Friday, May 30, 2008

Hamlet vs. Lear in Gaza and Sderot

The BBC has put two bright young women in touch for a public exchange of letters. One is from Sderot, Israel, the other from Gaza. Fascinating (though not surprising) to see how each uses references to English and American literature to claim moral superiority over the other. They do care about impressing each other in this way - claiming recognition.

In her second letter, Anav Silverman from Sderot writes a long screed about politics and history. At the end she adds:
Outside the conflict, I was wondering what English books you like reading? This year, Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, is one of my favourites. I can't decide if Heathcliff is truly a villain!
Best wishes and keep well,
Mona Yousef responds:
Heathcliff is a victim of his tyrannical society, but when he is in power, he becomes a victimiser himself. Do you notice, the victim always becomes the bully when he has control?

And her letter ends:
My favourite English novel is Heart of Darkness for Joseph Conrad. Don't you think, colonialism in all ages has the same ideology?
Do you like Shakespeare? Hamlet is one of my favourites. Every time I read it I discover that he has a new problem.

In the third round of letters, Anav responds:
Dear Mona,
I read your second letter with interest, noting that your comparison of Heathcliff with Israel is inaccurate and does not reflect the complete reality of the conflict.

And later:
I like Shakespeare too. King Lear is my favourite play. I love how Shakespeare explores the meaning of morality and truth through characters like King Lear.
It is now exam season at my university so I've been quite busy studying. I have an exam next Sunday on Milton's Paradise Lost. I only hope to pass!

Mona's last letter ends:

I would like to know after our three letters, what we have in common to share.
We have opposite ideologies and sometimes contradicting versions of the same history, yet one land to fight on. Again and again we forget that we are human beings. . . . Since this will be the last letter, I would like to say that this exchange with you has been one of the most interesting experiences of my life.
I hope you did well in the Milton exam.

Nu`aymah on Mutran

Reading Mikhail Nu'aymah's Ghirbal (الغربال), specifically the hilarious essay where he tears apart Khalil Mutran's translation (published 1922) of The Merchant of Venice . I've seen this essay summarized before, but never realized it was so hilarious!
First Nu`aymah goes after Mutran for various inaccuracies and misunderstandings that suggest he translated from a French translation rather than Shakespeare's original. (This claim is now widely accepted, though nobody seems to have a specific theory of which version/s Mutran used: please contact me if you do.) Next he attacks Mutran's use of rarified Arabic vocables "dug up from the lexical graveyard" - these archaisms, he says, are designed mainly to make the Arab reader feel he does not know his own language well enough. He hates Mutran's intralingual glosses. (Strikingly, Mutran's footnotes do not elucidate difficult points in Shakespeare, but rather explain Mutran's own recherché words and expressions.) The unstated assumption behind both critiques is that translations of Shakespeare should be accurate and transparent: the great master's words and thoughts are so important that the translator should try to convey them as accurately and clearly as he can, without drawing attention to his own style. As though he were translating Scripture. (Translations should also be actable, he says.)
Here's the interesting thing about Nu`aymah: he both does and doesn't accept that Shakespeare's sacred status is culturally constructed. He starts his essay by observing that to translate Shakespeare is a uniquely difficult task. Shakespeare is the literary equivalent of "the summit of Mount Everest"; "The son of literature approaches Shakespeare with the same piety as that with which a son of religion approaches the saints of his religion." He explicitly refuses to discuss whether Shakespeare deserves this veneration or not. Yet two paragraphs later he is doing it himself: claiming that to mistranslate even a phrase of Shakespeare is to betray "the link between his thoughts and their linguistic reflection" where Shakespeare's unique genius lies. Nu`aymah insists this is not true of translating Hugo or Tolstoy.
Don't all scholars in our field end up doing this? Historicizing and analyzing Shakespeare's prominence, then accepting and subtly reinforcing it?
(The photo is Mutran... see how serious he is! For more on him, see Sameh Hanna's article in Critical Survey 19:3.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Al-Bassam in Damascus

Have to ask Sulayman about this (from the Abu Dhabi-based, English-language National. It must have been hair-raising and very satisfying. Not because of any "catch the conscience of the king" effect -- current rulers can sit brazenly through anything. Rather, perhaps, because of the effect on the rest of the audience watching the play in the ruler's presence. (Especially since Fayez Kozak is such a stage and film star in his native Syria.)

The play’s the thing… and so is a president in the audience
Hamida Ghafour

President Bashar Asad and his beautiful wife Asma, a former investment banker, are frequently seen on Damascus’s cultural circuit.
Recently, Shakespeare’s Richard III was brought to the Damascus stage after the city was named the Arab cultural capital of 2008. The Kuwaiti director, Sulayman al Bassam, reworked the play...
A good friend of mine related this anecdote to me after he watched the play. It was due to begin at 8pm but the crowd grew restless as an hour went by without any sign of the play starting.
“Two seats were being kept empty, obviously for someone senior,” he related. Finally who should walk in but Mr Asad and his wife. The president gave a gangly wave of the hand before sitting down. My friend was quite nervous at what he would make of the play. But he followed it intently and visibly cowered when a pistol was pointed at “Emir Gloucester”.
The audience waited expectantly during a sarcastic scene near the end when Gloucester, with mock reluctance, accepts the crown after a vote in which 99 per cent of the population endorses him. “What happened to the other one per cent?” someone asks. “Oh,” came the dry reply, “they were trying to vote by phone or online but ran out of credit.” Mr Asad – endorsed by 97 per cent of the vote in the last referendum – laughed heartily.

More here.