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by Bamber Gascoigne

Naguib Surur (1932-1978)


Egyptian playwright, poet, actor and critic, whose literary career lasted two decades and who became a legend in his lifetime. From the late 1960s and during the 1970s until his death Surur was one of the most prominent and disputed figures of the Egyptian theatre. His verse dramas received wide acclaim on the stage, but his personal problems and self destructive life style led to his untimely death at the age of 46.

What will be said,
Of us after the deluge,
After the coming drowning, after the coming of anger,
What will be said of us poets and writers?

(from Drink Delirium, translated by Mona Anis and Nun Elmessiri)

Mohamed Naguib Mohamed Surur Hagrass was born in the village of Akhtab, in Daqahlia governorate. To earn extra income for the family, Surur worked in the cotton fields in his childhood. After Surur broke with other young boys into the mansion of the local Pasha, a symbol of tyranny in his later works, he was beaten by Pasha's men. His father, who was a tax collector, was fired from his job, and the family moved to Cairo, where he worked as school teacher.

Surur began writing poetry at an eartly age. The famous poem, Al-Hizaa, was written as a reaction to an incident, in which his father was humiliated by the governor. Surur's nationalistic verses were published in various periodicals. His first plays Surur wrote in the late 1950s. While working as a censor at the Ministry of Culture, he became friends with the playwright Numan Ashur (1918-87). By showing a green light for the production of Youssef Chahine's film Bab al-hadid (1958, Cairo Central Station), about the sexual obsession of a news-paper seller, Surur found himself in trouble at his job. After abandoning his studies at the law school of Ayn Shams University, Surur entered the Institute of Acting, graduating in 1956 and continuing his studies on a scholarship in the Soviet Union and Hungary. Surur studied the technique of Stanislavsky and worked for a short period in the Arab section of Radio Moscow and published articles attacking Gamal Abdel Nasser's government. In a public demonstration, Surur called Nasser "a fascist."

Following a brawl in a café, Surur was beaten at a police station. He left Moscow for Budapest, Hungary, where he worked for the Arabic-language broadcasting and came into conflict with the Syrians. As a result, Surur lost his job, but during this period he wrote the poems, which were collected in Luzum ma Yalzam (1960, The Necessity of What is Necessary). Upon his return to Egypt in 1964, Surur directed Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard at the Cairo Experimental Theatre, known as the Pocket Theatre.

For a period, Surur worked with  Damascus National Theatre Company in Syria. Until mid-1970s, he taught at the Academy of Arts and made five directorial projects and acted in four plays. Most of his works were directed by others. Fired from the Academy and persecuted by the Secret police, he eventually sank into depression and was confined to an asylum.

Surur's literary works include eight plays, three dramatic adaptations, five collections of poems, and four collections of essays, among them Rihlah fi Thulathiyat Najib Mahfuz (1960, A Journey into Naguib Mahfouz's Trilogy), based on articles published in the magazine al-Thaqafah al-Misriyyah.

Surur language is simple but colourful. He wrote both in verse and in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. Yasin wa-Bahiyah (1965, Yasin and Bahiyya), staged by Karam Mutawi at the Pocket Theatre, was inspired by Alexander Pushkin's verse novel Yevgeny Onegin (1827). The play was cast in the form of a folkloric tale about the love of a young man, Yasin, and his beautiful cousin, Bahiyyah, whose life is destroyed by a feudal lord. Min ayn ajib nas (1976, O, Would That I Had Listeners) combined acting, narration, song, folkloric chanting, and direct political commentary. Malek al-Shahatin (1971, The King of Beggars), directed by Galal al-Sharqawy, was an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Dreigroschenoper. In many plays he used commenting narrator chorus derived from Brech't theater.

In the 1950s Surur acted in a number of plays. In the 1969 film il-Hilwa Aziza (Pretty Aziza), directed by the box-office king Hasan al-Imam, he made a cameo appearance. For the Folk Theater in Cairo, he directed his own play, Shajarat al-zaytin (The Olive Tree) in 1958. As a stage actor Surur had perhaps his most memorable performance in Shawqi Abdel-Hakim's Okazion (1977, Sale). In the production Surur played the part of an unemployed drunken playwright, actor and director, whose tragedy drew material from his own turbulent career.

Surur's dramas have not yet been translated into many European languages. Luzum ma Yalzam was translated into Spanish by Santiago Alba y Javier Barreda under the title Hacer imprescindible lo que es necesario. The poem Tada'iyat Al-Sukr wa'l-Daya' (Drink Delirium) has been translated into English. Brutukulat hukama' rish (1974, Protocols of the Elders of the Café Riche) drew on the notorius The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic forgery; Surur believed in a "Jewish-Zionist-Masonic" plot to infiltrated and destroy Arab culture.

In his critics Surur uncompromisingly considered the quest for "popular tradition" as inability to connect with the present. On the other hand, Surur's works have been seen as a reaction to the Western cultural influence (as stated in the Finnish history of literature Otavan kirjallisuustieto, 1990). During the final years of his life, Surur suffered from alcoholism, paranoia, and recurring bouts of depression. His last article for al-Katib magazine, entitled 'Brutukulat al-thawabit wa-l-mutahawwilat,' dealing with the poet Adonis, came out in 1979. Surur died on October 24, 1978, after a lenghty illness, which kept him mostly bedridden. A collection of articles, Hakadha qala Juha (Thus Spake Juha), was published posthumously by Dar al-Thaqafah al-Jadidah in 1981. With his first wife Sasha Korsakova, whom he met in Russia, Surur had two children. After divorce he married the artist Samira Mohsen. "Naguib was a decent man, who loved his wife dearly, and I never heard him utter obscene word during all our meetings," said Riad Ismat in Artists, Writers and The Arab Spring (2019).

In Qulu li Ain al-Shams (1973, The Eye of the Sun) expressed his anger and frustration of Egypt's defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. His most controversial poem, the banned Kuss-Ummyyat Naguib (1969-1974, Naguib's Mother's Cunt), is a satirical attack on the official culture and Egyptian politics, whom he blaimed for the humiliating defeat. The work remained unpublished for long period, although cassette tapes of the poem were circulated in underground. After trying to publish the poem on the Internet, Surur's son Shohdy Surur was arrested and charged of possessing "immoral booklets and prints" in the court in 2002. Sentenced to imprisonment for a year, Shohdy fled to Moscow into exile.

Egyptic Theatre in the 1950s and 1960s: The many crises in the Arabic word since the late 1940s have affected deeply intellectual life in Egypt. During the state-controlled socialism under Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-1970) arose numerous gifter playwrights, who more or less resisted the pressure of the mass media and the uniform climate of opinion. Several of their plays had strong social or political message. Among the most prolific playwrights was Tawfiq al-Hakim (Soft Hands, The Perplexed Sultan), who used situations and symbols removed from everyday life, but who also explored the political structure of his country. Numan Ashur denied the possibility of reconcilation between the classes in The Lower Class (1956) and The Upper Class (1958). Other major writers included Salah Adb al-Sabbur, whose Tragedy of al-Hallaj (1965) was influenced by T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Yusuf Idris, whose The Farfoors gained huge popularity and Ali Salim (The Ghosts of New Egypt).

For further reading: Artists, Writers and The Arab Spring by Riad Ismat (2019); 'Naguib Surur: The Poetics and Politics of Niyāka,' in Conspiracy in Modern Egyptian Literature by Benjamin Koerber (2018); Egyptian Verse Drama: The Case of Naguib Surur by Gordon Lee Witty (2010); World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Volume 4: The Arab World, edited by Don Rubin (2005); The Undergraduate's Companion to Arab Writers and Their Web Sites by Dona S. Straley (2004); 'Folk Themes in the Works of Najib Surur' by Pierre Cachia, in Arabic & Middle Eastern Literature, Volume 3, Issue 2 (2000); Modern Arabic Literature, ed. by M.M. Badawi (1992)

Selected works:

  • Shajarat al-zaytun, 1958 (play) [Olive Tree]
  • Rihlah fi Thulathiyat Najib Mahfuz: dirasah, 1960 (essays) [A Journey into Naguib Mahfouz's Trilogy]
  • Luzum ma yalzam, 1964 (poetry)
  • Yasin wa-Bahiyah, 1965 (play) [Yassin and Bahia]
  • al-Trajidiya al-insaniyah, 1967 (poetry)
  • Ah, ya leil ya Qamar, 1968 (play) [Oh Night, Oh Moon]
  • Allo Ya Masr, 1968 (play) [Hello Egypt]
  • Miramar, 1968 (play)
  • al-Kalimat al-mutaqati'ah, 1969 (play) [The Crossword Puzzle]
  • Hiwar fi al-masrah, 1969 (criticism) [A Dialogue about Theatre]
  • al-Biraq al-Abyad, 1969 [The White Banner]
  • al-Hukm qabla al-mudawalah, 1970 (play) [Sentence Before Deliberations]
  • al-Zubab al-Azraq, 1971 [Blue Files]
  • Humum al-adab wa-al-fann, 1971 (essays) [On Literature and Art]
  • Malek al-Shahatin, 1971 (The King of Beggars, adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Dreigroschenoper) 
  • Qulu li-'ayn al-Shams: ma'sah shi'riyah, 1972 (play) [The Eye of the Sun]
  • Qulu li Ain al-Shams, 1973 (play) [The Eye of the Sun]
  • Brutukulat hukama' rish: shi'r, 1974 (poems) [Protocols of the Elders of the Café Riche]
  • Ruba'iyat, 1974 (poems) [Quatrains]
  • al-Nigma Umm Dayl, 1974 (play) [The Comet]
  • Afkar Gunouniya fi Daftar Hamlet, 1977 (play) [Mad Thoughts in Hamlet's Notepad]
  • Hakadha qala Juha, 1981 (articles)
  • Min ayn ajib nas, 1984 (play) [Where Do I Go to Find People]
  • al-A'mal al-kamilah, 1993-1997 (works; 4 vols.)
  • Tahta 'aba'at Abi al-'Ala', 2008 (essays) [Under the Mantle of Abu Alaa]

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