FACES & TRACESAli Ahmed Bakatheer: A neglected genius [Archives:2007/1056/Culture]

June 4 2007

Prepared by Eyad N. Al-Samman
Faces & Traces is a cultural series of concise biographies of local or international famous and obscure personalities in fields such as literature, arts, culture and religion in which these individuals contribute affirmatively. It is a short journey in contemporary history (after World War I), attempting to tackle numerous effective characters in human civilization.

Ali Ahmed Bakatheer was a Yemeni playwright, novelist and poet born Dec. 21, 1910 in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia. At age 8, his father sent him to Yemen's Hadramout to learn Arabic and receive his theological education.

Bakatheer left the Hadramout in 1932, profoundly affected by his wife's death before age 20. He went to Aden that same year, settling there for a year. After that, he went to Hijaz in Saudi Arabia, frequently roaming the public libraries of Mecca and Medina, and wrote his first poetic play entitled, “Hammam in the Land of Al-Ahqaf,” a critique of social life in Hadramout.

Bakatheer's dream came true in 1934 when he went to Egypt to study at Cairo University's English department. He graduated from there in 1939 and a year later from the Educational Institute for Teachers.

When World War I broke out, the financial support he had been receiving from Indonesia and Hadramout was suspended; thus, he had to work as a teacher for many years. Settling in Cairo in 1947, he joined the Arts Authority and became a member of the poetry committee of the Supreme Council for Sponsoring Arts and Literature.

Bakatheer's literary works include plays, novels and poetry. His most famous work is the huge dramatic prose epic, “Malhamat Omar” (“The Epic of Omar”) consisting of 19 parts and describing the political, intellectual, economic and religious phases of Islamic life during the era of orthodox Caliph Omar Bin Al-Khattab.

Bakatheer was the first author to win the Ministry of Culture's “Authors' Devotion Award” for two consecutive years for his completed dramatic epic, which some consider the second longest dramatic literary work in the history of international theater after the epic “The Dynasts” by English playwright Thomas Hardy.

Bakatheer wrote more than 55 plays, most of which have been published and performed on Egyptian television and theaters, focusing on political, historical and social issues.

In 1936, during Bakatheer's second year at college, he translated Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet,” composing it for the first time in the history of modern Arabic poetry as a poetic play that didn't rhyme in response to his English teacher's claim that unrhymed poetry only exists in English. He also utilized this unrhymed poetic style in his second historical play, “Akhenaton and Nefertiti” (1940).

He tackled the Palestinian cause in many of his dramatic plays, such as “The New Shylock” (1945), which predicted the establishment of the Israeli state in Palestine, and another play, “Ilah Israel” (“The God of Israel,” 1959).

Bakatheer ridiculed British colonization of Egypt in his play, “Mismar Juha” (“Juha's Nail”) and “Al-Za'aem Al-Awhad” (The Only Leader,” 1959), in which he ridiculed the dictatorship of former Iraqi leader Abdul Karim Kassem and predicted his execution.

Some of Bakatheer's other well-known plays, which were performed on the stage of the Egyptian National Theater, were “Abu Dulama” (1951) and “Shahrazad's Secret.” Other plays include “Tragedy of Oedipus” (1949), which stands against feudalism's domination, “Harut and Marut” (1962) and “Fawist Al-Jadeed” (“The New Faust”).

One of Bakatheer's most significant political, intellectual and dramatic works was the play, “Al-Tawrah Al-D'aeah” (“The Lost Torah,” published posthumously in 1969), depicting Jewish behavior in Palestine and the importance of Palestinian resistance.

In 1962, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser awarded Bakatheer a first-class medal of arts and sciences. His last play was “Habil Al-Ghaseel” (“The Clothesline,” 1965), in which he assailed against leftist Marxist writers who deliberately ignored his dramatic works.

Additionally, Bakatheer wrote several literary novels, including “Sallama Al-Qiss” (1942), which clarified the value of tolerance toward love and the arts during the early period of Islam. It was performed cinematically, starring Umm Kulthum.

The novel “Waa Islamah” (“Oh! My Islam,” 1945) is taught as a textbook in schools in several Arab countries. Additionally, it was directed as both an Arabic and English movie and won Egypt's Ministry of Education award in 1945.

His novel “Al-Tha'eir Al-Ahmar” (“The Red Rebel”) embodies the concept that Islam is the right religion of justice, equality and socialism emerging from the values of altruism and spiritual sympathy. In his novel “Sirat Shuja'a” (“A Brave Man's Career,” 1954), Bakatheer tackles the period between the late Fatimid dynasty and the beginning of the Ayyoubid dynasty.

As the pioneer of modern Arabic poetry with his unrhymed poetry, Bakatheer never published during his lifetime, although he didn't stop writing until his death. His poetry, which was set in Hadramout, was collected and published in 1987 and entitled, “Azhar Al-Ruba fi Shi'ar Al-Siba” (“Flowers of Hills in Youth's Poetry”).

His other poetic works, which were set in Aden and Hijaz, also were collected with the expectation of publishing them in one volume entitled, “Areej Aden wa Anfas Al-Hijaz” (“Aden's Aroma and Hijaz's Breath”).

After 18 years, during which he obtained his Egyptian citizenship in 1951 via a monarchal decree, Bakatheer died of a heart attack on Nov. 10, 1969. For a long period, he enriched Arab and Islamic life with his subtle art, which was a powerful weapon in defending Islam, along with his calls for reform and renewal.