Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1417, (8 - 14 November 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1417, (8 - 14 November 2018)

Ahram Weekly

A worthy dean

Hussein with his wife Suzanne
Hussein with his wife Suzanne
Al-Ahram Weekly

TAHA Hussein (1889-1973) died on 28 October 45 years ago. He remains the progressive, secular face of the 19th- and 20th-century Arab literary renaissance. The Dean of Arab Letters, as he was called, he applied the Cartesian method to the traditionally uncritical humanities, rewrote early Muslim history and defended the position of the modern Arab as the European’s rational, scientifically minded peer.

He is remembered as much for The Nightingale’s Prayer, a novel of doomed love between a peasant girl and the landowner for whom she works that was made into a popular 1959 film featuring Hussein’s own voice towards the end, as his thoroughly modern if astonishingly erudite studies of the life and work of the great late 10th- and early 11th-century poet philosopher Abul-Alaa Al-Maarri. Like Hussein, of course, Al-Maarri was blind; and in detailing the subtlest and most intimate intricacies of “our sheikh’s”, Hussein had the benefit of unique personal insights. His three-volume autobiography, Al-Ayyam (The Days, 1929-67) was the first Arab literary work to achieve acclaim in the West.

As minister of education in 1950-52, he is credited with making basic education free for all Egyptians, a policy he argued for with exemplary eloquence. All through his life, he remained a teacher in the best sense of the word.

Hussein was frequently the target of conservative religious censure for his libertarian and pro-Europe views. In the course of advancing his thesis that much pre-Islamic poetry is actually misattributed post-Islamic work, he stated quite bluntly in his seminal book On Pre-Islamic Poetry (1926) that neither early histories of literature nor pre-modern religious narratives such as the story of the Prophet Ibrahim can be taken at face value, but must be reassessed in the light of empirical evidence and logically analysed. In his 1936 book The Future of Culture in Egypt, he contended that Egypt belongs not with Arabian or African culture but with the Mediterranean heritage of Greece, Italy and France, and advocated assimilation into Europe. He survived the attendant controversies by a mixture of diplomacy and self-possession. He is also known to have defended the poor and promoted classical over vernacular Arabic.

Hussein, the seventh of 13 children in a lower middle class rural family, was blinded in early childhood as a result of medical error. He grew up in Minya, learning the Quran and moving onto Cairo to study at Al-Azhar in 1902, when he was old enough. But he rebelled against the backwardness of religious education. He moved onto Cairo (then Fouad I) University as soon as it became available, fighting for a seat despite his blindness. There he became the first student to obtain a PhD, on Al-Maarri, in 1914, and was appointed a professor of Arabic literature there on his return from France, where he continued studying at the Sorbonne. It was in France that Hussein met and married Suzanne Bresseau (1895-1989); their daughter Amina would be among the first women to graduate from Cairo University.

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