The Positive Disorder in Tawfiq El- Hakim’s Not a Thing Out of Place

Mona Hashish, Ph.d.
Lecturer of English Literature
The English Department
The Faculty of Arts and Humanities
Suez Canal University, Egypt.


The research throws light on the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq Al- Hakim (1898- 1987) who is a leading Arabic dramatist of the Arab world. Before the Arabs thought of theater as a medium of Arabic art, Al- Hakim had been one of the writers who started writing modern Arabic plays. Al- Hakim had been introduced to western influences, and so, he got the chance to experiment with various theatrical techniques. The paper presents Al- Hakim as a magical realist writer and tackles his play Not a Thing Out of place (1966) as part and parcel of Postcolonial literature. The play incarnates the conflict between the east and west, and exhibits the Egyptians’ feelings as a formerly colonized nation. Egypt, in fact, struggled against the British colonization from 1888 to 1954. The play shows how contemporary Egyptians enjoy their liberation but bear psychological conflict inside them resulting from the long- term colonization. It is interesting in the research to know how and why the characters reverse morality and consider chaos a virtue instead of vice.

Paul Starkey notes that Tawfiq Al- Hakim had studied French at Berlitz School in Cairo, and so he was able to recognize the French theater of Daudet, Anatole France, De Musset and Marivaux (20). Because Al- Hakim could not get a post in the government after receiving his License in Law , his father sent him to obtain his Ph. D. degree from Paris. In Paris between 1925 and 1928, Al- Hakim used to watch several plays in French admiring mostly those of the Italian Luigi Pirandello (1867- 1936) and George Bernard Shaw (1856- 1950) (ibid 22).

Not a Thing Out of Place is a contemporary avant- garde play. In the play, Al- Hakim experiments with the genre of magic realism which is part of post-colonial literature. Marc Maufort points out that magic realism is a literary movement that appeared in the 1920s representing postcolonial culture highlighting “the more collective, societal or mythic” (249). In their attempt to challenge the colonizers’ coercion, magic realist writers manage to assert their national identities by stressing their cultural myths, folklore and traditions.

Magic in the play is incarnated in the inexplicable mental infection that catches up with the visitors who come to the village. It is grotesque to see the three visitors— Young Man, Man with Twirled Moustaches and Young Lady— changing from a state of rebellion to another state of surrender. As a magical realist writer, Tawfiq Al- Hakim historicizes magic referring to the Egyptians’ resentment of the British colonization.

Al- Hakim engages a magical realist mode of representation. He allows domestic space to transcend the colonial model. Domesticity in postcolonial literature is an important issue because postcolonial writers often highlight home as a site of power and struggle for superiority. Al- Hakim challenges the colonial scientific ration and claim of enlightening power. Therefore, a new vision of home emerges, a home which refuses to give up to colonial norms and ideals. Indeed, the village is a postcolonial home that reverses the colonial expectations.

Not a thing Out of Place is meant not to conform to the colonial ideology. The villagers reject the ideal of order and adopt instead their own ideal of ‘positive disorder.’ In fact, domestic disorder indicates individual freedom. The villagers celebrate the idea of being different from the westerners who formerly colonized them. As a postcolonial writer, Al- Hakim stresses this distinctive view of home, a sphere unpolluted by foreign rules.

Jean- Pierre Durix believes that writers from formerly colonized countries bear inferiority complex and think that the metropolitan European models are the best (4). In an attempt to overcome the inferiority complex, writers like Tawfiq Al- Hakim appeal to magic realism to confirm their difference and individuality; they brag of their heritage even if it embodies superstitious ideas.

Not a Thing Out of Place displays the life of some uneducated or poorly educated villagers. Characters like the Barber and Postman are reluctant to work properly. First, the Barber compares his customer’s head to a water-melon and scares him by showing an intention to split it open with his razor to know his thoughts (Al- Hakim 175). Secondly, the Postman gives a handful of daily letters to the Barber to throw in a basin on the floor allowing anybody to pick any letter (176). The Postman asserts, “the people like it this way” (ibid). Hence, the people are indifferent and do not complain about not receiving letters that are addressed to them. It seems that the whole village celebrates irrationality and finds it amusing. Fuad Megally elaborates, “the play seems to suggest that the ultimate in freedom, anarchy, can be fun” (93). That might explain why the villagers are happy in the play.

Tiffany Magnolia notes that “magic realism is… based on realism but which contains fantastic occurrences that are naturalized in the realist narrative” (1). The villagers do not find the idea that visitors change from one mental state to another extraordinary at all. They believe that it is part of their lives to see such thing happening. For example, both Postman and Barber assert to Young Man that the villagers do not complain of their lives, and dislike the Young Man’s description of their village as “chaotic” (Al- Hakim 176). Al- Hakim seamlessly blends realism with magic, so it is hard to separate them in the play. Where realism begins and where magic begins is almost indistinguishable.

M. M. Badawi confirms, “In its place is a community where all values are equal and all are meaningless. … It is clearly a mad extravaganza, a joyless topsy-turvy world where nothing really matters” (85). Magnolia asserts also, “[if] the reader… sees the magical phenomena as odd; the characters accept and integrate these occurrences without having to explain them away” (210). Magical realist drama is meant to remain mysterious keeping some unexplained magical elements. The characters in the play do not deny the existence of a mental infection in the village because it is part of their actual life.

As a matter of fact, both realist and magical elements are similarly politicized in the play. Al- Hakim challenges the westerners’ influences by making the villagers reject the outsiders’ criticism of them. The Young Man in European Dress and the Man in European Dress with Twirled Moustaches represent the westerners. Their statements sound didactic and provocative to the villagers.

For example, Young Man says, “But this is what’s called chaos” (Al- Hakim 176). The villagers hate to see him educate them because he sounds like the former colonizer who claimed to ‘enlighten’ the Egyptians in the past. Immediately, the Postman replies, “Not at all. That chaos you’re talking about is something altogether different” (ibid). The Postman did not give Young Man a chance to talk back. He usurps Young Man’s turn taking and says, “That sort of chaos doesn’t happen here, my dear sir—thank God” (ibid)! Al- Hakim implies that what the colonizers say is not always right by necessity. The villagers say that they are free to have their own logic. Their definitions of abstract matters like ‘chaos’ are different from those of the westerners , and this makes sense also.

Concurrently, the Man in European Dress with Twirled moustaches imposes himself on the villagers’ conversation. His way of opening conversation with them is unpleasant at all. He tells them, “What’s happening around here? Why are you calling to the villagers” (182)? Again the villagers defend themselves by replying rudely. The Postman says, “What’s it to you?” (ibid). Then, the Barber mocks him saying, “And who twirled your moustaches like that for you” (183)? The villagers’ defiant attitude is a means to protect their public security from imperial influences and guarantee a free domestic sphere. Once the Man says, “I’m an Inspector…,” both the Barber and Postman think that he is a police inspector who comes to punish them (ibid). This means that they are aware of the crimes they are committing: the Barber threatens his customer with a razor while the Postman does not distribute the mail among the people and allow anybody to read the secrets of the other.

These discourses between the two opposed parties juxtaposes the westerners’ aggression with the formerly- colonized nation’s dignity insinuating the audience to sympathize with the oppressed party. They, moreover, throw light on the clash between the east and west. Tiffany Magnolia demonstrates,
[postcolonial writers] reiterate cultural clash…and in doing so re-inscribe, inadvertently, the binary Europe = Logic / Non- Europe = Illogic. Theoretically, the way to circumnavigate this binary is to rely on a term like ‘hybridity’ to describe magical realism as a mode that combines the indigenous and the European. Unfortunately, this term only strengthens the binary by fixing one mode to each location Europe = Realism / Non- Europe = Magical (25).

The villagers question the credibility of the criteria of good and evil in the world, and so do not admit the global moral codes any more. They feel free by flouting the pre-conceived social rules. Al- Hakim satirizes the colonizer’s dual morality. This is obvious since the beginning of the play. The philosopher symbolizes the colonizer who is rational and sensible (Al- Hakim 178). Comparing a philosopher to a donkey is an insult in the Arabic tradition. They humorously suggest that the donkey’s big brain is a sign of brilliance. In the same vein, the Postman and Barber argue that a philosopher has a small brain so he is supposedly an idiot. They indirectly say that animals are much better than inhumane colonizers.

According to Patricia Hart, there are two kinds of magic realism: androcentric and feminocentric . The first kind focuses on a male protagonist, while the second highlights a female protagonist (105). In Not a Thing Out of Place, there is only one woman who has a minor role. She looks weak and indecisive. Young Man takes her to the registrar of marriage to marry her without her consent. She does not run away from him while he “leads her away by hand” (Al- Hakim 182) . She only exclaims, “Heaven knows how all this is going to end” (ibid)! The play is an androcentric magical realist because it shows two male characters acting and reacting with outsiders. The Barber and the Postman are the main focus of the play.

It seems that magical realist writers favor the expressionistic technique, and this is for two reasons: first, the nightmarish atmosphere and discomfort suits the kind of magic found in magical realist works. For instance, the mental infection that changes the characters’ manners and beliefs in Not a Thing Out of Place is unpleasant. Magic in that genre is associated with grotesquerie i.e. there is always a gloomy atmosphere at the background of the events.

Second, modern expressionists often rebel against the status quo and this matches also with magical realist literature. By means of absurdity and abstraction, expressionist writers register their rejection of social injustice, and this is the goal of postcolonial literature. Absurdity emits from the characters’ entrapment in a magical village that enchants people mentally metamorphosing them. Though Young Man has rejected the Postman’s lack of commitment to his job, he accepts to open and read a letter which is not his own. Being enchanted by the infection, he says, “Hope it’s all right!

What an extraordinary thing” (177)! When he learns about the young lady who is coming to meet her fiancé at the train station, he is encouraged by the Postman and Barber to wait for her instead of her real fiancé. Young Man again says, “How extraordinary! Hope it’s all right” (179). Admiring the beautiful lady on seeing her, he claims to be her fiancé. The Postman and Barber support Young Man in his claim. The Postman tells the Young Lady, “Tomorrow you’ll come to your senses” (181). The Barber asserts his words, “In the same way as the gentleman has” (ibid). It is therefore absurd that the play begins and ends in chaos.

Al- Hakim reiterates at the end that the characters are imprisoned in a futile cycle of meaninglessness:

Postman: The end will be like the beginning—all one and the same!
Barber: And half a shave’s like a whole one—all one and the same!
Postman: And a letter of yours turns out not to be yours—all one and the same!
Barber: And a head you think is a water-melon, and a water-melon you think is a head—all one and the same (182)!

Al- Hakim emphasizes the same meaning by ending the play with the villagers’ funny song:

Dancing to sound of drum and flute
Into reverse the world we’ll put—
And yet it’s going right we’ll find.
Whether sane or out of mind
It really matters not at all.
Come step it out now, one and all (184).

Tawfiq Al- Hakim abstracts with characterization. First, he picks abstract names for all his characters challenging the traditional list of characters. The characters have no names. They go by profession or gender: Barber, Customer, Postman, Young Man in European Dress, Young Lady, Man with Twirled Moustaches in European dress and Villagers.

Second, Al- Hakim portrays the characters as types that do not develop throughout the play. They are mere symbols—the villagers stand for the oppressed formerly colonized nation while Young Man and Man in European dresses represent the colonizers.

Moreover, the events are unreal. Chris Baldick defines realism as “a lifelike illusion of some ‘real’ world” (184). In Not a Thing Out of Place, it is not likely to find a man loving a lady at first sight and immediately taking her “by the hand” to the registrar of marriage to sign a marriage contract (Al- Hakim 182). Besides, the characters’ behavior looks unreal. It is funny rather than probable that a barber pretends to be mad to scare his customer and make him flee half-shaved. The Barber tells the customer directly, “After all, is there anything wrong about slicing a water-melon with a razor” (Al- Hakim 175)? The way Young metamorphoses is also unexplained and unjustified. After calling the villagers ‘chaotic’ at the beginning of his visit, he confirms to Young Lady, “What’s wrong with this village? It’s the very best. …Everything’s reasonable here. God be my witness—I am now absolutely convinced” (181).

Al- Hakim abstracts with language as well. The play is full of fast-moving dialogues. For instance, the elliptical telegram-like phrases exchanged by the Barber and Postman convey a pseudo philosophic logic reflecting the villagers’ inherent smartness:

Barber: What’s a philosopher?
Postman: Someone with a big brain.
Barber: That’ll be me.
Postman: No, you’re the donkey.
Barber: Why?
Postman: Because a donkey’s got a bigger brain.
Barber: How’s that?
Postman: I’ll tell you: Ever seen a donkey having a shave at a barber’s?
Barber: No.
Postman: Is that clever of him or not?
Barber: Yes (Al- Hakim 177).

The conversation between the Postman and the Barber makes some sense. There is a code of logic that furnishes that bizarre dialogue with a sort of order. Each believes that the donkey is more intelligent than the philosopher because he has bigger head and brain (Al- Hakim 178). In one sense, the villagers might prefer not to think and contemplate about life because it is hostile and unpleasant. It can be suggested that they choose to delude themselves rather than confront the harshness of life. In another sense, the playwright wants to show that the villagers are instinctively smart , and they are victims of the government that has not offered them good education. This idea is also quite clear in their ability to display a sensible argument.

As a postcolonial writer, Tawfiq Al- Hakim does not want to fulfill the colonizers’ stereotypical images of the Egyptian villagers as ‘stupid.’ Therefore, he delineates them as ‘poorly educated’ or even ‘uneducated’ but never ‘intellectually inferior.’ The Barber’s conversation with his customer proves that same point as well:

Barber (taking hold of the customer’s bald head): When there’s a water-melon right there in front of you all nice and shiny, how can you find out whether it’s red inside or unripe except by splitting it open with a knife?
Customer: …..Slice the customer’s head (Al- Hakim 174)?
Barber: Isn’t that the way to see whether it’s red inside or unripe (175)?
Though the Barber sounds insane, he makes some sense.

The ‘illusive’ title of the play Not a Thing Out of Place is repeated as a phrase towards the end. The Postman asks Young Man, “Convinced that this village of ours is not chaotic” (181). Young Man replies, “Absolutely so—in this place of yours not a thing out of place” (ibid). The statement “Not a Thing Out of Place” is illusive because it implies a contrary meaning. The villagers are bewildered and enchanted. They are mystified by the infection. The audience might sympathize with them for being chaotic and unaware of their own misery. The despotic authorities can be blamed for leading the people to this miserable state. Political corruption results in moral disintegration. The phrase “not a thing out of place” actually expresses the point of view of the oppressed party. The villagers know that they energize chaos, but this is their way to prove their identity and challenge the westerners who call for ‘order.’

The setting then—not the events or characters— are realistic. The place is a typical Egyptian village. In magic realist works, realism not fantasy is the dominant. It is undeniable that local aspects dominate the play. Al- Hakim delineates particular features of the Egyptian countryside. For example, the peddler barber is always there roaming Egyptian villages with his tools kit and setting up by any wall shaving for the poor villagers in exchange of a little sum of money. Besides, the metaphor comparing one’s head to a water- melon is commonly used by Egyptians. It often indicates a bald head. Moreover, the Barber uses an Egyptian idiom “put a summer water- melon in your stomach and relax!” (Al- Hakim 181). He means to comfort Young Man that the registrar of marriage will marry him to Young Lady without problems. Finally, the villagers appear at the end of the play to send off the supposed bride and groom in a traditional procession. They sing and play music using drums and flutes, folkloric oriental musical instruments(184).

Tawfiq Al- Hakim balances the gloominess of the play with his sense of humor. For example, although signs of poverty are clear on the Barber and the Postman, the Barber introduces himself to the Man with Twirled Moustaches saying, “We’re respectable and sensible people. My honored friend is the Grand Bey, Director of the District Post Office, while I myself am the owner of the hairdressing establishments in the district” (183). The names of the village singers are also comic: “Naboubou” and “Shakaa Bakaa” (ibid). Ultimately, the play ends in “excited shouting, with singing and mad dancing” (184).

Last but not least, Tawfiq El- Hakim can be compared to his Italian peer Luigi Pirandello who creates humorous intellectual drama that embodies philosophical ideas. Not a Thing Out of Place discusses the conflict between the east and the west, the Egyptians’ dilemma after World War II, the strong rebellious spirit of the formerly colonized nation, the value of serious work and the relation between freedom and anarchy. All these ideas are highlighted in the play where language plays more important role than action.


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