Trial of Farah Antun

12 Mar

This is a section from Mohammed Taymur’s fantasy play: The Trial of the Authors. In short it is a way for Mohammed Taymur to settle scores with various playwrights of his time in an amusing way. He puts them in front of a court of the great playwrights of history (Shakespeare, Moliere, Corneille, Goethe, etc.) and makes them defend their work. Mostly they are unsuccessful but it is a nice text for two reasons.

1)      The conceit it fun. That is surely enough.

2)      It shows up what kind of things people in the Egyptian theatre at the time were concerned with. In this case it is mostly whether or not something is ‘artistic’ or not. Also the politics of translation is in view.

In this section Farah Antun, the Syrian Christian man of letters who spent a long time in Egypt is up on trial before Shakespeare. For more information on Farah Antun read, amongst other things, Donald Malcolm Reid’s book on him, which includes a lot on his feud with Mohammed Abdu on Secularism in the Arab World, is good.

Here’s Mohammed Taymur

After looking long and hard at him the head of the court, Shakespeare said to him:

–        What’s your name?

–        Farah Antun

–        What’s your nationality?

–        I am Syrian by birth, but really I live and work in Egypt, though I spent a few years in America.

–        What’s your profession?

–        I used to be, in times gone by, the editor of al-Jami’a magazine (may it rest in peace). Now I am a writer, translator, and adapter.

–        Raise your right hand and swear the Thespian Oath

Farah Antun raised his left hand and begins to mumble. Shakespeare shouted at him

–        Your right hand! I said your right hand!

Farah Antun raised his right hand and said – I swear by the dramatic art, dramatic writing, dramatic translation, the dramatic stage, dramatic scenes, and all that is contained in the word drama, that I speak nothing be the truth.

Shakespeare said – You are charged, Farah Antun Effendi, with four charges. The first of which is that you introduced a strange new kind of advertising poster to the Egyptian stage which was closer to joking or sarcasm than it was to truth about the performance [this will become clear later]. The second, that you introduced a recent innovation, of your own creation, forcing your actors to sing the prose passages in your works. We have never seen anything like it before. For it is well known among literary people that sung passages should be in verse and meter. Thirdly that you forced George Abyad,[1] who is only known for his skills in tragic acting, to sing prose passages as well, in the play “The governor amongst his subjects” [al-mutaṣarrif bil-‘abād]. The man has a horrible singing voice that would frighten even the Jinn. Fourthly, that you departed from the old ways of writing you had used when you gave the people your plays “New Egypt” and “Saladin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem” and you moved to a new genre which did not befit you at all. It was the genre you called ‘adaptation’[2]. What was this really except translating ancient vaudeville plays which had been eaten away and forgotten by time? These, Farah Effendi, are the charges put before you.

Then Shakespeare turned to his prosecutor Edmond Rostand and said

–        Has the prosecutor anything to say?

Rostand said – Of course. The man standing here before us, judges, is a man whose virtue, literature, and learning we do not doubt. All of the Egyptian people used to wait patiently for the next issue of al-Jami’a magazine, which used to contain articles of great value. Don’t forget how people used to welcome his non-dramatic stories.

Moliere cut him off and said – You mean the genre we call Romans?

The prosecutor continued – Yes, your honour. I said that we should not forget how people used to welcome his non-dramatic stories. Nor should we forget their reaction to his plays “The Great Tower” or “Son of the People”, which he translated from Alexandre Dumas, the elder. What a bright time that was for dramatic literature. But this man left Egypt for America. When he came back and produced for us his plays “New Egypt” and “Saladin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem” and we thanked God and we thanked Farah Effendi Antun but he did not return the thanks. Instead Farah Effendi Antun introduced a recent innovation, which he called ‘adaptation’ to which he did not devote any serious thought or effort. He took old vaudeville plays and translated them strangely or inaccurately, half in colloquial Arabic and half in Classical. He littered them with Syrian jokes and words that were “in a very idiosyncratic Syrian or Turkish” in order to make the audience laugh. So he said “sharpish” instead of “quickly” and “keep your hair on” instead of “stay calm”.[3]

After writing something down, Racine interrupted the speech and said – Very strange indeed.

Rostand continued – Indeed gentlemen. And Farah Effendi was not satisfied with this. He also put up bizarre posters for his plays, made up of streets, alleys, lanes, and pavements and filled with sentences the kind of which, no one had ever seen before. We have seen him write, for instance: “The great troupe made up of 15 Oud’s, 12 Kamanjas [violin-esque instruments], 100 tambourines, and 900 flutes”, “ My arteries are made of blood”, “Carmenina, grand-daughter of Carmen”, “Mrs Mounira’s voice is in lots of records but come hear her at the theatre.  She is reviving the age of the departed Abdu [al-Hamouli], [Mahmud] Othman, Salama Higazi, and Almaz.” , “Laughter that is loud, proud, and uncowed will enshroud the crowd like a cloud from the beginning to the end of the play”, “Hamid Morsi is singing for the first time and he will be playing the role of beautiful girl, Graziella [of Lamartine]”.[4] These posters, gentlemen, contain things that no-one has ever tried before. Have you ever seen in your lives posters that mislead the reader like these ones do? I swear that one advert encompasses the whole world  and all its mountains, rivers, plains, volcanoes, lakes, gulfs, seas, waves, cataracts, battleships, railways, wars, dynamite, chemical weapons, and more! Is this allowed in the author’s charter? Should we allow, gentlemen, a capable writer like Farah Effendi to descent to this level and to produce for the people such debased plays; lacking in any kind of social commentary, lesson, or satire that the Egyptian spirit might enjoy. Is it true that he has invented this new style of advert so he can laugh at the audiences? I entrust the issue to your pure hearts which care only for art, then …

Then Corneille interrupted, saying – Do you have copies of any of these posters?

So the prosecutor got out a dossier with a big bundle of papers in it

Corneille said – Ouf, Ouf, Ouf,

And the posters circulated between the members of the court and we saw the obvious disgust on their faces. The prosecutor completed his speech, saying:

–        And Farah Effendi was not satisfied with this! He went on to translate poetical songs into prose, which good taste abhors. This is because he was incapable of writing even half a line of verse. Have you ever seen, gentlemen, in any kind of operetta, people singing prose?

Goethe shouted out – This is too much! Too much!

Rostand continued – It would have been better for him to get any Egyptian poet to compose some for him. Farah Effendi know about as much about poetry as he does about singing. So why, when he got Kamal al-Khala’i to sing for him, did he not get an Egyptian poet to compose the verse for his plays? I want Farah Effendi Antun to tell us the answer to this riddle in his defence. And Farah Effendi was not satisfied with this! He went on to the great actor George Abyad and led him away from tragedy and towards operettas. Farah Effendi presented us George Effendi Abyad in the role of the governor among his subjects and forced him to sing some passages in prose. He made me, gentlemen, weep hot tears at the death of George Abyad. For he, undeniably, committed literary suicide on the day he acted that role and was buried in the grave of ‘no publicity’. Now his voice, with its divine timbre has gone silent. Tragedy died the day that he died acting the governor among his subjects. But the strangest thing is that it felt like a mother bereaved of a child was laughing when George Effendi sang his section in prose. But not I have to laugh a little, gentlemen. I have to laugh because I have cried so much. I won’t forget Abyad’s resounding voice, which resounded like an owl. More amazing than that, though, was the shape of his nose when he was singing. I don’t know why his nose stuck out 4 centimetres, perhaps it was because of the shape his mouth adopted when singing. The poor man said to Bishara Wakim after singing his song “touch me Bishara. I feel like I have a cold.”

For these reasons, which I have explained to you, gentlemen, I beg the court to punish this criminal under article 142 of code of dramatic conduct. I implore you, gentlemen of the jury, to remove all pity or mercy from your hearts and to heed what is right in the service of true art. The art into whose chest the writers standing before us buried their daggers without pity or mercy.

So, Edmond Rostand sat down, exhausted, and Shakespeare said:

–        Would the accused defend himself.

Farah Effendi started his defence thus:

–        Gentlemen, esteemed writers, I beg of you in the name of art not to look down on me. I am a tall man, with a slight hunched back. Perhaps this is the reason for the illness that has afflicted my stomach and forced me not to eat meat, poultry, or fish. I want to turn your attention to this because I am, as I said, a sick man, of nervous disposition. Perhaps this is the reason for the pallor of my face.

The prosecutor accuses me of inventing a new genre which I called adaptation [iqtibas]. I admit, gentlemen, that this genre is a far from true art as the earth is from the sky. What’s to be done? This genre fitted what the audience wanted and so was very successful. I have another apology. This is that I got angry with George Effendi Abyad and I did not find another troupe who could act my artistic plays so I attached myself to Mrs Mounira so I might give her plays in this new genre. Do you not find this apology satisfactory?

The prosecutor accuses me too of forcing George Abyad to act a role which did not suit his talents. I am sorry for that too. The only thing that lead me to perpetrate this hideous act which I admit was inflicted up Abyad was what I earned from Mounira Mahdiyya’s troupe.[5] Is this not a reasonable apology too, gentlemen?

The prosecutor also says that I forced actors to sing in prose because I could not write poetry. What can I do? I am no more a poet than I am an expert in anything except, literature, acting, and journalism. Why, gentlemen, do you want to force a sick man like me with few possessions, clearly broke, to hire an Egyptian poet to compose poems for my plays. Shame on you. Shame on you, by God!

As for the issue of the posters with the streets, alleys, lanes, and pavements on them, they are true. It is the American style that I brought back with me from there. America is a country of science, knowledge, and saving time! I did no wrong in that respect. Would you punish a man like me for bringing American products to Egypt? I beg of you, in the name of art, to have pity on a weak man, a weak, ill, and nervous man. I beg you in the name of art and I say nothing more.

The head of the court stood up and said:

–        The verdict will come after deliberation.

So the jury exited out the back. I [the narrator] felt, suddenly, as I was sitting in the hall, a hand touch my shoulder. I turned round and saw Dawood who said:

After an hour had passed the court clerk, Mahmud Rida, shouted. So we went back and the jury lined up in a row and judge read out the verdict.

–        After hearing both the prosecution and the defence we have decided

Firstly, that Farah Effendi was capable of translating plays of value and he should have worked harder and not been so lazy.

Secondly, The success of these plays relied on the beauty if Mounira Mahdiyya’s voice and the proof of this is the success of Kalam fi Sirrak.

Thirdly, that Farah Effendi was capable of writing for the troupes of Rushdi and Okasha.

Fourthly, that Farah Effendi committed a great and treasonous crime to drama when he forced George Abyad to act in the role of the governor among his subjects. The fact that he managed to profit from Mounira Mahdiyya’s plays does not make it acceptable.

Fifthly, The goods [poster-style] that he brought from America are lacking in art. It would have been better if he brought something else to this country.

For these reasons, and in these circumstances, in light of the accused bright, beautiful work in times past, his punishment has been lightened a little. We have also lessened the penalty because we hope, and are carefully looking out for, an improvement in him.

So we rule that, by article 145 of the code of dramatic conduct, Farah Effendi should be banned from working in the genre of ‘Adaptation’ [iqtibas] for a period of ten years. This is a sufficient period for the Egyptian public to forget this pointless genre.


[1] [very famous actor of Lebanese descent working in Egypt, who studied in France on an Egyptian government scholarship and returned to show Egyptians what serious acting should be like]

[2] [iqtibās. This was a word that was much used. I don’t personally believe its meaning is a fixed as some people would like to think, as this joke coming up implies. Basically it meant taking the basis of a foreign play and changing it, often considerably for an Egyptian audience]

[3] Obviously these translations are not literal.

[5] I assume that he was writing for Mounira Mahdiyya and they drafted in George Abyad. I do not think the implication is that he was paid to write a bad part for Abyad on purpose.

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