On Arab stages, Shakespeare’s tragedies have a particular and exciting history, the roots of which go back to the nineteenth century. The various manifestations of Shakespeare in Arabic have oscillated between reproducing his work in the early translations of the late nineteenth century on the one hand and, on the other, adapting and rewriting the texts in order to set them in Arabic contexts.
Distinguished Moroccan playwright and director Nabyl Lahlou has opted for the latter approach. In 1969 he composed the play Ophelia Is Not Dead, whose two protagonists are called Hamlet and Macbeth. The play was originally written in French; forty years later, Lahlou translated his play into Arabic. In the past year, Ophelia Is Not Dead has also appeared in an English translation by Khalid Amine in the new anthology Four Arab Hamlet Plays.1
On this unique occasion in 2016, 400 years after Shakespeare’s death, the present conversation with Lahlou re-examines the differing relationships between Shakespeare and ‘Us’. It also seeks to tease out some of the complexities of how Arab theatre-makers have translated, adapted and transplanted Shakespeare.—Khalid Amine
Your Hamlet in Ophelia Is Not Dead is an example of the ‘post-romantic Arab Hamlet’, incapable of correcting the ‘out-of-joint’ world that surrounds him. He aspires to be a Che Guevara, relentlessly pursuing justice, but is paralysed by guilt and sadness. Thus the subtext refers to political structures within the Arab world. In your text, Hamlet and Macbeth become figures emblematic of those Moroccan artists who dedicate their lives to the theatre but reap only repression or frustration, torture or prison. ‘Every militant actor had his own cell’, says your Hamlet, commenting on his own incarceration after ten years of impasse. Yet these two characters go on with their theatrical exercises, despite their paralysis, even if they are no longer able to act on the stage generating new roles and new plays. They are frustrated artists, reduced to silence. Why this choice?
Right from the beginning of the play, Hamlet clearly demonstrates that he does not believe in the Revolution, nor in revolutions, while Macbeth displays a revolutionary side, motivated by disgust for the socio-political situation in which he vegetates. The two characters realize that they have voluntarily imprisoned themselves inside their own heads, their own dreams, and they are unable to escape, except through acting – which they do compulsively, to combat their obsession with the fact that they are unable to play the roles they’d always wanted.
I remember writing Ophelia Is Not Dead in the wake of a car accident that could have cost me my life. And since the moment that I came out alive from the wreckage, I’ve opted to believe, philosophically, that the destiny of every human being is fated from birth, from the moment he or she comes into the world. So many men and women at the wheel of their car have died on that three-lane road between Rabat and Kenitra, where American military instructors live and work on the Kenitra military base. And the spark for composing Ophelia Is Not Dead came, quite simply, out of the four months that I was recovering, my entire left leg fractured and plastered. I would endlessly ask myself, every time I stood up with the aid of my crutches: ‘Will I be able to continue with theatre, or will I be crippled for the rest of my days?’ That’s the sort of thing Macbeth and Hamlet constantly do in Ophelia.
Once during my second month of convalescence, which was July 1969, I decided to go to the Turkish bath. I took my son with me; he was fourteen months old. The taxi driver who took us there absolutely refused to believe the news coming through an aging radio lodged in the decrepit dashboard of his beaten-up taxi. The radio was announcing that American astronauts had landed on the moon, which provoked the driver into such a fury that he cried ‘Lies! Lies! It’s impossible that they’ve gone to the moon. The Qur’an doesn’t mention it’. That’s why my Macbeth says ‘We need to de-Qur’anize, to better re-Qur’anize’.
Ophelia Is Not Dead sparkles with artistic wordplay; you investigate the sound and the sense of words, looking for humour and intellectual reflection. Your dialogue contains multiple rhyme schemes. How do you translate these from French into classical Arabic? And how do you preserve the subtexts?
I conceived Ophelia Is Not Dead in French. But in my own French – not the French of Descartes or Balzac, still less the French of Sartre or Camus, but a French that my teachers at the Lycée Moulay Idriss in Fez had helped me discover and come to love. Meanwhile my teachers of Arabic didn’t care how we felt about that language – I only came to love it after reading an Arabic-language translation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Arabic, no matter however beautiful and rich it is, doesn’t lend itself to wordplay, puns, sarcasm or even much humour. So, as translator of my own play, I had to find the sense and the idea that corresponded to every line where there was a play on words. For example, Macbeth says, ‘I want to revolutionize language on my own terms – I want to write façon with a double S!’2 You can’t just translate that line into Arabic as is. And for numerous such lines, I had to find Arabic equivalents. I think I succeeded.
You use words that many might describe as obscene, vulgar or politically incorrect – but to great dramatic effect. You put offensive language in the mouths of Hamlet and Macbeth, sometimes erotically, sometimes with well-calculated excess, and always with the intention of making the audience uneasy. Is this your way of expressing disaster, sickness, the polar opposite of the indifference of an audience that’s just out to have fun? Or do you have a different aim?
The need to feel free, liberated from all constraints – whatever they may be, whether born of calculation or compromise or selling out – creates theatre texts that are strong, smart and meaningful, born as a protest against self-censorship and against the fear of censorship. I wrote Ophelia Is Not Dead in a spirit of and a desire for total freedom, a universal vision of serving humankind. And once it was completely finished, I had the irresistible urge to stage it. From its first performance in May 1970, where I played Macbeth to Ms Josiane Ben Haim’s Hamlet, Ophelia Is Not Dead aroused curiosity, questions and good reviews, all very encouraging for me as a twenty-five-year-old author and director.
Two years before I wrote Ophelia, the kidnapping and assassination of the great Moroccan political leader Mehdi Ben Barka, on the 29th of October 1965,3 had inspired me to write a play entitled The Billionaires, a satiric comedy which showed thugs loafing in armchairs in a cosy lounge, chatting and drinking and waiting for the general, the one who had ordered the kidnapping and assassination, to wake up and pay them. You can imagine the kinds of lines these thugs exchange as they wait for the general to arrive. They can only converse in their language, which they delight in saturating with vulgarity and uncouth words, as you see in gangster films.
In my play The Turtles, I showed an actress who entered wearing an inflatable penis, saying, ‘I’ve become a man, so now I have the right to enter Paradise’. The Turtles was only performed once, in February 1971, six months before the first attempt at a military coup d’état.4 Fortunately, the coup failed; if it had succeeded, its leaders would surely have established a dictatorship and I wouldn’t be here to respond to your very interesting questions.
I think that just as ordinary or poetic words have their place on the stage, so should nasty, obscene, vulgar and provocative ones. Since I was very young I’ve always enjoyed laughing at people who are really straitlaced, pulling their legs. I remember an evening during Ramadan, at a youth centre, I was acting the role of a little old man, pious and moralizing, with a beard drawn on my face with the soot of a scorched cork, and I decided to try to provoke the audience by using the word zob,5 which wasn’t in the script. As soon as I said it, the audience launched a hailstorm of shoes and slippers at me. I had to race off the platform that I was playing on, good amateur actor that I was, to escape a thrashing. When I think that George Bush only had a single pair thrown at him, after he assaulted and violated an entire country and its people…
With actresses Sophia Hadi and Nadia Niazi on stage, as in your 2016 Tangier production, the play becomes a sharp critique of deeply rooted patriarchal power structures. Their performance revealed how the theatre can serve as a means for the marginalized and subaltern to participate in political life as well as in the prevailing systems of dramatic representation. The production history of the piece indicates that it has continued to speak to diverse Moroccan audiences over the course of four decades, yet it incessantly calls into question comfortable Moroccan definitions of what constitutes acceptable theatre. Why did you return once again to Ophelia Is Not Dead in 2015–16?
Ophelia Is Not Dead was written in French in 1969 and was performed in that language, for the first time, in May 1970.6 It wasn’t until 2015 that I decided to translate it into literary Arabic. Translating it into the beautiful, rich language of classical Arabic gave it an extraordinary impact and vision, both human and political. It went beyond what spectators had seen in the five French-language performances, despite those productions’ wide variety in casting and mise-en-scène. I’ve directed Ophelia Is Not Dead with two actors as Macbeth and Hamlet, and with two actresses. This time, for the classical Arabic version, I wanted to cast Sophia Hadi and Nadia Niazi.
Certain lines, replete with scatological words and phrases that would be provocative in an Arab Muslim society swaddled from its birth in rigid religiosity and stupid interdictions – those lines were smooth as silk thanks to the graceful performance of the two actresses. And the theatrical realism had its own grace as well; there was no Brechtian alienation. The idea of performance is the jumping-off point from which I wrote Ophelia Is Not Dead: the fear of no longer being able to take to the stage and act, under repressive, dictatorial regimes.
When I produced Ophelia again in 2015–16, I had three compelling goals: first, to see the sublime actress Sophia Hadi play Macbeth in classical Arabic, though she had been educated entirely in French; second, to show that Nadia Niazi, who had worked in banal roles in film and television, was capable of excellent stage acting, despite never having trained for the theatre; third, to prove that admirable, transcendent theatre can be made in classical Arabic.
Ophelia Is Not Dead conveyed both wit and pleasure to its audiences, while making them laugh, reflect, and love theatre in classical Arabic – an Arabic totally and definitively liberated from its taboos, its fatwas and the other red lines linked to Islam and the ‘holiness’ of its Arab-Muslim leaders. Two of my plays, The Turtles and The Grand Carnival, were banned in 1971 and 1972 respectively, because their content was judged disrespectful to the guardians of the re-established order. I say re-established, because ‘order’ in non-democratic countries is never stable.
And what impact has Ophelia Is Not Dead had on the Moroccan public, as they continue to feel the effects of the Arab Spring?
Making theatre in the Arab-Muslim world requires the creative intelligence, imagination and audacity to be liberated from state and religious control. The impact that the first Arabic-language performance of Ophelia had on the Moroccan public was remarkable, even if the Moroccan elite – progressive, cultivated, intellectualized, politicized – chose to be notably absent. ‘I neutralize my intelligence and moderate myself’, as Hamlet says to Macbeth.
When Ophelia was performed in Paris in 1972, it prompted dozens of articles and reviews, all positive and laudatory. But for this first production of Ophelia in Arabic, more than forty years after the first production in French, the response was sour: the public preferred to park itself in front of a television screen to watch a football match. ‘We need to de-footballize and de-televise this race and give it back its taste for life’, says Macbeth. There was no response in print, and disconcerting silence from the critics, who opted to remain cosy in their sarcophagi. Abandonment by the media.
Today, in the digital age, with all our new means of communication and advertising, thought struggles for its very existence against devouring, insatiable hungers. As for the ‘Arab Spring’, I think it’s a scam, one that continues to target the poor peoples and tribes of the Arab world. Arab theatre-makers should tackle the task of dramatizing this hoax, this ruse, this fraud.
Four Arab Hamlet Plays, edited by Marvin Carlson and Margaret Litvin with Joy Arab (New York: Martin E. Segal Theatre Centre, 2016).
In Amine’s English translation for Four Arab Hamlet Plays, this line reads: ‘I want to revolutionize the language and to write it in my way and in my own way I write aspect with two s’s’ (45).
Prominent Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka, founder of the leftist party called the National Union of Popular Forces, was accused in 1962 of plotting against King Hassan II. Exiled, he continued to call for radical political change, supporting socialist and national liberation movements throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America; his supporters hailed him as a Moroccan Che Guevara. In 1965 he was abducted in France, never to be seen again. Two French policemen received prison sentences for taking part in the abduction; Hassan II’s Minister of Interior, General Mohamed Oufkir, is strongly suspected of masterminding Ben Barka’s death.
Lahlou is referring to the ‘Skhīrāt coup d’état’, an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate King Hassan II on 10 July 1971, led by rebel Moroccan military officers Lieutenant-Colonel M’hamed Ababou and General Mohamed Medbouh.
Moroccan slang for ‘penis’.
The play was also staged once, in October 1974, in a darija (Moroccan Arabic) translation, at the Mohammed V theatre.