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How reading Shakespeare could help stop conflict in the Middle East

There is a lack of humanist studies in the universities of the Arab world, and an absence of the texts which flourished in the very golden age which Islamists so often proclaim

Robert Fisk
Thursday 14 July 2016 16:24 BST
Eddie Redmayne as Richard II at the Donmar theatre, London, in 2011
Eddie Redmayne as Richard II at the Donmar theatre, London, in 2011 (Johan Persson)

Two good friends were telling me at dinner a few nights ago how much they enjoyed Richard II when it was performed in Ramallah. They didn’t understand much of it – the play was performed in Arabic – but they understood the parallels. Richard was the arbitrary and corrupt Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine, and the audience loved it.

Perhaps King Henry’s determination to purge his sins in Jerusalem was a bit much, but you can see the point. Like theatre in Stalin’s Russia, you can read into everything. Hence my weariness at being told the other day that Naguib Mahfouz was “Egypt’s Dickens”.

But for God’s sake, we’ve already got Dickens, I replied. Why do you want an Egyptian version? Now I acknowledge Mahfouz’s novel Midaq Alley as a great work and, yes, of course he deserved his Nobel Prize. But isn’t there a bit of a risk that Arab art (literature, painting, even films) has fallen into the terrible adjective of derivative?

I don’t mean this in a snide way. On my wall at home in Beirut I have a wonderful copy of Moustafa Farroukh’s Rock and Pine Trees, painted in Lebanon in 1935. It captures perfectly the soft mist of heat in a Lebanese valley and the way in which trees lift up their leaves to heaven in order to breathe. And yet it could be painted in France, by a French artist, in the 1930s.

I think at once of Algeria, that most original as well as derivative of nations – magnificent in its bravery to free itself from France, imitative of that colossal colonial power more than half a century after its independence – whose finest authors can only write of their country’s most recent tragedy in fiction.

The 1990-98 war between the “pouvoir” and the Islamists unleashed violence of Bosnian – or Syrian – proportions, yet so dangerous are the political landmines that still lie in the earth of this land that its truths can only be written in novels. One such describes how the Algerian army dealt with a soldier who betrayed his comrades to their enemies. He was tied to a tree and his wife and children were helicoptered to the scene where they watched their husband and father doused with petrol and burned alive.

The story is accurate, but Algeria’s authors have to tell these tales as fiction. This particular tale was written in French – the language of Algeria’s earlier oppressors – but how come art must be a slave to truth?

I wonder how much colonialism has to do with art. After Napoleon arrived in Cairo with his scientists and Egyptologists, the footprint of French culture was forever stamped upon the Nile. In the decades to come, Egypt’s artists and writers would swarm to Paris and return with the fruits of French “civilisation”; they would quote endlessly the works of Racine, Molière and Rousseau. A few French-language newspapers linger on in Cairo today as a faint dream of this period and Egypt still boasts membership of la Francophonie, along with Albania and Bulgaria and other unlikely competitors. One of the early translations of Shakespeare into Egyptian Arabic was from a French translation of the original.

Early British imperialists tended to learn the languages of the peoples they ruled. The French tended to teach their subjects French (a language Nelson despised until he realised that this was how he would have to address a certain Lady Hamilton). The Russians, though they had no Arab possessions, doggedly learned Arabic – perfectly – but without much enthusiasm.

Tolstoy only became popular in the Arab world in the early 20th century. Many Russian military officers in Syria today speak excellent Arabic but fewer Syrians speak Russian. One of the best Russian-speakers in the Syrian army was trained in the Moscow military academy (and in what is now Ukraine) although his English is flawless – because he played Iago in Othello at the University of Aleppo.

This week, L’Orient Littéraire, the monthly books’ supplement of Lebanon’s magnificent L’Orient-Le Jour newspaper – whose French is occasionally so royalist that French readers have to turn to their dictionaries to understand it – celebrates its 10th anniversary. It has carried plaudits from publications such as Le Point and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which praise it as a “cultural bridge” between east and west. On its front page a few days ago, it carried an important interview with Andre Miquel, a French scholar of Arabic literature, who spoke frankly about the problem of Islamists in the Middle East. His words are worth translating:

Syrian group races to safeguard monuments from destruction

“I wanted very much to say to my countrymen that the Arabs don’t correspond to the image that we too often have of them, especially [during] the present madness. But I must equally say to young Arabs that they would do well to look a little more closely at the basic texts of their culture [where] they would find the seeds (germes in Miquel’s French) that would allow them to be themselves in today’s world, alongside others. Their ignorance feeds their fanaticism.”

And there, I fear, Miquel gets it right. As Tarif Khalidi said in a recent and brilliant speech in Beirut, there is a lack of humanist studies in the universities of the Middle East. There is an absence of the texts that flourished in the very golden age of the Arab world that the Islamists so often proclaim.

I’m not suggesting that Arabs should copy the West – I remember with horror how Thomas Friedman in the New York Times referred to CNN as one of our “cultural” benefits to the Arabs – but surely it is possible to use our literature to advantage. Richard II is a classic example. Macbeth would be an uncomfortable play for many Middle East potentates. Maybe that’s why we can only indulge in the great works of western literature in good old Lebanon whose democracy, however damaged, at least exists.

But then I suppose we must acknowledge that in the lands of tyrants, non-derivative literature – original work that turns the door on its hinge – is not going to flourish, especially when we ourselves support the very dictators that rule these people and who, though Miquel did not say this, keep closed the basic texts of their culture.

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