Prompted by the 2011 Egyptian uprising, this book-length essay on the cultural politics of sleep by writer and editor Anna Della Subin takes as its starting point Tawfiq al-Hakim’s 1933 play The People of the Cave. Based on the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, which also appears in the Qur’an, the play tells the story of three Christian men and a dog who awaken in a cave after fleeing from persecution by their pagan king. Upon venturing out, the men discover that three hundred years have passed, and must come to terms with a transformed world. Though hailed in literary circles as a landmark in Egyptian drama, the play flopped with audiences, some of whom fell asleep.
Published as part of Triple Canopy’s Speculations issue, Subin’s essay examines The People of the Cave and the myth that inspired it, tracing the origins and incarnations of the sleepers, a story told and retold at moments of political awakening, from postrevolutionary America to contemporary Egypt. Not Dead But Sleeping considers the myth’s speculative uses and revolutionary potential, poetically pushing back against Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dictum, “There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.”
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