Karim Alrawi

Karim Alrawi

Reading from a work in progress at the Vancouver International Writer's Festival 2010
Born Alexandria, Egypt
Occupation Writer, playwright
Nationality Canadian, British, Egyptian
Genre Literary Fiction, Children's fiction, Plays
Subject Middle East; Contemporary England & North America; Identity Politics; Racism
Literary movement Post-colonial, Realism, Post-modern
Notable works Migrations, Child in the Heart, Promised Land, The Unbroken Heart, Deep Cut, Madinat al-Salam

Karim Alrawi (Arabic كريم الراوي) is a writer born in Alexandria, Egypt. His family emigrated to England then to Canada. Alrawi graduated from University College London and the University of Manchester, England. He gained an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and was an International Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa.[1]

In the UK, after his first full-length stage play Migrations won the prestigious John Whiting Award he became Literary Manager of the Theatre Royal Stratford East and later Resident Writer at the Royal Court Theatre in Central London. He moved to Egypt, where he taught in the theatre department of the American University in Cairo. In Egypt his plays were banned by the state censor.[2][3] He was arrested and detained for interrogation by Egyptian State Security about his writings and for his work with the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR).[4] As a Fulbright International Scholar he moved to the United States. He later took positions as Writer in Residence at Meadow Brook Theatre (MBT) in Michigan and Editor in Chief of ARABICA magazine,[5] the leading nationally distributed Arab-American publication[6] with a certified readership of over 100,000 readers.[7] Subsequently, Alrawi supervised aid and development projects in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, for the Canadian Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society, where he was Director of International Programs, the US-Arab Economic Forum,[8] where he was Executive Director and the World Bank as Communications Advisor and Manager of External Affairs for the Middle East and North Africa.

Alrawi supervised media and conflict resolution training projects in Nepal and in South-East Asia[9] and projects to support women-managed community radio stations and a newspaper in Afghanistan,[10] as well as media training and peacebuilding projects in North Africa and the Middle East[11] including Iraq.[12][13][14] He gave testimony before the US Congress on Human Rights in the Middle East[15] and was a member of the Canadian delegation led by Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conference on Good Governance in the Arab World,[16] as well as a member of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)'s Programme on Governance in the Arab Region (POGAR, 1999–2005).[17]

In January 2011, Alrawi was in Egypt during the uprising against the Mubarak dictatorship.[18] He participated in civil disobedience actions against the regime and after the fall of the Mubarak dictatorship worked with the EOHR to prepare files on corruption by former officials and politicians for submission to the new state prosecutors office.[19] Alrawi has been a vocal critic of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Field Marshal Sisi's government. In March 2016 the Egyptian daily newspaper Almasry Alyoum included Alrawi among 190 leading human rights and civil society activists wanted for interrogation by Egyptian State Security subject to charges brought under case 173-2011.[20] The charges pertain to his training journalists in media ethics and use of the Internet, as as well his participation in the Arab Spring uprising.


Alrawi's fiction, plays and productions have received several awards including:

His children's book The Girl Who Lost Her Smile was winner of Parents Magazine Gold Award 2002 and was a finalist for the Kentucky Bluegrass Book Award (Kentucky Students' Choice) 2002.[21]

His picture book The Mouse Who Saved Egypt was listed for the People's Prize in the UK.

He has received writer's awards from the Arts Council of Great Britain and from the Canada Council for the Arts.

British plays

Karim Alrawi with Joint Stock receives Edinburgh Fringe First Award 1985, Edinburgh, Scotland

Alrawi's first full-length play Migrations was produced at the Theatre Royal Stratford East and his second play A Colder Climate was produced at the Royal Court Theatre in Central London. It was followed by three plays, Fire in the Lake, A Child in the Heart and Promised Land for Joint Stock Theatre, then one of Britain's major touring companies.[22] All three plays provoked controversy at the time of performance.[23][24] As Carol Woddis noted about Child in the Heart, "this almost messianic piece about the desperate pain of loss of roots and, in the truly biblical sense, tribal identity, refuses to let its audience off the hook."[25] Fire in the Lake was awarded an Edinburgh Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Crossing the Water a play about the British in Egypt and the Suez War was given a stage reading at the ICA in London before being produced at the American University in Cairo's Jamil Center despite a banning order by the Egyptian state censor.[26]

Alrawi's play Blind Edge, produced by the Old Vic Theatre, was staged at the Commonwealth Institute in London as part of the Festival of Asia, while his play Aliens won the Festival of Asia & Capital Radio's National Playwriting Award.[27]

While in England, Alrawi wrote plays for The Old Red Lion Theatre, Soho Theatre, M6 Theatre, Half Moon Theatre, Newcastle Playhouse, the Old Vic Theatre, London, and the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.[28]

Arabic plays

In Egypt, Alrawi taught at the theatre department of the American University in Cairo (AUC).[29] His first serious run-in with the state censor was when his play Crossing the Water was banned and he was summoned to give an account of himself to the censor's office.[30] Later that year, as a response to the censor, he adapted The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, setting it in contemporary Egypt. It was staged at the Wallace Theatre of AUC in central Cairo.[31] Also, Alrawi wrote four stage plays in Arabic two of which were staged at the Wallace Theatre.[26] Madinate el Salam (City of Peace) is a retelling of the life of the Sufi poet Mansour al-Hallaj who was executed in tenth century Baghdad on charges of heresy. The play was produced twice, both times after being refused a license by the state censor that led to threats of arrest of Alrawi by state security. The second produced play, Al-Bayt al Mahgour (The Abandoned House) was about sexual exploitation and its roots in Egypt's history of class privilege. The production of the plays, despite being denied rehearsal and production licenses by the state censor, was a contributory cause to Alrawi's later arrest and interrogation.[32]

Autobis al Intikhabat (The Election Bus), a satire on the Egyptian electoral system and Mudun Gha'iba (Absent Cities) about the destruction of Arab cities by war were two full-length plays that were to be produced with a cast of students from AUC. Alrawi and his actors were denied access to the Wallace theatre during the final days of rehearsals resulting in cancellation of the performances.

Activism and arrest

Alrawi was active for several years in the EOHR, monitoring censorship, and as a spokesperson for the organization worked closely with the foreign media to report on human rights abuses during the Mubarak era.[33][34][35] He compiled accounts of human rights violations alongside his colleague Hisham Mubarak[36] and accompanied foreign journalists to restricted areas to report on security clampdowns, particularly in Upper Egypt and on sectarian conflict in Egyptian cities and in the countryside. He compiled accounts of censorship and how blasphemy laws were being enforced.[37]

Alrawi's defence of the assassinated writer Farag Foda led to al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, responsible for Foda's murder,[38] issuing a fatwa against Alrawi claiming that "defence of an apostate is proof of apostasy."[39] The fatwa was subsequently lifted after the intervention of the EOHR.

When Nasr Abu Zeid, associate professor at Cairo University, was arraigned before a court in Cairo accused of blasphemy Alrawi spoke and wrote in his defence.[40] Later that year, while working with the EOHR to set up a theatre company to tour plays on human rights themes to towns and villages outside Cairo, and after years of conflict with the state censor's office over the staging of his own plays, Alrawi was arrested and held in the notorious Gaber Ibn Hayyan detention and torture center in Giza.[4]

An international campaign led to Alrawi's release after which he took the lead to remove and replace Mursi Saad El-Din, a longtime state security appointee, as president of Egyptian PEN (the local branch of the international writer's organization). After accepting a Fulbright scholarship to Pennsylvania State University, Alrawi arranged the transition of the presidency to the novelist Gamal El-Ghitani.

North American plays

Karim Alrawi receives Canadian National Playwriting Award 1999 from John Tennant, Canadian Consul, MI, USA

Karim Alrawi was resident writer at Iowa State University, Pennsylvania State University, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Oakland University and at Meadow Brook Theatre (MBT) in Michigan.[41] He taught playwriting at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada and later was an International Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, where he taught creative writing and global literature courses for the Between the Lines program.[42]

The Unbroken Heart a play based on the life of the blues singer Ethel Waters was first performed at the Fisher Theatre in Iowa before touring nationally.[43][44] His plays for MBT included A Gift of Glory,[45] about the Mexican artist Diego Rivera and the Ford family; Chagall's Arabian Nights,[46] a story of Marc Chagall's painting of the Arabian Nights and Killing Time,[47] a play about physician assisted suicide. He also wrote plays that toured local schools and ran theatre workshops for disadvantaged kids in South-East Michigan.[48]

His play Sarajevo about the Bosnian war was given a workshop production at MBT and the Shenandoah Arts Theatre. The play Sugar Candy was given a staged reading at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.

Patagonia[49] a play about torture and resistance was first performed by Ruby Slippers Theatre in Vancouver, Canada. Across The Morne a play for two actors and dogs, set in Newfoundland, was given a staged reading at the Playwrights' Theatre Centre, Vancouver, Canada.

Deep Cut, a play set on the American Gulf Islands about cultural conflict and political and personal expediency, was staged at La MaMa ETC[50] in New York as well as by Golden Thread Theatre in San Francisco and Washington, DC.[51]

Common themes

Karim Alrawi receives Free Press Theatre Excellence Award, 2000, MI, USA

El Lozy writes of Alrawi's plays, "we are drawn deeply and provocatively into journeys of self-examination and self-discovery where the most intricate and controversial conflicts of our times are dramatized at the level of interpersonal human relationships ... the individual himself/herself is not divorced from history."[52] David Williams describes Alrawi's early work as the culmination of a strand of Joint Stock Theatre's productions where diaspora was interrogated, not so much as place but as process to uncover "difference as a pivotal conflict in his characters' lives ... the absence of place is what defines diaspora."[53] While Carlson, in a detailed analysis of the plays, concludes that it is his "ability to effectively situate and reconstruct the individual in a social and cultural context that has remained an enduring quality of the work of Alrawi."[54]

In a study of British Epic theatre, Reinelt describes Alrawi's work as post-Brechtian, and finds strong parallels between Alrawi's plays and those of contemporary feminist writers. She states that Karim Alrawi "writes emotionally charged material that comes out of process-oriented workshops and privileges character over plot, often stressing characters’ personal resolutions … issues of identity, family, and a personal past make for an intense, almost psychoanalytic experience in his plays. As with some feminist work, the personal becomes the political."[55] While Rida, in a comparative study of Arab-American writers, recognizes that Alrawi's plays represent a break with Arab writers at home and of the diaspora in form and content, reinterpreting concepts of cultural authenticity and grappling with issues of personal integrity in ways that are integral to the plays, it is the degree of humour in many of them that gives relief, as well as strength to the characters.[56]

Children's fiction

Alrawi has written two children's picture books: The Girl Who Lost Her Smile and The Mouse Who Saved Egypt.

The Girl Who Lost Her Smile was staged and performed as a children's play in the UK by Tutti Frutti Theatre and York Theatre Royal,[57] and in the United States by Golden Thread Theatre.

The Mouse Who Saved Egypt was edited on a rooftop overlooking Tahrir Square in Cairo, during the Egyptian revolution.[58]

Adult Fiction

Alrawi's novel Book of Sands, subtitled a novel of the Arab uprising, was published by HarperCollins in the Fall of 2015.

The novel won the inaugural HarperCollins Publishers Prize for Best New Fiction[59] and was a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Best Book of 2015.[60]

Other productions

Karim Alrawi has written for BBC radio and television, as well as for Channel Four television in the UK.


  1. University of Iowa, The Writing University, Writers, http://thestudio.uiowa.edu/vwu/ucol/mobile/edit/main.php?a_id=161
  2. Karim Alrawi, "Pop Goes the Censor", Writer's Blog, June 3, 2011, http://www.karimalrawi.com/writer/Writers_Blog/Entries/2011/6/3_Pop_goes_the_Censor.html
  3. "The still, small voice within Egypt" Index on Censorship, London, February 1992
  4. 1 2 "Fear of the Word." Media Guardian, The Guardian newspaper, London, December 20, 1993
  5. Lama Bakri, "Arab-American magazine draws national readership", Detroit News, March 23, 2000, ISSN 1055-2715
  6. Jim Dulzo, "Arabica magazine finds lucrative niche", Detroit News, December 20, 2000, ISSN 1055-2715
  7. "Arabica magazine Subscriber Profile", John Zogby International, client report, October 2000
  8. Karim Alrawi, "Interview on Change in Saudi Arabia", Oil & Gas Financial Journal, volume 2, issue 7, September 1, 2005
  9. Arthur Weinreb, "Canadian media could use some help too", Canada Free Press, April 5, 2005, http://www.canadafreepress.com/2005/media040505.htm
  10. Government of Canada, Radio Rabi'ah Balkhi gives women a voice in Afghanistan, http://www.afghanistan.gc.ca/canada-afghanistan/stories-reportages/womenradio-radiofemmes.aspx
  11. Karim Alrawi, "interview," Internews Newsletter, http://www.internews.org/newsletters/2003_12/win03_alrawi.htm
  12. Designs for Independent Media in Iraq, Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research, http://www.stanhopecentre.org/research/designs/participants.shtml
  13. Karim Alrawi, "Media in the New Iraq", Arab Reform Bulletin, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2004, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/2008/08/20/media-in-new-iraq/da
  14. Karim Alrawi Interview, "Politicians threatening Iraq's press freedom", Daily Times, March 29, 2005, Pakistan, http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=story_29-3-2005_pg4_13
  15. Karim Alrawi, "Testimony before the US congress," International Journalist Network, http://ijnet.org/opportunities/internews-middle-east-director-testifies-us-congress
  16. Good Governance for Development in the Arab Countries, http://www.oecd.org/mena/governance/34945764.pdf
  17. Karim Alrawi, "Media Development (initiative in support of civil society in Iraq)," United Nations Development Programme, July 2004, http://www.iq.undp.org/UploadedFiles/Projects/8f5f4742-6952-4ac1-9775-eb988e0579a3.pdf
  18. Patrick Martin, "Defying expectations, Mubarak refuses to step down", Globe and Mail, Canada, February 10, 2011
  19. Patrick Martin, "After the trial, the battle begins", Globe and Mail, Canada, August 3, 2011
  20. قاىمة المنظمات المتهمة بالتمويل الاجنبي" ,آحمد شلبي ومحمد منصور", Almasry Alyoum / المصري اليوم, Egypt, March 20, 2016, http://www.almasryalyoum.com/news/details/913796
  21. Author Awards, Tradewind Books, http://tradewindbooks.com/author-biography&Name=Karim_Alrawi
  22. Ritchie, R. (ed), "The Joint Stock Book: Making of a Theatre Collective," Methuen, London, 1987, ISBN 0-413-41030-7
  23. Joyce Devlin, "Joint Stock: From Colorless Company to Company of Color." Theatre Topics Journal, Johns Hopkins University Press, March 1991, ISSN 1054-8378
  24. Sara Freeman, "Writing the History of an Alternative Theatre Company: Mythology and the Last Years of Joint Stock." Theatre Survey 47:1, American Society for Theatre Research, May 2006, ISSN 0040-5574
  25. Carol Woddis, '"Child in the Heart, play review." City Limits magazine, London, April 21, 1988
  26. 1 2 Walter Eysselinck, "Identity and Anxiety in the Plays of Karim Alrawi." Theatre Workshop Paper, American University in Cairo, 1991
  27. Madhav Sharma, producer and theatre directing credits, http://www.madhavsharma.com/?page_id=63
  28. Karim Alrawi, Guide to Plays, doollee.com, http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsA/alrawi-karim.html
  29. Karim Alrawi interview, Dramatists Guild Quarterly, Spring 1994, http://www.karimalrawi.com/writer/Interview.html
  30. "No Queens on the Nile." The Guardian newspaper, London, July 27, 1990
  31. "The Three Sisters", American University in Cairo, http://www.aucegypt.edu/huss/pva/theater/archive/Pages/ThreeSisters.aspx
  32. "Kindest regards: you're banned." Index on Censorship, London, February 1992
  33. Basma Abdel Aziz, El Nadim Centre for Psychological Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, "Torture in Egypt," Torture Journal, Volume 17, Number 1, 2007, http://www.alnadeem.org/files/torture_in_egypt_0.pdf
  34. "EOHR calls for investigating 900 torture cases," Daily News, Egypt, June 22, 2011, http://www.thedailynewsegypt.com/eohr-calls-for-investigating-900-torture-cases.html
  35. Fouad Ajami, "The Sorrows of Egypt", Foreign Affairs, vol 74, issue 5, pp72-88, 09/ 1995, ISSN 0015-7120
  36. Judith Miller, "Hisham Mubarak Dies at 35", The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/01/15/world/hisham-mubarak-dies-at-35-rights-campaigner-in-egypt.html
  37. Karim Alrawi, "Special Report on Egypt," Index on Censorship, London, May/June 1994
  38. Karim Alrawi, "Killed for his enlightened compassion", The Guardian newspaper, London, June 10, 1992
  39. "Tous les Rushdie du monde," L'Express, France, February 17, 1994, http://www.lexpress.fr/informations/tous-les-rushdie-du-monde_597195.html
  40. Karim Alrawi, "Letter from Cairo", New Statesman & Society, London, June 25, 1993
  41. Thom Foxlee & Maryann Foxlee, "Fifty Years of Meadow Brook Theatre", Arcadia Publishing, July 2015, ISBN 978-1467114202
  42. International Writing Program, University of Iowa, http://iwp.uiowa.edu/programs/between-the-lines/2015
  43. Joe Pollack, "Busy Theatre Calendar", St. Louis Post, Missouri, USA, September 6, 1992
  44. Peter Lennon, "Speaking out in a volatile climate", The Guardian, UK, May 28, 1994
  45. George Bullard, "Play shows Detroit as an art sanctuary", Detroit News, March 6, 1999, ISSN 1055-2715
  46. Celia Wren, "I Dream of Genie", American Theatre magazine, volume 17, issue 4, April 2000, ISSN 8750-3255
  47. Michael Margolin, "Killing Time questions living without quality of life", Detroit News, February 16, 2001, ISSN 1055-2715
  48. Meadow Brook Theatre Archives, Kresge Library, http://library.oakland.edu/information/departments/archives/Meadowbrooktheatre.html
  49. Chris Dafoe, "Sled among top Jessie nominees", Globe and Mail, May 17, 1997
  50. Nelson Pressley, "Deep Cut needs a sharper production", Washington Times, April 19, 1996
  51. Rashad Rida, "From Cultural Authenticity to Social Relevance: The plays of Amin al-Rihanni, Khalil Gibran and Karim Alrawi." Colors of Enchantment, Ed. Sherifa Zuhur American University in Cairo Press, 2010 ISBN 977-424-607-1
  52. Mahmoud El Lozy, "Identity and Geography in Karim Alrawi's Promise Land." Alif: Journal of Contemporary Poetics, American University in Cairo Press, 2000
  53. David Williams, "Staging the Dialogics of the Diaspora in Three Joint Stock Plays." ASTR: Performance, Diaspora and the Politics of Home, University of California, Davis, undated
  54. Susan Carlson, "Collaboration, Identity and Cultural Difference: Alrawi's Theatre of Engagement." Theatre Journal, May 1993, Johns Hopkins University Press, ISSN 0192-2882
  55. Janelle Reinelt, "Is the English Epic Over?" The Theatrical Gamut: notes for a post-Beckettian stage, Ed. Enoch Brater, University of Michigan Press 1995, ISBN 0-472-10583-3
  56. Rashad Rida, "From Cultural Authenticity to Social Relevance: The plays of Amin al-Rihanni, Khalil Gibran and Karim Alrawi." Colors of Enchantment, Ed. Sherifa Zuhur, American University in Cairo Press, 2010 ISBN 977-424-607-1
  57. Tutti Frutti return with enchanting children's play, York Theatre Royal, http://www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/cgi/news/news.cgi?t=template&a=209
  58. Author background, BC Book World, http://www.abcbookworld.com/view_author.php?id=10242
  59. Karim Alrawi wins inaugural Prize for Best New Fiction, "Quill & Quire", November 12, 2013, http://www.quillandquire.com/blog/index.php/awards/karim-alrawi-wins-inaugural-prize-for-best-new-fiction/
  60. Book of Sands, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Best Books 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/books/2015/09/book-of-sands.html
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