Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

My father, an Egyptian teacher

Aziza Sami bears witness to the late writer Abdel-Tawab Youssef’s homage to his own father, an unforgettable teacher during Egypt’s liberal first half of the 20th century

Book cover
Book cover
Al-Ahram Weekly

My Father,An Egyptian Teacher,Abdel-Tawab Youssef.Translated by Loubna Youssef,Edited by Mohamed Enani.112pages.Al Dar Al-Masriah Al-Lubnaniah.2nd Edition,2014

The opening scene of Abdel-Tawab Youssef’s biography of his father Sheikh Youssef Ahmed Youssef is of their visit to the clinic of a renowned physician who later reveals that he was one of the venerable sheikh’s many hundreds of students.

Here as elsewhere the narrative is typically sparing in its description of people or places. Nevertheless, it powerfully evokes the image of Sheikh Youssef, now ailing, who wearily leans on his son’s arm as he proceeds slowly into the doctor’s office. Youssef subtly conveys his father’s mood as well as his own. Their trepidation as they await the doctor’s prognosis is transformed into unexpected surprise when, after a lengthy time is undertaken examining Sheikh Youssef, the doctor thanks his patient. He then firmly returns the fee to the son.

“I do not think you remember me,” the physician tells Sheikh Youssef, “but I have never forgotten you. I am one of your sons – one of your students from Beni Suef”.

This encounter would be replicated dozens of times during the later years of Sheikh Youssef’s life, charting a career in which he made his impact on generations as a singular and unforgettable teacher.

The 112 page biography was first published in 1976 by Dar El Maaref, and has in a second edition been translated into English by the author’s daughter Loubna Youssef, a professor of English literature at Cairo University.

The years of Sheikh Youssef’s life, 1900 (or 1898)-1950, are often described in scholarly writings on Egypt as epitomising its ‘liberal age’ or ‘era of enlightenment’. It was during these decades that a generation evolved for whom the quest for academic learning was intertwined  with a nationalist fervour fuelled by the struggle against the British occupation of Egypt.

Sheikh Youssef was typical of his generation. He hailed from a modest rural background, and formal education was his pathway to mobility.

Born in the Upper Egyptian village of Shenra in Beni Suef,  Youssef studied at a traditional kuttab and then went on to obtain a religious education at the University of Al-Azhar . In this, he followed the course pursued by members of his generation. Many prominent protagonists of Egypt’s liberal age were originally of Azharite (traditional religious) education. They etched their way into public life and office, reaching the highest echelons of society. It was a course that  culminated in the towering figure of Saad Pasha Zaghlou – himself of fellahin, rural stock –ultimately becoming the leader of the Egyptian fight for national independence. Saad Zaghloul went on to become Egypt’s Minister of Education, Minister of Justice and head of parliament. He would lead the negotiations for Egypt’s independence from the British and become prime minister. Zaghloul would inspire and spark the revolution of 1919, which, as Abdel-Tawwab Youssef writes, would also inspire Gandhi and Nehru..

During his career as a teacher in many schools in Beni Suef as well as Cairo, Sheikh Youssef  was never too far removed from the struggle for independence. He mobilised the people in the villages surrounding Beni Suef to sign petitions authorising Saad Zaghloul and his fellow-nationalist leaders to represent Egypt in negotiations for independence. With his students he sang the patriotic and popular songs of Sayed Darwish. He paid the price of his involvement by being removed from his position as a teacher and deported to his home village for a span of time.

But Sheikh Youssef, a competent teacher, was soon re-instituted in his position as a teacher and ultimately a headmaster. He was a man whose heart went to teaching, forging bonds of humanity and comradeship with his students, many of whom were poor, and many of them orphans, as he also taught in orphanages. He would experiment and improvise methods in which interaction and proactivity were paramount, utilising music and other concepts far in advance of the rigid methods of schooling then prevalent.

When his heath failed him, until the very last, Sheikh Youssef would still go to the school and continue to teach.

With singular empathy, Abdel-Tawwab Youssef writes of his father the teacher, as if they were one and the same person. Perhaps the son’s capacity for simulation is propelled by his own talent as a writer, or by the deep influence that his father’s life wielded.

The biography of Sheikh Youssef closes with a moving passage describing  his funeral held at his home village of Shenra in 1950. The occasion was attended by hundreds of his students , whom he had taught in both the villages of Upper Egypt and in Cairo. His coffin was adorned with flowers that he himself had helped plant when, as headmaster, he completely overhauled the garden of a decrepit orphanage in Beni Suef.  

The music was played by the orphanage’s band, one that Sheikh Youssef had brought to life, music lesson by music lesson, having one neglected instrument fixed after another.

Of the day he bade his father farewell, Abdel-Tawwab Youssef writes:

“It was unusual, but I was the only member of his family in this procession. I was lost amidst thousands of his other sons, for I had become an orphan like them. No one noticed me, and no one shook my hands to offer his condolences”

The final pages of the biography are adorned with a photograph of Sheikh Youssef in traditional Azharite garb. The gaze is that of a kindly man with a forthright look in his eyes.

The value of this small, vibrant and moving book is that it brings to life an era and a man who, in the words of his son “was a simple man like other men – a hero”.

To us the readers as to his students, Sheikh Youssef is the memorable teacher who leaves his indelible mark long after the years have passed.

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