Sympathists

Classicism in Arabia: On Classicism V

In Classicism on May 2, 2009 at 8:27 pm

byblosD. Hannah, Dubai

“Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this 40 degree + heat.”

Having recently been exposed to a couple of very good examples of classics, I thought I might share some thoughts on the idea of classicism – if not what compels people to put pen to paper, then at least to offer some commonalities that may help decide why we tack the label “classic” to things. In no particular order (i.e. chronologically) I have wandered through the ruins of Richard III’s court and the Roman Empire, stopping briefly along the way to peek Saddam’s Iraq and have a quick look at Phoenician artefacts displayed in a crusader citadel.

On the 19th of March I was fortunate enough to see a performance commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Richard III subtitled “An Arab Tragedy”. I was pretty excited about the prospect – Richard III is one of my favourite plays, and it liberally encrusts the cultural landscape (my kingdom for an adjective). How though, did a play written circa 1591 by a man widely regarded as the greatest playwright of the English language come to the Jahili fort in Al Ain, UAE, to be performed in Arabic by a cast of mainly Lebanese actors under a Syrian director?

The performance took place in a reconstructed fort, and was entirely in Arabic, with an underscore performed by live Kuwaiti musicians under an English musical director. Subtitles were provided on a large TV screen situated next to the stage. Interestingly, these were less of a text, than a running commentary – god was mentioned as both “god” and “allah” on different occasions, and metaphors reworked so as to capture the local equivalent and preserve Shakespeare’s “radical attack on language which makes him so modern” (director courtesy of the notes accompanying the play).

Richard III is the story of Richard of Gloucester, and how he murders and sleeps his way into supreme executive power merely “determined to prove a villain”. As such, I wondered how it would fit into an Arabic context – how could the Arab world find common enough ground to allow for a reworking of a play from a medieval christian background. I needn’t have worried, for the play spanned a broad history of the Arab world, particularly the 20th century, from fighting over boundaries to self made dictators determined to wreak havoc on their own populations (sporting bushy moustaches and military uniforms – ring a bell anyone?). Along side said dictator was the modern looking suit, definitely Arabic but with a French accent and affectations, providing “advice” and demanding payment in kind. Embedded reporters provided up to date reports, while a subdued populace was rarely sighted. The air was so thick with regional symbolism you could cut it with a chain-saw.

And it was here that I first thought of one prerequisite for being a classic – endurance. That is to say, something is classic because it endures, it doesn’t endure because it is classic. Power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely is a human theme, unconfined by region, religion or time. This is what makes Richard III a classic piece, the flexibility to be unbound and placed in any context. And it is the exploring of these enduring themes and characterisation of the people that inevitably inhabit these roles that make Shakespeare a classic.

Classic architecture was next on the menu. A trip to Beirut culminated in a trip to the world heritage site of Byblos (Jbeil) which has seen human habitation since the Neolithic period (5000 BC). A crusader citadel built with Roman columns stands on a Greek site built on a Phoenician city.  The remains of a town have been excavated, but the Roman ruins stand partially intact; the remains of a columned street (7 columns intact) and an amphitheatre amongst others. Again, endurance is the key here. The Romans departed Byblos in 395 AD yet their ruins stand where others did not. The lines and attention to detail stand the test of time, they endure and are now thought of as “classic” architecture – indeed are considered ‘architecture’  – design with some regard to aesthetic effect.

As Mr. Inch pointed out in an earlier post, “confronting my own lack of belonging” is at once a universal and I would argue enduring theme; indeed a classic theme – a question asked from earliest days, and increasingly re-asked in the modern dislocated world. Power, whether in the empirical Roman form – manifested today in its remains, or in the retelling of the history of a hundred different nation states is another.

Dive thoughts, down to my soul…

Image Credit: http://www.habeeb.com/lebanon.photos.74.html


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