Al-Ahram Weekly Online
10 - 16 January 2002
Issue No.568
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A Diwan of contemporary life (424)

Dr YunanIn 1927, Al-Ahram published the biographies of five prominent Egyptians who had all passed away that year and were instrumental in shaping their society. Ali Fahmi Kamel, brother of famed nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel, had a burning desire to step out of his brother's shadow and into his sibling's shoes as head of the National Party. Ismail Abaza founded Al-Ahali newspaper and was an influential member of the Legislative Assembly. Al-Ahram also profiled Sheikh Mohamed Abul-Fadl El-Gizawi, rector of Al-Azhar University, Ahmed Talaat, a philanthropist with an enormous private collection of books and Amin El-Rafie, the eminent journalist who was editor-in-chief of Al-Shaab and founder of Al-Akhbar. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* remembers these men of stature

Men of calibre




It was long the custom of historians to take the occasion of the death of a prominent public figure to compose a full-length biography of the deceased. This is one reason why such annals became an invaluable first-hand source for later historians. Perhaps the last such endeavour in this genre was the enormous four- volume work of the father of modern Egyptian historians, Abdel-Rahman El-Jabarti. Although El- Jabarti died in 1824, the first full edition of his famous 'Aja'ib al-'Athar fi al-Tarajim wa al-Akhbar (The Marvels of Lives and Events) only appeared in 1879.

Although chronicle-writing did not end with El- Jabarti, this form of historiography gradually fell by the wayside until it disappeared altogether at the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, several important works in this tradition appeared in this interval, most notable of which were Mikhail Sharobim's A Compendium on the Ancient and Modern History of Egypt and Ismail Sarhank's The Factual Atlas of Nations .

There are many reasons for the decline of the biographical chronicle. Perhaps the most important was the appearance of the national press, of which one of the most important Egyptian milestones was Al- Ahram, whose founding in 1876 was followed by the founding of Al-Muqattam and Al-Mu'ayyad in 1889, and Al-Hilal three years later. For one, the press was a chronicle in the sense that newspapers and magazines appeared periodically -- whether daily, weekly or monthly -- and contained current accounts of contemporary events. The press also assumed the function of featuring the life histories of famous people who had recently died.

It so happened that in 1927 Al-Ahram found itself particularly active in such biographical writing. The angel of death that year visited prominent figures Ali Fahmi Kamel, Ismail Abaza, Sheikh Mohamed Abul- Fadl El-Gizawi, Ahmed Talaat and Amin El-Rafie. These Al-Ahram biographies are of particular value in that they offer some little-known information about these individuals.

Even Egyptian history buffs know little about Ali Fahmi Kamel who was always obscured by the shadow cast by his brother, the famous nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel. But they are aware of the nine- volume biography Ali wrote of his brother following his death since it is a major source on the life and times of the founder of the National Party. They would also know that when Mohamed Farid became head of the National Party following Mustafa's death, Ali proved so obstructive that the party had to dispense with its mouthpiece, Al-Liwa' -- founded by Mustafa Kamel and owned by Ali after he inherited it -- and to found a new party newspaper, Al- Alam. Ali's burning ambition to step into his brother's shoes remained unabated, and after Farid's death in 1919, his resentment of Farid developed into outward hostility towards the Wafd Party and its leader, Saad Zaghlul. The Wafd Party, he felt, had usurped the legacy of the National Party, the largest political party before the 1919 Revolution, as the voice of the people.

Al-Ahram's biography of Ali Fahmi Kamel, appearing on 1 January 1927 does much to supplement this information. It writes: "Ali Fahmi Kamel was born in 1870 and educated in Egyptian schools up to secondary level, after which he enrolled in the Alson (languages) School. Two years later, he enrolled in the military academy, becoming an officer at the age of 20. He then went to Sawakin, Sudan, and participated in the battle of Tokar [one of the engagements between Egyptian forces in Sudan and the Mahdist rebels] for which he was decorated with the Fifth Order of Al-Mejidi and the Ottoman medal of honour."

While in the army, which was under British command, Kamel must have become a prominent political agitator, for Al-Ahram's account says he was brought before a military tribunal and sentenced to death. The newspaper did not specify the charges. In all events, his sentence was commuted to being stripped of his rank, which was quickly restored after Mustafa Kamel appealed to the khedive to intercede on his brother's behalf. In 1898, Ali Fahmi Kamel left the army, returned to Cairo and helped his brother in the running of Al-Liwa'.

Al-Ahram continues, "He was also of great help to his brother in the founding and management of the National Party in 1907. When Mustafa Kamel died in February 1908, Ali was elected first secretary of the party, in which capacity he was dedicated to opening new branches of the party and establishing 'people's schools', which now number 62."

The biography then jumped four years forward to 23 March 1912, when Ali was arrested and detained for three months in the court of appeals prison, during which time Al-Liwa' was closed down. "Ali was not long out of jail before World War I broke out and the military authorities detained Ali Bek, along with many other members of the National Party, in Tora Prison. Then, in 1921, the authorities exiled him, and he was only able to return after martial law was lifted on 17 October 1923."

In 1925, Ali returned to public life with the publication of Al- Alam Al-Misri and, the following year, Al-Alam. These newspapers, however, were not destined to live for long, largely because their owner remained obsessed with the war climate and, therefore, failed to fully fathom the profound changes that had taken place in the world and in Egypt.

Apparently, Ali Fahmi Kamel was not alone in this tendency to live in the past. On 11 February 1927, the National Party held its annual commemoration of the death of Mustafa Kamel. In the course of the speeches given by such figures as Fikri Abaza and Mohamed Shukri, a young Al-Azhar student leapt up and shouted, "Down with Saad Zaghlul!" Naturally, the cry incensed the Wafd Party members who were attending the ceremony, notably MP Mahgoub Thabet who retorted, "Long live the leader of the nation." Others then took up Thabet's cry and poured out into the street, forcing the Abdeen station police chief to send a force to disperse the demonstrators. The force succeeded in its task and the protesters "returned peacefully to their homes." The subsequent investigations into this "regrettable incident," as Al-Ahram described it, revealed that it was, in fact, the substance of Abaza's and Shukri's speeches that had provoked the Wafdists' anger.

Ismail Abaza, the second major Egyptian political figure to pass away that year, had had at least the good fortune of living to a ripe old age. Born in 1854, he died at 73, well above the average life expectancy of the time. In his study, The Abaza Delegation in London, Hamada Ismail informs us that following his graduation from the Academy of Law in 1875, Abaza entered government service, rising to the position of deputy head of a provincial directorate. He then resigned to practice law but soon began to engage in politics. In 1894, Abaza founded Al-Ahali newspaper and two years later he was elected to the Legislative Assembly, succeeding in holding on to his seat for 15 years running. As an assembly member he was instrumental in forming the Egyptian delegation that went to London in 1908 for unofficial talks with the British government.

Al-Ahram's account of Abaza, appearing in its edition of 25 January 1927, fills in the contours of Hamada Ismail's biographical sketch. Abaza, the newspaper tells us, was a scion of the wealthy and influential Abaza family, whose power was virtually uncontested in the Al-Sharqiya Directorate. If membership in this family ensured clout to help in advancing his career, it also restricted his ambitions for a time in deference to family tradition. Initially, therefore, he had to agree to work under his uncle, Suleiman Abaza, during which time "he made no attempt to contest his uncle's leadership of the family." At the same time, the newspaper observed that positions of public service were virtually his for the asking: membership in the General Assembly, the Legislative Council, the Agricultural Society, the Islamic Philanthropic Society and other such organisations.

But Abaza was clearly a dynamic figure in his own right. Al-Ahram writes, "Seeing a powerful instrument in the press, he founded Al-Ahali, but once he proved himself in this domain and attained his objective, he left the pen to operate in another climate: politics. In the Legislative Council and General Assembly he served in his capacity as the head of a party and proved himself a brilliant leader, capable of inspiring his followers with the belief that he was acting on their opinions, although the opinions were actually his."

Moreover, in the course of his lengthy service in the Legislative Assembly, Al-Ahram observed that Abaza distinguished himself by criticising the provision of secrecy that was then imposed on the assembly's sessions. "He believed that it was a crime and an insult to the people to keep the sessions closed and he, therefore, campaigned relentlessly and succeeded in having the assembly open its doors to the public."

The newspaper also notes many of Abaza's other accomplishments as a Legislative Assembly member. Above all, he championed a proposal approving continued government expenditure on Sudan, "because it is part of Egypt." Although this stance opened him to accusations that he was helping to implement British policy in Egypt, Al-Ahram observed that, in fact, he proved prophetic. Egypt's continued financial allocations for Sudan turned out to be one of the most powerful cards to substantiate Egyptian claims to the southern half of the Nile Valley in their negotiations over this issue with the British.

Al-Ahram concludes its biography of Ismail Abaza with an interesting anecdote. It was common knowledge that Khedive Abbas II harboured such animosity towards Ismail that he issued an edict withholding the title of pasha from all the members of the Legislative Council, simply in order to prevent Abaza from being granted that exalted rank. However, the rank was bestowed upon him anyway because of his membership in the Agricultural Society, ironically by the society's British secretary-general. The khedive had no alternative but to capitulate.

It is difficult to imagine that even professional historians are familiar with Ahmed Talaat, the third major figure to have died that year, for the simple reason that he receives no mention in modern Egyptian history sources apart from brief references in the memoirs of Ahmed Shafiq.

Although Talaat had little impact on political developments in Egypt, Al-Ahram had several reasons for including him in its biographical chronicles. Firstly, Talaat belonged to a prominent family of the Turkish aristocracy in Egypt. His father, an official in the Public Administration Office, had "served the ruling house from Mohamed Ali to Tawfiq and was the trusted messenger between the wali of Egypt and the Turkish sultan. He thus was privy to many high-level secrets but never revealed a word of what he knew, although he would tell people that he recorded all his knowledge in Turkish in the margins of his books." For a long time, too, Talaat's father was chief of the Turkish bureau in the Egyptian royal court.

Talaat was also a member of that class of non-Egyptian landed gentry with its diverse sources of wealth. The primary distinction between this class and its indigenous counterpart was that the latter had derived its wealth from toil in the fields, as the majority of Egyptian landowners belonged to that category of village mayors and elders. The non-indigenous gentry, by contrast, derived its wealth from affiliations of social status, as Al-Ahram's biography of Talaat makes clear:

"In 1904, he succeeded his father as overseer of the sizeable family waqf (religious endowment) and succeeded in amassing a huge personal fortune. He owns three palaces, one in Suyufiya inherited from his father, a second in Mahmoudiya and a third in San Stephano in Alexandria. These palaces he placed in trust, dedicating the income from them to charitable works." Al-Ahram suggests that Talaat took this step because he had no children and wanted to ensure that his two sisters and his niece would inherit the bulk of his estate.

He also created trusts for other charitable purposes: LE20 per year to have four sheikhs recite the Qur'an in Ramadan; LE40 per year to be distributed to the poor and those with permanent injuries in Ramadan; LE21 for a religious scholar to recite Qur'anic verses every Friday night; LE40 to cover the pilgrimage expenses of a religious scholar; LE15 to be dedicated to the purchase of clothes for orphans; LE15 to cover the burial costs of poor Muslims; LE7 to purchase bread for the poor; and LE8 to be awarded to the top graduates in the schools of medicine, agriculture and religious jurisprudence.

However, the most important reason that inspired the Al-Ahram biography was Talaat's bequeathal of his collection of 70,000 books to the national public library. When the donation became public, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, the famous political reformer and educationalist who was then director of the public library, urged the rapid implementation of Talaat's bequest. He cautioned that too many priceless legacies of this nature had found their way into the libraries of Berlin, Paris, London and New York. According to El-Sayed, the Talaat collection was much bigger than the estimate given by Al-Ahram. At more than 100,000 volumes, it was one of the largest private collections in Egypt, after those of Ahmed Zaki Pasha, Ahmed Taymur Pasha and Nureddin Bek Mustafa. But according to El-Sayed, Talaat's library was rich with invaluable and unparalleled works, among which was a collection of calligraphic manuscripts by the most famous Arab calligraphers and a Qur'an written in Kufic script on gazelle skin parchment by Imam El-Hassan El-Basri, the only Qur'an of its kind in the world.

Sheikh Mohamed Abul-Fadl El-Gizawi was the rector of Al-Azhar University. On 15 July 1927, Al- Ahram wrote that this religious official died suddenly following a bout of influenza, although just prior to this "he had been in excellent health, pursuing the tasks of office with vigour."

El-Gizawi, the newspaper continues, was born in Warraq Al-Hadar in Imbaba and by the time of his death "he had lived so long that few scholars or judges still alive were not among his students... as he taught in Al-Azhar for more than 50 years." He was also a preacher at the Sultan Al-Hanafi Mosque, a sheikh of the Hanafi school of Islamic theology and jurisprudence "who remained at his lectern until the day he died" and a teacher at Al-Azhar "receiving piastres as a salary for his lectures."

The newspaper said that in 1908 El-Gizawi rose from a member of the Al-Azhar board of directors to deputy rector of the famous Islamic university. Then, between 1909 and 1917 he was appointed chief mufti of Alexandria. However, when the former rector of Al-Azhar, Salim El-Bishri, died in 1917, the Egyptian sultan selected El-Gizawi because of his age and length of service, to succeed him. From that time, "he continued as rector of Al-Azhar until his death."

His sudden death stirred considerable debate over who would fill the position he vacated. Among the candidates were Sheikh Mohamed Hassanein Makhlouf, director of religious seminaries; Sheikh Abdel- Rahman Qara'a, the mufti of Egypt and Sheikh Ahmed El-Zawahri, sheikh of the Assiut Seminary. Al- Ahram took the occasion to inform its readers that the sheikh of Al-Azhar was "elected by ballots cast by the ulema of Al-Azhar although the prime minister has the ultimate say with regard to the results of the election."

As 1927 took its leave, it took with it Amin Bek El- Rafie, while still in his prime. El-Rafie died on 29 December at the age of 41. But such circumstances were not the only reason why Al-Ahram allocated the bulk of its 30 December issue to this prominent journalist and why the editor-in-chief personally paid tribute to the man in his editorial, something he did not do for the personalities who died that year. The emotive tone of Daoud Barakat's article clearly conveys the impression that the death of El-Rafie was widely considered a national loss. "He lived as he died, with honesty and integrity. He was forever gentle and sensitive towards his peers, his superiors or those of lesser stature. To all around him he was a colossus, powerful and intrepid in advocating his beliefs."

El-Rafie was born in 1886 in El-Zaqaziq. His father was a mufti. He graduated from Ras Al-Tin secondary school in Alexandria in 1905 and from the school of law four years later. Already at this time he had begun to display a flair for leadership in the nationalist movement. As a student in the school of law, he headed the committee that moved to declare a boycott of classes because, as Al-Ahram writes, "Mr Archibold, the director of the school, hoped to keep students from heeding the appeal of Mustafa Kamel by issuing a decree threatening to penalise those who fail to attend classes by barring them from examinations and possible employment."

The Al-Ahram biography goes on to recount El-Rafie's lengthy record in advocating patriotic causes. He supported the founding of the Higher Educational Institute Club in 1906, an organisation that was closed down by the British military authorities during World War I. He, along with his brother, Abdel-Rahman, participated in the establishment of Al-Liwa', the mouthpiece of the National Party. He also participated in the National Party conference held in Belgium in 1910, after the French government had turned down their request to hold it in Paris.

More important was his lengthy career in journalism. Following the government's closure of the offices of Al-Liwa' in 1912, El-Rafie became editor-in-chief of Al-Shaab, and when this, too, was ordered closed, he published several other newspapers, the most important of which was Al-Adl wal-I'tidal, which soon met the same fate as Al-Shaab.

With the outbreak of World War I, the British authorities declared a protectorate over Egypt and instituted martial law. Towards the end of the war, he was arrested and detained for 11 months, released only when a truce was declared. Later, he joined the Egyptian delegation that went to Versailles to present the Egyptian cause to the parties at the peace conference. In this respect, he proved instrumental in cementing ties between the partisans of the delegation, which later coalesced into the Wafd Party, and the National Party. It was at this juncture that he founded Al-Akhbar which will always be associated with the prominent role El-Rafie played in the nationalist movement.

Although El-Rafie fell out with the Wafd following the Declaration of 28 February 1922, the leaders of that party continued to hold him in high esteem just like the rest of the nation "for his integrity, patriotism and dedicated service to the nation."

El-Rafie's life story depicts a man whose fervent commitment to the cause of independence overrode all partisan inclinations. It is little wonder, therefore, that his death was not only mourned by the journalists syndicate, the National Party, the staff of Al-Akhbar and the various labour unions, but also by the Wafd Party whose leader, Mustafa El-Nahhas, had visited him when he last fell ill. It was clearly the consensus that such a man should be forever remembered in the national consciousness.

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

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