Shylock Meets Palestine: Rethinking Shakespeare in Abdelkader Benali’s Yasser
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Shylock Meets Palestine:
Rethinking Shakespeare in Abdelkader Benali’s Yasser
Abstract

This article discusses the play Yasser, a recent adaptation of The Merchant of Venice by Abdelkader Benali. Benali is a new voice in Shakespearean studies and his play builds from growing interest in Shakespeare and the Arab world. Yasser opens with the young Palestinian actor, Yasser Mansour, about to go on stage as Shylock. However, Yasser has lost a crucial piece of his costume, a prosthetic nose, and this loss prompts him to connect to Shylock's character on a new level. At first, Yasser cannot imagine identifying with Shylock since the character represents the cultural group currently opposing Palestine. Yet, as the play develops, Yasser realizes the persecution he has faced in the West as a Palestinian immigrant allows him a better understanding of Shylock than perhaps anyone else.

Keywords

Benali, Shakespeare, Cultural conflict, Diaspora, Yasser, Shylock, Adaptation, Palestine, Israel, Identity

Abdelkader Benali’s Yasser (2001), a recent adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, expands and complicates the cross-cultural tensions in Shakespeare’s play. Yasser is a monologue centering on the character Yasser Mansour, a Palestinian actor thinking through what it means to play the role of Shylock after growing up near the Israeli-Palestinian border in the 1980’s Intifada. While Yasser contemplates the idea of playing a Jewish character, he struggles to identify with Shylock as a member of the ethnic group that currently opposes Palestine. Benali examines questions of stolen, ascribed, and confused identity through Yasser’s plight to understand Shylock. In this process, the “fiction” of Shakespeare’s text permeates Yasser’s reality. Yasser claims his English girlfriend, who plays Portia, “forces him into Christianity,” and becomes his antagonist both on and off the stage; the pound of flesh becomes symbolic of the blood spilt in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and Yasser’s adult life in the West increasingly reflects a sense of Shylock’s persecution (Benali 12).1 Through Yasser’s reflections, Benali illuminates the fluid boundary between text, performer, and audience.

Situated within the growing interest in Shakespeare and the Arab world, Yasser adds a new layer to the continued process of understanding, adapting, and portraying Shakespeare.2 Benali uses the cultural baggage inherent in staging The Merchant of Venice to think through literature’s role in revealing violent tensions and also at times contributing to cultural conflict. In this process, Benali rethinks what it can mean to perform Shakespeare today. As the play progresses, Yasser Mansour finds a way to make sense of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by connecting imaginatively with Shakespeare’s creation of an earlier social system that situates Jews and Christians on opposing sides. In the porous relationship between [End Page 213] fiction and reality that is developed in Yasser, we see the means of establishing prejudice in literary works as well as their potential for creating common understanding. Benali places the violent cultural conflict of The Merchant of Venice center-stage, continually exposing the play’s problematic performance history in order to establish a dialogue with his audience. The cultural weight of Shakespearean performance becomes a ‘cultural touchstone’ for Benali’s discussion of the current Middle East conflict (or page ref if quotation). In Benali’s rethinking of Shakespeare, Yasser gets to the heart of cross-cultural conflict by looking at questions of identity and exploring literature’s power to create a common means of communication.

Yasser’s Surrounding Context: Diasporic Identity and Multicultural Tension

Benali’s strikingly new voice in Shakespearean studies is in dialogue with a new generation of Dutch migrant authors, including Hafid Bouazza, Said El-Haji, and Khalid Boudou, who discuss the complexities of diasporic identity and experience (Boschiero 8). Benali was born in 1975 in Ighazzazen, Morocco, and moved to the Netherlands in 1979 (Willemsen 74). After achieving early success as a writer, he was encouraged to publish his first novel, Wedding by the Sea, which received the Geertjan Lubberhuizen Prize in 1996 (Minnaard 182). Benali also received the Libris Literature Prize for his second novel, The Long-awaited, in 2002. Both novels address identity struggles amid cross-community conflicts and have been translated into English to reach a...