1 - 7 August 2002
Issue No. 597
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (453)
In defence of identityMustafa Kemal Ataturk's revolution and Turkey's adoption of Western models sent shock waves throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. In Egypt, it brought to the fore many questions regarding cultural identity. In this week's instalment of the Diwan Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* follows the debate for and against Westernising Arabic script on the pages of Al-Ahram -- a debate that was explicitly tied to the cause of national liberation
The 1920s brought a powerful political and ideological current into the Middle East that had profound repercussions for Egypt. Spearheading this current was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1922 and founded the Republic of Turkey the following year. With this development, an entire world that Egypt and the Arabs had known for four centuries had vanished, virtually over night. Of greater impact, however, were the cultural changes the Turkish leader introduced into his country. The effect of these changes was to turn Turkey 180-degrees from its past, giving its back to the Arab-Islamic world that it had led for so long as it reoriented itself towards Europe, in spite of centuries of antagonism and warfare.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
Among the most significant changes Ataturk introduced was to abandon the Arabic alphabet in favour of a modified Latin alphabet for writing Turkish, out of the belief that this would broaden the window of intellectual communication with the West. A second was to abandon traditional oriental attire in favour of Western modes of dress. One day Ataturk appeared in a fedora instead of the customary fez, and the rest of the Turks, whether they wanted to or not, soon did likewise. While seemingly symbolic, such changes left their imprint on Egypt and the rest of the Arab and Islamic worlds.
There were those who attempted to seize upon the political changes Ataturk wrought. The fall of the seat of the caliphate in Istanbul enticed several Arab leaders, not least of whom was King Fouad I, to vie for the vacant position of Leader of the Faithful, in order to add religious credentials to their already considerable secular powers. Others, meanwhile, seized the opportunity to strengthen the role of Islam in Egyptian politics under the banner of reviving the caliphate. At the forefront of this trend was Sheikh Rashid Reda, publisher of the influential Al- Manar magazine.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were those who sought to justify Kemal's action in religious terms. In his controversial Islam and the Principles of Government, Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq contended that the institution of the caliphate conflicted with fundamental Islamic tenets. Others, such as Salama Moussa, stepped forward to advocate adapting the Latin script to Arabic, while yet others, such as Mahmoud Azmi, initiated the call to emulate Ataturk's sartorial model and rushed to doff the tarbush and don the Western hat.
To many in Egypt, such appeals meant one thing: that the Egyptians' Arab and Islamic identity was in serious jeopardy. The peril prompted many to take action, and, interestingly, King Fouad was one of the first to act.
Beneath the headline, "Advancing Arabic script: fulfilling a royal wish", Al-Ahram of 8 January 1929 published a statement issued by the Press and Publications Authority. "His Majesty has a great desire to advance the level of Arabic script, firstly through the introduction of elements of punctuation -- periods, question marks, exclamation marks and the like -- and the establishment of rules for the use of these elements, and, secondly, through the introduction of upper case letters to be used in script and print in a manner similar to the capital letters of English and the majuscule in French. A special committee will be formed to set the rules for punctuation; however, it is the wish of His Majesty that the design of upper case letters for Arabic be open to a public competition. His Majesty has further condescended to dedicate prizes to the three winning contestants of this competition."
Naturally, the Press and Publication Authority's announcement stirred a national debate over the issue of Arabic script and its importance to the Arab and Islamic identity of the Egyptian people. The first to broach the subject on the pages of Al-Ahram on 14 January 1929 was Mae Ziyada in an article entitled: "Enhancing the appearance of the sentence with capitals: On the new royal drive to enhance the precision and aesthetic appearance of the Arabic sentence". Ziyada, a famous writer and poetess, lauded the king's concern for Arabic writing, which was "the property of all who speak it, and, simultaneously, the special preserve of journalists and writers as it is their tool for expression".
Ziyada emphasised the need for punctuation while subtly belittling the importance of the king's second demand. Punctuation, she wrote, was of utmost importance. "It clarifies meaning and allows the writer's intent to shine forth. It demarcates sequences of words, thereby augmenting their force and precision. How frustrating are those compositions in which sentence is piled upon sentence, line upon line and, perhaps, page upon page without a single mark to save us." However, she cautions against excess in emulating the Europeans in punctuation. "A period is not needed at the end of the line to mark the end of a sentence that ends there, since the end of the line, itself, is sufficient indication." She also felt that the semi-colon was superfluous.
Capital letters she barely touched upon, apart from expressing her doubt that Arabic script could accommodate them. As she departed from the royal will in this regard she had taken pains to corroborate her view carefully. During the Middle Ages, she wrote, the West adopted the old Latin alphabet and invented the upper and lower cases for several reasons. One was for the aesthetic appearance, a second was to mark the beginning of sections of words, whether at the beginning of a paragraph or a sentence in prose, and a third was to distinguish proper names.
She then pointed out that none of the Semitic languages used capital letters; neither for that matter did Sanskrit, the mother of all Indo-European languages. Moreover, capitals did not exist in the Qur'an, "the many copyings of which generated a great diversity in beautiful scripts". Ziyada concludes that "the Arabic script abundantly fulfills the conditions for elegance and embellishment in our printed works without the need for capitals. Simultaneously, the period between one sentence and the next dispenses with the need for upper case letters, for it alerts the reader to the end of one thought and the beginning of the next."
Another opponent to the upper case was Naguib Hawawini, an "expert consultant in Arabic script". Capitals in Arabic, he held, "would not share any of the aesthetic pleasure of the majuscule in Western alphabets, as our letters are connected, which creates an insurmountable obstacle in this regard. How can a word be aesthetically pleasing if its first letter towers over the rest? Would the human body be attractive if the head connected to it were disproportionately large compared to the rest of the trunk and the rest of the appendages? The fundamental principle of aesthetics resides in what philosophers term 'the harmony of the parts.' On the basis of this established tenet I believe that not only is it impossible to promote the Arabic script through capital letters, but such letters would actually desecrate the beauty it currently possesses."
This did not mean there was no alternative, however. Hawawini's proposal was for publishing houses to use a bolder font for the first word of a sentence, not only for the first letter of that word. Adopting this solution would generate a distinct improvement in printed works. Moreover, in addition to marking the beginning of sentences, the bold font could be used to distinguish proper names "or other words to which the writer wants to draw attention".
However, the king's drive to promote Arabic script and the subsequent commentaries were only the beginning of the campaign to defend the symbols of Egypt's Arab identity. In an interview with Al-Ahram's Mahmoud Abul-Fath, Sir Denison Ross, director of the Oriental Languages Institute in London, cautioned against replacing the Arabic alphabet. "Arabic letters are the letters of the language of the Qur'an. Tamper with them and you tamper with the Qur'an. Indeed you will have demolished the edifice of the unity of Islam, because its foundation is the Arabic language, which if lost, so too will be Islam."
Sir Ross agreed with Mae Ziyada and Hawawini on the benefits of punctuation and on the difficulty of applying the notion of upper case letters to Arabic. He added that capital letters were a relatively modern invention in European languages, for ancient Greek had no such thing. Nevertheless, so as to keep an avenue open in deference to King Fouad, he suggested that the idea of introducing an element of embellishment to the first letter of a sentence or a proper name be considered.
Al-Ahram's correspondent, Abdallah Hussein, held an interview with another orientalist who authored many works in Arabic, a certain Dr Yehuda. This scholar argued that the Kemalist desire to purge modern Turkish culture of Arabic and Persian influences could not be fulfilled by replacing Arabic with Latin script, because "the effect of such a substitution would be to erode the foundations of Turkish through the gradual introduction of European words".
Also, in the face of calls to substitute Latin for Arabic script the idea was born to hold a conference on 28 April 1929 to fortify Arabic script against the Westernising onslaught. A committee was formed consisting of prominent advocates of Arabic language reform: Ahmed Shafiq Pasha, Ahmed Zaki Pasha, Mirza Mahdi Bek, Khalil Matran Bek, Karim Thabet and Saleh Gawdat. It was clear to Ahmed Shafiq from the outset that pursuit of national liberation entailed more than a political drive; liberation involved a crucial cultural dimension.
In his opening address, Syrian Minister Abdel-Rahman Shahbandar stressed that the struggle for liberation does not only take place on battlefields, but also "in the arena of customs, traditions, beliefs, conditions and all other characteristics that distinguish one social entity from another". He went on to caution, "If we want to unify our ranks we must give culture its proper due. Linguistic disarray in a homogenous culture is little different from unity in language within a context of cultural discord. Language is the symbol of society and it is its glimmering light that beckons peoples groping in the dark."
Shahbandar went on to emphasise the ability of Arabic to accommodate to change. In ancient times, it was capable of expressing "the most subtle states of the mind, the most subtle properties of nature and nature's creatures, large and small, as were known and understood by the peoples of the pre-Islamic period. At the outset of Islam this Bedouin language reached out to embrace the wisdom of India, Persia and Greece. It is absurd to think that after all these centuries of refinement and polishing it is incapable of accommodating contemporary academic and scientific developments, that is unless our people are determined to disparage its unique properties."
Shahbandar proceeded to offer several suggestions in the interests of "strengthening the Arabic language". One was to institute a periodically scheduled Arabic language seminar to handle lexical issues. A second was for Arabic academies to enter into closer communication and to institute professional and educational exchanges. He also urged using press institutions to disseminate joint research projects, organising competitions in linguistic endeavours, unifying educational curricula, promoting scholastic interchange between Arab countries through conferences and seminars, and, finally, creating public libraries in Arab capitals especially dedicated to books and periodicals on the Arabic language.
The concern for safeguarding Arabic was at least partially behind the decision of the Ministry of Education to modify and add to the secondary school Arabic language and literature curriculum. However, parents and even school officials complained that the new requirements were too difficult and too long for students to handle. Indeed, some secondary schools refused to teach some of the new material.
In the face of this general resistance, the Ministry of Education issued a statement to the press stating that the curriculum was not beyond students' abilities, since the subjects were essentially the same as in previous curricula. "As for the new supplements, they can be simplified, and, in this regard, all depends upon the skill of instructors in helping students overcome the difficulties they encounter."
In addition, although the new curriculum appeared too extensive at first glance, "this, in fact, is only because it was drafted in considerable detail to ensure that all teachers present the same subject matter and do not diverge in opinion in this regard". Also in order to allay the fears of quantity, the statement detailed the number of courses per week in the various subjects. Students in the liberal arts stream, for example, would have only one lecture a week in each of the following: history of literature, biographies of literary figures and classic literary texts.
The Egyptian University, too, entered the campaign to safeguard Arabic as an embodiment of Egyptian identity, as we observe in Al-Ahram's editorial of 16 December 1929. That "Arabic philology instruction in university" was written by the Editor-in- Chief Dawoud Barakat, himself, was indicative of the importance the newspaper's management attached to the subject. A university professor of Semitic languages had recently produced an important study in which he traced the evolution of Arabic from the pre-Islamic era and concluded that the Arabic that came down to us is, in fact, a blend of many diverse dialects that eventually became so intermingled as to form a single language. Barakat lauded the work, but added that such individual efforts, no matter how praiseworthy, took too long to have their desired impact on society, in view of the relative slowness with which the ideas emanating from an individual can be disseminated among a greater public. He concludes, "There is thus an urgent need for resolute collective action." The action he recommended was to create an Arabic language academy in Egypt.
Over the coming months, the idea acquired impetus. On 5 April, the newspaper featured a lengthy article on the history of "Arabic philological academies" in Egypt which had modest and faltering beginnings. The first attempt was at the hands of Tawfiq El-Bakri who held a regular salon in his home for a group of prominent writers and intellectuals. This society, however, was short-lived, as were its various successors, "Until Dar Al-Ulum graduates founded their literary club, began publication of their magazine and pursued their individual efforts under the guidance of their chairman Hifni Bek Wassef."
Nevertheless, it was not long until the Dar Al-Ulum club, too, closed and its magazine stopped appearing. At this point the government stepped in to fill the gap left by the failure of private endeavours. Although this initiative, spearheaded by the Egyptian Library authority, also met a dead end, the idea of forming an Arabic language academy in Egypt remained alive. Meanwhile, such academies surfaced in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Palestine.
Efforts to found such an academy in Egypt gained new impetus when Lutfi El-Sayed, minister of education in Mohamed Mahmoud's cabinet, allocated an annual budget of LE13,600 -- a considerable sum by the standards of that time -- for that purpose. The aims of the academy were to compile an Arabic dictionary on the model of European lexicons, to refine Arabic language usage and to investigate and reconcile the opinions of Arab and Western philologists.
The decision to form an Arabic language academy in Egypt attracted widespread interest among the other Arabic language academies in the Levant, which dispatched delegates to Cairo to explore possible avenues for cooperation. Among these was Mohamed Baiham of the Lebanese academy, who contributed an article to Al-Ahram on the importance of cooperation between Arabic language academies.
The Lebanese scholar cautioned that the task of compiling an Arabic dictionary should not be monopolised by a single academy. Rather, such an endeavour should combine the efforts of all language academies, for otherwise there would evolve a great disparity in the language reference works produced by the various academies, for each would go their separate way in the process of selection, defining and presenting vocabulary. That there was a desperate need for a unified Arabic dictionary was indisputable in view of the current confusion that prevailed in Arabic. He writes, "How can we not feel dismayed when our modern revival is emerging on a foundation of dialects that vary so greatly from one capital to another that even Arab men of letters find it more difficult to comprehend one another than the people of Morocco and Egypt? How can we promote understanding among educated Arabs when mutual comprehension depends on the aid of vastly dissimilar dictionaries?"
To further underscore the importance of concurrence among Arab language academies he points to the thousands of words that needed to be coined in Arabic to contend with modern inventions. "I was told, for example, that the Arabic words for everything to do with the railway, from nails to train, number in excess of 12,000. Imagine this multiplied by all the other inventions and discoveries with which our language must contend." It was when this reality struck him, Baiham writes, that he resolved to promote intensive communications between the various Arabic language academies and to initiate the call for an annual conference to supervise the activities of these academies. Also, under the auspices of the conference it would be possible to compile a single Arabic dictionary "that could be used and relied upon throughout the Arab world".
While discussions on the Arabic language academy were taking place Dr Yehuda happened to be passing through Cairo. Al-Ahram seized this opportunity and dispatched a correspondent to interview the noted Orientalist on the subject of the academy. Yehuda was unequivocally enthusiastic. "The establishment of an Arabic language academy in Egypt dedicated to the study of the origins and evolution of Arabic is of vital importance to the country. Egypt must have its own academy, as it has become a centre for Arabic philology and literature. Indeed, I am surprised that Syria and Iraq have preceded Egypt in this endeavour. Nevertheless, I believe each academy should retain its independence so as to generate competition between them, which will drive each to devote itself with greater drive and energy towards success."
In Yehuda's opinion, the most important task of an Arabic language academy was to compile a new dictionary containing all Arabic words and expressions for all the sciences and arts across history. He proposed that the dictionary consist of three sections, the first dedicated to the various Arabic dialects, which each academy would compile separately. The second would contain the vocabulary of the various arts and sciences, "from the height of Arabic civilisation to its decline under the Turks and after the expulsion of the Arabs from Andalusia". This section, he added, would be compiled from printed works and manuscripts "which exist by the thousands in European museums". The third section would compile all vocabulary and expressions contained in existing dictionaries, but with an eye to "studying their etymologies and eliminating the many antiquated words that scientists of the early centuries of Islamic civilisation had coined but are no longer commonly used".
Because of all the announcements, interviews and discussions that were taking place many must have imagined that the establishment of the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo was as good as done. Indeed, one writer pre-empted events by discussing criteria for membership in the proposed academy. He wrote, "It is the opinion of some that this academy should consist of people with purely academic backgrounds, such as graduates from Al- Azhar and Dar Al-Ulum and contemporary men of letters." In his opinion, however, such a composition lacked homogeneity, which would be detrimental to the association's cause.
The fact was, however, that the academy was not as close to hand as had previously been thought, and many began to grumble about the delay. In December 1929, Al-Ahram's editor-in-chief suspected foul play. "Last year they allocated LE13,000 to the project. Then, they forgot it, shelved it, then cancelled it. As a result we have remained stock still, unable to move a step forward in the pursuit of the knowledge of our language, indeed, in the quest of enabling this language to portray our ideas, which have grown more sophisticated, and our sentiments, which have become more subtle and refined."
Dawoud Barakat and others would have to wait another three years -- until 13 December 1932 -- for the Royal decree establishing the Arabic Language Academy. The mission of the academy was "to preserve the Arabic language, to render it commensurate to the demands of science, the arts and developments of modern civilisation, and to compile a historic dictionary of the Arabic language". Thus, the new academy marked a turning point in the defence of Egyptian identity.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Letter from the Editor
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