Abū-l-ʿIlā al-Salāmūnī: the Rewriting of History in Egyptian Theatre

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In all three plays al-Salāmūnī refers to the periods when Egypt had to resist the exploitative policy of foreigners and of internal leaders acting with the foreign powers.  Riwāyat al-Nadīm concerns the Egyptian national uprising from 1879 to 1882, against the Khedive Tawfīq (1879-1892) and British and French control over Egypt, in Maʾādhin al-maḥrūsa the subject is Napoléon’s Egyptian expedition, and in Abū Naḍḍāra the Khedive Ismāʿīl’s (1863-1879) notoriously wasteful handling of the country’s finances.


The antagonists in these plays are foreigners, such as Napoléon, who want to dominate Egypt, or self-serving governors, such as the Khedive Tawfīq and the Khedive Ismāʿīl, who subordinate the freedom of the country and national interests to their personal welfare and ambition. The protagonists are theatre artists, who oppose those in power, using the media of performing arts which are expressed through various theatrical activities within the framing plays. In Maʾādhin al-maḥrūsa al-Salāmūnī revives the performances of muḥabbaẓīn, folk entertainers once popular in Egypt; in Riwāyat al-Nadīm the character of an intellectual who opposes the regime is represented by the Egyptian nationalist intellectual ʿAbd Allāh al-Nadīm (1842-1896) and his companion Ḥasan, and in Abū Naḍḍāra by Yaʿqūb Ṣannūʿ (1839-1912), the, so-called ‘father of Egyptian theatre.’  He was also known as Abū Naḍḍāra, which is the dialectal version of Abū Naẓẓāra (‘the man with spectacles’). Simply put, these plays are about the confrontation between political leaders and artists. We might say that the protagonist in the plays is the theatre and the antagonist is the invasive or anti-national and totalitarian leadership. The leaders want to force theatre to serve them and help them influence society, while the theatre artists within the plays try to use their power to influence society to join them in opposing the leaders.

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