23 - 29 March 2000
Issue No. 474
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Focus Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons
A Diwan of contemporary life (330)
One of Al-Ahram's oldest traditions was to provide a forum for intellectuals and critics to air their views regularly. A pioneer in this field was Mansur Fahmi, a professor of philosophy at the national university. He began publishing his lively columns under the heading "A mind's reflections" in 1922. Some of his topics were highly controversial and they frequently elicited sharp responses from readers. Separating politics and religion, the emancipation of women and modernisation, including refined dancing, were among the hot issues Fahmi tackled. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * reviews some of his articles and pertinent reactions.
Lively and provocative
"The Philosopher Said" is a highly informative educational radio programme that continues to appeal to Egyptian audiences today. However, it was probably Al-Ahram that set the tradition in the media with its regular series of philosophical columns. Readers today are undoubtedly familiar with Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, the last Egyptian philosopher of the 20th century to contribute regularly to Al-Ahram. However, they would not necessarily be familiar with his predecessor, Dr Mansur Fahmi -- "the Professor of Philosophy at the Egyptian University" as he signed his columns -- whose writings gave readers of the first quarter of that century much food for thought.
Mansur Fahmi was originally from Sharnaqash, a small village in Daqahliyya, to which he would periodically return to escape the bustle of the city. According to biographical sources, the noted philosopher received his preliminary education in Mansura, after which he moved to Cairo and obtained his law degree. In 1908, he was among the first study mission from the newly founded "National University," later to become the University of Cairo, to travel to France, where he received his PhD in philosophy from the Sorbonne. His doctorate thesis was "The Status of Women in Islam," which, according to Al-Ahram, "created such an outcry that he was forced to remain in France until the commotion subsided. He did not return to Egypt until 1914."
Fahmi readily admitted to his intensive concern for women's issues, which was to cause him so much trouble. Writing for Al-Hilal magazine in 1930 under the headline, "The most influential factor in my life," he related, "When I cast my mind back over the many major events that influenced my life, the 'spectre of women' surfaces with the utmost clarity. Women have had a profound effect on my moral formation. When I was s a student in Mansura, barely 13 years old, I was a wayward pupil, inattentive to my studies, heedless of discipline and sloppy in my attire. Then I met this Christian girl. She was younger than I was and a student in one of the foreign girls schools. I was drawn to her with a certain innocent infatuation. Suddenly my approach to life changed and from an ill-bred, unkempt child I turned into a polite and pleasant young man."
Fahmi goes on to recollect the French mistress of the school he went to in Cairo and how hard he worked in order to merit the kindness she bestowed upon him. Later, as a student in Paris, he met a young Russian woman, "taken by high social ideals," who also left a profound imprint on his life. "Thus, at every phase of my life, in childhood, as a young man and as an adult, women emerged to guide me."
Mansur Fahmi began writing for Al-Ahram in the summer of 1921, choosing as the title for his column "Between the labour of the mind and the fruit of the pen." As the title suggests, the author wanted to produce something more than an ordinary book review column, such as "In praise of books," which Al-Ahram brought to its readers at the beginning of the century, and "Authors and critics," which appeared in 1917. For Fahmi, literary criticism was the platform for the discussion of broader concerns, and, indeed, his column triggered heated philosophical and literary debates. One prime example was the battle that flared up between him and Taha Hussein over Lutfi El-Manfaluti's translation of Cyrano De Bergerac, and specifically regarding the question of fidelity to the original versus fidelity to the needs of the prospective audience.
Perhaps the idea of "Fruit of the Pen" inspired the next phase of Fahmi's writings for Al-Ahram. "A mind's reflections," introduced in the summer of 1922, continued for many years to feature regularly on the front page of Al-Ahram's Friday edition, with rare appearances in the Saturday edition. Although the column would eventually appear in book form, the book did not contain all the articles he wrote. More importantly, however, the articles acquire a more vibrant flavour when read within the time frame and thematic context of the newspaper in which they appear.
Mansur Fahmi had been a disciple of Lutfi El-Sayyid, founder of Jarida. It is hardly surprising that many of his "Reflections" would treat some of the sociopolitical causes that preoccupied Egyptian intellectual opinion since they began to be espoused by that liberal periodical during its brief period of publication from 1907-1915. The separation of religion and politics was one of the particularly sensitive issues he broached, although he did so rather indirectly. He relates in one of his columns that during a visit to a monastery in France he took the opportunity to inquire about the relationship between the clergy and politics. The abbot was bitter. The secular authorities, he complained, "pretend to respect and protect us, but they impose upon us such a heavy tax that we are no longer loath to voice our grievance to the powers that be that we are being coerced into involving ourselves in political affairs, in spite of the fact that there is nothing dearer to men of God than to be able to devote themselves exclusively to the worship of God."
Whether or not this conversation actually took place, Fahmi uses it as the basis for his comment on the situation in Egypt. "How different is the attitude of some men of religion in our country," he writes. "It is astounding to see how they thrust themselves into the sordid turmoil of political party life when there is absolutely no need for them to taint their spiritual dignity with the evils of intrigue, vanity and cupidity in the realm of politics."
Such an outspoken stance would inevitably land Fahmi in battle after battle with the clergy in Egypt. In fact, he frequently fired the opening round. At the same time, it should be stressed that he made no claim to a monopoly on the truth and frequently devoted extensive space in his column to responses to his assertions.
The annual celebration of the Nile flood provided one occasion for such an exchange. In his column, Fahmi charged that "the ulama of mighty stature" who attended the celebration had failed to stand up in respect when the national anthem was played. "I might find it within my power to understand how the life of piety has hampered their ability to distinguish between one melody and another. However, it eludes me how they failed to take note of the fact that the entire audience stood up in a state of reverence, and one would have thought it only a matter of proper etiquette for the ulama to do likewise." But Fahmi went further to criticise the clergy for attending these celebrations in the first place. Moreover, he was surprised to find that not nearly so many members of the clergy attended the commemorative ceremony for Sheikh Mohamed Abduh, even though they had received invitations. Evidently, he scoffs, their acceptance of invitations is directly proportional to the status of the event.
Abdel-Gawad Ramadan was the first to respond to the philosopher's charges through the pages of Al-Ahram. Perhaps subscribing to the adage that the best defence is to go on the offensive, the sheikh maintained that the ulama refused to stand when the national anthem was played, "because they are as far removed as can be from the morass of Western traditions into which so many of our prominent people are mired, one manifestation of which are national anthems." As for the charge that fewer clergy attended the commemoration of Sheikh Mohamed Abduh than the celebration of the Nile flood, it was patently untrue. After all, he asks rhetorically, "did Mohamed Abduh not belong to Al-Azhar, which produced before him and after him so many of his fellow sheikhs, disciples and students?" The sheikh went on to deliver his main broadside: "The ulama do not dispute your right to promote modern science, nor to advocate the liberation of women which is your prime obsession and your insidious malady. But take care. Liberate or restrict women as you wish, but you can do them no greater evil than they do unto themselves of their own free will."
A few weeks later Al-Ahram's philosopher fires a return volley. It appears in the form of a dialogue between "a wearer of a turban" and "a wearer of a tarboush," referring respectively to a cleric and a layman. The first "complains to God and the people of the evils of those who fail to understand the true meaning of Islam and have rushed to deride it before ever learning the justifications for its tenets from those versed in the scriptures. Out of their ignorance they set religion and the religious as their enemies, erred and induced others to err, and committed great evil against God." To which the "tarboush wearer" responded: "I complain to God and the people of the men of religion who stick their noses in every concern, wrangle in politics as though they were party leaders and speak out in conferences as though they were au fait with every detail. From behind their venerable beards emerge the sounds of zealotry in sharp and grating tones. Every word they utter attests to their belief that they are forever in the right, that they could commit no wrong, that they are incapable of senseless drivel."
The position of the Muslim clergy on the education of women also figured in Fahmi's column. One "Thought" was devoted to responding to an Al-Azhar official's condemnation of the women's study missions that were being sent to Europe to receive higher educational degrees. To send these young women to Europe, in the opinion of the Al-Azhar official, was "to cast them adrift in a sea of vice and depravity where they are tossed between the waves of predators who lure them at every turn in the absence of all supervision and control. Thus, when they return to Egypt, having learned to excel in all manner of corruption, we employ them in our schools where they inculcate the rest of our daughters in the atheism and dissolution they acquired abroad."
Towards this invective, the Egyptian University scholar turned his most schoolmasterly tones. "Now we all know," he wrote, "that one of our venerable sheikhs sent his daughter off on one of those study missions to Europe and that she returned an erudite, refined and virtuous woman who is now the director of one of our country's largest schools." Certainly, other fathers who send their daughters abroad are no less concerned and vigilant than that sheikh over the honour and good reputation of their daughters. As a final thrust, Fahmi criticises the Al-Azhar scholar's written composition: "Were you to preach, your sermons would never reach the hearts of the people with that maladroit style you have adopted."
Clockwise from top left: Qasim Amin; Mansur Fahmi; Zaki Naguib Mahmoud; Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayyid
Fahmi's advocacy of modernisation met with the disapprobation of the lay conservative sector of society at the time. In his column of 16 March 1923 he discussed dance, but not oriental dance. He writes that he had learned that the "Russian dancing troupe" was performing in Cairo. He was loath to attend at first, but then he heard that the famous ballerina, Anna Pavlova, was performing. He "put his trust in God" and went to the theatre. Upon entering, he discovered that it was not "the place of depravity and obscenity," which was the widespread impression most Egyptians had of such establishments. Quite to the contrary, "I found something that lifts the soul to the world of spirits. Were those really human beings coming and going on the stage? Perhaps they were birds in flight, branches swaying, or flowers caught in a gentle breeze? Or were they instead those magical gestures with which the angels guided men to veneration and worship, gestures to the heavens that indicate that the fine arts are a ladder to God?"
While Mansur Fahmi addressed many topical social issues in his column, the status of women continued to top his agenda. He had long been a strong advocate of women's liberation, having broached the subject many times before when writing for Al-Sufur (lifting the veil), a liberal intellectual magazine that appeared during World War I. In one column of "Thoughts," he takes the opportunity of having attended a reception hosted by the editorial staff of The Egyptian Woman magazine to pay tribute to "one of the fathers of the reform movement in Egypt." This was Qasim Amin. Fahmi writes, "There are some people whose names live for a generation due to an ability to attract notice or due to circumstances that bring them to the fore, but their memory ceases once that generation dies out. There are other people whose generation seeks to belittle them and discredit their ideas, yet whose names live on and whose ideas are vindicated with the passage of time. Qasim Amin is one of the latter sort, for little by little, time is bringing into reality his advocacy of the rights of women to engage in public life."
Fahmi waged war against many who contended that women were destined to remain in the home. "What is a home?" asks Fahmi. "It is not just that material structure standing on the ground beneath the sky, for as such it is not much different from a barn or a hive. The home of human beings is that which encompasses, besides its four walls, that special essence of contentment. It is a structure whose substance is grounded in the earth, but whose spirit soars to the heavens." He takes issue with the conservatives who hold that women are incapable of excelling in any activity beyond care of the home. Moreover, the conservatives "imagine that the most important domestic chores consist of trivial material activities such as preparing food, making clothes, and such like. In other words, they believe that women's work should be restricted to the menial tasks that bees and ants engage in."
True, Fahmi did not go as far as some who believed that "women should strike out in all realms of work and take part in all aspects of life." He did stress, however, that his concept of the home rendered the role of women more vital and more dynamic. Among the functions of women in the home was to "prepare strong bodies, equip the spirit with sound morals, hone the taste for peace and health, and supply the mind with knowledge." Such tasks demanded persons "who have been trained to the highest educational level possible and have acquired appropriate experience in life."
Another major concern of Mansur Fahmi was education. The function of the school, he wrote in one of his columns, was "to prepare the spirit and encourage creativeness rather than fill minds with all kinds of facts and knowledge." The educational system in Egypt at the time was not equipped for that mission. Primary schools were staffed with "squads of the least experienced and least knowledgeable teachers, on the erroneous presumption that educating the young is an easy task."
Fahmi's criticism of the school system found considerable support among his readers. One reader, Abdel-Razeq El-Bahrawi wrote to Al-Ahram to say that schools, as they were then managed, were "no more than places where we dump our children in the hopes that they emerge in the end having obtained what we call a guarantee that they will be able to secure for themselves future happiness and contentment. They are little different from prisons, or at best buildings to which we force our growing children, in spite of the fact that they possess nothing to attract and inspire them. The schools might be large and fine structures from the outside, but inside they are empty and despised."
Some of the Egyptian university professor's political views appeared under the heading, "Towards the reform revolution," and consisted of six articles. In the first of these articles, Fahmi describes the general disenchantment that he felt pervaded the country four years after the 1919 Revolution. People were disgruntled at the pervasive moral turpitude, at politicians whose sole concern was to undermine their adversaries, at the spite that rankled in the hearts. "The climate of the country has become poisoned with demagoguery, pomposity and intransigence; political ambitions have hampered the premises of logic and the fruits of reason."
Everywhere people are grumbling, he continues. "One moment you hear someone grieve over the bane of nepotism, the next you hear someone rave against the iniquities of people in power, then you turn and hear another assail the tenaciousness with which party leaders scramble to increase their constituencies at the expense of national solidarity and your next interlocutor will lament the reckless squandering of public moneys to the detriment of the public welfare."
Fahmi devoted one of these six articles to the "nature of subjects in dispute," in which he distinguished between natural or normal controversies as opposed to artificial or pathological controversies. Among the former, were such rifts as those that exist between the perceptions of the old and the young, the views of businessmen versus financial experts over a particular economic question and the differences that arise due to an error in fact versus faulty reasoning. In all events, such natural differences did not pose a danger to the future of the nation.
The second type of dispute, on the other hand, arose from "the ambitions, cupidity, arrogance and whims of individuals." Such contentions were detrimental to the general moral fabric of society, which is the standard by which nations are judged. This type of dispute, moreover, is like a land mine, "for the motives behind them are the largest single cause behind social strife and chaos." Following this theoretical analysis, typical of the philosophical reflections that distinguished Fahmi from most of his contemporary journalistic colleagues, the author dedicates his subsequent articles to different categories of social leadership.
"Demagogues and the riff-raff" was the title that introduced the first category. Demagogues were rabble-rousers who had a flair for "using a certain magnetism and charisma in order to numb people's faculties for reason and judgement." The riff-raff consisted of that segment of society most susceptible to the machinations of the rabble-rousers due to their general naiveté, simple-mindedness and lack of education and insight. The riff-raff were also made up of the most underprivileged classes of society who were inherently desperate to seize upon any solution handed to them to deliver them from their wretchedness, "regardless of how far that solution is from the goal to which they aspire."
He discusses the second category under the heading "leaders and the elite." He writes, "This small group contains the most experienced, knowledgeable and intelligent members of the nation. These qualities render them responsible for countering the influence of demagogues on the riff-raff."
In his final article, "Leadership and leaders," he discusses pioneers in thought and ideology "whose names live on as long as the ideas upon which their intellectual leadership is founded remain valid." Epitomising this category were figures of the stature of Karl Marx. These he contrasts to leaders brought to the fore by circumstance and "whose names live on as long as the conditions that gave rise to their leadership remain alive."
With these articles Fahmi concludes his political reflections for the readers of Al-Ahram in 1922, although they continue to offer much food for thought for readers today.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.