Tawfiq al-Hakim (al HAH-kihm), probably Egypt’s most famous playwright, was born in Alexandria in October, 1898. His mother was the daughter of an Ottoman Turkish military officer and appears to have remained consciously aloof from Egypt’s majority Arabic social and cultural milieu. His father, who carried the honorific title of Bey, was the son of a graduate of an Islamic scholarly institution. He had achieved some recognition both as a member of the cultured middle class of Alexandria and as a public official in the legal branch of the government—both factors that would influence relations with his son.
As a boy, al-Hakim divided his time between classes and leisure hours in the company of an Alexandrian acting troupe known as Al Awalim. This experience with popular culture, combined with repeated exposure to village life as his father was transferred from post to post, gave the future writer a feeling for subjects he would describe in detail in his plays and novels.
In 1915, a year after the outbreak of World War I and the declaration of a British protectorate over Egypt, al-Hakim moved to Cairo to live with one of his uncles and to attend the Muhammad Ali Secondary School. There, academic subjects were secondary to his interest in popular theater and, in 1919, participation as a student in the nationalist political disturbances that affected Egypt immediately after the war. Although he did not finish his baccalaureate until 1921, he had by that date already written several musical plays for the Al Awalim troupe in Alexandria and a political play, “The Burdensome Guest,” criticizing the British for their role in Egypt.
Family priorities, more than personal preference, explain al-Hakim’s entry into law school in Cairo. Perhaps his real goal in starting education for a legal career was to go on to studies in Europe, which he did in 1925. It was during these three (ultimately unsuccessful) student years in Paris that al-Hakim gained exposure to the different literary and artistic genres that would influence his own writing style. He spent as much time as possible in Parisian theaters and the opera, and he read voraciously from the works of George Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, and the classical Greek playwrights.
The major literary legacy from al-Hakim’s Paris years was his first...
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