Hakim, Tawfiq al- (1898–1987)

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Hakim, Tawfiq al-

A well-known Egyptian writer, Tawfiq al-Hakim is renowned as the father of modern Arab drama.


Al-Hakim was born the son of a wealthy Egyptian judge on 9 October 1898 to a landowning family in Alexandria, Egypt. From an early age he showed a sensitivity and love for literature. He began frequenting theaters and attending performances of such famous actors as George Abyad. While pursuing his secondary education he began writing short plays that he tried out on his school friends. He experimented with different genres such as short stories, essays, and even tried writing lyrics for patriotic songs. He entered law school at Cairo University, although he did poorly in his studies. He then proceeded to study French.

He began writing under a pseudonym Husayn Tawfiq, to avoid the wrath of his family who, similar to many others at the time, did not think much of writers, considering it a frivolous endeavor unworthy of middle-class society. Most of the plays were written for the popular theater of the Ukasha brothers (Zaki, Abd al-Hamid, and Abdullah). These early plays touched on political and social themes couched in melodrama and comedy, favorite forms with enthusiastic audiences of the early twentieth century. 'Al-Dayf al-Thaqil (The Unwelcome Visitor) touched on the rising nationalist themes prevalent around the 1919 revolution that took Egypt by storm.

The next phase in his life was a period of three years spent in Paris. Although he obtained his law degree in 1925, he could not get a government job, at the time the most coveted of jobs. His father's good friend, the well-known public figure and politician Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid, encouraged him to study law in France and prepare for a doctorate at the Sorbonne. That period in Paris was, however, spent preparing himself for a career in theater. Although he did not study in a formal drama school, he spent time reading plays and attending performances. He read extensively not only in drama but in a wide variety of topics of Western culture. Not only did al-Hakim become familiarized with a new culture, but he read voraciously the then-avant garde authors that ultimately influenced his whole literary career. When his father forced him to cut short his stay, upon his return to Egypt al-Hakim suffered a reverse culture shock, reflected in his nostalgia for those Parisian years.

Once al-Hakim returned to Egypt he began working as a deputy public prosecutor. He moved between Alexandria, Disuq, and Damanhur, major provincial centers between 1928 and 1934. This experience inspired his novel Yawmiyat Na'ib fi'l-Aryaf (Memoirs of a Country Prosecutor), published in 1937. This work has become a classic as it deals with exploring the divide between the mentality of the Egyptian fallah (peasant) and the officials in a legal system charged with administrating justice and with laws based on the Napoleonic Code, which Egypt had adopted.


Name: Tawfiq al-Hakim

Birth: 1898, Alexandria, Egypt

Death: 1987

Nationality: Egyptian

Education: B.A. (law), Cairo University, 1925


  • 1925: Moves to Paris
  • 1928: Writes Awdat al-Ruh (Return of the Spirit)
  • 1928–1934: Deputy public prosecutor in Alexandria, Disuq, and Damanhur
  • 1933: Publishes his first philosophical play Ahl al-Kahf (People of the Cave)
  • 1937: Writes Yawmiyat Na'ib fi'l-Aryaf (Memoirs of a Country Prosecutor)
  • 1939–1943: Works in the ministry of social affairs for the ministry of education
  • 1951–1956: Appointed director of the National Library

He then worked in the ministry of social affairs for the ministry of education from about 1939 to 1943. After this he left government service and devoted himself to writing. However, around 1951 he was appointed director of the National Library and remained in this important position until 1956. He later became a member of the prestigious Higher Council of the Arts, Literature, the Humanities, and Social Sciences. Tawfiq al-Hakim died in Cairo on 26 July 1987.


The period between the 1919 Egyptian revolution against British rule and the 1952 Free Officers' coup against the monarchy, corresponded with the maturity of modern Egyptian literary achievements in drama, the novel, and the short story. It was a period that witnessed the rise and fall of romanticism in poetry in Egyptian writing. In general there were attempts to liberate Egyptian arts from Western domination in the same vein as the attempts at liberation from colonial rule.

Al-Hakim's 1928 novel Awdat al-Ruh (Return of the Spirit) is considered a classic that foretold the revolution of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Al-Hakim presumably was considered the laureate intellectual throughout the Nasser years in power, benefiting from his good graces. However, a work written years later, Awdat al-Wa'i (The Return of Consciousness), was considered the intellectual forerunner of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's opening to the right, and a clear repudiation of Nasserism. It was a highly controversial publication when it first appeared. It created a stir throughout both Egypt and the Arab world, as al-Hakim had been considered a privileged insider of the Nasser inner circle. He had accepted high cultural posts such as the Egyptian representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) during the Nasser rule.

In 1933 al-Hakim published his first philosophical play Ahl al-Kahf (People of the Cave), which is based on a story from the Qur'an. This was the first in a long series of plays that have became the basis of the classical repertoire of the modern Arab theater.

Al-Hakim served for many years as a literary columnist for the major newspaper al-Ahram. He wrote numerous political analyses, and trenchant satires that were widely read throughout the Arab world.

There is no doubt that his earlier writings had influenced the young officers and the revolution. Awdat al-Wa'i is thus considered a controversial work, Its main thesis was presumably that Egyptians, buoyed by hopes for a new, progressive Egypt, were taken in by the principles of Nasser's 1952 revolution and in the process lost their political consciousness and discovered too late that its charismatic leader had turned into a tyrant and that his policies, both domestic and foreign had basically failed.

Some of his early plays also touched on the questions surrounding the emancipation of women. His controversial play al-Mar'a al-Jadida (The New Woman) was more of a spoof of the growing movement that had been spearheaded by the great champion of women's emancipation, Qasim Amin. Al-Hakim came to be known as the enemy of women ('Aduw al-Mar'a) after writing this play that attacked the unveiling of women. He lived all his life trying to undo this attitude of misogyny that came to be one of his hallmarks. Interestingly enough, despite this one area of dissent, al-Hakim remained a revered and beloved author and persona throughout the Arab world. His far-reaching influence on Arabic drama is felt to this day.

Al-Hakim also was a pioneer in modern Egyptian theater. Until the 1920s Egyptian theater concentrated on melodramas, which were often presented as what we would today consider musicals. The thorny question of whether to use classical (modern standard Arabic) or colloquial Arabic remained a matter of great debate. Early on such writers as Farah Antun, and especially Muhammad Taymur whose dramas dealt with contemporary social themes, found tough competition from the popular plays of the great comedian Najib al-Rihani. But it was Tawfiq al-Hakim who dominated the next phase in the development of the Egyptian theater. His play Ahl al-Kahf (1933, People of the Cave), was to be the first of what came to be known as the intellectual dramas or theater of the mind. In 1934 other philosophical plays such as Shahrazad and the Sultan's Dilemma have continued to be part of the classical repertoire of Egyptian theater. Tawfiq al-Hakim wrote more than fifty plays, which helped cement his reputation as the founder of modern Arab drama.


Before the advent of the 1952 revolution, al-Hakim had been recognized by having the honorific title of bey conferred upon him. After the revolution he was elected to the prestigious Academy of Letters and Language (al-Majama al-Lughawiyy). But it was in 1958 that he was awarded the distinct honor previously reserved for high dignitaries and foreign leaders—Qiladat al-Jumhuriyya (Order of the Republic)—by President Nasser in recognition of his contributions, and especially his landmark work Awdat al-Ruh (Return of the Spirit) that was believed had influenced and inspired Nasser and his whole generation. It was an allegory that had multilayered signifiers harking back to ancient Egypt and its past glories that Nasser was destined to revive.

In 1962 al-Hakim went on to receive the coveted State Prize (Ja'izat al-Dawla al-Takdiriyya), which carried a hefty honorarium. The citation credited him for his dedication to the arts, especially drama, as well as with enkindling the spirit of national consciousness through his writings of fiction and drama, his dedication to social progress, and his deep concern for the eradication of injustice and corruption.

It is all these official recognitions that later on were controversial when he revised his stance vis-à-vis the Nasser era.

In a preface to a second edition to Awdat al-Wa'i, al-Hakim wrote:

After the appearance of the first edition of Awdat al-Wa'i, the Nasserists, both in Egypt and elsewhere, were angered … as though Abdel Nasser were superhuman rather than a being whose mistakes could be analysed…. The most important goal in what I call "opening up the file" is opening our eyes to the mistakes and disasters of the past so that we can avoid them and prevent anyone else from repeating them while we build Egypt anew.

These lines are not history. They are testimony and feelings which I have brought forth from memory and which are not based on any other source.


Al-Hakim's desire to emulate the European tradition in plays was timely, and the publication and performance of his play Ahl al-Kahf, was a momentous and significant event in the history of Egyptian drama. The story can be found in the eighteenth sura of the Qur'an, as well as in other sources. It concerns the tale of the seven sleepers of Ephesus who, in order to escape the Roman persecution of the Christians, take refuge in a cave. They sleep for three hundred years, and wake up in a completely different era, without being aware of the change of time. In its use of the themes of rebirth in a new age and new world, al-Hakim's play touches upon cultural topics that were of major concern to the intellectuals of his day.


Tawfiq al-Hakim is one of the major figures in modern Arabic literature. In the particular realm of the theater, he fills an overarching role as the sole founder of an entire literary tradition. His efforts on behalf of Arabic drama as a literary genre, its techniques, and its language, are a lasting legacy of the central role he played.

Although al-Hakim's earlier plays were all composed in the literary form of Arabic, he experimented with different levels of dramatic language. In al-Safqah (1956, The Deal), with its themes of land ownership and the exploitation of poor peasant farmers, he couched the dialogue in something he termed the third language: one that could be read as a text in the standard written language of literature, but that could also be performed on stage in a way which, while not exactly the idiom of the colloquial dialect, was comprehensible to a larger segment of the audiences, other than the literate urban elites. Another of his plays, Ya tali' al Shajarah (1960, The Tree Climber; later produced in an off-Broadway production in New York City in the 1990s), was extremely successful. Its use of the literary language in the dialogue was a major factor in the nonreality (absurdist) atmosphere involving extensive passages of noncommunication between husband and wife. Al-Hakim continued to write plays in the 1960s, among the most popular of which were Masir sersar (1966, The Fate of a Cockroach) and Bank al-Qalaq (1967, Anxiety Bank).


Long, Richard. Tawfiq al Hakim, Playwright of Egypt. London: Ithaca Press, 1979.

Starkey, Paul. From the Ivory Tower: A Critical Analysis of Tawfiq al-Hakim. London: Ithaca Press, 1987.

                                                 Mona Mikhail