Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 May 1999
Issue No. 429
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Index of issues This week's issue

Books Monthly supplement

Food for thought
A word from the Editor-in-Chief Hosny Guindy

Time for forgiveness?
Mona Anis revels in a 1960s memoir vividly chronicling the underground life of Egypt's angry young writers

A sun which leaves no shadows
Mokhtarat (Selections), Ghaleb Halasa, Al-Ahram (Kitab fi Garida), February 1999

Mothering the populace
The Pure and the Powerful, Studies in Contemporary Muslim Society, Nadia Abu Zahra, London: Garnet Publishing,1997. pp.308

Lights, camera, chit-chat
Cairo: From Edge to Edge, essay by Sonallah Ibrahim and photographs by Jean Pierre Ribière, Cairo: AUC Press, 1998. pp21+ 70 photographs

The art of conversation
Tawfiq El-Hakim Yatathakar (Tawfiq El-Hakim Reminisces), ed Gamal El-Ghitani. Cairo: Supreme Council of Culture, 1998. pp183

Not quite another country
Alnesaeyat, Malak Hefny Nassef. Cairo: The Women and Memory Forum publications, 1998. pp246

Journey of a giraffe
Zarafa, Michael Allin, London: Headline Book Publishing, 1998. pp215

Village life from within
Denys Johnson-Davies offers insight into Mohamed El-Bisatie's work, and translates an extract from his new novel, appearing this Saturday in the Al-Hilal series
And the Train Comes

Short Reviews:

*Al-Kotob: Wughaat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints)

*Soheir El-Qalamawi, Nabila Ibrahim

*Sifr Amal Donqol (The Book of Amal Donqol), ed Abla El-Reweini

*Mithl Saif Lan Yatakarar Kathiran: Mahkiyat (Like a Summer that will Not Often Repeat Itself: Anecdotes)

*Al-Sayida allati wa'l-Rajul alathi lam... (The Lady who and the Manwho did not ...), Sabri Moussa

*Buka'iya illa Hafiz Al-Shirazi (Elegy to Hafiz Al-Shirazi), Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati

*Deen Al-Harafeesh fi Misr Al-Mahrousa (The Religion of the Harafeesh in Egypt the Protected), Ali Fahmi

*Al-Ibna Faten (Daughter Faten), Naim Sabri

*Siwa Door: Poems 1993-1997, Tom Lamont

*Tujar Al-Tawabil fi Misr fi'l-Asr Al-Mamluki ah (Spice Merchants in Egypt in the Mameluke Period), Mohamed Abdel-Ghani El-Ashqar

*Ragul Tayeb Yukalim Nafsah (A kind man who talks to himself), Girgis Shukri

*Nizwa: A quarterly literary Journal

*Al-Tifl Al-Manbuz (Testaments Betrayed), Milan Kundera

*Arba' Masrahiyat 'Iraqiya (Four Iraqi Plays)



Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

The art of conversation

Tawfiq El-Hakim

During his childhood Tawfiq El-Hakim moved with his country magistrate father from one small Delta town to another. One such town was Dessouk, the hometown of the great Sufi Sheikh Ibrahim El-Dessouki, whose moulid was a great event. For the celebration the town would be decked out like a bride. The Gouqa (troupe) of Sheikh Salama Hegazi made it a point to participate in the moulid and to perform their famous operetta Shuhadaa Al-Gharam (Martyrs of Love).

As a child El-Hakim had the opportunity to witness the splendid sight of the Hegazi troupe, followed by children running behind them as they paraded through Dessouk in splendid, colourful costumes, their wigs topped with old-fashioned headdresses and all of them brandishing swords and daggers. Because Sheikh Salama Hegazi's was such a famous theatrical troupe, many dignitaries, including El-Hakim's father, attended the play, bringing their children along. And it was after watching Shuhadaa Al-Gharam that Tawfiq El-Hakim's destiny -- indeed -- the destiny of Arab theatre, was sealed. El-Hakim would become a renowned writer, with over 60 books to his name including novels, literary criticism, works on religion and philosophy. But his most single impressive contribution to Arab culture lies in his pioneering of Arab theatre, which he transformed from an impoverished form of entertainment without purpose or vision into a more serious, intellectually and emotionally challenging art form.

There would have been no real Arab theatre to speak of had it not been for Tawfiq El-Hakim. Indeed, Egypt's recent celebrations of the centenary of El-Hakim's birth last year, which included a five-day conference titled Tawfiq El-Hakim: An Ever Renewed Presence, were no less celebrations of the centenary of the birth of Arab theatre.

The conference comprised 24 sessions and numerous round table discussions, with tens of critics and scholars from Egypt, the Arab world, Europe and the Americas participating.

Its convening, last November, coincided with the publication of Gamal El-Ghitani's Tawfiq El-Hakim Yatathakar (Tawfiq El-Hakim Reminisces), an honest transcription of a number of taped conversations which took place in 1978 between El-Hakim and El-Ghitani. The book also includes a chapter from a never to be completed novel begun by El-Hakim in 1944 and eventually dedicated to El-Ghitani when the conversations were first published.

But to return to Tawfiq El-Hakim the child and Salama Hegazi's troupe. El-Hakim says: "I will never forget that night. The curtain rose revealing the entire troupe with their bright costumes, men and women standing in rows, singing the opening song, only to disperse soon afterwards in order for the acting to begin. In those days I could not of course understand much of the play's detail. All that interested me and charmed my mind were the duels, and the first thing I did the next day was to break the broomstick and turn it into a sword, challenging a servant that we had at the time to a duel. This servant used to go to a café at night where a folk singer with a rababa told the story of Abu-Zeid El-Hilali and Diab Ibn-Ghanim..."

When Tawfiq El-Hakim's mother fell ill and was confined to her bed, she read folk epics such as Hamza Al-Bahlawan and Sief Ibn Thi Yazin. No sooner would she finish reading a part of these cycles than she would start recounting what she had read to her children. According to El-Hakim "she was good at telling us these stories, at trying to convey every single detail. My grandmother and I would be all ears listening to her, and sometimes my father joined us after he finished examining his cases, as if it was an infection that reached him too. When the episode she was telling left the protagonists in a suspenseful situation and we were eager to know how it would end, my mother would say, 'Wait till I've read the next part', and leave us on the edge of our seats, living intensely with these heroes and waiting till we could return to them. She did not just tell the stories but added her own commentary in order to bring the characters closer to us, saying for example that this or that character resembled such and such a kind or evil person in our own circle, so that I was able to picture the protagonists' faces..."

From such childhood scenes began the path that would make of El-Hakim a seminal influence on Egyptian theatre. But after describing his mother El-Hakim moves to his father. A graduate of the Faculty of Law, with nothing to his name other than a monthly salary, El-Hakim's father was an ardent nationalist, committed in resisting the British occupation. El-Hakim records the note written by his father on the day of his birth: "A telegraph from my brother-in-law, which I had copied, arrived: 'You have been given a boy, Congratulations'. I was sitting in the meeting room speaking with the judge Ali Bey Galal about various things. It was 12.30pm. Another letter arrived asking me to give the boy a name. I replied, saying that I leave the matter of naming the boy to my wife. I then went to Alexandria and visited my wife. She was in good health and informed me that the boy was named Hussein Tewfik El-Hakim."

El-Hakim's mother would later tell her story of his birth. How he came into the world silently, without crying or screaming or wailing the way newborns do. How, terrified, it occurred to her that he may have been born dead. How, when she asked the nurse why he was not making any sounds, they all turned to where he was lying and found him, finger in mouth, contemplating the lantern hanging above him with curiosity.

El-Hakim was not a studious schoolboy. He had to repeat several years at primary and preparatory schools, partly because his father moved so often between the small Delta towns and Alexandria, and also because he was an avid reader. His weakness in maths would lead to El-Hakim's being sent to live in Cairo, in the traditional quarter of Sayeda Zeinab, with a teacher uncle who might help El-Hakim through his final school years.

Once in the capital, El-Hakim steeped himself in the world of theatre, attending plays performed by theatrical troupes like Salama Hegazi's and George Abyad's. Eventually El-Hakim moved from being a spectator to an author and actor. It was with the greatest of difficulty that El-Hakim managed to complete his BA in Law. And it was during this period that he met Sayed Darwish, though their friendship did not last long.

Then came the 1919 Revolution, which resulted in El-Hakim's first play, Al-Deif Al-Thaqil (The Heavy Guest). In the immediate wake of the 1919 Revolution he wrote, too, Awdit Al-Roh (Return of Spirit), based on his experiences in Cairo. The events of the novel unfold in Sayeda Zeinab, and the major characters of the novel are based on people he knew.

A new phase of El-Hakim's life began when, after graduating from the Faculty of Law, he went to Paris to complete his studies. He lived there for four years without setting foot in Egypt, afraid of facing his father who, naturally, would ask him about his studies. But instead of studying law, El-Hakim spent his time in Paris going to plays, listening to music and reading.

When he returned to Egypt, El-Hakim practiced law like his father but continued to hone his literary craft. His production was prolific -- including the play Sheherezade, published under the semi-psuedonym Hussein El-Hakim, together with Awdit Al-Roh, Yawmiyat Naib fil Aryaf, Ahl Al-Kahf and Asfour min Al-Sharq. And it was in Tawfiq El-Hakim's hands that Arab theatre was to emerge from the realm of farcical entertainment to respectable art form.

Reviewed by Mahmoud El-Wardani

   Top of page
Front Page