10 - 16 October 2002
Issue No. 607
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Al-Ahram: A Diwanof contemporary life (463)
What if?In one of his short columns in 1930s, Al-Ahram's editor Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed posed to his readers the seemingly innocent question of which historical figure they would bring back to life, if they could. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* follows the politically charged replies on the pages of Al-Ahram
The first lesson students of history learn is never to ask "What if?" History deals with facts and the historian's task is to locate as many of those as possible, as close to their original sources as possible, and scrutinise them in accordance with the historiography he subscribes to. Anything beyond this falls under the heading of mental calisthenics, rather than scientific process, although it is a welcome repose from the rigours of the discipline.
In the autumn of 1930, Al-Ahram indulged itself in an exercise of this sort, perhaps to alleviate the gloom that set in with the incumbency of Sidqi Pasha. Or, perhaps, to avert his wrath as the truncheon of this prime minister hovered over the heads of all who differed with him, including a long-established and prestigious newspaper such as Al-Ahram.
The story begins in "Short but significant", the daily column by Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed, who relates that a French journalist conducted the following survey among his readers. If you had it in your power to bring a historical figure back to life, who would you choose? Not surprisingly, answers included such figures as Napoleon, Richelieu and Henry IV. The Egyptian columnist then posed himself the same question. His answer -- again, not surprisingly -- was Saad Zaghlul.
El-Sawi Mohamed must have assumed the column would pass the way of all others. However, shortly afterwards, he received a letter from a certain Fouad Mahgoub El-Sherbini who objected that El- Sawi should have redirected the question to his readers before answering it himself. El-Sawi had "the audacity to pose as both questioner and respondent", he wrote, adding, "On what basis did he assume that if the Egyptian people were asked who they would bring back to life they would unanimously choose Saad?"
It took some courage for El-Sawi to publish this reader's letter in his column of 12 September 1930 and to offer an apology for precipitating public opinion. He was an ardent advocate of the freedom of opinion and he hoped readers would consider his answer a purely personal view. He then promised to put the question to the public.
He was as good as his word. Two days later, his column announced: "Al-Ahram opinion poll: Who is the man you would choose to bring back to life if you could and why?" El-Sawi Mohamed listed several conditions. Readers should base their selection on a single criterion: love for the nation and dedication to its welfare. They should further refrain from "making the august prophets the subject of competition and debate, for God has set them above all other human beings". Finally, readers had to send in their answers no later than 20 September -- Al-Ahram had given readers a week to participate in this peculiar survey, with the reminder that "the best utterances are those short but significant."
From the outset, some readers did not approve of the question put before the public. Foremost among these was May Ziyada, who wrote that she would not wish to bring anyone back to life, even Saad Zaghlul. "Every individual has a specific message to impart to his environment in the course of his life, just as every farmer has only so many seeds to sew into the bowels of the earth. The message our national leader imparted is the most eloquent and most powerful message, no doubt. However, his leadership must be measured against the message he already conveyed, not that which is anticipated to come." She goes on to explain, "Regardless of his field of work and the theatre of his endeavours, no leader departs from this world until after having performed his mission, which is to put the yeast in suitable batter, thereby transforming it into a leavening agent for the bread to come."
Others shared the famous poetess's opinion, but from the perspective of not disturbing the dead. An Al-Ahram reader, signing himself "Fair", declared that it would not be right to bring famous people back from the dead: "I believe that all great persons found circumstances to help them forge their way to greatness. I fear that if they were brought back to life they would not encounter similar circumstances and would, consequently, not be able to perform the service we expected from them when they returned to the living. Thus, by bringing them back to life, we would only have added to our problems by adding to our numbers an individual who has no use to the nation. I therefore believe that we should leave the dead to rest undisturbed in their graves."
Another contributor, Habib Haddad, feared that to bring historical heroes back to life would only create trouble. "We are currently passing through a critical phase in which we are in dire need of the fullest confidence and peace of mind. Therefore, I believe it would not be wise to disturb anyone from their eternal resting place."
Perhaps it was the Sidqi era, in all its gloom and tensions, that inspired Ahmed Awwad from Tanta to suggest reviving El-Khawaga Goha El-Romi. This "unique genius" lived in a time in which "sorrow and despair had gripped the people as the consequence of financial straits and political crisis. Who else was capable of alleviating people's misery but that merry man?"
El-Sawi seconded Haddad's suggestion, taking the occasion to inform readers that only a few months previously, in Paris, an anthology of Goha jokes, "as indicative of the Egyptian spirit" had been published. Nevertheless, El-Sawi expressed his doubts that even that legendary jester could dispel the gloom of the present day.
Respondents confirmed El-Sawi's conviction that the late nationalist leader would be the public's favourite candidate for revival. Commenting on the outcome of the survey one reader opined that El- Sherbini should be asked to retract his opinion and acknowledge the truth, which was that the public was unanimous in its choice for Saad Zaghlul, "to whom the entire nation looked in the bleakest hours". He continues, "Saad Zaghlul was the hero who pursued the modern Egyptian cause since its outset and who kept its beacon aflame. He and his great moral influence have heralded a brilliant future for Egypt."
In spite of the writer's enthusiasm, the outcome was not unanimous. But, the majority was considerable: Out of approximately 300 respondents more than 170 chose Zaghlul.
This should not be surprising. The man had become a legend in his own lifetime, not only as the figurehead of the 1919 Revolution, but also for his courage and steadfastness against the British, the palace and his political adversaries. At the time of the poll, this nationalist hero had only been dead for three years, and his absence was palpable. If the Wafd Party he had headed was still powerful, with a secure base of widespread popular support, the rites of legitimacy for its present leadership included reaffirmation of their loyalty to Zaghlul's spirit and nationalist platform. Moreover, upon Zaghlul's death, Egypt was ruled by a strong, cohesive coalition government, with a majority of its members from the Wafd and solid parliamentary backing, even if this government was headed by the non-Wafdist Abdel- Khaleq Tharwat. Matters changed quickly following his death. The coalition collapsed, the Mustafa El-Nahhas government that succeeded it was dismissed in order to make way for the Mohamed Mahmoud government, whose primary preoccupation was to undermine the Wafd, and, more recently, the Sidqi government, notorious for its animosity to the large populist party, had come into power. It was only natural in such times of rapid political fluctuations, exacerbated by economic crisis, that thoughts would turn to reviving the headier days of Saad Zaghlul.
Many respondents felt the need to add a word to explain their choice of Zaghlul. To Mohamed Heikal he was "a man whose name resounded throughout the world, a man with whom nations had to reckon". May Ziyada wrote, "Truly, Saad was the poet, hero, orator and leader of the national awakening." Former Prime Minister Tharwat remarked, "Saad was unlike other men. Every great man has an aspect of greatness; Saad had many. Another former prime minister, Mohamed Mahmoud declared, "That singular individual was the symbol of Egypt's glory and pride, the repository of its aspirations and the mainstay of its liberty and independence."
Another contributor explained that when Zaghlul was alive he had "inspired in the souls of his compatriots a vigilant fighting spirit". He continues, "Saad's work was not restricted to the political domain. He awoke in us a sense of vitality, he steered us towards solidarity and concord, he guided us towards awareness and knowledge and he lit the way towards our sacred national rights."
Some readers took El-Sawi's exhortation to be concise seriously and limited their answers to the poll to a few words. "The great Saad", wrote one. "Saad Zaghlul, enough said", wrote another.
Ranking second in the "who would you bring back to life" poll was Mustafa Kamel, who won about 70 out of the some 300 responses. One supporter of this nationalist leader whose fame predated that of Zaghlul reminded Al-Ahram readers of his famous remark: "He who lets his dedication to the rights of his nation slide once will spend the rest of his life feeble in his creed and frail in his soul." The respondent adds, "Anyone who has so much as a mustard seed's weight of patriotism would wish to see Mustafa Kamel brought back to life to resume the leadership of a nation that has lost so much after him."
Another reader remarked that no Egyptian leader but Mustafa Kamel was capable of standing up against the usurpers of the nation's rights. Kamel had sustained his heroic struggle "until he fell, martyr to patriotism, chanting his love for his nation".
In a similar vein, an Azharite scholar described the founder of the National Party as "a true and sincere patriot, devoid of those self-serving ends and ulterior motives that have spoiled everything and sowed dissension and discord among the people of this nation today".
In contrast to the passionate romanticism that characterised the previous answers, a fourth reader justified his choice of Mustafa Kamel over Saad Zaghlul on the grounds that the former died in his early youth (at the age of 24) while the latter had lived to the age of 68. If brought back to life at the ages they died, Kamel would have more of his life to give than Zaghlul.
Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat, who had just died two years earlier (1928), was readers' third preference, with 12 respondents in his favour. Justifications for this choice were somewhat less effusive and more rational than for Zaghlul or Kamel. One respondent reminded people of the former prime minister's role in the promulgation of the 1923 constitution. More importantly, however, in his opinion, Tharwat was "the compassionate father of the poor, particularly of those fathers whose circumstances prevented them from ensuring the completion of their children's education. From his own pocket, he became the link between the children of the poor and the world of education." Also to the credit of this "ingenious politician who could outwit gargantuan powers" was the promulgation of the Declaration of 28 February 1922, which put Egypt on the path towards "domestic independence".
Apparently destined to be as unfortunate in his afterlife as he was when alive, Mohamed Farid received only six votes. One of those to nominate him extolled his virtues: "Although wealthy he did not indulge himself in his own wealth, but rather spent all he possessed towards the advancement of the cause of our country. He renounced government office and the future held out to him the promise of unhampered devotion to the hardships of the national struggle. He died poor in the embrace of fame and glory. God bless you, Farid. Your were the soul of true sacrifice and the emblem of pure patriotism. How you fought and suffered for the sake of a people that forgets so quickly."
In a similar vein, a student at the Faculty of Law explained that he chose Farid because he was the paragon of dedication, self-sacrifice, abnegation and fortitude. Such qualifications rendered him the most appropriate personage to bring back to life "in an age when the fonts of pure patriotism have gone stagnant and people's consciences have grown polluted".
At the tail end of candidates for a new lease on life were Ahmed Orabi and Boutros Ghali, each of whom had two supporters. One of the advocates of the former was a retired teacher who justified his choice on the grounds that Orabi "was raised in the heart of a pure Egyptian family and was the model of Egyptian nationalism in form and substance". The second Orabi supporter wrote, "He grew up among the people and died for the sake of the people. He never worked for his personal advancement, nor did he seek to acquire homes and property, in keeping with his ascetic, altruistic spirit."
The two Ghali supporters were Copts, one a student from Minya called Sami Wahba Ezzat and the second an individual from Mansoura called Banoub Aziz. In defence of their choice, both praised Ghali for having concluded an "honourable treaty" with the British over Sudan in 1899 -- a curious justification in view of the fact that the treaty met with overwhelming popular censure and was one of the causes that motivated Ibrahim El-Wardani to assassinate Ghali in 1910.
Not all participants' choices were restricted to 20th century figures. One of the most popular candidates from the annals of Egyptian history was Mohamed Ali, the "founder of modern Egypt", who was nominated for resurrection by 22 people. One of these, "Mohamed El-Shahhat Ayoub, Licentiate in Humanities", as he signed himself, offered a coherent explanation for his choice.
When Mohamed Ali assumed power in Egypt, he wrote, the country's circumstances were not dissimilar to its current circumstances "in terms of its relationship to a foreign power that controlled it". But, Mohamed Ali, after restoring domestic security, "succeeded in raising Egypt's fame abroad through his conquests of the Hijaz, Sudan, Morea and the Levant, causing the Ottoman Sultan to quake before his advance and to seek to appease him." After a brief survey of Mohamed Ali's many economic, agricultural and educational reforms, Ayoub asserted, "Egypt does not need Saad or any other such person who is all words, imagination and political machination." Such individuals were dangerous rabble-rousers who imperiled the country and its interests in the pursuit of their personal advantage.
Mohamed Ali's son, Ibrahim, who led his father's armies on many victorious campaigns, also won some admirers in Al-Ahram's opinion poll. "He raised the head of Egypt high in the Hijaz, the Levant, Greece, Anatolia and Sudan, thereby creating an Egyptian empire and demonstrating its magnificence," wrote one respondent.
Perhaps the talk of empire is what inspired other participants to delve deeper into Egyptian history and choose Tuthmosis III and Ramses II. The first was the favourite of a student in Ibrahimiya Secondary School, who lauded the Pharaoh for fostering trade and construction and for extending the possessions of Egypt eastwards to the Tigris and Euphrates valley and northwards to Crete and Cyprus. "He was celebrated by writers and eulogised by poets, to the degree that one of his extollers imagined that the god Amon spoke to Tuthmosis III, conferring upon him eternal commemoration."
A respondent from Giza praised Ramses II in similar terms. Egypt had never attained such a height of civilisation and power as it had under "that great sovereign of supreme might, numerous conquests and continuous victories". He continues, "Were God to revive him, Egypt would gain control over three quarters of the inhabited earth, by virtue of the king who humbled nations and subjugated peoples."
The late 19th and early 20th century reformers, Gamal Al- Afghani, Mohamed Abduh and Qasem Amin, also figured in the survey. The first of the two who chose Al-Afghani lauded him as "the authority in religion, the imam in politics and professor in economics, whose benefaction extended to all lands. It is sufficient honour that he was mentor to the scholars, philosophers and politicians who succeeded him." To Mohamed Khalil, Al-Afghani was "the first to utter the word 'freedom' in the land of Islam".
Two participants favoured Mohamed Abduh, one because if he were brought back to life "he would complete the body of laws and regulations for the religious courts, thereby dispelling the current moral chaos", and the other because he was a leader of the religious revival who combined religion with politics.
Qasem Amin fared slightly better than the Al-Afghani and Abduh. Not surprisingly, given his advocacy of women's rights, his supporters were mostly women. Naima Mohamed Ma'moun observed that Amin represented "the only element that we have lost and been unable to replace". She explains, "All our leaders who have been laid to rest found someone to succeed them and fill the gap they left. However, the vacancy left by Qasem Amin is still gaping. He was the champion of the Egyptian woman, steadfastly dedicated to her advancement and liberty. Now she is bereft of defender or supporter."
To many participants, the Al-Ahram opinion poll afforded an opportunity to exercise their sense of humour. Probing the lore of ancient history, one respondent chose as his candidate for revival from the dead "that dearly departed man, Tutankhamen, kept in hostage in the museums of London and Egypt". Another delivered a supplication to God for the revival of Alexander the Great, simply to answer the question, "Where are you buried, Alex? You've given us a real runabout." Going either further back, one participant opted for "our ancestor, Adam". Apparently, only he could answer two questions: "What is the origin of man, ape or reptile?" and "What is the Garden of Eden like, exactly?"
Moving forward in time to the Islamic period in Egyptian history, another respondent opted for the notoriously despotic Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim. He was the only ruler to sentence women's hairdressers to death, to outlaw the sale of facial powders and fingernail unguents, and to prohibit exchanges between men and women in the public thoroughfares. Were this caliph to be brought back to life, I would no longer have to see my aged, timeworn mother-in-law with her face covered with a centimetre thick coat of paints." It would be interesting to learn whether Gamaleddin Abdel-Rahman, as the writer signed himself, was using a pseudonym, for one can only begin to picture the domestic travails his letter caused him.
However, perhaps the oddest answer in the survey was that submitted by Ahmed Mohamed Farghal who believed he had the key for solving all of Egypt's problems with the British. All that was needed was to bring back to life Sir Lee Harvey Stack, the governor-general of Sudan and commander of Egyptian forces who was assassinated in 1924. Then, Sudan would be restored to Egypt, Egypt would recuperate the half a million pounds indemnity it paid to the British and a treaty could be signed with London ending all outstanding disputes between the two countries. Farghal's fancy, even if in jest, was true to the very nature of the opinion poll, which bore little relationship to historical enquiry but was certainly an entertaining diversion into the realm of "If only..."
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Letter from the Editor
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