Sometime around 1890, Romeo and Juliet became the first
Shakespeare play translated into Arabic and staged at a public
theatre. The classic love story proved exceedingly popular among
theatregoers in Cairo, and it remained in the repertory of Iskandar
Farah’s theatrical company and its various successors for over twenty
years, even while it was simultaneously revived by other troupes.
The success of this production has been duly noted. The popularity
of Shuhada’ al-Gharam [The Martyrs of Love], as it was known,
remains somewhat puzzling, however, since it was in many respects
completely foreign to its early Arab audiences who had very little
familiarity with Shakespeare, and especially the genre of tragedy. But
if it was unfamiliar to them, replete with the melodramatic songs of
the fl amboyant pop star Salama Hijazi, and punctuated with comic
sketches, recited poetry and cabaret-style music between acts, it
would strike Western viewers of Shakespeare as equally exotic.