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 autobiographical novel, ՙAwdat al-ruh. Even more famous, although only half completed, would be The People of the Cave, which–like so many of his theatrical works–seems to have been written for publication, not necessarily for production. In some cases (certainly in the case of The People of the Cave, which was characterized as a “study of time and reality and . . . the power of truth”), al-Hakim’s theatrical dialogues proved too intellectual to be presented on the Egyptian stage during the interwar period.
Both of these landmark works were published in 1933, after al-Hakim had taken a job as a rural public prosecutor for the Egyptian Ministry of Justice. Popular social life in provincial villages, as well as the pervasive influence of Egyptian bureaucracy, was quite naturally depicted in his famous 1937 novel, Maze of Justice.
It seems clear that, on one hand, al-Hakim was trying to convince Egyptian theatrical groups to produce light but meaningful plays instead of superficial, traditional drama. On the other hand, however, al-Hakim allowed himself the luxury of writing serious and intellectually stimulating dramatic pieces which were adaptations of themes of classical antiquity that had already attracted the artistic efforts of European playwrights. (Examples of the latter are Pygmalion and King Oedipus.)
During the decade between the outbreak of World War II and the breakdown of order that led to the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, al-Hakim also explored political subjects. Shajarat al-Hukm (the tree of ruling), a short play published just before the war, suggested that corruption had penetrated Egypt’s affairs to such an extent that only a “blessed revolution” could save the country. This charge led to the playwright’s removal from government service. This scandal only encouraged him to focus on studies of Egyptian society and the dilemmas which faced the educated classes. His “Plays of Social Life,” more than a dozen works written between 1945 and 1950, were filled with reflections on the state of politics and the social malaise of the period. Finally, just before the 1952 coup, he wrote Between War and Peace, a play with obvious political undertones. It was published only in 1956, after the regime had changed.
There is no doubt that the head of Egypt’s military regime from 1952 to 1970, Abdel Nasser, hoped to sponsor what he called (in a book dedication to al-Hakim) “a second, postrevolutionary return of the soul,” an allusion to the playwright’s early autobiographical novel. This favorable “official” view of al-Hakim’s contributions to modern Arabic literature was strengthened by his appointments as head of the Egyptian National Library and undersecretary responsible for the Higher Council of Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences.
During the same period, and through the 1960’s into the 1970’s, al-Hakim produced a number of works, including well-known plays such as The Song of Death. This work in particular is noteworthy for its effort to experiment with combinations of Egyptian colloquial language forms (to fit the milieu in which the action is placed, frequently in the rural countryside) together with classical Arabic structures.
Finally, al-Hakim would build upon the foundations of his first contribution to the Theater of the Absurd, The Tree Climber, to write even more experimental plays. That lent itself to the free exercise of the playwright’s imagination and enabled him to demonstrate, throughout the later years of his productive career, a unique sense of humor which endeared him not only to his Egyptian public but also to Western readers of his works in translation.