Remembering Hazem Azmy: ‘United We Dream’

The scholar of Egyptian and comparative theatre Hazem Azmy is being celebrated this evening by friends and colleagues — both over Skype and in person — as part of the Center for Translation Studies lecture series. Azmy passed away unexpectedly in July in Belgrade, at the International Federation for Theatre Research conference: 

Based in Cairo, Hazem Azmy (1967-2018) was a translator, scholar, and cross-cultural animateur. He was co-convener of the Arabic Theatre Working Group of the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR/FIRT) and a founding board member of the Egyptian centre of the International Theatre Institute (ITI).

At the time of his death, Azmy was working on a book, a revised version of his dissertation, with a working title of Staging Egypt on the Global Stage: Egyptian Performance Realities from 9/11 to the Arab Spring.

In her reflections on Azmy’s life for Al Ahram Weekly, Nora Amin wrote:

Hazem was not traditional. He was not docile. He was extremely liberal, believed in freedom till the end, and fiercely fought for what he thought was right. He never took sides for any personal benefit, and always talked in honesty and in support of the future. Again, this is not an obituary.

His work for the International Federation of Theatre Research as co-convener of the Arabic Theatre Working Group was outstanding. He was among the very few who could bring the realities of Egyptian theatre to the outside world, bridging the gap between international studies and Egyptian theatre, and bringing local works before the eyes of foreign scholars and academia.

As Sameh Hanna noted in the presentation he prepared for Tuesday night, Azmy carried knowledge and art in both directions: He translated playwrights Lenin Al-Ramli and Khaled Al-Sawi for English speakers, and he brought the voices of Mona Baker and Edward Said into Arabic.

A number of colleagues have talked about the insistent nature of Azmy’s questions, which Margaret Litvin said “provoked some of my own best work. His questions, his challenges, his invitations and publications he edited have inspired and deepened almost everything I have written about Arab theatre in the past ten years.”

Hanna also spoke about the questions Azmy left behind, quoting Janelle Reinelt, who wrote on the IFTR website that Azmy “always found plenty of energy to pursue any idea as long as was necessary, and his dialogic style was resolutely dialectical. He reminded me of the old 1960s dictum, ‘question authority’, and question he did.”

Litvin recalled Azmy’s contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Theatre History:

He makes you care. The chapter also captures Hazem’s approach to theatre studies. Rather than writing a history of Egyptian theatre against the background of political events, the chapter offers a convincing interpretation of Egypt’s political history through the lens of theatre and theatricality. He, too, was “staging Egypt on the world stage,” putting it on the world theatre studies map, but in a sophisticated and empathetic way.

Litvin also quoted Azmy on his work with the brief revival of al-Masrah magazine. He said:

We try to give voice to a younger generation of writers. We are trying to establish a different type of theatre reviewing, scholarship, documentation. We are a scholarly journal, even if we’re not exclusively doing scholarly stuff. We’re trying to get people to write in a different way. Maybe a little like the way people used to write in the 1960s. Every article should be a piece of wonderful Arabic prose, but self-contained. Even if you know nothing about the topic, you can read one article and come away with something. There’s a value added, a pedagogical element. It’s not just the language thing, it’s the organization of the argument, the way they link ideas. Without theoretical posturing. Today, people who call themselves established critics can write a whole review without even telling you what the play is about.  We are training critics.

How to celebrate Azmy’s life and work? Litvin said:

For Hazem, we can work to make sure his book finally gets published, and meanwhile keep writing our own. We can think harder. We can provoke and support our students and colleagues to believe that theatre matters, to argue about what cultural production means, and to develop their ideas, which may be quite different from our own. That, and we can focus empathetically on the people and societies we encounter: not only what image they present, but also the confusions, tensions, and painful blind spots underneath. That is the empathetic attention that Hazem gave to everything he studied, and that he demanded and helped create for Egypt on the world stage.

American theatrologist Marvin Carlson said that it was already in Belgrade, in July, that many delegates began thinking of a memorial fund in Azmy’s honor, “and the Working Group, recalling his commitment to bringing younger scholars, especially from developing nations, into the organization, proposed that such a fund be devoted to supporting young scholars from such nations so that they could afford to attend future conventions of the organization.”

And indeed, fundraising has begun for a “Hazem Azmy IFTR Bursary Award Fund.” You can find out more and donate at gogetfunding.com.

Carlos said, in his prepared remarks, that the idea was well-received that that he looked forward to the official launch of this fund in the near future. “So far as the International Federation is concerned, I can think of no more fitting memorial.”

Many talked about how to continue Azmy’s work. In her essay on Azmy for Al Ahram Weekly, Amin concluded:

We have no choice but to pursue his dream. Now that he’s gone we no longer have the luxury of pessimism, though it is well to remember that time is not on our side.

Read: From Azmy’s translation of Lenin al-Ramli’s A Peace of Women

Selected bibliography:

Egypt between Two Shakespeare Quadricentennials 1964 through 2016: Reflective Remarks in Three SnapshotsCritical Survey 28.3 (Nov. 2016): 102-118.

Guest Co-Editor (with Marvin Carlson). “Theatre and the Arab Spring.” Spec. issue of Theatre Research International 38.2 (July 2013). Introduction: Rehearsing Arab Performance Realities

Chapter on Egypt. Cambridge Companion to Theatre History. David Wiles and Christine Dymkowski, eds. CUP, 2012.

Co-Author (with Khalid Amine and Marvin Carlson), “IFTR’s Arabic Theatre  Working GroupTheatre Research International 35.3 (Oct. 2010): 263–274.

Guest Co-Editor  (with Marvin Carlson). “Performing Islam/Muslim Realities.” Spec. issue of Ecumenica: Journal of Theatre and Performance 1.2 (Fall 2008).

Al-Liʿb fil Dimāgh li-Khālid Al-Ṣāwi: Bayna Raghbit al-Taʿbīr wa Ṭumūḥ al-Tathwīr.” (Messing with the Mind by Khaled El-Sawy: Between the Desire to Express and the Ambition to Revolutionise”) Fuūl73 (Summer 2008): 196-205. In Arabic.

“In the Very Presence of Your Enemies: A Feminine Eye for the Stiff Arab Guy?” in Marina Kotzamani, ed. “Lysistrata on the Arabic Stage” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art – PAJ 83 (Volume 28, Number 2), May 2006: 30-32.

Sixteen Entries on Egyptian Theatre in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Dennis Kennedy, ed. 2 Vols. Oxford: OUP, 2003.

Translation into English: EL-Ramly, Lenin. “The Comedy of the East, or the Art of Cunning: A Testimony.” Trans.[with notes] by Hazem Azmy. In Azmy and Carlson 2008: 76-87.

Translation into English: El-Sawy, Khaled. “How Fares Lysistrata Today?” in Kotzamani 2006. 32-34

Translation into Arabic with additional notes: Baker, Mona. “Narratives in/of Translation”. Published as “Targamet al-Sardeyaat/Sardeyaat al-Targama” Keynote Article. Fuūl 66 (Spring 2005): 21-34.

Translation into Arabic : Said, Edward. “Preface to Orientalism, August 2003 Edition”. Published as “Al-Isteshraq Al-Aan” Fuūl 64 (Summer 2004): 179-186.

Translation into Arabic : Holdsworth, Nadine. “Al-Masrah wa Mafhoum al-Omma (Theatre & Nation)“. The Egyptian National Centre for Translation (Forthcoming 2014 – did it come out?).

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