The fascination of an Egyptian intellectual with Europe: Taha Husayn and France.

AuthorAttar, Samar

Egypt does not belong to the East, but to Europe and the West. Culturally, the Egyptians must work together with Europeans.

Taha Husayn. Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa (1)

IN A LECTURE DELIVERED BY TAHA HUSAYN in 1950 in the French city of Nice on the occasion of establishing the Chair of Muhammad 'Ali at the Mediterranean University Center, Husayn spoke about the relationship between Egypt and France since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, and how this relationship had developed until it became a kind of scientific cooperation in the middle of the twentieth century. (2) Husayn was at the time the Education Minister of Egypt. In his lecture, he emphasized the scientific and intellectual superiority of the French, their intelligence on one hand, and the diligent execution by the Egyptians of French plans on the other. According to Husayn, it was Napoleon who managed to wake up Egypt from her long sleep. Unlike other colonial powers, Husayn claims, France "is not satisfied with occupying a country militarily. The French have always kept an open mind. They wish to learn about others for their own interest, but also to teach those whom they occupy" (Husayn's lecture, 49). Husayn enumerates the cultural deeds of the French during their two-year occupation of Egypt and their subsequent return to the country as individual advisors after the collapse of Napoleon's empire in 1815. He refers, for instance, to the foundation of the Institut de L'Egypte and to the many French scholars who have rediscovered for the Egyptians a neglected and forgotten history: The linguist Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) deciphered the hieroglyphic language; Auguste Mariette (1821-1881) discovered Memphis tombs and helped establish the Egyptian museum; Gaston Maspero (1846-1916) discovered the Sphinx and published many books on the antiquities in ancient Egypt. Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894) made the Suez Canal a reality and so on.

Although Husayn's lecture was meant to further strengthen the cultural and technological ties between Egypt and France at the time, it revealed the political naivete and shortsightedness of the lecturer. France was not always an honest broker in its dealing with Egypt as Husayn claimed. It is worth mentioning, for instance, that on the 17th of November 1869, twenty years before Husayn was born, the Suez Canal which had been constructed under the supervision of the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps was officially opened. It is estimated that 1.5 million Egyptians worked on the project. In 1875 the Egyptian government was forced to sell its shares in the canal to the British. Egypt was in effect bankrupt. The 'peaceful cooperation' between France and Egypt resulted in nothing but disaster. Indeed this French marvel brought another invasion to Egypt on 29 October 1956 when France, England and Israel attacked Egypt following President Nasser's nationalization of the Canal.

So how did Taha Husayn form this very positive image of France and its people? Why was he shocked when the French government deviated from a path he thought was 'noble?' Husayn's perception of Europe, but particularly of France, is mainly derived from his encounter with a few European orientalists at the Egyptian University, later known as Cairo University, his stay in Montpellier, then Paris between 1915-1919 as a student, his marriage to a French woman who was his reader, and his subsequent visits to France until his death on October 28, 1973. But before dealing with Husayn's relationship with the French it is imperative to know something about the man, his background and the socio-political period during which he lived. This will help explain to a great extent the reasons for his admiration for France and everything French.

In 1926-27 the first volume of Husayn's autobiography, Al-Ayyam (The Days) was serialized in al-Hilal, and later appeared in a book form. (3) The text was dictated in nine days during a vacation in a small French town called Haute-Savoie. It starts from 1889, the year Husayn was born in a village in Upper Egypt, to the fall of 1902 when he leaves for Cairo to study religion at al-Azhar. It is worth mentioning that when Husayn published the first volume of his autobiography he was already an established professor of Arabic literature at the Egyptian University. Many things were troubling him. He was harassed in Egypt for publishing a controversial book on pre-Islamic poetry and was attacked in the parliament and by the press. On the other hand, his daughter Aminah, was now nine years old and had no idea about her father's past. She never knew what hunger or poverty meant. She was born in France where her father was still working on his doctorate. Then she grew up in Cairo where her father was a famous professor and chair of the department of Arabic. It was imperative for the father to speak to the child and tell her about his wretched childhood and humble beginning. (4) In a poignant passage which concludes the first volume of the memoir, Husayn acknowledges his debt to his French wife: "Ah my daughter. If you ask me how this person has become acceptable to other people's eyes, and how he has been able to provide for you and your brother a good life ... I won't be able to answer you. But there is another person who could.... Do you know who she is? It is this angel who is standing near your bed.... She changed my life. I was desperate and became happy. I was poor and became rich.... You and I owe this angel a great deal (Husayn 1973, 147).

The narrator of Al-Ayyam does not use the first person 'I' in describing his childhood, rather the third person 'he' and 'our friend'. (5) We gather that the child is blind and lives in an Egyptian village on the bank of the Nile. Cold, heat, people's movements, or voices, kettles boiling in the kitchen, women filling their jars with water are all highlighted. The only recollection of the little boy who was able to see at birth, but due to ignorance and neglect became blind, was the maize fence outside of his house and the distant canal. He is very sensitive and enjoys listening to the village poet and folk singers. But he resents the fact that he is treated as a thing, not as a human being. He has a wild imagination. He believes in superstitions and is afraid of darkness and evil spirits. Blindness restricts his movement and that hurts him a great deal. He is very self-conscious and is afraid to be ridiculed. That is why he never likes to eat in the presence of other people fearing that he might mess himself. Many years later, his French wife convinces him to change his habit. The narrator tells us that the little boy has an inquisitive nature and likes to experiment and that he has a very strong personality and strong will. His early role models are two folk heroes, Antarah, the black-Arab poet of sixth century Arabia, and al-Zahir Baibars, the 13th century one-eyed slave turned ruler who defeated the French Crusaders and stopped the Mongols from attacking Cairo in 1260. Both men had very humble beginnings but their achievements guaranteed them eternal fame. The boy's early education in the village centers on the oral heritage sung by the folk poets. Then it concentrates on the Quran taught by a wretched master in a traditional religious school. Memorization of the Quran becomes the goal. Eventually, grammar is studied and memorized through a long classical Arabic poem.

One should remember that Britain was the colonial power in Egypt at that time. There is no evidence in Husayn's text that education, or health in this Egyptian village has improved. On the contrary, the villagers seem to have been oblivious to the modern world. Children's mortality rate was high. People practiced magic and believed in superstitions. Ignorant sheiks became mentors in religious schools. Barbers performed the jobs of physicians. In a poignant passage Husayn tells us how his four-year-old little sister died, and how he became blind:

The feast was approaching. The little girl was suddenly quiet. No one noticed her. Children in villages and towns of the provinces are usually neglected, particularly when the family is large and mothers have plenty of work. In those villages and towns of the provinces women have a criminal philosophy ... A child complains of something. His mother hardly listens to him. And what child who does not complain? It is believed that only a day and a night will pass, then the child will become better. If his mother takes care of him she either feels contempt towards the doctor, or is ignorant of his existence. She relies on this criminal knowledge, the knowledge of women.... This is how our boy has lost his sight. He was afflicted by ophthalmia, but neglected for a few days. Then the barber was called in. He gave him something that made him blind. This is also how his little sister lost her life.... (Husayn 1973, 118). Death visited the family again when an elder brother died of cholera in August 1902. The eighteen- year- old youth had already been accepted as a student in the medical school in Cairo for the beginning of the academic year. In order to become familiar with his future profession as a physician, the young man volunteered to work with the town's doctor when the epidemic broke out. But he himself became sick and soon died. The effect of the young man's death on his little blind brother, in particular, was horrific.

We don't know anything about the boy's sexual drive. But the meeting with a child/wife at one point indicates some stirring in the boy. She is the wife of the agricultural inspector who teaches him how to recite the Quran. The inspector is in his forties, while his wife is not more than sixteen years old. The teen age boy makes a point of visiting the inspector's house before class is scheduled in order to talk to the young wife. In his childhood too he had once befriended a little blind girl in the religious school. But beyond that we hardly have any...

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