NEA Literature Fellowships

Mohammed Albakry

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(2014 - Translation)

Comedy of Sorrows by Ibrahim El-Husseini

[translated from the Arabic]

Note: Each character has two voices: a regular voice and an internal, private voice confined to the character’s own thoughts. We hear the second voice, but do not see the character use it.

Scene 1: Moments of Warmth and Oppression

(Roads wind and zigzag, some rise upward and others gradually slope down. We see a state of chaos:  barren trees, clotheslines, a dumpster, what appears to be tombstones and empty courtyards where people seem to live. HAFIZ, the old cemetery guard, whose exact age is hard to guess, is gray-haired, with a gray beard. His appearance suggests very old age. He wears a galabia under a long coat and holds a thick walking stick in his hand.  HAFIZ appears to emerge from the interior of the theatrical space with steady, slow steps, while carrying a small lantern in one hand and a stack of files under his arm.  He circles around looking for a place to hide his files. While he moves, he stares at the faces of the audience.)

HAFIZ (internal voice)

Ideas are made by prophets and stolen by thieves. Hide your ideas; the thieves are coming.

(HAFIZ hides his stack of files inside an old box that was buried under a pile of old things.)

Prophets uphold the truth in the face of brutal power and lies while thieves uphold shameless lies in the face of truth. Hide your ideas and your dreams; behind every dreaming prophet lies a thief.

(HAFIZ raises his stick and strikes at a wall. The stage light reveals YUSUF and NIQRAZAN waking up from their sleep.)


What’s going on, Uncle Hafiz? Is it morning or what?


Hey, Uncle, it’s still dark. Not a single ray of light in the sky.

HAFIZ (internal voice)

The sun today has the taste of joy, the smell of perfume, the delicacy of butterflies, and the softness of roses; she has the power of love and the warmth of the beloved…The sun today needs someone to befriend her, someone to give her love for love, not someone to give her away. The sun today, if she comes when we are not ready for her, may not come again.

HAFIZ leans back to one side and starts to spin the pile of wool in front of him.)


Uncle Hafiz isn’t really himself today, Niqrazan. I don’t know why, but I have a feeling he wants to tell us something.


(walking on all fours, on his hands and legs, like a dog)

I’m pretty sure it’s nothing; he’s the same, we’re the same—like a bunch of roaches scrounging in a trash heap. We’ll die from hunger before we find anything good to eat…

(NIQRAZAN searches in the trash heap.)

Nothing. Not even a crust of bread.

Excerpt in Arabic

About Ibrahim El-Husseini

Ibrahim El-Husseini is a prolific writer well known in Egypt and throughout the Arab world as a dramatist and theater critic. He has won numerous awards, including the Egyptian Higher Council for Culture award for his plays The Final Days of Akhenaton, Tattoo Birds, and The Piper, the Egypt Writers Union Award for Museum of Human Organs, and the Gomhourya Newspaper Award for Garden of the Assassins. Comedy of Sorrows has won many critical accolades and was described as “…a major creative which the author chooses to ask questions rather than offer ready-made answers.” (Girgus Shukry, Journal of Radio and Television)

Mohammed Albakry is an Egyptian-American linguist and translator. He is working on editing and translating (with Rebekah Maggor) of Tahrir Plays and Performance Texts from the Egyptian Revolution, an anthology of contemporary Egyptian drama, to be published by Seagull Publications and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Albakry authored and co-authored numerous peer-reviewed articles and scholarly papers published in various international journals of linguistics, and his translations of Arabic literature appeared in a number of literary publications, including Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures and International Journal of Arabic-English Studies. He is a professor of English and applied linguistics at Middle Tennessee State University, and currently (for the academic year 2013-2014),  a residential fellow at the Humanities Institute of the University of Connecticut.

Photo courtesy of  Mohammed Albakry

Translator's Statement

My translation project Tahrir Plays and Performance Texts from the Egyptian Revolution, as the title indicates, engages with Arabic dramatic literature from Egypt and reflects the divergent ways in which the Egyptian theater has responded to and participated in social and political change in contemporary Egypt. My goal in this project is to produce playable texts meant first and foremost for theatrical performances and dramatic readings in the U.S. while avoiding the various ways in which the texts could be misinterpreted and Orientalized.

Without leveling out linguistic or cultural specificities, I take the principles of clarity, naturalist dialogue, psychological accuracy, and relevance to the target audience as my main guiding principles. My first step in the translation process is to identify the linguistic and stylistic features of the originals and attempt to create parallel dramatic effects in English. But I still consider my first draft a work in progress that needs more polishing  to bring it closer to a stage-oriented text. Because of the immediate relevancy of the project and the prestige of the NEA award, there has been a great deal of interest in producing or staging dramatic readings of some of the plays in the anthology. The NEA grant will provide support for some of these productions and will also enable me to organize dramatic readings during the translation process to get a feel for how the translated texts sound in the mouths of actors.