Shakespeare in Baghdad

It has been nearly thirty years since I drove to Oxford to visit its celebrated university and pay tribute to Shakespeare’s mausoleum in Stratford-upon-Avon in the heart of England. I was greeted in what seemed unthinkable: “Hey Sheikh Zbair, how’d you do?”

It was really a surprise to me although I am well aware of the Iraqi myth alleging that William Shakespeare is an Iraqi from Zubair, an Iraqi city bordering Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This myth was disseminated by Iraqi scholar and poet Safa Khulusi, who did his Ph.D. at London University in the 1940’s and then settled in Oxford as Chair of Islamic Studies. Of course this funny theory was very popular among Iraqis from different walks of life, who loved Shakespeare through his plays and poems taught at high schools and colleges.

Similarly, when I first came to Duke in 2005, Bruce Lawrence, professor emeritus of religion, extended his hand to me at the John Hope Franklin Center and said: “Welcome Sheikh Zbair.” From that time I realized that the Iraqi myth had crossed the Atlantic and become a source of fun, if not laughter. To the Iraqis and Arabs, Old Will is perceived as a bringer of much delight and gladness to mankind and the only author read or staged everywhere. He is, as Harold Bloom, one of America’s leading critics, said, an international possession transcending nations, languages and professions. Through invention and originality Shakespeare has notched the highest popularity and survived migration from country to country.

Old Will always manifests himself as a force that continues to activate the potential of other languages, in terms of grammar, vocabulary, register, rhythm and tone. In Iraq, Shakespeare was received as the most popular playwright and poet who taught us how to understand the human nature. His plays were performed even in the Iraqi vernacular: Othello retrieved his Arabic name Utail, Iago was Arabized into Yaccoob and Romeo and Juliet took a new title, Martyrs of Love, to attract public attention and boost the box office.

Shakespeare’s unique fame is not a strike of luck, or the product of Bacon, Marlowe or the 17th Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere (1550-1604), the assumed candidates to be the real Shakespeare. Rather it is the product of the rarest cognitive power and prodigious love for language and the theater. In Iraq, Shakespeare’s works are regarded as the second Bible and the center of Western canon. He became a mandatory course in schools and universities alike. “To be or not to be,” “as you like it, ”and “that is the question,” were frequently cited, even by the illiterate. They are heaven’s gift, backed by thorough knowledge of the highest professionalism put into poetry and the dramatic art.

With a group of intellectuals and fans of Old Will, I formed Shakespeare Circle in the 1980s at the Alwiya Club, the most prestigious family club in Baghdad. We took a corner in the spacious halls that have witnessed many names of stature as Iraqis, Arabs and foreigners as diplomats from all countries could join the club, which was established by the British in the 1920s. It was at Alwiya that Ms. Gertrude Bell used to spend her evenings among the elite of the then Baghdadi secular society.

Every Tuesday evening we ordered our drinks and maza (nibbles) and occupied the corner to start our debates, updates and quizzes on the works of the greatest university, Shakespeare or, Sheikh Zbair. We quiz each other on words, phrases, characters and other odds, so one had to be well prepared for Tuesdays. If any one of our group failed to provide the right answer, he had to buy a round of beer, which meant many large bottles, as the small ones were not available. The bartender Abed, a Chaldean who spoke perfect English as well as other local languages, kept his eyes and ears on the group and their orders, waiting for a generous tip.

His ear detected us reviving Shakespeare’s double meaning or playing on words and learned how to deal with our cunning and tricky use of language. The word fish fell on his ears so when we ordered our dinner he simply jumped to say: “Don’t ask me about fish, go home.” He heard us one day quoting Shakespeare: ‘Woman is the fish of God’ and armed himself against our deceptive parlance. One day before wrapping up Tuesday’s evening I asked Abed for “one for the road,” or the last order before we left. Immediately one of my friends repeated this with a pat on my shoulder. Shakespeare used road in the sense of a loose woman, trodden down as Eric Partridge suggests in his Shakespeare’s Bawdy. Promptly I mobilized my Shakespearean memory and replied: “No wonder, you are from the Netherlands,” another Shakespearean bawdy.

These are some reminiscences from the salad days in Baghdad, the city of Shahrazad and her entertainments. Alas: The sparrows fled, The doves are dead, Tigris is no more singing to the star, It’s sweating oil and tar. Eliot’s Lilacs do not grow here, Native shrubs, fire and fear. Of things I half recall, I’m not drunk, Intoxicated(I), A floating, Super being (I). To the shoreless shore I tend, Not easy to comprehend.

Shakespeare survived the authorship controversies, and the unfortunately-named John Thomas Looney in “Shakespeare” identified in Edward De Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford tried only his bad luck and garnered carving criticism. Looney posited that de Vere secretly wrote Shakespeare’s canon while publicly involved in poetry and the theater. Looney didn’t explain why de Vere should have published inferior works under his own name and masterpieces under Shakespeare’s. The major objection to Looney by orthodox Shakespeareans is that de Vere died in 1604 and Shakespeare’s 14 greatest plays were written and staged after that date except The Tempest, which Looney simply held was inauthentic. Further to the shortcomings of his claim, Looney noticed that de Vere’s poem “women” was written in the same stanzaic form (ababcc) as Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593), which is Shakespeare’s fair copy, printed by Richard Field, son of a Stratford tanner. Field and Shakespeare were friends and the excellence of the printed text attests to the close cooperation on this quarto and the first edition of The Rape of Lucrece. The influence of Ovid is apparent in every line of the poem and Shakespeare paints many pictures of life as he had known it at Stratford. De Vere was violent and notorious, but Shakespeare, at least in his Sonnets, is lovesick; a patient speaking in iambic pentameter.

Abdul Sattar Jawad is a professor of comparative literature at Duke University. Previously, he was dean of the College of Arts at Al-Mustansiriya University, Baghdad.He was forced to leave Iraq in 2005.


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