One of the most remarkable facts about Shakespeare’s writing is its profound knowledge of the culture, history, language, legal systems and politics of southeastern Europe, northern Africa and southwestern Asia, writes Philip Ochieng.
Was William Shakespeare a member of the Mijikenda communities? Did the great playwright pen at least some plays in Kiswahili?
That thought excited me greatly when I saw the following headline in the Saturday Nation: “Shakespeare’s Kiswahili play on tour of India.”
But the story below soon disabused me. The headline was a syntactical error. The sub-editor was referring only to Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa, a Kiswahili translation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, one of the Bard’s most delightful comedies.
Yet the thought that the man reportedly born at England’s Stratford-upon-Avon might have been a native of Kenya’s mwambao may not be too far-fetched.
Culturally and linguistically, the Swahili are basically Bantu, consanguine with the Mijikenda, but with an imposing Hamito-Semitic — mostly Arabic — superstructure.
For, if East Africa’s Indian Ocean littoral has been literate for 10 centuries, it owes it to powerful and protracted cultural-linguistic currents from the fateful peninsula almost totally surrounded by the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
And one of the most remarkable facts about Shakespeare’s writing is its profound knowledge of the culture, history, language, legal systems and politics of that world region — southeastern Europe, northern Africa and southwestern Asia — knowledge which no other coeval European seems to possess.
Perhaps that is why certain Middle Easterners keep claiming Shakespeare for themselves. An interesting claim was made a few years ago by an Arab called Muammar Gaddafi, whose mother-tongue has powerfully influenced the thought content of Kiswahili, East Africa’s lingua franca.
In a fascinating statement, the Libyan leader informed the world that the name Shakespeare was an English corruption of Sheikh Zubair, the name — said he — of an Arab poet-playwright of classical antiquity.
The fact that I had never heard of Sheikh Zubair did not prove Gaddafi wrong, I thought.
For I had never heard of Ibn Sinna either. Only later did I learn that Ibn Sinna was the original form of Avicenna, the Greco-Latin corruption of the Arabic name of a Persian physician whom Europe has long ago appropriated as one of the founders of “European” medicine.
Thus, though I cannot stick my neck out on it, it is not impossible that the English name Shakespeare was a European corruption of the Arabic name Zubair with the honorific Sheikh prefixed to it. For Shakespeare played a leading role in introducing Western Europeans to important Nilo-Semitic words.
The plethora of such words that English subsequently “nationalised” includes Al Kohl (alcohol); Al Jibr (algebra); Al Sifr (cipher or zero, known in Kiswahili as sufuri); Amir-Al-Bahr, “lord of the sea” (admiral); and Al Khem, one of classical Egypt’s Afro-Semitic names (root of both alchemy and chemistry).
Alchemy was instigated along the Nile by Pharaoh Tutmosis III as a method of combining and recombining the atoms of various chemical elements to produce the elixir — the panacea known as “the philosopher’s stone,” whose latest form, nanotechnology, is poised to dramatically revolutionise medicine.
The alchemical tradition to which Shakespeare belonged was an aspect of the pursuit of knowledge known as Hermetic Gnosticism, which, in Europe, runs underground in opposition to the official Church and worships the ancient Nilotic pantheon of Isis, Osiris, Horus and Thoth.
For Shakespeare was a Rosicrucian, one of the subterranean movements.
To be continued