Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (643)
An Al-Ahram column of the 1930s did not have enough luck to draw the attention of researchers yet contained a plurality of interests, the most enjoyable and useful of which addressed various aspects of Egyptian society. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk goes through "On the margin"
"On the margin" was the name of an irregular column published in Al-Ahram during the 1930s. Its author preferred to sign under the pen name "old journalist". He was a writer with bad luck, for his real name disappeared and is not even referred to in academic writings, whether those addressing the history of Egyptian journalism in general such as the works of Khalil Sabat and Nagwa Kamel, or those addressing the history of Al-Ahram such as Ibrahim Abdu's " Al-Ahram newspaper -- The history of Egypt in 75 years". This fact led us to ask here and there about his real identity, until the answer was finally provided by specialists.
His name was Tawfiq Habib, and despite a first impression that he was of Levantine origin like most of the regular writers in Al-Ahram during that period, and particularly as his name was highly ambiguous, the "old journalist" banished this thought in one of his columns when he commented on the name of the Pharaoh whose era was known for the exodus of the Israelite tribe from Egypt. He wrote, "I, in my capacity as a Pharaoh in flesh, blood, and form, declare that I do not know the name of His Majesty the Pharaoh who drowned in the Red Sea or stood at the waterfront cafe watching the godly wonder that might have been the ebb and flow of the tide, or some other natural phenomenon understood by scientists and exegetes of the holy texts of all religions and schools, whether of wide or narrow knowledge."
Habib gave us more information about his identity in many other of his columns, indicating that he was most likely from among the Copts of Upper Egypt, and not only due to his previous statement that he was a Pharaoh in "flesh, blood and form", as this community can be described. Another reason was his evident celebration of religious holidays in Coptic festivities and the language he used on these occasions. For example, on the occasion of celebrating Christmas in 1937, he said, "the child Jesus returned to Palestine and as a young boy worked in carpentry and taught youth the merit of handwork. He then became a messenger, preacher and teacher who put in place a new religion that today is the religion of millions in the entire world from the east, west, north and south of the earth."
In the same missionary tone, Habib continued, "Christ was a messenger of peace. He said, 'whoever strikes your right cheek, turn to him your left.' Entire peoples believe in his teachings, but their governments refuse to be anything but in conflict with his religion with regard to peace and global serenity. Over the last 30 years, rarely has Christmas come without the world drowning in the blood of combatants and deserts being covered with the corpses of innocent soldiers. The heads of governments and the leaders of their armies lie in waiting, turning into a tiger one after the other."
As for the column itself, the reference at the beginning of this Diwan that it was "irregular" means that it was not a daily column like "Short and sweet", which was edited by Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed. Yet this does not mean to say that the author of "On the margin" was not actually employed by Al-Ahram. In fact, Habib was keen that his signature preceded confirmation that he had written it in the " Al-Ahram office". Moreover, he was precise about the headline when his column was occupied by a reader's letter, giving it the different title of "On the margin of the margin".
In the same spirit, and despite the gravity of the topics he addressed, he was characterised by a certain degree of light- heartedness that is believed was one of the most significant reasons behind readers' positive reception of his column. This light-heartedness was evident even in his choice of a pen name, for few people readily acknowledge themselves as old folks, even if they are.
Let's have a look at the column that did not have the luck to draw the attention of researchers, despite it being characterised, like all other newspaper columns, by a plurality of interests. The most enjoyable and useful of these addressed various aspects of society, drawing a map of Egyptians' circumstances at that time, some of which remain hovering over them until this day.
PERHAPS WHAT WAS PUBLISHED in Al-Ahram 's 17 February 1932 issue describes best what "On the Margin" offered. Its topic was the integrity of rulers, and the example chosen was that of Poincare, the former president of the French republic. The occasion was the French government's decision to grant the republic's presidents whose terms of service had ended an annual pension of 200,000 francs.
Our friend wrote on this, "they say that the original aim of this decision was to assist Monsieur Poincare after he spent his life in the service of the government and came out 'poor'. The general public says, 'poverty is modesty.' Those who are upright and pure of conscience see the poverty of Poincare and his likes as a mark of honour. As for people with minds and 'real folks', they see the actions of Poincare and his likes as stupidity that deserves imprisonment in 'severe poverty'."
Habib recounted Raymond Poincare's qualifications. He held doctorate degrees in law and the arts, and was a member of science and arts academies and art councils, an author in the literary arts, philosophy, politics and history, a lawyer in the supreme courts, a member of the senate, the minister of finance and education more than once prior to the war, and the president of the republic, "and left this world empty-handed, hitting a global record in integrity as some view it, and stupidity as seen by others."
Habib considered benefiting from positions, seats and posts in stealing and thievery. While some considered it complete stupidity for holders of positions to discontinue any activity from which they could earn personal gain, in the end Habib left it to readers of "On the margin" to choose between being among the simple or the clever.
In the same humorous vein, Habib addressed the issue of unemployment in his column published on 9 January 1936. In it he wrote, "some days ago a meeting brought me together with some graduates of the Egyptian University. One of them, a graduate of the Education Institute, introduced me to a colleague of his. He mentioned his name to me, but did not mention details of his placement. I asked, 'in what school do you work my man?' and he replied, 'in the streets and cafes!' I said, 'so you are left hanging! Don't you have work?' He said, 'Such is fate!' I said, 'is there more, an explanation, of the reasons and results?' he said, 'my colleagues and I graduated from the Department of Arabic Language in the College of Arts at the Egyptian University. We obtained our baccalaureate after spending four years in the college. Then we joined the Education Institute and spent two years in it. In the first class, three graduated, and two of them were appointed as teachers while the third was appointed a clerk in the ministry. Then the ministry refrained from employing others under the pretext that teaching Arabic language was the right of graduates from Dar Al-Ulum."
The ministry's excuse for that, as the graduate working in the streets and cafés said, was that the bottom salary earned by graduates of Dar Al-Ulum was LE12, while the bottom salary earned by graduates of the Education Institute was LE15. The university put its mind at ease after that by deciding not to accept graduates of the Department of Arabic Language in the College of Arts to the Education Institute. The columnist commented by asking, "how many victims are there in the Ministry of Education due to the disturbance and commotion in the programmes and conditions of employment?"
Like others of his era, Habib was a defender of everything that could improve his homeland. This fact emerged from time to time in numerous social issues he turned his attention to, and in which he relied upon his apparent wealth of historical information.
Among the issues he addressed was the celebrations held on the occasion of the marriage of King Farouk. He told a story that occurred during one of the "weddings of offspring" in the era of Khedive Ismail. The khedive's private administrator had charged a number of commercial outlets with offering bids to provide everything required from furniture and linens to dentelle lace and attire for the trousseau of the princesses. He selected the French store Pasquele due to the quality of its goods and its low prices.
When the matter was presented to Ismail, he asked, "in this bidding process, didn't a single national Egyptian store submit a bid?" He responded that the Medkur store had submitted a bid but that the prices it offered were exaggerated, more than 25 per cent higher than the prices of the Pasquele store although the goods in the two shops were identical. The khedive replied, "take everything we need from the Medkur store." Then he added, "if Egyptian commercial outlets are of no use for the weddings of my children, then whose weddings will they benefit?"
The columnist concluded this story by urging King Farouk to encourage the industry of Egyptians and to charge them with all the needs of brides in terms of clothes and attire. We don't know if the young king responded to the call of the old journalist or not.
Another case was his encouraging Egyptians to spend their holidays in Egyptian summer resorts. In the days of plenty, it had been noted that "the wealthy and semi-wealthy encourage each other to travel to London, Cyprus, Rhodes and Greece, and the summer resorts of central Europe, leaving Alexandria and Ras Al-Bar ringing empty." Yet the changed situation in 1933 led the author of "On the margin" to salute Egyptians when he noted the crowded trains heading to Alexandria. "Activity in hotels has grown lively. The number of servants has doubled. Prices have risen. Some have been turned back. The first thing that drew my attention in the beaches was the repair, organisation and beautification introduced by the municipality director in Sidi Bishr, Gleem, New Polo, and Stanley Bay.
That summer, our columnist's attention was also drawn by the primitive cafes that some people set up at the entrance of Marriott as a destination for the vacationers in Al-Max and those wishing it breathe in the desert wind. "Competition has grown stiff and there is gimmickry in drawing customers. Wherever you are and go, you will not find a single seat in any cafe, whether large or small."
Regarding another issue, Habib confirmed that the gathering of intellectuals in the same clubs was ongoing during those years, a fact that was a source of interest for him on more than one occasion. This was a phenomenon that had existed from an early period, beginning with the Matita café in the era of Ismail and through to Qasr Al-Nil cafe and others in which the followers of Naguib Mahfouz circled around him. And this phenomenon indeed exists until this day.
He devoted one of his columns to the Grand Bar club that was located on the corner of Al-Ganina and Al-Bab Al-Bahri streets. He fell back on what Selim Teqla, the founder of Al-Ahram, had written 50 year earlier, that "the upper classes of top officials, prominent personalities, merchants and journalists frequent it. It was famed for the finest drinks and the appetising food it offered."
What befell this club, however, would please neither friend nor foe. Nationalists envied its proprietors' immense gain and profit, and encouraged one among them to purchase and manage the bar. He followed their counsel, "and the brothers bombarded the bar, eating and drinking on the tab of friendship and brotherhood. The waitresses pulled tricks with the tokens, and it was not long before the man grew aware of his accumulating losses. The bar returned to its original owner, and the Grand Bar's sun began to set."
Elsewhere he narrated the story of Solet on Fouad I Street, which was visited by artists, both men and women, among those who performed in the opera in the days of Khedive Ismail, who was foremost in knowing the place of art and the position of artists. The columnist meant by this those who enjoyed seclusion far from the clamour of cafes and distanced from the scent of water pipe tobacco "and the coarseness of backgammon and the shouting of its scores".
He offered an expressive description of what took place within Solet, writing, "On Solet's premises, your eyes could only fall on groups of people of politics and literature, meeting in the American bar, the music hall, or the tea and pastry court. If its walls had attentive ears and spoke tongues, they would have told us of those conversations lasting late into the night, the discussions and arguments that took place among the prominent intellectuals -- Dawoud Barakat, Mahgoub Thabit, Mohamed Hussein Bey Heikal, Mahmoud El-Nuqrashi, Mohamed Wahid El-Ayoubi, Osman Abaza, and other patrons."
He added that if midnight fell, "the deceased Shawqi Bey would enter Solet and be surrounded by devotees of the goddess of poetry. The feet of the prince of poets would remain in place until a move was made to close the last of Solet's doors."
The author of "On the margin" also grasped the opportunity to criticise the names of new dishes. He dedicated one of his columns to a new dish called "kamikh" whose place on the menu of royal and ministerial food could not be determined. "I saw it on the menu of royal food with the addition of the word 'salad', and then I saw it on the menu of a banquet held recently by Mustafa El-Nahhas Pasha for members of parliament, listed with fruit salad."
He continued to say that the word had been introduced by Ahmed Zaki Bey, the sheikh of Arabism, as a translation for the word hors d'oevre or appetiser, and that in the language of housewives and restaurant owners, this meant leftover meat collected in pots and pans that had been boiled on the stove to be assembled the next day as a new dish. Then he added, "a grammarian was presented with a type of bread and kamikh and he asked, 'what is this?' And he was told, 'Kamikh [literally, "turning up one's nose"].' So he said, 'I understand that it's turning up its nose, but which one of you is it doing that to?'"
Habib did not hesitate to offer his opinion on any occasion of social significance. Among them was what occurred at the ninth medical convention in December 1936 concerning the means of reforming the situation of peasant farmers, the fellahin. He transmitted what the speakers on this issue suggested as various means whose success had not been proven, and then, on his own initiative, put forth a proposal for reform in three stages -- purification, preparation and construction.
The first was to rescue the country from its pools and swamps and to find pure sources for drinking and protection from the evil of maladies. The second was to raise the economic and social conditions of fellahin, and the third was for the government to see to the construction of public facilities in villages, the distribution of areas of land to those able to move, and the assistance of the poor in building homes.
In his usual sarcastic tone when speaking of such conferences, he described it as being "all talk. It is as though we were soldiers standing in the theatre, beating our drums and blowing our horns and chanting, 'we're off to war,' and then only moving a few steps. It is like the popular saying, 'it's as though we've neither gone nor come.'"
GIVEN THAT HABIB was an "old man", he grasped any opportunity to give mention to personalities that had begun to fade in people's memories, whether among those readers knew of or others.
Among these personalities was Abdel-Hamid Shadid Bey who Habib had met in Switzerland in 1921. He had been the leader of the Egyptian students there, and president of their association. Habib was intent on communicating with him upon his return to the homeland, and learnt from him that he was interested in establishing the Egyptian Fellah Bank, nationalising cooperative facilities and the protection of farmers.
He then followed the man's work in the economic arena. He had entered as a young man in a French bank, then Italian, soon becoming the director of its branch in the Egyptian capital. He then became the general inspector of the bank's branches in the East, and when the war began and the British military authorities advised him to leave the country, he went to Switzerland.
Shadid returned following the war to his homeland and worked in private financial and agricultural activities. He was selected by the Contoir Nacional De Paris Bank as its consultant in Alexandria, and during the reign of King Hussein over the Hijaz, he obtained a license to establish Al-Hijaz Bank which, according to Habib, was a "truly Arab bank. It took the fundaments of Islamic law into consideration in its establishment. Among the members of its administrative board were Sheikh Mohamed Bakhit and Rashid Rida. They were the first two Islamic scholars who publicly participated in major financial activity. The bank had political and social aims. Yet the fall of King Hussein's kingdom and the triumph of His Majesty King Abdul-Aziz bin Al-Saud put an end to the bank and its activities and aims."
Another of these personalities was the literary figure Mustafa Lutfi El-Manfalouti. It so happened that in May 1937, someone wrote to Habib deploring the fact that 13 years had passed since the decease of this great writer without Habib writing a word on him "despite you being far removed from politics and its poisoned atmosphere. If you are true to your word and high- minded and know the meaning of fidelity and the worth of men, and yet fall short in performing this duty, then do we not have the right to hold you accountable and demand from you these denied rights?"
Habib replied that he had not forgotten El-Manfalouti or his literature, his taste, his gentle nature, or his sympathy for the wretched and destitute he met in the college of arts and in the media. Yet rather than admitting to a shortcoming, he threw the blame on the letter's author, especially since he was the secretary of the committee for the revival of El-Manfalouti's memory. "If he and his brothers were faithful, they would have formed a small or large organisation to revive the memory of the deceased to honour him every year and take interest in printing his work and spreading his literature among the general Egyptian public and in particular youth, as El-Manfalouti was the first to teach students how to write in simple, natural expressions."
One of Habib's columns in "On the margin of the margin" addressed the man whose death was deplored by the Arabic language, Sheikh Ahmed El-Sakandari. A letter from a reader called Mahmoud Ibrahim was published in this column on 28 April 1938 that provided detailed information on the late sheikh, including that he had drawn attention at the Orientalists' conference held in Greece in 1911 when he pointed out the limited spread of formal Arabic among the overwhelming majority of the populations of the various Islamic kingdoms in Asia and Africa. He mentioned the popular dialects of the peoples of those lands and their various languages, and said that it was the duty of their governments to take interest in spreading Arabic among them in order to do away with their local dialects that were not fit as primary languages for nations brought together by the same religion, customs and morals.
This Alexandrian reader who Habib gave space to in his column considered Sheikh Ahmed's rhetoric a victory over the opinion promoted by Artin Pasha "the champion of popular language and its taking the place of formal language. It was also a victory for the proponents of the idea of establishing a language academy, which was suggested by Gabriel Neqla Bey." If El-Sakandari had lived until this day and witnessed the catastrophes that have befallen formal Arabic, and even the popular dialect, he would prefer to have died.
Tawfiq Habib did not limit himself to famous deceased personalities, however, for he also wrote on the living. Among them was Beirum Al-Tonsi, who was exiled at that time. In one of Habib's columns he repeated the question that writers, poets, and masters of zajal verse (colloquial Arabic poetry) were asking -- how long would he remain away?
He then presented the biography of this exiled master of zajal verse. He was born and raised in Alexandria, and was famous for 20 years for the zajal verse he published in Al-Messala magazine. But the country was under military rule at that time and he was ordered to leave Egypt, so he later lived as a poor, lost, stranger between Paris, Marseilles, Beirut and Tunis, bearing the bitterness of a horrid life and finding sympathy from no one. Some of his brothers and colleagues in the Egyptian press sent him paltry sums from time to time as fees for dispatches and articles he furnished from his place of exile.
The author of "On the margin" then went on to say that Beirum was unique in the craft and style of his prose and verse, as well as in his novels and short stories. "If he had lived a prosperous life, he would have added to the current Arabic library a new form of writing just as he described the state of the poor, the industrious, and those of the bottom classes, describing their private conversations and discussions. Readers find this in his two works, El-Sayed and his Wife in Egypt and El-Sayed and his Wife in Paris, and in many of his innovative stories, the most recent of which was "Abdu the Translator", which was published in Al-Saaqa newspaper, as well as his theatrical works performed on the Opera House stage and elsewhere. It is a disgrace for this gifted man to be displaced and live in exile." Habib had to wait another year until Beirum Al-Tonsi returned to Port Said and, following his long disappearance, made a showing with his writings in Rose El-Youssef.
Habib did not hesitate to sometimes devote his column to personalities unfamiliar to readers. Such was the case in his column published in Al-Ahram 's 13 June 1938 issue about Abu Salah, the poet, rebab player, and salted fish merchant. Habib described him as a "unique musical personality", and wrote that his sound mixed that of the reed flute, the zither, and the lute, "and when you hear him it is like hearing a complete band."
He then went on to discuss the upbringing of the rebab player and how he had learned to play from his older brother whom he accompanied on his evening performances. "People heard him and were greatly pleased, and grew to prefer him over his brother in many cases." Yet he did not suffice with that, according to Habib.
Abu Salah began to listen to different tunes and then force his rebab to imitate them perfectly. People were astonished by this extraordinary natural phenomenon, and one of the English newspapers published in Egypt wrote, "The Arab songs played and sung by Saleh Ahmed the poet and rebab player are high- pitched and enjoyable and arouse longing. We swayed upon hearing them, and got up and down like dervishes when heavenly splendour overcame them in a paradisical vision."
Between the well-known and the unfamiliar, Habib took Al-Ahram 's readers on a tour of this strange world that was certainly a source of extreme delight for them in that long-ago age. I think that we remain in need of another "old man" to gather around and learn from, and to enjoy everything that he writes.