As the Israel-Hamas war continues, tensions between Israel and Egypt are simmering. The country, which maintains a cold peace with Israel and a border with Gaza, seems intent on publicly supporting the Palestinian cause, while refusing to let Gazan refugees find shelter from the zone of fighting. Daily headlines like “U.S. working to prevent worsening of the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Egypt” and “Egypt weighed recalling ambassador amid nadir in ties sparked by Gaza war” are indicative of a decades-long detente becoming strained at the seams. Yet, a little over a century ago, a week of remarkable cultural exchange took place. Though it might seem unimaginable in today’s fraught Middle East, perhaps it reminds us that unlikely need not mean impossible as Israel and its regional partners envision the “day after.”
In November 1919, Jerusalem’s residents were visited by the Egyptian theater company of Abd al-Aziz al-Jahili. The performers stayed for five nights. They performed “Charlotte,” a play based on the life of the late 18th century French assassin Charlotte Corday, and “Hamdan al-Andalusi,” about the renowned philosopher and mathematician. They also performed Shakespeare’s “Hamlet, “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
As Ziad Fahmy notes in his “Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture,” al-Jahili’s was one of many popular traveling troupes of the era. Hailing from Cairo, the cultural capital of the Arab world, the actors and director borrowed from earlier translations of the Bard, and likely took poetic license. Scholars suggest they likely utilized a version of “Hamlet” with a happy ending. Dismissed by the conservative elite as occupying a “low” status on the Egyptian cultural scale, al-Jahili and Co. were able to perform unhindered to diverse local audiences. The hosting venue for those November evenings was Qahwat al-Ma‘aref. Located right outside Jaffa Gate, the cafe was in the city’s commercial center and served as Jerusalem’s main public performance venue. Constructed a few years earlier, this central district symbolized the middle-class, non-sectarian, and modern aspirations of late Ottoman-era Jerusalem. The posters advertising the shows were trilingual, written in Arabic, English, and Hebrew in order to attract the widest possible audience, though the actors’ lines were recited in colloquial Egyptian Arabic.
Amusingly and endearingly, the Hebrew ad refers to the show about star-crossed lovers as “Ram ve-Yael” (“Ram and Yael”), borrowing biblical-style names used in an earlier, Hebrew-language version of the show by Israeli actors. In English, the title appears as “Romes and Juliette.”
One can only imagine whether a multicultural audience shared drinks and swapped stories together during intermission those five nights, overcoming, in this unique context, religious and political differences. Regardless, the recollection of this series — a moving mosaic of Arabic, Hebrew, French, and English — might help us envision a revival in calmer times. In a grassroots effort, free from the strictures of the upper echelons of political and social forces, hands of friendship were extended across divides long thought insurmountable. Israel’s holiest city hosted locals and visitors alike to see Egyptians, Israel’s biblical oppressors, lead the assembled in a shared appreciation of the best of the West. Muslims invited Jews to enjoy the classic works of a Christian. History’s foremost playwright couldn’t have written a better scene.
Shakespeare, wrote Rabbi Sacks, “was open to life in all its multiplicity and complexity, its conflicts and contradictions, while other, lesser writers sought to reduce it to a single philosophical frame.”
In considering the legacy of Shakespeare, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks noted that the poet John Keats, in an 1817 letter to his brothers George and Thomas, sought to unpack what made Shakespeare so great in comparison to other writers. The Bard possessed, Keats wrote, “Negative Capability – that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Shakespeare, wrote Rabbi Sacks, “was open to life in all its multiplicity and complexity, its conflicts and contradictions, while other, lesser writers sought to reduce it to a single philosophical frame.” And fittingly for the setting of al-Jahili’s series of shows, Rabbi Sacks added, “What Shakespeare was to literature, Abraham was to faith.”
No doubt months if not years will be spent in forging a post-war Middle East. Investigations will be ordered, trials conducted, and international negotiations will dictate the policies, alliances and repercussions of the fallout from that horrible day. Mysteries and doubts, conflicts and contradictions will abound. But as presidents, parliamentarians, jurists and pundits ponder what comes next, it is the common citizen, the children of Abraham, cousins who dwell together in the land, who will shape the emerging culture. Through generosity of spirit and faith in the future, creative and welcoming cultural exchanges might just yet gift us with a repeat performance of what occurred those five Jerusalem nights. In the meantime, the poster announcing the performances sits in Israel’s National Library, waiting to be unfurled by the next curious visitor.
Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include “The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada, “which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, “Esther in America, Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth” and “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.”