Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (654)
A journalist from Oxford
Influenced by what he had experienced in English society during his period of study, an Al-Ahram columnist in the 1930s had a keen eye for Egyptian social behaviour and its shortcomings. His writings, as suggested by Professor Yunan Labib Rizk, shows times have not changed as much as is believed
During the second half of the 1930s, a writer named Kamel Bolous Hanna appeared on the front pages of Al-Ahram. He was always sure to sign his name in his capacity as a "scholar of law from Oxford". He did not mean that he was a member of the teaching staff at this long-established British university. Rather, he meant that he was a graduate of this university's law college, although he was not in any case alone in this, for Makram Ebeid Pasha, who became a major political leader, had previously graduated from the same college. It appears that our friend wanted to imitate him and become a prominent journalist.
Kamel Bolous Hanna
From the start, Kamel Bolous Hanna chose to be a columnist rather than a writer of individual articles. He timidly began his column writing in the summer of 1936 and chose the well-known title "Glimpses". As others had chosen the same title, and in particular Tawfiq Diab, he only used it once, however, before settling on another title no one else had used. This time it was "From the depths".
In keeping with the approach taken by Al-Ahram at that time, the new column was published on the front page alongside the column of its famed writer Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed, "Short and sweet". They were both later joined on the front page by the column of Mohamed Zaki Abdel-Qader, "Towards the light".
With the exception of "Short and sweet", columns were not published on a daily basis. Their issue depended upon the space available and the opinion of the editor-in-chief at the time, Antoine Al-Jamil.
Monitoring of the "Oxford writer's" column throughout the years following its appearance indicates that he was careful not to get too involved in politics. He only approached politics on occasions requiring him to, and usually did so with an "approving eye". Most of his writing revolved around social behaviour and the shortcomings he noted among most Egyptians in this regard. He followed these with a "critical eye", but also had specific demands for social changes of a reformist nature. He was influenced in this by what he had taken interest in and experienced in English society during his period of study. Yet he also often theorised abstractly, this driving him to occasional exaggerations in his demands for change of Egyptian society to the point of donning the cloaks of a preacher striving to guide his co-patriots to the right path. I don't think this received a warm welcome from readers.
Let's begin with the political topics he approached with care, within narrow limits, and only upon the utmost need to do so.
Hanna began writing following the decease of Fouad I and the declaration of Prince Farouk as the country's king. Writers' pens clashed to highlight the honourable traits of the young king on this occasion, and Kamel Bolous Hanna could not lag behind the "parade" that accompanied the declaration, particularly when Farouk returned from Europe following his father's death. His first column was "His Majesty the King and the hopes of the nation". Below is an excerpt of its introduction.
"Guards around the royal motorcade, soldiers on both sides of the roads, and in Egypt, 15 million hearts protecting the King. Guards and soldiers in a nation that, upon the arrival of His Majesty from Europe, folded in upon his illustrious procession and clutched him to its chest as a bereaved child clutches her only following a lengthy absence."
It was with the same approving eye that Hanna welcomed the members of the Egyptian delegation upon their return from Britain following the signing of the 1936 Anglo- Egyptian Treaty amidst effusive popular joy. He could do nothing but join the "parade" once again, and wrote a column titled "A great people", in which he expressed his admiration for Egyptians welcoming El-Nahhas Pasha as he entered Cairo. He went on to write, "We have been blessed with the pen of Lord Byron, the English poet who described the greatness of the sea. He described it, for newspaper readers the length and breadth of the Nile Valley, like the masses that surged in Cairo, Egypt, brimming like the sea. At one moment they came together and at another moment parted, until they fused. Waves spilled over the squares and streets, flooding the rooftops, balconies and windows. When the time came, tongues quieted and hearts fluttered, and then mouths revealed what had settled in consciences and bosoms. The breeze carried waves of rising calls upon the wings of joy and gladness until the earth shook, the sky trembled, and it was as though the people were at the Day of Resurrection."
These are examples of Hanna's position replete with satisfaction towards the king and the Wafd Party. What is unusual, however, is to note that this amicable stance extended to the English as well, a fact that may be interpreted in light of the time he spent in their country and which led him to bias in favour of some of their behaviour.
Under the headline "The English", he wrote to refute an accusation of their being cold. He said that God had granted them an extraordinary calmness in their nature that made them not to incline much towards mixing with people or thrusting themselves into their company. "Yet it is truthfully said that these English, when they become friends, are purely loyal in their friendship without any flaws of hypocrisy. You see them making appropriate sacrifices for the sake of friendship, silent as though they were not sacrificing anything at all."
After distributing his blessings left and right, he had only to grant the opposition part of the praise. This was done in a column titled "The opposition party", which he opened with a discussion of the 1923 constitution and how the Egyptian nation had purchased it with blood. Despite this, he wrote, it "welcomes from the depths of its heart the loyal, upright and bold opposition, for without this opposition, parliamentary life would become a body without a soul. Because Egyptians always want to travel the path of constitutional and representative life they have known, loved and devoted the efforts of their belief in order to arrive at independence and advancement, they will carefully safeguard it and protect its sanctity whenever they find the means to do so. The will of the Egyptians, then, is clear. It is to travel, via pure constitutional life, the well-known paths free nations have traversed for the sake of an upright, advanced life."
It is thought that readers of Al-Ahram at that time understood the true nature of the "writer from Oxford". When he chose that title, he was at the same time expressing his bias towards English culture, a fact that is made clear by his referencing of its poets including Shakespeare and Byron as well as his praise for their morals, something uncommon among Egyptians at that time whether among politicians or journalists. It was also made clear in his talk of the "opposition," which was in fact more like praise for the English model and an instance of urging Egyptians to follow its example.
Yet this did not prevent Hanna from departing from the Oxford paradigm at times. In one of his columns, "Muslims and Copts", he rejected what was said on this topic in 20th century Egypt. "Or else they will have pulled out the plant of freedom: What made it grow and flourish and answer you in words, and it is an inanimate, non-speaking body, was the blood of Muslims and Copts that mixed and poured onto the sacred, pure soil of Egypt." I don't know what the writer of "From the depths" would have said if he had lived another 70 years and seen the situation much worse than it was at the time he wrote this column. What is taking place this time is actively seeking to weaken and strangulate Egypt.
THE EFFECT OF THE YEARS Hanna spent in the land of the Anglo-Saxons was also evident in his criticisms of the social behaviour of Egyptians that most of his writing in "From the depths" was devoted to.
The first to catch one's attention in this regard is the amount he wrote on employees, and naturally he meant those working in government departments. His writing was replete with observations of conditions and the revealing of shortcomings in the state administrative agency.
In this regard, he began his campaign with criticism of the inflation that had befallen the government agency and stressed that Egypt was capable of doing without a large number of its bosses and top officials "without the work machinery being struck with any harm, for these excess individuals are absent from their offices and thus nothing is ruined. They patronise their offices in the late morning and leave them as noon approaches. They sit at their desks, smiling, laughing, and talking with friends near and afar. And they exhibit their authority over one class of employees and another of servants."
He also wrote about low-level employees, describing them once as ill-treated, another time as wretched, and so on.
Under the title "The ill-treated employee", Hanna expressed his opinion that employees in Egypt were of two and only two classes -- "a high class that has all the standing and luxury, and a low class that has all the burden and hardship. As for salaries, the first class has the meat and the second has the broth. If this is not enough for it, it can stoop to the dirt as it pleases, with its nose in the dust and sand. Any emergency for this poor employee, even an emergency of joy, upsets his budget."
Under the title "The wretched employee," the Oxford scholar's column included a number of letters written to him by low-level employees following his previous column. They offered, according to his description, a pitch-black picture. One of them complained that since his son fell ill his budget had faltered due to the costs of the doctor and pharmacist "to the point that he was unable to purchase winter clothing for himself and his wife and he stopped riding the tram and rather walked to work on foot." Another complained that every time his wife gave birth he welcomed the newborn with grief and agitation "only due to the tightness of living circumstances." It appears that our friend did not believe in the popular Egyptian saying, "Every child brings his fortune."
As for the faults of government posts, he observed what many say remains deeply ingrained within the state administrative agency to this day. For example, he wrote on "connections" and how complaints had reached the clouds in the sky about "these go-betweens who stab Egypt in the heart. What strike is harsher to the heart of Egypt than for its people's most precious possession to be struck -- that of spirit and justness, and doing away with brilliance, competency and security? Afterwards it matters to them not whether Egypt becomes arid without any vegetation or water, as long as they built their glory upon its ruins."
He also wrote on "exceptions", distinguishing between two types of low-level employees. There was the wretched kind who circled around each other to sign petitions entailing complaints, entreaties and demands of justice until they completed, signed, and submitted them to their superiors, and then waited. And God alone knows how long they would wait. Then there was the kind that brought together the opposing traits of being "members of low-level posts, ranks, and salaries, but top-ranking because they are close to their bosses, from whose sympathy they have gained wings that soar them through the sky."
He concluded his discussion of this shortcoming by saying, "This is a sad, painful picture of the exceptions made in all periods that should not have existed in the Egypt rising up, for this picture is shameful for Egypt and does not bode well for its future." Elsewhere he wrote that the increasingly open door to exception and the rise in bonuses and promotions magnified the pain of those wronged "and fills government offices and the atmosphere of clubs and cafés with the misery of the wretched and the greed of the covetous."
It appears that Kamel Bolous Hanna was influenced by the calls for social justice he was exposed to in England during the period of his education. This is made clear by his attacks on the rich and his sympathy for the poor.
In one of his columns, under the title "The stingy rich", he imagined himself having inherited a respectable fortune and plunging into the lifestyle of the wealthy. He then invited his colleagues to stand for a moment before his coffers filled with money in order to "cry for our current misfortune and wretchedness as the Jews cry at the Wailing Wall, their temporal glory and distinction. We have fallen captive to the love of money that leads us with its strong fist and quick steps to a dark descent, to misery and obliteration. We are more like birds with broken wings who continue moving between rocks but sense our inability to soar in the sky."
It was in the same sarcastic manner that he spoke of the fortunate "haves" and how he spent a late night with them "and I was very impressed with what I saw and beseeched God to make me one of them if only for a month. On the refreshment counter were every kind of delicious food and drink, including everything that delights the mouth, throat and eye. In the dance hall there was what delights the ear and eye." And thus they spent the night until dawn.
Before closing this column, however, Hanna reminded readers that that same dawn came to an impoverished peasant farmer who woke up, ate a small amount of dry bread and salt with his young ones and wife, and then carried a massive hoe on his shoulder and went to his field "to water it with the sweat of his brow and to invest in it for the children of the 'haves' who spent the previous evening carousing and wanton. The sun came up and intensified the heat on the head of this poor peasant farmer while the 'haves' remained drowned in waves of sleep in their towering castles."
To the same intent, and under the title "Poor ones", Hanna compared between Cairo's refined neighbourhoods filled with stylish housing and built-up streets that make one imagine Cairo as paradise on earth, and the capital's neighbourhoods filled with the impoverished. "You see groups of people ruined by misery and destroyed by deprivation. They are stung by hunger and burned by poverty, and yet they cannot seek refuge in their homes for they have women and children who spend their days without food or sleep. Despite this, they live in the heart of the capital."
Driven by rejection of the class differences Egyptians experienced at that time (and still do), Kamel Bolous Hanna snatched up the incident of a woman who killed her son to relieve him from the pain of hunger. Under the title "Mercy," he upbraided rich Egyptians whose hearts were stone and who closed their hearts' doors of mercy, not answering the requests of poor people's children for necessary food "as they insist in their request with tears that shred hearts but do not receive even the crumbs thrown to dogs. Then they die of hunger in the arms of their starving, weeping mothers, while the children of the rich have an array of delicious food rained down on them and eat but a little of it due to extreme shamelessness. Their mothers and fathers grow concerned and rush to doctors seeking medicines and tonics to awaken their lost appetites."
THE FINAL SIDE of the interests of the author of "From the depths" is found in his observation of some of the social maladies widespread in Egypt at that time, although we cannot claim that they yet have disappeared.
Among these maladies was the "flattery of men of governance," which was embodied in the form of "trite panegyrics some people haphazardly spout over prime ministers in the seats of government over and over again with or without occasion. Surely, could one penetrate the secret thoughts of ministers, one would find no other than despise and contempt for these hypocrites. Indeed, they are a gang that is ready every day to support those rising to rule and to disappoint those falling from rule. It is always ready to rise with those ascending and to put those falling to flight."
Close to this malady was the ill of "hypocrisy", which was brought to his attention three years earlier by an acquaintance who stuck his tongue out, two-hand spans, and shot from it fiery flames and lava against a former minister of justice, as he wrote. "Yet my surprise was extreme when I met this man yesterday and I saw him mentioning this minister, who is now in governance, placing him in the highest heavens and raising him to the ranks of the great and mighty. I heard this praise and fell into astonishment as though I were in a deep dream. I was violently jolted from the shock I was struck with and my nerves were shaken."
"Worship of posts" was the third social malady the "scholar from Oxford" disapproved of. He called upon God to combat posts "for they are a disease that runs through the body of this country, causing some men to lose their manliness and destroying their chivalry. This is because worshippers of posts are not people with motivating feelings that raise them above the demands of the stomach and other requirements of the body as long as they make profit from their trade that covers the means of depraved luxury and ostentation."
The author of "From the depths" added that worshippers of posts protected themselves with the word that in Egyptian Arabic means both "bread" and "life" and used their livelihood and that of their children as an excuse whenever embarking upon despicable work. "Honourable consciences scream because of him and noble men avoid him, even if he and his children die from hunger and poverty. There is no doubt that this kind of person is a man with weak determination, for he fears confronting life in the arena of sincerity and honour. He is low-minded, for he buys his livelihood with the effacement of the markers of truth and through the committing of sins."
Kamel Bolous Hanna added "ostentatiousness" to his list of diseases terrifyingly destroying the nations of the East. "It had destroyed their power, sapped their strength, shaken their foundations, and they have submitted to the hand of colonialism. This is a dangerous psychological disease that penetrates into the blood and generates selfishness, love of the self, and jealousy, making its carrier hated by God and despised by man."
At the end of his column he warned against the illness that resulted from ostentatiousness by saying that when one is struck down with it from one's glory, "his lacklustre eyes move about him and see nothing other than faces laughing at his pain and he hears nothing other than voices ridiculing his madness."
Alongside this illness he revealed another love, that of the self. He told that humankind might some day find a curative treatment for cancer "but I firmly believe that it will not succeed in exterminating love of the self for it is a malignant, incurable disease that only controls and kills the conscience, which is the most precious thing humans possess. A strange phenomenon you find among those sick with love of the self is that they live long lives and have strong bodies. Blood runs deep red in their faces because it is the blood drawn from their killed consciences."
The "inferiority complex" of some was another disease the author of "From the depths" addressed in one of his columns. He described this illness as its carriers feeling an inadequacy in their morals, bodies, or knowledge, and attempting to fill it by plunging in the opposite direction to ascertain to themselves and others that the perceived shortcoming does not in fact lie with them.
He offered examples of this. One was a man who knew that he tended towards evil and the infliction of pain, and feared that people would accuse him of this. "If he sits with you, his tongue will not pronounce words other than those of God- fearing and righteousness. Another man was raised on fear to the point that he was scared to meet people. But if his company warms to him and the formality between them is dropped, he will dive into telling them tales about instances of bravery he showed that never took place except in his imagination when he was alone in his room and gave into his psyche's wishes that compensate, through fancy, for that he desires in reality."
The final malady the author of "From the depths" addressed after submerging in it was that of "the small-minded," those who love political adversity and purposely slander their foes and set traps for them in a manner "unfitting for the uprightness of decent men, incongruous with the honour of noble men, and out of place with all that people must do to rise above the small-minded and to depart from this despicable defamation."
He ended this column with the question -- "Until when will a group of lovers of politics and those greedily seeking its benefits be able to rise above the small-minded and honour themselves to honour the Egyptians more than foreigners?"
After having donned the cloak of a preacher as he kept his eyes on all these faults, he replaced it with the cloak of a missionary and asked Egyptians to adhere to new morals based on a number of characteristics.
One of these was dignity, which in his opinion was safeguarding the sanctity of human spirit. "This is the emotional tool that protects for you your right and place in life. Nay, it is the first and last word in the book of true manliness. Any man who does not sense his self-dignity and does not defend it is worthy of hatred and scorn. Some people have exceeded transgression of morals and their dignity has been of little importance to them. They have belittled it and we have thus come to see men who are prepared to sell their consciences should they notice on the horizon a glimmer of hope that they will benefit sooner or later."
Another was sincerity, which he considered one of the noblest and purest characteristics and the straight path with no bends or turns. "It is the direct path to the apex of truth and the pinnacle of wisdom. If the world embraced the school of sincerity, nations would not experience fighting in fierce battles and we would not see friends or brothers arguing and then forever parting ways." He described the insincere as impostors and yet stressed that the weapon of deception was weak although it appeared powerful. As for the weapon of sincerity, it was the weapon of truth, and, as he put it, had the sharpest and most effective blade. It seems that the Oxford scholar disagreed on this with a number of Egyptians who hold that "sincerity is futile."