Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly
Sirat Hiyati (The Story of my Life), two volumes, Abdel-Rahman Badawi, Beirut: Al-Mouasassa Al-Arabiya lil-Dirasat wal-Nashr (Arab Foundation for Studies and Publication), 2000. pp382 (vol.1), pp383 (vol.2)

Philosophy tales

Reviewed by Mona Anis

Abdel-Rahman Badawi When the Egyptian philosopher Abdel-Rahman Badawi decided that Egypt was no longer the place in which he wanted to live and teach, he was already 50 years old. But let us begin from the beginning, and look beyond the mid-life rupture documented in this book's two volumes, the first of which ends with these ominous words, "This invitation [an invitation to teach temporarily at the Sorbonne in Paris] seemed to be a means of escaping the frightful nightmare I was living through in Egypt. Thus, I intended the trip to be an 'emigration'. It took place on Sunday, 19 February 1967."

Badawi's leave of absence from Ain Shams University in Cairo, where he founded and chaired the department of philosophy, to go to Paris on a lecture tour has thus extended to the present day. The university sacked him in 1971 for over-staying his leave, and it can hardly be blamed for doing so. From 1967 on, Badawi has worked stints at Beni-Ghazi University, Libya (Sept.1967-May 1973), Tehran University (1973-1974) and the University of Kuwait (1975-1982), always returning to Paris to spend the summer, always staying in the same hotel he had stayed in on his first visit to Paris shortly after the end of the Second World War, the Hotel Lutetia, on Boulevard Raspail. This is the hotel in which Badawi, following his retirement from the University of Kuwait, took up permanent residence.

In April 1973, while Badawi was head of the philosophy department at Beni-Ghazi University, the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi staged his self-styled "Cultural Revolution" in the country. One of the aims of this was to ban "all imported theories that clash with Islam and with the principles of the Fateh [Gaddafi's] Revolution." Badawi was arrested, along with other Libyan university professors deemed to be "counter-revolutionary." However, the late President Sadat interfered, and Badawi was released after 17 days in detention and deported to Egypt in May, 1973. This is the only time he has returned to Egypt since his departure in 1967. On this occasion he stayed for only two months before discovering that Egypt was still not a fit place for him to live in.

While Badawi was in Cairo, "my colleagues in the Department of Philosophy, Ain Shams University, wanted to see me," Badawi writes in a chapter entitled "A Short Sojourn in Egypt" in the second volume of his memoirs. "As I did not want to go to the Faculty of Arts, I asked them to meet me at Groppi's. They insisted upon my resuming both my teaching and the chairmanship of the department. I told them that I had not resigned my post, but that the university had sacked me due to my refusal to return following the end of my leave. The university would have to withdraw this decision, I said -- without my asking them to do so -- before I would be willing to consider returning to my post. [...] Even if such a request on my part," Badawi goes on, "were a trivial formality, I refused to make it. Those responsible for sacking me should continue to bear the shame they have brought upon themselves, and upon the positions that they occupy, by their action."

Readers unfamiliar with Abdel-Rahman Badawi, and those who have read the right-hand column on this page, might well be confused at this point. Do article and column not have the same author? And how is it that the author of the column, whose opinion it was that Badawi's departure from Egypt was a great loss to the country, is now apparently criticising the man for his objectionable and self-obsessed behaviour? Let me state, therefore, that to argue that Abdel-Rahman Badawi's break with Egypt was a great loss to the country is not at all to suggest that Badawi is either an easy person to deal with or a particularly pleasant man. It was not necessarily the "obstacles" Badawi encountered in Egypt that "forced" him to leave the country. On the contrary, what emerges most strongly from the two volumes of autobiography -- written in 1988, but published only this year-- is an eccentric, arrogant and cranky-- sometimes, indeed, quite unpleasant -- Abdel-Rahman Badawi.

However that is not really the point. The highly intelligent are often not very "nice" according to common understandings of the term; philosophers, in particular, often depart spectacularly from common standards of niceness. This was definitely the case with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the subjects of two of Badawi's early books. And anecdotes from those who know Badawi tell of an introverted, ill-tempered and rather egocentric man.

Jamil Qassim, a Syrian professor of philosophy who prepared his doctorate in Paris in the 1970s, wrote on Badawi's difficult personality in a recent article published in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat. Arab philosophy students using the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, he wrote, anxious to talk to the pioneer of modern Arab philosophy sitting at his fixed place in the manuscript section, would be in for a shock if they approached the great man. "A pretty young female philosophy student once tried to introduce herself," Qassim remembers. "'Have you read my book Existentialist Time?' Badawi asked. When, quite innocently, she said 'No', he told her 'then you are worthless; get out of my sight.'" Qassim goes so far as to suggest that Badawi is rather similar in temperament to Schopenhauer, the German philosopher being notorious in his dealings with people and even having a propensity for violence.

Comparisons of Badawi with the great figures of the European tradition, however -- even unflattering ones -- beg the question of how far he can be considered a genuine philosophical innovator. We know, for example, that Badawi has felt himself to be haunted from an early age by the examples of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and, at a later stage, by Heidegger. But what is Badawi's place either in the "history of philosophy," considered in European terms, or in the history of Arab philosophy?

When Badawi entered the Department of Philosophy at the Egyptian University in 1934 (renamed Fouad I University in 1942 and then Cairo University in 1952), the staff of the department was predominantly French. Two French names that recur in the memoirs are those of André Lalande and Alexandre Koyré, both of whom were faculty members at the university in the 1920s and 30s and both of whom had a lasting influence on the young Badawi. Koyré was Badawi's supervisor when he was writing his Masters dissertation -- "Le Problème de la mort dans la philosophie existentielle" (The Problem of Death in Existentialist Philosophy), for a degree that he obtained in 1940.

Possibly these men instilled in Badawi his passion for all things Parisian -- for the institutions of the Sorbonne and of the BN in particular. Professor Amina Rashid of Cairo University, who was a doctoral candidate in Paris in 1968, remembers Badawi's indignation, even rage, at the student demonstrations of May 1968 and at the demonstrators' disrespect for the Sorbonne. La Sorbonne du papa, they would shout across the barricades. So it was not only revolution in Egypt that Badawi hated, but all revolutions of any kind that threatened to sweep away established traditions. For, culturally speaking, Badawi is classically minded, traditionalist and elitist. He was drawn early on to classical philology and to the establishment of texts, traditional activities for academics at the Sorbonne, but the despair of those wanting to open up academic life to new influences and to breathe life into it. Badawi is, among other things, the man who, as early as 1947, edited Aristotle's books on logic from Arabic manuscripts at the BN. Whatever his place in the history of his subject might be felt to be, he is owed a huge debt for this alone.

In politics he is a nationalist in the nineteenth-century Garibaldi and Mazzini Risorgimento style. And in philosophy, he is a passionate disciple of German philosophy in general, and of Heidegger in particular. In the first volume of his memoirs, in fact, Badawi gives details of what he believes to be the similarities between his career and that of Heidegger. "After writing my Ph.D., which was directly linked to Heidegger's existentialism and completed his work in some respects," he writes, "[...] I wanted to pursue my philosophical career by dealing with metaphysics, logic and ethics. But my life has passed without my being able to do this, for two other diversions have taken up all my time. First, a philological orientation made me edit and publish the Classical Greek philosophical works to be found in Arabic manuscripts [...] The second diversion was to introduce European thought [to Arab readers]. That second venture has much developed since my first three books -- on Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Spengler -- into something more comprehensive, involving long translated extracts. This I did in my book on Schelling, and, more particularly, in my book on Kant, which runs into four volumes.

"In this I am similar to Heidegger, whose main book Sein und Zeit appeared in 1927 with the subtitle "Part One". Heidegger, however, died fifty years later (in 1976) without having published a second part. In the final edition, he had to omit the subtitle, since he had despaired of producing a second part, what he had subsequently produced being either long books on other philosophers, his books on Nietzsche and on Kant for example, or smaller treatises on certain aspects of Hegel's, Schelling's, Leibnitz's, or Aristotles's thought."

It is beyond the scope of this review, or of that of its author, to pass judgment on Badawi's far from modest claims, though in the past 2 months following the appearance of Badawi's book many writers in the Arab press have pointed out that such claims are further evidence of Badawi's pomposity. However what the present reviewer finds regrettable is not so much Badawi's pomposity, but rather those discussions that have decontextualised his memoirs and have sought to focus almost exclusively on Badawi's attacks on what he calls the "1952 Coup d'Etat" and its author, Nasser-- a tyrant in Badawi's opinion. Such highly opinionated political views have caused Badawi to be demonised in the press and his book dismissed.

Surely one can be diametrically opposed to Badawi's political views, as expressed in his memoirs, and still recognise this book to be a fascinating document. Not only does it recount the life of an extraordinary person, but it also provides remarkable insight into the way this crucial period in the history of Egypt was perceived by a leading intellectual who lived through the tumultuous changes that took place between 1919 and 1974, when the memoirs end.

I for one -- having entered the same Faculty of Arts that Abdel-Rahman Badawi taught at for 17 years one year after he had deserted the place -- feel much deprived for not having had Badawi among my teachers. For, after having finished reading the two fascinating volumes of his memoirs, I was left feeling that even if stories of the man's difficult and sometimes abrasive personality are to an extent borne out by the account given here, no one can contest the fact that he was an immensely talented teacher and a truly remarkable man.


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