Tawfiq al-Hakim

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

For some time, the date of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s birth was in doubt—in places the year 1902 was cited, but later October 9, 1898, was accepted as proved. It is certain that he was born in Alexandria, Egypt, of an Arab doctor and a mother who was descended from a family of Ottoman officials and army officers. Although his education moved forward slowly during his early years, al-Hakim evinced an early interest in dramatic storytelling. In 1915, he entered the Muhammad Ali Secondary School in Cairo, and he received the baccalaureate in 1921. His youth evidently was marred somewhat by difficult relations with his mother, and a brief, unrequited love affair did nothing to improve his attitude toward women. During the short-lived revolution of 1919, which was provoked by the exile of Saՙd Zaghlul, a prominent national leader, to Malta, al-Hakim was imprisoned for composing patriotic songs. His incarceration was brief and hardly unpleasant; at about that time he wrote his first play, a work that Cairo producers would not stage because of its defiantly anti-British standpoint.

For four years, until 1925, al-Hakim studied law at the state university in Cairo; increasingly it became evident that his proclivities, and his real calling, lay elsewhere. His further efforts at the writing of drama brought forth al-Mar՚ah al-jadidah (modern woman), which was composed in 1923 and produced on the stage three years later. Three other short plays, including Khatim Sulayman (the ring of Solomon), were produced in 1924, shortly after he had committed them to paper. In spite of an undistinguished academic record—he graduated third from last among those who were promoted in his class—he entered the Collège des Lois at the Sorbonne in Paris. At that time he was still guided in part by his father’s wish that he should become a lawyer, and evidently he was otherwise undecided about which direction his career should take. During his student years in France—between 1925 and 1928—he spent much of his time reading, sightseeing, and absorbing as much European culture as possible. In addition to philosophy and narrative fiction, he delved at length into published drama and attended performances of major plays. It would seem that he was particularly fascinated by the works of Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Luigi Pirandello. Classical Greek theater also left a lasting impression on him. The lack of an Arab dramatic tradition, which had troubled him during his first efforts in Egypt, was brought home to him more definitely; along the way, two love affairs, which turned out badly, added further poignancy to his outlook. In 1928, having passed all but one of his examinations, he returned to Egypt, ostensibly to commence work within the legal profession, but with his creative aspirations probably now foremost in his mind.

After an apprenticeship of one year in Alexandria, al-Hakim served as a public prosecutor in various rural communities between 1929 and 1934; he then became director of the investigation bureau of the Ministry of Education, and in 1939 he was appointed to a position in the Ministry of Social Affairs. In 1943 he left public service to devote himself entirely to writing. It may readily be inferred from his fictional and autobiographical works that he regarded government positions as sinecures, an attitude he also detected in those around him. The decisive event of his career as a playwright was the publication in 1933 of his The People of the Cave. His transfer from legal to bureaucratic responsibilities may have been a result of the uproar that greeted this work. Although Taha Husayn, a leading critic, and other men of letters praised its bold, unconventional approach, others castigated it for its use of informal, even ungrammatical, language. Shahrazad had already been published (in 1934) when an outcry broke out over the staged version of The People of the Cave ; audiences rejected it as far too long and too far removed from the formal...

(The entire section is 1,325 words.)