|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
11 - 17 January 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (372 )
The Oriental League, Egypt's Asian affiliation in the 1920s, was a fine example of how various ideologies coexisted harmoniously in the country at the time. The league, which Al-Ahram strongly supported throughout its short lifespan, aimed at disseminating the arts and sciences of the Orient, strengthening relationships between countries of the region and acquainting Egypt with that part of the world. Religion and politics were taboo subjects -- in retrospect for good reason -- because the political storms that swept many parts of the Orient accounted in part for the league's demise. From the newspaper, Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * chronicles this little-known association which had seen some big times
The forgotten Orient file
By virtue of Egypt's unique geographical location and demographic makeup, different political and ideological orientations have always coexisted in Egypt, harmoniously at times, discordantly at others. Egypt's Islamic affiliation predominated when it was under Istanbul's tutelage. Pan-Islamism found particular appeal with the largest Egyptian political organisation at the time, the National Party founded by Mustafa Kamel.
illustration: Makram Henein
The rise of national identity in Egypt began modestly in the wake of Mohamed Ali's wars against the Ottoman Empire but quickly gathered momentum to predominate in the national consciousness, bursting forth in full-fledged fashion in the 1919 Revolution. Egypt's Arab identity manifested itself through the pan-Arab movement that began to assume political and ideological expression in Egypt in the 1920s. It became embodied in the Arab League that was founded by an Egyptian initiative during World War II and assumed its most robust form with the formation of the United Arab Republic in 1958. Finally, there was Egypt's Mediterranean affiliation, promoted by a number of intellectuals who looked northward towards an environment more conducive to progress. Among the advocates of emphasising this orientation were Taha Hussein and Salama Moussa.
All of these affiliations coexisted and remained operable to varying degrees throughout Egypt's modern history and have been the subject of untold volumes of scholastic studies. However, there remains one affiliation that surfaced at the outset of the third decade of the 20th century and lost most of its momentum with the end of that decade, one that seems conspicuous if only because it has been largely ignored by historians of modern Egypt. This is the Asian affiliation, which found concrete expression in the Oriental League. In spite of the short-lived duration of this society and the identity it embodied, it nevertheless merits its rightful place in our annals, all the more so because throughout the 1920s Al-Ahram accorded it considerable space.
Egypt's eastern orientation first began to surface following Japan's victory over Czarist Russia in the war between them in 1904-1905. In fact, it inspired nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel to write The Land of the Rising Sun. To Egyptians that victory symbolised the hope and ability to throw off the yoke of colonial occupation, particularly as Japan and Egypt had begun to enter the modern era at approximately the same time and, simultaneously, faced a common enemy: Western hegemony.
Following World War I, it became clear that common ground existed between the nationalist movements in certain eastern nations and the Egyptian nationalist movement. Indeed, as the British archives of confidential Colonial Office correspondence reveal, the Indians were strongly influenced by the 1919 Revolution in Egypt. The governor-general of Ceylon, for example, was loath to have Saad Zaghlul on that island, which British colonial authorities had first selected as the place for the Egyptian nationalist leader's second exile, arguing that his presence so close to India would foment unrest among Indian revolutionaries.
Then, too, the entire Orient was in a state of intense flux, or, as Al-Ahram put it, "a movement propelled towards blessed resurrection." There was revolt in Morocco and Tripolitania, the contest between tradition and modernism in Turkey and Afghanistan, the war between the various schools of reform in China and in Egypt, the battle between might and right in India and Malaya, and other such "manifestations of the great resurgence for which the Orient is preparing."
According to the memoirs of palace confidant Ahmed Shafiq Pasha, the idea of forming the Oriental League was born on 6 November 1921 when "a number of eminent figures met in the home of the honourable Mirza Mahdi Rafie Mushki Bek, chairman of the Foreign Merchants Society in Egypt, in order to bid farewell to a colleague of theirs. It was on this occasion that the assembled guests decided to form an organisation called the Society of the Oriental League."
Over the next three months, the members of the newly-formed society drew up their statutes which stipulated that their aims were to disseminate the sciences, arts and literature of the Orient, to strengthen the bonds among Oriental nations regardless of ethnic and religious affiliation and to utilise all available scientific and economic means towards these ends. They would, therefore, promote their cause "by word and pen," and by sending emissaries to other Oriental countries, establishing branches there, holding periodic conferences and lectures, hosting visiting emissaries in Egypt and publishing a periodical for scientific, economic and literary studies. Finally, the founders stressed that "religious and political debate is beyond the scope of the functions of this society."
In addition to its Egyptian members, the society drew its membership from among the Oriental foreign nationals residing in Egypt -- Syrians, Persians, Indians, Iraqis, Moroccans and Turks -- and from diverse social and professional sectors: members of the royal family, religious figures, educators, men of letters, parliamentary representatives, lawyers, journalists and civil servants.
On 7 March 1922, they elected their board of directors. But then, Shafiq confesses, they spent their initial years "in a calm bordering on languor in view of the unnatural circumstances through which Egypt was passing." The languor lasted for three years until 6 January 1925 when the society inaugurated its club, with 200 guests in attendance, among whom was a correspondent from Al-Ahram. He writes: "I approached the new premises of the Oriental Society, a vast structure located in one of the most important districts of the city, at the corner of Sami and Khairat streets, only a dozen or so steps away from the government ministries. We entered the building through a beautiful garden and found ourselves in the midst of a spacious reception hall branching off into many rooms, all of which were luxuriously furnished and decorated."
The correspondent was particularly impressed by the commitment and energy of its members, particularly its secretary Ahmed Shafiq whom he considered to be the society's guiding spirit. "He leased these luxurious premises to serve simultaneously as his home and as headquarters and club for the society. It was he who supplied the club with its elegant furnishings, paintings and maps, and who crowned these acts of generosity by placing his large personal library at the disposal of all the members." The library, in itself, was no small gift as it contained "priceless volumes of the best that was written in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, French and English."
Al-Ahram reported that the idea of the Oriental Society was not new. It traced its origins to the Egyptian Association founded in 1835 to "collect and publish diverse publications in science and literature in Arabic, French and Turkish from Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, Iran, Ethiopia and the Arab countries, a task that at the time was formidable." In a letter to the newspaper, Tawfiq Iskaros, an Al-Ahram reader, describes the objectives of that society, thereby confirming its Oriental identity. They were to establish a meeting place for visiting men of letters and scientists, to gather information particularly on the relations between Egypt and other countries of Africa and Asia, to contribute to facilitating research through the efforts of visiting volunteers and, finally, to found a specialised library. Iskaros goes on to describe the society's structure, the system of selecting members and the annual membership fee, which was 105 piastres, "not an insignificant sum for the time if we consider that the highest salary for a senior civil servant was two purses a month, or 1,000 piastres, and that this salary was never paid on time as the government budget did not function systematically until 1845."
In view of the Egyptian Society's interest in Oriental affairs, it devoted considerable attention to accumulating a wide range of works on the subject. Most of its acquisitions were in foreign languages, English in particular, because of Britain's particular interest in for Oriental affairs. The second largest collection was in French which, on its own, formed an invaluable specialised library and, in the opinion of some, the first public library in Egypt. It was opened to Egyptians and foreigners daily, except on Sundays, and accepted from them, and other sources, bequests in the form of books, maps and manuscripts.
As the Egyptian Society's library predated the Royal Khedival Library, founded in 1870, it came to form the kernel around which the latter was built. "The society remained in existence until 1874 and, upon its dissolution, its members bequeathed their library to the Royal Library," Iskaros wrote. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the Royal Library's wealth of literature on Oriental studies, particularly that written in Turkish and Persian, became so internationally reputed as to draw Orientalists from around the world. Indeed, such was its value that German curators were brought in to run the library, a situation that prevailed for quite some time.
Evidently Iskaros's attempt to trace the origin of the Oriental League to the Egyptian Society was well received by Al-Ahram readers, for the newspaper's management enlisted this scholar who clearly had a wealth of information on the subject to furnish the newspaper with further contributions. The result was a series of four articles, which together comprise one of the most important studies on that forgotten society and reveal the historical depth of Egypt's Oriental affiliation.
In his first article, Iskaros relies on primary sources contemporary to the founding of the Egyptian Society. The society, we learn, consisted of British, French, German and Armenian scholars, a fact that suggests that at the time Egypt had few scholars involved in Oriental studies. It would be some time before Egypt established a broad base of scholars devoted to this branch of studies, as well as Egyptology and geography and other modern academic subjects.
Iskaros then turns to a 1848 edition of the Leipzig-based Orientalists magazine, in which a Dutch scholar wrote that the primary purpose of the Egyptian Society was "to found a library containing everything that was written on Egypt and its neighbouring countries" and that the society's charter stipulated "the duty of the members was to strive to obtain all possible information and important news on Egypt and the Orient for the benefit of the society."
Iskaros was also able to obtain a collection of correspondence from one of the society's members to the director of the Asiatic Society in Paris, from which we glean much on the developments affecting the society. In one letter, for example, the author wrote, "The society is moving steadily towards progress and advancement, both in terms of finance and in the number of members residing in Cairo or abroad. A considerable sum of our funds has been spent on the printing of publications concerning the Orient."
Returning to the activities of the Oriental League, we tend to agree with Ahmed Naguib, an Al-Ahram reader who, in a letter to the newspaper, suggested that the true birth of this society was in 1925 with the inauguration of the clubhouse. Indeed, it was shortly afterwards that the society formed seven committees, each specialising in a specific field of Oriental affairs. Thus was conceived the Arab Committee to cover the Saudi Arabian peninsula and the Levant; the Turkish Committee was concerned with Anatolia and Central Asia; the Persian Committee for Iran, Afghanistan and Baluchistan; the Indian Committee specialised in Indian and Indo-Chinese affairs; the Far Eastern Committee concerned itself with eastern India, Siam, China and Japan; the Maghreb Committee was devoted to North African affairs; and the African Committee whose focus was Sudan, Ethiopia and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
Although the society was now fully institutionalised, possessing a permanent headquarters, a charter, a board of directors and various committees, its aims remained largely obscure, even to the members themselves. It was thus necessary to transform the rather vague concept upon which it was founded into a concrete programme, a task that was undertaken by the Egyptian philosophy professor Mansour Fahmi, whose views appeared in Al-Ahram on 18 March 1925. The headline of Fahmi's article outlines its contents: "East and West -- Manifold Links -- the Unity of the Orient and the Significance of the Oriental League -- the Function of the League -- the Pursuit of a Lofty Goal -- Our Right to Esteem -- the Status of Egypt in the Orient."
Of these subheadings we find two to be the most germane to our discussion on Egypt's Oriental affiliation. The first is "the Unity of the Orient and the Significance of the Oriental League," under which Fahmi wrote, "Just as in the West there exists social unity that emanated from the connection with Greek and Roman literature, the affiliation to the Christian religion, the collective intellectual revival in the age of the Renaissance and a common recognition of the principles generated by social revolutions, so too in the Orient there exists unity since many of its nations derived their cultures from Arab-Islamic foundations, shared in the glory of that empire as well as in its decline, rendered at various times their contributions to the overall civilisation and, today, share the desire to demand their rights in life. These are the foundations of Oriental unity." As for the notion of a league, Fahmi said: "We know that the Orient in one sense is half of the earth and that diverse peoples on this half may only be united by the broad bond of humanity..."
Under the headline "The Function of the League" Fahmi defines one of the major common causes. While it is difficult to resist the influence of western culture, he writes, the peoples of the Orient must work to adapt it to their needs and to prepare thoroughly for this process. Towards this end, the league would have three tasks: to study the aspects of Western civilisation in a manner that enables eastern societies to benefit from it, to distinguish between Westerners who are benevolent and impartial and those who are selfish and exploitative; and, thirdly, to distinguish between those Orientals who are rigid and egocentric and those who are enlightened and view themselves first and foremost as "human beings who share mankind's duty to strive to comprehend life."
Perhaps the conflict between the adherence to Oriental identity and the willingness to take from the West, on the one hand, and on the other, the insistence on engaging in purely intellectual and educational pursuits while eschewing all involvement in the political storms that were sweeping many areas of the Orient, accounted in part for the short life of the league and its relegation to oblivion 10 years after its founding.
In any event, once it established itself on a more solid footing, the society began to contact Western associations that it believed would serve its mission. One of these was the International Society for Modern Education, which "is well placed to assist the league in achieving its goals as it will seek to publish and disseminate its cause through available means without encumbering the Oriental peoples with exorbitant costs," as Madame Valentine de Saint Point told her audience in an address to the Oriental League on 29 May 1925. The envoy of the International Society for Modern Education described the two societies as sister organisations, for "both are free of racial discrimination, embrace all religions and are dedicated to the service of human advancement and are committed to stability and peace in the world." She went on to praise the Oriental League as a society that was established "to disseminate knowledge, which is the foundation of success, to strengthen the bonds of friendship, solidarity and brotherhood among Oriental peoples without racial or religious discrimination and to revive Oriental civilisation by casting into relief its immortal traits."
If the intent of the spokeswoman was to distance the league from any political substance, that position did not sit well with an important contingent of the society and, consequently, would remain a burning fuse within its corridors, as it was virtually impossible to disassociate oneself from the general political ferment throughout the Orient at that time. In fact, on several occasions the members of the Oriental League found themselves compelled to take political positions. Ahmed Shafiq relates that the society was forced to intervene when one of its members was arrested on political charges in the Dakhla Oasis. A second instance occurred towards the end of 1925 when the society created a fund for the victims of the Great Syrian Uprising. The society established a similar fund at the time of the peasant uprising in Morocco, coupling this action with an appeal "to every compassionate Oriental, wherever he is from," saying, "One of your noblest peoples is the victim of a cruel and vicious war and struggling to defend itself. May every one of you search his heart for the empathy that binds you to them and contribute as such compassion dictates."
Although the activities of the Oriental League reached their peak with the appearance of the first edition of a magazine bearing the society's name on 15 October 1928, the publication would presage the league's demise two years later. Shortly before this, the controversy over Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq's Islam and the Principles of Government erupted and, in spite of their best intentions, the league's members could not avoid becoming embroiled. The magazine's editors enlisted such eminent figures as Taha Hussein, Salama Moussa and Ahmed Amin to defend the author which, in turn, infuriated league members Sheikh Rashid Rida, owner of Al-Manar, and Sheikh Mohamed Bakhit, the former mufti of Egypt, who accused the magazine of heresy. Such was the acrimony this issue generated within the society that its collapse was inevitable. In his memoirs, Ahmed Shafiq records that in November 1930 he resigned as editor-in-chief of the Oriental League magazine and laments, "It is deeply regrettable that after the activities of the league had expanded considerably, earning it great repute in both the East and the West, it lost its energy, after which it ceased its activities and later disbanded."
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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