Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 November 2005
Issue No. 770
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mursi Saad El-Din

Plain Talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

The discussion in my previous column of the role of literary criticism in the process of enlightenment leads us to an important element, namely the contribution of a number of university professors in the form of scholarly literary studies. Published in the form of articles in newspapers or magazines, and books, some of these studies were based on the author's PhD or MA thesis.

A prime example of this trend is Shawki Daif who published a series of books on the history of Arabic literature from ancient times to the present. Another example is Soheir El-Qalamawi whose writings were characterised by mixture of broad- mindedness and an accessible style that made her books quite popular among the general public. Her analysis and critique of the Thousand and One Nights was probably the first contribution by an Arab critic to the scholarship on that text.

El-Qalamawi's study on Thousand and One Nights initiated an interest in folklore and a movement for the recording of folk tales and songs. A special centre for folk art was established by the Ministry of Culture, and a university chair for folklore was created at Cairo University. The first head of that department was Abdel-Hamid Younis. A series of researches for higher academic degrees followed and a number of books on folklore were published. Ahmed Rushdi Saleh was the first writer to produce such books.

Much ink was spilled, meanwhile, on the debate about the function of art. Initially, there were two main schools that took part in this controversy: one raised the slogan "Art for Art's Sake", the other "Art for Life". The first school upheld the aesthetic, and exclusively the aesthetic, as the function of art, while the second upheld realism above all else. Then again, after the promulgation of the socialist laws, a quasi- Marxist school of criticism emerged, coupled with a wave of translations of plays and poems by some Marxist writers; Brecht's Mother Courage was a great success.

A number of creative writers embraced "socialist realism," chief among them being No'man Ashur, Youssef Idris and Lutfi El-Khouli. Regardless of their ideological leanings, those writers managed to create a revival of sorts in Egyptian literature, especially drama.

The period of socialist ideology, from the mid-1950s into the '60s witnessed the strengthening of the government's encouragement, and control, of the arts and literature. Apart from the Department of Mass Culture, there emerged The Organisation of Theatre and Cinema and the General Egyptian Book Organisation. The Supreme Council for the Patronage of Arts and Literature had already been created in 1954.

No study of the Egyptian cultural scene would be complete without mention of the translation movement. Egypt had long since embarked on different projects of translating into Arabic signal books published in the West. In fact this revival of Arabic translation goes back to the time of Mohamed Ali when Rifa' Rafi' Al-Tahtawi, on his return from Paris, established the Alsun School which was responsible for the translation of books, mainly from French.

In the 1950s an important project was born, namely the Thousand Books Plan. As its name indicates, this aimed at translating a thousand books, mainly from English, French and German. In some ways, a more recent project, the National Project for Translation, is the continuation of the Thousand Books Plan. The Supreme Council for Culture, which is responsible for the scheme, will soon be celebrating the publication of its thousandth book.

An interesting phenomenon in our cultural life is the contribution of scientists to the literary domain. We find Hussein Fawzi, a scientist, publishing Sindibad 'Asri (A Contemporary Sindibad) and Ibrahim Nagi, a medical doctor and poet, having his poem "Al-Atlal" sung by no less than Umm Kulthum.

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