is usually considered its “golden age,” playwrights sought to dramatize models of authentic Arab political action. Authentic political action, in turn, required characters whose capacity for introspection qualified them as fully fledged moral and political subjects. The need for these convincing protagonists, I will argue, is what first led playwrights to borrow from Shakespeare’s hitherto-untouchable “classics.” Hamlet, in particular, became central to the construction of dramatic heroism.

This chapter will consider two landmark Egyptian plays produced between (p.92)

Table 4.1 Hamletizing the Arab Muslim Protagonist, 1964–67



First director


Where produced

Sulayman of Aleppo

Alfrīd Faraj

҅Abd al-Raḥīm al-Zarqānī

Produced November 1965; revived in 2004

National Theatre, Cairo

The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj

Ṣalāḥ ҅Abd al-Ṣabūr

Samīr al-҅Aṣfūrī

Published 1964; staged 1966–67; revived in 1984 and 2002

Opera House, Cairo (Modern Theatre), previously in Alexandria

1964 and 1967: Alfred Farag’s Sulayman of Aleppo (Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī) and Salah Abdel Sabur’s Tragedy of al-Hallaj (Ma’sāt al-Ḥallāj) (see table 4.1). Hailed as major literary events, these two tragedies both won the Ministry of Culture’s State Incentive Award for 1965.2 Although set in Arab Muslim contexts and drawn in part from classical Arabic sources, both featured heroes in whom critics recognized “strands of Hamlet.”3 This borrowing was neither subversive in spirit nor driven by any desire to seize mastery of a colonizer’s text. Neither writer had a project to “Arabize Hamlet”;4 as we will see, Abdel Sabur explicitly rejected such an aim. What happened, rather, was a Hamletization of the Arab Muslim political hero.5 The two playwrights used elements of Hamlet mainly to lend psychological depth to their own protagonists. They did so, I will argue, not to send any message about Shakespeare but to turn their heroes into credible political agents.

In thus appropriating elements of Hamlet, Farag and Abdel Sabur continued to balance the twin 1960s imperatives of “world-class” aesthetic standards and political relevance that we saw in chapter 2. On one hand, each sought to offer an Arab Muslim model of political heroism. On the other hand, each sought to advance Arab drama by creating a character as complex and self-aware as the best exemplars of Greek and European tragedy. In this regard, Shakespeare’s Hamlet was still the gold standard. Moreover, these topical and aesthetic aspirations could converge. Because his psychological depth and self-awareness qualified him to bid for recognition as a moral subject and political agent, a protagonist modeled on Hamlet promised a political payoff as well.

In a way, therefore, we can consider these two tragedies to be the first political appropriations of Hamlet in Arab theatre. They did not succeed perfectly, to be sure; reviewers of both plays perceived an awkward fit between the protagonists’ heroic resistance to tyranny and their Hamlet-like doubts. Critics tended (p.93) to resolve it by reabsorbing both plays into the tradition of regime-directed allegorical drama that dominated Egyptian theatre at that time. Farag’s Sulayman of Aleppo, a celebration of (violent) resistance against oppressive colonial rule, was interpreted as addressing Nasser’s homegrown tyranny. Although it was less transparently allegorical, Abdel Sabur’s Tragedy of Al-Hallaj nonetheless struck some critics as an appeal to Nasser’s regime to give its intellectuals greater freedom of speech. Both protagonists were read as fighters for justice, brave opponents of a tyrannical regime. Thus two Muslim heroes, a seminarian and a Sufi, present intriguing early versions of the Arab Hero Hamlet.

In Search of Social Justice

Alfred Farag (1929–2005) and Salah Abdel Sabur (1931–81) both typified and dominated the generation that came to prominence in the 1960s.6 The two Egyptian writers were colleagues: they worked together as editors on the Ministry of Culture’s al-Masraḥ magazine in the late 1960s and wrote warm reviews of each other’s work. They shared many interests: ancient Greek tragedy and philosophy, English literature (Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot), and the development of a modern Arabic idiom that could express the deepest truths of human experience with elegance but without fussy nineteenth-century Neoclassicism.

Like many Arab writers of this generation, they also shared a commitment to social justice defined in broadly socialist terms; their works take care to include “ordinary” characters, highlighting the living conditions, aspirations, and relationships with power of these peasants or struggling urbanites. Farag experimented with “documentary” drama; Abdel Sabur’s poetry of the 1950s is known for its dunyawiyya (earthiness, worldiness), meaning its incorporation of common people and places “of this world.”

The two writers’ work set new standards for Arabic drama and poetry, respectively. Farag’s plays often drew on stories from One Thousand and One Nights, historical sources, or current events. A disciple of master dramatist Tawfiq al-Hakim, he sought to bring serious political and philosophical issues to the stage.7 Particularly fruitful was Farag’s engagement with the problem of earthly justice, a theme that recurs in many of his plays.8 This and other social concerns led him to a playful, provocative theatrical style heavily indebted to Bertolt Brecht’s “epic theatre.”9 Salah Abdel Sabur, meanwhile, came to theatre as one of the leading poets of his day and the pioneer of a newly flexible, limpid poetic style. As we will see, he understood the process of writing poetry as a spiritual illumination akin to the mystical experience of Sufism. Drawn by the (p.94) artistic possibilities of verse drama and perhaps by baser incentives that favored writing for the stage,10 he dramatized characters who, like him, sought to balance political/worldly engagement with higher artistic/spiritual truth.

The plays these two men published in 1964 illustrate both how they differed and what they shared. Farag’s Sulayman of Aleppo, characterized by clean prose, a timely topic, and psychologistic style, was staged immediately at Egypt’s National Theatre; Abdel Sabur’s Tragedy of al-Hallaj, a highly stylized verse drama with a more ambiguous message, sat on the shelf for two years before finding a director.11 Yet a distance of nearly half a century reveals some similarities of approach, characterization, and theme. In each of these plays, a Hamlet-influenced protagonist chooses between political action and inaction. Both Sulayman and al-Hallaj confront the question “What should I do about earthly injustice?” Although they reach different answers, both become martyrs as those answers lead them into inexorable confrontation with an unjust regime. Yet in each case the martyr wins in the end, his winged words outliving the inarticulate oppressor.

Although neither Farag nor Abdel Sabur was a devout Muslim, their plays couch political agency in Islamic terms. Farag was of Coptic Christian origin; Abdel Sabur seems to have espoused an eclectic, quasi-Sufi mysticism influenced by European Romanticism and existentialism. Their protagonists’ visions of Islam are fiercely idiosyncratic and political, coming into tension with orthodox religious centers where the worship of God is kept separate from the pursuit of social justice. Further, both Sulayman and al-Hallaj are self-aware, holding the kind of faith commitment deliberately embraced by a fully self-conscious rational agent. This is important to the dramatic goal of making them plausibly complex characters, capable of independent thought and thus political decisionmaking.

Critics were quick to associate Sulayman of Aleppo with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The Tragedy of al-Hallaj, more eclectic in its influences, has also been linked to Hamlet (as well as other models). Both plays include some Hamlet-like phrases and situations. The two protagonists echo Hamlet’s verbal style: heavy on riddles, soliloquies, and quick juxtapositions of opposites. Above all, they mirror Hamlet’s aloneness, his inwardness, and the acuity with which he understands his moral situation. For Egyptian critics and audiences accustomed to venerating Shakespeare’s play and its psychologically deep hero, such resonances helped establish the moral (not just psychological) fullness of the Arab protagonists. Both Sulayman and al-Hallaj, like Hamlet, acquired a stature out of proportion to their objective circumstances.

(p.95) Psychological Interiority as a Ground for Political Agency

The link I am drawing between psychological interiority and political freedom can be theorized in various ways. From an existentialist point of view, which at times Abdel Sabur shared, the ability to become an authentic individual entails a certain depth of thought: one must grasp both the surrounding world’s meaninglessness and one’s own ultimate freedom and responsibility to will one’s choices in it. This account of meaningful life hinges on a deeper assumption about the value of human rationality. As Charles Taylor has shown, the modern West has built its “ethics of authenticity” on a notion of individual psychological “inwardness.”12 It is taken for granted that self-consciousness (Harold Bloom calls it self-overhearing) is what “creates the human.”13 Self-consciousness also allows for self-control, which in turn creates the political agency that gives a title to self-rule. It is no surprise that postcolonial intellectuals, working to earn their society admission to the modern West, would imagine such self-conscious selves and seek to present them on stage.

In both Sulayman of Aleppo and The Tragedy of al-Hallaj, the protagonist’s psychological inwardness (with the moral stature it confers) is integral to the author’s political message. As we will see, Farag set out to reclaim the dignity and political agency of a protagonist who had been radically objectified by the colonial apparatus of law courts and museum exhibits. Abdel Sabur, making a bid for political agency on another level, sought to define a central role for the poet in a sullied world: poetic insight, he argued, can purify or redeem worldly politics. Both writers sought to forge characters whose very inwardness—their ability to hesitate, to deliberate about justice and injustice, to soliloquize about action and inaction, and to overhear themselves thinking—made them credible moral subjects with the standing to contest their political fate.

However, this inwardness could not just be described, as in a novel. It also needed to be shown to the audience somehow. Hamlet provided a readymade and widely recognized set of conventions and techniques. Both authors turned to it for the elements of dramatic characterization they needed.

Sulayman: “Justice or Oppression? That Is the Puzzle”

Alfred Farag’s play Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī (Sulayman of Aleppo) celebrates the young man who “offered, in the blink of an eye, a fitting response to European colonialism’s first challenge to the East in modern times.”14 The historical Sulayman was a 24-year-old Syrian man, a former student at the al-Azhar Islamic seminary in Cairo, who stabbed to death General Jean-Baptiste Kléber, the (p.96) leader of Napoleon’s army in Egypt, in June 1800. Structured as a sequence of forty-five vignettes, Farag’s play shows the young seminarian gradually reaching his decision to kill Kléber over a period of about a month, as Cairo seethes under a cruel and stifling French occupation. The style is nonlinear and classical, not realistic. Character is revealed through neatly orchestrated set-piece dialogue rather than action. The most audacious formal element is a Chorus: part Brechtian narrator addressing the audience, part tragic chorus interrogating the characters (as in Sophocles’ Antigone).

Farag’s ambitious architecture serves two sometimes-competing goals. The first is didactic: to expose the effects of colonial occupation on Egyptian student militants, religious scholars at al-Azhar, helpless civilians, opportunistic bandits, and the occupiers themselves. Thus the reader is treated to the Chorus’s introductory narration of the brutally suppressed Cairo rebellion against the French (March–April 1800), followed by passionate arguments among demoralized student leaders, French military brass, al-Azhar clergymen, the highway robber Hiddaya the Lame and his victims, and so on. In its eagerness to show the problem from many sides, the play is crowded with minor characters and scene changes; the published script carries an Author’s Note suggesting scenes to omit.15

The second goal is psychological: Farag takes an intense interest in the character of his young Syrian protagonist. Introduced as a “nervous, bright, articulate” 20-year-old who “appears younger than his real age,”16 Sulayman gradually matures or reveals himself through dialogues with his mother and his childhood friend, a dream sequence about judging Kléber, some awkward Robin Hood–like attempts to save Hiddaya’s unnamed daughter, arguments with colleagues and shaykhs at al-Azhar, a surreal exchange with a mask-maker, and a monologue about justice. After all this and a climactic debate with the Chorus, he finally kills Kléber. (In an interview shortly before his death in 2005, Farag told Dina Amin that his portrayal of Sulayman was an effort to study the character of a freedom fighter that was inspired by an “arrogant and selfless” college friend who had died as part of a patriotic movement to liberate the Suez region in 1951.)17

“The Head of the Killer”

Both the political and psychological agendas require Farag to transform his classical source. The outlines of Sulayman’s case come from a sprawling history of Egypt, ҅Ajā’ib al-Āthār fī al-Tarājim wa-l-Akhbār, by Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (҅Abd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī, 1753–1825), a leading Egyptian Muslim scholar who served in the administration of Kléber’s successor. Al-Jabarti, relying (p.97) mainly on French sources, uses Sulayman’s case to illustrate the French adherence to the rule of law.18 Farag inverts the perspective. He sets out to recover Sulayman’s own story, which he feels the occupier has silenced. He wants to probe the motivations and doubts leading up to the attack. He explains in his introduction that seeing Sulayman’s embalmed head in a Paris museum display case, labeled only “The head of the killer: Sulayman of Aleppo,” has stirred his sympathetic curiosity:

So who was this obscure, bold youth? What blood ran in his veins, and what feverish or reasonable thoughts followed him the length of the road from Giza to Ezbekiyya that memorable day? … What motives filled his heart when the handle of the fateful knife filled his hand?19

Al-Jabarti is silent about Sulayman’s motives, describing the murder only as “an amazing event” (nādira ҅ajība); his account of the interrogation and trial reproduces a long propaganda pamphlet circulated by the French. Farag steps into this void with a powerful reinterpretation. He strives to reclaim Sulayman’s political agency by turning him from an object—a head in a display case—back into a subject. His play thus reimagines the Syrian killer as the hero of an Arab nationalist struggle against imperialism: “Egyptian in sympathy, Azhari in culture, and Arab in origin.”20 Farag disregards Sulayman’s confession, obtained under torture, that Napoleon’s Ottoman rivals had paid him to kill Kléber.21 He ends the play before Sulayman’s trial, the most overtly “dramatic” scene in al-Jabarti’s account. Instead Kléber becomes the defendant, Sulayman the judge, and the audience almost an extension of Sulayman. In the play’s closing words, the Chorus breaks the theatrical fourth wall to urge the audience: “O judges of this court, do not judge by law! Judge by justice!”22

The evidence against Kléber is overwhelming. He is an unmitigated villain, almost a caricature. At his first entrance, he boasts that only systematic humiliation can subdue the Egyptians: the way to disarm an enemy is to destroy his pride. Kléber’s stated policy is to reduce the colonized Egyptian to abjection through crippling fines that make him sell his house, prostitute his wife, abandon his religious leaders, and still remain in debt. Later, Kléber is furious when a student named 'Alī, arrested for posting anti-French pamphlets, accidentally dies under torture—but only because he could have lived to incriminate more comrades.23 These scenes ignore the historical General Kléber’s desire to withdraw from Egypt quickly and safely,24 instead portraying him as a brutal aspirant to be “the man after the battle, i.e., the strong ruler of the colony.”25

Against Kléber’s policy of cruelty, nothing but assassination could work. A (p.98) citywide insurgency has been brutally suppressed just before the play begins, bringing mass slaughter and punitive fines. Nonviolent resistance such as pamphleteering is shown to fail—it carries the same cost as militancy but accomplishes nothing. “Partial justice” (submission to the occupier’s justice) is shown as useless too, even for securing law and order: when the gangster Hiddaya is turned over to French authorities for prosecution, they instead hire him as a tax collector. (“Long live justice!” the thief shouts on learning the news.)26 Through Sulayman’s eyes we see that Egypt has sold its integrity for a momentary respite—and received nothing in return.

In this sullied world, Sulayman bristles with the certainty of a revolutionary hero. “Partial justice is worse than injustice,” he proclaims.27 Farag portrays him as naïve, socially inconsiderate, sexually puritan, and self-righteous—but correct. Sulayman resolves to kill Kléber. Unlike his al-Azhar colleagues (who call him “mad”), he is willing to accept the violent reprisals likely to rain down on his comrades, his teachers, and Cairo’s innocent civilians, including children.28 His ethics are absolute and deontological (indifferent to consequences). He distinguishes impartial justice from mere revenge, seeing himself as an embodiment of the former:


  • Why did you come this long way from Aleppo to kill an occupier here when you had Turks there who are just as greedy and oppressive?
  • Sulayman:

  • The Turks oppressed my father….
  • Chorus:

  • [So then w]hy would you kill the French military commander instead of the Pasha of Aleppo?
  • Sulayman:

  • I cannot kill out of revenge.
  • Chorus:

  • And killing a military commander? What do you call that?
  • Sulayman:

  • Justice.
  • Chorus:

  • Do you know what you’re saying and what you’re doing?
  • Sulayman:

  • Yes. I am killing in a pure and just way, without vengefulness.
  • Chorus:

  • Oh God! This is madness!
  • Sulayman:

  • But it’s a cool and rational killing.
  • Chorus:

  • But that’s how a murderer would put it.
  • Sulayman:

  • They’re the murderers. I am the judge.
  • Chorus:

  • Do you have a sense of the paradox in your words?
  • Sulayman:

  • Yes: Life itself is the paradox. The judge wears (p.99) the clothes of the murderer and the murderer wears the clothes of the judge, and both of them are Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī.29
  • Rather than show a decision process, Sulayman’s long debate with the Chorus underlines his moral certainty. Couched in the balanced phrases of a scholar (or a fanatic), his conviction is quiet and firm.30 The device of the Chorus lets the play, not the character, simultaneously entertain conflicting moral arguments.

    However, the play’s didactic setup competes with its artistic and political need for a suitably deep protagonist. Sulayman cannot be a mere fanatic; he must be as psychologically complex as any western man. Seeking to rehabilitate Sulayman’s psychological interiority as a ground for his political agency, Farag weaves in “several strands of Hamlet.”31 Here Sulayman’s certainty wavers. He indulges in monologues and dialogues that delay the plot, including some Hamlet-like mood swings, meditations on the world’s corruption, and episodes of clowning. These moments are unmistakable echoes—even citations—of Hamlet.

    Above all, Sulayman’s resolve must flow from genuine self-conscious deliberation, not blind belief. He must reason. Farag employs the soliloquy, a form he has studied carefully, to show Sulayman’s mind at work.32 No blind believer, the assassin will not lift his dagger until he is convinced that the necessity of killing Kléber outweighs the terrible consequences. Looking down from a high hill, he addresses his adopted city:

    Oh Cairo! Oh most great and most wretched! My homeland, the cradle of my thoughts and my hopes and the beating heart of the Arabs. I hate you now, Cairo. You make me sick. I don’t care what happens to you anymore … It is despicable to sell your honor for your life, instead of trading your life for your honor. Mercy! [Pause] And even so, I’m not certain. Where is certainty? Maybe I pronounce the words with my tongue but it is Satan who speaks in my mouth?33

    Later, sitting in front of Kléber’s palace, Sulayman interrogates his conscience again in a speech that critics have unanimously flagged as an echo of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy:

    To kill … that is the simple part. One blow in mid-chest with the right hand while the left holds his neck. And if the first blow misses, those that follow it will not. [But then,] justice or oppression? That is the puzzle….

    (p.100) Will the lightning bolts pour down on the minaret of Al-Azhar, and innocent blood run in the canals that were first dug to give water to the thirsty? Will the believers’ hearts be frightened to bursting, and will the covers be viciously torn away behind which the women, children, old people, and men gather their breath, which was cut off behind the door-latches, and dry their tears? Yes, one stab in the dike, and all that flows out of it will be a little weak stream to fill a cup from, but then, “the earth will quake with its quaking.”34 And the deluge! And the lightning bolts will pour down!

    But—whom will the waters engulf? The murderer or the victim? Will the spirit of the soldiers break down like the houses of the people? Which spirit will collapse under its burden?

    Justice, or the price of justice?

    And yet I know that the judge judges without regard for his pay. And lays down justice without heed for the consequences. His function is limited. That is proper justice within proper limits.35

    Sulayman’s Qur’ān-quoting dialectics pit justice against its unfair consequences: although certain that killing Kléber is just, he hesitates to expose Cairo’s innocent population to the apocalyptic savagery that will follow. This is not Hamlet’s dilemma: Shakespeare’s Hamlet does not deliberate about the effects of his actions on the innocent.36 But the dialectical style of thought, modeled on Hamlet’s, confers the impression that Sulayman has Hamlet-like interiority. And the basic moral stance—reluctant heroism—was quickly recognized as Hamlet’s. As fellow playwright Salah Abdel Sabur observes: “Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī … looks at the killing of Kléber as the realization of justice, the establishment of legality, and fixing the balance of the out-of-joint world [iqrār li-mīzān al-kawn al-muḍṭarib].”37

    “The Authentic Arab Copy”

    Staged at the National Theatre in November 1965, Farag’s Sulayman of Aleppo was immediately and widely hailed as a landmark of Egyptian theatre. Critics praised its convincing portrayal of a protagonist torn by an “inner struggle” (the recurring phrase is ṣirā҅ dākhilī) yet obsessed with justice.38 Some, especially among the recently released leftist intellectuals now working for the state publishing sector, went further. Critic Louis Awad (1915–90), who had been imprisoned (p.101) together with Farag in the 1959–63 crackdown, questioned some aspects of the play’s plot and characterization but called it the finest Egyptian drama of the season and a step forward for modern Egyptian drama as a whole.39 Another former prison-mate, Mahmud Amin al-Alim (the same Marxist critic who had been so disappointed in al-Sayyid Bidayr’s apolitical Hamlet one year earlier), seized on Sulayman as “an authentic tragic character on the Arab stage, based on our intellectual, social, and historical heritage all at once.”40

    The play’s strengths were widely traced to Hamlet. Novelist and journalist Bahaa Taher (Bahā’ Ṭāhir, b. 1935) wrote a review comparing “the Aleppo Man and the Prince of Denmark.”41 Critic Ali al-Rai ('Alī al-Rā'ī; 1920–99) called Sulayman “a Middle Eastern Hamlet [un Hamlet oriental] … no ordinary political murderer, but an intellectual and patriot on whom falls a task that he does not relish, but which he believes is his duty.”42 Many observers shared the enthusiasm of theatre critic Raga al-Naqqash (Rajā’ al-Naqqāsh; 1934–2008):

    This character as depicted by Alfred can be considered one of the finest and deepest characters to appear on the Arab stage from [theatre pioneer] Ya'qūb Ṣanū҅ to this day. For the character of Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī, besides its historical features, shows us something else: the deep human struggle that goes on inside him. For Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī is an “intellectual” accustomed to living the life of thought, observation, contemplation, and dreams. Yet he is suddenly struck in a fateful moment with the necessity of moving from thought to action, from dreams and imagination and theory to entering into the heart of practical life and taking a position that will have grave results…. Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī as Alfred Farag has depicted him is the authentic Arab copy [al-nuskha al-҅arabiyya al-aṣīla] of Shakespeare’s character, Hamlet.43

    For the 1965 Cairo audience, Sulayman’s dilemma had immediate political relevance. Critics disagreed only on precisely whom, given the abundance of foreign and domestic tyrants in the region, Kléber was supposed to represent. Most read the play as an attack on western imperialism in the Middle East, whether recently ended (French and British) or ongoing (Zionist). For them, Sulayman’s ideals and personality recalled the Algerian freedom fighters who had liberated their land from foreign occupation just three years earlier.44 Several later critics detected a darker, more local message: a cri de coeur to Nasser about the evils of autocracy and military rule. (As Sāmī Munīr Ḥusayn Amīr (p.102) asked in 1978: “Are Sulaymān’s circumstances so different from the ones our society was living through?”)45 Still others read the play as targeting both western imperialism and the local despots who enable it.

    One curious contemporary parallel was not invoked in print. By 1964, Egypt’s Islamist opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, was already waging a tumultuous battle against Nasser’s government. The role of religious ideology in postcolonial politics was obvious to all who cared to look. Many top drama critics had personally met Islamists in prison between 1959 and 1963, if not at university before that. Nasser had survived a 1954 assassination attempt by a Muslim Brother, which had ended his own flirtation with the movement and provoked the first of many violent crackdowns. Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb (Sayyid Quṭb; 1906–66) had just been imprisoned again in August 1965, a few months before Farag’s play went up, after being briefly freed in 1964.46 The al-Azhar mosque and seminary, where much of Farag’s play is set, had been nationalized in 1961, turning it into an arm of the state, just as Sulayman had feared.

    But reviewers of Sulayman of Aleppo strenuously avoided any reference to contemporary Islam-framed political opposition movements. Religion was approached, if at all, as a problem of dramatic characterization: Louis Awad asked how Sulayman could be a tragic hero and a good “case study of a political killer” if his basic motivation was driven by faith rather than a worldly concept of justice. It is difficult to say whether the critics’ reticence on this issue stemmed only from the ban on discussing Islamism in print or also from their own progressive-humanist assumption that all liberationist ideologies were naturally reducible to each other. Salah Abdel Sabur, for instance, argues (in 1969) that Sulayman’s religious motives are just anticolonialism by another name:

    [Farag] doesn’t cover up Sulaymān’s religious motives, but places them in their more general and comprehensive context…. Justice is an absolute value, not limited to a particular time or place or a specific society…. When Sulaymān told his interrogators he was “waging a holy war in the name of Islam and killing the French infidels,” that meant something—it meant, according to the logic of that time, defending the Muslim nation (umma) first of all, i.e., defending the people and the country, which is the land. This is no different from the motive for our battles against colonialism and imperialism in this age. The play’s lack of mention of these words [holy war, the Muslim nation, unbelievers] opens a (p.103) path for all hearts, minds, and souls to see Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī as a model of a positive battle against colonialism, and a human model that inspires people in every place and of every religion.47

    “A Beautiful Failure”

    Whatever Sulayman’s “cue for action”48, it is remarkable for our purposes to note how poorly his Hamlet-like elements are integrated into Farag’s play as a whole. As with Shakespeare’s Hamlet itself, the rival demands of plot and character produce an unwieldy drama, almost impossible to stage in full. The tension has puzzled some critics, who see Sulayman as a Shakespearean character stuck in a Brechtian play—or, as T. S. Eliot said of Hamlet, a protagonist whose emotions lack an adequate objective correlative.49 For Louis Awad, Sulayman’s character is “a strange mixture of Joan of Arc and Hamlet”: a religious militant with a curious introspective bent.50 The play is thus “an incomplete success and a beautiful failure … a tragedy pour[ed] into an epic mold.”51 Others deny that Sulayman, with his lack of character development, can be a tragic hero at all. Nehad Selaiha complains: “All Farag’s efforts to invest his hero with Hamletian features—a meditative cast of mind, a rich imagination and a predilection for clowning in moments of crisis—and to develop his obsession with justice into a moral dilemma remain purely verbal, superficial and come to naught.”52

    Such critiques have a point. Surrounded by cardboard-cutout secondary characters and stereotyped events, Sulayman’s ruminations on universal justice indeed sound incongruous. But what Selaiha disdains is precisely Farag’s deft economy in deploying “verbal” and “superficial” references to Hamlet. These citations act as emblems or flags of psychological depth, quick signals that Sulayman is a full-fledged rational moral subject who has “that within which passes show.”53 Onstage, paradoxically, the simplest of external gestures (“actions that a man might play”) can suffice to convey psychological interiority, especially to an audience already steeped in readings of Hamlet.

    Al-Hallaj: “Who Will Give Me a Seeing Sword?”

    The moral crisis that disturbs Sulayman is brought to a higher pitch in Salah Abdel Sabur’s Tragedy of al-Hallaj, a verse drama about the martyrdom of tenth-century Persian mystic Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj (Ḥusayn ibn Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj). The historical al-Hallaj, a poet and preacher as well as spiritual adviser to several top political figures in Abbasid Baghdad, was condemned to death after a judicial process lasting nearly nine years. He was executed— (p.104) hung on a gibbet—in 922. The official charge was heresy, specifically “usurpation of the supreme power of God” (da'wa ilā al-rubūbiyya). But al-Hallaj’s politics are believed to have played a role as well: his connections and activities brought powerful enemies at a time when the Abbasid Empire was unusually fragile and sensitive to dissent.54 Abdel Sabur’s play draws on al-Hallaj’s own writings (collected as Akhbār al-Ḥallāj around 991, critical edition published 1957) and early versions of French scholar Louis Massignon’s massive study, La Passion du Hallaj.55 The play follows al-Hallaj from his decision to cast off the Sufi cloak and preach in the marketplace through his imprisonment, trial, and crucifixion.

    The Islamic art tradition remembers al-Hallaj for his crucifixion and the Christ-like equanimity with which he accepted it.56 (Rumi, among others, wrote poems inspired by him.) Abdel Sabur turns this beloved religious figure into a metaphor for the artist in the modern state—that is, a self-portrait. His Hallaj feels torn between the political realm on one hand and the intellectual and spiritual realm on the other, between public action and personal salvation. He seeks unity with God through private spiritual practice. Yet he believes in changing the world; disturbed by the sight of injustice and poverty, he corresponds with would-be rulers and preaches to the poor. His ambivalence about the value of action sets him apart from his two best-known literary models: Massignon’s Hallaj, who did not hesitate to accept martyrdom, and the doubt-free protagonist of T. S. Eliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral (1935).57

    “Under Shakespeare’s Cart”

    Abdel Sabur never intended to rewrite Hamlet. He had read widely; his poetry draws on diverse literary models, both European and Arab. Besides T. S. Eliot, his 1969 memoir, Ḥayātī fī al-Shi҅r (My Life in Poetry) bristles with quotations from Cavafy, Coleridge, Goethe, Lorca, Jacques Prévert, Rilke, and others, as well as Plato’s Phaedrus and other works, Aristotle’s Poetics, and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy.58 A graduate of Cairo University’s Arabic faculty (rather than English or law like many fellow writers), he also engaged with the Arabic literary tradition. He modeled himself on classical Sufi thinkers such as Abu Nasr al-Tusi (Abu Naṣr ҅Abd Allāh ibn ҅Alī al-Sarrāj al-Ṭūsī, d. 988) and Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (Abū al-Qāsim ҅Abd al-Karīm al-Qushayrī, d. 1072), in whose accounts of divine inspiration he saw a prototype of his own creative process.59

    Yet when Abdel Sabur sat down to write a poetic drama, it was Shakespeare—or rather, the stock political interpretations of Shakespeare—that brought on an almost stifling anxiety of influence.60 He recalls:

    (p.105) Poetic drama was an ambition that pursued me for years until I wrote my play, The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj. Before that I had made an attempt that was not completed: a play about the Algerian War. I tabled it because I found that I had fallen in thrall to Shakespeare, and created a “Hamletian” character—an Algerian intellectual perplexed [ḥā’ir] between a just killing and a contemplative cultural background. I wrote a few scenes of this flawed play, and when I realized I had fallen under the wheels of Shakespeare’s cart [ayqantu min wuqū҅ī taḥt ҅arabat shaksbīr], especially in the scene where the intellectual refuses to kill his adversary while he is praying, I dropped the project.

    A second idea came to me, to write the story of Muhalhal ibn Rabī҅a, but I found myself for a second time caught under Shakespeare’s cart, for no sooner had I started turning its structure around in my mind than I saw that I was coming fatally close to Julius Caesar.61 For Kulayb is a tyrant, somewhat comparable to Caesar. And Jassās ibn Murra is comparable to Brutus—and therefore it was necessary, since I had made Jassās a seeker of justice, for there to be a man to urge him on to the killing, and here I created a new Cassius, and turned Muhalhal into Marc Antony….

    These attempts got me no further than to the boundaries of this domain. And then I left them behind and resolved to write The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj. And at that point I strove to escape from under the wheels of Shakespeare’s cart, although if I don’t know if I’ve escaped other carts as well.62

    Abdel Sabur’s description suggests that he wanted to escape not only Shakespeare but the thick layer of cliché with which Shakespeare’s plays, especially the tragedies, had already grown encrusted. Only a few years into a period of vibrant literary discovery, the sources of inspiration that had recently looked so exciting—decolonization, Arab folklore, and Shakespeare’s tragedies—seemed as flat as playing cards to be reshuffled. Hamlet and Brutus each hesitated before justly killing a tyrant, and Abdel Sabur hesitated too, reluctant to surrender his singularity as a writer to the appeal of such banal tropes. Although he shared the socialist beliefs of many of his contemporaries, he had no wish to write propaganda plays or schematic explorations of abstract moral problems.63 Even while writing for the stage, he felt he was a poet first and foremost: a (p.106) unique, subjective voice. The aesthetic and spiritual value of the theatrical enterprise for him consisted precisely in its elevation above the sloganized plane of everyday life: “For theatre is not just a slice of life, but an intensified slice.”64 For this reason he expresses fierce scorn for plays which, besides being in prose, are prosaic:

    Ibsen’s prose theatre was abused by Ibsenist students. They took his judicious structure, invented a naïve shade of prose theatre, and called it the theatre of “agitprop” [al-da'wa] or “incitement” [al-taḥrīḍ]. Its examples are superficial, and its dialogue is unsubtle and easy to process; all the playwright has to do is make good oppose evil and then defeat it, so workers stand against bosses, and peasants against landlords, and the good woman against the cruel man, and then the theatrical events unfold naïvely and simply until they arrive at the desired conclusion.65

    Rather than escape it, Abdel Sabur’s Tragedy of al-Hallaj climbs in and redirects “Shakespeare’s cart” away from the road of “agitprop or incitement.” His Hallaj, despite his concern for the suffering of the poor, does not purvey any simple political message. Strengthened by a passage through radical doubt, he rejects all claims to certainty: his Sufi comrades’ complacency, his co-prisoners’ radicalism, and the state’s arrogance. If he has a lesson to teach, it is precisely about the power of mystical (and poetic) insight to transcend the dictates of the mighty.

    The Word or the Sword?

    The Tragedy of al-Hallaj opens with the epilogue: the curtain rises on al-Hallaj’s hanging corpse (“Look, what’s that they’ve put in our path? A crucified old man!”), and the first scene recounts his trial.66 The flashback structure precludes plot-driven suspense.67 Instead, the play draws its momentum from the unfolding of al-Hallaj’s spiritual quest and its rhythm from the dialectical confrontation (thesis-antithesis-synthesis) between clashing points of view.

    Critics have noted that dialectical patterns of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis pervade much of Abdel Sabur’s poetry.68 Such a design underpins The Tragedy of al-Hallaj as well, structuring the three triplet-based scenes of the first act. In scene 1, a trio of curious men (a peasant, a merchant, and a preacher) hears three accounts of al-Hallaj’s death: from a group of commoners who testified against him, a group of Sufis who loved him and let him die, and his friend Shiblī, whose personal story makes sense of the other two. Scene 2 also has three parts. (p.107) In contrast to the public space and many voices of the first, it shows al-Hallaj in intimate conversation with Shiblī and in private meditation: he is a live subject, not a dead object, and his pity for the poor contrasts with their betrayal of him in scene 1. Scene 3 recapitulates and synthesizes the first two: we see the choruses of gossipers again (in three groups of three), then al-Hallaj shares a sermon with them, and finally a troika of policemen interrogate and arrest al-Hallaj. This culminates the encounter between public and private discourses, lands al-Hallaj in prison, and sets up the main antithesis between spirituality and public engagement to be resolved in the second act.

    Al-Hallaj’s character, too, is structured by a dialectical confrontation between clashing ideals. He begins the play as Socrates (a gadfly reducing interlocutors to aporia) and ends it as Jesus Christ. The dark antithesis—the dialectic’s second term—is Hamlet. Abdel Sabur’s reading of Hamlet resonates throughout The Tragedy of al-Hallaj, expressing the doubt that al-Hallaj must overcome before he can embrace his role as a martyr and potential savior. Key to this reading are the twin tropes of perplexity (ḥayra) and the out-of-joint world (al-kawn al-muḍṭarib or al-mu'tall).

    Al-Hallaj’s doubt, like that of Alfred Farag’s Sulayman, begins with the problem of injustice (ẓulm). But it goes deeper, not only weighing the relative importance of consequences (“Justice, or the price of justice?”), but questioning whether human moral judgment can be accurate at all. He begins the play confident of his mission, telling his friend Shibli that God sends illumination to certain people “so that they can give balance to this broken world” (li-yakūnū mīzān al-kawn al-mu҅tall).69 This confidence soon fades. The play’s climactic prison dialogue, which starts by echoing Plato’s Crito, ends with al-Hallaj collapsing in tears. He can out-argue the officials who arrest him (and to withstand a savage beating in prison), but he is reduced to Hamlet-like impotence (҅ajz) by his own perplexity:


  • Why should I escape?
  • Second Prisoner:

  • So you can take up your sword and fight for humanity.
  • Hallaj:

  • Men like myself do not carry swords.
  • Second Pr.:

  • Are you afraid to carry a sword?
  • Hallaj:

  • I do not fear carrying one,
  • But I fear walking with one taken up:
  • For a sword in a blind hand becomes the instrument of blind death.
  • Second Pr.:

  • Couldn’t your words guide your sword?
  • (p.108) Hallaj:

  • Suppose my words sang for the sword.
  • The sound of its blows
  • Would echo their syllables, their commas and their rhymes.
  • And between one consonant and another
  • A head that once moved, rolls,
  • And a heart that once rejoiced, breaks,
  • And an arm is cut off at the sounds of the letters’ poetical rhymes.
  • How unhappy I would then be: how unhappy!
  • My words would have killed.
  • Second Pr.:

  • You’d have killed in the name of the persecuted.
  • Hallaj:

  • Persecuted!
  • Where are the persecuted and where are the persecutors?70
  • Has any among the victims not persecuted
  • A neighbor, a spouse, a child, a maid, or a slave?
  • Has any among them not wronged the Lord?
  • Who will give me—a seeing sword?
  • Who will give me a seeing sword?
  • [Tears come to his eyes]
  • First Pr.:

  • Are you crying, master?
  • Don’t be sad:

  • things may get better.
  • Hallaj:

  • I am not crying from sadness but from perplexity [ḥayra]
  • My helplessness [҅ajz] makes my tears fall.
  • My anxiety shows and my sighs pour forth
  • Because of my perplexity and my doubts.
  • Is the Lord punishing me in my soul and in my faith,
  • Concealing His light from my eyes?
  • Or is He calling me to make my own choice?
  • Suppose I do make my own choice; what would I choose?
  • To raise my voice?
  • Or to raise my sword?
  • What would I choose?
  • What would I choose?
  • [Lights fade to black.]71
  • (p.109) Just as shadow in a painting creates the effect of depth, al-Hallaj’s episode of Hamlet-like doubt suggests interiority. But here it also allows character development: al-Hallaj emerges from this dark night as a fully fledged moral subject and agent able to take full responsibility for his fate. Although he construes his newfound agency as submission to God, not individual self-assertion,72 it nonetheless gives him the power to stand up to corrupt earthly authority. He does so for the rest of the second act.

    Abdel Sabur’s long final scene—the trial—makes brilliant dramatic use of Massignon’s research.73 The three judges’ roles closely follow but condense their historical roles and behavior toward al-Hallaj. The defendant is self-assured and serene. He effortlessly upstages Abu Omar (Abū ҅Umar), the pompous and venal chief judge. Casting the court as an object—the instrument of God’s will—he claims for himself the status of an authentic moral subject, freely choosing martyrdom.

    Abu Omar:

  • Hey, you, old man with the tangled beard.
  • How do you defend yourself?
  • Hallaj:

  • You are not my judges.
  • Therefore, I do not defend myself.74
  • Yet al-Hallaj testifies. Abdel Sabur gives him a long poetic monologue about his life and faith. He describes the quest for certainty that has animated him since childhood. He tells of pursuing it first through study, which failed, however, to relieve his “terrible perplexity,” then through prayer, and finally through love. Having experienced and overcome this “terrible perplexity” [ḥayra rājifa])75 gives al-Hallaj the moral authority to transcend the kangaroo court’s jurisdiction. Abu ҅Umar proclaims him a heretic, but the sympathetic judge, Ibn Surayj, declares that al-Hallaj’s Sufi practice is “a matter between the servant and his master, of which only God can judge.”76

    The play endorses this view. As the trial turns from religion to politics, al-Hallaj continues to speak over the heads of his onstage judges, sounding more fully human and thus more authoritative than they. He expounds his political views (which are reformist, not revolutionary) in the context of a deeper mystical vision of man’s unity with God:

    Ibn Surayj:

  • Let us now question him about his alleged incitement of the people,
  • For that is the crime for which the Sultan sent him here.
  • (To Hallaj) Have you corrupted the people, O Hallaj?
  • (p.110) Hallaj:

  • Only a corrupt Sultan who enslaves and starves the people corrupts them.
  • Ibn Sulayman:

  • What we mean is, have you instigated disobedience to the law?
  • Hallaj:

  • Rather, I instigated obedience to the God of the law.
  • God created the world, system and order.
  • Why did they get disjointed [iḍṭarabat]?
  • Why was the order disrupted?
  • God created man in His own image:
  • Why has he fallen to the level of animals?77
  • Here again, echoes of Hamlet are helpful. Invoking the Hamlet-associated concept of out-of-jointness (iḍṭirāb) keeps al-Hallaj from sounding merely arrogant, like Socrates in the Apology. It lends depth to his defiance, suggesting that he (unlike the judges) truly understands human pain.

    “To Speak … and to Die”

    Abdel Sabur’s 1969 memoir stresses the overlap between himself and his dramatic hero: two visionaries for whom banality is a form of political oppression. Their question is how a poetic visionary should act in an unjust world. Again the key terms are Hamlet’s ḥayra and iḍṭirāb—applied, not surprisingly, to the Hamlet-associated problems of justice/injustice and action/inaction:

    As for the issue [The Tragedy of al-Hallaj] raises, it was the issue of my personal salvation. I was suffering from a terrible perplexity [ḥayra] toward many phenomena of our age. Questions crowded disjointedly [tazdaḥim izdiḥāman muḍ-tariban] in my mind, and I kept asking myself the question al-Hallaj asks himself: “What do I do?” And here the play took up the issue of the role of the artist in the society, and al-Hallaj’s answer was, “To speak … and to die.” My Hallaj is not only a Sufi, but a poet as well; and the Sufi experience and the artistic experience spring from the same sources and meet at the same goal. This is the return of the world to its purity and harmony after it has been plunged into the torrent of experience. The torment of al-Hallaj was a response to the torment of thinkers in most modern societies, and their confusion [ḥayra] between the sword and the word.78

    (p.111) Abdel Sabur’s word for the “disjointed” crowd of questions in his mind is muḍṭarib (literally: disturbed, mixed up), the adjective form of iḍṭirāb and the same fairly rare term with which, a few years earlier, he had described the “out-of-joint world” of Alfred Farag’s Sulayman.79 His Hallaj, too, as we have seen, is concerned with restoring the world’s balance. Nehad Selaiha, following Abdel Sabur’s lead, sees a fusion of writer, literary model, and character: “The dilemma of the historical Hallaj, the poetical persona of Abdul Saboor, unconsciously merged, in the crucible of the imagination, with Hamlet’s dilemma. ‘O, cursed spite, that I was ever born to set it right’ became Abdul Saboor’s and his hero’s urgent and agonizing cry, as well as Hamlet’s.”80

    Like his protagonist, Abdel Sabur demanded the right to care about his society but to approach its brokenness in his own spiritualized, aestheticized, sometimes incomprehensible way. To this end he appropriated Hamlet, reading him as the perplexed hesitator most familiar to Anglo-American critics. However, by grafting this hesitation onto a beloved political martyr, Abdel Sabur’s passion play had the effect of reinforcing a different reading, the Arab martyr-hero Hamlet to be discussed in the next chapter.

    De-Hamletized Revivals

    It is no wonder that Abdel Sabur, the Sufi existentialist, was briefly tempted to depict two tyrant-killer protagonists as Brutus and Hamlet. His milieu drew a link between politically committed art (al-fann al-multazim) and the depiction of protagonists who ponder and brood. Correctly understood, these were two sides of the same political problem: the problem of how to achieve authentic existence in the world, which required winning enough recognition of one’s agency to make that existence possible.

    For Egyptian intellectuals of the mid-1960s, such recognition had to come from the Nasser regime itself—the sponsor and first addressee of all cultural production—before it could come from the wider world. Therefore, in creating al-Hallaj as a character whose spiritual reality lets him transcend his political context, Abdel Sabur may have gone too far. Al-Hallaj was a puzzle: part Socrates, part Hamlet, and part Jesus Christ, and like all three of these figures a semi-willing, semi-detached victim of the political authorities of his day. What was the nationalist theatre to do with a protagonist who saved nobody but achieved only martyrdom? With a verse drama that had no edifying message to impart?81

    The 1966–67 production was not a great success. Some Egyptian critics accused Abdel Sabur of aestheticism or conservatism, of practicing “art for art’s (p.112)

    Hamletizing the Arab Muslim Hero, 1964–67

    4.1. Mahmoud El Lozy’s revival (2004) turns Farag’s Sulayman of Aleppo into a “political cabaret.”

    Courtesy of Mahmoud El Lozy.

    (p.113) sake.” Others tried to rehabilitate his play as a piece of leftist “art with a message”: a cri de coeur begging the Nasser regime to grant more freedom to its intellectuals.82 On this reading, the play was addressed partly to the audience but mainly to the very “centers of power” it criticized; if Abdel Sabur had already dismissed the regime as an addressee, many critics had not. It would take two soulful revivals by Ahmed Abdel-Aziz (Aḥmad ҅Abd al-҅Azīz) at Cairo’s Vanguard Theatre in 1984 and 2002 for the small audience to appreciate the pathos at the play’s core; both culminated in an iconic image of al-Hallaj bound by a cross of ropes or chains spanning the whole stage.83

    Farag’s Sulayman of Aleppo, written the same year as The Tragedy of al-Hallaj, enjoyed a smoother initial reception but dated faster. The need to claim political agency by demonstrating psychological interiority was peculiar to the mid-1960s context. Perhaps it was most sharply felt among Farag’s cohort of leftist writers, wounded by the Nasser regime but not yet ready to forsake its modernizing and dignifying goals. Soon Farag’s Shakespearean gestures would look quaint—even his own 1970s and 80s works would abandon them, finding other means to suggest dramatic self-consciousness.84 The only recent Egyptian production of Sulayman of Aleppo (American University in Cairo, May 2004) downplayed interiority altogether, turning the play into a “political cabaret” that likened the French occupation of Egypt to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.85

    Although they soon became irrelevant, Sulayman al-Halabi’s long moments of Hamlet-like introspection were crucial in 1965. They helped rehabilitate Farag’s character from a skull in a display case into a worthy political agent. Appropriating Hamlet’s dialectical style, they also had the effect of absorbing Shakespeare’s prince into the socialist and anticolonial Arab discourse of the struggle for justice.

    By borrowing from Hamlet, then, Farag and (to a lesser extent) Abdel Sabur helped revise its standard Egyptian reading. Ironically, they helped make Hamlet’s inwardness—their reason for appropriating him in the first place—less important. The new reading, stressing the “out-of-joint” time and the heroic political martyr “born to set it right,” would come to full bloom in the 1970s Arab Hamlet adaptations discussed in the next chapter. Unlike al-Hallaj and Sulayman, this next generation of martyr-heroes would carry Hamlet’s name. However, because earning political recognition was no longer the goal, they would shed the very aspects of Hamlet that Farag and Abdel Sabur had found so useful.


    (4) Cf. Ghazoul, “The Arabization of Othello.” Focusing on Othello and thus identifying the main problem as “the disturbing question of the alien Other undertaking to represent the Self,” Ghazoul highlights Arab appropriators’ “efforts to repossess a foreign literary product centering around an indigenous hero” (2).

    (5) It may be a stretch to call the Persian Sufi al-Hallaj an Arab hero. However, he is a hero to millions of Arabs. Further, as we will see, al-Hallaj’s Persian origins played little role in Abdel Sabur’s adaptation; more relevant were his mystical writings in classical Arabic and his struggle against the (Arab) Abbasid regime.

    (6) Other common English spellings in use for 'Abd al-Ṣabūr include Abdel Sabbour, Abdel Saboor, etc.

    (7) For an introduction to Farag’s life and a discussion of his anti-realistic dramatic techniques, including the use of metadrama to create “self-conscious” characters, see Amin, Alfred Farag and Egyptian Theater.

    (9) For Farag on Brecht, see Selaiha, “Brecht in Egypt.”

    (10) On the economic incentives, see 'Abd al-Wahhāb, “Ma’sāt al-Ḥallāj,” 45.

    (11) Nehad Selaiha writes: “Given Abdel-Sabour’s literary prestige and his wide popularity, one would have expected The Tragedy of Al Hallag to be snapped up by the National as soon as it appeared in print. But it was the heyday of realistic prose drama (p.218) and the play had to wait two years before director Samir El-Asfouri decided to stage it at El-Masrah El-Hadith (Modern Theatre) where it opened in the 1966/67 season.” See Selaiha, “Poet, Rebel, Martyr,” Selaiha’s review of a 2002 revival.

    (12) Taylor charts the progression from premodern to modern self-consciousness in the Christian and post-Christian West: Augustine plunges into his own shifting thought processes to better access the unchanging God at their root; Descartes learns to stand “outside” his own thoughts as an impartial observer; and finally John Locke transforms this duality into the modern “punctual self,” a fully disengaged reason that offers human beings “the possibility to remake ourselves in a more rational and advantageous fashion.” Thus Locke’s “punctual self ” has implications for politics: it grounds the possibility of self-government, including the right to free oneself from a father or rebel against a tyrant. Taylor, Sources of the Self, 111–98, quote on 170. See also Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity.

    (14) Faraj, Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī, 15. In what follows I refer to the play as Sulayman of Aleppo and to the character as Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī or simply Sulayman. In Arabic the two are the same: Sulayman’s hometown (Ḥalab=Aleppo) becomes his last name.

    (15) Ibid., 156.

    (16) Ibid., 29.

    (18) Al-Jabarti compares the French favorably to the Mamluk/Ottoman depredations that followed. Before reproducing the French documents, he comments: “For, indeed, a reckless stranger treacherously attacked their leader and chief; they seized him, interrogated him; yet did not proceed to kill either him or those named by him, on the mere basis of his confession, despite the fact that when they caught him they found on him the deadly weapon spattered with the blood of their commander and leader. Nay, they instituted a court procedure, summoned the assassin, and repeatedly questioned him orally, and under duress; then summoned those named by the assassin, interrogated them individually and collectively, and only then did they institute the court procedure in accordance with what the law prescribed. Yet they released the [alleged accomplice,] calligrapher Muṣṭafā Afandī al-Bursalī, who was not affected by the sentence and was not to be punished; all of which can be learned from the context of the written account. This is quite different from what we saw later of the deeds of the riff-raff of soldiers claiming to be Muslims and fighters of the Holy War who killed people and destroyed human lives merely to satisfy their animal passions, as will be reported below.” Al-Jabartī, 'Abd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, 3:182.

    (20) Ibid., 15.

    (21) The French source notes that Sulayman received a bastinado, or beating on the soles of his feet, “in accord with the country’s custom” ('alā ṭarīq al-balad), until he was ready to talk; quoted in al-Jabartī, 'Abd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī’s History of Egypt, 3:185. Farag’s introduction quotes this sentence, appending an exclamation mark. Faraj, Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī, 11. (The murderer’s sentence, execution by impalement following the incineration of the right hand in a fire, was ascribed to local custom as well.)

    (p.219) (23) Ibid., 59.

    (26) Ibid., 116.

    (27) Ibid., 89.

    (30) Nada Tomiche comments on the many “balanced periods” and “logical” sentence constructions “that lend themselves to analysis” that mark Sulayman’s speech (e.g., “If you believed X, you would do Y”); Tomiche, “Niveaux de langue dans le théâtre égyptien,” 120–22.

    (32) For Farag’s study of the dramatic monologue, including his translation of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, see Faraj, “Dirasāt,” 100.

    (34) Qur’ān, Sura 99.

    (36) His remark about forgetting himself to Laertes (Hamlet, 5.2.77–78) may be the only moment of this kind.

    (38) For accounts of performance and immediate reception, I have relied more on pre-1967 reviews than on later reconstructions. The former include 'Awaḍ, “Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī”; al-'Ayyūtī, “Al-Masraḥ al-Qawmī”; al-Naqqāsh, “Hāmlit … fī al-Azhar al-Sharīf”; Ṭāhir, “Al-Ḥalabī wa Amīr al-Dānimārk.” The latter include 'Abd al-Qādir, Izdihār wa-Suqūṭ al-Masraḥ al-Miṣrī; Al-Shetawi, “The Arab-West Conflict as Represented in Arabic Drama”; Selaiha, “Old Tune, New Resonance”; and Amin, Alfred Farag and Egyptian Theater.

    (40) Quoted in 'Abd al-Qādir, Izdihār wa-Suqūṭ al-Masrah al-Miṣrī, 102. Al-'Ālim had played the role of the Vizier in the prison production of Farag’s first full-length play, The Barber of Baghdad. Originally written on cigarette papers, that play was restaged at the National Theatre in 1964, immediately upon the leftists’ release. Amin, Alfred Farag and Egyptian Theater, 10.

    (45) See Amīr, Al-Masraḥ al-Miṣrī ba'd al-Ḥarb al-'Ālamiyya al-Thāniya, 2:273–86, cited in El-Enany, “The Quest for Justice in the Theatre of Alfred Farag,”187n45. This view seems to have influenced later critics. Badawi, e.g., finds that “the contemporary relevance (p.220) of the play is revealed in the description of Egyptian life under the tyrannical rule of the French imperialists in which Egyptians could recognize aspects of life under the dictatorship of Nasser”; Badawi, Modern Arabic Drama in Egypt, 175.

    (46) Qutb’s Milestones on the Road, the manifesto of modern Egyptian political Islam, had already been published. The following year, after a show trial bearing some resemblance to Sulayman’s, Qutb would be hanged on charges of treason.

    (47) 'Abd al-Ṣabūr, “Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī bayn al-Fann wa-l-Tārīkh,” 8.

    (54) His most famous transgression was to proclaim, “I am the Truth,” (anā al-ḥaqq), implying that he had become one with God; Sufis had long striven for such mystical union, but without boasting about it in public. Secondary charges against al-Hallaj included proposing a change in the rites of the pilgrimage (ḥajj), one of the five basic pillars of Islamic worship. Biographical and historical data on al-Hallaj are drawn from Massignon, Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr. On the Abbasid Empire’s political instability, see especially pp. 225–27.

    (55) The study of al-Hallaj was Massignon’s life work from 1907 until his death in 1962. He and Paul Kraus co-edited Akhbar al-Hallaj. A four-volume expanded edition of La Passion du Hallaj appeared posthumously in 1975 and an English translation by Herbert Mason in 1983: Massignon, The Passion of al-Hallāj. 'Abd al-Qādir reports that Abdel Sabur was inspired by a Massignon article on the life of al-Hallaj, originally published in the Christian journal Dieu Vivant 4 (1945), which had just been translated in Abdel-Rahman al-Badawi’s ('Abd al-Raḥmān al-Badawī) book Shakhṣiyāt Qaliqa fī al-Islām (Uneasy Characters in Islam, 1964). See 'Abd al-Qādir, Izdihār wa-Suqūt al-Masrah al-Misrī, 149.

    (56) The historical Hallaj did compare himself to Christ, an analogy emphasized in Massignon’s work (e.g., in his title La Passion du Hallaj). Self-portraits as Jesus Christ were fairly common among Arab modernist poets in the 1950s and 60s. Self-portraits as al-Hallaj include a 1961 elegy by Syrian poet Adonis and a 1965 lyric by Iraqi poet Abdel Wahab al-Bayati ('Abd al-Wahhāb al-Bayātī).

    (57) Abdel Sabur often cited Eliot’s criticism; he also translated his play The Cocktail Party in 1964. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is widely recognized as a model for The Tragedy of al-Hallaj—to the point that the English translation of Abdel Sabur’s play is titled Murder in Baghdad in homage. It is reasonable to read Abdel Sabur’s comment about escaping from under “other carts,” below, as a reference to Eliot. However, Eliot’s Archbishop Thomas Becket does not experience the sort of breakdown we will see in Abdel Sabur’s al-Hallaj. Although he speaks with four tempters, he never actually appears tempted. The two protagonists share a certainty in God’s providence and a resolution to wait for martyrdom—“Now my good angel, whom God appoints / To be my guardian, hover over the swords’ points,” Becket says. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 46.

    (59) For instance, Abdel Sabur uses Qushayri’s term wārid (nonvoluntary praiseworthy feeling) to describe the experience, like an illumination or an intuition that inundates the heart, when a poem first appears to its author. He writes of a poet’s holy passion ('ishq) for his art. And he bends Aristotle’s notion of catharsis to apply to the artist as much as to the audience, so that artistic creation becomes a moral cleansing of the poet’s soul: “The purpose of art is none other than the conquest of the ego.” 'Abd al-Sabūr, Ḥayātī fī al-Shi'r, 8–16, quotation on 16. See also al-Qushayrī, Al-Risāla al-Qushayriyya, 46.

    (61) Muhalhal is another name for Prince Sālim, an Arab legendary hero. Jassās ibn Murra is the cousin who kills Sālim-Muhalhal’s brother Kulayb. This killing is provoked by Kulayb’s tyrannical power grab after a successful coup in which he and Jassās participated together. Alfred Farag also wrote a play about this feud, al-Zīr Sālim (Prince Salim, 1967).

    (63) However, he did not reject political relevance as such. The Tragedy of al-Hallaj does include significant elements of political satire. So do his later plays: The Princess Waits (1969), Now That the King Is Dead (1975), and even the absurdist Night Traveler (1968).

    (65) Ibid., 117–18.

    (66) 'Abd al-Ṣabūr, “Ma’sāt al-Ḥallāj,” 150.

    (68) See, e.g., 'Izz al-Dīn Ismā'īl, paraphrased in Selaiha, “Introduction,” 11–12.

    (70) “Ayna al-maẓlūmūn, wa-ayna al-ẓalama?”

    (72) He welcomes his trial: “This is the best thing God has given me / God has chosen”; 'Abd al-Ṣabūr, “Ma’sāt al-Ḥallāj,” 228. On agency understood as piety rather than individual choice-making, see Mahmood, Politics of Piety.

    (73) Massignon, Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr, 208–75. Here I believe Abdel Sabur makes a more fruitful choice than Farag, who omits Sulayman’s trial, losing its dramatic potential.

    (76) Ibid., 251.

    (79) See note 37 in this chapter.

    (80) Selaiha, “Introduction,” 13.

    (81) Critic and novelist Bahaa Taher wrote: “I am not making a comparison but simply asking a question. In plays such as Antigone, St. Joan, or Murder in the Cathedral, martyrdom is always connected with a particular goal: honoring the laws of the gods, saving the nation, defending one’s creed, etc. But it is rare for one to find a martyr (p.222) [like al-Hallaj] who is martyred so that his words may remain. For this reason the play The Tragedy of al-Hallaj remains fascinating and full of promises until the end. And when it ends, a person is beset by feelings of frustration. This is not because the ending is artistically incomplete but because it is intellectually incomplete. The writer does not want us to look at al-Hallaj only as a victim of injustice, but as a martyr—but the curtain falls and we still do not know and cannot guess the impact of this martyrdom or its value.” Ṭāhir, “Mīzān al-Kawn,” 105.

    (82) As critic Nasim Migalli wrote: “If we looked at the play in the light of Egypt’s objective circumstances at that time, we would find that [the country] was living through one of its most urgent periods. The discussion revolved at that time around the intellectuals and their relationship with the revolution…. People saw in this work a call for freedom of conscience and freedom of belief and freedom of speech, at a time when the centers of power had begun to tighten their grip on the reins of power and to try and stifle freedom of opinion in the context of a central call, carried by the media, that urged writers and artists to unity of thought … and unity of action in the context of a single system.” Mijallī, “Miṣr fī Masraḥiyyāt Ṣalāh ‘Abd al-Ṣabūr,” 172–73.

    (83) I saw the production at the Ṭalī'a (Vanguard) Theatre in April 2002. See also Selaiha, “Poet, Rebel, Martyr.”

    (85) Director Mahmoud El Lozy (Maḥmūd al-Lawzī) dropped most of the Chorus scenes, replacing them with vernacular protest poetry by Sheikh Imam (Shaykh Imām) and Ahmad Fouad Nagm (Aḥmad Fu'ād Najm), and cut “many of the passages that critics have seen as reminiscent of Hamlet.” Personal communication from Mahmoud El Lozy, December 4, 2005. For a review and photos, see Selaiha, “Old Tune, New Resonance.”