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Shakespeare on the Nile

A trip to Cairo helps an English graduate student understand how the Arab world translated Shakespeare
February 2, 2016
David Moberly with Sphinx
PhD student David Moberly in Egypt

PhD student David Moberly received a 2016-17 Graduate School Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, which supports him as he finishes his dissertation, "The Taming of the Tigress: Gender, Shakespeare, and the Arab World.” We interviewed him a year ago when he received two awards—a Union Pacific Research Grant and a Graduate Research Partnership Program fellowship—to travel to Cairo, Egypt. His goal? Investigating Shakespeare in early 20th-century Egypt (and, of course, scoping out the Sphinx).

Describe this Cairo research and how it relates to your dissertation project.

I spent about a month there familiarizing myself with local libraries, archives, and book markets, searching for material on Shakespeare. I was especially interested in material on Taming of the Shrew and searched for theatrical reviews of an early performance of the play in Cairo by Fatima Rushdi, a famous actor from the “Golden Age” of Egyptian theater. One of my dissertation chapters deals with the development of Shrew in Egyptian performance and translation, so this trip was crucial.

What was your schedule on a typical day?

I spent most of my time in Cairo  looking for 1920s and '30s periodicals, as well as Shakespeare material more generally. Since many Egyptians were celebrating Ramadan while I was there, my schedule changed about halfway through the trip. Library opening hours are shortened during Ramadan, and some are closed altogether. I had to prioritize my time. After Ramadan ended, I would typically get up and take a taxi to a library, spend the day there until it closed (usually about 3:30 pm), then head over to the book market.

The most rewarding part of the trip was certainly my visit to the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC). Their library contained an impressive collection of periodicals that I combed through, finding some amazing material, including an early, 1920s essay written by an Egyptian man reflecting on his trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, an early essay on the problem of translating Shakespeare’s sonnets into Arabic, and, of course, theatrical reviews of early performances of Shrew in Egypt, including photographs of the actors involved.

What was the genesis of your interest in this topic?

I took Professor Katherine Scheil’s Global Shakespeare course and decided to use my language skills to explore what had had been done with Shakespeare in the Arab World. I turned to Professor Nabil Matar for advice, and he offered me some of the printed translations he had collected over the years, including an impressive translation of selected sonnets by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. I was intrigued by the special problems the sonnets present to the Arabic translator, especially as far as gender was concerned. The research I conducted eventually formed my first dissertation chapter.

You received a 2012 Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State to study Arabic. How comfortable do you feel communicating in Arabic these days? What else have you done to further your Arabic?

My reading skills are definitely stronger than my speaking skills, but I can speak it well enough. Before I started researching my dissertation, I worked alongside Professor Matar on a number of translation projects dealing with texts ranging from the 16th to the 21st centuries.

What was your favorite non-academic experience in Cairo?

Visiting the pyramids and the Sphinx was an incredible experience, as was the Egyptian Museum. A highlight of the trip was attending a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Miami Theater in downtown Cairo. The performance was entirely in Arabic, and featured far more singing and dancing than a typical Shakespeare performance here in the United States. Oberon was played as a kind of comic villain, and got a lot of laughs. Puck was played by a group of four actors representing Oberon’s fairy retinue. The entire show was part of a government-funded sponsorship of several plays all over Egypt during ‘Eid, the holiday following the end of Ramadan.

Read reports from other students who received GRPP travel research support.