Tawfiq al-Hakim

From New World Encyclopedia

Tawfīq el-Hakīm
Tawfiq al-Hakim.jpg
Undated photograph of Tawfiq al-Hakim
Born October 9 1898(1898-10-09)
Alexandria, Khedivate of Egypt
Died July 26 1987 (aged 88)
Cairo, Egypt
Occupation Novelist, Playwright
Nationality Egyptian
Notable work(s) The People of the Cave

Tawfiq al-Hakim or Tawfik el-Hakim (Egyptian Arabic: توفيق الحكيم, ALA-LC: Tawfīq el-Ḥakīm; October 9, 1898 – July 26, 1987) was a prominent Egyptian writer and visionary. He is one of the pioneers of the Arabic novel and drama, especially in the adaptation of the literary language, which had previously made literature inaccessible to a large portion of the public. Al-Hakim also weighed in on some of the social and political issues of his day through his dramas.

Early life

Tawfiq Ismail al-Hakim was born on October 9, 1898, in Ramleh city in Alexandria, Egypt, to an Egyptian father and a Turkish mother.[1] His father, a wealthy and illustrious Egyptian civil officer, worked as a judge in the judiciary in the Egyptian village of al-Delnegat, in central Beheira province. His mother was the daughter of a retired Turkish officer. Tawfiq al-Hakim enrolled at the Damanhour primary school at the age of seven. He left primary school in 1915; his father put him in a public school in the Beheira province, where Tawfiq al-Hakim finished secondary school. Due to the lack of proper secondary schooling in the province, Tawfiq al-Hakim then moved to Cairo with his uncles to continue his studies at Muhammad Ali secondary school.

After studying in Cairo, he moved to Paris, where he graduated in law and began preparing a PhD thesis at the Sorbonne, but his attention turned increasingly to the Paris theaters and the Opera. After three years in Paris, he abandoned his studies and returned to Egypt in 1928, full of ideas for transforming Egyptian theater.

Egyptian drama before Tawfiq al-Hakim

Al-Hakim's predecessor in the development of Egyptian drama was one of Egypt's greatest littérateurs, Ahmed Shawqi, the "Prince of Poets." Scholars consider Ahmed Shawqi the "greatest" poet within the Arabic Neoclassicist movement.[2] During his later years he penned a number of verse dramas. After returning from his exile to Spain, in addition to Shawqi religious poetry, Shawqi wrote five tragedies using themes from Egyptian and Islamic history. These included Masraa' Kliyubatra (The Death of Cleopatra, 1929), Majnun Layla (Driven mad by Layla, 1931), Amirat el-Andalus (The Andalusian Princess, 1932), and Ali Bey al-Kebir (an eighteenth-century ruler of Egypt), a play originally written in 1893 and later revised. His dramas provide the immediate context for al-Hakim's plays.


Ahl al-Kahf

The publication and performance of his play, Ahl al-Kahf (The People of the Cave, 1933), was a significant event in Egyptian drama. The story of 'the people of the cave' is found in the eighteenth surah of the Qur'an as well as other sources. It concerns the tale of the seven sleepers of Ephesus who, in order to escape the Roman persecution of Christians, take refuge in a cave.[3] They sleep for three hundred years, and wake up in a completely different era without realizing it. In its use of overarching themes - rebirth into a new world and a predilection for returning to the past - al-Hakim's play touches upon some of the broad cultural topics that were of major concern to his intellectual milieu.

When the National Theater Troupe was formed in Egypt in 1935, its first production was The People of the Cave. The performances were not a success. Audiences seemed unimpressed by the sparsity of action on stage compared to the more popular types of drama. The problems in the realm of both production and reception seem to have led al-Hakim to use some of his play-prefaces to develop the notion of his plays as "théâtre des idées," works for reading rather than performance. Despite the reception, he continued to write plays using philosophical themes from a variety of cultural sources like Pygmalion (1942), which blended the legends of Pygmalion and Narcissus.


Within a year, al-Hakim produced another major and highly revered work, Shahrazad (Scheherazade, 1934). While the title character is the famous narrator of the One Thousand and One Nights collection, the scenario for this play is set after all the tales have been told. Now cured of his vicious anger against the female sex by the story-telling virtuosity of the woman who is now his wife, King Shahriyar abandons his previous ways and embarks on a journey in quest of knowledge, only to discover himself caught in a dilemma whose focus is Shahrazad herself. Through a linkage to the ancient goddess, Isis, Shahrazad emerges as the ultimate mystery, the source of life and knowledge. Even though the play is now considered one of his finest works, Taha Hussein, a prominent Arab writer and one of the leading intellectuals of twentieth century Egypt criticized its suitability for a theatrical performance. Later, the two writers co-wrote a novel, The Enchanted Castle (Al-Qasr al-Mashur, 1936), in which both authors revisited some of the themes from al-Hakim's play.[4]

Some of al-Hakim's frustrations with the performance issues were ameliorated by an invitation in 1945 to write a series of short plays for publication in newspaper article form. These works were gathered together into two collections, Masrah al-Mugtama (Theater of Society, 1950) and al-Masrah al-Munawwa (Theater Miscellany, 1956). The most memorable of these plays is Ughniyyat al-Mawt (Death Song), a one-act play that depicts the fraught atmosphere in Upper Egypt as a family awaits the return of the eldest son, a student in Cairo, for him to carry out a murder in response to the expectations of a blood feud. It formed the basis of an Egyptian short film starring Faten Hamama. Another play from this collection include Sahira (Witch), which formed a popular Egyptian short film by the same name, starring Salah Zulfikar and Faten Hamama.

Al Aydi Al Na'imah

Al-Hakim's response to the social transformations brought about by the 1952 revolution, which he later criticized, was the play, Al Aydi Al Na'imah (Soft Hands, 1954). The 'soft hands' of the title refer to those of a prince of the former royal family who finds himself without a meaningful role in the new society, a position in which he is joined by a young academic who has just finished writing a doctoral thesis on the uses of the Arabic preposition hatta. The play explores in an amusing, didactic fashion the ways in which these two apparently useless individuals set about identifying roles for themselves in the new socialist context. This play illustrates al-Hakim's development as a playwright not onbly in tackling topics of contemporary interest but through a closer linkage between the pacing of dialogue and actions on stage. His play formed the basis of a popular Egyptian film by the same name, starring Salah Zulfikar and Ahmed Mazhar.

Al Sultan Al-Ha'ir

In 1960, al-Hakim reached back to an earlier period of Egyptian history to comment on contemporary politics. Al Sultan Al-Ha'ir (The Perplexed Sultan) explores the issue of the legitimation of power. A Mamluk sultan at the height of his power is suddenly faced with the fact that he has never been manumitted (released from slavery) and that he is thus ineligible to be ruler. By 1960 when this play was published, some of the initial euphoria and hope engendered by the Nasserist regime, given expression in Al Aydi Al Na'imah, had begun to fade. The Egyptian people found themselves confronting some unsavory realities such as the use of the secret police to squelch the public expression of opinion, and the personality cult surrounding the figure of Gamal Abdel Nasser. In this historical context, al-Hakim's play can be seen as a somewhat courageous statement of the need for even the mightiest to adhere to the laws of the land and specifically a plea to the ruling military regime to eschew the use of violence and instead seek legitimacy through application of the law.

Other plays include Rosasa Fel Qalb (A Bullet in the Heart). The film version was released in Cairo theaters starring Salah Zulfikar. The events revolve around Naguib, who has a dire financial situation, who falls in love with the girl Fifi at first sight but does not know who she is, so he tells his friend, Dr. Sami, the story and she's originally his friend's fiancé. This play is one of the three plays of Al-Hakim, in which the conclusion was open and unconvincing. Al-Hakim continued to write plays during the 1960s, among the most popular of which were Masir Sorsar (The Fate of a Cockroach, 1966) and Bank al-Qalaq (Anxiety Bank, 1967).

Style and themes

The theatrical art of al-Hakim consists of three types:

1- Biographical Theater: The group of plays he wrote in his early life expressed his personal experience and attitudes towards life. There were more than 400 plays which include "al-Arees", (The Groom) and "Amama Shibbak al-Tazaker", (Before the Ticket Office). In addition to displaying al-Hakim's artistic ability, they also express his critique of modern Egyptian social life.

2- Intellectual Theater: This dramatic style produced plays to be read not acted. He even refused to call them plays, publishing them in separate books.

3- Objective Theater: Its aim was to contribute to Egyptian society by addressing social values, exposing the realities of Egyptian life.

Naguib Mahfouz and Tawfiq Alhakim in 1982

While al-Hakim's earlier plays were all composed in the literary language, he was to conduct a number of experiments with different levels of dramatic language. In the play, Al-Safqah (The Deal, 1956), for example - with its themes of land ownership and the exploitation of poor peasant farmers - he couched the dialogue in something he termed "a 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 Egyptian Arabic, was comprehensible to a larger population than the literate elites of the city. Another of al-Hakim's plays of the 1960s, Ya tali al-Shajarah (1962; The Tree Climber, 1966), was one of his most successful works at using the literary language for effect. The dialogue in the literary language was used to contribute an air of non-reality to the atmosphere of this Theatre of the Absurd style work involving extensive passages of non-communication between husband and wife.

War-time political writings

During WWII, al-Hakim published many articles against Nazism and Fascism.[5] The articles portrayed Adolf Hitler as a demon whose victory would herald the end of human civilization, bringing instead a "return to barbarism ... tribalism, and beastliness."[5]

In the same period al-Hakim was one of the contributors of Al Katib Al Misri, a literary magazine started in Cairo in October 1945.[6]

Personal life and death

Hakim was viewed as something of a misogynist in his younger years, having written a few misogynistic articles while also remaining a bachelor for an unusually long period of time. He was given the laqab (i.e. epithet) of عدو المرأة ('Aduww al Mar'a), meaning "Enemy of woman." However, he eventually married and had two children, a son and a daughter. His wife died in 1977; his son died in 1978 in a car accident. He died on July 23, 1987.[7]

List of works

  • A Bullet in the Heart, 1926 (Plays)
  • Leaving Paradise, 1926 (Plays)
  • The People of the Cave, 1933 (Play)
  • The Return of the Spirit, 1933 (Novel)
  • Shahrazad, 1934 (Play)
  • Muhammad the Prophet, 1936 (Biography)
  • The Diary of a Country Prosecutor, 1937 (Novel) (translation exists at least into Spanish, German and Swedish, and into English by Abba Eban as Maze of Justice (1947))
  • A Man without a Soul, 1937 (Play)
  • A Sparrow from the East, 1938 (Novel)
  • Ash'ab, 1938 (Novel)
  • The Devil's Era, 1938 (Philosophical Stories)
  • My Donkey told me, 1938 (Philosophical Essays)
  • Praxa/The problem of ruling, 1939 (Play)
  • The Dancer of the Temple, 1939 (Short Stories)
  • Pygmalion, 1942
  • Solomon the Wise, 1943
  • Boss Kudrez's Building, 1948
  • King Oedipus, 1949
  • Soft Hands, 1954
  • Equilibrium, 1955
  • Isis, 1955
  • The Deal, 1956
  • The Sultan's Dilemma, 1960
  • The Tree Climber, 1966
  • The Fate of a Cockroach, 1966
  • Anxiety Bank, 1967
  • The Return of Consciousness, 1974

Novel and play adaptations

  • 1944: A Bullet in the Heart (film)
  • 1960: The Holy Bond (film)
  • 1963: Soft Hands (film)
  • 1964: A Bullet in the Heart (play)
  • 1964: Food for the Millions (Radio miniseries)
  • 1967: Leaving Paradise (film)
  • 1971: The Butterfly (TV short)
  • 1973: Death Song (Short film)
  • 1973: Witch (Short film)
  • 1976: The Quiet Nest (film)
  • 1977: The Return of the Spirit (TV miniseries)
  • 1986: A Sparrow from the East (film)


Tawfiq al-Hakim is one of the major pioneers in modern Arabic literature, particularly of modern Egyptian theater. He was a founder of that literary tradition, as Taha Hussein had earlier noted.[4] His struggles on behalf of Arabic drama as a literary genre, its techniques, and its language, are parallel with his achievement of a key role in contemporary Egyptian political and social life. The triumphs and failures that are represented by the reception of his enormous output of plays are emblematic of the issues that have confronted the Egyptian drama genre as it has endeavored to adapt its complex modes of communication to Egyptian society.[8]

Hakim's 1956 play Death Song was the basis of the libretto to Mohammed Fairouz's 2008 opera Sumeida's Song. [9]

A two volume English translation of collected plays is in the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works.

Egyptian national honors

  • EGY Order of the Nile - Grand Cordon BAR.png Grand Cordon of the Order of the Nile
  • EGY Order of Merit - Grand Cross BAR.png Grand Cross of the Order of Merit (Egypt)

Foreign honors

  • SYR Order Merit 1kl rib Grand cordon of Order of Civil Merit of the Syrian Arab Republic (Syria)
  • TN Order Merit Rib Grand Cordon of the National Order of Merit of Tunisia (Tunisia)


  1. Arthur Goldschmidt, "al-Hakim, Tawfiq, in Biographical Dictionary of Modern Egypt (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000, ISBN 1555872298), 52. Retrieved November 26, 2023.
  2. Roland Greene, "Arabic poetry," trans. Roger Allen in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th rev. edition eds, Stephen Cushmans, et. al. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0691154916), 69. Retrieved November 27, 2023.
  3. George Archer, "The Hellhound of the Qur'an: A Dog at the Gate of the Underworld," Journal of Qur'anic Studies 18(3) (October 2016): 1–33.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Katarina Beskova, "In the Enchanted Castle with Shahrazad: Taha Husayn and Tawfiq al-Hakim between Friendship and Rivalry," Arabic and Islamic Studies in Honour of Ján Pauliny Comenius University in Bratislava, (2016): 33–47. Retrieved November 26, 2023.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Israel Gershoni, "Demon and Infidel," in Nazism, the Holocaust and the Middle East, eds., Francis Nicosia and Ergene Boğaç (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2018, ISBN 978-1785337840), 82–85.
  6. Reuven Snir, "Arabic in the Service of Regeneration of Jews: The Participation of Jews in Arabic Press and Journalism in the 19th and 20th Centuries," Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 59(3) (2006): 301.
  7. Asharq Al-Awsat (The Middle East), "This Day in History-July 23: The Death of Tawfiq al-Hakim," July 23, 1992.
  8. Roger Allen, "The achievements of Tawfiq Al-Hakim," in An Introduction to Arabic Literature (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0521772303). Retrieved November 17, 2023.
  9. Sherri Rase, "Conversations—with Mohammed Fairouz," [Q]onStage, April 8, 2011. Retrieved November 26, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Allen, Roger. "The achievements of Tawfiq Al-Hakim," in An Introduction to Arabic Literature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0521772303
  • Archer, George. "The Hellhound of the Qur'an: A Dog at the Gate of the Underworld," Journal of Qur'anic Studies 18(3) (October 2016): 1–33.
  • Gershoni, Israel. "Demon and Infidel," in Nazism, the Holocaust and the Middle East, eds., Francis Nicosia and Ergene Boğaç. New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1785337840
  • Goldschmidt, Arthur. "al-Hakim, Tawfiq, in Biographical Dictionary of Modern Egypt. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000. ISBN 1555872298
  • Greene, Roland. "Arabic poetry," translated by Roger Allen in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th rev. edition, edited by Stephen Cushmans, et. al. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0691154916
  • Rase, Sherri. "Conversations—with Mohammed Fairouz," [Q]onStage, April 8, 2011. Retrieved November 26, 2023.
  • Snir, Reuven. "Arabic in the Service of Regeneration of Jews: The Participation of Jews in Arabic Press and Journalism in the 19th and 20th Centuries," Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 59(3) (2006): 301.
  • Asharq Al-Awsat (The Middle East), "This Day in History-July 23: The Death of Tawfiq al-Hakim," July 23, 1992.

External links

Link retrieved November 26, 2023.


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