Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
10 - 16 June 1999
Issue No. 433
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

Two Moroccan writers set out from Fez and arrived in Paris. But they took two different paths, and speak two different languages

Le Maroc explained
L'Auberge des pauvres, (The Inn of the Poor), Tahar Ben Jelloun, Auberge des pauvres, 1999. pp294

A summer to be reckoned with
Mithl Seif lan Yatakarar: Mahkiyyat (Like a Summer Never to be Repeated: Narratives), Mohamed Berrada, Casablanca: Dar Al-Fenac, 1999. pp235

Better than more
Al-Tanwir Al-Za'if (False Enlightenment), Galal Amin, Cairo: Iqraa' series, Dar Al-Maaref, February 1999. pp151

The canary sings to himself
Dhalik Al-Janib Al-Akhar (That Other Side), Hassan Soliman, Cairo: General Organisation for Culture Palaces, Aswat Adabiya Series, May 1999. pp195

How very high society
The Egyptian Upper Class Between Revolutions: 1919-1952, Magda Baraka, St Antony's Middle East Monographs Series, Ithaca Press, 1998. pp328

A movable feast
The Cambridge History of Egypt (2 Vols.), Vol.1 , edited by Carl F. Petry, Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp645

Terms of conversion
Islam in Britain: 1558-1685, Nabil Matar, Cambridge University Press. 1998. pp297

The movement of the waters
As he approaches his eighth decade, José Sarney can look back on a varied and distinguished career. He is best known outside his native Brazil as the first president to lead the country following the overthrow of the military junta in 1985. A lawyer by training, his true vocation however is literature. Unlike those politicians who turn to writing late in life as a distraction or a recreation, Sarney has been making stories since his earliest years. With his novel, O Dono do Mar (The Master of the Sea), his fame as an artist seems set to spread beyond Latin America. A best-seller in the original Portuguese, the work has now been translated into Arabic. Injy El-Kashef spoke to the author while he was in Cairo to launch the book, which she reviews here

God is here, and the devil with him
Sayed Al-Bihar (O Dono do Mar, The Master of the Sea), José Sarney, Beirut: Dar Al-Farabi, 1999, pp323

At a glance:

* Manamat Am Ahmed Assamak (Am Ahmed the Fisherman's Dreams), Khairi Shalabi

* Al-Yahoud fi Misr Al-Mamloukiya (Jews in Mameluke Egypt), Mahasin Mohamed El-Waqqad

* Shahadati lil-Agyal (My Testimony to the Coming Generations), Helmi El-Said

* Hatha Al-Sabbah Al-Gamil (This Beautiful Morning), Mohamed Abul-Ma'ati Abul-Naga

* Khajal Al-Yaquot (The Shyness of Rubies), Amal Moussa

Al-Hilal, Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal, June 1999

* Complete Poetry, Mohamed Al-Qeissi, Beirut: Arab Institution for Studies and Publishing, 1999.

* Sourat Al-Yahoud fi Al-Adab Al-Injelizi (The Image of Jews in English Literature), Ramsis Awad

* Mawsouat Al-Ghina' Al-Masri fi Al-Qarn Al-'ishrin (Encyclopedia of Egyptian Song in the 20th Century), Mohamed Qabil

* Al-Kutub: Wughaat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), Cairo: Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publications, Issue no. 5, June 1999




Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Terms of conversion

Reviewed by Denis Johnson-Davies

Islam in Britian The title alone of this book is intriguing. Were there really any Muslims in Britain between those two dates which represent the accession of Elizabeth I and the death of Charles II? The answer is, strictly speaking, that there were officially no British Muslims in Britain itself; the first native-born Briton to convert to Islam and to declare himself a Muslim in England was a certain William Henry Quillian who converted in 1884 after a visit to Morocco. However, the subject of the present book is the many thousands of Britons who did in fact convert to Islam between the two dates mentioned in the title and who lived out their lives in various parts of the Islamic world. Under what circumstances did this occur?

It should be remembered that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the position, both military and cultural, of the Muslim peoples of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa in comparison to those of Europe was in many respects superior. The city of Algiers, for instance, possessed a fleet more powerful than those of either England or France: their ships were even reaching the English Channel and making raids on Channel ports. It was thus reported that, between 1609 and 1616, 466 English ships were attacked by so-called Algerian pirates and their crews enslaved. In fact, the object of attacking ships from European countries was not so much for the value of any cargoes they might have been carrying as for the money that could be gained by turning the captive men into slaves and then demanding ransom for them. So unsafe did the seas become for English ships that it was even stated that "within two years they will not leave the King's sailors to man his fleet."

It should not have been surprising that many European Christians converted to Islam in the hope of better treatment from their captors. Also, as is pointed out in the book, the Ottoman Empire at that time presented a higher civilisation than Christendom enjoyed and offered the men serving on English ships opportunities for advancement denied them at home. Any man taken prisoner by the Algerians soon discovered that his captors regarded him as an inferior person with a false religion. Additionally, Islam no doubt presented as a religion an adequate and not totally unfamiliar alternative to Christianity.

The powers-that-be in England, in particular the Church, were alarmed at the great numbers who were converting to Islam, known as "turning Turk". This was seen as a real danger and efforts were made to dissuade those contemplating it -- fear of punishment in this world and inevitable damnation in the next. Thus a chapter in the book deals with "The renegade on stage and in Church". Both in literature and on the stage those who converted had to be seen to be lost. Thus a pamphlet about a certain Ward, a British sailor who had been captured and had then converted to Islam and become a successful pirate operating out of the city of Algiers, had as a frontispiece a picture of Ward hanging from the mast of his ship -- when in fact he died more than ten years later of the plague.

Several playwrights, as well-known as Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger, wrote plays dealing with the problems of the renegade and showing how disastrous the consequences were of "turning Turk". Of course the fact was that many of those who had been captured and forced into slavery eventually obtained their freedom and came to occupy positions of power and wealth in the society into which they had been forcibly introduced; some, having embraced Islam, were fully accepted and married into the new society. Some obtained their freedom, generally through a ransom being paid, while yet others succeeded in making their escape back to England. Without exception such men publicly renounced Islam, which they claimed their circumstances had forced them into, and stated that they now wanted nothing more than to fit back into the society and familities from which they had been snatched. The Church was worried about such returnees and their possible influence on others. Such, however, was the attitude of society at the time that not a single man dared to vaunt his apostasy to Islam. Were there, nevertheless, Englishmen who had converted and who remained in England?

Later the English approach to Islam changed to one of engaging with a creed to be studied and documented so that the attitude of Orientalists was to view Islam not as a culture that was a possible threat but as a religious tradition of the past. Thus until quite recent times Arabic, if studied at all, was taught as a "dead" language along with Latin and Greek.