"We never talk about beauty anymore"

Margaret Litvin: It might feel frivolous in the middle of a political crisis to sit and have a conversation about, say, Shakespeare. You can almost hear the fiddles and see the flames

Hamlet, Prince of Cairo? Not exactly -  but not far off, according to Margaret Litvin, historian of modern Arabic, mainly Egyptian literature and theatre. She is the author of  Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost (Princeton University Press, 2011) which looks at the variety of takes on literature’s most famous introvert in the theatre and political rhetoric of mid- to late-20th century Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.

Litvin’s own approach may come as a surprise. “We almost never talk about beauty anymore,” she says of her own courses as an associate professor at Boston University. She lectures on Arabic literature in both Arabic and translation and confesses that the temptation is to “help students see the relevance” by stressing the connections of today’s headlines to texts written long ago. “Perhaps we’re wrong,” she confessed.

Litvin was in town to deliver a lecture at Boğaziçi University, titled “Hamlet, Friend of Arab Democracy,” but spared time for this far reaching and exclusive interview with K24. In it she asks what purpose literature should serve, prompted by the realisation that her own students were not always seekers of relevance but often smitten with other less topical aspects of the text. She also makes some thought-provoking points about the solace which Arab intellectuals, searching their souls, found in Hamlet’s own ontological problems.

The oppressor’s wrong; the proud man’s contumely; the law’s delay; a tyrant for a king; and something is rotten in the state: what do Arab intellectuals see when they look at Hamlet?

Yes, that’s right! All of that. For about four decades between 1970 and 2011, Arab intellectuals saw themselves in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. For an Arab reader or theatre maker, “something is rotten in the state” is one of the key lines of the play. “The time is out of joint” is the other: the sense of perpetual belatedness, of being a helpless spectator to your own history, and also of having your political hopes frustrated by a corrupt older generation that just refuses to step aside.

You state that “to be or not to be” is usually translated as “shall we be or not be” into Arabic; and remark that “to be or not to be” can be thought of as a defining slogan of Arab politics; how exactly? Is it a call to take arms against a sea of troubles?

Margaret Litvin, Associate Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature, Boston UniversityYes, in discussions of society or politics, Arab polemicists (as opposed to actors and directors) most often quote Hamlet’s question in the plural: “Shall we be or not be?” (nakūn aw lā nakūn). They can do this because Arabic has no infinitive form (“to be,” “être,” “быть,” “olmak”) so there is no way to ask “to be or not to be” without identifying who is doing the being. Each translator is forced to choose a pronoun. But why choose “we”? None of the major literary translations of Hamlet in Arabic render “to be or not to be” in the plural. I believe political speakers do so to convey the idea of an urgent existential threat to a valued collective identity. The call to arms is secondary: the main point is the subtext, the evocation of the collective identity in the first place.

More often than not, when we talk about Hamlet, it’s the epitome of melancholy we see and the results of inaction; how does the melancholic Dane we know and love turn into a revolutionary; a potent political figure engaged in a struggle against tyranny?

As I said, some Egyptian and other Arab political thinkers have identified, in a negative way, with the hesitant Hamlet who can’t manage to overcome his doubts or depression long enough to act. They have used this figure strategically to call for national unity, portraying the nation as “like Hamlet, torn apart by madness.” Thinkers across the political spectrum have used this type of rhetoric.

But the Arab stage never had much use for this melancholic character, this hesitator, Laurence Olivier’s “man who could not make up his mind.” In the context of “committed literature,” the reigning model starting from the 1960s, the Hamlet who resonated was the Russian model, inspired by Soviet intellectuals who had been dissidents under Stalin: a Hamlet who was fiercely articulate but also resolute, sincere, and courageous. A Hamlet who fought for justice and was cut down by a corrupt and brutal regime.

For the second half of the twentieth century, most thinkers, writers, and theatre people in Egypt and Syria were effectively employed by the state in some capacity, working in its theatres, its radio and TV stations, its publications, even its censorship bureaus. Often these people identified strongly with the state and its founding ideals, even if they happened to have spent time in its prisons. So, their criticism was loyal criticism

What would you say such a shift reveals about Arab political culture and its history?

Egypt and Syria, for decades two of the biggest centers of Arab theatre, only recently developed much of an independent culture sector able to function without state support. This means that for the second half of the twentieth century, most thinkers and writers and theatre people were effectively employed by the state in some capacity, working in its theatres, its radio and TV stations, its publications, even its censorship bureaus. Often these people identified strongly with the state and its founding ideals, even if they happened to have spent time in its prisons. So, their criticism was loyal criticism. Thus, Hamlet’s dilemma became particularly resonant: the dilemma of how to reject the corruption around him while properly honoring his dead father’s memory and the ideals that animated the state at its founding.

And the fact that it is indeed a tragedy; what does it signify in such a context; that the very reader who sees himself as Hamlet, as the heroic figure against tyranny, foresees his own fall, fears that his own political hopes would come to naught in the end?

Hamlet's Arab Journey: Shakespeare's Prince and Nasser's Ghost, Margaret Litvin, Princeton University PressThat’s a really interesting point. Indeed, if it’s a tragedy, then Hamlet’s failure is a foregone conclusion. Jawad al-Assadi gestures at something like this in his play Forget Hamlet (translated in here), where all the characters seem already to have read the script in advance. Perhaps that’s why the heyday of Arab Hamlet adaptations was the last quarter of the twentieth century, widely experienced as a period of stagnation, resignation, and political despair. After discontent started to bubble up to the surface in the early 2000s, culminating in the uprisings of 2011, there were fewer Hamlet adaptations produced. Perhaps in the coming years we will start to see more of them again.

Do you think it’s primarily an Arabic shift, or is it something Middle Eastern?

I was interested to hear from my co-panelists at Boğaziçi University about the great variety of Turkish Hamlets. Certainly, audiences throughout the Middle East recognize that a Shakespeare production can provide a shared public space to think through a political issue. But Shakespeare has also been a vehicle for political thought in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Hamlet was used this way in Germany too, in the 19th century before its unification, as my fellow panelist Ethan Guagliardo pointed out. In recent years –I would say, in the past 15 years or so– political Shakespeare has spread to my country too. When then-President George W. Bush led the United States into the horrible and completely unnecessary invasion of Iraq, we started to see lots of productions of plays like Julius Caesar or Coriolanus performed with political undertones, basically asking about the meaning of leadership and the value of democracy. Many Americans, on both the left and right, have now tasted what it’s like to be ruled rather than represented by their own government. I guess we are all Arab intellectuals now.

Perhaps in the coming years we will start to see more of them again

There is this widely known anecdote within the theatre circles in Turkey: that when Hamlet was staged in Diyarbakır, basicly the Kurdish capital of Turkey, in the ‘90s by the state theatre, the play becomes a huge hit, with flocks of people waiting in lines to buy tickets, which prompts the director to finally ask some people what they found in the play. This is the answer he gets: Well, it’s about blood feud. Whether it’s true or an urban legend is another story; but if it is so, if stories themselves and what they tell us can so inherently change over languages, cultures, over people by no less etc. what is a story really? What makes a story? What is literature?

That’s a nice anecdote. And of course, audiences tend to see their own stories reflected in the stories they see on stage –why wouldn’t that be the very best way to go to the theatre? Though I would have thought that audience would be more attracted to Romeo and Juliet

And, last but not least, literature; what is it good for? What is the function of literature? Does it change over languages and cultures as well?

Of course, the definition and function of literature has changed over time and varies between societies. In Arabic –and I believe in Turkish as well, right?– the semantic field of the word adab has changed. In premodern usage it used to mean something like “polite letters” or “high culture” or even “etiquette.” Now in the modern period it maps more closely onto the European terms for imaginative literature. But it still retains its socially disciplining connotation –in Arabic if you say someone lacks adab, you mean he is ill-mannered, not poorly read.

As to what literature is good for: many writers, and also many teachers and scholars of literature, seem to have internalized the belief that literature should serve an immediate political purpose, that it should be committed to raising the public consciousness, that what people read should be directly relevant to the struggles of the moment. From that perspective, it might feel frivolous in the middle of a political crisis to sit and have a conversation about, say, Shakespeare. You can almost hear the fiddles and see the flames. So, as teachers we are tempted to stress certain connections to current events, to help students see the relevance of texts written long ago. We almost never talk about beauty anymore. Perhaps we’re wrong. Last spring, in the first semester of the Trump presidency, my Global Shakespeares course at Boston University examined several adaptations of Richard III, including Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Uí and the wonderful film with Ian McKellen, and we also discussed the fast-growing rhetorical tradition of comparing Donald Trump to Richard III (See here). I was excited to take a step back and unpack the motivation and limits of that allegorical move, but I found my students were more interested in other, less immediately topical units of the course. They needed to take an even bigger step back. They needed to catch their breath intellectually, precisely to take a break from the headlines and the categories of thought they enforce. I think there is nothing frivolous about that.