The Trials and Tribulations of Egypt’s Moliere

4 Jan


Yaqub “James” Sanu’, otherwise known as Abou Naddara (the man with the glasses), was one of the pioneers of Egyptian theatre and Egyptian Nationalism. His magazine, Abou Naddara, subtitled “Egypt for the Egyptians” started in 1877 and featured cartoons, short comic plays and political opinions written varyingly in Egyptian Arabic, French and more standard Arabic. His fiercely pro-independence stance did not win him much favour in the upper echelons of power and he was soon exiled to Paris, where he kept up production of his magazine.

               Abou Naddara is a fascinating character and often prone to exaggerated self-mythologising. As such his life story is begging to be made into a movie by Wes Anderson. Here’s hoping!

               Here I translate the introduction of his play Egypt’s Moliere and what he suffers. I have also added a scene from near the beginning when characters are talking about the Arabic theatre. It shows two characters Mitri and Estephan chatting and saying hello. That is until Estephan produces a bad review of their play by some Italian critic. They then proceed to attack the critics own poetry and his general demeanour.

               The critic attacks them for writing in vulgar Arabic but they attack him for writing (badly) in a classical Arabic which is removed from the lives of most people.

This is the only play published in Abou Naddara’s lifetime but Mustafa Badawi sees it as “a sharp decline in [his] dramatic art”. He cites his use of rhyming prose as a possible reason for this. Despite Prof. Badawi I will attempt to reproduce the rhyming prose. It is also a very interesting source in the history of Arabic theatre.

               The introduction runs thus:                                                              


               “The Sheikh the author said in his Egyptian Arabic to the esteemed reader of this brilliant play:

               I give you gentlemen, my salutations, my regards and exaltations. I wish for each effendi, senor and monsieur: delight, happiness and pleasure. Bless you glorious brother, whether Muslim, Jewish, or the other. With love for you my heart is bursting, I love you like I love my offspring. Forgive the errors in this drama and may God grant you ten thousand times the Karma. Let me tell you noble reader so you know, all my troubles starting this theatre four decades ago. In the time of Khedive Ismail when our relationship was most genteel.

               Sometimes people laughed, sometimes they cried. Sometimes they cheered, sometimes criticised. Reader, from this coming play’s interpretation, you will know the Arabic theatre’s (and my mind’s) foundation.

               This drama we present to this noble audience, first played exactly 2 months hence. The smartest youths learnt the text by heart, and acted it at parties or for their sweethearts. So, sons of Arabs, take your place and listen to my sparkling tale, full of grace…”


“Act One, Scene Two:


Mitri: Bonjour, monsieur Estephan. Sit down you old fancy man. God be with you, you young girl’s dream. You charmer of nightingales, lover of the hareem.

Estephan: What a happy day! Great to see your face come my way. How are you my friend? To behold, you are a work of art. A delight and pleasure to the heart. I hope you are well.

Mitri: My heart is all a flutter [the actual phrase is (or seems to be) “My she-bear is tearing up the land”. Whatever this might mean I have only guessed] Monsieur. What about you? Have you also fallen swimming into sea of love?

Estephan: What love? What swimming sir? Listen to this news I have here. No more joking, this is serious speak. It will make the tears run down your cheek.

Mitri: Even God cannot make me cry Estephan

Estephan: He’s already done it. There is not ‘can’.

Mitri: I don’t want a battle but is this true or just prattle?

Estephan: Take this Alexandrian paper and read this page, where it insults and curses the Arabic stage for being formed on a European model with its plays written in colloquial twaddle.

Mitri: And who was it who wrote this ‘paean’ a native son of Egypt or a European?

Estephan: An Italian wrote the article and an Italian owns the journal.

Mitri: Yes I know him, old sport, he’s a man of some import. He’s so jealous of our leader James [Abou Naddara] he might die, and whenever he sees us he gives us the eye. When he sees we are putting on a new play, instead of wishing us good day, he says the story’s a load of old dung that it could neither entertain the old nor young. So we said that one day we’d like to see one of his plays, if they’re so fantastic, so he sent us a passage that would make you sick. When we read it, we nearly died from laughter and we tore it up in his face the day after! He said he had written some poems rhymed on -aq and on –in [Arabic rhyme schemes involve ending every line on the same syllable or letter. This charlatan has claimed to have written poems rhymed on –Q and –N. However his Arabic is littered with errors, which I have tried to replicate in the translation]. That went like this:


               We is go in

               Wearing the denim jean

               You all is drinkin’, darncin’, larfin’

               Then we is all leavin’


Estephan [completing the poem]: He belongs in the loony bin! For everyone thinks his work is rubbish. We succeed while he never gets his wish.

Mitri: In two words we could reply and shut his face then make him run blushing to his mother’s embrace. Comedy is about people and what happens between them.

Estephan: Bravo Mitri! That speech was a gem!

Mitri: Have you ever seen a scholar have a conversation in verse, use technical terms or worse? [Abou Naddara is, I suppose, separating his rhymed prose from verse in this accusation. Otherwise he would look rather silly. The difference is being made between a colloquial form of Arabic and its more ‘elevated’ classical cousin rather than rhyming itself.]

Estephan: No Skeikh, intellectual, nor anyone artistic, ever had a conversation in iambic.

Mitri: Our Italian critic is playing madman’s games, as is anyone who challenges our master James.

Estephan: Old James should be content with the praise he can read in any Western or Eastern supplement. Scholars attest that he is unique in the age since no-one before him brought Arabic drama to the Egyptian stage. Our Effendi [referring to Khedive Ismael I assume] gave him a blessing and a prayer and when we performed in front of him, he gave James the name Moliere. For the founder of the French theatre was Moliere, and the Arabic Theatre was established under James’ care. All over the palace at Abdeen, in offices, or where ministries convene, no-one calls James ‘monsieur’ anywhere. They all call him ‘Mr. Moliere’.


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