Macbeth : Leïla and Ben – A Bloody History ©Lotfi Achour
Volume 2

A Dramatic Anticipation of the Arab Spring and a Dramatic Reflection Upon It

A Dramatic Anticipation of the Arab Spring
and a Dramatic Reflection Upon It
by Eiman Tunsi
 Arab StagesVolume 1, Number 2 (Spring 2015)
 ©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

This study aims to pursue both the anticipation of the Arab Spring in an important modern Egyptian drama and a reflection upon it in a more recent drama from Tunisia.  Long before the uprising in Tunisia, the Arab Spring was anticipated in the Egyptian drama Belle in the Prison of Socrates.  Created by a scholar of classics, Ahmed Etman (1945–2013), the play was first written in 1987, revised in 2001, and printed in 2004 with almost no modifications. The play was translated into English by Professor Fawzia El-Sadr and published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2008.   In the wake of the Arab Spring a reflecting upon it was created in Tunisia.  This was Macbeth: Leïla & Ben—A Bloody History, staged in the 2012 International Theatre Festival in Carthage by a French-Tunisian theatre group. Its successive performances in Tunisia, Sao Paolo, and Paris offered a view of the political and economic suppression which led to the uprising of Tunisian youth in 2010.

This study seeks to draw attention to the causes of the Arab Spring suggested in Socrates and developed in Leïla and Ben. The span of time between the birth of the Egyptian play and the staging of the Tunisian play covers the period of oppression of the thirty years before the January 14 Revolution in Tunisia. This paper will focus upon certain aspects of the relationship between youth and power which led to the revolution of the youths in the Arab World.  In the two plays selected for this study, Socrates has been charged, in the first, with corrupting the young while, in the second,  the Arabic Macbeth has suppressed the youth of the nation.

Though some have suggestion that nobody saw an uprising coming, Etman in fact anticipated youth protests and dramatized them in his play. He presented the Athenian youth moving in revolt toward a meeting place which strongly suggests Tahrir Square in the 25 January revolution. The youth rebellion in Socrates is a reaction to imprisonment of Socrates, the enlightened professor.  Street demonstrations are launched by young aristocrats gathering to free Socrates. Their protest against the teacher’s trial is articulated in the play by two questions. First, why would young Athenians “forsake life’s pleasures and temptations, only to surround this pale-faced . . . bare-feet” Socrates? (70. All quotations are from the 2008 English translation) Another question is why would youthful citizens set off to walk in demonstrations at “the public meeting place . . . and in the streets of Athens?” The Chief of the Guards tells the imprisoned Socrates that “citizens grouped and walked in rows . . . calling for your release. And they went to Areopagus Court where you were trialed, and burned it.”   The Athenian citizens defied the accusations against Socrates, they “totally lost their senses” and “burst in chaotic anger,” crying vehemently that “the death sentence on Socrates was basically wrong” (85).

In Socrates the intellectual freedom and self-fulfillment provides great inspiration for Democratos and other young aristocrats. They would follow the philosophical debates held by Socrates in order to rationalize their existence and being. Through meditation and dialogue with Socrates, they learned to ponder, examine, challenge, doubt the validity of false claims, analyze evidence, and finally formulate an opinion. While they are encouraged by Socrates to think and decipher the unintelligible, the youth are condemned within family and ruling circles. For example, Democratia’s son and his peers have been condemned by Andocides as “worthy of annihilation.”  They are a generation “brought up and fed on Socrates’ words,” and therefore considered lost and dirty hypocrites (69).

However, these young fellows receive Socrates’ respect and assistance. He endorses in them the search for one’s true self. They come to his door and call upon him:

Voice 1: Our professor . . . Socrates.
Voice 2: Come out to us, professor.
Voice 3: Why are you late today, without you we can’t live.
Voice 4: We are afraid to come in . . . you come out . . .  (14)

For that reason, Socrates’ death means to his students the silencing of the mind. They appreciate his “method of examination and clarification” to reach “confirmation through meditation and dialogue” (15).

With the help of such a method, Socrates is able to validate the state’s democratic claims that  “every citizen is free, young or old, rich or poor, with sight or blind . . .  all are equal” (26).  Regarding the rigging of elections, Socrates asks Democratia, the head of the state, “Does this mean that you yourself came to the rule by forged elections?”  Democratia reacts nervously, sweating and wiping “her forehead with a handkerchief, ignoring Socrates’ words,” and staggering, then “pulling  herself together” and addressing the public, “My dear people, you are the best to defend democracy from her enemies” (27).

The Egyptian Socrates argues that the corruption in the government of Democratia is not confined to falsifying the elections but it also extends to the abuse of her political power along with her “illegal earnings.” He charges that her “relatives exploit the state’s possessions and monopolize some of the concessions like arms, land, and commerce in agricultural products, and local industrial and imported products.” Democratia replies that commerce is allowed for the ruler and the ruled alike.  Yet, according to Socrates, she would sometimes import rotten food to sell to the public (28).   He also blames Democratia for misleading the people, cheating them with sweet talk, and promising them prosperity. To her inquiry regarding his ability to lead a nation, Socrates states that he cannot do like other politicians who lie, deceive, act, flatter, change faces, or maneuver. Likewise, he avoids false claims of democracy always found in those wavering, crooked, interconnected, interwoven, changeable lines of politicians. He proceeds to discuss Democratia’s types of “demagogism.”  And even though she requests him to join her government, he declares that votes go only for famous, rich, hypocritical, or eloquent people (30). Etman’s Socrates, who is always observed with his students in constant contemplation on air and space, in long walks, and in negligence of worldly matters, refuses Democratia’s offer. He notes that “the glamor of the throne of authority is quite tempting,” and it thus might lead him to “become blind to the truth, not knowing when to quit” (31).

Upon his rejection, Democratia announces to her people the enigmatic attitude of Socrates against the democratic regime and appeals to them to judge him. Her determination foregrounds the question of democracy in the play. The principles of democracy are similarly considered in the dialogue between “Wrong” and “ Right,” in a scene suggesting Aristophanes’ The Clouds: in a play-within-play, a competition is held between the two parties; the wrong-doers and the right-doers. Wrong is delighted that his disciples are “masters in command . . . everywhere in every high status, residing paradise, making speeches . . .  their voices high, convincing.”  Wrong condemns the Right’s disciples who are “the weak, the poor . . . the rubbish of society . . . lurking at the bottom of the barrel, or they are in jails” (47). The approbation of wrong-doers and the condemnation of advocates of the right diminish the claim of equality in democracy. Right believes that because his friends are content with their fighting the vices spreading in the country, they grow tranquil and satisfied with the little they’ve got.  Right elucidates how the weak and the poor are driven into taking bribery when their small salary would not suffice for even a cat.  Right explains that this is the difference between those who are forced to take bribes and those who take it and enjoy it.  Finally, Right concludes that both groups are thieves no matter what the post is or the size of the theft. Strangely enough, “Wrong” and “Right” seem to resolve that things are so confused that there is no real difference between them (48).

The projection of those injustices through “Wrong” and “Right” thus reaches a dead end in the play-within-play.  The Aristophanes figure must then assume a new role to carry on a dialogue with a spectator, Socrates.  Aristophanes charges Socrates with spoiling the minds of the young with his speeches and arguments.  Socrates responds that he intends to bring out hidden ideas in the minds of his students rather than conveying ideas to them. Therefore, those debates are mere outlets for his fellow students to speak out their minds.  Socrates never denies Aristophanes’ claims that Socrates urges his young students to refute those things inherited from the forefathers with the result that they may break conventions and traditions.  On the contrary, Socrates makes it clear that it is Aristophanes’ conservative, “under-developed” mode of thinking which results in keeping people backward and less advanced.

In his dialogue with Aristophanes, Socrates argues that compared to Spartan totalitarianism, Athenian democracy is corrupt, fake, rotten from the inside where “all the parties are seeking office . . . it is the ultimate end and lofty goal . . . we have no real opposition” (40). Opposition is silenced in public and youth by Democratia’s regime with tools of deprivation and low wages given to the poor and high prices of food and modern equipment. Her pledges to offer extra rations to citizens prove false.  She fools her people when she asserts that the poor would receive red ostraca and rationed materials for free and those with limited incomes would receive yellow ostraca and pay half prices for whatever they take, but the well-off would receive white ostraca good for wine (26).  In Etman’s play, the masses are crushed by poverty and the youth are hindered from following Socrates’ dialectic method.

Khaled Diab, an Egyptian journalist, has argued that “the Mubarak way of doing things . . . is found throughout Egyptian society, in business and even within families.”[1] Minor characters in Socrates demonstrate the very practices that Diab describes. Hedon demonstrates social hypocrisy and Aristophanes cultural hypocrisy.  Hedon not only reveals those hypocrisies in society, but she herself is a hypocrite. She praises the beauty of Xanthula to the extent that she wishes to place her lady “upon the throne of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty herself.”  She declares herself even ready to go to “Delphi’s oracle . . . to ask the god Apollo one definite question: is there anyone among the women of the earth more beautiful than sweet Xanthula?”

Her lady realizes Hedon’s overstatements and scolds her: “Hedon, watch your tongue, be gentle in your frankness . . . at least in my presence” (33).  Hedon then changes the subject and talks about festivities in a pitiful manner to alert Xanthula “my heart breaks for you as you live like this, imprisoned in this cage, underneath this ceiling” (34).    However, in turn Xanthula changes the subject by referring to those young fellows who are “thinking day and night” and “when engaged in a certain idea . . . they look into it thoroughly . . . and in that case they feel nothing around them. . . for they are in another world” (36).   In spite of their commentaries on eccentrities in youth, no one wonders what concerns those young people or rather what may be their interests or aspirations.

In her preparation to attend Aristophanes’ performance, Xanthula aspires to show social supremacy by attending the theatre. She admits:

We, the spectators, watch each other . . . notice each other’s fashion,
In clothes or in manners . . . we exchange talks and pistachio for
Entertainment. . .  The theatre, Hedon, is a social gathering for
The spectator’s celebration (39).

Regarding theatre, Hedon seems to lament her fate when she remarks that “the theatre was made for the free . . . we, the slaves are not allowed to follow up and even if they should allow us. . . I personally will not go to the theatre” (35).   Hedon is one of those people described by Brian Whitaker as “people who are not only oppressed and denied rights by their rulers but who also, to varying degrees, are participants in a system of oppression and denial of rights.”[2]  She is the one who advises her lady, Xanthula, to dismiss Socrates’ young students “once and for all” by using “rat poison or any other insecticide” (38). Hedon never hesitates to vent her spitefulness on other subjects whenever possible. Later in the play when Socrates narrates the story of the oppressor in ancient Egypt, he quotes the oppressor’s words that “He who doesn’t oppress people will himself be oppressed” (91). This may suggest that to terminate oppression in a society, people need to change their social behavior.

Another character who seems to illustrate social shortcomings is the playwright Aristophanes. Though he previously showed great interest in revealing “political corruption of parties, and their bickering and administrative corruption everywhere,” he descends, in Socrates, “into cultural hypocrisy” when “artists and intellectuals coin new words, compatible with every age.”  Aristophanes argues that “writers and men of letters and philosophers” would “trade in people’s emotions” by seeking “the ruler’s satisfaction and sympathy materially and morally at the expense of welfare” through giving titles such as “an inspired ruler . . . another is hero of peace and war, and a third is the initiator of historical and geographical decisions.”  Aristophanes’ declaration putting on the mask to act in his The Clouds proves ironic. He acknowledges intellectual hypocrisy, yet, soon after he seems to seek to please the rulers by scornfully staging his colleague Socrates. On stage, Aristophanes appears wearing a mask “resembling that of Socrates,” raising his head and looking at the sky in a meditating manner (42-3). In doing so, the playwright manifests those very aspects of cultural hypocrisy he condemned before.

Clearly, his Clouds is a sarcastic representation that helps to build hatred in rich people against Socrates. They believe that Socrates enchanted their sons with his talks and changed them to vagrants roaming the alleys in Athens “forgetting the social manners of the aristocratic class.”  However, the harm to the poor youth has been no less, since Socrates taught them “philosophy and the art of dialogue . . . integrity, purity and obedience of laws” (56).   The difference in the needs of youth, rich and poor, are all met by the Socratic Method. While Hedon, the slave servant, calls his fellow students “insects” or rather “a line of beetles,” Socrates respects their minds in a way that “would build souls and teach wisdom” (18).

In the name of the law, Democratia summons Socrates to “a public trial” because he “has taken  odd actions and shameful and suspicious acts, besides spreading various sayings” which “tend to ruin Athenian democracy and break down social structure, and turn all things upside down” (65-6).  In her feigned protection of democracy, Democratia is aided not only by Aristophanes, but also by the solicitor Andocides.  The constant attacks in her campaign against Socrates brings to mind the words of the Athenian philosopher who values the law:

You must either persuade it [the city] or obey its orders, and endure in silence whatever it instructs you to endure, whether blows or bonds, and if it leads you into war to be wounded or killed, you must obey. To do so is right, and one must not give way or retreat or leave one’s post, but both in war and in courts and everywhere else, one must obey the commands of one’s city and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice.[3]

Etman’s Socrates adopts the historical Athenian Socrates’ exaltation of the law when informed by Andocides that he should prepare a defense speech before the trial. The Egyptian Socrates replies that he merely wishes that the law take its course if he deserves punishment.  In the presence of Democratia, the head of the jury, Andocides shifts his attention from defending Socrates to the defense of petitioners and members of the jury.  He praises wealthy capitalists, who are reported to be rich “because of the wars,” as noble and patriotic although the ships they bought were riddled with holes and the food they offered the armed forces was rancid (63-4).

Democratia’s traditional role in representing the principles of democracy is undermined when she is presented, in Socrates’ trial, as holding in her hand “the legislative and the legal authorities, together with the political authority” (68).  She demonstrates her authority over Socrates by charging him with polluting the environment and increasing rats.  Defied by his answers, she gives orders to end the trial and claims her right to “overrule that of the head of the court” when votes for Socrates’ “innocence” or “death” are equal. Her “death” ostracon sets Socrates’ death sentence.[4]

Nevertheless, Democratia, herself, is the Belle who appears in the Prison of Socrates in the last scene, entitled “The Real Beginning.” This final scene in the Egyptian version of Socrates’ life story marks a dramatic modification in Socrates’ outlook on life. With confessions delivered by Democratia in the prison, Etman’s Socrates expresses in a hopeful tone a proposal to “save this nation from the distress that has befallen it” (86). He is against any troublemaker who “raises his voice in the face of the law, and uses violence against the state.”  On the other side stands the Athenian Socrates who has been described by El-Abbadi as “instead of remaining calm and talking about gods and virtue, he suddenly resorts to threatening the court, foreshadowing what will happen to its members after his death”.[5] Quoting Socrates’ prophecy in the last part of Plato’s Apology, El-Abbadi argues that Socrates seems to have provoked aristocratic youth against democratic system. The Athenian Socratic threat against the court is noteworthy in the final lines in the Apology when he asserts “For I say that here will be more accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more severe with you, and you will be more offended at them.”[6]

Socrates, who has been sentenced to trial and death for charges he has never committed, undertakes a radical change. He resolves, in Etman’s version, to speak as an activist proposing solutions. Alone with Socrates in the prison, Democratia acknowledges Socrates’ honorable reputation, confessing that “the elections in our country are only a game” (87).  Although she has sentenced Socrates to death, she recognizes that “the people’s request becomes the law we must obey.”  Since she can neither “abolish the sentence of the court” nor “carry out this verdict,” Democratia appeals to Socrates to “escape secretly” from prison and also “from death.”  Saving Socrates’ life means to Democratia saving Athens from splitting apart. Socrates would never violate the law or even resign to a life “with treachery or deceit” (88-90). Her attempts to spare Socrates’ life imply that solutions to political injustices are merely in the hands of the oppressors.

Etman’s Socrates is different from his Western predecessors in Clifford Bax’s Socrates (1930) and Maxwell Anderson’s Barefoot in Athens (1931).  The more contemporary Socrates pinpoints factors of both corruption and prosperity in Athens and in the ancient state whether it is Egypt, or elsewhere.   Even when he concedes the false practices of democracy, Socrates never loses hope for a bright future. With “the smallest glimpse of hope for reform,” Socrates tends to relate stories of Egypt, “a very ancient state… which is the most ancient in the world” (91).  The image he portrays of unity and solidarity in the presence of Democratia provides younger generations with means by which they help their societies into a better life.  In a hopeful tone, Socrates refers to the Egyptian peasant who embodies wisdom and transparency of nature and generosity of the Nile (98).

In his story of the Egyptian leader, Socrates tells how the ruler “decided on a certain hour on a certain day. . . to the point that every person stopped being afraid of the other. . . that each man would stop committing mistakes unto others. . . for one single whole day. . .the national discipline day. . . he called it conscience day.” Gradually citizens agreed to the ruler’s request “that every day of the year would be as “conscience day.” Consequently the state “was redressed and civilization prospered.” Such an official request is derived from the ancient history of Egyptian civilization. To revive that day in modern society, Socrates is willing to stay “in prison till death” (92).   Plato, who sets off his journey to Egypt, the land of “knowledge and wisdom,” asserts that “law to Socrates is the great god of every social system.” This vision of democracy supported by solidarity and law is “the promised dream” endorsed in Socrates (97-8).

Arrangements are set by Democratia to withdraw the guards from the prison so that Socrates can take the ship waiting in the Western port and leave to any island. This alteration utilized in the Egyptian text through Democratia’s visit and offer to Socrates stresses the need for democracy which would bring welfare and prosperity to any nation.  However, Socrates’ death signifies the absence of the voice of democracy and the failed attempts to revive it. In the Arab Spring, democracy has been argued by Alain Badiou, in “Tunisia and Egypt: The Universal Significance of the Popular Uprisings,” to be “practically unspoken in Egypt”  in the January revolution even though it would create “unheard-of possibilities for the whole world”.[7]

If the demonstrations of the youth urge the chief of the state in Socrates to allow the imprisoned Socrates to evade the verdict, the riots of the youth in the streets of Tunisia take a similar stand against an oppressive regime.  The Tunisian version of this rebellion is dramatized on stage through an Arabic version of Macbeth which reflects on the results of failure of democracy.  In Socrates, Xanthula denounces her husband’s “surrendering to a law imposed by oppressors” when he could “resist injustice” (97).  His acceptance of death has been ascribed by Heba El-Abbadi to a feeling of “dignity that befits a tragic hero”.[8] However the demeaning voice of dignity heard in Socrates, through his acquiescence to drink the poison, did not fade away.  On the contrary, it grew ever more loud and insistent, helping to incite waves of rebellion later in the Middle East.

In Egypt, marches of the rebellious youth were characterized by Johnny West as “street protests that progressed from calls for human rights to be respected to demanding change in government and to its resignation in disgrace.”[9] Disgrace may be the key word to describe the connotation of the animal-fight image played out in the beginning of the Tunisian Macbeth: Leїla and Ben-A Bloody History. While the Egyptian Socrates used logic and reasoning in pointing out oppression and corruption, the offensive oppression in Tunisia is depicted in a distinctly more visceral, Artaudian approach, exemplified by the visual projection of two ferocious dogs fighting.  Like Artaud, Lotfi Achour, the Tunisian director, intended the dog-fight to help “express objectively secret truths, to bring out in active gestures those elements of truth hidden under forms in their encounter with Becoming.”[10] The video-taped dog fight prior to the performance alludes figuratively to the autocratic confrontation embedded in the play and to the “Bloody History” incorporated in the title of the play. The French-Tunisian theatre company attempted to blend:

The company’s trademark multimedia techniques with TV reportage to portray deposed Tunisian dictator President Zine El Abadine Ben Ali and his wife Leїla as the North African equivalents of Shakespeare’s infamous King and Queen. Their determination to keep their grip on power shows that Macbeth’s story of brutality, backstabbing and blind ambition remains chillingly current.[11]

The use of French language is recurrent in this play, basically written in Tunisian Arabic. The Tunisian vernacular and the use of French and Italian languages serve to defamiliarize the recipient with a text that holds affinities to its Elizabethan origin, but yet leads to an entirely different end. Writing stage directions in French in the script may serve different purposes. First, it may indicate the particularity of the political condition, however similar it may appear to the earlier tragedy of Macbeth.  Second, stage directions may serve as intervals within the text to pay further attention to the content of the spoken lines in Shakespeare’s language.

The unexpected arrival of Maczine is thus described in stage directions written in French. Indeed his arrival, movement, and exit are all described in French, to draw attention to the crucial crime committed offstage. Maczine re-enters with his shirt spotted with blood to mark him as slaughterer. In the play he is given a name that combines the first segment of Macbeth and the first name of the Tunisian Leader, Zine. Maczine is the Arabic version of Macbeth, who tells his wife the awesome dream he sees in the opening scene.  Overcome with fear, the husband explains to Leїla how he shivers when he was pulled by a man ascending to the sky telling him “Stand up, Master, Stand up.” Zine remembers that the man disappears as soon as Zine endeavors to question him. The supportive wife soothes his fears in assertion that “Your dream is clear. It is your turn” (1).

Italian lines in a new scene, “The Second Dream,” draw attention to a difference in the timing and content of the classical dagger scene. Maczine quotes the words uttered by Macbeth:

Art thou not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
(Macbeth, II: 1)

Maczine goes beyond the reality of the dagger to pose questions on power and despotism. In the Arabic text, the murderer notes that the dagger has been transferred from one hand to another, from one man to another. So is it the dagger or the hand that actually commits the murder? (7) In this regard, French and Italian lines are employed to heighten estrangement from the original Macbeth.  Another device is the use of the narrator to reflect upon the history of politics in Islam since the time of Prophet Mohammad, may peace upon him to the present time. The distortion resulting in the current application of politics in Muslim countries is ascribed to the misunderstanding of Islamic instructions. Later in the play, the narrator describes in French the political principles of the Golden Age.

The play contains TV interviews with the president and other key figures in the state as well as varied songs in French and Arabic. The interviews are given titles as well as numbers. Zaba, a nickname coined for Zine El Abadine is announced before each of his interviews.  The brief description of location or action given in the original Macbeth for each scene is replaced by key words mentioned within the scene. Songs are in French, classical Arabic, and Tunisian vernacular. The first vernacular song praises Habib Bourguiba (1903–2000) and his kindness. The second song relates the despotic oppression which deprives people their freedom by “cutting the wings” via rigid rules which would deny both “old and young” their dignity (11).  This song incites young men to revenge. The banquet scene is divided into three “sequences” to salute the new president but yet reveal his offences towards the public. A satirical song prays for him and notes that the same president also “uncovers the masses’ forbidden parts” (14). The song which follows the third sequence in the scene. “Why did my Beloved Forget,” precedes, through its rhyming question, a scene devised to reflect on the state in Tunisia. A similar song on the emptiness in life relates the corruption in “the government which gives nothing to the down-trodden people” (24).

In the reflection of the predicament of youth in a long-oppressed country, social sensibility is a conspicuous concern in the Arabic version of Macbeth.  The caring and sympathizing tone in the executioner’s talk to the young prisoner is noteworthy. The executioner launches a scene with a song “Torture.” His role in the play is reminiscent of the “porter of hell-gate” in Macbeth.  In his profession, he is the torturer/executioner who observes subjects in hell, the prison.  The executioner parallels the Shakespearean porter in the role of an unbiased observer.  He is first seen talking to a young man arrested in a riot.  His sympathy towards the prisoner may be the result of a life-long belief that a citizen should not forsake his freedom and youth. The executioner may have realized that the young man belongs to those “Young Middle Easterners” who “grow under dictatorships with pervasive state security apparatuses designed to crush dissent.”[12]  Consequently, he addresses the young prisoner in a pitying tone: “My son,” “You, citizen,” and “Cousin.”  Unconvinced by the prison regulations, the executioner prays for God’s help, admitting that the voice of the young man is evocative of the homeland.  So, he asks the young prisoner to sing, and when the young man commences chanting in French, the executioner sings with him.

His remarks on life and state orders are similar to the porter’s witty viewpoints.  In contrast with earnestness demanded in their professions, in the palace and the government respectively, both argue for their nonsensical indulgences—drink and soccer.  The porter believes drink “provokes the desire but takes away the performance” and “the executioner believes that the second round in soccer drives youth to reconcile like Guevara or Rabi’a Al Adawiyya, in peace.” In the first round, youth are like vigorous players who appear “restless in their rebel, loud cries, curses and fight” (3). Both characters point out the futility of such fondness.

In his outspokenness, the executioner offers witty confessions on the pains in his profession. He seems paradoxical when he describes the degraded state of prisoners who are swept away by fear and cowardice. Yet, he never offers to help free them from the persistent demand, in the repressive regime, for absolute and blind obedience.  In such a regime human beings are divided into subjects and objects, active and passive, speakers and listeners. The executioner is one of those whose role in life alternates between the two, the active and the passive, as well as the speaker and observer.  His passivity towards the young prisoner is belied by his continuous advice, seeking solace in songs. He asks the prisoner whether he knows Kholio’s song “If You Go Away.”  The executioner is, however, the observer in the presence of Maczine, who appears suddenly to visit the president, undertakes an official talk and later reappears when his shirt and hands are spotted with blood to receive a phone call. Alone with Maczine when he receives the official news of being assigned prime minister, the executioner starts to sing about the recent prime minister, Maczine’s plea for celebration. His eagerness to sing all types of songs earlier and later adds further dimensions to the political system he serves.

The question raised here: “Do young Tunisians rebel because elders in their society are helpless?” may be answered by a young woman in the play. The young woman asserts her reluctance to live like her mother a “life full of struggle” hoping for a “better tomorrow in a life ample with morals and high principles.” The young lady, who speaks the mindset of her generation, refutes the miserable life which her “poor mother” lives. In “What Makes a Nation,” a scene in the play, the young woman repeats the word “nation” several times, pondering “what is  the value of a nation” when civilians’ rights  are denied? She declares that “no one paid attention to people or rather their claims.” The blend of Arabic and French in her perspective of nationalism may imply her doubt about the significance of citizenship. She is uncertain whether or not she is considered a citizen in the nation. She quotes Shakespeare’s Macbeth when the Arab president repeats the harmful actions of Macbeth.  However, she believes “there is something missing in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which is the concern with the nation… the people who should be there in soul and sound.”  In “his ambition for kingship,” according to this mouthpiece of young Tunisians, “an Arabic Macbeth should incorporate scenes of Hamlet.” (20)

When the young imprisoned man has never been heard in the play, the young woman projects in a soliloquy the absurd life of the dispossessed.  Attending to her civilian rights, she compares herself to Leїla, the president’s wife, arguing that “her nationalism is 100% from head to toe due to her birthplace, social environment and condition.”  She affirms her mother’s right to live a decent life of joy and fulfillment. The young woman explains: “I am not alone if I think this way . . . You can ask my female friends.” Posing this question to the audience, she would not be willing to “lower her head to the system” (20). In terms of dignity, young people would not consent to take their parents’ path towards broken dreams, but they would advance their revolt against the repressive regime.

National disappointment dominates the whole scene within the family and friends’ circles. The young woman wonders why the national resources would be exclusively manipulated by the “couple” Leїla and her husband when other Tunisians live underprivileged.  Such a blatant comparison exhibits the rising of the civil rights movement seeking “Karama-dignity, or honor, or perhaps even self-respect.”[13] Leїla and Ben delineates how the autocratic system in the ruling families supports long-lasting corruption and oppression. When she notices first sign of weakness in her husband, Leїla immediately asks the men to leave announcing her attentiveness to state affairs. Unlike her Shakespearean counterpart, Leїla is never tormented by guilt for provoking the murder. Through her interpretation of her husband’s first dream, she seems to replace the witches’ prophecy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. After giving her own interpretation, Leїla tells him that “your dream startled me immensely. The sound of a crow’s cry is in my head. I hear its music. The most dreadful scene dances beautifully before my eyes” (18). Leїla echoes the earlier claims of Lady Macbeth demanding spirits to liberate her from femininity and to remove every remorse that may delay acting out her own harmful intentions.

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! . . . Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry “Hold, hold!” (Macbeth I: 7)

Lady Macbeth’s summons of spirits and night are transferred literally into the Tunisian vernacular lines delivered by Leїla. She also quotes her Elizabethan predecessor in her atrocious acts of dashing her baby’s head after ripping him away from comfort and milk. The Shakespearean Lady Macbeth is defeated in her attempts to clean her hands of an unforgettable crime which she plotted against the king. However, the Tunisian Leїla seems to adopt Macbeth’s unending dictatorial supremacy. This explains the mixing of her name in the title of the play between the classical tyrant and her husband, the oppressive president. Her first name, Leїla, directly follows the name of Macbeth and precedes the morpheme “Ben,” the son of, in her husband’s full name.  There seems to be a strong connection between Leїla and the Scottish general in creating the “Bloody History” of the country.

Therefore, when she holds reign of the country, she declares that she plots to “agitate people against one another by seeding enmity amongst them” (23). She suppresses her subjects through low wages.  Leїla perpetuate oppression on the land when she decides that “120 Dinars is a high salary for the employee.” Her means of venting her anger is the execution through random selection of victims who will be labeled traitors and subjected to prosecution.  Moreover, “companies are licensed when a member in Leїla’s family is granted a significant share in the capital” as determined by a consultant in her group (17).

Leїla does her best to hold a strong grip over the country. The establishment of her own power leads her to dismiss her husband.  Leїla clearly believes that autocracy tolerate no partner and absolute power cannot be shared. Although she has collaborated with him in the corrupt and oppressive administration of the state affairs for twenty-five years, she comes at last to realize that she needs to rule the country independently. To maintain her dominance and power, she terminates the lives of men who supported her husband’s campaign with the help of her own newly established army where no one man knows any other (17). Her ruthless drive reminds the audience of a weakness that infected the Shakespearean tragic hero, Macbeth.

Early in their glorious lives, both Macbeth and Maczine, became entangled in their wiv tyrannical influence, along with their own ambition and a confrontation with the ghost of a murdered victim. Nevertheless, the murder of the former ruler marks a shift in the Tunisian version. Two scenes in Leїla and Ben are devoted to highlighting the relationship between the present President Maczine and the murdered president, Bourguiba. In “I served him as a Butcher,” a scene in the Tunisian play, Maczine lists his services to the former president in sordid language. calling himself “butcher” and “dog.” In a soliloquy he admits that he served in humiliation to glorify the old president, whom he refers to as both “a dog” and “a Pharaoh.” Obliged to slaughter his opponents, Maczine carries on to please the “innocent tyrant . . . who appears as the oldest angel . . . and keep his record clean” (6). By murdering the former president, Maczine intends to launch a new history for the country.

The discussion in the parliament brings to light Maczine’s presidential inclination toward “national intelligence with all its resources and factors,” paying no attention to ethical obligations toward the public. He aspires to retain the “freedom for woman nourished in the former reign.”  Members in the parliament propose suggestions for transformation in the country. Maczine intends to introduce such “devices” as the transmission of Islamic Adhan and prayers on radio and TV to persuade the people that Arabic Islamic culture in native to the country.  The parliament members exit and Maczine repeats mockingly their words. His intentions to be hard on them are approved by Leїla (12).

Another variation in the Tunisian text appears in the banquet scene when the ghost of the murdered ruler converses with the murderer in the “Bourguiba Dialogue.”  This scene discusses the difference between the two political regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Bourguiba points out that Tunisia was a young country then and democracy was inevitable, so the police force helped implement stability and discipline. Maczine argues that he follows the same strategies adopted by the former system. The ghost of Bourguiba replies that Maczine’s attendants are corrupt as “they rob and disregard morals” and accordingly that “culture is remote now and the whole nation grows desolate.” Bourguiba states that he has “never been a bourgeois, but a son of the country.”  He asserts that he is a “leader of wisdom . . . a national leader in all aspects” who knows “each and every piece of the homeland . . . and feels it.” The ghost of the deceased president argues that while he established national identity and independence, Maczine is betraying his country. Bourguiba seems to have understood the needs of civilians, showing high diplomacy in asserting the Tunisian identity. He acknowledges people’s right to dignity, opposing Maczine, whose “vanity and materialism” seed “ignorance, deterioration and bankruptcy” in the country (21). Living in an economically depressed country where resources are exclusively dedicated to the autocratic regime would not only break hopes in youth, but would also lead to an uprising where the major concern is dignity, or “karama.”

The absence of democracy and the prevalence of dictatorship would always create in young Arabs “Life’s Will,” as is revealed in poem of Abu al-Qasim al Shabbi (1909–1934)  quoted at the end of the play (30). The first two stanzas are quoted here in translation to invoke the hopeful possibilities in nations:

When people choose
To live by life’s will,
Fate can do nothing but give in;
The night discards its veil,
All shackles are undone.
Whoever never felt
Life celebrating him
Must vanish like the mist;
Whoever never felt
Sweeping through him
The glow of life
Succumbs to nothingness.[14]

Eiman M. S. Tunsi is an assistant professor in the faculty of Arts and Humanities at King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She specializes in English drama and theatre. Her PhD Thesis was title Contemporary Versions of Some Shakespearean Plays in Tom Stoppard and Edward Bond. Since 2007, she has served as a board member for the Saudi Theatre Association. She has attended theatre festivals in the Gulf Arab States and UK. At the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair and 2015 Riyadh Book Fair, she presented papers on children’s theatre and women’s theatre in Saudi Arabia. While teaching drama and Shakespeare, she mentored several performances at the female college campus. Her membership in the International Comparative Literature Association gave her the opportunity to present Arabic drama in the Arabic Literary Workshop at the ICLA XX Conference at the Sorbonne in 2013. Her interest in cultural dialogue led her to publish a paper “Technicalities of Translating Drama: One-Act Play Across Borderlines.”

[1] Brian Whitaker, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East (London: SAQI, 2009), 10.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Charles L. Griswold, “Socrates’ Political Philosophy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Socrates, edited by Donald R. Morrison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 350.

[4] 81, a reference of course to the decision of Athene at the end of the Oresteia.

[5] Mostafa El-Abbadi, “Athenian Democracy,” translated by Heba H. El-Abbadi in “Conflicting Versions of Tragic Socrates—A Victim of Democracy or Anti-Democracy?,” in Classical Papers: The Proceedings of the International Symposium, Drama and Democracy from Ancient Times till the Present Day, ii (2012), 116.

[6] Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates: Four Dialogues Unbridged, translated by B. Jowett. (New York: Dover Publications, 1992), 39.

[7] Alain Badiou, The Rebirth of History, translated by George Elliott (London: Verso, 2012), 109.

[8] El Abbadi, 118.

[9] Johnny West, Karama! Journeys Through the Arab Spring: Exhilarating Encounters with those who Sparked a Revolution (London: Heron Books, 2011), 3.

[10] Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double: Essays, translated by Victor Cort (London: Calder, 1993), 51.

[11] “Macbeth: Leïla and Ben–A Bloody History, Artistes Producteurs Associés, World Shakespeare Festival” in Shining a Light on The Stories of the World, London International Festival Theatre (LIFT: 12 June–15 July 2012), 37.

[12] Arab Spring Dreams: The Next Generation Speaks out for Freedom and Justice from North Africa to Iran, edited by Nasser Weddady and Sohrab Ahmari (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 1.

[13] West, 16.

[14] Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi, “Life’s Will,” translated by Sargon Boulus and Christopher Middleton in Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 97.


Arab Stages
Volume 1, Number 2 (Spring 2015)
©2015 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, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Joy Arab

Table of Content

  • Science Fiction in the Arab World: Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Voyage to Tomorrow (Rihlatun ilal-ghad) by Rani Bhargav
  • Tawfik al-Hakim and the Social Responsibility of the Artist by Majeed Mohammed Midhin
  • Junun: Poetics in the Discourse of Protest and Love by Rafika Zahrouni
  • Ritual and Myth in Dalia Basiouny’s Magic of Borolos by Amal Aly Mazhar
  • Staging the Self: Autobiography in the Theatre of Sa’dallah Wannous by Ali Souleman
  • The Arab Theatre Festival by Jaouad Radouan
  • France’s Théâtre d’al-Assifa: An Arab-based Alternative Theatre Model by Magdi Youssef
  • A Dramatic Anticipation of the Arab Spring and a Dramatic Reflection Upon It by Eiman Tunsi
  • Rania Khalil’s Flag Piece by Dalia Basiouny and Marvin Carlson
  • Silk Road Solos: A Three-Thread Performative Stitch by Jamil Khoury

Short Plays

  • Excerpts from Jihad Against Violence: Oh ISIS Up Yours! by Fawzia Afzal-Khan
  • Alternative Dramaturgy for Jihad Against Violence: Oh ISIS Up Yours! By Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Nesrin Alrefaai, Katherine Mezur
  • ReOrient Theatre Festival 2015:
    Bitterenders by Hannah Khalil
    Lost Kingdom by Hassan Abdulrazzak
    Picking Up The Scent by Yussef El Guindi
    The House by Tala Manassah & Mona Mansour


  • Edward Ziter’s Political Performance in Syria – A Book Review by Safi Mahmoud Mahfouz
  • The Gap Between Generations: The Revolt of the Young: Essays by Tawif al-Hakim– 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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