Alfred Farag (1929-2005)
By Nehad Seleiha
Born in Alexandria in 1929, Alfred Farag, who died on 4 December, is one
of the most eminent playwrights of the post-1952 Revolution period. At
Farouk I (later Alexandria) University, Faculty of Arts, he studied
English literature which gave him a thorough grounding in Western
theatre, an influence that he was to combine in his writings with the
resources of the Arabic literary heritage.
After obtaining his BA in 1949, he took up a teaching career, which he
eventually abandoned for a post in Al-Gomhouriyya newspaper, while
becoming more and more involved in the leftwing activities of the day.
His first play, Suqut Fir'un (Fall of Pharaoh, 1955) was not performed
before 1957, while his Sawt Misr (Voice of Egypt) was staged in 1956,
according to his translator Rasheed El-Enany in the introduction to
Farag's The Caravan, Or Ali Janah Al-Tabrizi and His Servant Quffa. But
Farag was detained, together with a large number of leftwing writers and
intellectuals from 1959 to 1963, and it was in prison that he wrote his
play Hallaq Baghdad (The Barber of Baghdad), which was performed by his
fellow-inmates and also smuggled out with their help.
The play was staged in 1964, by which time Farag had accepted a
state-sponsored scholarship to devote himself to writing for the
theatre, later playing an important role in the "mass culture" project
of spreading theatrical appreciation in the provinces. 1965, which
witnessed the production of his play Sulayman Al-Halabi at the National,
was also to bring the first of his awards, the State Incentive Award, to
be followed a year later by the Sciences and Arts Medal of the First
In 1973, however, having signed with a number of other writers a
statement on behalf of leftwing university students detained by Sadat,
Farag was banned from writing in the media and performances of a play of
his were discontinued. He therefore chose exile, moving first to Algeria
then living for several years in London until the late-1980s.
Contributing for many years a weekly column in Al-Ahram, Farag continued
to write in several genres and a number of his plays were staged to both
critical and commercial success.
Drawing on Brecht in some of his plays, one of his signal contributions,
however, was the accomplished reappropriation of the pre-modern Arabic
literary heritage for a theatre that was often politically allegorical.
This is seen in his use of popular epics, as in his 1967 play Al-Zayr
Salim and his many plays inspired by The Thousand and One Nights,
including Al-Tabrizi, The Barber of Baghdad, Rasa'il Qadi Ashbilya (The
Epistles of the Judge of Seville), and Al-Amira Wal-Su'luq (The Princess
and the Vagabond). Farag received the Egyptian State Merit Award in
1993, and in 2002 the Jerusalem Award given by the General Union of Arab