The recent publication by the Egyptian Book Organisation of eight volumes of Al-Kateb Al-Massry (The Egyptian Writer), a literary magazine published between 1945 to 1947, has brought back some pleasant memories. The magazine's editor-in-chief was Taha Hussein and the publication over which he presided provided young university graduates at the time with a window opening on to international culture. True literary magazines were not lacking at the time though Al- Thaqafa (Culture) and Al- Rissala (The message), the two most popular, were wholly devoted to Egyptian literature. Al-Kateb Al-Massry was the only vehicle that served as an introduction to foreign literature.
The nearest publication to Al-Kateb in English was Encounter, a magazine at one time edited by Stephen Spender and Melvin Lasky and which I used to receive regularly until it came to an abrupt stop. I can't remember when this happened, but I treasure the dozen or so issues I have. On reading the news of the publication of Al- Kateb Al-Massry, and driven by a feeling of nostalgia, I brought out the issues I have and browsed through them.
Encounter, and Al-Kateb Al-Massry, are typical examples of what one might call the intellectual review. Both magazines played an important part in the intellectual history of their countries. Encounter was not confined by national boundaries, for just as Al-Kateb had a wide readership in all Arab countries, so Encounter crossed the Atlantic for both readers and contributors.
What is an intellectual review, one might ask. Sir Denis Brogan, a leading English historian and fellow of Cambridge University, tries to explain what characterises such publications in an article in Encounter. Such a review should commit itself "to providing both a platform for contributors of various types and views, and commit itself to the advocacy of a basic view that literary, political and social controversy is in itself a good thing. It should have some general views of human life and society."
All journals of this type, according to Sir Denis Brogan, have been controversial. This necessitates "freedom of the press", "the acceptance of the idea that an opposition was a legitimate part of the body politic." While not all great intellectual reviews have been journals of opposition "but it is not accidental," he continues, "that the great reviews have been highly critical of established orthodoxies."
Intellectual reviews, however, have not confined themselves to literature and learning. Some of them, like Encounter, were more effective organs of political criticism than were the newspapers. I still remember the open letter by Vaclav Havel which appeared in Encounter while he was under house arrest. I also remember Sir Isaiah Berlin's wonderful series of articles on Russia, and Cecil Hourani's article about the Middle East after the 1967 defeat.
Though open to contributors from different political stands Encounter was, basically, anti-communist. It is, as Brogan says, a "journal de combat". In an era that might be called "the age of impudence" Encounter was combative, and necessarily took sides. It also took it upon itself to write about foreign realities and had a permanent series entitled A Letter from, the "from" being Budapest, Prague, Delhi and Warsaw, which helped the reader to know the situation in those capitals.
Together with the seemingly crusading stand of Encounter a good number of pages were given to literature and literary criticism. Poems by Auden, Lowell, MacNeice, short stories by Bellows, E M Forster, critical articles and book reviews by Kermode and Gross, were published in every issue. One article I often refer to in my column is "Translation: The Perennial Problem" by J G Weightman which, in my opinion should be read by anyone who seeks to translate.
Going through back issues of Encounter and Al-Kateb Al-Massry I was struck by just how much of the topics with which they dealt remain as pertinent now as they were several decades ago.