Al-Ahram Weekly Online
9 - 15 August 2001
Issue No.546
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Not afraid of demons

Rihlati Al-Fikriya: Fi Al-Bozoor Wal-Juzoor Wal-Thamar -- Sira Ghir-Dhatiya Ghir-Mawdou'iya (My Intellectual Journey: Seeds, Roots and Fruits -- A Non-subjective, Non-objective Autobiography) Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri, Cairo: Egyptian Cultural Palaces Organisation, 2001. pp552

Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri Rihlati Al-Fikriya: Fi Al-Bozoor Wal-Juzoor Wal-Thamar -- Sira Ghir-Dhatiya Ghir-Mawdou'iya (My Intellectual Journey: Seeds, Roots and Fruits -- A Non-subjective, Non-objective Autobiography) Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri, Cairo: Egyptian Cultural Palaces Organisation, 2001. pp552
Any discussion of Dr Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri automatically leads one to his seminal work Encyclopaedia of the Jews, Judaism and Zionism (Dar Al-Shuruq, Cairo 1998). A product of more than a quarter of a century of sustained intellectual endeavour and exhaustive research, the Encyclopaedia brought new analytical paradigms to bear in the treatment of the political, ideological and religious manifestations of Zionism and furnished comprehensive information on the ethnic and cultural origins and practices of Jewish communities throughout the world in successive historical epochs. This prodigious and original work was indicative of the author's vast erudition and of a meticulous scholarship, honed as it was in diverse scholastic disciplines, ranging from literary criticism, his original field of specialisation, to various branches of the sociology of knowledge, and although the Encyclopaedia represented the hallmarks of his prolific output, Elmessiri's far-flung interests have also yielded numerous and valuable works on such subjects as children's literature, aesthetics and artistic criticism.

It is therefore little wonder that in his latest work, Elmessiri has taken the art of autobiography beyond familiar bounds in order to create a dense and intricate portrait of the many factors that have influenced his intellectual development and spurred on the rapid transitions in his ideological and philosophical outlook. If the book is laid out quite straightforwardly into two roughly even sections, ideas and themes from both nevertheless constantly interweave and resurface in the form of a symphonic expositional development. Thus, the first section, aptly entitled "Formation," takes us from his upbringing in the quasi-rural setting of the Egyptian town of Damanhur to his university years in that ancient, yet bustling modern port city of Alexandria. Such demographic and temporal contrasts have abounded in Elmessiri's life, and his autobiography is testimony to how the seeds of ideas planted in his youth would later germinate and expand into a fully-fledged Weltanschauung. In predominantly traditional societies, such as that then in place in Damanhur, Elmessiri observes early on in this section that systems of moral value tend to emanate exclusively from the private sphere and do not encompass the public sphere. Herein, he asserts, resides the source of what he terms the moral dualism or schizophrenia of transitional societies. In subsequent chapters, he expounds on this private-public divide, through juxtaposing an analysis of the social contractualism based on mutual benefit that is characteristic of Western societies against the superimposition of kinship bonds upon contractual relations that were characteristic of Damanhuri society, in particular, and of Arab and Islamic societies in general.

These somewhat dry academic concepts Elmessiri brings delightfully to life through anecdotes from his academic career first in the United States (1963-69 and 1975-1979), and then in Saudi Arabia (1983-88) and Egypt. Each system, he discovered, carries its own set of hurdles. Western social contractualism, for example, he says is certainly not as rational as it is made out to be, and it is with some amusement that we follow the mischievous ruses Elmessiri devised to circumvent the bureaucratic obstacles sometimes summoned to screen anti-Arab prejudice in US academic and other institutions. In Egypt, on the other hand, the educational system, and particularly the university system of which Elmessiri was a part, was rife with corruption, nepotism being perhaps the least of his worries.

Elmessiri's growth to political maturity reveals a course of breathtaking hairpin turns. Initially a member of the radical, nationalist and socialist Misr Al-Fatat Party (Young Egypt Party), he then joined, in rapid succession, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Liberation Rally formed by the Revolutionary Command Council following its ban on the pre-1952 political parties, in part to draw support away from the Muslim Brotherhood, and, in 1959, the Egyptian Communist Party in the year in which the government initiated a McCarthy-like clampdown on the Egyptian communist movement and on Marxist intellectuals. The author, as he himself admits, had not acquired any particular notoriety for his political activity in connection with these groups. But then, the agility with which he leapt from the one to the other suggests more an avid exploration of the political landscape, the contours of which were no less blurred by contradiction than the diverse environments that shaped the author's formative years, than a definitive ideological commitment.

This series of hairpin turns is also indicative of Elmessiri's early refusal to be boxed in, or to submit to pre-established categories; indeed, there is here a keen desire to question the validity of such categories. Such a rebelliousness is epitomised in the title of the present work, which is peppered with accounts of various encounters in American academia. These Elmessiri relates in a tongue-in-cheek, hyperbolic fashion, under such headings as "the battle of the pamphlet" and "the battle to form a socialist society" (in Rutgers University, New Jersey). In fact, the high point and perhaps the most telling episode in the first section of the book is the chapter in which Elmessiri recounts his battle against what he terms the "information wolf," representing his early attempts to break free from formalistic models of scholarship. It was also at this stage in his career that he renounced Anglo-American literary criticism, embarking instead on his exploration of the sociology of knowledge and focusing in particular on the Zionist movement, Jews and Judaism, and Israel. This exploration, which began in 1973, culminated in the publication of his Encyclopaedia in 1998.

In general, Elmessiri's quest for new analytical tools and approaches led him "from simplistic materialism to the spaciousness of humanism and faith," as he calls the fourth chapter of this book where he relates the conflict he felt between what he describes as the external/ literalist mode of materialist scholarship and the interior/interpretive mode that was latent within him. "I think according to the external model, but I simultaneously think, act and observe the behaviour of others according to the internal model," he explains. However, this explanation, which at first strikes one as being an apology for subjectivism, in fact turns out to be the prelude for an all-out attack, taking up almost a fifth of the book, on what Elmessiri variously condemns as the "irrationalism", "materialism" and "Darwinism" of contemporary Western academia. This materialist world, he says, "offers nothing sacred and holds nothing sacred," and therefore the whole of the second part of Elmessiri's autobiography is devoted to his departure from this world, both in terms of scholarly method and of personal ideology.

Academia, Elmessiri says, is an intellectual desert, the very word having lost the respect in which it was once held. The academic has become an individual devoid of imagination, content solely with appending lengthy footnotes and lists of references to his studies, or, as in the Egyptian university climate, augmenting his output by "ripping off" other scholars' works. Even among the most devoted of academics, of whom Elmessiri says that this is not true, he came to feel that some important contemplative element was missing. Western academics had become the "captives of cognitive methodologies," their vaunted objectivity being too rigid, too one- dimensional, too "photographic," "documentary," or "received," as Elmessiri calls it on various occasions here. The author's ruminations on this problem thus led him to what he terms "interpretative objectivity," defined as "a conceptual structure, or a map of knowledge that the human mind consciously and unconsciously hauls out of an enormous quantity of relationships, details and objective facts, discarding some as not pertinent while retaining others, and then linking the whole together and ordering it in such a way as to derive a general recurrent pattern."

While this may describe what Elmessiri thought he was doing in designing his original thought-mode, the fact remains, however, that it is a mode of thought that is strongly influenced by Islamist ideology. Indeed, this influence may be at the root of certain blind spots in the author's criticisms. For example, Elmessiri holds that Western imperialism is inherently prone to the extermination of other peoples, citing in support of this contention the records of Prussia under the Kaisers, colonialist France, the US, the Anglo-Saxon settlers of Australia and of course, Israel. However, in this account he fails to mention the Ottoman Empire, seat of the Islamic Caliphate, which, until its last breath, was no less brutal against the peoples it subjugated, finally handing them over, devastated and wretched, to the European colonial powers.

Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri
"This series of hairpin turns is also indicative of Elmessiri's early refusal to be boxed in, or to submit to pre-established categories; indeed, there is here a keen desire to question the validity of such categories. Such a rebelliousness is epitomised in the title of the present work."
Elmessiri is vehemently opposed to what he calls "comprehensive secularism," which he attacks as "a devastatingly destructive ideology that has no room in it for humanity or for morals....which is why it will never reconcile itself with religion, permanent values and mankind." This ideology, he says, threatens to transform "the entire world into disparate, disconnected, heterogeneous patches." However, quite at odds with this account is another where he writes that "I have demonstrated that one of the most important forms of secularisation resides in the unity of the sciences, or in what I have termed the monism of the sciences, which is characterised by the faith that no fundamental distinctions exist between natural and human phenomena." This seems to be a positively inflected account of the rational unity of the sciences, but almost in the same breath Elmessiri goes on to say that "comprehensive secularism" is "transforming the world into a utilitarian substance," is "leading to the atomisation and disintegration of mankind" and is "responsible for the simultaneous existence of contradictory phenomena, such as astrology and palmistry and the spread of immanentist religious trends, such as Bahaism and other forms of Asian worship." Once again, one cannot help but note that here Elmessiri seems to be falling prey to a reductionism of his own devising, for he does not pause to explain similar phenomena in Arab and Islamic societies, which are currently steeped in fundamentalist trends.

As has already been noted, the quarter of a century during which Elmessiri was involved in a quest for a more expansive metaphysical framework to contain his scholarly endeavours was also the period associated with his invaluable contribution to our knowledge of Jews, Zionism and Israel. In fact, the author of this prestigious work began to develop an interest in this subject during his first period of study in the US (1963-69), when he produced his Israel: a Base for Western Imperialism (1966). If this early attempt to respond to Israeli and Zionist claims disseminated in the US was largely a reiteration of the prevalent Arab rhetoric at the time, it was nevertheless followed by a number of insightful and original contributions, notably The End of History: an Introduction to the Study of the Structure of Zionist Thought (Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, 1973) and An Encyclopaedia of Zionist Terms and Concepts: a Critical Approach (Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, 1975). This latter publication later served as the cornerstone for the systematic and extensive labour, engaging dozens of fellow researchers, that would culminate in the author's eight-volume encyclopaedia. It is no exaggeration to say that the success of this endeavour, which Elmessiri describes as "an analytical study of Zionist rhetoric and an attempt to probe the latent meanings and concepts behind its terms and concepts and to derive a new more accurately indicative terminology for it," was in large measure due to his early concentration in literary criticism, which furnished him with a strong arsenal of skills pertinent to both textual analysis and sociological thought.

As a final note, it is interesting to observe the correspondence between Elmessiri's intellectual "expedition" and his geographical expeditions, for it is striking how closely the stages of each coincide. While in his first scholarship period in the States, Elmessiri tended towards the nationalist and socialist Left, and he continued to subscribe to its thinking after he returned to Egypt and took up work in the university and in the Strategic Studies Centre of Al-Ahram (1969-75). It was during his second sojourn in the US, however, when he served as the cultural advisor to the Arab League delegation in Washington (1975-79) that Elmessiri's socialist convictions began to totter, and when he later returned briefly to Egypt (1979-82) he felt the first indications of his turn to religious faith, a trend that would be strongly reinforced during his relatively lengthy stays in Saudi Arabia (1983-88) and in Kuwait (1988-90). "The time I spent in Saudi Arabia was the happiest time of my life and the most fertile from the intellectual standpoint," Elmessiri writes, recalling that he also used to be afraid of demons, even of those of his own creation, until the age of 40, and that he was not cured of this fear until 1987, by which time he had become a regular participant at religious seminars.

Reviewed by Abdel-Khaleq Farouq

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