Berliner Ensemble with Brecht Statue
Volume 1

Brecht’s Theatre and Social Change in Egypt (1954–71)

Brecht’s Theatre and Social Change in Egypt (1954–71)
by Magdi Youssef
 Arab StagesVolume 1, Number 1 (Fall 2014)
 ©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

In the Brecht International Dialogue, held in Berlin in 1968, it was noted that the majority of the 53 countries performing Brecht were situated outside Europe, namely in the Third World. The affinity between Brecht’s conception of the theatre and the struggle for liberation of the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America was obvious. Both in Vietnam[1] and the Middle East the success of Brecht’s reception corresponded to the social needs of the majority of the population. In this article, I shall try to interpret the interest in Brecht’s theatre and his epic theory of theatre in Egyptian society since the mid-fifties until 1971.

Without considering the fundamental social changes in Egypt that followed the Free Officers’ coup d’état of 1952, it would hardly be possible to explain the deep interest in Brecht’s works—for the first time in modern Egyptian history—shown by Egyptian left-wing intellectuals between 1954 and 1956 in the internment camp of Abu Za’bal in which President Nasser had imprisoned them.  Brecht’s plays and epic theory of theatre were the subject of extended readings and wide discussions in those camps.[2]

After Nasser’s rapprochement with Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union (1955–56), many of the interned members of left-wing democratic organizations were released, and most intellectuals among them were given jobs, or re-employed, in the Egyptian mass media.  The literary pages of daily newspapers, e.g. Al-Masa, and monthly reviews such as Ar-Risala Al-Gadida and Al-Magalla, consequently devoted articles to Brecht and his epic theatre.[3]

But soon came the clash between Nasser and the newly-united Egyptian Left, which led to the arrest of some hundreds of its leading members on January 1, 1959.  Two months later, many other members of the Egyptian Left were taken to internment camps.[4] In this official anti-Left atmosphere, it looked unlikely that Brecht, a left-wing thinker, could be an acceptable subject for the official mass media. However, in the beginning of 1960, a ten-minute introduction to Mother Courage was, in fact, read on the radio, but only under the title “International Theatre this Month.”[5]

Nothing else of significance on Brecht appeared in Egypt until 1962. It was in that year that Nasser announced the “Charter of National Action,” which had some scientific socialist tendencies. In the same year, Dr. Tharwat Okasha, the Minister of Culture at the time, was very impressed by a performance of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle by the Berliner Ensemble, which he happened to see in Paris. He then contacted Helene Weigel and asked her to send an expert in Brecht’s theatre to Cairo to collaborate with Egyptian directors in giving a performance of the same play. Kurt Veth, who was a disciple of Brecht and one of the directors of the Berliner Ensemble, and who had directed the Paris performance, was invited by Minister Okasha to visit Cairo in the same year. This visit played a major role in popularizing Brecht in Egypt and in deepening the understanding of him. Veth found that not only Egyptian actors, directors, and set-designers, but also writers, and journalists had a strong and genuine interest in Brecht’s theatre. He furthered this interest by giving them the full benefit of his own experiences with Brecht and with the Berliner Ensemble.

Obviously, a good translation of the Caucasian Chalk Circle into Arabic was necessary if this epic drama was to be put on in Egypt. But the translation by ‘Abd er-Rahman Badawi, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ein-Shams in Cairo, was not only too formal, and therefore unsuitable for performance, but also tried to dissociate Brecht’s ideology and political commitment from the artistic aspects of the play. In other words, the conservative landowner Badawi, whose property had been reduced by the land reform law passed by the Free Officers’ government, tried to deprive Brecht’s plays of their socialist element. But his translation was so inadequate that no actors could be persuaded to stage it. Saad Ardash, director of the National Theatre in Cairo, then asked Salah Gahin, the talented and popular Egyptian poet and artist, to prepare a new translation of the same play in collaboration with Kurt Veth. Veth and Gahin went through an English translation of the Caucasian Chalk Circle together, and Veth, with the help of his original German text, which had been personally recognized by Brecht himself, gave detailed criticism of it.  In the meantime, Nur al-Qadi played  the  Paul  Dessau  composition  for  the  play  on  the piano  for  Gahin  to  write  a  suitable  accompanying poetic text.  But Gahin quickly recognized that Dessau’s music does not appeal to the Egyptian ear.  After certain difficulties with Kurt Veth, who said that Helene Weigel would refuse any other composition than that of Dessau, Sayyed Makkawy, a very popular Egyptian musician, finally wrote a new composition for the Egyptian Caucasian Chalk Circle, after detailed discussions with Kurt Veth on his next visit to Cairo. It is interesting to note here that through the collaboration between Kurt Veth, Salah Gahin, and Sayyed Makkawy, Brecht’s original intentions were followed more closely in Egypt than in some performances of his own German text. Veth, in fact, had asked Sayyed Makkawy to compose one of the songs of this epic drama in such a way that it would fully capture the atmosphere of the everyday life of Egyptian peasant women yet to be married. It is the song which begins with

Geh du ruhig in die Schlacht, Soldat
Die blutige Schlacht, die bittere Schlacht
Aus der nicht jeder wiederkehrt:
Wenn du wiederkehrst, bin ich da
“Go to the Battle, soldier
The bitter bloody Battle
From which not every one returns:
When you return, I will be waiting for you.”

It was through the history of this song that Brecht’s real message was understood.  During the Second World War, a song appeared in the Soviet Union which was sung by women and girls about their men at the Front. Concerned that it could make the Soviet citizens of the time too sentimental, Stalin ordered its prohibition: however, women continued to sing it in secret. Brecht wrote the Caucasian Chalk Circle in 1944/45 in Santa Monica, California.  He worked on this song, altered it a little, to prevent being found out, so overwhelming was the Stalinism of the time, and he asked the composer to avoid the use of folk melody in its musical accompaniment. But now Kurt Veth, his loyal collaborator, asked both Gahin and Makkawy, in their version of the song, to restore the original folk mood, which Brecht had had to unwillingly suppress during the Stalinist era. As for Gahin’s translation of the Caucasian Chalk Circle he said: “I want to use colloquial Egyptian-Arabic words such as Brecht himself would have done.”[6] But his translation turned out simultaneously Egyptian and Brechtian at one and the same time.  How? He translated the songs of the individual characters of the play in such a way as to reflect the specifically Egyptian traditions of popular folk melody.  These poetic translations of the individual songs into colloquial Egyptian had a rhyme at the end of each verse, and they were full of concrete details from everyday life.  But the narrator’s song on the other hand was translated by Gahin very austerely, without any metaphors or concrete details, and without any rhyme, so as to underline his narrative distance.

From 1962 onward, many Egyptian intellectuals, mainly writers and directors, visited Berlin and made a thorough study of Brecht’s theatre by following, sometimes for several weeks, the rehearsals of the Berliner Ensemble, and by having exhaustive discussions with Brecht’s disciples and collaborators. Consequently, throughout the sixties and into the early seventies, epic theatre (al-Masrah al-Malhami) was a recurring subject in the literary pages of the Egyptian press, as well as in many books.[7]

It is now time to ask: what is the main contribution of Brecht’s epic theatre to Egypt?  To answer this question, we have to outline the main trends of the development of Egyptian theatre since 1870, when Ya’qub Sannu performed an Arabic-speaking play for the first time in this country.[8]

In fact, Sannu tried to perform a local Egyptian version of Molière’s plays.  He was influenced by the commedia dell’arte, which had a strong impact on Molière himself.  Anxious to satisfy the audience, when they made any comments, Sannu from the wings invented on-the-spot answers which he transmitted through the actors, like a kind of impromptu author.  In fact the public was attentively critical and often demanded certain changes in the roles, so that each performance of the same play had something really new each evening. This trend continued on the Egyptian stage even after Sannu decided to devote himself to the press and finally left for France.  Unfortunately, in the first decades of this century, the Egyptian theatre suffered from a rigid academic influence, for some Egyptian actors and directors were sent by the Egyptian government, or went at their own expense, to France and Italy to study in the drama academies there.  On their return, they tried to transfer the European experience they had acquired onto the Egyptian stage.  But as a result of strict adherence to the written text, they completely stifled the lively tradition of popular Egyptian theatre, which depended on close interaction between actors and audience. No wonder that their performances led to a relative loss of interest in drama in Egypt[9], where the original free stage traditions, however, were carried on in the local popular “recreations.”  Theatre, as such, became full of identification and melodramatic heroism. Obviously, set design and stage lighting, along with the actual construction of the plays, tried their best to help this psychological illusion.

Progressive Egyptian intellectuals finally got fed up with this sort of theatre which was primarily associated with the aristocracy, now diminishing. In the fifties we saw directors like Hamdi Ghayth, who used sets very sparingly and illustrated their illusionary character to the audience by saying that he could hold them in his hand and shake them. This happened in the early fifties, when the whole structure of Egyptian society itself was shaking.

In fact, Brecht’s plays, and in particular his theory of theatre, were exactly the right subjects to help Egyptians rediscover Egypt’s suppressed tradition of popular theatre, and for modifying their original objectives to suit the new social and aesthetic needs of the 1950s.

Drums in the Night, one of the first of Brecht’s plays performed by a national ensemble in Cairo, was commented on in the daily Akhbar al-Yaum of April 22, 1966, with the following quotation from Brecht as a heading: “Drama is no longer concerned with a man’s individual destiny, but with his generation. The destiny of a generation is the new leading subject of drama.”

On the same literary page of the same paper and on the same date, we find an article on a successful performance of Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule on the stage of the thousand-year-old Al-Azhar University in Cairo: “It is a marvelous thing to see the University of Al-Azhar widening its horizon for theatre, and its theatre for Brecht!!” Such a comment reminds us that Al-Azhar had always been strictly tied to conservative Islamic traditions which considered theatre as an heretical activity by human beings, who, as slaves of God in the Islamic belief, are not allowed to imitate other beings created by God. What then brought about this significant change? We cannot find any solid reason except in the reform of the Al-Azhar University in the academic year 1955–56, when secularized sciences were substantially added to the theological disciplines of this university, drawing it more into harmony with the realities of the twentieth century. It should not be forgotten that Brecht’s play was performed on the stage of the newly established Faculty of Agriculture. The whole transformation of Egyptian society and ideology of the time, legitimized before all through the Nasser government’s Charter of National Action (1961), was in fact, the background to all this.

But what about the Egyptian countryside? A performance of Brecht’s Puntila and His Man Matti, adapted to fit into the new social relations developing in Egypt after the 1952 land reform law and the abolition of large-scale land ownership, was produced in 1971 by a talented young author, Yusri el-Gindi, in Domyat (Damiette), a small provincial town of artisans on the northern side of the Nile Delta. He gave Puntila a new Egyptian title, Baghl al-Baladiyya (The Mule of the County Council) and changed its originally feudal background to the new post-feudal setting of the Egyptian countryside. This adaptation roused severe criticism from the officials of the “Socialist Union” at the time in Domyat, who regarded it as agitating for struggle between the classes.

In the play, the main character becomes a member of the “Socialist Union,” after having his landed property reduced by the land-reform law. The Egyptian “Puntila” (whose name is al-Abasiri) takes to drinking wine and becomes under its influence very much a “Socialist”! But when he is sober, he immediately returns to his original class adherence, with all its opposition to the interests of the poor majority. This play was performed for twenty-two evenings in Domyat, then moved to Az-Zagazig, a small provincial town in the middle of the Delta, and lastly to Bani Suwef, south of Cairo, where its performance was stopped by the “Socialist Union” of the time.

In the same year a new Egyptian adaptation of the same play was prepared for television by another writer: Magid Tobya. It was broadcast twice by Cairo television under the title: Es-Sayyed Sa’ad-Allah wa-tabi’uh Nagati (The Master Sa’ad-Allah and His Valet Nagati). The same television production was ordered by Syria, where Brecht was one of the most popular non-Arab authors. But Egypt is not the only Arab country where Puntila and His Man Matti has been adapted to the local dialect and to local problems. In Tunisia, for example, an amateur ensemble performed it in the province Le Kef under Munsif Suissi, a young Tunisian director in the early seventies considered to favor Brecht.  Predictably, though, his translation of the play into Tunisian-Arabic dialect was controlled by the official censorship, which did not allow him to replace the Finnish names of the original play with Tunisian ones.  Nor were the set designs allowed to reflect local character; they had to be as Finnish as possible. Anyone who knows about property structures, especially in the agricultural sector of Tunisia at the time, would not find this a “strange” measure. However, for the critical intelligentsia in Tunisia in the period, Brecht presented a completely new world-horizon, liberating them from the one-sided French cultural background that carried on in their country from the era of colonial rule.[10] Because of their potential to sharpen the perceptions of ordinary people, Brecht could prove, at least in the eyes of the landowners, an element of social instability. This situation well reflects Brecht’s evaluation of his own effectiveness, when he says:  “Ich vermochte nur wenig. Aber die Herrschenden saßen ohne mich sicherer, das hoffte ich.[11] (“I was able to accomplish only a little, yet still I hoped that those who are the masters would thereafter hegemonies with less calm.”)

The play of Brecht that had the greatest public success was an Egyptian adaptation of Lucullus, prepared for the “Voice of the Arabs” channel of Radio Cairo by the late gifted Egyptian poet and artist Salah Gahin, which was first broadcast on June 5, 1970, in commemoration of the outbreak of the third Arab-Israeli war in June, 1967. Gahin changed Lucullus into Luksullus—referring to President Nixon—and altered the setting from ancient Rome to the U.S.A., thus referring to American support for Israel. Meanwhile he had a children’s chorus to represent the children of the school of “Bahr al-Baqar” who had been bombed, shortly before, by Israeli napalm from U.S. Phantom jets. The great popularity of this radio play caused it to be repeated many times, and individual songs from the play were also frequently broadcast. The opera soprano Manar Abu Hef, the wife of the well-known Egyptian swimmer, sang many songs accompanied by highly artistic and parodic music.

But Lucullus-Luksullus was not the first play of Brecht to gain a role in Middle Eastern conflicts. Already, in 1962, an amateur ensemble of young officials from the central administration of post services in Cairo staged, in memory of the tripartite aggression on Port Said in 1956, Mother Carrar’s Rifles. Kurt Veth was among the spectators, and he voiced satisfaction with the committed performance as having reflected the conception of his master, even though it was, formally speaking, loaded with emotions.

But the rational reflection recommended by Brecht for his committed spectators has nothing to do with “pure Rationalism.”  It is rather a pedagogical instrument to help transmit scientific knowledge of the reality of the oppressed in their social relationships outside the theatre by means of a dialectic process of learning. Thus, Brecht contributes in a highly enlightening way to unveil illusions that handicap the masses. Rational cognition is, according to him, nothing but a channel to emancipate creative emotions.

Magdi Youssef initiated a program of contemporary Arabic literature and culture at Cologne University after intensive debates with German Orientalists still focused exclusively on Classical studies (in 1962–65). Youssef taught the program from a comparative perspective from 1965 to 1971. Since 1971, he has taught this subject at Bochum University, focusing on modern Euro-Arab socio-cultural interactions. From 1983 to 1984, he taught methodology of research at the Institute of Art Criticism of Cairo’s Art Academy, subsequently Drama Studies and Comparative Literature at the Faculty of Arts (for more than twenty years), and for three years methodology of research at the Faculty of Mass Communication of Cairo University. Youssef was a visiting Professor at Trinity College Dublin in 2000 and Bonn University in 2009. He is currently a research fellow at the International Research Center for Interweaving Performance Cultures,  Free University Berlin. Youssef’s works have been published in six European languages and Arabic. His epistemological critique of Euro-Western-Centrism was  influential in Italy and became part of the curriculum of La Sapienza University (Rome). His book Brecht in Aegypten: Versuch einer literatursoziologischen Deutung (The Reception of Brecht’s Theater in Egypt: A socio-literary approach), Bochum 1976, refuted eurocentrism two years before Edward Said’s Orientalism did, and was reviewed fifteen years in a row until 1990 in Germany, France, Canada, and the USA.
For more information:

[1] Nguyen Dinh Quqng. “Wie hilft Brecht dem vietnamesischen Theater” in Kurbiskern, 2/73, 376 ff.

[2] Two short stories by Bertolt Brecht, along with other stories by Anna Seghers, Remarque and some other German left-wing thinkers were collected and translated by the interned left-wing members and edited by their colleague Ibrahim ‘Abdel-Halim in an anthology manuscript (now lost)- entitled  “German writers for Peace.”

[3] Also, a one and a quarter hour program was broadcast on Radio Cairo’s second (literary and cultural) channel shortly after its inauguration in 1957 about Brecht’s Life of Galileo and his theory of epic theatre.

[4] Cf. A. Abdel-Malek._Agypten: Militargesellschaft_ (ed. Suhrkamp, 1971), 178-80 and Jean Ziegler. Sociologie de la Nouvelle Afrique (Gallimard, 1964), pp. 333-35.

[5] This paper, which was presented by the author of the present essay, compared the play’s performance by the Berliner Ensemble with the commercial version put on Broadway, which totally distorted Brecht’s intentions.

[6] The data given here is quoted from the article about the Egyptian understanding of Brecht’s theatre: cf. note 7.  For more details I have to thank both Mr Kurt Veth and the late Mr Gahin (he died in the 1980s) for the information they so generously gave me on the subject.

[7] A mere numerical record of the relative frequency of references to Brecht in the literary pages of Egyptian newspapers, reviews and books would not, in my opinion, give a correct evaluation of his real success. Some representative examples would do it better.  a) all the drama articles of the December 1968 number of the monthly _Magallat al-Masrah was-Sinima_ (The Theatre and Cinema Magazine) were devoted to Brecht and included extensive interviews with actors, directors, a stage designer and a Brecht translator on the subject “al-Isti‘ab al-Misri li-Masrah Brecht” (“The Understanding of Brecht’s Theatre in Egypt”).  b) An article published in January 13, 1967 in the literary supplement of the daily al-Ahram dealing with Peter Weiss’s Marat-Sade play, was entitled “Brecht al-Jadid” (“The New Brecht”).  c) When Helene Weigel died, the same newspaper (al-Ahram) published on June 18, 1971 an article under the following title: “Qiddisat al-Masrah wa Shahidatuhu” (“The Saint and Martyr of the theatre”).  d) In his literary review of the play by the Egyptian writer Alfred Farag  entitled  ‘Ali Ganah al-Tabrizi wa tabi’uh Quffa (‘Ali Ganah  al-Tabrizi and his valet Quffa), Dr Ali ar-Ra’i, a well-known Egyptian literary critic and former professor of English literature at the University of Ein Shams in Cairo, writes in the weekly Rose al-Youssef of March 1, 1971 that Farag was inspired in this play by Brecht’s Puntila_ (though the Egyptian play deals with a dualist theme out of the 1001 Nights). In a very interesting chapter of his book Hiwar fil-Masrah (A Dialogue On Theatre), the poet and playwright Nagib Surur defends himself against a critic who did not recognize the Brechtian epic elements in the chorus in his play Ah Ya Layl, Ah Ya Qamar_ (Oh Night, Oh Moon ).

[8] About Sannu’s theatre in Egypt, see Yusuf  Nagm, al-Masrahiyya fil-Adab al-‘Arabi al-Hadith (Dar Bayrut, 1965), 77-93. Cf. also the edition of the plays of Sannu in Egypt by the same author in Ya‘qub Sannu (Beirut: Dar al-Thaqafa, 1963). Nor should the important contribution by Anouar Luqa,  “Masrah Ya‘qub Sannu” in al-Magalla of 1961 (the special theatre number) be overlooked. The sociological analysis of Sannu’s theatre in Egypt given by Anouar Abdel-Malek in his book Ideologie et Renaissance nationale: l’Egypte moderne _ pp. 315-32 is interesting, although I find that Abdel-Malek based his analysis only on the content of Sannu’s plays.  Thereby he completely neglected the form of impromptu popular Egyptian authorship which relied on interaction and dialogue between stage and public, even after Sannu’s theatre ceased in 1872.

[9] The word “drama” is associated in the Egyptian public imagination with lofty tragedy as a result of the imported tragic drama whose rules were strictly followed by the above-mentioned “modern directors”.

[10] Cf. _Al-‘Amal Al-Thaqafi_ of February 4, 1972, pp. 8-9 with title photo of Mother Courage and also the interview given by Magdi Youssef in Al-‘Amal Al-Thaqafi of March 3, 1972 on “How did the Arab World receive Brecht’s theatre?”

[11] It is interesting to note that Hans Mayer in his book Brecht in der Geschichte (Brecht in History: Bibliothek Suhrkamp. 1971 p. 203) presents the opposite point of view without limiting his hypothesis to the West. In his reception study, the so-called ‘Third World Countries’ do not exist.


Arab Stages
Volume 1, Number 1 (Fall 2014)
©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Hazem Azmy, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Joy Arab

Table of Content

  • Brecht’s Theatre and Social Change in Egypt (1954-71) by Magdi Youssef
  • Re-orienting Orientalism: from Shafik Gabr’s “What Orientalist Painters Can Teach Us about the Art of East –West Dialogue” to Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced by Fawzia Afzal-Khan
  • ‘Now I will believe that there are unicorns’: The Improbable History of Shakespeare in Yemen by Katherine Hennessey
  • Radhouane El Meddeb’s Experiments With Gender: In Search of New Bodies by Omar Fertat
  • Coptic Christian Theatre in Egypt: Negotiations Between The Minority and The Majority by Mohammed Musad
  • A New Perspective on Mikhail Ruman’s Smoke in A President of His own Republic? by Anwaar Abdelkhalik Abdalla
  • Kheireddine Lardjam, Traveller Between Two Shores by Marina Da Silva
  • Where Theatre has failed Syrians by Rolf C. Hemke
  • The Arab Aristophanes by Marvin Carlson


  • Solitaire by Dalia Baisouny
  • The Imam and the Homosexual by Jamil Khoury


  • Struggling Against Insurmountable Odds: Theatre in the Arab World/Theater im Arabischen Sprachraum A Book Review by Michael Malek Najjar


  • Malumat: Resources for Research, Writing/Publishing, Teaching, & Performing Arts compiled by Kate C. Wilson

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

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