28 Jan. - 3 Feb. 1999
Issue No. 414
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Focus Economy Opinion Culture Features Living Travel Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
A Diwan of contemporary life (270)
"Seventeen years into the 20th century, and some 40 years after it was founded, Al-Ahram experimented with book reviews and criticism. The experiment lasted only 16 weeks, dealing with one book every week. It was then brought to an end for unreported reasons. Book reviews became permanent fixtures in the newspaper much later. Apart from its brevity, the experiment was marked by the anonymity of the reviewer who used the initial J. His identity was never revealed. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * sheds light on the pioneering but short-lived stint. "
"Authors and Critics", the headline of the Al-Ahram editorial of 29 April 1917, introduces, for the second time in the history of the newspaper, the relationship between writers and their reviewers in the press. Should the latter, the author asks, restrict themselves to lauding new works, as has been the custom, or do they have another function? In answer, he writes, "Rarely do we see in our newspapers articles which undertake to analyse the printed product of intellectual thought with the purpose of distinguishing between the lean and the fat. In fact, most literary periodicals do not allocate the appropriate space to this form of investigation despite the diversity of articles they offer." The writer, who signs himself "J", parodies the typical literary critique: "This most beneficent, prodigious work by the brilliant and talented author has appeared in a most elegantly printed and bound edition." These lofty epithets and flattering adjectives are expressly used to persuade readers to purchase the book. On the other hand, he continues, critics fear that were they to use more accurate descriptions, "authors would take offense and boycott the newspaper, charging it with prejudice or a personal grudge." Also, critics were reluctant to harm an already depressed book market. "If only a few volumes are sold, in spite of the praises of a book's virtues and the author's talent and brilliance, what would happen if the journalist criticised the work?"
Yet, he argued, such qualms did not exist in Europe. There, authors do not take offense at criticism "because it earns popularity, rather than disfavour, for their works. Consequently, authors pray that reviewers critique their works to their hearts content because criticism attracts attention and serves as the best form of publicity." To illustrate, he cited a famous French writer, Eduard Draumont who spent his last sou on the publication of his work France and Judaism, certain that it would sell out as soon as it reached the stands. When this did not occur, "he would have died of despair, had it not been his good fortune that a well-known critic bought his work, read it and wrote a most vehement refutation of the author's opinions and this was sufficient to guarantee the book's success. Within a year 200,000 copies of his book were sold." Contrary to Egypt where critics are commonly belittled, "J" continues, in the West they are held in the highest esteem. There writers are classified into two categories, "those who create as their talents inspire them and those who analyse these works and subject them to the minutest scrutiny. While the latter category exists only by virtue of the former, there is no denying that they render a great service to all authors." It was time, he said, for Egyptians to adopt a similar attitude. Firstly, "the publishing houses are increasingly offering us works that merit study," and, secondly, "newspapers are now strong enough "to tell the truth without fear of a reader's boycott or a subscriber's cancellation." Moreover, he added, authors were now more prepared to take criticism. For these reasons, he concluded, Al-Ahram -- "the doyen of Arabic newspapers" -- has decided to dedicate space to such literary inquiries and "has been kind enough to entrust me to address the readers once a week concerning the fruit of the press." J encouraged authors to send him their manuscripts "so that we may asses these works in terms of form and content with the greatest candour possible."
Al-Ahram's new "Fruit of the Press" column began on 10 May 1917 and ran until 30 August. During this period, "J" reviewed 16 new publications, offering a sampling of the authors and types of works that appeared in print some 80 years ago. Most of the publications, as one might expect, were literary works, although the critiques also featured several works on law, history and science.
Given the centrality and popularity of poetry as a literary form in the Arab world, it is not surprising that "J" would start by reviewing several new anthologies that appeared that year. Nor is it surprising that his first two selections would be works of the famous Egyptian poets, Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad and Ibrahim Abdel-Qader El-Mazni. "J" observes that "both poets dedicated their new anthologies to anonymous people and both have struck a very similar chord in expression and import." Also, from the contents of the works it was clear that both authors "are intimately familiar with Western literature and seek in their verse to vie in their choice of subject matter with foreign poets." The titles of the poems themselves illustrated this. El-Aqqad's anthology contained "The sea and the dark," "Thirst of the soul," "The dying poet," "The bud of evil," and "The new thorn," while El-Mazni's contained "Mother Earth," "The gravedigger" and "The dead world." "J" remarked on "the touch of gloom" that prevailed in the works. However, their respective sources of inspiration were different. El-Aqqad "looked at the world around him and grieved" while El-Mazni was "deeply introspective." From this he concluded that the former tended more to address the mind and reason while the latter addressed the emotions and the senses. While El-Aqqad's poems might strike the reader at first glance as passionate and imaginative, "in effect, they more closely resemble a logical construction, consisting of premises and deductions, yet poured into a poetic mold." It is in this rigid format that we find El-Aqqad's stern character and beliefs, which, on the one hand, tend to "deify everything" and, on the other, subscribe to the German philosophy of the dominance of the strong over the weak. Indeed, God, as El-Aqqad portrays him, "is a tyrannical champion of the powerful, not a supporter of the weak."
El-Mazni, by contrast, "is so obsessed with his own psychological state and emotional preoccupations as to sometimes leave the reader behind." On the other hand, "J" defends El-Mazni against the accusation that he lifted ideas from Western poets. "We cannot censure him for this," argues "J", particularly as "El-Mazni, himself, in his introduction, informed the reader that he had borrowed the notion of each poem from the work of a European poet."
Mahmoud Shukri, whose anthology Easy Verse had just appeared, was the third poet reviewed in "Fruit of the Press". Shukri was the head of a provincial directorate department. "J" said little about the work, itself, but he was "delighted to see a government servant devote his spare time to engaging in literature and science." He added that Shukri "already has several well-known and respected literary works in print and he continues to furnish the press, from time to time, with his original thoughts on diverse events." J was nevertheless of the opinion that many of Shukry's new poems "over-indulged in eulogy."
Al-Ahram's literary critic was also keen to draw the readers' attention to emerging talents. One of these was Ibrahim Husni, a student at Law School, who had just come out with a new anthology of poetry.
Another youthful talent was Abdel-Aziz Mohamed Doeibis from Damanhour whose anthology The Garden of Congress had patriotic fervour. "The writer is highly imaginative and richly articulate in his passion for the nation and his appeals for prosperity and progress." Another writer reviewed was Mustafa Sadeq El-Rafie, who belonged to one of those noble houses that have produced numerous individuals who have reached illustrious positions in the worlds of literature and politics." El-Rafie's new work, The Wretched "follows in the footsteps of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. "J" finds in El-Rafie "the writer for all humanity, a writer whose works are contemporary in flavour and can be read and reread."
"J"'s readers may have begun to wonder whether the Al-Ahram critic had lapsed into the excess of praise he had so vehemently condemned. They must have been relieved by his subsequent review of a recently released book of proverbs, collected and annotated by Youssef Toma El-Bustani. Proverbs, according to "J" should have four traits: "brevity, directness, well-crafted simile and apt metonymy." These were not features of many of the sayings El-Bustani included in his work. "Rather he has included expressions that are merely trite and hackneyed, possess no humour or double-meaning, and contain no reference to a known phenomenon that might elevate them to the status of a proverb." Evidently, Al-Ahram's critic was in lonely company, for he also expressed his surprise that the first edition of El-Bustani's proverbs had sold out and that a second edition was about to be released.
Three out of "J"'s 16 articles reviewed legal works. The first was Ten Letters on the History of the Courts and Legislation by Aziz Bek Khanki, who "in spite of his energetic dedication to the advocacy of major causes, still has found the time to devote to the treatment of general legal issues of concern to our judicial and legislative life." Khanki's work covered such issues as "The Question of the Chief Magistrate of Egypt under the Khedive Ismail," "The History of the Patriarchates in Egypt," "Guardianship and Proxy in Christian Denominations," "Civil and Commercial Suits for Non-Muslims" and "The History of National, Mixed and Religious Courts in Egypt."
The second and third legal works received briefer, if equally effusive treatment. "The Egyptian National Court System" was written by Ibrahim Effendi El-Gammal, "a deservedly famous man of continued, dedicated service to Al-Huquq (Law) magazine whose many interesting articles for the press testify both to his proficiency in the art of writing and his vast erudition in the sciences of law and jurisprudence." The third legal work, "The Substance of Law" by Murad Bek Farag, reflected the author's "broad knowledge and expertise as well as his zeal for pedantic scholastic inquiry."
History and biography publications also came under "J"'s scrutiny, although it would appear that his analyses were growing less incisive. Al-Ustaz Al-Galil (The Noble Professor) was a biography of John Hogg, the founder of the Anglican church in Egypt. "J" writes, "This biography is valuable for the light it sheds on the virtues and morals that made up the man and his soul. It is also delightful reading for its accounts of the history of Egypt in the second half of the previous century, as most of the book is made up of excerpts from the memoirs of this worthy missionary. The style of the book is smooth, straightforward and free of gratuitous embellishment."
Al-Ahram's literary critic reviewed only one scientific work: Agricultural Bacteriology by Mahmoud Mustafa El-Dumyati, assistant inspector of agricultural education in the Ministry of Agriculture. "J"'s justification for including this work in "Fruit of the Press" was convincing. He wrote, "Regardless of what people say, we have an abundance of literary and poetic works, while we are still in desperate need of practical scientific and technical works particularly pertaining to those aspects that touch immediately upon our daily lives." In addition, El-Dumyati came in for special praise because "he did not simply translate Western ideas on the subject but rather absorbed the science from those experts and then attempted to apply it to the specific circumstances of our country."
"J"'s review of Agricultural Bacteriology brought an end to the short life span of "Fruit of the Press." It may well be that Al-Ahram's page editors felt the column, which no longer reflected the critical fervour with which "J" opened the series, was no longer commensurate with the requirements of the "doyen of the Arabic press."
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.