Research in African Literatures 35.1 (2004) 198
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Tawfiq al-Hakim: A Reader's Guide. By William Maynard Hutchins. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2003. xvi + 267 pp. ISBN 0-89410-885-9.
The name of the Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898-1987) is synonymous with the beginnings and development of Arabic drama. Al-Hakim's literary career spanned more than four decades, from the end of the twenties until the mid-eighties. He also wrote novels, short stories, and essays. In Tawfiq al-Hakim: A Reader's Guide, the author, William Maynard Hutchins, gives the plays and novels equal importance. Hutchins, the translator into English of a number of Al-Hakim's major works, is without doubt one of the leading authorities on the life and works of the Egyptian writer. Hutchins introduces his book as "an invitation to a dialogue with the works of Tawfiq al-Hakim rather than a definitive analysis of them" (xi). He believes that Al-Hakim, widely read in the Arab world, is little known in the West. In this, his most recent offering on Al-Hakim, Hutchins tries to redress the situation.
Al-Hakim's vast and wide-ranging output covers a variety of themes, foremost among them being the conflict between science and art, and science and religion. In a number of his works there is an ongoing dialogue between East and West and between feeling and intellect. His early plays have a social message and content, and were quite popular on the stage. Following three years of study in France (1925-28) where he discovered Western literary movements, predominantly the Theater of the Absurd, Al-Hakim turned to writing thought-provoking philosophical plays "replete with allusions to Islamic and world literature" (98). This can be seen in a foreword to the first edition of his play Pygmalion where Al-Hakim says that among his plays The People of the Cave was inspired by the Qu'ran, Shahrazad by The Arabian Nights, and Pygmalion by Greek drama, after he saw a film of Shaw's play (1942: 17-18).
The present book concentrates on Al-Hakim's major plays as well as novels. There is a chapter on the short stories and another on the essays. These are followed by a survey of Arab critics' views of Al-Hakim. Hutchins devotes the final two chapters to Al-Hakim's view of women and the religious dimension in his works. Most critics are of the opinion that Al-Hakim was a self-confessed misogynist. Hutchins, who initially regarded him as "a liberal male chauvinist" (195), now sees him as an "Islamic feminist" (195). One may or may not agree with Hutchins on this point. However, one cannot help but be converted to Hutchins's view that there is "an amazing continuity of purpose and of theme throughout Al-Hakim's works" (89), despite some Arabists' beliefs that there is considerable inconsistency in their quality. Hutchins, moreover, convinces his readers to view Al-Hakim as a writer who advanced "the fortunes of twentieth-century Arabic literature by writing it" (267). He sets out all his arguments clearly, frequently comparing Al-Hakim's works to those of some nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western writers. This element of comparison together with Hutchins's thorough knowledge and undoubted passion for his subject succeed in making accessible to Western readers a writer who deserves recognition beyond the small sanctum of Arabs and Arabists.
Institute of Linguists, London, England