Literary Dramatist, Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898-1989)

Tawfiq al Hakim, born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1898, was the son of an Egyptian judge and a Turkish mother. He is considered the master of a genre he invented which is the Arabic literary drama.When he was young, Tawfiq al-Hakim's parents were not hopeful about his early determination to pursue a literary career. He went on to study law in Cairo and obtained a doctorate of law degree in Paris, however literature remained his passion. Unable to make a living by writing, he had a parallel career as a civil servant, he joined the staff of the newspaper Ahkbar al Yawm in 1943, and in 1959 returned to Paris as a permanent delegate to UNESCO from his country. In the fall of 1959, Tawfiq al Hakim wrote his most famous play, the Sultan's Dilemma. Dramatists like Tawfiq al Hakim and Naguib Mahfouz are unheard of today in the present chaotic, fear-controlled Arab world. Today, these men would be targets of radical Islamic extremists for their life affirming and secular literary work, and indeed Mahfouz survived an assassination attempt on his life by knife attack when he was already an elderly man. One of the recurring leitmotif’s in al-Hakim's comedy, the Sultan’s Dilemma, is the muezzin's call to dawn prayers. It is around this event upon which the executioners work and the entire play revolves. In the Sultan’s Dilemma, the executioner understands his orders very clearly: he is to behead the condemned man at the muezzin’s call to dawn prayers. It is not the dawn itself, but the muezzin’s call that determines when the condemned man is beheaded. The executioner explains to the condemned man how if he is not drunk he performs his work badly; he says the last time he beheaded someone the man’s head landed in the shoemaker’s basket.

Tawfiq al Hakim Essential Collection of Plays

The condemned man offers to buy the executioner a glass of wine, then he suggests to the executioner that instead of a glass of wine they visit the beautiful lady across the street from the wine merchant for a night of joy and merriment. The executioner says no to that, but he accepts the wine. It turns out that the muezzin is friends with the beautiful lady who lives across the street from the wine merchant, and when he arrives instead of going up to the minaret, he accepts her invitation to go inside her house. By a twist of fate, the condemned man, sentenced to be beheaded without a trial for something he said about the Sultan, is not executed, and the Sultan is revealed to be a slave, and the subject of the play turns to the manumission of the Sultan. The absurdity of the Sultan being a slave, and furthermore his purchase by a prostitute, is the playwright's sophisticated and humorous way of challenging slavery.


by Andrea Boggs