Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (634)

The El-Hakim debates

The philosopher and writer Tawfiq El-Hakim used Al-Ahram as a forum for articles on a confused renaissance, Napoleon and elections. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk says El-Hakim's works demonstrated his affiliation to a school of thought that viewed that Egypt must turn towards Mediterranean culture from which it had drunk on numerous occasions

Tawfiq El-Hakim

In 1938, on 3 January, Al-Ahram published on its front page a short journalistic article, closer in length to a column, titled "Debates". Its author was Tawfiq El-Hakim who Egyptians had come to know a few years earlier through his novel A Bird from the East.

"Debates" continued to be published on a near regular basis for most of that year. Its author had commenced the series wearing the cloak of a conservative social reformist more than that of a rebellious artist, as he became famous for in his later writings. Yet by following the articles, it becomes clear that El-Hakim soon felt restricted by this cloak and removed it, particularly after his ideas were opposed by a number of writers from the school he followed. They had obtained their education in France and were influenced by its Latin culture. They were led by the famous philosopher Mansour Fahmi and a journalist whose star had risen at that time, Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed.

The traditional cloak El-Hakim initially donned is apparent in the first two of the series of debates. The first was titled "The ethical lesson", and posed the following question, "who begins work and who provides examples? Individuals or those in authority?"

The answer was that it also comes from individuals. "I don't imagine you have forgotten the position of the eminent scholar Sheikh El-Tawil the day the khedive called for him and he refused to go except in the worn-out and torn cloak he was wearing. When people counselled him in urgency to wear a new cloak, he yelled at them, 'does he want to see me or the cloak? If he wants the cloak, here it is, take it to him. If he wants to see me, I will go to him just as I am'."

El-Hakim concluded this tale by saying, "the best approach to reclaiming good judgement of morals and ideals is to set examples through actions -- the materialisation of one man and one live example we see with our eyes, whose voice we hear with our ears, whom we touch with our hands and whom we follow with our hearts."

It would have been possible to have ended the lesson at this point, but under the preacher's cloak another side to El-Hakim was a rabble-rouser that was not easily hidden. This can be detected in the question with which the first debate was closed, "is every society capable of producing these kinds of men, or do they only materialise in societies that prepare them to do so? I await your response."

Like the first in the series, El-Hakim began the second "Debates" article, titled "The pessimist", with a question: was he among those pessimistic or optimistic over Egypt's future?

The answer was that he was unfortunately a pessimist, "for Egypt truly moved at one time and produced the stirrings of a renaissance. Yet the person who closely considers this renaissance finds that it does not always move ahead. Sometimes it takes a step forward and then falls back two steps, walks a span and then stands still for an age. It is a renaissance that, to my mind, is not moved by one hand according to a plan and calculated equation, but rather is moved by a hand of coincidence. I understand that a renaissance such as ours should have a clear programme, set plan, and conspicuous compass to guide it. To leave this renaissance like this, confused and stumbling over it first steps without guidance, incites doubt and concern."

El-Hakim did not take pleasure for long in these writings that were more like dispatched musings than well-defined ideas. The very day following the publication of his second article, Al-Ahram published a response, and not just any response. It was from Mansour Fahmi Bey and was a direct response to the second article in the "Debates" series, a fact made clear by its title, "The optimist". Afterwards, the articles turned into real "debates," for debates usually comprise two parties, each with a different opinion. This is probably exactly what El-Hakim had intended, for it would have been unreasonable for the debates to have remained in the form of the monologue with which he began the series.

FAHMI REJECTED EL-HAKIM'S STATEMENT that the renaissance in Egypt sometimes moved a step forward and then fell back two steps. "Can't you see that what floats on the surface of the water is thrown into the centre of the running stream and sometimes moves quickly and then something blocks its path and it is held up? Then the force of the water transports it to the centre of the stream and it resumes its movement. It may then encounter what obstructs it again, but the stream again works to release it. And thus it continues until it reaches the end."

Then the famous philosopher summoned a comparison to what people do after reaching old age. "At that time it pleases them to count the glorious deeds of the past, fear what awaits, praise the beauty of the days gone, and tremble from the future." This is what the "optimist" felt, in contrast to El-Hakim, who remained a "man with plentiful energy, of sound mind, and I hope of healthy body, in which case you may be able to note beauty in our Egyptian renaissance and smell the sweet fragrance of it." Fahmi closed by advising El-Hakim to fight off despair for "the disadvantage of pessimism is greater than its benefit. Good is in the proximity of optimists."

The pitch of the debate between the two men was raised when El-Hakim responded with another article titled "Source of the problem". In it he noted that 20 years had passed in Egypt "and we have done nothing other than scream with mouths wide open, shouting the words 'freedom' and 'independence'. We renounced everything and left aside all the real activities of the renaissance and sat tossing about phrases and repeating words until, in the end, fate rescued us from this laziness and sitting around. It said, 'here is independence', and we said, 'give it to us'. Then we took this word and sat as he had been sitting, not knowing what to do with it. I fear that on the horizon, other words will appear or that we will invent a new subject to make a clamour over and preoccupy us anew from moving seriously in the direction of our desired renaissance."

Pursuant to El-Hakim's admiration for French culture, on this occasion he put forth a comparison between what Egyptians do and what men like Napoleon did when the cold and ice numbed him during his invasion of Russia. "He did not spend his time yelling and did not wait for tomorrow lying on his back. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves to work and thought about reforming his country and laying the necessary foundations to support intellectual and social activity within it. Among those projects was one to organise the Comedie Française, an internationally recognised French cultural feat. This is what he did in Egypt when his foes destroyed his battalion. His work spirit did not fade. He immediately began to construct the foundations of scientific institutes and placed the cornerstones of order and stability for means of governance and civilisation."

These kinds of debates do not typically pass without interventions from readers, especially when between influential personalities such as El-Hakim and Fahmi. Usually such interventions were amusing and attacked the ideas of El-Hakim, and yet there was no hesitation in printing them and attempting to respond to them. Among these interventions were those El-Hakim viewed as mocking him, such as the comment, "The Sheikh El-Tawil type is no longer followed as an example by the people. He is a true ascetic but he does not conform to the spirit of the age. Otherwise, why doesn't Mr El-Hakim become a role model himself and renounce his sophisticated clothes, etc."

The response was acknowledgement that the reader was cunning "for he is convinced that he has placed me before a difficult experience, as though by saying so, he is confident that he will not see me the next morning in torn, worn-out clothing in asceticism and selflessness. This is true, and his perspicacity hit the mark on this. But why should he view me not worthy of doing that if it meant doing a service? Asceticism itself is not required. What I want is for people, the day that material interests contradict with higher thought, to always choose the latter."

Readers' interventions in these debates between El-Hakim and Fahmi were more like passing comments. The debates remained heated when Fahmi responded to the "Source of the problem" article, which was based on the idea that Egyptians talk a lot and do little. He rejected this idea in an article titled "Talk and work" in which he chose to be on the side of the optimists.

He made that clear when he asked El-Hakim to go easy on himself, for a little salt makes food fit to eat. He argued that public opinion and shared taste become enlightened in nations only after prominent personalities say everything they want to. However, he also excused the originator of the debate, for talking had in fact lengthened and its clamour had risen. "Yet my optimism and my quest for God's release from suffering have both prepared me to view a sky nearly cloudless. If my optimism is on the mark, I have the right to ask you what are the acts that are the most important and useful for leaders and their followers to consider?"

The second bullet fired in this "heated debate" between the two famous writers was set off by El-Hakim in an article titled, "A programme first". In it he welcomed the agreement that had been reached with Fahmi that the time had come for "work" to replace "talk". He held that the first step on this path was to devise a "programme", for all modern states function in accordance with a laid out plan whose implementation is set by a known timeframe. "They call this the five-year plan according to the number of years statisticians decide are necessary for their projects."

El-Hakim reproached Egyptians for not having a programme and questions. One of these was directed to Fahmi and asked, "are you capable of telling me if researchers have considered a set policy for university education and a clear plan to orient general culture in our renaissance, and to what degree we function like other civilisations? Or will we remain perplexed in the gardens of knowledge, not knowing what to take and what to contribute?"

In another question he asked, "is it possible for you to point me to a project technicians have undertaken, and set a timeframe to create a fully equipped army or to build a small military battalion for the future like Napoleon's? As long as we remain without this battalion, we can never hope to one day, no matter how far off, demand that we protect the Suez Canal by ourselves."

The final message El-Hakim directed to Fahmi in his debates included an observation that his fellow countrymen, when they differed in opinion, turned into raging elephants, "stomping over everything and destroying everything. In every sophisticated country, there are sacred limits at which adversaries halt and weapons that people of the same homeland will not resort to."

All of this was an introduction to what El-Hakim had observed in the conflict blazing at that time between the Wafd Party and its adversaries in coalition parties in terms of dragging in religion. Democracy, in his opinion, was not a word to be said but rather a spirit of equality, fraternity and the freedom of thought. "Every strike that wounds a bloc of the nation and turns it into an element or sect is a poisoned strike that reaches directly to the heart of the nation. It is not a citizen's right to pass a judgement on another that removes him from the arena of public interest. May arrows not be directed at personalities, human bodies, or honour."

It seems that El-Hakim disapproved of what the Wafd Party's adversaries resorted to in the election battle that took place that spring (1938) in terms of slandering the party, employing Makram Ebeid's control over its affairs as an excuse and exploiting his being non-Muslim to do so. This led El-Hakim to prefer to return in his "Debates" to the form of a monologue. He wrote a series of articles about what was taking place in the election battle that were distinguished by a return to the sarcastic style he was famous for.

The first of these articles was titled "The felicity of elections". He commenced it by saying that the election season was a joy for everyone except for those entering it. "Woe unto nominees, for each step they take in the arena involves expenditure and loss. They do not move a foot without paying LE150 [the test fee], and then they walk with their pockets of money open and their eyes wary and guarded, and their mouths full of talk, speeches and promises."

He paused at the joy of those who do not implicate themselves in this game. In the position of spectators, they compare between this and that, as though they were horses running on a racetrack. The happiest of these, in his opinion, was the Egyptian fellah whose voice is lost as though it were that of a stray dog, except on this occasion when he suddenly carries weight and has a price and petitioners and those running after him. "This stomach, into which only enters radishes and worm-infested cheese, today awaits its feasts. Those bare feet today are transported by cars and taxis... Yes, they are incomparable days... Who knows, perhaps the zakat [alms] tax paid long ago has returned in a new cloak. Yes, there is no virtue in elections other than buying the vote of the poor with gold and filling their stomachs with food, this is merit enough." With this detailed description, El-Hakim has hit on the corruption of democracy, Egyptian-style.

In his second article, El-Hakim suggested the establishment of what he called an "election contractors company", with which a candidate would contract to undertake everything necessary from erecting tents and hiring speakers to preparing feasts and collecting information on the scandals and flaws of their opponents. After that, there would be nothing left for candidates to do other than sit in the festival tents the company had set up for them and listen to everything that is delightful and amusing. "He would watch the company orators at the podium shower him with praise and then walk all over his opponent, stabbing him with a bitter jab... If it occurred to him to walk a bit after the event, he would find anther tent set up by the same company for his opponent and for the same purpose but implemented in the counter direction."

In the third and final article El-Hakim presented an example of what he viewed must be included in election speeches. In it he wrote, "Gentlemen, voters, in the name of democracy I approach you, requesting your sympathy. I love democracy. Who doesn't love democracy? You ask me what this word you hear so often these days means. Its definition is simple. Democracy is for a group of hungry, barefoot people to grant LE40 a month to another group of extremely wealthy people. This logic may surprise you, but it's the truth."

El-Hakim ended his lecture by shoring up this very fact, which he considered full of contradiction. He said to voters, "you think that we are here to serve you and to study, under the dome of parliament, means for your prosperity and progress? We view that golden dome as a high honour to those who were able to take hold of a seat under it. We view membership in the council as a title to embellish our names with and to ornament our cards with."

IN THE THIRD SIDE TO THESE DEBATES, El-Hakim completely revealed his face as a proponent of belonging to Mediterranean culture. A debate was held between him and Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed that was initiated by the latter in the form of a letter sent from the French capital to El-Hakim, who published it under the title, "From the Seine to the Nile". El-Hakim then responded to it in another article titled, "From the Nile to the Seine."

At the beginning of his letter, El-Sawi reproached those who only saw Paris, firstly, secondly and thirdly, as a beautiful woman. To the two of them, in contrast, Paris was listening to the Bolero of Ravel, who died in a mental institution after enriching the world's music with its enticing tunes. "Paris, to you and me, is the story of Collette and the Atina Theatre where we watched the play The war of Troy did not take place and the donkey driver's music hall, were we listened to Doran make fun of what we were not bold enough to even make reference to."

"Paris, to you and me, is in the halls of the Sorbonne, College de France, and the school of political science... Paris, to you and me, is the pouring rain that does not obstruct anyone from their work or make anyone late for an appointment or stop any activity... Paris, to you and me, is the Latin Quarter whose novelty never pales and which never reaches old age. It is Montparnasse where there is free, satirical art... Paris, to you and me, is Champs-Elysees, as though it were taken from the heart of heaven!... As though God Almighty poured into it all there exists of taste, all there is of sophisticated industry, all there is in women of magic, all in nature that inspires."

The long response sent by El-Hakim was closer to a clinking of glasses to the health of Paris. He turned his attention to everything he had seen and experienced in the capital of light, and added what he saw as entirely different from Cairo, the mother of the world.

In Egypt, he wrote, it was sufficient for Al-Ahram to publish an important political news item to find the entire country, from its farthest reaches, talking of nothing else and living only to repeat the news. The reason for that was simple, he argued -- our life is chaos, or an early, nebulous life, in which organised, harmonious worlds have not yet been created for people to live in. In Egypt, you cannot speak of the "world of literature", the "world of science", the "world of sports", the "world of art" or the "world of politics", etc in the meaning of such worlds in Europe. "Each group among us has not been able until now to organise itself in a way that would enable it to contain its productive efforts within a specific field."

El-Hakim concluded this argument by describing the state of the country in a way that made it seem like the same state was in place until today. He wrote that it had resulted in the group holding power and wealth being politicians. "Their world has emerged like the sun and outweighed others, erasing the presence of the other useful worlds that should have been no less shining. In following, we do not live as the rest of the major nations live. Our society, in its current situation, is a primitive one. Until people take interest in things other than politics -- and everything in existence is, in reality, more sophisticated than politics -- and until people are concerned with thought and its pleasures and spend some time on books, museums, exhibitions and lecture halls. Until men of science, literature and art are given in our society the same respect and interest that politicians receive... Until we leave those few respectable politicians to yell and raise a clamour in their clubs, until we multiply the types of activity in the country, and this sleep and drowsiness that has paralysed every aspect other than that valued aspect, politics. Until all this is done, there is no hope in Egyptian society."

The final debate was on the same subject, although El-Hakim chose a different title for it -- "Is there an East today?" The other side to the debate was another interlocutor, the engineer Mukhtar Abdullah.

In the opening article to this debate, El-Hakim mentioned that he had, the previous year, called for doing away with the fez and donning hats instead. "People screamed in my face, 'we are Easterners!' And so I fell silent and thought. I said to myself, perhaps people are right if they truly believe what they say."

He decided after that that Egypt was on the threshold of a renaissance, and that renaissances are not built upon lies and hypocrisy. "If we are not able to create an Eastern civilisation, then we should at least do what Turkey did. In all simplicity, we should plunge head-long into the path of European nations. Yet if the East has a message, and is charged with reforming what is corrupt in the West, that is wonderful and splendid."

El-Hakim took advantage of the opportunity to quote expansive text from his book A Bird from the East in the form of a conversation between a Russian and an Egyptian. In it, the former found fault in European civilisation for the mechanical nature it had adopted in recent years, while the latter was incapable of offering a description of his society. This led El-Hakim to conclude, "these opinions exchanged by the story's characters, they alone are responsible for them. I placed some of them within the view of readers so that they would think a little about the spirit of European civilisation so as to choose for themselves and to search within themselves as to which of the two paths to follow. If the East is truly present in the depths of their hearts, then they should stand steady in the face of the West. The time has come for Egypt to speak as Turkey spoke. A position of confusion, disarray and hesitation is alone a sin that cannot be forgiven."

The response from Mukhtar Abdullah seemed as though he wanted to dissipate El-Hakim's perplexity. He was biased towards the West and justified the reasons for his being taken with it to the point that it seemed that the originator of the "Debates" fell into agreement with the response. This was made clear in El-Hakim's statement, "contemporary European civilisation is not the property of European states alone. Egyptians and Chaldeans participated in laying some of its foundations, and then the Greeks came and borrowed from the Egyptians agriculture, industry, and the elementals of engineering and astronomy. They were the first to put in place scientific rules for human knowledge on a sound basis of deduction and testing... When the torch fell from the hands of the Romans, the Arabs grabbed it and quickly turned to Greek culture and translated Aristotle, Plato, Achyledes and Hippocrates... By the second half of the 18th century, Arabs had achieved scientific leadership."

In short, Abdullah wanted to reach the conclusion that "these are our goods that have been returned to us," an idea repeated by some until today.

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