Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 April 2001
Issue No.528
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A Diwan of contemporary life (384)

In Al-Ahram, the writer Tanious Abduh described Egyptian society the way he perceived it from his vantage point -- looking in from the outside. This Lebanese native by birth never became entirely assimilated into Egyptian society, a situation which allowed him to take a caustic view of Egyptian affairs without taking sides. He steered clear of delicate issues that were the subject of domestic controversy at the time, focusing instead on general lifestyle. He charged, for example, that people were all too quick to reproach the government for all their problems; he urged his readers to be grateful for what they had; he studied centenarians, the relationship between the sexes, fraud and deception in society, ostentatious spending and common courtesy. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* provides numerous examples of Abduh's dry wit in his popular column aptly entitled "A bird's eye view."

Bird's eye view

Tanious Abduh
Tawfiq Diab

"Tanious Abduh: This prominent man of letters served the art of literature, in both prose and poetry, for a long time. In addition to having published more short stories than any other Oriental writer, he founded Al-Sharq, a political newspaper based in Alexandria, to which he added the magazine Al-Rawi. This is not to mention his contributions to numerous newspapers and magazines, the pages of which teem with his creations and fertile talent."

Thus read an obituary in Al-Ahram on 3 December 1926 in commemoration of this prolific writer. It added that readers were familiar with Tanious Abduh as the author of "A bird's eye view," a column the newspaper had featured over the previous year. These articles were "the last strokes of his pen before death silenced it."

During the last year of his life, Abduh was a member of Al-Ahram's editorial board which, since the newspaper first appeared, had been the exclusive preserve of journalists who shared the Syrian-Lebanese origins of its founders. In fact, it was not until 1952 that a native Egyptian -- Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed -- was elected to the board and not until five years later that the newspaper had its first Egyptian editor-in-chief, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who served in this position from 1957-1974. Although the editorial staff was Egyptianised a long time after Al-Ahram was founded, that does not mean that the newspaper itself was not Egyptian in spirit and substance earlier. Nevertheless, Abduh, when he sensed his approaching demise, felt the beckoning of his mother country and departed for Beirut where he died soon afterwards. Evidently, his reputation had spread well beyond Egypt's borders, for his funeral, Al-Ahram writes, brought together "most of the men-of-letters in the country." Such literary respect and prominence seems reason enough to take a closer look at "A bird's eye view."

Casting a cursory glance at Tanious Abduh's columns, one cannot help but be struck by how apt his choice of title was. His, indeed, was an alien perspective. In spite of the many years he had lived in Egypt, it is clear that this Lebanese native by birth had never been so thoroughly assimilated into Egyptian society as to become a voice from within his surrounding environment. In this, he is vastly different from Tawfiq Diab, for example, whose column "Glimpses," featured in Al-Ahram from 1919 to 1922, exuded the pungency of the soil and levity of the Egyptian spirit.

It is not surprising, therefore, to detect in Abduh's columns a cautiousness that typified the writings of most Egyptian journalists of Syrian-Lebanese origin. They were highly circumspect in the choice and treatment of their subjects so as not to incur the wrath of the authorities. In Abduh's case, out of the 40 topics he discussed, only four were political, and even here he steered clear of those delicate issues that were the focus of domestic controversy at the time. Thus, colonialism was treated within the parameters of the generally accepted norms. He was certainly on solid ground when he lashed out at Kaiser Wilhelm II, then licking his wounds in his exile in Holland, for the calamity Germany had brought on the world. His attack on Bolshevism was not about to alienate any significant sector of public opinion.

But if a certain wariness was editorial policy, one also senses that it conformed with a deep-seated conservatism. In his discussion of popular criticisms of the Egyptian government, for example, Abduh charged that people were all too quick to reproach the government for all their problems. He wrote, "When someone sees mulukhiya selling for two piastres a kilo in the vegetable market and then discovers a street vender selling it for six piastres, he does not rebuke the man. Then, later when he relates this story to his friends he protests, 'What's the government doing about this?' When he purchases a pack of cigarettes for five piastres, whereas only the previous day it cost four, he does not try to bargain in case people around him think him stingy. But once the cigarette vendor leaves, he shakes his head and mutters, 'Why doesn't the government do something about this?'" After several more examples of this nature, Abduh concludes, "These are only a few of the many things we blame the government for. Yet if people were to be truly fair, they would admit that frequently when they feel short-changed by the government, in fact, the government is short-changed by them."

Abduh's conservatism, in fact, borders on the extreme in his disparagement of Bolshevism, the spectre of which seemed to loom large in the eyes of some in light of the leftist movement's revival in the 1920s. Bolshevism, he observed in one column, only surfaced in one civilised nation -- Russia. The movement "almost infected Hungary; however, no sooner had the Hungarian people had their first taste of it than they repudiated it with terror-stricken hearts." In a subsequent column on the subject, he declares, "When the Bolshevist leaders decided to light the flames of international revolution, their first target was the US, to which they sent their greatest propagandists and smoothest sycophants, pockets heavily laden with gold, in order to fund their activities. Had they spent a fraction of that effort in the development of their own country, Russia today would be at the forefront of the advanced nations of the world. As it is, the propagandists' efforts backfired miserably and they were forced to return home with their tails between their legs, while the American worker remained as industrious as ever, while deriding those doctrines of indolence that resemble whitewashed tombs which gleam so splendidly on the outside, although we all know what they contain within."

Click for a bigger image
Photocopy of an Al-Ahram page carrying Abduh's column
Like other opponents of communism, Tanious Abduh was an ardent advocate of the maxim, "contentment is an endless treasure." For example, in Al-Ahram of 28 May 1926, under the headline, "Be grateful for God's blessings," he urges readers to always wear a smile, for "scowls and frowns do not bring prosperity." He continues, "When you smile you will feel relief and be sure that you will find ease and comfort, and if you cannot find solace with your nose down, raise your head skywards and you will find God's mercy."

In a similar spirit, he heralds the prospect of a longer life for those engaged in certain professions. In "You choose," as he entitled this column, he cites statistics "from the most reliable sources" to the effect that clergymen, farmers and workers live longer than merchants, miners and bakers who, in turn, live longer than doctors, butchers, drivers, writers and poets. Moreover, the profession that held out the promise of the greatest longevity was the clergy. He explains that either this is because "God has granted them this blessing because they are dearest to Him, which appears the most likely reason, or because they live a life of devotion and tranquillity."

Abduh was urging writers and poets to renounce their intellectual pursuits in order to don the clerical garb and live longer. In a subsequent article he reveals what he must have considered more appealing alternatives. In this column he relates interviews with several centenarians. One man who lived to be 100 was asked shortly before his death what he thought was the secret of his longevity. "I would never have been able to reach this age if throughout my life I hadn't drunk anything but pure water," he answered. Another, who was 103 at the time he was asked that question, gave an entirely different answer: "I haven't taken a drop of water in my whole life and if I do die, then that will be because I have been killed by alcohol deprivation." A third interview was conducted with a woman who was 107. Her secret: "I have never deprived myself of anything I've had a craving for."

Abduh takes this opportunity to show his knowledge of medical lore and literature in the relationship between diet and age. In the jahiliya (pre-Islamic) era, he writes, popular wisdom held that the healthiest and most life-extending repast is that which is taken no more than once a day. Such advice conforms perfectly with his appeal for frugality.

But beyond such dietary considerations, Abduh felt that the greatest prescription for a longer life was to abandon politics, which he considered "life-shortening." He explains, "Were the water-drinker to refrain from upbraiding the wine imbiber and visa versa, and the royalist not revile the republican, and the socialist not despise the communist -- in other words, were all content to simply eat what their stomachs crave and act according to the dictates of their consciences, they would prolong their lives and political strife would end."

From the stomach and political appetites "A bird's eye view" takes us to the relationship between the sexes, specifically the "marriage crisis" which was then a subject of general concern, though one he attempted to approach through humour. Egypt, he suggests, was not the only country in the throes of changing mores with regard to marriage. France, too, was undergoing a similar crisis, if not more acute. With the male population decimated by World War I and cut by a million and a half, it was now women who were calling the shots. Whereas it used to be the man who sought the advice of parents, priests and best friends in order to summon up the courage to propose to a woman, women were now courting men. Apparently, the institution of marriage was subject to the laws of supply and demand, he concluded.

Also on this subject, he relates the tale of an encounter between a philosopher and a young man who requested his advice on marriage. The young man said, "I want to get married but the sages of China say marriage is like a fortress. Those outside want to get in and those inside want to get out. If that is the case, how can I get married?"

"Don't marry," the philosopher replied.

The youth then asked, "The girl who has won my heart is as graceful as a tender bud, her eyes are magic and her smile bewitching. If I marry her, could I ever attain greater happiness?

"Then marry her," said the philosopher.

"But then, I have seen that such beauties when they marry grow merciless in their torment of their husbands, and I do not want such a calamity to befall me."

"Then do not marry," counselled the philosopher.

Obviously, this story was intended to elicit smiles, though he left young suitors more perplexed than before.

On women's issues in general, Abduh differed from many of his contemporaries who advocated equality of the sexes, but again he states his views with a touch of wit. Thus, while many prominent intellectuals of the time were advocating an end to the veil, Abduh remained a strict proponent of decorum in women's dress and behaviour. He relates that one evening he was at a party where he encountered "buxom beauties and gray-haired crones, all swathed in damask as though they had conspired to rob men's minds through the display of flesh and painted faces." He was particularly scandalised by a woman of 50 who danced and cavorted until "sweat poured from her face and her rouge ran," and by an even older woman who "pranced around the dance floor as though she were a nymph of paradise." After continuing in this vein, he concludes sarcastically, "Poor women! The Chinese imprison them, the Indians scorn them, Westerners of yore denied them a soul and Westerners of today deny them a mind. This is because they are weak, which is to say they are women. Should we then deny them the temptation to cut their hair and act like boys?"

In another article, he rebukes Egyptian women for their infatuation with Western fashion which, he wrote, had led them to abandon their national dress, in spite of the objections of men. Again, in caustic tones, he attributes this phenomenon to several things. "If men are autumnal in nature, women are instinctively spring at heart and are only drawn to clothes that evoke spring buds. Men are keen on mathematics. They add, subtract and calculate that LE100 spent on national costume stays in the country while LE1,000 spent on Western garb goes into foreign hands. Women start to multiply and divide, abandon these calculations in despair and spend with abandon. Men use logic. They reason that purchasing domestic products saves money and creates wealth. Women follow their heart, which tells them clothes are adornment, adornment equals beauty and beauty is the greatest blessing. Therefore, they urge their sister compatriots to rush out and buy the latest fashions."

In yet another column on the subject, Abduh reproaches women for exceeding the bounds of modesty in dress: "They bare their chests to their breasts and their arms to the shoulder. They have hitched the hem of their dresses up to their knees. Their faces and mouths are covered with such a thick layer of paint that they are barely discernible behind that mask. Then they use their fans, even in the bitterest cold, to ensure that these paints stay fixed. But should perspiration bedew their faces as the result of some unforeseen embarrassment, the colours flow and blend to create a rainbow."

Unlike his contemporaries who, in their treatment of women's issues, frequently referred to women as their wives or sisters, the author of "A bird's eye view" looked upon women as an alien species.

Abduh dealt with the flaws he perceived in Egyptian society as a whole, a subject to which he also dedicated several columns.

The "rise in dishonesty," as he put it, was one phenomenon that drew his ire. He relates that one day he was walking through the market when suddenly a vegetable vendor darted out from his stall in pursuit of a client, shouting, "Sir! I made a mistake. You paid for a kilo and a half, but I only gave you a kilo." Such honesty, Abduh felt, was getting rarer and rarer, at a time when merchants were increasingly resorting to every form of fraud and deception. "Milk is diluted by three times its volume with water. The cheese we buy has had its cream skimmed off. Mutton is passed off as lamb. Fish are doctored so their eyes gleam and their gills stay red. Fruit vendors place their best specimens on top to conceal the rotten ones underneath. Even the money we pay is forged!"

Abduh was also appalled by ostentatious spending, of which wedding ceremonies were the prime example. In one wedding party he attended, he was shocked to discover that "the 300 guests who had arrived during the day grew to 400 by nightfall. A splendid banquet of cold foods and drink was laid out for them costing LE600 and 400 bags of bonbons were distributed at a total cost of another LE600. In other words, LE1,200 was spent so that the guest could partake of a glass of champagne and a piece of cake and go home with a bag of sweets."

Another pet peeve was the lack of common courtesy. "You see a woman pushing through a crowd and fighting her way onto the tram. Suddenly the lion turns into a gazelle as she casts a beseeching gaze among the passengers in the hope that one will stand up and offer her his seat." Sometimes, the rules of courtesy were followed assiduously but were tainted by hypocrisy: "A friend arrives, you invite him to your table and you shower him with every generosity, but no sooner does he take his leave than you curse and vilify him behind his back."

Many episodes of "A bird's eye view" were devoted to a problem that continues to preoccupy Egyptians today: the country's economic difficulties, specifically inflation. Once again, Abduh's perspective on this issue is unique and consistent with his conservative outlook. Spiralling prices, he suggests, are a manifestation of "the absence of social solidarity." By this, he seems to indicate some lack of common purpose between employers and workers for, he writes, the former blame inflation on rising wages, whereas the latter accuse business owners of greed and urge them to lower their prices.

Elsewhere, however, he indicates that the roots of economic straits are much more complex. In this regard, he relates an anecdote that may well apply to economic analysts throughout the world. A man went to a seer to have his future read. "The fortune-teller added, subtracted, multiplied and divided; he drew up charts and then chanted some incomprehensible incantations. Then he looked up very sadly and told the man, 'You will have five years of hardship.' The man asked, 'And then what?' The seer responded, 'Then you'll have to get used to it."

Abduh always had advice to offer. One recommendation was to constantly mint new banknotes upon which the date of issue would be clearly marked. People would then be forced to bring all their savings out of hiding, which, in turn, would increase the circulation of money and stimulate commerce.

Abduh devoted the occasional column to assorted trivia that he thought would amuse his readers. One, in particular, suggests he was contemplating his own mortality. The strangest last wills in history, he wrote, were that of Scipio, the Roman commander who defeated Hannibal -- who willed that his funeral procession be led by 20 virgins carrying oil lamps, and dressed in white muslin and red hats -- and that of a poor man with a sense of humour, who, upon his deathbed, said, "To my wife I bequeath bereavement, to my children orphanhood and to my creditors despair. The rest can be divided among the poor."

Dr Yunan

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

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