Ali al-Rai Exits Stage: Egypt Loses Critic Who Brought Masterpieces to Theater

Elie Chalala

Ali al-Rai, a major intellectual and champion of theater, died in Egypt on January 18, 1999 at the age of 78. An avid supporter of young and new talent and an independent-minded critic and nationalist, he was a modest person who shunned the spotlight and was not given to exaggeration. Al-Rai leaves behind a rich legacy, mainly in Egyptian theater. 

From 1959 to 1967, he chaired the General Institution of Theater, Music and Popular Arts. He was also the head of the official department overseeing state theater, founding several artistic groups including the National Group of Popular Arts, National Circus, Comic Theater, and the New Theater. Under al-Rai's influence, Egyptian theater presented the plays of Toufic al-Hakim, Alfred Farag, Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi, Saad Eddin Wehbe, Salah Abd al-Subour, Yusuf Idris, and Saadallah Wannous. He also was responsible for staging world theater works by William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht, Garcia Lorca, and Nazem Hikmat. During this time several famous actors came into the spotlight, such as Samiha Ayoub, Sana Jamil, and Suheir al Babeli, as well as directors like Saad Ardash, Jalal al-Sharqawi, and Nabil al-Alfi. 

Al-Rai authored several books associated with Egyptian and Arab theater and include “Improvised Comedy” (1968), “The Theater of Blood and Tears” (1973), “Theater in the Arab World” (1980), “The Character of the Swindler” (1985), and “The Concerns of the National Theater” (1994). He also translated important theatrical works including Anton Chekhov's “The Three Sisters.” 

A voluminous work of 600 pages, al-Rai's highly regarded “Theater in the Arab World” offers an account of Arab theater since the late 19th century. He discussed important topics like the role of theater in the Arab Maghreb, a subject which Egyptians “knew very little about, from its origins to its contemporary condition,” according to Abd Al Qader al-Qut, cited in the Egyptian magazine Akhbar Al Adab. 

Al-Rai's great critical project lay in searching for and monitoring the deep and authentic roots of Arab popular theater, according to Mohammed al-Qalyubi in the London-based Al Arab newspaper. Al-Qalyubi stated that no one deserves more credit than al-Rai “for discovering the existence of a traditional popular theater.” Playwright Al-Sayyid Hafez told the London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat that al-Rai's persistence in his search for the aesthetic values of Arab creativity made him a symbol of a movement and a cultural school searching for originality and Arab identity. 

Afraid that the novel and poetry had overshadowed the role of theater in Egyptian cultural life, al-Rai advocated the notion that the Arab nation is not a community based only on these two forms of literature, but also a community of theater and drama, according to Asharq al-Awsat. 

Al-Rai's method of writing was unique; his style was marked by exceptional simplicity, a trait he himself appreciated in others. He consistently avoided the formal academic approach to criticism, which was most evident in his last years. His style focused on summarizing and introducing literary works. 

Most acquaintances and observers of al-Rai's career concur that he distinguished himself by singling out young and new talent for support and recognition, perhaps more than any other Egyptian critic. He devoted a great deal of his time to literature neglected by other critics in Egypt , to the extent that some accused him of over-publicizing young writers, according to the London-based Al Wasat weekly. His modest and generous nature meant that he would participate in any panel, regardless of whether the organizer was a famous author or a junior writer, according to novelist Baha Taher quoted in Asharq Al Awsat. Al-Rai often surprised the cultural community by treating an unknown author's work the same way he would have treated Naguib Mahfouz's “Trilogy” because his guiding criteria was based on literary and artistic values. His main motivation was “to introduce readers to new experiments,” according to Al Wasat. 

Al-Rai was recognized as a man of principle. Some place al-Rai's politics on the left, mainly for writing for the Marxist supported Al Fajr Al Jadid (The New Dawn), a publication that was launched in May 1945; his writings at the time appeared under pseudonym. Al Rai's leftist leanings explain his choice of the socialist George Bernard Shaw's theater as a topic of his doctoral thesis, according to Egyptian intellectual Mahmoud Amin al-Alim, as cited in the London-based Al Quds. 

Sabri Hafez writes in Al Arab newspaper that al-Rai was fiercely independent, and he refused to become an arm of the Egyptian government or to be associated with political institutions sponsored by the Arab Gulf regimes. Like many other Egyptian intellectuals, he was opposed to President Anwar al-Sadat's domestic and foreign policies. This stance caused him great harm, including a nearly decade-long exile in Kuwait, from which he returned in 1982. When al-Rai joined the signatories to the famed statement by Egyptian intellectuals, Sadat was so angered that he barred al-Rai and others from working in journalism. 

Official Egypt made its feelings toward al-Rai unmistakable, according to Hafez and others. Unforgiven for criticizing the practice of bureaucrats rather than intellectuals granting awards, and perhaps for his sympathizing with Nasserite ideas, his funeral was not attended by state officials and was confined to only a few loyal friends. 

Al-Rai was born in the city of Benha on August 7, 1920. He earned a baccalaureate in English from the College of Letters in Fouad I University in 1943, and then worked as a radio broadcaster. In 1951 he received a scholarship from the University of Muhammad Ali to study in Britain, and earned a doctorate from Birmingham University, writing his thesis on “The Intellectual and Artistic Sources of George Bernard Shaw's Theater.” Al-Rai returned to Egypt in 1955 to teach in the College of Letters at Ayn Shams University, and became editor of the cultural section in Al Masa and editor-in-chief of Al Majallah magazine, which was published by the Ministry of Culture. 

Al-Rai lived a quiet family life; he married journalist Jamilaah Kamel after returning from his studies in England. They had two children, a son who is a doctor and a daughter who is a journalist in Al-Ahram Al-Arabi magazine. 

In 1971 he became the editor of Al Hilal, a monthly magazine, for two years. For approximately 20 years until 1995, he devoted himself to literary criticism in Al Musawir magazine, and after that in Al Ahram daily.

Working until the last months of his life, al-Rai was stopped only by his illness. Almost all accounts of his life and career state that he never allowed himself to engage in personal attacks, even after being attacked himself, and that unlike many other intellectuals he never sought undeserved fame. 

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 27, Spring 1999.

Copyright © 1999 AL JADID MAGAZINE