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

An echo of silence

By Mona Anis

Mona AnisOn 19 February 1967, just one week before the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was due to land at Cairo Airport, beginning his much-publicised visit to Egypt, Professor Abdel-Rahman Badawi was boarding a plane bound for Paris. Badawi, translator of, among numerous other works, Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) and Sartre's L'être et le néant (Being and Nothingness), author of dozens of popular as well as scholarly books on philosophy and the most famous propagator of European existentialism in the Arab world, had gone to France at the invitation of the Sorbonne and of the Collège de France to give a series of lectures on Islamic philosophy. His trip marked the beginning of a break with his native Egypt, to which he has never returned. But, more importantly perhaps, the moment also eloquently sums up the irony of a country reaching out for dialogue with a leading French philosopher at a time when many of those Egyptians who would have been Sartre's natural hosts and interlocutors were leaving the public stage, either by choice, or as a result of age, or for other reasons.

For the occasion was marked by the absence of the one Arab public intellectual whose cultural affinity with France was the closest and most passionate, Taha Hussein. Hussein was still alive at the time, and it had been Hussein, who, recognising Badawi's early philosophical aptitude, had sent him while still an undergraduate on a scholarship to Germany in the summer of 1937. It had also been Taha Hussein who had announced with jubilation (in Al-Ahram of May 30, 1944), on the occasion of Badawi's completion of his Ph.D. dissertation on existentialist ideas of time, that "for the first time, we now have an Egyptian philosopher." But it would seem that the Egypt of the 1960s did not have much use for philosophers.

Taha Hussein Badawi
Badawi sitting behind Taha Hussein during a general meeting at Cairo University, 1950 (left); On Boulevard Raspail in front of the Hotel Lutetia, where he now, aged 83, lives
And indeed Sartre's visit to Egypt had nothing to do with philosophy or culture in the narrow sense of both terms. The proclaimed aim of the visit was for the French philosopher to gain first-hand knowledge of the facts of the Arab-Israeli struggle in order to prepare a special issue of the review Les Temps modernes, which Sartre edited, dedicated to the subject. It was even suggested at the time, by some in the foreign press, as well as by some in the anti-Nasser Arab press, that the visit was the first step in a new peace initiative between Egypt and Israel. This is all history now, since the June 1967 War, and the Arabs' crushing defeat at the hands of the Israelis, followed on the heels of the visit, rendering meaningless any talk of Israel's wishing to co-exist peacefully with its neighbours.

While our initial intention in planning this month's Books Supplement was simply to join in commemorating the anniversary of the death of Jean-Paul Sartre, this outstanding intellectual, perhaps by reviewing a book or two, the archival material we found as we undertook research, especially that in the possession of Al-Ahram (the sponsor of the visit) we thought fascinating and deserving of being better known. Thus we took the decision to dedicate the two inside pages of this edition to something more than a simple consideration of two books, though these two books -- the recently published Le Siècle de Sartre by Bérnard-Henri Lévy and a 1968 book by Lutfi El-Kholi dealing with Sartre's visit to Egypt-- were our point of departure in a venture that took us beyond our intended destination. By making this material public, we hope to have paid a fitting tribute to the man who said: "The writer has a place in his age. Each word has an echo. So does each silence."


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