I discovered this story accidentally. It is entirely built on artefacts found in a second-hand book that I bought in Place de la République, in Paris, during the last days of the fading Nuit Débout movement.
The French translation of selected Tawfiq al-Hakim’s plays, published in 1960 in the collection “Foreign Masters”, first caught my eye by the perfect design of its book cover.
Then, my curiosity was picked by the book itself, wondering about when Tawfiq al-Hakim became recognised in France as “a Foreign Master” of the Arabic theatre. For one euro, the beautiful yellow cover book was mine. It appeared that by 1960s al-Hakim had reached a wide recognition not only in France, but in the entire Francophone world. “Some opinions” compiled at the back cover of the book contain an incredible amount of praises to al-Hakim from six different magazines, such as the Belgium Nord-Éclair and Libre Belgique, the Swiss La Tribune de la Genève and Gazette de Lausanne, and a mysterious organism U.F.O.L.E.A which appeared to be the acronym for the French Union of Secular Works of Artistic Education. They all praised al-Hakim as “the biggest playwright of the modern Orient” and “the master of Arab theatre of the present times”. It’s worth noting that several reviewers considered it important to stress that Tawfiq al-Hakim was “the secular voice of the Arab world”.
But the story does not end here. Tucked inside the book I found an old boarding pass of the United Arab Airlines to Cairo, under the name of a certain Garaudy.
Further, on the front-page of the book there was a handwritten dedication to Roger Garaudy, dated 1969 and signed by Tawfiq al-Hakim himself “.. to the thinker of present times, Roger Garaudy, with my admiration. El-Hakim 1969”. This suggests that Garaudy was reading al-Hakim’s book while on his way to Cairo, where he might have met the playwright and asked him to sign the book. Unfortunately, his boarding pass is undated, and we are unable to find out whether Tawfiq al-Hakim had offered the book to Garaudy, or if Garaudy had bought the book first and then got it signed at his demand. In any case, Garaudy has not finished reading the book, as indicated by the fact that its pages from the number 105 are left uncut.
Who was that mysterious Roger Garaudy whom al-Hakim considered as “the thinker of present times”? A quick search on the Internet gives the impression of a highly controversial figure. A former French Resistance fighter, he was a prominent Communist author and philosopher, whose fascination with the Middle East and the subsequent engagement with the Palestinian cause has lead him to convert to Islam in 1982. Apparently, he took the Palestinian issue extremely seriously, going as far as to claim that Holocaust had never happened – the view for which he was tried and convicted in 1998 in Paris.
Given that al-Hakim was received in France as “the voice of secularism” in the Arab world, it’s probably not his book that conducted Garaudy to the straight path of Islam some years later.