Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (661)
The Arab cultural capital
At one time, Egyptian culture was the fulcrum around which the rest of the Arab world revolved. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk looks into this pioneering role
Feverish attempts have been made in recent years to remove Egypt from its place as a cultural leader after having been pushed out of many of its other positions. Foremost was its political position, from which it was removed as a result of there being a sole superpower which restricted the arena for manoeuvring by states of lesser influence, an arena that had been open during the Cold War. Another was its economic position, due to the crises that have grabbed it by the collar over the recent years and which have driven thousands, or perhaps millions, of its citizens to emigrate abroad, eastward and westward, to the point that their remittances have formed the second greatest source of the country's hard currency after tourism and before the fees of the Suez Canal.
Fatima El-Youssef,the pioneer who founded Rose El-Youssef
These attempts have been made apparent in the striving of some Arab satellite channels to deprive the Egyptian dialect of its place as the lingua franca of all Arabs. They have also manifested in the Egyptian government's withdrawal, as part of its general policies of privatisation, from funding many cultural arenas. The most significant of these is cinematic production, through which Egyptian culture had occupied the Arab mind for approximately three-quarters of a century. These attempts have also surfaced in the pumping of funds into the veins of media competing with Egyptian media, to the extent that the Arabic edition of the long- established Al-Ahram newspaper, which is issued specifically for the Arab world, has not had the same success as its international edition.
Moreover, Egyptian stars of singing and acting no longer enjoy the Arab position they previously occupied during the age of radio, cinema and theatre. That was a time when Arabs everywhere took interest in the concerts of Um Kulthoum, who was broadcast on the Cairo station, and awaited the songs of Mohamed Abdul-Wahab, which were used in the war between the broadcasts of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Italy's Radio Bari. They have been replaced by other stars, in particular Lebanese, created by the god of satellite advertising funded by parties interested in removing Egyptians from their cultural position. This is in addition to the disappearance of some of the promising singers and old actors for reasons related to religion, while their Lebanese colleagues have not been affected by any such motives.
Yet despite these attempts, Egypt remains the Arab cultural capital, for the circumstances that formed its cultural leadership centuries ago remain in place. Among these circumstances is the stability Egypt has known for many centuries due to its position in the heart of the Arab nation, which has protected it from the dangers facing its peripheries and their resulting insecurity. After the Moguls invaded the eastern Arab world, they stopped at Egypt's borders after having been exhausted by a long journey from their homeland to Ain Jalut. The Crusaders did not come near Egypt except in a failed attempt undertaken by Louis IX in Mansoura.
That was in the Middle Ages. The same thing occurred in modern times, although with Morocco, when its people waged bitter naval wars against the two ascending seaside countries, Spain and Portugal, which in turn caused a degree of instability. And yet these wars did not extend into the heart of the Arab nation.
In addition to this stability was the rootedness of traditions in Egypt that reflected the state of culture. Among them was the system of charitable endowments given to serve religious ends. Most of the academic institutions of that age had a religious nature, led by Al-Azhar University, which became a destination for those seeking knowledge in the Arab and Islamic worlds. This reached the point of major Islamic universities such as Al-Qarawayn in Fez, Morocco, following the example of the long-established Egyptian University in its programmes and statutes.
In turn, these traditions created competent academic institutions, ones that Egypt had before any other Arab country, whether nearby or on the periphery of the Arab world. The first established centralised state in the modern age played a prominent role in this, for in recent years documents have revealed that the higher institutes established by Mohamed Ali in the first half of the 19th century, such as those in medicine and engineering, found wide acceptance among the Arab countries, and particularly arrivals from the Levant and the far West.
The Egyptian University, in its private (1908) and government (1925) phases, played an important role in creating Egypt's cultural leadership. This is shown by the Arab students who enrolled in it and earned its degrees, and by its professors who travelled to all corners of the Arab world to establish universities there. This is a role they have continued to play until this day, and it has left a clear mark on the graduates of these universities.
It is difficult to ignore the role of the press in this regard, for stability and the growing base of intellectuals created a wide public of readers not present in any Arab country other than Egypt. There is no doubt that this atmosphere was among the most important factors encouraging a number of Levantine intellectuals, and particularly those from Lebanon, to travel to Egypt and to issue their papers from it. Among them were the Teqla family, which established Al-Ahram, the Zeidan family, which established Al-Hilal, and Fatima El-Youssef, who founded Rose El-Youssef.
These newspapers had a market in Arab countries, and acquired famous journalists who gained a reputation in them, especially among Arab readers. They included Sheikh Ali Youssef, Al-Tabei, Diyab, and Mohamed Hassanein Heikal.
Finally, there was the theatre, cinema, and radio. The institutions of the Egyptian state succeeded in establishing an opera house in the days of Khedive Ismail. Then there were the theatre groups that offered regular performances in Arab countries to the east and west, such as the group of Fatima Rushdi, Ramsis and El-Rihani. As for Egypt's early entrance into the arena of cinema, it gained fame, and especially for Egyptian actors, from Baghdad in the east to Casablanca in the west. This is to say nothing of the early Cairo radio broadcast (1934), about which Al-Ahram reporters in a number of Arab capitals wrote, predicting gatherings in cafes to listen to the radio broadcast.
THE SAYING, "Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads," needs to be reconsidered. It may be appropriate for recent years, but not for the period prior to them. Cairo wrote and printed, and all the Arabs read, this being one of the most important factors in its cultural leadership.
This fact can be realised through reviewing the literature, sciences and arts page in Al-Ahram, which allocated a section to new books. Let us select the second half of the 1930s.
The types of books presented in Al-Ahram can be split into two categories -- books on exhibition and books for critical review. The first type was usually dominated by a panegyric nature, which tempts the assumption that what was published about it was intended as a form of flattery for one reason or another, such as a relationship with the author or in return for a specific fee paid to the newspaper. This is particularly true given that it was not signed and was usually published in a limited space. And while such thinking might be unfair, it is also triggered by the fact that such "exhibitions" of books often included information about their length, cost, and publisher.
In contrast was the second type of book, critical reviews of which were usually lengthy and attributed to their writer, who might have been a prominent journalist or literary author. These occupied many pages, were filled with useful observations, and included few complimentary phrases.
There were a number of curious books among the first type. There was The Home Dictionary of Magic Games which comprised many of the magician's tricks upon the stage as well as the affairs of charlatans; knowledge, home, and arithmetic games; and the like of entertaining games such as playing cards, fortune telling, and determining marital congruence, etc.
Another was The Interpretation of Dreams, a book translated from English by Shafiq Assad Farid, employed by the Cairo governorate. Its first chapter included sections on dreams, their soundness, their curiosities, and their causes. Its second chapter differentiated between dreams and voices and then provided charts clearly elaborating the subjects of dreams. "The book is novel in its approach and far-removed from academic complications." A copy cost 15 millemes.
The author of How to Tailor was the brilliant tailor Theodore Flasif, "founder of the industrial school for tailoring and sewing in Beirut in 1826. It is the first of its kind in Arabic. The author wrote it in French and it was translated into Arabic by Miss Injal and Mr Anwar. The author aspired to illustrate everything necessary about the ways of tailoring and sewing. There are several drawings that clarify, explain, and firmly establish it in one's mind."
Another book was Architectural Progress in Cairo and other Egyptian Cities written by the top engineer of Mit Ghamr, Mohamed Hassanein Mekawi. In this book, Mekawi presented an overview of the history of Cairo and the developments that had taken place in it over the 1,000 years since its establishment. "The book's subjects address Cairo's geographic position; the size of its population; the status of its health, commerce and trade; its academic centres; and the number of its schools, their students, and tourist groups visiting." The author embellished the cover of his book with a picture of King Farouk and introduced it with a preface in which he pointed out the consequences of the country gaining its independence. It was 250 pages long and cost a full 10 piastres.
Among this category of books were also those that can be classified as direct propaganda. Some were schoolbooks that students used in memorising their lessons. These included Matriculatory Translation which assisted students in all branches of the matriculation year to master translation. Its author was Shaker Hanna, vice principal of Al-Dawawin High School. Hanna created a solid means of guidance in this book through the selection of nearly 40 English texts and 14 French texts related to aspects of Egyptian history and society. Each was followed by a precise translation of its terminology and difficult vocabulary. "Then the book concluded with a valuable guide to the translation of terminology. It also translates linguistic terminology."
History books gained a good deal of space among this kind of writing exhibited on the literature, sciences, and arts page. Let us select some here.
The Egyptian Issue 1841-1938 was written by Emile Salim Emad, who held that modern Egyptian history began with the London agreement signed by major states on 15 July 1840 because it "was the opening of a chain of serious political events Egypt experienced over about a century, ending with independence in 1936."
The book was originally a dissertation with which its author earned a doctoral degree in law from Paris University. It included details that revealed the power and influence of foreign representatives in Egypt, and was split into two sections. The first was about the period starting from the era of Mohamed Ali and ending with the issue of the 28 February 1922 statement. In it he addressed the intervention of foreign states in terms of politics and finance, starting from the terms of Abbas and Said, including the works undertaken by Khedive Ismail, and ending with the protectorate and independence in 1922 with its four reservations. The second part was about the 1936 treaty and the conditions that led to it, including a critical study of some of its articles. "The dissertation includes many sound political opinions and useful conclusions."
Egypt and the Nile was written by the academic Amin Sami Pasha. In it, he wrote the history of Egypt and the Nile since the dawn of history, revealing numerous facts. He discussed the Egyptian efforts to protect the Nile's watercourse "from the sands that devastated the armies of the Persians and the soldiers of Hicks Pasha, and which rained down upon the Niles' watercourse every year." In this connection, Sami Pasha revealed a secret -- the ancient Egyptians built the great pyramid not only to serve as a royal tomb but also to form a barrier to the sands and protect the river's watercourse from sand dunes. This same book was later published in sections under the title "Survey of the Nile".
When the harbingers of World War II appeared in 1939, Al-Ahram paid special attention to writings that addressed wars in general and some of the personalities that appeared on the stage of global politics at that time. Among them was Mein Kampf -- My Struggle, the famous book written by the German leader Adolf Hitler. It was translated into most of the world's languages and was translated into Arabic by Mohamed Ali Mahjoub. The first part of the book illustrates the roles of this struggle since the leader's beginning, and records the factors that contributed to the formation of the man's personality. The second part presents Hitler's struggle for the sake of the Reich, and discusses communism, socialism, the German army, the military spirit, and the Rome-Berlin axis.
Hitler was straightforward in laying out facts, "precise in the narration of details, faithful to belief in his doctrine, and immovable and strong in the implementation of his programmes, just as the translator was faithful in his translation, strong in style, and skillful in presentation. A book like this is worthy of appreciation and success." The publisher was the Commercial Publishing House, and it consisted of 250 pages of medium size.
War and Gases was published by the Egyptian Renaissance Library and consisted of 86 pages. It was written by Abdel-Rahim Rashwan, an instructor at the Al-Munira government school. It consisted of what he had learnt at the schools of health and the protection of civilians from poisonous gases, and relied upon a collection of Arabic and foreign sources. Al-Ahram wrote that the author began with a work on gases and their effects in the coming war, as well as the history of their existence. "He then continued with his study on the types of gases, the symptoms of infliction, and the means of treatment. He dedicated an entire chapter of the book's five to gas masks."
THE SECOND TYPE OF BOOK presented on the literature, sciences, and arts page of Al-Ahram newspaper was that which writers and intellectuals volunteered to present. These reviews were dominated by an analytical, critical nature, and most of those published in Al-Ahram were about writings on literature and linguistics. Let us select some of them in the following lines.
"The origination, development, and maturation of the Arabic language" was presented in a review by "Daughter of the Shore" Aisha Abdel-Rahman. It consisted of 241 large- sized pages, and the well-known writer opened her discussion of it by saying, "perhaps the appearance of this academic study in this anxious, disturbed time is a sign that science still retains its loyal men and faithful servants." The author was Father Anistas Mari El-Kremli who employed a modern approach to thoroughly examining facts. "He devoted himself to a study of the history of the Arabic language from its origination through its development and until its maturation. He followed the relations between it and other languages that have come into contact with it, revealing the closeness between them."
Abdel-Rahman described this work as neither inconsiderable nor simple, for even one of its aspects requires a complete study. The researcher began his book with a general look at the origination of the language of the Qahtan tribe, and he joined those who argue that words were originally spelt in one manner, with a vowel and a stop, and then a letter or more was added in the beginning, middle, or end of the word. He then outlined the letters added to words, declaring that they were not chosen arbitrarily.
Abdel-Rahman's review of this momentous work, as she described it, did not stop her from disagreeing with Father El-Kremli over some of the things he stated, and described his argumentation in these matters as lacking strength. And yet she ended her lengthy critical study by saying, "But this does not prevent us from being impressed with what the author has concluded in many aspects of his study in terms of scientific facts he clarified and which no longer bear doubt, or from appreciating the research he undertook in examining introduced words and tracing them to their origin. I believe that academics are not required to be successful in all their opinions, lest the exertion of interpretive efforts be discontinued. It is sufficient to clarify vague scientific facts or to reveal unknown origins. I hold that the author succeeded in revealing many linguistic origins and clarified many scientific facts. In his study he was patient and deliberate, and highly enthusiastic about and loyal to the Arabic language."
"The history of Arabic literature in the pre-Islamic era" was written by Hamed Mustafa and Abdel-Jawad Ramadan, professors in the college of Arabic. It was presented by Ahmed Abdel-Latif Badr from Port Said, who opened his opinion on this work by saying that knowledge of Arabic literature in the pre-Islamic age is one of the most difficult literary studies "because transmitters made many insertions and some of them invented and created."
The writer from Port Said held that the two authors followed an independent approach and supported opinions with reasonable and observable evidence. Although the book was originally a collection of lectures the two professors gave in their colleges, such writings usually being characterised by hastiness, Badr held that they did not fall into this mistake but rather were fully careful in providing information and attributing it to its sources.
Our friend added that it was well-known that pre-Islamic prose was suspect, leading the two authors to state that many literary authors doubted its soundness. He agreed with the two of them although he held that this did not preclude these kinds of studies "that we hope professors in departments of higher education can benefit from, so that the educated can benefit from them."
The Axioms of Ibn Al-Muqafa was written by Mohamed Abu Ali, from the Egyptian University. It was more of a sophisticated literary piece from which we quote its text:
"The fundament in religion is to believe in faith correctly, avoid grave offences and perform duty. The fundament in a healthy body is to not burden it with other than light food, drink, and the like. The fundament in courage and bravery is to not consider retreat as your friends approach your enemy. The fundament in generosity is to not withhold people's rights. The fundament in speech is to carefully protect yourself from erring. The fundament in living is to not tire in seeking that which is permissible, to judge well that which benefits, and to not squander or be tempted by the pleasure in it. The fundament in rule is three-fold -- that of religion, that of decisiveness, and that of arbitrariness. A rule of religion, if it applies its subjects' religion, satisfies them and those who were angry are appeased. A rule of decisiveness makes things happen, but it is not free from criticism and anger. As for rule of arbitrariness, it plays for an hour but its destruction is eternal."
Despite the abundance of writings on literature and linguistics, this did not prevent the literature, science, and arts page from presenting other topics, whether in history or affairs of the home. Let us select two books to conclude this survey that confirms that Egypt remained the Arab cultural capital during that long past period.
The History of Education in the Age of Mohamed Ali was a thick book written by Ahmed Izzat Abdel-Karim, an assistant professor of history in the college of arts. It was 800 pages and was originally a "weighty academic dissertation", as was put by the reviewer, who held it as a history of a resplendent era that formed one of the most flourishing periods of education in Egypt.
In our friend's opinion, the importance of this book was that people were busy talking about the military glory of the age of Mohamed Ali "while today the author presents a splendid aspect of this major reformer, and that is education". In this connection, he quoted from the introduction written by the famed historian Mohamed Shafiq Ghurbal, who wrote that Mohamed Ali had followed a moderate plan, for the students of the new institutes were taken from the old, thus preserving their Arab and Islamic nature.
There is no harm in ending this survey with a book that seems to have received wide-scale acceptance, especially among female readers, and that is Food, the Kitchen, and the Table by Basima Zaki Ibrahim. It was reviewed by Amina Qutb, who opened her review by saying that it "indicates that we are before a female renaissance inspiring joy and tranquillity." She then presented the book's three chapters. The first was about how care must be taken in the art of preparing food. The second advised housewives to bid farewell to traditions and formalities, and not to copy wealthy families, "but rather to find a balance between her demands and her funds, and how to do her work alone if she does not have a servant to help her". The third included an explanation on how to make all kinds of pastries and biscuits. Perhaps what Amina Qutb wrote about this book would tempt women of today to read it.