Analysis/ summary of Fate of a Cockroach by Tewfik Al -Hakim

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Summary and Analysisof Tewfik Al -Hakim’s Fate of a Cockroach.

Fate of a Cockroach is an absurdist play that centres on events on two different
realms of existence. The first realm is the insect realm or insect kingdom while the second realm is the human world. In the first part of the play, which takes place in the insect realm, the playwright captures events in the cockroach kingdom which is ruled by King Cockroach and his cohorts.

King Cockroach’s kingdom is plagued by a lot of problems especially the threat posed to the nation by the more militant and organized ants. The cockroach king and members of his cabinet do not have a solution to this problem and are unable to mobilize other cockroaches to fight the ants. The king lacks the ability to effectively control his subjects who do not regard him as their king. This apparent weakness undermines his position as a king. Queen Cockroach, therefore, questions her husband’s legitimacy as a true king since he is inept and does not even feed her. King Cockroach in a bid to escape the harsh realities facing him abandons the pressing issues at hand and decides to go on sight seeing instead. He falls into an empty mysterious lake which he had gone to see and becomes trapped there.
The second part of the play which is set in the human world centres on Adil and his wife. Both characters are embroiled in gender war. They are at loggerheads over the person that will use the bathroom first. King Cockroach is eventually discovered by Adil in the bathing tub in the couple’s bathroom. The bathing tub turns out to be the supposedly empty mysterious lake.

Adil becomes fascinated with King Cockroach’s repeated and undaunted attempts to climb out of the slippery bathing tub. His obsession with the cockroach and Semia’s insistence on killing it triggers a conflict between him and his wife who believes he has become psychologically ill and thus summons a doctor to cure him of the disease. Adil sees a similarity between the way the cockroach in the bath tub struggles to escape from the bathtub where it is trapped and the way he continually struggles to free himself from the tyranny of his wife. The arrival of the doctor throws the party into another round of argument. This serves as a distraction and so the party fails to notice the cook, Umm Attiya, who enters the bathroom to clean it and quite oblivious of the contentious nature of the cockroach, wipes it out of existence.
Fate of a Cockroach as a Product of Societal Forces.

Fate of a Cockroach is a symbolist play which is, without doubt, politically
motivated. Most literary critics believe the play is a child of the political and social atmosphere of Egypt during the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Gamal Abdel Nasser was the second president of Egypt. According to Wikipedia:

…he planned the 1952 overthrow of the monarchy and was the deputy Prime Minister in the New government. In 1953, Nasser introduced far reaching land reforms. Following a 1954 Muslim Brotherhood led attempt on his life, he ordered a crackdown on the organization, put President Muhammad Naguib under house arrest and assumed executive office. AJune 1956 public referendum approved both the new constitution and Nasser’s nomination for presidency. Nasser’s neutralist policies during the Cold War led to tense relations with Western Powers which withdrew funding for the planned Aswan Dam. Nasser’s retaliatory move to nationalize the Suez Canal Company in 1956 was acclaimed within Egypt and the Arab World. Consequently, the United Kingdom and France occupied the Suez Canal Zone, while Israel invaded the Sinai Pennisula. The three allies withdrew amid international pressure boosting Nasser’s political standing significantly. From then on Nasser’s popularity in the region grew substantially and calls for pan-Arab unity under his leadership increased culminating with the formation of the United Arab Republic with Syria, 1958-1961. (1)


The United Arab Republic was a political union between Egypt and Syria which did not last long. The union collapsed in 1961 when Syria pulling out of the union. Nasser began a ‘series of ‘socialist and modernization reforms’ in Egypt. He resigned from office after the Six-Day War with Israel but was later brought back to office after popular demonstrations. He then appointed himself Prime minister and launched a war to recover some of the territories lost to Israel. He died in 1970.
The play, Fate of a Cockroach, is therefore viewed as a political satire against the ills of the Nasser regime. The first act of the play takes place in the Cockroach kingdom in Adil and Samia’s bathroom. In this act, the self appointed administrator of the cockroach kingdom, King Cockroach, is locked in a discussion with his wife and also with members of his cabinet. The government is not democratically elected. This indirectly alludes to Nasser who was not legitimately elected and had to appoint himself a prime minister. Nasser’s regime became so unpopular especially towards the end that Egyptians lost confidence in him.
Tewfik portrays this in his play through the evident isolation of the Cockroach king from the people he is ruling.

Although the cockroach king is king yet he does not have much control over his subjects. This weakness is revealed by the queen:
Your authority? Your authority
Over whom? Not over me at any rate- you are in no way better than me. You don’t provide me with food or drink
Have you ever fed me? I feed myself just as you feed yourself. Do you deny it? (3)
King Cockroach lacks control over his subjects because he does not provide for them. He seems to acknowledge this fact so he tells the queen: ‘in the whole of the cockroach kingdom, there is no one who feeds another. Every cockroach strives for his own bread.’(3) This is an indirect criticism of the failure of the Nasser regime to adequately take care of Egyptians during his regime. It is this seeming weakness of King Cockroach that forces the Savant to declare: ‘If the king cannot order ten cockroaches to assemble together then what authority has the king got?’(11 )

Tewfik al Hakim uses King Cockroach to show the inherent weakness of the Nasser regime. Apart from being weak and unable to control the people, Tewfik al Hakim also takes a swipe at the composition of Nasser’s cabinet. This cabinet is just like King Cockroach’s kitchen cabinet. The members do not have credentials to handle delicate posts assigned to them. Just like King Cockroach that became king because of the length of his whiskers, members of the cabinet are assigned different posts because of equally stupid reasons. Thus, the minister is assigned his portfolio because he always brings unpleasant news. The priest’s credentials are the incomprehensible things he says and the learned Savant credentials are the strange information he has about things that have no existence other than in his own head.
King Cockroach makes them his closest allies because he is in dire need of companions.

Nassers cabinet, to Tewfik , is not different from King Cockroach’s cabinet. Apart from the fact that these characters do not merit their positions, they are also unable to proffer solution to the ant problem which is a major problem faced by the state. The ant problem is the problem of security which plagued Nasser’s government. There were security threats posed by the well-organized Israeli army as well as the security threats posed by the more militant Moslem Brotherhood. The ants may be seen as the Israeli army. Although they are relatively smaller in size compared to the Egyptian army, they are able to oppress and decimate the larger Egyptian army without any stiff resistance.


The representation of the Israeli army as the ant and the Egyptian Royal Armed Forces as the cockroach captures vividly the grandiose size of the Egyptian army and their Arab allies and the modest size of the Israeli army at the outset of the Arab-Israel War, especially, the six-day war with Egypt. The massive Egyptian army fell on its back like the cockroach and was routed by the smaller-sized Israeli army. Egypt lost part of its territory as a result of this humiliating defeat. King cockroach laments: ‘We grew up, our fathers and our grandfathers, and grandfathers’ grandfathers grew up, with the problems of the ants there.’( 7) King Cockroach also wonders why he should be made to solve the problem of the ants which has been there for long. This shows the innate weakness of Nasser and his inability to solve the security problems of his country.

The security threat of the militant Moslem Brotherhood is another dimension to the ant problem. In spite of the small size of the group, they are still able to wreck a lot of havoc on the generality of Egyptians who are depicted as cockroaches. The helplessness of the state in tackling the scourge of the ants is further heightened when the savant brings the news that his son has been carried away by the ants.

King Cockroach says cockroaches are not able to defend themselves against ants because they are not united and disciplined. This is an allusion to the nature of the Egyptian State during the time of Nasser. Egypt was divided and thus became vulnerable to enemy attacks.
President Nasser was unable to solve the security problems of Egypt just the same way King Cockroach is unable to do anything about the problem of the ants. President Nasser is also unable to solve the problem of food in the land. Tewfik uses the ‘matter of tomatoes’ to portray this. ‘The matter of tomatoes’ thus represents a number of failures in the agricultural sector. It shows the failure of the Nasser regime to produce food adequately for Egyptians. In other words, Tewfik criticizes the agricultural policy and reforms of the Nasser administration.

The lack of focus of the Nasser regime is also criticized by the playwright. Nasser’s lack of focus is shown through the way King Cockroach abandons the important issue he has at hand which is the discussion on how to solve the ant problem and goes to see the mysterious lake which the Savant talks about. However, he slips and falls into the lake and eventually dies there. The ‘lake distraction’, according to Portal, is
ostensibly referring to the Nasser’s large scaled Aswan High Dam Project. The lake itself in the play could well be a direct analogy to the state- owned Lake Nasser Reservoir into which the water surplus were redirected after the dam construction. Seen in this light, Tewfik Al-Hakim critique involves yet another failure of the post-1952 government in its distracting itself with various projects at the expense of more pressing issues.(1)
Another event that gave birth to the play is the gender war in Egypt during Tewfik Al Hakim’s time. The wave of feminist movement sweeping across the world had triggered in women a sense of equality with their men folk. The playwright captures this raging conflict through a parallel presentation of the cockroach kingdom and the human world. King Cockroach and his queen are at loggerheads because of this gender crisis. The queen questions the authority of the king since she feeds herself. King Cockroach feels his position is being undermined by his wife and tries to assert his superiority. This results in a conflict. This is also the case in the human world. Adil and Samia are at loggerheads over the person who should use the bathroom first. This results in a gender conflict. Adil begins to see himself as the struggling cockroach in the bathing tub. He begins to see the similarity between the way the cockroach struggles to escape from the bathing tub where it is trapped and the endless way he struggles to survive in his marital relationship and free himself from the tyranny of his wife. This reflects the situation in Egypt where the feminist movement has whipped up gender conflict.

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In both instances in the play… the females have the upper hand. The discourse in both cases alludes to the conflictive roles between the sexes which could be taken as a reflection on the case of the roles of women and men in Egyptian society at that time.

The Feminist movement seems to have strengthened the Egyptian woman and made her more powerful than the man. The woman becomes the boss at home and challenges her husband. Adil is turned into a houseboy by his wife. She orders him around like a houseboy:
Listen Adil, you’ve got the day off today. You should know that I want you to spend this day usefully. Do you hear? There are my clothes and dresses all crumpled up in the wardrobe- get down to sorting them out and hang them up at your leisure one by one so that when I come back from work, I’ll find everything nicely sorted and organized. Understood?(75)
Samia goes further to warn Adil to carry out her orders. Adil becomes so much frustrated that he begs Umm Attiya to fetch her bucket and rag and wipe him out of existence. Tewfik Al Hakim seems to be critical of the feminist movement in Egypt that has so much empowered the Egyptian woman and turned her into a tyrant. The Egyptian man is no longer comfortable with his new role and prefers death to the inhuman treatment meted to him, at home, by the woman. Adil wants to be wiped out of existence just like the cockroach king. It is interesting to note that it is a woman that decides the fate of the cockroach king. Adil wants his fate to be decided by the woman also since she has assumed the role of a king that decides one’s fate.

Naturally, it is logical for a king to decide the fate of other people, but it is simply an irony of situation that Umm Atiya decides the fate of the cockroach king. It is also an irony of situation that she is asked to decide the fate of her master who seems just as helpless as the cockroach king. Feminism, which has brought about the reversal of roles in the family, to Tewfik Al-Hakim, is nothing but an absurd ideology. This absurdity in the real society is what the playwright captures in the play. In other words, the conflict between King Cockroach and the Queen as well as Adil and Samia is the conflict between men and women in Egypt during Tewfik’s time.

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