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People of the Cave | HowlRound Theatre Commons

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Nabra Nelson: Salam Alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, and SWANA or Southwest Asian, North African theatre from across the region.

Marina Johnson: I’m Marina.

Nabra: And I’m Nabra.

Marina: And we’re your hosts.

Nabra: Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea or in Arabic, shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country and Arab world, you’ll find kunafa made differently in that way. We also lean into the diversity, complexity and robust flavors of MENA and SWANA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: In our fourth season, we focus on classical and historical theatre, including discussions of traditional theatre forms and in-depth analysis of some of the oldest and most significant classical plays from 1,300 BC to the twentieth century.

Marina: Yalla, grab your tea, the shay is just right.

Nabra: Today we’re talking about Tawfiq al-Hakim and his classic play People of the Cave. We’ll be analyzing the play through our perspectives, including discussing its place in the MENA canon, the idea of adapting the Qur’an into theatre, and what the play can help us understand about theatre history from the Middle East. So let’s jump in first with a little bit about the writer himself.

Marina: But before we do that, I just have to say that Nabra and I recorded an episode very much like this one in our first season when we were trying to figure out what happened.

Nabra: It was the same episode.

Marina: Okay. No, it’s not true. When we were trying to figure out—

Nabra: It was our first episode that we recorded, by the way.

Marina: Yeah, it was so fun. So we had this notes document, and we both went, and did all this research and it was really great, but we then decided, “Oh, this doesn’t fit in our first season. We really need to make everything thematic and work.” And so we always saved it, but I’ve always wanted to revisit it. So then here in our fourth season for theatre history, we’re like, “Yes, now’s the time,” except that we couldn’t remember everything that our old notes meant. So it’s been a process. Every time we’ve logged on to do this together, something bad has happened. The app that we record on crashed, or there was drilling outside of my apartment. At one point we were like, “We cannot record today.” But I wanted to add things to it. We couldn’t just use the episode that we had already recorded because—

Nabra: Although for the record, I was very, very pro just using the episode, we already recorded—

Marina: Yes, but it was a different us. It was a many years ago. We’ve grown.

Nabra: It’s okay. I embrace her. I embrace many years ago us.

Marina: Yeah. But current Marina could not let past Marina speak on this. And we had access to slightly different resources than we did a few years ago, just resources for research purposes. And so I wanted to include that. So anytime we mention this episode number size, and I just wanted to share that because I really want it to be the best possible People of the Cave episode that it could be. It’s now hopefully reaching its full potential.

Nabra: Wow, that’s inspiring. But I think our past selves are even more amazing than our current selves. This is a very cool episode, so I hope y’all enjoy it. I’m excited about this play. And what we—

Marina: Just wanted to share some of our bickering with them, you know?

Nabra: Yes, it happens all the time. This is a big one. We’re still fraught, but we’re going to go ahead and give you the new and improved version.

Marina: Okay. So tell us about Tawfiq al-Hakim.

Nabra: All right. He was born in Alexandria in Egypt in 1898. He was fascinated with theatre for all of his life. His father was a judge, which was a highly esteemed position in Egypt, especially at the time. And he went to Paris to study law and returned home with a strong desire, somehow, to write plays after that experience and established Egypt as a place for serious theatre and art. When he returned, he worked as a Deputy Prosecutor in Alexandria, combining his legal work with writing theatre. He worked in civil courts and wrote with both the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Education. However, in 1936, he devoted himself to writing full time. Although he wrote novels, poems, and essays, he’s best remembered as a prolific playwright who played a key role in the development of Arabic drama.

Theatre in Egypt at the time was essentially entertainment with very few links to literature. Because theatre was conducted in colloquial language, many intellectuals looked down on it. The classical language was of course used in the writing of literature. And Tawfiq al-Hakim set out to change that. He wanted drama and the novel and the short story to become part of the literary canon in Egypt. And sidebar—fun fact—in the book The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim, to illustrate the point about the novel not being considered literature, author Johnson Davies mentions that Arabian Nights became a masterpiece of storytelling in the West but was hardly mentioned in literary criticisms in the Middle East at the time. For this reason, it wasn’t looked at as high art.

Marina: Two of the goals that al-Hakim stated for himself and his writing career were one, “to insert the element of tragedy into an Arab Islamic topic and not merely take on a story from the Noble book and set it in dramatic form, but rather to look at are Islamic mythology with the eyes of Greek tragedy.” And then two, “to bring about a fusion of the two mentalities and literature.” I love this because it’s clear that Tawfiq al-Hakim has goals for theatre that he’s creating an Egypt. So we’ll talk more about those goals in a bit, but in total, he wrote more than fifty full-length plays. His work was influenced by sources both from the Arab world and abroad. And his time in France left him influenced by playwrights such as Ionesco and Beckett. He even wrote an absurdist play called The Tree Climber. His work used Egyptian vernacular, and it made it acceptable for modern Arabic writers to do the same. He also wrote many short stories, and he was considered a rival of the popular Yusuf Idris at the time. When al-Hakim died in Cairo in 1987 at ninety years old, that’s when this rivalry was really, I guess, at its height.

So that’s just a little bit about Tawfiq al-Hakim himself. But the first play that he wrote is People of the Cave or Ahl al-Kahf. And it was written in 1933. And that’s the play that we’re going to talk about today because it’s a play that I am just so obsessed with, and in love with, and I hope to get to direct sometime soon. But it’s considered one of his most significant but also most controversial works, and it’s often referred to as the first genuine Egyptian tragedy.

He seems to critique the religious story, showing the people of the cave distressed at their lot after returning to their village with their family and friends all dead, and they’re faced with a brand-new world that they don’t belong in

Nabra: So I’ll give you a brief synopsis of the play. It’s got a lot in there, and we’ll be talking more about all of it, but here’s as brief as we could get with a plot synopsis.

So the setting is the Eastern Roman Empire around 375 AD in a cave in a place called Al-Raqim next to Tarsus, which is in modern-day Turkey. The play is inspired by the verse from the Qur’an called Sura al-Kahf, or the verse of “The Cave,” and we’ll talk more about the verse itself later on, but for now, I’ll just summarize the plot of the play itself.

Three Christian men, Michelenia, Marnush, and Iamlikha, along with their dog Qitmir, wake up in a cave after fleeing persecution from the Pagan ruler and villagers where they’re from. They’re groggy and sore but think that they have just slept there for one day. While they debate whether or when to go back to the village, others find them in the cave, they bring them back to the village where they are treated like saints and brought to the palace as honored guests to the now Christian king. They find out that they’ve been asleep for three hundred years, but they don’t fully believe it.

Marina: Iamlikha and Marnush go out into the city to find new clothes and reconnect with their families who they can’t believe are long dead. Meanwhile, Michelenia stays in the palace and meets Prisca, who is the descendant of his fiancée. He falls in love with her even after he’s told that she’s not the same person. She was told by a soothsayer that she’s destined to look exactly like her ancestor, and that is why they have the same name and visage. But she rejects Michelenia’s advances and he’s heartbroken.

At the beginning of the final act. We’re back in the cave when all three men and their dog wake up once again, they wonder whether their adventures in the city were all a dream, though they all had the same dream and they’re all wearing the same clothes from the city. Iamlikha then dies. Marnush then denies his belief in resurrection, which causes Michelenia to question his faith and call him a pagan. Marnush then also dies, claiming he has lost his faith.

Nabra: Prisca and Galias, the king’s servant, show up at the cave to find them, revealing that they had been imprisoned there by the king with no food for the past month. This is not really explained in the play, to be honest. Finally, Michelenia begins to die in Prisca’s arms. The people of the city are scheduled to close up the mouth of the cave that afternoon, and she decides to stay in the cave with Michelenia and die there with him because she now realizes that she loves him just like her ancestor did. The last line into the play is, “You were a woman who loved. Yes, that is enough.”

Marina: Nabra really gets into the melodrama there. So that’s the play, and at least that’s one version of the play and the first version you’ll hear today. But until I started reading the play, I hadn’t realized it’s based on a sura from the Qur’an or that the Sleepers of the Cave, as they’re sometimes called, are recognized in Christianity. So this is a pretty special sura to you, right?

Nabra: Yeah, I mean this sura is really well known among Muslims. It’s got a lot of important stories in it, including the story of the people of the cave. But there are other stories in the sura. The People of the Cave itself is actually a pretty short piece. It’s very briefly recounted, but my mom, and a lot of Muslims listen to it every Friday because it’s a blessing to listen to it on Fridays because it’ll bless the rest of your day and your whole week. And we studied it a lot, my brother and I and our Friday Qur’an lessons with my mom, we would study it and go through all of the pieces of it and the significance. And so I knew this verse really well and all of its stories by the time that I read the play.

And so the synopsis of the story as told in the Qur’an, which, again, is shorter than the play, it’s a pretty short story. I’d say it’s like maybe a page or so long. It tells the story of a number of people who were fleeing religious persecution for being monotheistic and they go to a cave, and God makes them sleep for a number of years. And then they found out that they’ve been asleep for many, many, many, many years when one of them goes into town to get food and finds that his coin is hundreds of years out of date. And that’s basically, the story.

But there are some big lessons, like a couple big lessons, in this story the way that I was taught it and understand it. The first important lesson is that only God knows all and that humans shouldn’t try to guess at the things that only God knows. So they mentioned that the people guess at the people being asleep for 309 years, and in the Qur’an it says, “God knows best how long they stayed. To Him belongs the unseen of the Heavens and the Earth.” And then there’s also a famous passage that’s about the number of people in the cave. In the Qur’an. It says, “They will say there were three, the fourth of them being their dog. And they will say there were five, the sixth of them being their dog, guessing at the unseen. And they will say there were seven, and the eighth of them was their dog. Say, my Lord is the most knowing of their number.” So that’s one of the big lessons is that God knows things that humans just don’t know and humans shouldn’t try to guess at these things that only God knows.

And the second big lesson of this verse is that God is merciful to his believers. So the People of the Cave really increased in faith through this experience. They say in the Qur’an, “They were youths who truly believed in their Lord, and we increased them in guidance.” It really felt like everyone in the story, even though it was really shortly recounted, it was clear that they accepted and understood their circumstances really quickly. Because of their faith in God, they immediately believe and understand that he could have put them to sleep for three hundred years, and that it’s good for them because they’re now in the age of believers, versus in the play they’re all very incredulous. They don’t really believe that they’ve suffered that long, or that any of this could possibly happen. And they’re even decreased in faith in the case of the play versus increased in faith, like it says in the verse. So a lot of people know the story of the cave. They know these lessons. It’s an important verse for us, and it also makes it a really good, I guess, candidate for adaptation.

In addition, it doesn’t really feature any prophets, but rather just regular people. So there wasn’t really any worry about portraying a prophet, which is against Islam, but it does still tread muddy waters in my opinion, on that point. But we’ll talk about that later.

Marina: Okay, so in the Christian retelling of the story, we’re talking about the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. And what I’ve heard in the context of Eastern Orthodoxy is that the seven youths were named Maximilian, Iamblicus, Martinian, John, Dionysius, Constantine, and Antoninus. So they all lived in the third century. Maximilian was the son of a city administrator. The other six were sons of well-known people in Ephesus. And it seems like that’s important context because they’re all relatively well-connected, which you probably think will help you on a rainy day or a day of persecution when you need those connections. So they all grew up together and they were also in the military together.

And then the Emperor Decius arrived in Ephesus in 249. He commanded all the citizens to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. And anyone who didn’t would be tortured or killed. The seven youths were given up by informants essentially and had to appear before the Emperor, where they confessed their faith in Christ. They were all stripped of their military accomplishments and the Emperor told them that they were allowed to flee, but he hoped that they would change their minds while he was off on this military campaign. So the youths fled from the city, and they hid in a cave nearby where they prayed. Iamblicus was the one who would occasionally go to the city to buy bread for everyone. And he did that dressed as a beggar.

On one such trip, he heard the Emperor was looking for them. And then the Emperor, of course learned where they were hiding, and then he ordered the entrance of the cave to be sealed with stones so that the group would perish from hunger and thirst. However, to have the dignitaries at the entrance of the cave, those people who came to block it were secretly Christian. And so desiring to preserve the memory of the saints they placed inside the cave, they put a sealed container which contained two metal plaques. And on those plaques they had inscribed the names of the seven youths and the details of their suffering and death. Then God placed the youth into a miraculous sleep, which lasted for almost two centuries.

In the meantime, the persecutions against Christians ceased, and so flash forward to living in the reign of emperor or Theodosius the Younger. And during that time, there were a lot of people who denied that there would be a general resurrection of the dead at the second coming of Christ. Some of those people said, “How can there be a resurrection of the dead where there’ll be neither the soul in their body since they’ll have disintegrated, right?” Bodies decompose. Others affirm that saying that it would be impossible for bodies to arise and live after one thousand years because they would’ve been fully decomposed. So it’s believed then in this Christian tradition that God revealed the mystery of the resurrection through these seven youths.

They completely awoke from their sleep, unaware that almost two hundred years had passed. Their bodies and clothing were completely undecayed. They were preparing to accept torture when they exited the cave, because they assumed that it had not been that long and that there would of course still be Christian persecution going on. So then they asked one of the men to go buy bread for them in the city. And when they exited, as the story goes, they walk out of the cave, they go a little distance, and they see a huge cross at the gates and heard people freely speaking the name of Jesus Christ. And he was sort of like, “Where am I? How can this be where I was, where I thought that I was going to die for Christ?” So he paid for the bread, or he tried to, but his coins had images of the Emperor Decius on them and he was detained because this was considered an odd use of money. And then he was brought before the bishop of Ephesus.

So then this bishop, hearing the pretty bewildering answers of this young man, decided that God was revealing something through some sort of mystery through him. And so he went to the cave. He found it sealed. He opened it. When the cave was opened, he found the container, so think back to the guys who were there to seal the cave, and he read the names on the plaque that that man had written about these people who were supposed to die once they were in the cave. And he saw the details on the ceiling of the cave that people had written once they got inside detailing the time of Emperor Decius. He saw everyone alive rejoicing, and he perceived that God was waking them up from a long sleep and was demonstrating to the church, and everyone there who was maybe a non-believer, the mystery of resurrection. So the Emperor himself soon came and spoke with the young men, and then these young men, in plain view of everyone, laid their heads upon the grounds and fell asleep again, this time until the actual resurrection.

So that’s the story from the Eastern Orthodox perspective. And as I was telling you this, or as I was telling you this several years ago, in our first time that we did this episode, Nabra, I realized why the Orthodox never say things like, “So-and-so died” or, “This person passed away,” but we always say in Orthodoxy that someone has, “Fallen asleep in the Lord.” And now I’m realizing that’s because we consider them really asleep until the final resurrection happens. So I felt like I learned something about my own faith that I grew up in through this episode.

Nabra: That’s so interesting. I love that. And clearly these stories from the Qur’an and the Christian retelling of this story are obviously the same story. And Tawfiq al-Hakim draws from both of them and uses a lot of the details from the Christian story, because there are a lot more details, as you can tell, in the Christian story than what’s in the Qur’an, which is totally fine because in Islam we believe in the people of the Book, which is that there are Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and we consider them all basically the same religion. There’s kind of three editions of the same book; we’re all the people of the book of these monotheistic religions, and we all believe in the same God. And so, there are a lot of instances in the Qur’an of a story that’s in either the Torah or the Bible that’s just kind of mentioned, and it’s understood in a way, that you can go back into one of the other books to learn more. So for a Muslim writer like Tawfiq al-Hakim to go back and reference the Christian story from the Bible and from Christian retellings, it makes sense that he would draw from that because they’re the same story. That’s not really a secret or anything. All Muslims know that. We should all know that. I think it’s a lovely element of Islam.

But what’s interesting about the play is that the lessons of the play are not really the lessons of either of these religious stories. So you’ve got, “God is merciful, all things are possible through God, and God knows all.” And those are kind of the lessons of the religious stories. But do these come across in the play at all? No. In fact, they’re clearly different lessons, or morals, or I guess just tidbits that you’re left with at the end of the play. And one of the big ones in the play is this kind of, “Love conquers all” theme that comes across. It’s really solidified by the last lines of the play that we’re going to read for you now.

Marina: Okay, I’m going to read for Prisca.

Nabra: And I’ll read for Galias the Servant.

Marina: “One more thing, Galias. When people become aware of my story and history, tell them what I told you.”

Nabra: “I shall tell them that you are a saint.”

Marina: “No, no, you kind fool. That is not what I told you.”

Nabra: “You were a woman who loved. Yes, that is enough.”

Marina: “Galias leaves. Prisca is left alone. The mouth of the cave is blocked on her and on the dead.”

Nabra: “The end.” So clearly this is an important part of the play. It ends with this kind of dramatic flourish about love, and the play even ends with Prisca choosing to die with Michelenia. It ends with, “Love flies over time like a butterfly over roses,” and somebody says to Prisca, “Doubt never overcame your love even for a day. So it didn’t disperse as a flying smoke.” So, there’s this overarching theme of love conquers all, love transcends space and time, and also this idea of love between people. It’s not really a huge theme of Islam. There’s a lot, of course, about love between God and humans. There’s a lot about human relationships like rules around it and guidances towards marriage and things like that. But it stood out to me that this kind of romance was a really important part of the play that’s theoretically an adaptation of a Qur’anic verse, because that’s not really an important or a huge part of the Muslim religion in general. And it also kind of connects to this theme of this human struggle against time, as well.

theatre is just really integral to Arab society, and it’s been, throughout our history, a really important part of a lot of our cultures, and countries, and societies.

Marina: Yeah, we have this element that these humans are very aware that their time on Earth is dwindling. And as Nabra sort of mentioned before, it’s not something you hear a lot in stories about saints or religious figures because they’re usually looking towards an afterlife, or what’s happening after their time on Earth and their Earthly struggles, and that there are rewards that these folks are really focused on when they’re on Earth. Prisca even says, “Don’t tell them that I’m a saint. I’m a woman who loved.” So really putting emphasis on the Earthly instead of the Heavenly, which is not what you would expect from a religious tale.

So also just as Nabra was mentioning earlier, people of the Book, which is really an exciting thing, I think, but the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus aren’t in the Bible, but they are in other religious texts that you would find where you would read about different saints. And we’ve been talking a lot about the religious parts because I think they’re so interesting as people who both grew up in these religions and who would of course approach a text like this with these thoughts, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Tawfiq al-Hakim was trying to faithfully adapt anything. But what did it mean to have him drawing on these two religions at the time?

Nabra: And it’s really just obvious, or stands out, that the name of the play is just the People of the Cave. It’s not an adaptation of the name even. So it really points out this connection to these religious texts in a really obvious way. So again, another reason why we’re comparing this original text and this adaptation or what he draws from obviously making this connection in some way. And we’ll talk more about that as well.

Marina: Yeah, and I… remember how I told you that every time that we went to record those episodes, something was happening? Again, construction outside of my apartment. So if you can hear that, I apologize. But okay.

So one of the major differences between religious texts and a play? You need dramatic action. You need stakes. You need all those things that make a tale exciting in the way that if you’re reading something in the Qur’an or in the Christian retelling of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, you might not need the same kind of dramatic action. Though of course there are always stakes when we’re talking about Heaven versus other options, right? But I think that’s such a big part of this human struggle, and human conflicts, and that’s why they’re coming in here because you really need to dramatize things to put them on stage.

And one of Michelenia’s lines is, “Oh my God, can I think that time has gained victory over us in this ghastly duel?” To which Marnush says, “We are dreams of time. Time is carrying us to destroy us after all, except he who deserves remembrance for it will keep him in its memory.”

Nabra: So there’s obviously this idea that it’s not God who’s in charge of these people’s lives, but rather this focus on their mortality, on the present, and this idea of time as the thing that’s going to get you there. But again, the religious lesson is really the opposite of that. It’s that time does not need to get everyone, and that God has power over time and can cause people to live for as long as He wants, even three-hundred-some years. So there’s a lot more of an existential lesson in this play. And there’s also, it does connect to this “love conquers all” idea because there’s this thread of love even conquers time. That quote that Marina said, “Time is carrying us to destroy us after all, except he who deserves remembrance for it will keep him in its memory.” This idea that maybe you live on through the memory of other people versus through the afterlife, like would be more implied in a religious conversation about this play, that you live on through memory instead.

And then there’s also this whole love conquers all segment of it that you live on through love and that love transcends time and place. And that Prisca loves Michelenia because her ancestor three hundred years ago loved him so much that love kind of shot through time, and it conquered time, and it therefore, almost conquers mortality. So there’s obviously kind of almost, again this opposite lesson when it comes to this particular theme in the play, versus in the religious story.

Marina: And that’s something to note too. In Orthodoxy, when someone dies, we say, “Memory eternal.” Like, “May their memory be eternal.” And that’s another way of praying that the soul has entered Heaven and enjoys eternal life because the memory we’re talking about is God’s memory. And here it really feels like we’re talking about human memory. And so just looking at how the emphasis is placed on the human here and now.

Nabra: And in that vein, there are just a lot of secular aspects to the play. And so I was thinking really about why does Al-Hakim want to tell this story? Why did he write this play in the way that he wrote it with these particular lessons that we’re talking about? And I think it’s because he’s actually questioning or criticizing the morals presented in the religious verses and stories. He seems to critique the religious story, showing the people of the cave distressed at their lot after returning to their village with their family and friends all dead, and they’re faced with a brand-new world that they don’t belong in. There’s a lot of dark comedy infused into their exchanges in the city with the modern people, but the overall distress of their situation even leads Marnush to lose his faith at the end. And al-Hakim leans into an almost secular humanist point of view with his “love conquers all” lesson at the end—that we really rely on other people. We need to rely on love between other people or our memory being continued by the people around us, versus relying on and leaning on God.

So why did he do this? I wondered that, and we found this quote from “The Theology of Tawfiq al-Hakim” by William Hutchins. He says,

According to Tawfiq al-Hakim, Islamic religion needs Islamic philosophy to flourish. Pure science is an alternative form of religion. Free thought is not merely the right of each human being, it is his duty. The true miracles of Islam then, are God’s laws of nature, and second, the human intellect which can make progress in understanding God’s laws.

So if that’s true that al-Hakim believed in that, it really makes sense that he would potentially believe that writing this play, and going deeper into an analysis of Sura Ahl al-Kahf, the People of the Cave is kind of an expression of his interpretation of Islam and of his religion. That that element of free thought and digging deeper and bringing up new ideas and discussions from the religious text is part of how he interprets being a good Muslim. However, that’s not necessarily how every Muslim feels about that. And we’ll talk a little bit more about the kind of Qur’anic adaptations into art that have happened outside of this particular play, but it’s not necessarily accepted that you can critique the religion in that way, that’s really taking a verse and diving into it so deeply in this way or even presenting a different lesson.

But it’s also part of, at the same time, the legacy of Muslim scholarship that there’s a very long history of Muslims creating new scholarship and creating new ideas about science and religion and philosophy. So there’s different ways of approaching how one might feel about that, but definitely no specific kind of decree by Islam whether it’s okay to do this or not. It’s super interesting to see al-Hakim’s idea perhaps, or approach. And so, this play may be a reflection essentially of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s interpretation of the religion as a practicing Muslim, or it might be a criticism of the religion he grew up in.

Marina: And she says this as a Muslim playwright who also writes plays that do interesting things that make people really ask questions like this. So it’s exciting. So by all accounts, though, of course Tawfiq Al-Hakim was Muslim, but there’s a lot to unpack with this story. And also what does it mean to be a religion, right? One place that we found some of these things to unpack was in the William M. Hutchins article that Nabra had mentioned, “The Theology of Tawfiq al-Hakim.” In that article, Hutchins focuses on the theology of his work, but not on Hakim’s personal religious opinions.

Hutchins reports that, “Many have wanted to label al-Hakim’s work as secular, even though there are overt Islamic overtones in his writing.” And I quote:

That there is any theology at all expressed in al-Hakim’s literary works would be contested by secular, mainly non-Muslim scholars who’ve wished to dismiss the religious or theological content of al-Hakim’s works as, at most, some vague form of non-Muslim spirituality. This position has become increasingly untenable in recent years as al-Hakim’s devoted book after book to theology of an overtly Islamic kind. It seems plain and retrospect that al-Hakim consistently sought to express certain Islamic spiritual ideals in his work. To deny this aspect of his literary works is in my opinion, to misunderstand them. To recognize the ideas expressed, but deny that they’re Islamic would be to limit Islam to rigid fundamentalism and to stereotype one of the world’s great religions.

And I love that Hutchins is bringing this up because often as Nabra and I are looking at archives, and they’re looking at what different people’s opinions are, there is often this western tradition of trying to wipe away things like Islam, or even Christianity in different aspects, but to wipe away things that are considered religious. And I think that they’re sort of sterilizing things almost to make them more palatable, or to free someone like al-Hakim from what they’re seeing as Orientalist problems. But actually, it’s an Orientalist mind view, like a frame of mind to have to try to make someone more palatable to a Western audience, instead of really just digging into what’s there and using what al-Hakim himself has written about his own work.

Nabra: Exactly. Absolutely. And I think it’s an element of flattening Islam to thinking that it can’t be so multidimensional to have all of these complex opinions from within the confines or within the parameters of Islam. It’s clear that Tawfiq al-Hakim is using Islamic theology in this particular play, and I’m interested to see how that might be more subtle in his other plays, but this play, he’s absolutely using them, for sure. But what Hutchins doesn’t point out is that he might be using them as a criticism instead of a reinforcement or an expression of his spirituality. He might actually be bringing in a secular point of view as well. And honestly, my opinion about it’s that he’s criticizing it, because the lessons are so different from what’s in the Qur’an. So it must be viewed as something other than a religious imagining of this story, in my opinion.

Marina: Al-Hakim is also known to have used satire in his work to critique different political situations, like in his play The Sultan’s Dilemma where he’s indirectly critiquing the government. This play could be another example of using satire and setting a piece in a different time and place to make a comment on the here and now, rather than the there and then, which is common in different times, especially depending on what the government is willing to listen to from artists.

Nabra: So to go back to this idea more generally about interpreting the Qur’an into art. It’s important to have a little bit of context behind this because I’ve never heard any other adaptations of the Qur’an in any art medium before this. And in my opinion, an adaptation of the Qur’an would probably tread muddy waters, regardless of the point of view it’s bringing into the art, because the Qur’an is considered the direct and untranslated word of God. So it seems weird for someone to elaborate on that in any way. With such a short story, however, like People of the Cave, that has so few details in the Qur’an itself, naturally people think up details when hearing it, especially when we hear it a lot, at least in my experience. So this play does help to humanize the story and kind of better understand the People of the Cave through our imaginations. But I would think that an adaptation of a holy text by a follower of that religion would seek to reinforce the original lessons of the story, but that obviously does not seem to be the case in this play.

There’s also a bit to be said about rules around idol worship, in that we’re not allowed to depict any prophets or anything like that ever in Islam. And if you go into a mosque, you’ll see a lot of beautiful calligraphy, you’ll find these beautiful, and incredible geometric patterns and different ways to adorn the mosque itself, but never any images of people or animals. And that’s because it’s a caution against idol worship, that if there was any kind of holy image of a holy figure or an animal or anything, it could lead to worshiping that image itself almost like a deity. And so, with the People of the Cave, the story, the people are just regular people, but it’s interesting that in the play they’re referred to as “saints,” which again, we would not in Islam want to portray any saints, holy figures, that could lead to worshiping of them as deities or next to God. And if you think about perhaps if there were promotional materials around this play, like posters, could that be seen as blasphemous depicting these holy people, even though they’re not particularly prophets?

Marina: And this is definitely different in Eastern Orthodox Christianity where we would definitely refer to them as “saints” because that’s how they’re commemorated, and they’re actually commemorated in October, saints in the Orthodox Church. So we also have icons in Orthodoxy. And so that’s where we would venerate an icon that’s the image of a saint. We’re not worshiping the icon, but we venerating the saint who’s created in the image of God and praying for them to intercede to God for us. So that’s just one difference.

Nabra: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s definitely the most strict in Islam, and it’s not that big of a deal again in People of the Cave, but it’s worth noting for sure. But in fact, there are actually two TV shows that we found about the people of the Cave. One of them is called, Musalsil Ahl El Kahf [Series of People of the Cave]m and one of them is called Ashab El Kahf [People/Owners of the Cave], and the latter is a 1997 Persian TV show, which takes place in Rome, and in the play the people of the cave are specifically Christians. So it’s interesting that there are some parallels in other adaptations that we later found out about of this particular story. And there’s also a precedent for portraying holy people who are not prophets in The Message, which is a film directed by Mustafa Akkad in 1976, which did not portray the Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu alayhi wa-salla), but did have actors playing several significant people like his wife and future khalifs.

Regardless of all that, this play is an adaptation of a classical text, which is the Qur’an. And so in that way, regardless of its motives or its eventual lessons, it does hold a significant place in the MENA canon.

Marina: Okay, so let’s talk about the MENA canon. One thing to note is it’s really hard to get your hands on this play in English. In the book, The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim, which I have on my shelf, it contains four plays, at least two of which are short, and there’s an excerpt from his novel and his autobiography, and then three short stories. I was able to find a few other pieces of his, like King Oedipus, which is in a book of four Arab Oedipus plays. But I couldn’t find the ones I really wanted to read, like People of the Cave, Scheherazade, and Pygmalion. So Stanford and its library has People of the Cave in Arabic, which reading is not that fulfilling for me yet, I would say in Arabic, especially in this very classical style, which is just difficult. And the font it’s in is very hard to read. Imagine you were reading a Shakespearean text and everything is the curliest version of itself, and there’s words you just don’t recognize, and I couldn’t find it anywhere in English. So I was looking everywhere, and there were no results coming up, and I truly felt gaslit by Google and all the other searches I was doing.

So, I finally reached out to a translator I know who teaches at AUC, the American University of Cairo, and she told me that Mahmoud El-Lozy had translated it. Amazing. So, I was finally able to type in, “Mahmoud El-Lozy” as a translator and search results kept popping up, but I still couldn’t access the play, but at least I was seeing that it existed. So I felt like, “Okay, I’m reassured by this.” And finally, I was able to get it through interlibrary loan, except that it was not the play by Mahmoud El-Lozy, like, that was translated by him. It was a hand typed book, which was someone’s thesis at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, and his name was Abder­Rahim Abu­Swailem, which was great, and I enjoyed reading this immensely, but I was still on the hunt for the Mahmoud El-Lozy translation, which I finally got because a friend in Jordan was able to get it for me, and he got it to me this year. So the first version of this podcast would not have included the adaptation by Mahmoud El-Lozy. Mahmoud El-Lozy has since passed away, but very grateful for his contributions there. Allah yerhamu.

Nabra: You say that there’s a way that you usually traditionally say that in Eastern Orthodoxy?

Marina: Yes. “May his memory be eternal.”

Nabra: There we go. Aww. And that whole thing though is such a wild story. When she first told me that, I was just amazed at the whole journey to find one script. So I guess I should respect her desires to re-record this. I’m coming around to it by the end of this recording, after months of fighting.

Marina: Yes, but very grateful to my friend Maen for his help with the play. Shukran.

Learning about what has come before helps us learn about where we are, and there’s this kind of lineage to see where we come from and how we understand cultural exchange has happened, as well as how some of that was forced with imperialism and colonialism.

Nabra: At the same time, I mean, even though it was such a wild story, such a wild ride, a part of me also wasn’t too surprised to hear that it was super hard to find. And there are a few reasons for that. First of all, like you know, theatre is just really integral to Arab society, and it’s been, throughout our history, a really important part of a lot of our cultures, and countries, and societies. And it’s really responsive. It’s about commenting on our present circumstances, whether that be political or reflecting on our situation as people. And it’s really theatre of, and for, and by the people and for the moment. And so I don’t know if there’s really a lot throughout history of archiving of plays or even a desire to archive plays because they’re talking about the people, having discussions, analyzing the world around you right now, and it’s much more natural than the way that we consume theatre in the US, usually, for instance, where it’s a whole event and you kind of have to plan it in advance. Theatre is essential to the way that we discuss our present circumstances in much of the Arab world, and that’s been true throughout history.

There’s also a bit of a lack of infrastructure in preserving theatre, specifically. I think about the place to go find, especially, plays translated into English would be the American University of Cairo. But AUC is really internationally known specifically for its archeology department, and of course it’s Arabic languages department, instead of theatre department or its art departments, which, it’s absolutely flourishing. The theatre at AUC is amazing. It’s a great department, but again, the work they do is really responsive. It’s more grassroots. It’s for local audiences, and that’s exciting. But I wonder whether the same amount of money and resources that’s put into preserving these other departments work, the archeology work, of course, especially, is put into archiving within the theatre department. Especially in the 1930s when this play would’ve been written down and translated.

But then of course, there’s the point about censorship. The reason this play may have been so hard to find is that, even though it’s secular and even possibly anti-religious themes are very subtle, Tawfiq al-Hakim could have still wanted to keep this out of popular distribution, or it could have been purposefully kept out of popular distribution. It may have been a very controversial play to see at the time. The way that he criticizes this religious story is subtle enough to be performable in the Muslim world, but it’s still clear enough to possibly be prosecuted or banned if widely available. So self-censorship, or of course, forced censorship by the government or religious authorities may have been a reason for the lack of availability and access to a lot of ways like this one, since often theatre is used as a tool of resistance and to share controversial ideas.

Marina: Yeah, and sometimes I wonder, is any of this because of the time that Tawfiq al-Hakim spent in France. He really wanted to establish the Egyptian theatre scene, and I wonder if he wanted the play to be distributed. But maybe it wasn’t translated in English sooner, and maybe that’s a reason that there was difficulty. We know that even when Mahmoud El-Lozy, who’s a well-known translator, had translated, I still couldn’t find it in the States. So there’s this idea that maybe the West is so insular and only interested in things that are being produced by major producing bodies, and plays still have a certain credence if they’re done on Broadway, Off-Broadway, et cetera. So yeah, there’s this idea of the theatre canon, and the canon and how it’s formed is sort of this elusive thing. But because it’s been formed in a way that’s now repeated by the way that people teach it, they teach it the way that’s been taught to them, but also it’s seen as reputable, and so the canon is sort of seen as the thing that people have put time into preserving. So it can be hard for a play like People of the Cave to sneak in, especially because it brings up things that deal with multiple religions, and that may be something that people aren’t taught how to teach or how to deal with.

In that vein, there’s been a big push in many places to decolonize—you know, decolonize pedagogy, decolonize their syllabi—which is great. However, like I mentioned, I found that people who teach world theatre history often teach it like they were taught, meaning it starts with the Greeks, it skips to Shakespeare, and then they hang out in Europe for a bit. So if you’re lucky, sometimes they’ll hit Asia, usually China or Japan, and usually only one or two styles of theatre there. And this lineage even misses the Romans, which can really help you connect some of the dots. So you’ll notice that we’re entirely missing Africa in that description, the Middle East, Latin America, so many places.

And so this has us asking the question, “Why study theatre history?” Well, one of the reasons is learning about what has come before helps us learn about where we are, and there’s this kind of lineage to see where we come from and how we understand cultural exchange has happened, as well as how some of that was forced with imperialism and colonialism. And through that, we gain a better understanding of the world this way. Remember from earlier I talked about how one of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s goals was to not merely take a story from the noble book and said it in dramatic form, but rather to look at Islamic mythology with the eyes of a Greek tragedy and bring about a fusion of the two mentalities in literature, the way that the Greeks have always done this and are seen as giants in world theatre history for that reason. And the Greeks connects us to Romans and so on.

So anyway, it’s really interesting to see that Hakim realizes his work is in conversation with these things, and he wants to be in that conversation with other places and times and pieces. So we lose a lot by not including him in this lineage. I mean, as I mentioned, some of the other plays he wrote were Scheherazade, Pygmalion, Oedipus. He adapted a lot of classics. And yeah, I think it’s worth taking him up in these ways because we have these different worldviews, and we can learn a lot about Middle Eastern cultural contexts through this. So we can’t decolonize the canon if we aren’t finding these plays and bringing them into the canon. And if we’re reading world theatre history, we have to ask what plays are we reading from the Middle East? If you’re not reading any, it’s not because they don’t exist. It’s because we don’t have access to them yet, or they haven’t made it onto that syllabus yet.

But now that we do have access to the El-Lozy translation, I want to add to this conversation a few things that Mahmoud El-Lozy, an Egyptian scholar and translator, wrote about People of the Cave. He wrote that this play uses an allegory in the Qur’an as, “A parable of the truth of the Final Resurrection, as well as of the illusionary nature of life on this Earth. The Qur’an gives no specific dates in places, but Edward Gibbons in the book, The Decline in Fall of the Roman Empire, which was published in 1776, uses two anonymous Syriac writers as his sources, and he places the period of their persecution as taking place during the Emperor Decius,” which we talked about in the Christian version.

And El-Lozy seems to think that al-Hakim was using both the Qur’an and the Gibbon’s account of the legend. The Qur’an’s story is really just the starting point of the play. And in El-Lozy’s words, it becomes a “metaphysically abstract, tragic romance that is in no way seen as a dramatization of the Qur’anic story,” which I think is fascinating because Nabra and I really feel like we’ve mined out these different versions of the Islamic and Christian stories here. So I wish that I could be in conversation with El-Lozy about this.

Nabra: And I think it’s bizarre for him to say that, in a way, because again, of what we’ve said about it’s very clearly the same story. It’s got that name. So yes, very curious as to what he means by that. But unfortunately, Allah yerhamu, we won’t be able to ask.

Marina: Yeah, but that’s where maybe what People of the Cave episode part two will come in at some point because we definitely, I don’t plan to stop thinking about this way anytime soon, especially because of this next information that’s in the foreword or the preface to El-Lozy’s translation. He said that this play was important in Egyptian drama because it was chosen as the opening production of the natural company in 1935 at the Opera House in Egypt, under the direction of Zaki Tulaymat. By all accounts, it was a resounding failure. And apparently in al-Hakim’s introduction to Pygmalion, he wrote about People of the Cave saying, “This work”—People of the Cave—“Is not fit for staging, or at least not fit for staging in the manner most people are accustomed to.” I mean, it was his first play. I feel like al-Hakim really needs to cut himself a break here.

Apparently over time though, he tried to make it seem like he never wrote the play with the intention of having it staged. And he said, “I create my theatre today from the minds, and I make the actors’ ideas that move into the realm of the absolute, wearing the garb of symbols.”

In 1960, People of the Cave, again, was staged in Egypt under the direction of Nabil Al Alfi. Fuad Duara was a drama critic at the time, and he said that the production was, “Intellectually, emotionally, and artistically entertaining,” and he rejected the apparently lasting consensus at the time that the play was a resounding failure. But he also recognizes that, “Its intellectual and abstract characteristics prevented from ever reaching a larger audience.” El-Lozy writes that this play that he translated with an eye to the stage, meaning that he wasn’t adhering to a strict, linguistically faithful translation, but he was trying to get as much of the intent and the meaning as he could out of the lines.

It is a great translation, and I really want to direct this play sometime soon. So if you are hiring, that would be great. Let me know.

I should also mention that there are different beliefs about where this cave was or is, actually. So there’s one site that was in what is now Turkey, and then there’s another in Jordan near Amman. And I actually got to visit the one in Amman last year. So I went with the vague hope that I could someday stage this play there, but it is right outside of a mosque, and seen as a very big religious site, and I had to be dressed as though I was entering a mosque to go there, meaning my hair was covered, etc. So I doubt that the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism would be really interested in my play, but maybe someday just at a different site.

Nabra: So if you are interested in either making some international trouble/scandals or alternately are perhaps one of the many, many, many US or Western theatres that are claimed to really, really love classic plays, this is a great option y’all, to stop doing only white writers. Congratulations. Here you go. And you even have a director.

Marina: Yes. Well, yeah. I was really hoping to do it in like a like… Palestinian older homes look sort of cave-ish. And so there’s one in the top of Beit Jala that I really wanted to use and do the play there. But given everything that’s happening right now, that does not feel like the appropriate play choice, but Inshallah someday.

Okay, so if you’ve made it this far, fifty-five minutes into the episode, thank you so much for joining us, for digging into this really exciting and important play. There are so many things that it brings to the table, and it was just so exciting to analyze it, and think through it together with Nabra and now with you as our intellectual interlocutor.

Nabra: And we’ll end with this; we need to make more of an effort to find and read these classical MENA and African plays because colonization and Eurocentrism has purposefully buried and disregarded our art. But going through the arduous process that Marina went through is part of the fight against these systemic forces that seek to erase and disempower our cultures.

Marina: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of Kunafa and Shay and other HowlRound podcasts by searching “HowlRound” wherever you find podcasts” If you loved this podcast, please post a rating and write a review on your platform of choice. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on the website. Have an idea for an exciting podcast essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit and contribute your ideas to the Commons. Yalla, bye!

Nabra: Yalla, bye.

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