From Russia with Iltizam?: Soviet Models, Egyptian Shakespeare, and Nasser's Ghost

By Margaret Litvin
Submitted to Session P2193 (Aesthetics of Citizenship in Post-Socialist Egypt, 2009 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Cultural Studies; Drama; Nationalism;
Egyptian adaptations of Shakespeare's plays in the 1970s draw heavily on Soviet and Eastern European sources and models of the 1950s and 1960s. This complicates any binary notion of how postcolonial societies metabolize high-prestige western cultural products. It reminds us of a Cold War context largely forgotten in today's cultural studies. But it also raises a question: why the delay? Egyptian students had been returning from study abroad in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe since the late 1950s; Cairo and Alexandria had been saturated with exemplars of traveling Soviet-bloc culture (art exhibits, film screenings, and some literary translations) throughout Nasser's 1960s. Yet it was only after Nasser's death in 1970 that Egyptian theatre could appropriate the most overtly politically critical of its Soviet-bloc models. Jumping off from readings of a Soviet HAMLET film (1964) and an Egyptian HAMLET play (1971), this paper explores the place of Soviet models in the artistic (re)construction of Egyptian national identity after the 1967 defeat and after Nasser's death. More important than "committed" art and socialist realism, I argue, was the example of Soviet intellectuals coming to terms with the legacy of Stalinism.