Thursday, December 27, 2007

Shakespeare in Arabia

Although Arabs generally see the theatre as a recent import from Europe, different forms of performing arts, such as shadow plays, Sufi and Shia miracle plays, and the oral performances of poetry reciters and storytellers, have a long history in the region. Acting troupes also entertained aristocrats in their palaces, travelling merchants in khans, and competed with other street performers for the attention of shoppers and passers-by in the maidan.

While such traditions seem comparable to the earlier forms of European dramatic art from which the theatre evolved, a few play scripts have recently been discovered, suggesting an Arab theatrical tradition comparable to the Chinese or Indian for example.

However, as with music, Arabs made no real attempt to preserve a fixed record. In the case of music this was because improvisation was seen as essential, which might also be the case for drama. But, while both music and performance arts survive in the folkloric tradition, the native theatrical heritage does not have an equivalent to the ‘high’ status form of classical Arab music. Historical records provide the life story of the legendary Zeriab, who brought the music of Baghdad and Damascus to the Andalusian court; but no mention is made of playwrights, which indicates that dramatic performance were seen as mere amusement.

The Arab world only began to consider drama as ‘art’ after the introduction of works by European playwrights, of whom Shakespeare was the foremost, the ‘canon of canons’, as Khalid Amine puts it.

Amine goes on to argue that the “making of the Shakespeare myth” in the Arab world was not spontaneous, but “was induced through the implantation of a whole apparatus of translation and theatrical reproduction” following an unequal colonial encounter.

After independence, Amine says, “Shakespeare becomes a paradigmatic icon of the 'Western Other' or the Other's dramatic medium”, so that artistic engagement with his work by the postcolonial dramatist “amounts to a dialogue with the West and the Western dramatic tradition”.

The Nigerian
Wole Soyinka has another take on the relationship of the Arab cultural establishment to Shakespeare. In his essay “Shakespeare and the Living Dramatist” he surveys Arab appropriations which seek to “claim him as one of their own”, and disparages Arab “translations and adaptations” of his work. However he ends by concluding that this still leads back to the immortal source, “to the gratification of celebrating dramatic poetry anew”, which reverses the earlier power dynamic that presents the English genius as the object of inept manipulation, and seems a positive spin on the process Khalid Amine describes.

Margo Hendrix argues that Soyinka’s essay anticipates two related points later raised by postcolonial theorists: recognising that importing the Shakespearian canon requires the absorption of culturally alien elements; but also the fact that the plays contain so much foreign material (settings, characters, topics, or just the odd reference –like Lady Macbeth’s “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”). The plays themselves are in a sense internationalised in their own right, as texts and not just in terms of appreciation.

Shakespeare’s fascination with the unknown and unfamiliar was a feature of the theatre during the Western ‘age of exploration’ (or exploitation for those on the receiving end); but what sets him apart is his complex treatment of ‘the other’.

Shakespeare’s play Othello, in it's exploration of paradoxes and inconsistencies, is frequently cited to as the most striking example of this complex treatment . The title character being a North African commanding Christian European forces against an invasion by the expanding (European Muslim) Ottoman Empire, and the hatred, or at best ambivalence, with which he is regarded by the Italians whom he ‘defends’, have been linked to similar paradoxes and inconsistencies in Shakespeare’s Britain.

Although ‘Turk’ and ‘Moor’ were words that inspired fear and loathing, Queen Elizabeth I had alliances with both the Ottoman Sultan and North African states against her Catholic rivals. Mark Hutchings discusses the fearful fascination with the ‘Turkish Threat’ in English plays of the time, arguing that by drawing on memories of the fall of Constantinople and “perhaps an older 'crusader' narrative”, plays provided a safe thrill for an English audience who, as opposed to most of Europe, were not in reality threatened. The Turks were essentially the Godzillas and King Kongs of Elizabethan cinema. Nabil Matar’s book Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery details extensive commercial relations and cultural exchange, including the fact that it was much more likely, and profitable, for an English adventurer to move to North Africa than North America.

Khalid Amine, in “
Moroccan Shakespeare: From Moors to Moroccans”, charts the development of a range of responses to Othello specifically and the Shakespearian canon more generally, from “celebrations of Moroccan presence in the English Consciousness”, to more radical rewritings of Shakespeare’s plays.

Such subversive strategies are present in the titles of Abdelkrim Berrchid’s two plays. Otheil Wa Alkhail Wa Al Barudu re-arabises the Othellos name, and to anyone familiar with Arab poetry echoes a line by Almutanabi, while Imri’u Alqais Fi Paris replaces Hamlet with the pre-Islamic poet who faces a similar “to be or not to be” predicament in a destructively futile revenge tragedy.

Set in the present, the play is a re-visioning of Hamlet’s “tragedy of delay and procrastination…[as] a collective tragedy rather than an individual tragedy” as Khalid Amine puts it, quoting Berrchid who says the “The new Imruù al-quays cannot be but the spirit of this new age, that is the age of homesickness, murders, and military coup d'état, and the migration of intellectuals and laborers in search for bread and dignity”

In this new age Shakespeare has not lost his potent spell, but there are conflicting ways of putting it to use. Some Arab playwrights strip Shakespeare of what Amine calls the “aura of authority” created by European dominance in order to rewrite his work in terms of their own concerns.

Sulayman Al-Bassam, the British-Kuwaiti writer and director of ‘the Hamlet Summit’ and ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’, presents his project of adapting Shakespeare’s plays to the politics of the modern Arab world in exactly the opposite way.

He insists on the “aura of authority”, or what he calls “the global
accreditation”, with which Shakespeare is invested; seeing it in positive terms as giving the Arab dramatist “not merely a mask but a bullet-proof face” with which to face the censors.

More problematic is Al-Bassam’s assertion that “A fundamental pre-modernity is at the core of both the Shakespearian world and today’s Arab world”, which sounds like something straight out of The Collected Orientalist Stereotypes. His adaptations engage with the original context in a much more complicated and productive way.

But this point is made in even broader terms by reviews of his plays, which inanely and repetitively begin by saying that Arab world’s woes cry out for Shakespearian treatment, and back it up by noting one thousand and one parallels with England emerging from the Middle Ages.

Perhaps the best commentary on such reductive simplification of a postmodern and postcolonial situation to stereotypes of towel-heads in the dark ages is the fact that ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’, part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival, was on at the same time as another Richard III adaptation - set in modern Britain.

The director of this Richard III, Michael Boyd,
sees both his and Al-Bassam’s plays as dealing with "the tendency, very difficult to resist, of pulling more power where power was in the first place, of increasing the centralization of power”, and draws his own parallels, the totalitarian behaviour of democratic governments in the context of the war on terror, citing the manipulation of information to create and use “fear as a political weapon, fear as a means of censorship, a means of mobilization, a means of justifying arrest”.
This is the same ‘war on terror’ which in ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’ is used as a pretext for tyranny and occupation, setting up an equivalence between the invading American general and the Arab Dictator. The French adviser to the Emir boasts that he “can make a mockery of the judiciary; thread an axis of evil through the eye of the press; I can turn a democracy into a tyranny and keep it all as clean and transparent as a Security Council resolution".

What the two Arab re-makers of Shakespeare, the Morrocan Berrchid and the Kuwaiti Al-Bassam, have in common is their mixing of Arab and Western forms of performance in their theatrical art.

In Berrchid’s case, as in that of many Arab dramatists, this includes a conscious decision to incorporate native dramatic traditions, such as the Albsat tradition of improvised comedy with a political message. Al-Bassam’s Arabian-Shakespearian tragedy contains recitals from the Holy Quran and folkloric dance and music, as well as email messages, phone conversations, Aljazeera newscasts and a religious TV show.

They both create a mixed form which mirrors their content, a hybridized product of Arabia and Europe, East and West.

A Royal Swedish Christmas

Osban making in the palace

Eid, Meat and Gideed

The highlight of the four hectic days of Eid ul Adha, or the Big Feast as it’s unofficially known, is a barbeque. On the morning of the first day which mark the end of the hajj an udhia is sacrificed, and a portion of the meat given to poor neighbours or to the mosque to distribute. Then there is the marathon job of cutting up the meat, and a grill-up that can be brunch, dinner or everything in between; the latter is what it usually ends up being as friends and family drop by for eid greetings and stay to sample the food.

Supper is a casserole or stew, served with a potato and herb omelette, which is eaten wrapped up in ftat, delicious egg less pancakes. Each family has a particular ‘Eid stew’ and charges of violating sibir are invoked if anyone suggests a little variation.

So the first day, unlike many celebrations, doesn’t revolve around an elaborately prepared banquet, but osban sausages, served on couscous or rice and accompanied by msayar pickles, is the dinner for the second day. Making sausages is a time consuming, labour intensive process; and with all the chopping needed for the osban stuffing of rice, meat, liver, spring onions, parsley, coriander, dill, basil, chillis, and garlic, its lucky that Libyan women know how to turn it into festive activity with gossip, jokes and even impromptu poetry battles; an experienced Haja directing operations from behind the ed’ala paraphernalia, while supplying everyone with cups of tea at a rate which keeps the younger girls busy scurrying back and forth with trays.

But the real distinctive food of Eid ul Adha is not eaten during the Eid at all; instead it provides decorations to rival Cairos’s lights and lanterns announcing Ramadan. But unlike our half-hearted adoption of the Egyptian custom, almost every Libyan garden and balcony is festooned for days after Eid with pylon rope on which meat is hanging out to dry.

Gideed might not bear comparison with Ramadan displays in aesthetic terms, but it does have an illustrious history which rivals the Fatimid era origins of fawanees Ramadan: dried meat has been found buried with Pharaohs to sustain the mummies on their journey to the afterlife, it formed an essential part of the diet of Phoenician sailors, and the nomadic tribes inhabiting the sea of sand that is the Libyan desert also depended on this portable and virtually unspoilable protein and calorie rich food.

Every family sets aside a portion of their udhiaa sheep to make into gideed, marinating well salted strips of meat in olive oil, turmeric and red pepper. Once sundried the meat is chopped into bite-size pieces, then fried and stored in containers sealed with samn and olive oil. It’s more economical than fresh or frozen meat as the intense flavour means a little goes a long way, and it saves time too as it’s precooked, qualities that make it an essential store cupboard standby in Libyan households.

Gideed, tomato paste and water cooked for a few minutes is all that is needed for a versatile base for one pot meals: spicy soups, stews with all knds of vegetables from beans to pumpkin, and the wintertime favourite haja jarya of pasta, rice, cracked wheat or mgata noodles cooked in a rich sauce. The addition of spices, herbs, and pulses like lentils, fenugreek seeds, and chickpeas makes endless variations possible.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Eid Mubarak

كل عام وأنتم بخير وعيد سعيد على الجميع ان شاء الله

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Nabil Moussa: Artist? Craftsman?

hibo has discovered Ali Baba's cave...on the bbc site: a photo journal on a Libyan brass engraver, who bases his designs on Christie's antique price guide and hopes to expand through the internet.

Reminds me of the Art or Craft argument over Dale Chihuly's glass sculptures.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

All That Glitters

A Libyan lama: women occupying the guest’s sitting room in a friend's house, dressed up in their best and decked out in jewelry, the talkfest only interrupted by relays of trays. It couldn’t be more different from a busy stock exchange floor.

But at a lama, every topic is discussed with gusto and plenty of gesticulation, and one thing that’s sure to come up is the price of gold, down to the last decimal point; with predictions of future fluctuations taking into account everything, from the birth pangs of the new Middle East to rising demand in China, the weakening dollar and warnings of a global recession. It’s like listening to a room full of Farah Albaraqawis, only all the economic news is seen through gold-tinted glasses.

A girl is initiated into this dazzling world before she’s a month old. The most common gift for a newborn girl is jewelry, especially pendents. These are quite distinctive, there are engravings of Quranic verses, quirky ones like teapots, and charms based on pre-Islamic ‘magical’ symbols like the fish, hand, eye and the horn (which also survived in henna patterns and weaving - like carpets and silks); believed to ward off the evil eye. Within weeks, or sometimes days, of birth a girl will also have her ears pierced, and there are even miniature bracelets, so all that’s missing is a ring.

When all the relatives and friends have given their congratulations, she’ll have quite a collection with which to start a gold hoard, which steadily accumulates through presents for Eid, birthdays and good exam results. Of course some pieces will get broken, and not everyone wants to keep baby pendants for sentimental value, so there are plenty of opportunities to learn the basic rules to managing your gold fund: obviously to buy when the price falls, if you have things you want to get rid of hold onto them if possible till its back up again, or at least only sell when you’ve decided on exactly what you want instead.

More important are the endlessly drummed perquisites to a good buy - as few jewels as possible (as they’re weighed as gold when you buy but removed if you sell), to only buy 18 carat or above, and to avoid designer pieces like the plague, as they date quickly and a big percentage of the price is not in the recoverable net weight.

So all in all, shopping for jewellery is defiantly not for magpies attracted to shiny things, it calls for a disciplined investor’s eye.The goal is a stash that can be worn, loaned to friends and relatives, and updated with minimal extra outlay, and which can also be turned to cash when needed. If any pieces are not used regularly 2.5 % the value is given in Zakah each year, as they are regarded as savings in Islamic law, and a percentage is owed to charity.

Wearable wealth goes back a long time, and the older designs, with coins or even gold nuggets on a chain, make their function very clear. The craftsmen who make the jewelry worn with the traditional costume still use coins for decorative purposes, but they have to ‘mint’ their own since the Ottoman lira is a collectors’s piece now - forgery in 24 carat gold.

A complete set of Libyan jewelry includes the necklace, the most important piece, which can be anything from one row to five, and comes in many designs (with names like ‘the company’ and ‘the crescents’), matching earrings, and a multitude of rings and bangles – not to mention ‘extras’ like anklets, tiaras, and gold belts.

The jewellery has become more elaborate and expensive over the past few decades, so affordable versions are produced which are beaten very thin, making them fragile, and much less attractive than the cheaper and more durable gold plated silver sets which are now becoming more acceptable, even for a dowry. A ‘fake’ set means the bride can still wear the traditional suit, but receives more modern jewellery. Although such sets can’t be exchanged as real gold can, they’re not worn more than a few times a year; and there are even jewelry rental shops opening up to cater to those who still want to keep up with the latest designs.

All of this seems to be the death knell of traditional jewelry making, buying and wearing. But actually heavy silver jewellery and lighter gold pieces were what earlier generations wore, so perhaps modern conditions are turning women back to more reasonable, if less picturesque, jewellery.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Libyans, Literature….and the Internet

A decade ago everyone was buying satellite dishes, which seemed almost revolutionary, transforming the audience into channel hoppers, with the full spectrum of Arab (and sometimes European and American) perspectives available at the press of a remote control button.

Now, as internet access becomes easier and more affordable, younger Libyans are increasingly switching off the TV and logging in to the internet – ideally this would be a positive development from a passive TV viewer to an Internet surfer, with an infinitely expanding world wide web a mouse click away. But walk into a net café in any Libyan city and there are knots of teenagers crowding together around one monitor to egg on their friend ‘chatting’ to the keyboard, making the supposedly boundless possibility of the virtual world seem pure fantasy.

Of course as the cliché has it chat, like the rest of the internet or the TV for that matter, is just a tool, its how you decide to use it; like forums and social networking sites, it’s a great way to keep in touch with family and friends, and to exchange ideas with people from around the world.

Perhaps another, more creative way to the same end are blogs, websites published chronologically, regularly updated with fresh posts, usually allowing readers to add their response.

The Libyan blogosphere has grown considerably in the last few years, although a late developer compared to the Egyptian or Jordanian for example, and it’s a Libyan blog that has won the Best of the Blogs award this year.

As blogging has become a wider phenomenon, interest by traditional media has grown proportionally. DW, Germany’s answer to BBC World, has since 2004 organised an international competition, somewhat redundantly called the Best of the Blogs; with a jury award (decided by a committee of “independent journalists, media experts and blog experts”) and a user prize (for the blog with the most online votes) in each of the 15 categories.

The competition includes blogs in Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Persian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish; and they can be text based blogs, videoblogs or podcasts (multimedia broadcasts which can include pictures, video and audio); and range from the personal diary to political podium, from celebrity scandal to the art appreciation.

Imtidad (, a blog and podcast by Libyan writer, Ghazi Gheblawi, won the BOBs user award for Best Arabic Weblog after receiving the most votes; despite stiff competition by blogs on everything from pop culture to business, from technology to politics.

Imtidad received 15 % of the votes, compared with 13% for the blog selected for the jury prize in the same category, Aljazeera Talk, a very impressive group blog with over 70 writers – or citizen journalists as they prefer to call themselves.

Al Jazeera, whose dominance of the Arab satellite era is undisputed, seems to want to make sure that the next generation also grow up in an ‘Aljazeera decade’; not only do they have one of the most visited Arab websites, but they’re financing Aljazeera Talk and making sure its one of the most talked about blogs by frequently inviting its contributors for interviews and debates.

By contrast Imtidad is a personal blog without such support, and with a ‘niche’ focus on culture and literature, which if we accept the stereotype of the representative Arab internet user as chat addict would not find an audience.

Imtidad is both a regular text based web journal and a podcast; both are mainly in Arabic but there are also blog posts and podcast episodes in English, as part of Gheblawi’s aim is to “bridge th[e] gap between Libyan creative writing, in its original Arabic language, and world literature, in the form of English language”; which does not mean that he focuses exclusively on Libyan or even Arab culture - his podcast recently featured a Ghanian poet, a South African novelist, an Iraqi artist and a Mexican director.

The bilingual podcast (English and Arabic versions) received 16% of the votes for best podcast, coming in third behind the Brazilian Nerdcast and the French Oh la! Radio, and beating a German blog on “Literature, trash and bad moods”.It was the latter, Die Gefühlskonserve, that received the jury prize for best podcast, which was an interesting contrast because the user prize in German went to a humorous blog by an undertaker.

This was reversed when it came to the Best Arab Blog award, with the jury consistently opting for more political Arab blogs, as fitting in a ‘middle-eastern’ context, while the voters picked Imtidad this year, and the Lebanese literary blog The Nostalgic Storyteller last year.

So Imidad is, as it presents itself, part of a wider trend; and Ghazi Gheblawi’s recent work (his second short story collection contains a story written collaboratively with Adel Aziz on an Arab literary website, and he shared the first chapter of his novel-in-progress on the blog with his readers) shows him to be part of a “new generation of Arab intellectuals, who are active online, enriching the Arab online cultural scene” and revitalising offline literary life as well, with new energy, new readers, and new means for creative cooperation between writers.