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A scholar and three wolvesOf fame, fortune and Hegelian empiricism
Profile by Fayza Hassan
"There were no private gardens in Damanhour, and, when I was eight, I refused to write the traditional essay titled 'Describe the garden of your house'. I tried to tell the teacher the reason for my reluctance, pointing out the facts, in case he had not noticed the absence of green spaces around the dwellings, but he was not pleased with me. He advised me to write about an imaginary garden, in order to fulfil the requirements of his class and get a passing grade. He ended up giving me zero." Bewilderment lingers in Abdel-Wahab El-Messiri's soft voice, as if he was still wondering today about the motivations of his teacher's unreasonable request. This was not to be his only educational difficulty. "I kept failing," he admits, "both in elementary and secondary school. I even failed a drawing and painting exam once." He wanted to write and paint about things that were both real and very original; it took him a while to realise that there was no provision in the system for his ambition.
Luck seemed to be on his side, however, and, in his third year of secondary school, he was suddenly "discovered" by his new history teacher. "His praise used to embarrass me to no end," recalls El-Messiri. "I had never been the object of attention or approval at school before, and I could not cope, at first, with being singled out for my intelligence without prior warning." He felt compelled to perform and spared no effort in rising to the challenge of satisfying this extraordinary instructor. Another teacher, Mr Emile George, initiated him to the realm of philosophy in his last year and "was responsible for the fact that all the students of Damanhour's high school eventually enrolled in the philosophy department of Alexandria University, and had to settle upon graduation for academically rewarding but less than lucrative careers."
El-Messiri's academic record as an undergraduate was checkered, until he eventually became convinced that he had something to say and set out to say it, a decision almost immediately rewarded with top grades.
On his return from the United States, where he had completed his graduate studies thanks to a scholarship at Columbia University, he wrote a short piece entitled The Three Wolves, about the three fierce challenges he had to face before settling down to the arduous task of bringing his literary ambitions to fruition. The first was the wolf of fortune; coming as El-Messiri does from a family where material assets are the yardstick of success, it secretly annoyed him to know that, as an academic, money would most probably always elude him. Even more painful was the thought that his father gave him a stipend allowing him time for his learned pursuits, when many young men his age were already earning a living. He felt that he was being given an unfair advantage over his colleagues who were busy teaching overtime, "until the day I realised that they had transformed their jobs into a money-making venture," he says. "In order to write, I was getting by on much less than what they were making." From this observation, he eventually surmised that, unlike him, they had found fulfilment in their jobs and may not have had much to say in the first place. The further conviction that his own lifestyle was of a better quality than that of his more practical relatives allowed him to completely subjugate the wolf of fortune.
Very early on in his career, in 1971, the second wolf -- "the wolf of fame" -- stopped gnawing at his soul. He was appointed as a consultant on Zionism at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, following a recommendation from Osama El-Baz, who had attended several of his lectures on Zionism in the US and had encouraged him to develop his arguments further. "I therefore hold him responsible for my ultimate choice," says El-Messiri, absentmindedly fingering one of the elegantly bound tomes of his eight-volume encyclopaedia on Zionism. The books are neatly stacked on a chair beside him, having been delivered by the printers this very morning, just in time to figure prominently at the Book Fair. El-Messiri has been working on this compilation for almost ten years, and it represents the largest and most accurate study ever undertaken in Egypt on the matter. Forgetting about the wolves for a while, he digresses to point out that, in his youth, he was "a sort of Zionist" himself, thinking that if the problem was one of refugees, it could easily be solved by absorbing the Palestinians into other Arab countries, or by simply sending them back to Israel where, it was said at the time, they would be welcome. "Of course, as a young boy, I did not really grasp the ramifications of the issue, nor had I discovered how devious the Israelis could be in their claims."
After the Camp David Accords, El-Messiri not only lost his job at Al-Ahram, but was shunned by his former colleagues. He had just come back from the US, where Hoda, his wife, had been completing her PhD. He had left Egypt a famous man in 1975 and, upon his return in 1979, there were those who would not even bother to return his calls. He was no longer invited to give talks on the radio, or appear on television. Employing him at this time was to court political suicide, he was told by an erstwhile good friend. "In some cases, suicide is the more honourable course," he had retorted angrily. He was constantly slighted by those who had previously respected and admired him, drinking in his words with reverence. El-Messiri, who had managed to soothe the wolf of fame before the implementation of the accord, distinctly heard its howl now. "Finally, I had to reach a compromise with the beast. It was true that I badly wanted to be known, but this would happen in due course and on my own terms, I told myself." Momentarily calmed by this concession, the wolf stopped bothering him and let him settle into scholarly anonymity. With time, he came to understand that he had not wanted recognition as an end, but rather as a means to protect his ideas.
The third wolf tormenting El-Messiri was one he had dubbed the Hegelian empirical wolf, "because I wanted to compose a work that would reflect the highest level of generalisation and the lowest level of specificity -- which is impossible to achieve, in a sense." He kept telling his wife that he was no longer interested in Zionism, that he had written on the topic for the very last time and that he was ready to dedicate himself to his grande oeuvre, but demands for papers, articles and analyses kept popping up. "In 1984, I resolved my dilemma by accepting the premise that it was my destiny to write on Zionism." In the past, he had fought this idea intensely, given away all his books on the subject several times; no sooner had he settled down to explore a new trend of thought, however, than he was side-tracked by entreaties to exercise his expertise one more time. "I became convinced that my preoccupation with Zionism had been pre-ordained, that it would never completely go away. I made up my mind that it was simpler to go with the flow. And lo and behold, my theoretical preoccupations were immediately embodied in, and resolved by, the case study of Zionism. This is why the first volume of my encyclopedia is purely theoretical, while the seven others are simple applications of the theory."
It was during his college years in the States that El-Messiri's superficial ideas about Zionism began to change. Prompted by a fellow student's casual remark, he decided to look more deeply into its history. He allowed his friendship with this student to grow, and became acquainted with her family. In that environment, he had a chance to observe a Zionist family at close range, noting the contradictions between their "official" discourse and their actions and private thoughts. He was equally impressed by another student, Karim Nada, an Iraqi Jew who at first was extremely hostile. Undiscouraged, El-Messiri invited him to share Hoda's mulukhiya and other Oriental dishes; the boy's animosity, assuaged by familiar food and the soothing effect of Qur'an recitations, began to wane. "After all, he was an Arab," explains El-Messiri, "not so different from us."
Through Karim, El-Messiri began to see life in Israel in a different way, attentively recording the unpublicised flaws. Karim also talked at length of the vanishing of Israel, a concept that El-Messiri had not known was entertained by certain Jews. "By 1965, I had come to know Zionism from within and this opportunity coloured my views. I was the first Egyptian to write about it with more than a superficial knowledge picked up at random. I was also the first one to predict the Intifada and the advent of the stone-throwing children, four years before it actually came to pass. I am not afraid of Zionism, because I feel that I have a deep understanding of its mechanisms and I am full of optimism regarding the ultimate fate of the Palestinians."
Apart from being an expert on Zionism, El-Messiri was a professed materialist for many years. It started when his teacher of religion failed to answer his simple questions. Looking for answers on his own, he reveled thereafter in certainties derived from reason alone, until the day his daughter Nur was born. He describes this event as a mind-boggling experience, which made of him an instant believer -- and an unusually attentive father. A friend recounts that, when his two children were small, El-Messiri would rush home to attend their bed-time, supervising the routine and inventing stories to develop their imagination. "He would sit with them in complete darkness, urging them to see with their mind's eyes his fantastic improvisations." Some of his tales have lived on, especially those of Nur and her friend the camel Latif, who had a different adventure every day. The last of the camel stories featured Nur leaving for England to study for her Master's degree in literature while Latif, his heart shattered by his little friend's departure, gradually came to understand that true love was destroyed neither by change nor by distance and that Nur would soon be back to resume their friendship. Was this El-Messiri's way of coping with his daughter's absence? He is not telling. But Nur has been back for a while, and the leather-bound encyclopedia is on display at the Book Fair. El-Messiri has a great deal to be thankful for.
This week, 25 years of intensive research were crowned with the publication of Jews and Judaism -- and the Cairo International Book Fair award for best scholarly work, bestowed by President Mubarak
Photo: Randa Shaath