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Mark Bayer

Sometime around 1890, Romeo and Juliet became the first

Shakespeare play translated into Arabic and staged at a public

theatre.1 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.2

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.