Interview: Dr Islam Issa
Our New Generation Thinkers for 2017 were announced at Sage as part of BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival. This week we talk to Dr Islam Issa from Birmingham City University.
We all know what Shakespeare means to the British: the iconic writer is at the heart of our artistic culture and on every school curriculum.
But what does he mean to other cultures? And what new perspectives of the great man's work are revealed through their appreciation of him?
“I remember being in a very rural part of Egypt, where literacy rates really aren't that high. And people would ask me: 'What do you do'? When I mention 'English literature', immediately they would come back with 'Shakespeare!',” says Dr Islam Issa, Lecturer in Literature at Birmingham City University.
“It's amazing, really. Shakespeare's position in Arab popular culture is much more prevalent than you would expect. He's very well known.
“All his plays have been translated and many are regularly performed - often by some of the biggest actors in the region. These plays are advertised in the daily papers.”
Also, lots of his ideas and language are taken up in popular culture, in films and pop songs.
“For example, the phrase 'To be or not to be' crops up so often in speeches and songs that many people mistake it as something with an Arab origin,” says Dr Issa.
“If you talk about someone being 'a Romeo' then people know what you mean.”
Dr Issa's work has been driven by a desire to unearth new perspectives on our canonical writers from the way other cultures respond to them. He has already written an award-winning book about John Milton in the Middle East.
And now he hopes that his collaboration with Radio 3 will open the audiences' minds and encourage them to challenge themselves and their preconceptions about the writers they love.
“I want to look to less appreciated readers, or those that are often overlooked, and demonstrate what they can tell us about writers and their work,” says Dr Issa.
“For me, it's all part of a wider representation issue that I want to correct. In the past people would only look at what the writer could tell us, the reader. Whereas I think we can learn a lot from what the reader can tell us about the writer.
“So, I don't ask what reading Shakespeare can tell us about what he thought of Arabs. But what Arabs can tell us about Shakespeare by the way they read and respond to his work.”
There are two reasons why Shakespeare is such an interesting example to study, according to Dr Issa.
The first is that his work was spread far and wide across the world by the British Empire.
The second is that Shakespeare's plays have a universal quality that appeals to people all over the world.
“Especially the tragedies,” confirms Dr Issa. “While the comedies may rely on puns that don't always translate that well, the tragedies are about the big eternal themes of love, betrayal, trust. These are things that connect with people whatever their background might be.”
His Radio 3 programme will explore how British occupation of the Middle East had an indirect impact on the arts. By bringing about a rising religious and national zeal, the British inadvertently nurtured both keen interest in and resistance of foreign cultures and literatures, characterised by Shakespeare.
This developed into translations of his plays, then performances in major theatres – a tradition that has lasted to this day.
The programme will then build on this platform, exploring how Arabs have adapted Shakespeare on the stage over the last century, with examples of how some things have been added, like Arab settings and props in performances of Romeo and Juliet. And how some details have been removed, like references to ethnicity in Othello.
“I find this particularly interesting as it reveals just how important those aspects of the play are. Without those ethnic references you lose aspects of Othello's character,” says Dr Issa.
“I'm hoping listeners realise that studying how people read, what they read, when they read it and how they adapt it to their own culture has value as a means of providing deeper understanding of a writer.
“By introducing new readers to our conversation about great writers I hope we can see more of what people have in common with each other. But also that we can celebrate our differences as well.
“I believe these groups of readers have a lot to say. And we should be listening.”