NAGUIB SURUR por Mahmoud El-Lozy* Eight plays -- five of which are poetic dramas-- three dramatic adaptations, five collections of poems -- one of which remains unpublished to this day -- four collection of essays on poetic and dramatic criticism, five directorial projects to his credit, and acting roles in four plays and a minor supporting role in a film. Such is Naguib Surur's artistic and creative output in a turbulent career than spans two decades, from 1958 until his untimely death in 1978.
Although some may be tempted to think of him as a dilettante who dabbled in a variety of different modes and genres of artistic expression, his work, independent of the form in which he chooses to express it, betrays a unity of purpose and vision. Nonetheless, in all of these artistic manifestation it is essentially the poet who stands out as the guiding spirit and reigns supreme.
Chronologically speaking, his first creative endeavours were in poetry, and he later came to playwriting through acting and directing. Such a fusion as he has achieved is indeed exceptional.
Within the theatrical milieu, he certainly stands out as an anomaly as he is probably the only playwright and poet who has both acted and directed professionally, thus actively challenging the well- entrenched division of labour so characteristic of the Egyptian theatre -- a division that may betray the hidden contempt that many playwrights, who perceive themselves primarily as men of letters, have for the acting profession.
A legend in his own lifetime, Naguib Surur quickly acquired in the late sixties and seventies the status of guru to a number of fans, admirers, and followers. The drama and theatre critic Farouk Abdel-Qader coined the term Darawish Naguib Surur [The Dervishes of Naguib Surur] to describe them. His detractors -- and there were many of them in the seventies, and probably still quite a few today -- may claim that it is a reputation which he consciously cultivated. It is more likely that it was the sheer force of his personality, his magnetism and his genuine rebellious spirit that produced that effect upon those who came into close contact with him. The term 'charisma' invariably comes up in any discussion about Surur by those who knew him. Yet what was charisma and charm to some was perceived by others as the histrionics of a disturbed and confused psyche. A rebellious leader and a source of inspiration to his followers, he was a noisy troublemaker and inconsiderate and an ungrateful individual to those he systematically antagonised, most of whom occupied powerful positions within the infrastructure of official culture. Between his followers and detractors lies a category of semi- sympathisers who nonetheless look upon him as a pitiful soul who, for lack of proper judgment, should bear full responsibility for the personal and professional miseries that plagued his relatively short and turbulent life.
There is a typical and ever-recurrent Egyptian phenomenon which consists of trivialising the achievements of its dead artists, writers, playwrights, etc. This highly specialised industry systematically aims at reducing outspoken and daring artists to acceptable and more palatable products to be consumed without much thought. The tight control exercised by the State on the production, dissemination and consumption of culture perpetuates the myth of a homogeneity from which any deviation can immediately be labelled as treachery or madness. If Surur did not satisfy the minimum requirements needed to qualify as an Egyptian artist we can all be proud of in his lifetime, then the official cultural establishment -- its critics and apologists -- will transform him into an acceptable and respectable icon whose published works we can respect and admire. Now that Surur is no longer amongst us, such critics and commentators do not have to worry about angry responses from the subject of their inquiries. Who will speak for a dead man? Now that the dust has settled over the fierce artistic battles of the sixties and seventies it has been more than convenient to reduce Surur's dramatic output as 'folk drama'.
Because quite a few of Surur's poetic dramas are based on folk stories or make extensive use of popular sayings, he has been neatly labelled as a pioneer of what is currently perceived as one of the most acceptable forms of Egyptian drama. Within the dominant critical discourse he has been tamely classified as a powerful influence behind the revival of folk tradition in the Egyptian theatre, itself an integral part of the so-called return to native forms of dramatic expression. The contemporary infatuation amongst a large section of the new generation of theatre practitioners with 'popular' forms of drama, and their immersion into a hazy and, for the most part, self-indulgent and innocuous quest for 'authenticity' has acquired a powerful momentum since the late eighties. The true culprits behind that new trend, however, are none other than Tawfiq El-Hakim and Youssef Idris. The 'theoretical' foundation upon which much of the quest for 'popular authenticity' rests was provided by these two celebrated icons of modern Egyptian culture. In the mid- sixties, and for reasons that escape rational human comprehension, these two men produced critical documents that have had the most disastrous consequences on the Egyptian theatre. In El-Hakim's Qalabuna Al-Masrahi [Our Theatrical Form] and Idris's Nahwa Masrah Misri [Towards an Egyptian Theatre], a desperate and rather pathetic attempt was made at producing -- or perhaps one should say manufacturing -- a history or some form of precedent of Egyptian theatrical experience. While Idris rejected the Western European model as incompatible with the nature of the Egyptian people and asserted the existence of a native theatrical model El-Hakim, arguing from more or less the same premise, produced specific models he believed could provide a meeting ground between Western-