Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s Mediterranean identity

Within intellect is the grounding of a national culture, which develops geographically and historically, influenced but not decided by religion, writes Azmi Ashour

Al-Ahram Weekly

In his invaluable study, The Future of Egyptian Culture, Taha Hussein posed a question that helps shed considerable light on the Egyptian identity conflict that continues to rage today between advocates of progress and modernisation and the radical Islamist trend. His question concerned the natural extension of Egyptian identity that had dominated the civilisation of the south for 3,000 years under the 30 Pharaonic dynasties. In the opinion of the great Egyptian writer and intellectual there could be no contemporary renaissance without a deep sense of connection with Egypt’s roots and without studying the environment to which the Egyptian mentality had acclimatised in the course of its long history. In this context, he asked: Does Egypt — with its civilisational weight — belong to the East or the West? He was speaking, of course, in terms of the country’s cultural — not geographic — extension. Is the Egyptian mind oriental or occidental in its perception and sensibility? Is it given to the French and British mode of comprehension, or to the Chinese or Indian one?

As he applied himself to the task of answering such questions in the 1930s in his seminal study on the future of culture in Egypt, he drew on his extensive readings of ancient Egyptian history and concluded that the Egyptian intellect was more inclined to communicate with the Mediterranean Basin than with the Far East. The Egyptian connection with the East does not extend beyond the Near East (the Levant, inclusive of Iraq) that, in fact, falls within the scope of the eastern Mediterranean Basin. He notes the strong links that developed between ancient Egyptian civilisation and Hellenic civilisation from its emergence in the 6th century BC through its zenith under Alexander the Great. The Egyptian response to Alexander and his expanding Hellenic empire contrasted starkly to the antagonism and conflict that characterised the Egyptian relationship with an expanding oriental power: the Persian empire, which had also threatened to encroach into Egypt. The ancient Egyptian was in close contact with and more attuned to the Greek mentality, which gave rise to constant and regular interchanges in the arts, politics and economics. The ancient Greeks felt honoured by and proud of these exchanges. They spoke of Egypt highly in their histories and verses and regarded themselves as students of the Egyptians in civilisation. The Egyptian influence on Greek civilisation could be seen tangibly in the arts of architecture, sculpture and painting, but it went far deeper, extending to politics and many aspects of daily life.

Accordingly, Taha Hussein maintains that the primary formative factor in shaping the Egyptian civilisation and intellect was its affiliation to the Mediterranean Basin. The Egyptian mentality could not be an oriental one, having developed and flourished in this Mediterranean region in which it influenced and was influenced by its peoples, the Greeks above all. Simultaneously, the influence on Egypt from the Far East was slight.

With the Islamic conquest, the Egyptian mentality sustained its unique character. Indeed, it soon regained its independence under Ibn Tulun and it would continue to assert itself under subsequent Islamic dynasties. Even after the majority of the Egyptian population had become Muslim, society retained its Mediterranean outlook. In a sense this is not surprising. The experiences of other peoples confirm that a change in religious identity does not lift them out of their cultural environment. When Christianity swept into Europe from the east, it did not transform the mentality of European societies into an eastern one. Taha Hussein holds that the same applies with respect to the spread of Islam into Egyptian society — a contention that seems to cast to the fore the question of the religious component in shaping the communal mentality.

One of the chief causes of the current tensions in Egyptian society today is the conflict between the religious drive (in its fundamentalist/radical form) and the modernist drive. The latter is primarily associated with the Egyptian Mediterranean mindset that is rooted in — and has continuously strengthened since — the country’s early civilisational epochs. Therefore, the problematic that Taha Hussein poses regarding the religious component in the formation of the national character remains extremely important to us in Egypt, in view of its connection to the conflict over identity in our society.

As indicated above, Taha Hussein holds that the spread of religion, whether Christianity or Islam, does not force the mentality of societies in other geographical areas into conformity with that existing in the place where the religion originated. The westward spread of Christianity did not transform Western societies into oriental ones and, in like manner, the spread of Islam from the Arab east into Egypt did not eradicate Mediterranean properties from the Egyptian mentality. This is not to suggest that the bearers of the new doctrines and creeds do not change in accordance with new relationships and circumstances. Christianity influenced and was influenced by Greek thought and, similarly, Islam influenced and was influenced by the societies that embraced it. However, the overall effect of this process was not to transport those societies into the environment in which the religion originated, as radical Islamists are trying to do today, but rather to propel those societies forward, towards development and progress.

Perhaps an explanation of the foregoing is to be found in the fact that religions, as a whole, address the spirit and the process of faith. This separates them to a certain extent from the intellect, which interacts with the material world. It is the human intellect that has the capacity to change the physical environment through the generation of new ideas, the development of philosophies and sciences, and the production of civilisations. These are processes in which the intellects of all human societies engage, regardless of their prevailing faiths. Here, then, is the crux of the most crucial dilemma facing the Mediterranean South in general, and Egypt in particular: the conflict over its communal mind. The most salient facet of this conflict is the attempt to lift it from its natural environment in which it was forged over five millennia as a Mediterranean intellect and to transform it into an eastern one, despite the fact that, as history has shown, Egyptians have always been in a state of antagonism and conflict with that East, which perpetually brought invasion and war. Indeed, as noted above, even when the East succeeded in gaining control over Egypt, the Egyptians preserved their Mediterranean outlook.

The conflict today is with radical Islamism that not only seeks to impose an Eastern mentality but is also trying to turn the clock back about 1,500 years to the initial years of the rise of the Mohamedan prophecy in the 7th century and the religious-cultural legacy that it produced in interaction with the environment of its place of origin. Political Islam, in all its Salafi, jihadist and Muslim Brotherhood shades, takes the legacy of that period, in spite of its narrow horizons, as the parameter for its mentality. In so doing, not only does it ignore the vast heritage of human civilisations, it shuts itself off to Arab Islamic civilisation itself, which only burgeoned when that original kernel burst out of its geographic/cultural confines and spread eastward into Asia and westward into North Africa. It was that material and intellectual expansion that gave rise to a civilisation that lasted eight uninterrupted centuries and that was predominantly Mediterranean in character and climate, especially when we consider its physical extension into Andalusia for several centuries and its capacity to serve as a bridge between the ancient civilisations of the Hellenic world and Europe, to which it handed the torch of progress and modernism.

As insightful and, indeed, prescient as the question posed by Taha Hussein, it has not received sufficient attention in Egypt. His insights are particularly relevant today in view of the intensity of the conflict over Egyptian identity, or what he framed as the conflict between the Mediterranean mentality (or the mentality that seeks to move forward and progress by benefitting from our more developed neighbours in Europe, which had an enormous impact on Egypt during the past two centuries) and the mentality of the various shades of the radical Islamist trend as well as that of some secularist Arab nationalist trends.

WHEN THE NORTHERN LIGHTS TOUCHED THE SOUTH:  Because of this sense of Egyptian-Mediterranean identity, no sooner did the lights of modern European civilisation appear on the northern horizon in the 18th and 19th centuries than Egyptians set their sights and hearts on the ideas and values that hailed from that direction, and they strove to benefit from that North that lay across the waters of the Mediterranean.

That benefit would arrive in two ways, one indirectly through the process of occupation of the Mediterranean South that, in Egypt, began with the short-lived French expedition (1798-1801). The second way was through direct contact by means of the Egyptian educational missions to Europe, to which I will return below.

The foreign occupation revealed the significance of the Mediterranean South. French awe at the monuments and artefacts of ancient Egyptian civilisation, which they perceived through their modern perspective and intellect, was instrumental in drawing attention to the value of the South, and Egypt in particular. Those discoveries also helped fire colonialist drives and the divvying up of the Southern Mediterranean between France (in the Maghreb), Italy (in the Libyan provinces) and subsequently Britain (in Egypt). But not only did the Napoleonic expedition reveal the cultural and economic importance of the Southern Mediterranean, it simultaneously opened the eyes of this South to the new civilisation that was dawning in the North. It was therefore no coincidence that the founder of modern Egypt, Mohamed Ali Pasha (who ruled from 1805 to 1848), would turn his keen and farsighted intellect in that direction as he set upon his project of modernisation and enlightenment in the South (Egypt).

His was a progressive approach that would be adopted in different forms later by other countries that today rank among the world’s most advanced nations (Japan, for example). A chief component of this approach was to dispatch study missions to the countries of the North, enabling Egyptian scholars to receive instruction in European universities and then to transmit their knowledge, expertise and insights on that northern civilisation to their fellow countrymen upon their return to Egypt. The first such student delegation, in 1826, was headed by the famous Rifaa Al-Tahtawi who, upon his return, would become one of the most influential figures in the development of the sciences, law and literature in Egypt. Many other study missions followed.

Another major facet of Mohamed Ali’s approach to his modernisation project was to recruit experts and specialists in various disciplines from France and elsewhere in Europe. Whether consciously or not, he was drawing on a practise that had been applied by some of his illustrious predecessors who steered the Arab Islamic civilisation to its zenith, such as the legendary Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid (lived: 763-809) and the Caliph Al-Maamoun (reign: 813-833). The latter established the Dar Al-Hikma (House of Learning), an institution that functioned as a library, educational academy and a centre for translating ancient and contemporary works on philosophy and the sciences into Arabic, stimulating an intensive process of intellectual and scientific fermentation and production (a similar process would later be set into motion by European monarchs who promoted the translation of the Arab legacy from Andalusia along with the more ancient legacy that it transmitted into Latin, thereby helping to stimulate the European Renaissance).

Mohamed Ali’s approach spurred the development of modern Egypt over the next two centuries. The practise of sending Egyptian study missions to European academies would be followed by his successors and become a familiar practise even up to the present, in spite of the differences between the times — which is to say the practise began at a time when Egypt had no schools and universities and continued into a time when its universities proliferated and new forms of communication and interaction were taking shape. The study missions of the Mohamed Ali era in the first half of the 19th century were palpably instrumental in transmitting to Egypt many modern educational conventions and practises. European-style educational establishments were founded, some initially aimed at promoting the development of the modern Egyptian army, which would eventually have a profound influence on Egyptian society. Moreover, with these establishments the secular educational system began to emerge in Egypt. The most salient example is the School of Languages founded by Al-Tahtawi in 1835 and from which would graduate Egyptian students versed in Latin and modern European languages, such as French and English.

By the second half of the 19th century, the processes of transmission and development had moved into high gear and the effects extended well beyond the educational system into the government administration, the judiciary and other state institutions. They were also tangibly evident in day-to-day life with the introduction of modern communication and transportation systems. It is noteworthy that, in 1854, Egypt became the second country in the world after Britain to introduce the railway. The telegraph was equally quick to appear in Egypt.

The intensive contact and interaction with the North paved the way for an emerging educated class whose members would set off to Europe on their own initiative and return to sow the seeds of enlightenment in their traditional society. Their efforts and influence harmonised with the outlook of Egypt’s rulers at the time, most notably the Khedive Ismail whose admiration for European modernism inspired his great adventure into creating what historians refer to as Khedival Cairo. Modelled on European architectural styles of that time, much of that legacy still stands in present-day Downtown Cairo.

The compatibility between this intelligentsia that had been educated abroad and the aspirations of this ruler combined with the simultaneous rise of a diverse capitalist middle class in Egypt and worked to help the spread of modern values and ideas that had begun to shine in Europe. There thus emerged a growing class that was modern in its education and outlook. Increasing numbers of its members, upon their return from their educational experiences abroad, assumed administrative and educational posts, increasing this class’s socio-political functions and influence. In tandem, the political consciousness of this class expanded, not only due to the factors of the languages of communication at their disposal, and common concerns and issues, but also because of the arrival of another major means for the transmission of ideas: the press. Much of the credit for the emergence of the press in Egypt in the 19th century is owed to the Levantine families that fled the civil war in the area that was then known as Greater Syria. These Syrian-Lebanese refugees became directly and highly influential in the development of a modernist class via the press.

The evolution of Egyptian socio-political awareness manifested itself in the Orabi Revolution of 1881, the rebellion in the Egyptian army led by Ahmed Orabi around whom rallied a large segment of the educated class in opposition to the impending British occupation. Although Orabi’s forces were defeated and the occupation took hold, this did not mark a setback for the enlightening role of the Egyptian intelligentsia. Indeed, in spite of the British occupation, that role became stronger, more variegated and more pervasive in Egyptian society. A salient landmark in this evolution is the establishment of the Egyptian University (now Cairo University) in 1908 by means of community endowments.

More and more, the wealthy families of Egypt’s growing middle class sent their children to Britain and France for their higher education, while government sponsored educational missions continued unabated. Simultaneously, the press and its influence continued to evolve and expand with the turn of the 20th century. The modernising impact of these processes could be seen in a cultural renaissance, the most salient aspect of which was the rise in Egypt of modern arts such as the theatre and the cinema, with the first feature length Egyptian film appearing in 1927. Literature would undergo a similar renaissance with the spread of literacy and the shift away from the traditional oral narrative to the modern arts of the short story and the novel. The evolution of these arts in Egypt tells of a qualitative shift in the transmission process. If early returnees from European study missions transmitted the arts, including the creative ones, in a more literal form, which is to say through translation or adaptation, the cultural output of the generation of the cultural transmitters of the 20th century began to display a purely Egyptian spirit of ingenuity and creativity, even if the intellect of this generation was primarily shaped through exposure to Western culture, whether through university study or contact with Western literature and the arts that had become increasingly available.

The results of the growing proximity and interaction with European civilisation was epitomised by pioneering and influential figures in the Egyptian modernisation and enlightenment process. While Refaa Al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) is regarded as the father of this process, given his status as the head of Egypt’s first educational mission abroad and his subsequent influence on Egyptian intellectual life, the members of the generation of the early 20th century, born around the turn of that century, would assume the lion’s share of the process of digesting and assimilating the substance of northern influence and reformulating and producing it in a quintessentially Egyptian Mediterranean form. The examples are many, but among the foremost in the fields of creativity and culture is Tawfik Al-Hakim who was educated in France and whose novel, Return of the Soul, which appeared in the early 1930s, heralded a new life for Egyptian society. Another is Nobel Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz, whose first novel appeared in 1936 and who, along with other creative writers of his generation, would go on to produce a purely Egyptian literature within the framework of modern literary templates.

Then, of course, there is Taha Hussein, who amalgamated his traditional Al-Azhar education with the modern education he derived from extensive periods of study in France. He obtained his PhD from the Sorbonne, choosing as the subject for his doctorate dissertation the philosophy of Ibn Khaldun. The choice affirmed both his ongoing connection to the history of his Arab Islamic civilisation and his simultaneous attraction to modern civilisation as he probed the ideas of that luminary of philosophy and social science who lived in the Maghreb and Egypt at a time when that Arab Islamic civilisation flourished in the 13th century, while applying 20th century methodologies of analysis. His choice of subject was also interesting in that Ibn Khaldun was one of those prominent figures of Arab Islamic civilisation whose works were translated into Latin and was studied in European universities during the Renaissance and, indeed, up to the present day.

Upon his return to Egypt, Taha Hussein devoted himself to his project, which was intimately linked to that context which began with the arrival of the French expedition and the beginning of the development of the modern Egyptian state under Mohamed Ali Pasha. In the process, he put his finger on the real problems with which Egyptian society was contending, and his insights led him to become a highly influential figure in Egyptian history through his advocacy of modernist ideas and his fight against blind traditionalism and ignorance and for the spread of modern education.

In spite of his efforts, and those of his contemporaries, conflict over the Egyptian mind and identity — between the two forces mentioned by Taha Hussein — continues to the present. This, however, does not refute the Mediterranean affiliation of the Egyptian mentality, which has become a tangible reality in the make-up of the Egyptian character over the course of its long history. The advent of Islam and the adoption of the Arabic language did not strip Egyptian identity of this affiliation, in spite of some attempts on the part of radical Islamism to do so in an era in which it appears that it has become globally fashionable for radical Islamism to sprout up in many societies and force people into a mould of behaviour and religiosity that is associated with the culture that prevailed in a corner of the Arabian Peninsula in the early days of the Mohamedan prophetic mission.

The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.

add comment

  • follow us on