Elsa Lasker-Schüler was exposed to archeological and artistic artifacts from Ancient Egypt that were on display in a museum in Berlin during the last decade of the 19th century. In her paintings
, she adopted quite a bit of the aesthetic sensibilities of ancient Egypt, and this encounter also helped her create the character of the Egyptian prince from Thebes. Evidence of this can be seen in a photograph of Else Lasker-Schüler from 1912 for a theatrical production (which was never produced). The photograph is taken in profile, full of her boyish, thin body, wearing "oriental" clothing. She is playing on a simple flute, in a position that is reminiscent of the murals of Ancient Egypt.
Yusuf of Thebes brings to mind the Biblical Joseph – the man who united dreams and reality, the innocent boy who was snatched from his house and his culture. He learned to survive in a foreign culture and thrived there, but also never forgot where he came from and the deep source of his identity. No less important, this is Joseph the dreamer, who knew how to use his dreams to create reality, and who certainly aroused in the poet feelings of identification and perhaps also longing.
However, this character is not only Egyptian or Biblical. Yusuf of Thebes was Yusuf, that is to say, a young Arab. He appears first on the cover of the book, "Hebrew Ballads
" from 1913, as a waiter wearing a galabiya presenting the city of Thebes. At the gate of the city there is a Star of David and above it, a crescent. The character of Yusuf comes to life in various ways throughout Else Lasker-Schüler's work. She even drew her son, Paul, in the style of Yusuf. Yusuf the wanderer, a resident of a real city as well as an imaginary place, Yusuf who yearns for a life here and now, Yusuf the dreamer, who suffers until he achieves success, Yusuf who seeks a homeland and home, Yusuf who unites cultures, religions and nations. Yusuf the prince, who doesn't always receive recognition of his worth from the world, but who always knows who he is and what he is able to give, both in imagination and reality –
everything that Else Lasker-Schüler dreamed to do, to be, to change in the world, was expressed in Yusuf of Thebes.
He was a lot more than a literary character and an abstract aesthetic-philosophical principal. "Yusuf" (i.e. the Prince Yusuf of Thebes) was also a character that Else Lasker Schüler saw as a part of her identity. Even in her postcard to Agnon
, in 1933, she calls herself Yusuf. Yusuf of Thebes helped Lasker-Schüler created a complicated identity –
multiple "I"s that combined a masculine side and a feminine side and pointed to a sense of Jewish tradition along with a cross-cultural identity; "I"s that uncover aspects of the past as well as aspects of the present and even the future. Both the creative "I" and the "I" that lives in this world in the active sense are expressed in Else Lasker-Schüler's Yusuf.