Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (552)
More on Ahmed Zaki
On 6 July 1934 Ahmed Zaki, dubbed the "Sheikh of Arabism", died. It was a "sad day" in the words of Al-Ahram, which grieved his passing, not only because of his celebrated status in the history of Arabic literature but also because he had been a valuable and frequent contributor to the newspaper. Profiling this literary giant once more, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk exposes some little-known facts about Zaki's life
Al-Ahram 's reverence for Ahmed Zaki was shared by a large segment of the population, as was evident from its coverage of his impressive funeral procession. Zaki's coffin was carried "on the shoulders of a large group of literary figures, religious scholars, political commentators and intellectuals who had been students and friends of the departed. The procession was headed by an escort of mounted police from the Giza directorate, followed by two brigades of infantry police marching in parallel files with rifles lowered in a gesture of mourning. Then came the coffin surrounded by friends, men of letters and religious scholars, and in their wake diverse groups of every class, organisation, walk of life and affiliation wishing to pay their last respects."
Before examining what precisely made the philologist such a widely venerated figure, we find it useful to provide a brief overview of his life. For this purpose we have drawn on the relevant entry in the Biographical Dictionary of Modern Egypt, an excellent scholastic resource by Arthur Goldschmidt Jr, containing concise information on those he regarded as the 500 most important figures in modern Egyptian history from 1760 until the end of the 20th century.
Goldschmidt writes, "Born in Alexandria on 26 May 1867 to a Kurdish mother and Moroccan father, Ahmed attended Cairo's Qurabiyya and Taghiziyya schools, followed by the School of Administration (later the School of Law). While a student there, he won a competition to become a translator for Ismailia's provincial government at a monthly salary of LE13; in 1888, thanks to his command of French, he moved to the press bureau of the Interior Ministry. He also became an editor and translator for Al-Waqai' Al- Misriyya, a translation teacher for the Khedival School, and an Arabic teacher for the French Archaeological Institute, all in 1888. In the following year he won a competition for the post of translator for the cabinet, for which he became adjunct secretary in 1897 and secretary-general in 1911, serving until he retired in 1921."
Goldschmidt goes on to note that Zaki's diverse interests and publications enabled him to become a fellow in the Institut d'Égypte, the Egyptian Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society in London. He also served on the board of directors of Al-Azhar and the Egyptian University, in the latter of which he held the chair for Islamic civilisation. In addition, "He took the lead in setting the Arabic language equivalents of European words, such as sayyara for automobile, and also alerted the press to the Arabic origins of many Spanish and Portuguese place names that had been inaccurately transcribed into Arabic. He participated in many conferences of the International Congress of Orientalists and was respected by Europeans for his erudition. He was a staunch nationalist, Egyptian from his youth, later pan-Arab and even pan-Oriental, becoming one of the founders and first secretary-general of Al- Rabita Al-Sharqiyya (the Oriental League). His Giza home, Bayt Al-Uruba, House of Arabism, became the meeting place for visitors from other Arab countries..."
Here we interrupt Goldschmidt's account to present a description of that home submitted to Al-Ahram by a reader who was clearly familiar with it. "It is the destination of visitors from all Arab countries and countries with a strong Arab influence. Perhaps the only feature in Egypt familiar to them, it inspired their pilgrimage to it because here they found the most generous of hosts and the most erudite of scholars, and they hailed from Yemen, Crete, China, India and innumerable other countries of the East. His dinners were truly 'international', with guests sporting a dagger and gun -- as though stepping straight from the desert in Hadhramaut -- the top hat and tuxedo, and every shade and variation of attire and countenance in between."
Goldschmidt confirms the authentic Arab character of Zaki's home, writing that it was "a repository of antique Arab furniture, jewellery, books and manuscripts." With regard to Zaki's prodigious writings, he observes that "he did not live long enough to complete what would have been the crowning achievement of his scholarship, an Arabic dictionary modeled on the French Larousse."
In his biography of Ahmed Zaki, Anwar El-Guindi notes that much more of Zaki's journalistic work found its way in the pages of Al-Ahram than they did in the pages of other newspapers. In 1892, Al-Ahram featured a series of Zaki's impressions and observations on his trip to London. "Since then, his relationship with this venerable newspaper grew closer and he continued to submit his writings to it until the final years of his life."
As clear a picture as this biography gives us of Zaki's stature and dynamism, it omits mention of what many take to be his most important contribution to Egyptian intellectual life: his donation of his vast library to the public and of a large plot of land for the construction of a building to house it. According to El- Guindi, Zaki began accumulating his acquisitions in 1883, through frequent visits to well-known book dealers in Egypt, as gifts from his brother Mahmoud Rashad, one of the few native Egyptian intellectuals in those early days, and in the form of prizes from his numerous scholastic awards. His enthusiasm also led him to a quite unusual route, which was to scan the obituary pages for deceased intellectuals whose books and manuscripts would be put on auction. Later his government position and frequent travels gave him the influence and resources to add innumerable valuable works to his acquisitions.
The reference in Al-Ahram 's report on the many friends and students who gathered around to help lift the coffin of the deceased offers the first key to understanding Ahmed Zaki's personality. He was not only a beacon of Arabic cultural and literary enlightenment but also a powerful mentor. Not only did he set an exemplary model and not only was he armed with a wealth of information to impart, he had the talent for opening up minds and had that quality of care and attention that enabled minds to grow, mature and wend their own path. The many letters to Al-Ahram from Ahmed Zaki's friends and students testify to these qualities.
Epitomising the sympathies expressed in such letters was that of Gamil Khanki which appeared in Al-Ahram of 8 July 1934:
"I have known the 'Sheikh of Arabism' for years. From the moment I met him he bestowed upon me his paternal love and sincere affection. I entered the fold of his innumerable admirers from the farthest corners of the east and west who gathered at the feet of his academic throne and his literary crown. As I lived in Raml in Alexandria not far from the House of Arabism, I frequently had the pleasure of listening to his conversations and articles in which he would correct a Spanish word, render a foreign term in proper Arabic or respond to a literary or historical article. My joy was two or three fold, for I could flavour his ideas before they were published in Al-Ahram and, once again, after they appeared in the venerable newspaper."
On Zaki's advocacy of Arab nationalism and culture, Khanki wrote: "He fought for the cause of Arabism with an Arab spirit of generosity and a selfless dedication that are rarely equaled among the speakers of Arabic. He was a historian, an essayist, a storyteller, a scientist. When he spoke, his resonant voice and his entertaining accounts of his travels would entrance his audiences and transport them with him to the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Tunisia, Andalusia and other distant lands."
A second testimony to the "moral stature of the late Ahmed Zaki Pasha" came from Mohamed Abdel-Ghani Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Ministry of Education mission in France. His story of his relationship with Ahmed Zaki, which appeared on 27 July, may be rather lengthy, but it offers considerable insight into the methods and ethics of pedagogy and, as such, a much needed lesson for our teachers and professors today. Abdel-Ghani Hassan writes:
"My acquaintance with Ahmed Zaki is not a long one. I first met him three years ago in circumstances surrounding an article he published on an Islamic monument in Andalusia. Even the best of scholars make mistakes due to the accumulated information at their fingertips and the many ideas that tend to vie for their attention, which can result in slips during the composition of the study. In a study published in Al-Ahram three years ago, Zaki confused two sites, one in Morocco and the other in Spain, because of the similarity in the spelling of the two locations. At the time I was studying Islamic history and literature in Andalusian Spain in Dar Al-Ulum and because of my love of Andalusia I was a competent student of its history.
"I wrote a politely worded letter to Al-Ahram to correct the mistake. Many thought the pasha would defend his opinion, even if only because he would be too proud to yield to someone as young as I. To their and my surprise, I saw on the front page of Al-Ahram a letter from Ahmed Zaki admitting to his mistake and thanking me for my correction, in words, moreover, that would give heart to any aspiring scholar.
"Some time later, I happened to be in the offices of Al- Muqtataf when an elderly man walked in. I did not know who he was but I noticed the kindness in his face and the erudition in his speech. Impulsively I introduced myself. He shook my hand and immediately reminded me of that old article, praising my style and the spirit in which it was written. He then invited me to his home."
Hassan's story could have logically ended on this pleasant note. However, it is the remainder of his story that reveals how Zaki's style of mentorship led to his becoming the head of a new school of thought. The success of such schools is heavily contingent upon their founders' humanitarian touches which Zaki clearly had in abundance. Hassan continues:
"Zaki continued to show an interest in me from afar. He would ask my acquaintances of my news, read the poems I published in Al-Ahram, encourage me with a friendly letter or make a fond mention of my name in some gathering. Then the Ministry of Education nominated me for its mission. I was so apprehensive over the medical examination that I published a poem on the subject in Al-Ahram. Soon afterwards, I received a letter from Alexandria congratulating me on my nomination, attempting to allay my fears and offering me all possible encouragement. The writer was the venerable professor, Ahmed Zaki Pasha.
"I left Cairo for Alexandria on my way to England for the mission to which I had been nominated by the Ministry of Education. When I arrived in Alexandria train station at some late hour of the evening, I found a youthful looking old man and an intelligent looking young man waiting for 'the Al-Ahram poet'. The young man was introduced as Dr Abdel-Wahab Azzam. The man who honoured me with this introduction was none other than Ahmed Zaki Pasha... the epitome of the virtuous scholar."
Dr Ramsis Girgis from Tanta had a similar story to tell. In response to an article in Al-Ahram by Ahmed Zaki on the name batra which the scholar defined as "a type of ware and nothing else", Girgis wrote to Ahmed Zaki via the newspaper: "Dear Sheikh of Arabism, the word means a writing tablet and not just any type of ware." Zaki's response came a month later. He relates that he had spent this period consulting a variety of resources in order to ascertain whether the definition of the reader from Tanta was correct and that he took advantage of his passage through Girgis' hometown to discuss the subject with him.
That Ahmed Zaki's death stirred expressions of sorrow throughout the Arab world offers a second key to his personality: his dedication to the pan-Arab cause. Many responses came in the form of lengthy eulogies which were published in Al-Ahram and other Egyptian newspapers. The names of some poets alone who sent in their work give an idea of Zaki's exalted pan-Arab reputation: Jamil Sidqi Al-Zahrawi, the famous Iraqi poet; Hassan Philistin, the former mufti of Jaffa; and Ali Ahmed Bakthir, the well-known Yemeni poet who at the time resided in Cairo.
Other prominent Arab personalities sent in telegrams of condolences. Among these were Prince Shakib Arsilan who described the death of Ahmed Zaki as a blow to the Arab nation; Rafael Batti, "lawyer and journalist in Baghdad", who wrote that the entire Arab world grieved Zaki's passing; and Abdallah Al-Jilali from Sudan who mourned "this huge tragedy". In addition to the many telegrams from Damascus, which expressed the sorrow of "all speakers of Arabic", there was one from Amin Al-Husseini, director of the Supreme Islamic Council, another from Sheikh Mohamed Kabarah from Sana'a describing "the grief that has beset the entire country of Yemen" and yet another from Algiers conveying the sorrow of the family of the freedom fighter, Abdel-Qader Al-Jaza'iri over "the Arabs' and Arabism's bereavement at the passing of their great sheikh".
When the committee for preparing the funerary ceremonies met in the home of Ahmed El-Amrousi, the meeting was attended by more than 70 prominent intellectual, literary and political figures. Among them were a number of Arab notables living in Cairo, such as Mohamed Rashid Rida, Dr Abdel- Rahman Shahbandar, Ibrahim Atfish, Amin Said and Mahdi Rafii Mashki who undertook the task of "notifying scholars and men of letters in Arab and eastern countries of the arrangements for the commemorative ceremonies for the great Arab intellectual pioneer". Such widespread expressions of sympathy substantiate Ahmed Zaki's right to the title "Sheikh of Arabism".
A third aspect of the Zaki's character was his staunch commitment to scholastic integrity, to which testifies Mahmoud Ibrahim, owner of L'Express. In a letter to Al-Ahram, Ibrahim relates that he was present at the Orientalists Conference that met in Athens in 1910 and that that was where he discovered the mettle of Ahmed Zaki. During the conference the subject arose as how faithful publishers should be to the originals of old texts they wish to reproduce. The reason the question cropped up was that a new edition of a popular jokebook had appeared recently in Egypt and that this work was "filled with expressions inappropriate to the morals of our age" and was "unsuitable reading for women", as the magazine owner put it. Many critics had felt that such offensive language should have been omitted from the new edition, especially given that it had been published at the expense of the Ministry of Education. Not Ahmed Zaki. "He engaged these critics in a lengthy debate on the subject and then brought the matter before the participants at the Orientalists Conference, who agreed with his opinion that ancient texts should be reproduced exactly from the original, without any omissions, additions or alterations."
For further insight into Ahmed Zaki, we turn to Ramsis Girgis who returned to the pages of Al-Ahram with a lengthy biography of the man. In addition to expressing the doctor from Tanta's great admiration for this intellectual figure, it also reveals a close friendship between the two. Ahmed Zaki, Girgis writes, was a confident and forceful debater who could sometimes be brutal in his ability to corner his intellectual contestants. He was also scrupulous in scanning the Arabic press for mistakes in the usage, definition or derivation of Arabic terms or names, which he would relentlessly attempt to correct. Although some had faulted him for this severity, it never left an aftertaste of bitterness or resentment. "He was the harsh critic today and the loyal friend tomorrow, as is the case with all great scholars who regard knowledge not as a good to be bought and sold but as the property of all people."
Ahmed Zaki was also an assiduous scholar. "He would not rest in the course of investigation of a subject until he had consulted all available original sources and he would spend endless hours of the day and night poring over the most minor of questions until it was solved. This quality remained with him throughout his life and was apparent in every article or letter he wrote. Indeed, he would even break off from a study he had been struggling to complete if he discovered that a certain point continued to elude him and would only resume this work when he had clarified and elucidated that point to his satisfaction. Then he would present it to the public, his conscience clear that he had satisfied the demands of thoroughness."
Perhaps more important than this biography was the address delivered by Ahmed Eissa to mark the beginning of the cultural season of the Institut d'Égypte. Eissa had been one of Zaki's colleagues in this institute and his speech was intended as a tribute to "that forerunner in the field of knowledge, that pioneer in the study of Islamic history, that champion in the advancement of Islamic nations, that vibrant scholar of Arab and Western literature".
Eissa first reminded his audience of Zaki's contributions to the revival of Arabic sciences and literature, which included the publication of several ancient Arabic encyclopedic reference works on Arab and Islamic history, sciences, the arts and literature. He then turned to some little-known facts about Ahmed Zaki's life.
Few are aware, he said, of the part Zaki played in reviving the moribund Boulaq printing press. In 1902, he visited the most celebrated printing houses in the world, in Vienna, Leipzig, Berlin, Zurich, London, Oxford and Paris, and that together with Mohamed Gaafar, the well-known calligrapher, he succeeded in completely redesigning the production lines. As a result of his efforts, "Egypt's national printing press came to surpass all other Arab publishing houses in the elegance and harmony of its fonts and the efficiency of its operations."
Nor did many know that Arabic readers are indebted to Zaki for introducing Western-style punctuation marks into Arabic. Previously, without the aid of such marks and symbols, readers of Arabic texts had to rely largely on instinct. However, "It occurred to Zaki to borrow and adapt Western punctuation marks to Arabic, and towards this end he published a valuable thesis in 1912."
And fewer yet were those who were aware of Zaki's attempt to create a form of Arabic short-hand, "for the rapid and accurate transcription of speeches and the like, to safeguard such testimonies against perishing". Although Zaki's endeavour failed to catch on because, in Eissa's opinion, Arabic itself is a form of short-hand, he nevertheless deserved credit for trying.
Eissa's address was the last significant tribute to Zaki to have been made by his contemporaries in the wake of his death. As the days passed and the passions of national mourning subsided, Al-Ahram must have feared that the memory of Ahmed Zaki would be consigned to oblivion, for one of its editorials appealed for the need for Egypt to commemorate its great intellectual figures. Towards this end, it recommended several specific actions: the commissioning of academic studies and biographical works on these individuals, the construction of a "mausoleum of the great" which would attract school groups and visiting foreigners, and the construction of commemorative statues in the country's major urban squares, schools and other academic institutes. It seems that Al-Ahram 's suggestions are still under study 70 years later.