16 - 22 December 1999
Issue No. 460
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (316)Tongue-lashing in good humour and polite terms was the hallmark of Fikri Abaza, one of the most outstanding social and political critics of the 20th century. He was a lawyer by profession but he abandoned the legal practice later in his life and devoted himself entirely to writing. His wit and do-it-with-a-smile approach in dissecting what he saw as political and social ills were proverbial. His first book -- a collection of articles he wrote for the press until 1922 -- was fondly described as "The smiling book" by Dr Mansour Fahmi, a renowned author. In this instalment of the Diwan series, Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * describes Abaza and provides samples of his delightful, tongue-in-cheek commentaries on the events of his time illustration: Makram Henein
The prince of wit
Fikri Abaza Anton El-Gomayel
Fikri Abaza was dubbed "the prince of wit", an accolade whose history began on the pages of Al-Ahram. He was praised by the likes of Ahmed Shawqi -- 'the prince of poetry' -- for the "robust spontaneity" with which "he drives to the pith" of the matter. His plaudits included many offered by the most eminent figures in his own métier.
In 1922, when he was 26 years old (he was born in 1896), Abaza's first collection of articles appeared in a single volume. On the occasion of its publication, Anton El-Gomayel Al-Ahram's senior staff writer and the editor-in-chief of Al-Zuhur magazine, lauded the "delightfully effortless style that one finds so simple and straightforward until one attempts to weave on the same loom, at which point one discovers the extreme difficulty in emulating it". Abaza's writings exude a "genial wit," which "appeals to all readers". This, El-Gomayel continues, "is because people are not naturally inclined to austere counsel unless it comes to them in a manner that brings on a smile, and they do not appreciate guidance unless it is wrapped in humour. However serious the matter, one prefers to take one's dose of medicine with a drop of sugar, to blend the practical with the palatable, the useful with the mirthful." With his blend of humour and argument, Abaza is particularly adept at driving his point home. El-Gomayel writes that "whenever controversy over a problem heats up, Abaza appears with one of his humorous masterpieces. We pick it up, confident that we are going to be titillated, and through this titillation we strike the pure and unadulterated truth, which in turn compounds our delight, for we have reached the essence without pain or tedium."
Anton El-Gomayel's article had appeared in Al-Ahram of 26 July 1922. A month later, on 25 August, Fikri Abaza was also the subject of Mansour Fahmi's literary column "Between the effort to explain and the fruit of the pen". Describing Abaza's first edition of collected essays as "the smiling book", Fahmi goes on to explain: "There are elaborately complex books and lucidly simple books. There are books that cause consternation, books that plunge one into gloom and others that are joyfully uplifting. The latter closely fits Abaza's book, for no one can read it without a broad grin making its way to one's lips. To me, its most outstanding quality is that it brings glee to the heart while it brings to the mind the benefits of sharp observation."
According to some sources, "the prince of wit" began his career in journalism with Al-Mu'ayyid. This claim is difficult to believe, as this newspaper ceased publication shortly after the death of its founder, Sheikh Ali Youssef, in 1913, at which point Abaza would have been scarcely 17. It is our belief that the Abaza's journalistic career began with Al-Ahram in 1919, when, as a recent college graduate, he contributed his first article to the newspaper in the midst of the rush of commentary on the resurgence of student demonstrations in the autumn of that year. This article, which appeared on 23 October, was in response to one of Tawfiq Diab's "Glimpses" columns, in which Diab voiced the commonly held fear that the demonstrations would cause the students to lose another scholastic year. In his piece, Abaza asks the "Glimpses" columnist, "Have you not seen how primary school students have begun to take up the tune? Students from Giza primary school are up in arms because of the poor location of their school. In Abdeen School, they are striking because of the ministerial edict specifying the age of enrollment. And, the students of Desouq are staging a protest against the arrest of some Al-Azhar students." With his tongue still firmly in cheek, Abaza concludes this open letter to Diab with a request not to publish it "until you have made absolutely certain that my brother students, or rather, my student masters, do not seek to avenge themselves upon me".
Abaza's first article for Al-Ahram reveals two facts. The first we learn from his signature -- "Fikri Abaza, the lawyer in Assiut" -- which informs us of his first occupation before turning to journalism. The second is that his sense of sarcasm, which would remain his hallmark until the end of his life and which would sometimes bring him considerable difficulties, was already well honed.
It was not long before Abaza opened his own legal practice in Zaqaziq, a location that offered him a greater opportunity to write for the newspapers, particularly as he took up residence in Cairo rather than that provincial centre to the northeast of the capital. During this period, Abaza also wrote for Al-Liwa', the mouthpiece of the National Party of which he was a member. Still, he preferred to submit most of his articles to Al-Ahram, saving for Al-Liwa' only those that blatantly professed his party affiliations and beliefs. One wonders whether Al-Ahram would have accepted them anyway, given its long-standing aversion to serving as the mouthpiece of a specific party, which is among the reasons that account for the newspaper's longevity. In fact, Al-Ahram accepted some of Abaza's articles only with some reservations, taking the precaution to add the codicil that their contents were "solely the responsibility of the author". But such was the appeal of Abaza's writings that soon the editor-in-chief Daoud Barakat began to personally commission Abaza to write on certain subjects of immediate concern to public opinion.
As a result, Fikri Abaza's alluring presence asserted itself frequently in numerous Al-Ahram editions throughout 1920 and 1921 and figured in some instalments of this Diwan series. On the newly conceived Free Independent Party, which Abaza took to be a British concoction to divide the nationalists, he wrote: "There is no semantic connection whatsoever between this party and the demand for full independence, as some people ignorant of the principles of Arabic grammar and morphology are wont to believe. Rather, what the name ultimately signifies is that the party is entirely independent of all other parties in its determination not to be influenced by the current trends in which it lives. The adjective, free, on the other hand, is an affirmation of an obscure truth that the party fears the reader might miss in passing."
On the case of Raya and Sakina, the two women who in 1920 committed a series of ruthless murders and mutilations of women in Alexandria, Abaza's sarcasm is more caustic. "Where are the police?" he asks in an article written before the perpetrators were discovered. "Where is the sword of government that should fall on the necks of bloodthirsty criminals? Where is the vigilant eye of justice that should never sleep? Where is the mighty hand of authority? Evidently, the government has been too busy training its army of secret political police to bother with the regular forces necessary to safeguard our personal safety."
At the time of Al-Ahram's campaign to revive Arabic music, Abaza establishes himself as a deft manipulator of the extended metaphor. Following a successful concert of Arabic music, he remarks that he fully intended to critique the concert, "but only in the lightest of tones".
Even Abaza's most earnest political commentaries are not without a glint of humour. In the early 1920s, Egyptian nationalists were sharply divided between supporters of Saad Zaghlul and Prime Minister Adli Yakan. The rift came at a particularly sensitive time in the negotiations with the British over issues related to independence. Still, Abaza, who was personally neutral, managed to cast his commentary in an amusing mould that, nevertheless, struck at the crux of the issue. In this instance, he drew on his experience as a lawyer to draft the following imaginary "reconciliation pact" between the two factions:
"Whereas the two parties have disagreed over the form and substance of the conduct of the Anglo-Egyptian negotiations; and,
"Whereas all Egyptian men and women are distressed and exasperated by this dispute, which is so detrimental to the welfare of the nation; and,
"Whereas the persistent obstinacy of both sides is certain to bring further degeneration, both parties have agreed to the following:
"That the first party shall shake the hands of the second party, that the second party shall shake the hands of the first party, the said hand shaking to take place in public view, and after it both parties shall shout simultaneously, 'Long live Egypt!'
"That the first party (Saad Zaghlul) shall demobilise the students garrisoned throughout the country and that the second party (Adli Yakan) shall demobilise the army stationed in Assiut, Beni Suef, Tanta and Ismailia.
"That both parties shall jointly host a celebratory banquet in Shepherd's Hotel in honour of all writers who advocated this reconciliation pact.
"That both parties shall clearly and emphatically attest that the intentions of the British are not honourable and that the negotiations are a ruse to buy time.
"That both sides shall immediately cease their unusual propaganda activities throughout the countryside and redirect their information campaigns towards the welfare of the country.
"That both parties declare a boycott of that opportunistic third party that claims to support all sides, but is in reality bent on sewing dissension."
Finding his appeal unheeded, the "prince of wit" did not despair. On 26 November 1921 he took another stab with his barbed pen, coining epithets to describe supporters of Saad Zaghlul and Adli Yakan. He wrote:
"Saadists and Adliists are two new terms that have been concocted recently. They indicate two modern political creeds, much as Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafie label the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence; Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant refer to the Christian religious denominations and socialism, aristocracy and democracy encapsulate political ideologies.
"It has reached the point that to state our beliefs we must affix to ourselves a dozen labels. For example, dear reader, if someone asks you who you are, you have to respond, 'I'm a Hanbali democrat with Saadist leanings,' or 'I'm a Maliki, aristocrat, and Adliist,' or 'I'm an orthodox Christian, firmly committed to socialism and Saadism'. With this profusion of banners, I feel our daily press would do us a service to leave aside the politics of dissension and turn itself over to advertisements for dancing cafes and pigeon hunting."
There were times that Abaza's sarcasm would exude considerable bitterness. Following the failure of Zaghlul's negotiations with Lord Milner, the breakdown of the negotiations between Adli Yakan and Lord Curzon and Yakan's subsequent resignation, British High Commissioner Allenby sped to London in early 1922 to seek a resolution to the growing tensions in Egypt. Abaza's response was, "Yes, and why not? We tried Saad Zaghlul's delegation, the Wafd, and that failed. We tried Adli Pasha's delegation and that failed, too. Why not try the delegation of British officials consisting of Lord Allenby, General Clayton and Mr Amos?"
Abaza was never loath to publicise his early affiliation to the National Party at a time when it had lost the support of the majority of Egyptians. Under the headline, "You're a Traitor" he relates an incident that involved him in 1918, when a "man of stature" in the Sharqiya provincial directorate came to him to ask him to sign a proxy empowering the Wafd delegation going to Britain for independence negotiations. Abaza recounts, "I apologised to the man, telling him that I was a National Party member and an advocate of Egypt's full and unqualified independence. But the man did not permit me to complete my sentence. In a gruff voice he told me, 'You're a traitor!'" But then, after having that accusation hurled at him so many times, for so many different reasons, he decided to contrast and compare the many different ways he fell under the label "traitor", "until ultimately I came to the conclusion that I am a traitor and put an end to the story".
If his party affiliation helped to explain his neutrality in the "Saadist-Adliist" controversy, it also goes some way to explain his lack of sympathy for the student movement. The British high commissioner had described Egyptian students as "Zaghlul's army" and Abaza seemed inclined to agree. In an article headlined "The Day of Reckoning", appearing in Al-Ahram on 13 June 1922, Abaza appears to be rubbing his hands together with malicious glee. Addressing student demonstrators he writes, "You've gone on strike, you've boycotted, you've shouted so many "Down withs" and "Long lives", you've demonstrated and you've protested. But now the day of reckoning has arrived. Yes, June is here and it's time for the year-end exams. For the first time all year we see you walking down the street in twos and threes, whispering together, instead of parading in bands and shouting. We hear you talking about 'geography' and 'geometry' instead of 'politics' and 'freedom'. And, finally the flag of 'peace and quiet' flutters where 'independence' had you jumping up and down."
But Fikri Abaza was also a sharp observer of Egyptian society and his wit spared very few in his assault against what he considered the social ills of his times. And what better location to choose for this purpose than the coffeehouse, which encompassed diverse segments of society. In Al-Ahram of 11 September 1922, he selects a set of cafes to describe "those outcasts who squander their bodies, money and honour at Groppi's, Salt, Casino de Paris and other such establishments that cater to dancing and the chasing of women". One assumes that it was purely in the interests of investigative journalism that Abaza infiltrated such establishments in order to present his readers with "a sketch of the denizens of the finest coffeehouses in Cairo". In his sketch, he labels the various categories of customers as "societies" as follows:
"Society 1: A mix of senior government employees, well-to-do, smartly dressed, faces bright and smiling. They select their seats in accordance with that carefully calculated geometry that will enable them to watch all the other customers and observe all who enter and leave. Their conversation opens with an account of the trivialities of the previous day, interspersing their narrative with the most delicate -- if contrived -- gestures. Their voices rise and fall in musical mode, and are graced by sonorous laughs -- that issue from the nose! That is, until some young woman descends upon the scene, at which point their voices drop in pitch and they engage in heated discussion.
"Society 2: or the society of the legendary (quixotic) Antar Ibn Shaddad, Al-Zir Salem and Diab Ibn Ghanem. To this society the world's heroes are not Napoleon Bonaparte, Lloyd George and Mustafa Kamel, but rather locals like Rabeh, Qased Karim and Abu El-Dahab.
"Society 3: consists of the begrudging, envious civil servants, who tear apart the careers of their senior colleagues and grumble how effectively they exploited nepotism and connections, both at the time of independence and occupation.
"Society 4: The members of this society are the experts in other people's private affairs. They delve with relish into the marriage of this man to that woman, the spouses' respective fortunes and the engagement of a certain young man to a certain young woman and why it hasn't broken off yet. In keeping with their métier they are the connoisseurs of the genealogical tree of every Egyptian family.
"Society 5: The society of old-hand politicians. They talk sharply in loud voices, so as to impress their neighbours with their intelligence, eloquence and savvy, and also to make it known indirectly that they are men of principles and upstanding nationalists. But should some young woman appear on the scene, political nuances turn to romantic nuances and nationalist proclamations turn to sentimental declarations. It is thus that love blends with politics, much as salt adds spice to food."
One major facet of the post-1919 revolutionary atmosphere was the intensification of the Egyptian women's liberation movement. It was only natural that Abaza should turn his wit to this issue, all the more so as he was a bachelor all his life. In Al-Ahram of 25 April 1921, with his characteristic hyperbole he warns the male sex that their days are numbered, adding, "To you society will offer its condolences as it wishes the gentle sex a long and healthy life". He goes on to elaborate, "Egypt is passing through a phase of reversal in which all the old will be dismantled and upon the remnants of the past there shall emerge an elegant, graceful kingdom whose pillars and stays are women. On that day, woe betide all backward conservatives. For a very long time, our ancestors have inflicted on women all forms of suffering. Now is the day for revenge."
Although Abaza claims to adhere to a "strict neutrality" on the issue, he makes his sentiments more than apparent. "How I grieve for the young men like me who had not the opportunity to marry when the going was easy. Imagine the trials I will have to endure as a suitor. My prospective fiancé will inquire, firstly, about my appearance, secondly, about my financial standing and level of contemporary sophistication, thirdly, about my political party affiliation, and, fourthly, about my social views. Should marriage take place and a political issue trigger dispute, she will call for my downfall and I will call for hers. She will rally some of our children to her political party and I will rally the others to mine. Thus, our blissful, calm conjugal home will become a lecture hall, the corridors a place for plotting strategies and manoeuvres against the rival party. My greatest fear is what will happen should the wife's party win."
In light of Abaza's wry view on the relations between the sexes, it is little wonder that he should seize upon a story he came across in a European newspaper and present it to his readers. A Belgian court had to adjudicate in a case in which a woman filed a suit against her husband for refusing to kiss her. After hearing her testimony, the court pronounced its ruling, which, in Abaza's words, was: "Within the first few weeks of marriage, the husband must kiss his wife no less than 30 times a day on average. Over the next few months, this rate shall be reduced to 25, and gradually decline to 3 times per day in the third year of marriage." Abaza heartily approved the ruling, although one suspects that "kissing by court order" was among the reasons he shunned marriage.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.