A man lost at sea, having drifted far away from his native Iraqi lands, comes a shore in England. In due time he will be nicknamed the Bard of Avon but upon landing on the Saxon coast, his passport reportedly read: Shaikh Zubayr. A knowledgeable man with great writing prowess from a small town called Zubayr in Iraq. He came to be known in the West as Shakespeare and was given the first name of William. William Shakespeare of Zubayr.
Or at least this is loosely how a story goes about The Bard’s origins. It was purportedly first suggested by the famous Lebanese intellectual, Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq and later popularised by the Iraqi intellectual Dr. Ṣafāʾ Khulūṣī. Khulūṣī in 1960 published an article entitled “The Study of Shakespeare” in al-Ma’rifa (1960) where he paid homage to the Bard while also expanding upon al-Shidyāq’s theory. This perplexing theory has generated much rebuttal and discussion. This theory rested upon “that most of Shakespeare’s language could be traced back to Classical Arabic…[t]o give one example : the Arabic adjective nabīl which means ‘noble’ and which occurs, naturally enough, throughout the plays and poems.” (“Shadow Language” in Ormsby, Eric L. 2011. Fine incisions: essays on poetry and place. Erin, Ont: Porcupine’s Quill.) The former Libyan dictator, Mu’ammar al-Qadhāfī is also reported to have supported the theory of Shaikh Zubayr.
At Duke, visiting Professor Abdul Sattar Jawad of Duke Islamic Studies Centre wrote a delightful article in The Chronicle in 2011 about the popularity of Shakespeare in Iraq. He noted, “[i]n Iraq, Shakespeare’s works are regarded as the second Bible and the center of Western canon. He became a mandatory course in schools and universities alike. “To be or not to be,” “as you like it,” and “that is the question,” were frequently cited, even by the illiterate. They are heaven’s gift, backed by thorough knowledge of the highest professionalism put into poetry and the dramatic art” (Abdul Sattar Jawad, “Shakespeare in Baghdad,” The Chronicle, 2 December 2011).
A couple of additional resources for those with interested in Shakespeare in Arabic. MIT has a list of videos, all translated and performed in Arabic, freely available here: http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/arab-world/#. A bit of further information on Shakespeare in Arabic may be found on this blog http://arabshakespeare.blogspot.com/, and the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/arabshakespeare/timeline.
عيد ميلاد شيخ الزبير—ʾeid mīlād Shaykh Zubayr, or Happy Birthday, Bill!