Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999
Issue No. 457
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A Diwan of contemporary life (313)

Apart from its political dimension, the 1919 Egyptian nationalist revolution against British occupation had another facet. This involved a battle of words instead of the stones, sticks and gunfire that constituted the weapons of the popular revolution. The peaceful battle began over whether Arabic should replace English in two higher education institutions -- the school of medicine and the law college. The advocates of Arabic lost in the former but won in the latter. The mixed victory soon led to success in making Arabic the rule rather than the exception in official correspondence at government ministries. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * tells the story from the pages of Al-Ahram

The other side of revolution

While the battle between the Egyptian revolutionaries and the British colonial forces raged in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and the provincial capitals, another battle, no less vicious, raged between Egyptian intellectuals and the architects of British educational policy in Egypt. The fight against Anglicising the Egyptian school system, which was most acute in the schools of medicine and law, was very much connected to the events and spirit of the Egyptian revolution, but it had its roots more than 20 years previously.

In the 1890s the British occupation authorities succeeded in asserting their control over the Qasr Al-Aini Medical School, which had been founded under Mohamed Ali in 1827, and the Royal College of Law which had been founded under the Khedive Ismail in 1868 under the name of Management and Languages. May 1898 marks the beginning of the attempts to Anglicise the Qasr Al-Aini Medical School. In that month, the occupation authorities managed to install a British director who immediately brought over British staff to replace most of the local staff members. However, more crucial to the British was the school of law, which they managed to take over earlier. When the French director who had run the school since its founding, resigned, the standards of the school declined, affording the British adviser to the Ministry of Justice the opportunity to promote the appointment of British teaching staff.

However, the French influence on the instruction of law would not be so easy to dislodge. The Egyptian legal system was primarily founded upon French law, and the Napoleonic code above all. It was, therefore, imperative for anyone who sought a legal profession in Egypt to know French. Thus, not only did a French law department continue to exist for sometime alongside the English law department established by the British, but, as though to counter the British encroachment on the school of law, a privately run school of law was established to complement the Royal College of Law. Given this background, it is perhaps not coincidental that Egyptian lawyers made up the vanguard of the Egyptian nationalist movement. Mustafa Kamel and Mohamed Farid, for example, were graduates of the Royal College of Law, which, in turn, was also the starting point for the student demonstrations that ignited the revolution of 9 March 1919.

The tenaciousness of the French cultural influence was not the only phenomenon the British had to cope with in their attempt to exert their control over the higher educational system in Egypt. In 1910, in response to the growing movement to revive the Arabic language, the Ministry of Education decided to furnish the necessary allocations for the revival of the instruction of Arabic language and literature and to fund the publication of two large Arabic language encyclopedias. The same period saw the birth of new magazines dedicated to the revival of Arabic. The most famous is Al-Zuhur, which first appeared on 1 March 1910. Introducing its inaugural edition, the editor-in-chief, Anton El-Gomayil, wrote, "For some time now, all Arab countries have been bearing witness to the ascendancy of an intellectual movement, a literary awakening that no one would presume to deny. The speakers of the 'language of the daad' (a letter unique to Arabic) have begun to stir from their long slumber and to shake off their indolence. They started to look around them and noted the great progress neighboring peoples speaking other languages have made in the advancement of their arts and literature. Then, they cast their minds back in time to their Arab forefathers and realised that they had nearly forfeited the glorious legacy their forefathers had bequeathed to them."

Mustafa Kamel
Mohamed Farid
Ahmed Zaki

The movement described by Anton El-Gomayil built up great momentum by the time of the 1919 Revolution. Yet, it is interesting to note that historians of this revolution, in their preoccupation with the tumultuous political events that ensued, devoted little attention to what we call the other face of the revolution. Increasingly, many Egyptians acquired the conviction that the drive to rid the country of British military and political dominance must also seek to combat British cultural hegemony. This side of the revolution began in 1920 and continued for a long time afterwards. One of its manifestations was the fight against Anglicising the school system.

In April 1920, the issue of Arabic as the medium for instruction in the medical faculty was brought before the Supreme Council for Education. Disconcerted that the issue should find its way onto the council's agenda, the British dean of the faculty of medicine and director of Qasr Al-Aini Hospital, prepared a lengthy memorandum on the subject to submit to the council. Because of its political implications, Al-Ahram translated the memorandum into Arabic and published it on the front page of its 30 April edition.

The dean contended that the Arabisation of the instruction of medicine would cause "irreparable damage". Firstly, many technical chemical terms could not be translated into any language. Illustrating with such weighty compounds as "betamonohydroxynaphthalene", which one suspects few members of the public today could decipher, he commented, "It is virtually impossible to find equivalent words in English or in French. And, were we to coin new words to convey their meanings, the Egyptian and British public would find them mystifying, and scientists of other countries even more so."

A more formidable obstacle to the Arabisation of medical instruction, according to the dean, would be the need to translate textbooks into Arabic. "This task would entail enormous time and effort, considerable costs, not to mention the need for revising these works every few years whenever a new edition of the original textbook is issued." And even supposing the feasibility of the task, students would not be able to avail themselves of all the other English language references in the school library. As a result, "what is now an invaluable resource would become worthless."

Illustration: Makram Hunnein
The dean of the medical faculty also noted that through advertisements and recommendations from eminent British professors, it was possible to attract the most highly qualified English teaching staff. However, if Arabic were to become the medium for all medical instruction, "it would take years for these teachers to be able to reach the same proficiency in teaching students that they have now".

But, worse yet, would be the fate of the medical school graduates, once free of the constraints of exams and at the beginning of their actual careers, the dean argued. Any medical practitioner must keep abreast of the latest developments, and this entails reading the latest publications as well as the monthly and weekly periodicals, "which are replete with the findings of novel research and invaluable scientific insights". If these graduates had received their instruction solely in Arabic, "they will be severed from this copious scientific wealth," the dean contended.

Finally, the doctor argued, it would be difficult for medical school graduates who have received their instruction in Arabic to progress in their careers. Language would be a barrier to attaining more advanced medical degrees. They would be deprived, for example, of the opportunity "to receive tutelage at the hands of some of Europe's most elite scientists or to travel to England to join one of the specialised medical faculties or enroll in the Royal College of Surgeons". Nor would they be able to engage in independent research and publish their findings in any of the major European periodicals.

It was not long before the British dean's memorandum received a reply. On 5 May, Al-Ahram featured a lengthy rebuttal submitted by a prominent Egyptian physician, Dr Ahmed Eisa. He opened by charging the British doctor with misleading his readers by citing such hefty terms as "betamonohydroxynaphthalene". He pointed out that the word was actually a compound whose component parts were, in fact, translatable. 'Beta', he explained, meant dual, 'mono' meant single, 'hydro' was water, 'oxy' was short for oxygen and napthalene was the substance known by that name in Arabic. Nor did Eisa find the task of translating textbooks into Arabic particularly difficult. He argued that "it is customary for professors to prepare their lectures from a book or collection of books and, at the end of the year, to compile these lectures into book form and publish them." Translation would thus be a gradual, on-going process and translated works would be revised in step with the author's need to update his lectures. Moreover, he added, "no foreign language book has to be translated unless an individual perceives that the translated work will benefit his country, which is precisely the process taking place in Europe today."

Eisa was surprised at the British dean's objection regarding the staff. The issue was not to teach the British instructors at the medical school Arabic, which in the course of instruction, would only "compound the confusion of tongues and further corrupt the Arabic language". Rather, the solution was to engage native speakers of Arabic, which, he stressed, would not obviate the continued presence of foreign professors.

With regard to the British doctor's contention that students receiving instruction in Arabic would be cut off from the knowledge to be found in foreign language resources, Dr Eisa countered that proficiency in a European language was a prerequisite for admission into the medical faculty. "It is this proficiency that drives the student to satisfy his curiosity and augment his knowledge through reading foreign books and periodicals." In the same vein, Arabic as a medium of instruction would certainly not prevent a graduate's continued education abroad. In fact, he pointed out, before the British arrived, students at Qasr Al-Aini had received their instruction in Arabic, "yet, one study mission after another travelled to Europe and students would return having obtained the highest scientific degrees, as was the case with Othman Pasha Ghaleb and Eisa Pasha Hamdi".

The following day, Al-Ahram devoted a portion of its front page to an article by another proponent of the Arabisation of instruction in the country's higher level educational institutions. Mohamed Rida, curator of the Egyptian University library, held that there were three reasons Arabic should be used as the medium of instruction. The first was to promote independence and avert the fragmentation of national solidarity, which is founded upon common language, beliefs and customs. Secondly, it is only logical to teach students in their native tongue in order to spare them the hardship of having to acquire a subject through a foreign language. Finally, it facilitates the dissemination of knowledge among the general public, the greater part of which knows no other language but Arabic.

Naturally, the Egyptian staff in the college would join the fray, and Al-Ahram reports that they had submitted a memorandum to the minister of education in response to that submitted by the British dean. The newspaper went on to explain that there was a sharp rift between the Egyptian and British members of the teaching staff. Tensions were caused by the management's inequitable policies, which accorded certain privileges to the British staff and withheld them from the locally engaged staff. One such privilege was the right to open clinics. According to the college regulations, a member of staff had to resign if he wanted to open a clinic. Yet, the administration managed to circumvent that regulation for the British staff.

The controversy over the teaching of medicine in Arabic continued to rage for two years. Then, on 3 June 1922, the Supreme Council for Education met to issue a ruling on the subject. It resolved that instruction in Arabic would be mandatory beginning with the freshman class of students in the 1922-23 scholastic year and that it would be phased in gradually with every new freshman class until Arabic became the medium of instruction at all levels.

Although one would have thought the council's resolution would resolve what had essentially become a nationalist aspiration, a reading of Al-Ahram of the period suggests that it was not so easy to implement. Now, however, the difficulties were not political in nature. Following the council's resolution, Dr Ibrahim Esmat, in a letter to Al-Ahram, appealed to his colleagues in the medical profession to "examine the project closely". Evidently, he had learned that a few of the medical members of the supreme council had admitted to being "influenced" by the opinions of the other non-medical members of the council.

Seizing the opportunity offered by this apparent rift in opinion, the British dean of the school came up with a curious proposal. He suggested that the school of medicine be divided into two departments, one called the "Oriental Faculty" in which Arabic would be the sole medium of instruction, and the other called the "European Faculty" in which English would be the medium of instruction. Al-Ahram objected vehemently to the proposal. "We want an Egyptian faculty that teaches Egyptian students in the language of their country and that simultaneously retains a solid link between Egypt and Europe," it wrote.

When it came to the practical application of the resolution, difficulties emerged. In a petition to the Supreme Council for Education, 14 Egyptian professors in the college claimed that it was futile to oblige them to teach in Arabic. The students, they wrote, were frequently required to study from English language sources, "which will oblige them to translate the subject matter into Arabic when they take their written and oral examinations".

These objections encouraged others to join in the appeal to the council to reconsider its resolution. One such individual was Dr Hassan Kamel who wrote a lengthy letter to Al-Ahram in which he said, "In all civilised nations, medicine is taught in no other language but the language of science, in order to ensure conformity in the language of instruction. For this purpose, some ancient languages were chosen, the most important being Latin, to furnish all the technical vocabulary. This has rendered it possible for medical practitioners everywhere to understand one another, regardless of their native languages. It has also made it possible for pharmacists to read any medical prescription, since it is written in that language."

On 24 October 1922, Al-Ahram summed up the debate within the sphere of Egyptian medical practitioners as follows: "The professors agree on the principle of teaching in Arabic, but they disagree on the best means to accomplish that aim. Because of this disagreement, the project has been suspended." And, so it would remain for an indefinite period.

In the Royal College of Law, the battle to bring in Arabic as the medium of instruction would be resolved more quickly. Firing the opening shot in the battle, the noted author and political commentator Mohamed Hussein Heikal lamented the fact that management of the school had passed from French to British hands. If instruction in Arabic had been introduced immediately following the resignation of its original French dean, "the natural consequence would have been that, instead of the English language works that appeared, we would have compendiums of works in Arabic of equal, if not superior, quality. The proof of this can be found in the prolific works we have in Arabic on those subjects taught in Arabic, such as Islamic Law and the Code of Pleading, works whose scholastic value is indisputable."

Heikal then refuted the contention that Arabic was inadequate to express scientific thought. "It is the writer and speaker who create language in their use of words, grammar and style," he wrote. "When necessity drives the instructor to coin or employ words to express his intent and when these expressions are refined and circulated, they and the ideas they represent become ordinary and familiar to the speakers of the language."

The author did admit that instruction in Arabic could lead to a weaker proficiency in foreign languages. However, in exchange students will have a more thorough understanding of their subject, and, more importantly, the country will benefit from the Arabic publications that will appear, for these works, unlike the English and other foreign language works, "will be accessible to all readers". Heikal concludes with a warning against "the grievous damage and grave risk posed by instruction in a foreign language, which is the lack of communication between the educated and the other sectors of the populace".

Firing the second volley was Mohamed El-Shafie El-Labban who wrote an open letter to Ahmed Talaat, chairman of the Board of Directors of the Royal College of Law. Seizing upon the Supreme Council for Education's recent resolution to Arabise instruction in the school of medicine, El-Labban argued that the principle should also be applied to the school of law. Moreover, he contended, the process would be much easier. The argument that students studying medicine in Arabic would be denied the opportunity to keep up to date and more broadly informed through foreign language publications would not apply to the study of law, which is "perhaps the least evolving branch of science". Also, the contention that legal terminology could not be translated into Arabic was invalid in light of the proliferation of applicable Arabic terms in the enormous body of literature on Islamic law. Finally, any claim to the effect that there was a shortage of qualified Egyptian instructors would not hold water at all. "Egypt's senior judges and lawyers are prepared to lecture in the college, not to mention the already existing Egyptian staff whose credentials are incontrovertible."

Heikal's and El-Labban's advocacy cleared the way for the law students themselves to voice their demands. In a petition to their dean, published in Al-Ahram on 9 June 1920, they cited numerous arguments for adopting Arabic as the language of instruction. Firstly, they wrote, there was absolutely no justification for teaching law in English, "which is not the language of law, nor the language of our law, which is totally different from British law, nor are there any books on Egyptian law written in English". Secondly, they argued that no matter how proficient a student might be in English, "it is never as easy to understand the subtleties of an English language work or to express one's ideas in that language as it is in one's native language". Thirdly, Arabic was the language used in the national court system, and it was pointless to study law in a language that the student would never use in his professional career. Fourthly, the college's current policy of having students study certain subjects in Arabic and then in English was needless duplication and caused confusion. Finally, the students adopted El-Labban's argument that, if the switch to Arabic in the faculty of medicine poses some problems, "no difficulties whatsoever would arise in switching to the use of the national tongue in the College of Law". Within a short while, the students of the school of law won their case.

Even as the contention over the use of Arabic in the higher educational institutions flared, skirmishes were taking place on the sidelines in the various government administrations. Intermittent Al-Ahram reports keep us abreast of some of the developments. For example, the deputy minister of agriculture decided to accept official reports in Arabic from those assistant inspectors who were unable to express themselves in English. More significantly, the minister of education issued a decree that all correspondence within the ministry should be in Arabic. His decision meant that the use of English in the various departments of the ministry became the exception after it had once been the rule.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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