An Egyptian Childhood
An Egyptian Childhood
by Taha Husayn
THE LITERARY WORK
An autobiographical narrative set in Egypt, mostly from 1889-1902; published in Arabic (as al-Ayyam) in 1926-27, in English in 1932.
One of the Arab world’s most prominent intellectual figures recalls his days as a blind boy in a southern Egyptian village and as a young adult in Cairo.
Born in ’Izbat al-Kilu, a small village in upper Egypt, Taha Husayn (1889-1973) moved to Cairo in 1902 at the age of 13 to study at al-Azhar University, the oldest and most prestigious center of religious learning in the Islamic world. Husayn (also spelled Hussein) would ultimately switch to secular studies, earning two doctorates and becoming one of the forces shaping the cultural domain of Egypt, doing so through his many publications and his weekly newspaper column of 1922-25. In 1926 Husayn questioned the authenticity of the classical pre-Islamic poetry of the Arabs and called down upon himself a storm of protest. He was dismissed from his post as dean of the Faculty of Arts at the Egyptian University in 1932 and was also denied any form of government employment. He survived this controversy to be reinstated in 1936, and later to serve as minister of education (1950-52). For much of the twentieth century Husayn has been revered as both an icon of Arab intellectualism and the epitome of the self-made man who surmounted the overwhelming odds of his rural origins and his blindness to become the preeminent scholar of the Arab world. During his lifetime, he authored over 60 books, including several novels, but none achieved the popular success and influence of his autobiography, first published during the most controversial period of his career.
Arabs read An Egyptian Childhood as the autobiography of a man who was at the forefront of social and cultural changes that occurred as a result of England’s occupation of Egypt. The occupation, and the fact that Egypt was never made part of the British Commonwealth, or had any set legal status for a long period of time, is the background to Taha Husayn’s life and his later prominence. Following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, a venture that lasted three years, a young Ottoman military officer of Albanian origin named Muhammad ’Ali rose to power in Egypt and set the country on a new course. Though Egypt was nominally a province of the Ottoman Empire (based in Istanbul) and Muhammad ’Ali but the viceroy of the Ottoman sultan, in practice he governed as an independent ruler. Muhammad ’Ali had seen both English and French military forces in action during the French occupation and was determined to modernize his own armed forces and government. He sent delegations of students and scholars to Europe, where they studied languages, military tactics, and engineering; he also invited Europeans to come to Egypt as teachers and government consultants. Under his reign new schools were established, the army was reorganized, the civil service restructured, a government printing press founded, a government newspaper published, and a multitude of agrarian reforms undertaken. Not all of these projects were completely successful or even well-advised, but Egypt’s infrastructure slowly began to change.
Egyptian society at the time of the French invasion in 1798 consisted of a complex mixture of social groups and classes that included native Egyptians (both Muslim and Coptic Christian); the Ottoman Turco-Circassian upper class (including the military officer corps, major landowners, and high-ranking political figures); minority communities of Greeks, Jews, and Armenians; and a few European residents whose numbers increased dramatically over the course of the nineteenth century. The most enduring social impact of Muhammad ʿAli’s reign was the “Egyptianization” of the armed forces and of many ranks of government administration; native Egyptians came to hold many positions previously reserved for Turco-Circassians. Over time, this process of “Egyptianization” emerged as a critical step toward a modern national identity for Egypt. From his death in 1849 until 1882, Muhammad ʿAli’s successors at times supported these policies and at times left them to languish.
Muhammad ʿAli’s grandson Isma’il, who governed from 1863 to 1879, had grandiose plans for Egypt, reflected in his adoption of a new title, khedive (from a Persian word for “ruler”), that emphasized his claim to a status more independent than that of the Ottoman sultan’s other viceroys. Unfortunately, his ambitions were not matched by his financial acumen, and the debt that resulted from the disadvantageous agreement concluded for the rights to the Suez Canal and other massive projects he initiated proved to be not only Ismail’s, but also Egypt’s, downfall. Already by the 1860s, when the Suez Canal (connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea) was being excavated, Ismaʿ il had run up enormous debts with European lenders to finance his personal and state extravagances. This huge financial stake in Egypt’s economy eventually provided the motivation for Britain’s almost unwitting occupation of Egypt in 1882. In the period leading up to the occupation, the European powers forced Isma’il to accept English and French financial advisors, who were given more and more control over Egyptian fiscal policy. When Ismaʿil resisted these developments, the European powers summarily deposed him in 1879, sent him into exile, and declared his son, Tawfiq, the new monarch of Egypt. Tawfiq, a young man of 27, was relatively inexperienced in government affairs and proved more malleable than his father. He was forced to accept a broad array of harsh economic measures dictated by the English and French commissioners.
In an attempt to prevent an outright default on the government debt to European lenders, one of the measures adopted was the forced reduction of Egypt’s armed forces, a policy that was unequally carried out—the greatest hardships were visited upon the native Egyptian officers, while those of the Turko-Circassian upper class were left relatively untouched. This touched off unrest within the military. Native Egyptian officer Colonel Ahmad ʿUrabi and other officers presented a set of complaints directly to the Khedive Tawfiq in early 1881. Tawfiq and his advisors lured these officers to the palace, then placed them under arrest and attempted to put them immediately on trial. No sooner had the sham trial begun, however, than Egyptian troops loyal to ʿUrabi marched into the palace, released their leaders, and demanded that the minister of war be dismissed. Fearing for his life, the khedive acceded. The struggle for power between the military and the khedive continued for a full chaotic year. At the end of the year ʿUrabi himself was named minister of war, though he wielded far greater power than an ordinary minister, and a parliament of sorts was convened.
The extent of the rebellion—or, as the British viewed it, the mutiny—and the degree to which nationalist feelings motivated its leaders continues to be debated among historians, but the dissatisfaction that was first sparked within the military rapidly spread throughout Egypt. The chief targets of this unrest were European residents, who represented to many Egyptians the financial powers that were bleeding the country dry to pay off Ismaʿil’s debts. European residents in Egypt occupied a very privileged position—they were held to separate laws and could be tried only in special European-controlled courts. The rallying cry that spread rapidly throughout the land was “Egypt for the Egyptians!” Tensions between the military and the khedive continued to increase, and ʿUrabi, who proved to be an inept administrator, did not move to quell them. At one point England and France orchestrated the removal of ʿUrabi from power, but immediate protest from the army, religious figures, and the public forced the khedive to reinstate him. The khedive was now seen by many as acting in open collusion with England and France against Egyptian interests.
In June 1882 a riot erupted in Alexandria, and the enraged public attacked Europeans in the streets—nearly 50 were killed and many others wounded. Soon after, British warships fired on Egyptian garrisons in the port of Alexandria, and parts of the city were burned. England had stumbled into a war with Egypt. France and Italy refused to take part in a situation that the British had initiated unilaterally. Within a few weeks newly landed British troops carried out a successful surprise attack on the ʿUrabi-led Egyptian army at Tall al-Kabir. Egyptian resistance crumbled. The British forces now found themselves in the position of almost inadvertently having occupied Egypt. Reactions at home in England from public and political figures alike were decidedly mixed. In a court-martial whose results had been carefully orchestrated beforehand, ʿUrabi pleaded guilty to rebellion, was sentenced to death, and then immediately had his sentence transmuted to exile by the khedive. He and the other leaders of the rebellion were packed off to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), from where he returned to Egypt only toward the end of his life in 1901.
The British forces, having ended the rebellion and reinstated the Khedive Tawfiq with his full autocratic powers, proceeded to place Egypt under temporary military occupation—or so it was thought at the time. The “temporary” occupation did not come to a final end until 1954, 72 years later. For 32 years, from 1882 to 1914, Egypt was left in a state of legal limbo that came to be referred to as the “Veiled Protectorate”; it was not incorporated into the British Empire and was officially neither colony nor dominion. Only in 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, did Britain feel the need to formalize her claim to Egypt, and at that time unilaterally declared Egypt a protectorate. This merely formalized a situation that already existed: Britain controlled Egypt’s military, its foreign affairs, and its central finances, while Egypt had a nominal ruler and, at times, a parliament of sorts. Beginning in 1876 and extending, with some interruptions, until 1907, Evelyn Baring, later Lord Cromer, was placed in charge of Egypt as British high commissioner and ruled it with autocratic powers. Cromer was given the power to fire any minister of the Egyptian government who disobeyed his orders or the orders of any British government official. The British military occupation and the defeat of the national rebellion came as a tremendous shock to the population of Egypt and for nearly a decade thereafter Egypt remained passive and subdued.
In 1892 the Khedive Tawfiq died and was succeeded by his 16-year-old, Austrian-educated son who ruled as ʿAbbas II. The new ruler was headstrong, ambitious, and not nearly as willing as his father had been to be dictated to by the all-powerful Cromer. Indeed, since the British had no legal claim to Egypt and had only been “invited” into the country by Tawfiq to restore order during the ʿUbrai rebellion, ʿAbbas felt that, as the new khedive, he had the power to ask the British to depart. This proved impossible, but his ongoing struggles with Cromer caused the young ʿAbbas to look ever more favorably upon the nationalist movement that, led by Mustafa Kamil, was growing among university students. The 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century witnessed growing numbers of strikes and demonstrations protesting the English occupation and its policies.
Coupled with the nationalist anti-British movement there arose new intellectual currents calling for the reform of traditional education, the education of women, the modernization of religious teachings, and the revaluation of the role of religious courts. Western technologies and ideas were rapidly making inroads in Egyptian society. The first telephone was hooked up in 1884, the first tramway was built in 1897, the National Bank was created in 1897, and the first calls for women’s rights (such as the influential 1898 work by Qasim Amin, On the Liberation of Women) were published. A great debate was emerging in which Taha Husayn himself would come to play a major role: a debate involving modernity, Westernization, religion, secularism, democracy, women’s rights, education, and national identity.
When Husayn arrived in Cairo from the countryside in 1902 to study at al-Azhar, that venerable institution was in the throes of a struggle for change. Though the curriculum of al-Azhar had undergone several reforms in the years just previous to his arrival, Husayn still encountered an institution and curriculum deeply rooted in medieval texts and traditions. Others were as frustrated as Husayn by this state of affairs, and in 1908, when the doors of the secular Egyptian University first opened, many shared his eagerness to attend the first lectures and courses offered there. In some sense, Husayn’s transfer of his studies from al-Azhar to the new Egyptian University reflects a great debate about tradition and modernity that later encompassed all of Egypt and to some degree led to the writing of An Egyptian Childhood, which some have cited as the single most widely read work of modern Arabic literature in the Arab world (Malti-Douglas, p. 3).
Rural Egypt in the 1890s
At the time of Taha Husayn’s childhood, the vast majority of Egypt’s population still lived in rural villages and small towns, and the backbone of the Egyptian economy was agriculture. The “peasants” or fellahin owned very little of the land they toiled on; large estates held by a small minority—consisting of members of the Turco-Circassian upper class and, increasingly, in the late nineteenth century, of Westerners—constituted most of the arable lands. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, the central government, driven by European financial concerns, steered Egyptian agriculture towards a single cash-crop system based on cotton. When cotton prices fell on international markets, the Egyptian fellahin suffered terrible periods of poverty; when cotton prices rose, their condition improved, at least temporarily.
In many villages, only the simplest form of education could be obtained at the local Qurʾan (Koran) school. This often consisted of little more than a brief introduction to the alphabet and the memorization of a handful of passages from the Qurʾan. The latter is crucial in the everyday life of Muslims since there are points in the daily prayers at which one recites (usually silently or in a hushed voice) one or more passages of one’s own choice from the Qurʾan. In a group setting, such as in a mosque and particularly at Friday communal prayers, the selected passages might be quite lengthy and consist of an entire chapter of the Qurʾan read aloud by a reciter. For most boys, once the memorization of several Qurʾanic passages was complete, so was their education. Few girls were given even this rudimentary introduction to letters. Only families that were financially somewhat better off, or had a surplus of sons for the amount of land they worked, could afford to have male children spend longer periods of time on their schooling. One critical exception, which plays such an important role in Taha Husayn’s story, is that blind children were often fully trained to be Qurʾan-reciters, one of the few means of gainful employment open to them.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, a new government school system was established that implemented many Western ideas about secular education. At first there were only specialized colleges in Cairo for the military sciences and engineering. Later, elementary and secondary school systems were introduced. Taha Husayn went to the traditional Qurʾan school in his village in the period immediately prior to the tremendous expansion of government schooling. By 1906 there were approximately 4,500 village schools with 170,000 pupils; 500 primary and secondary schools in towns and cities reached an additional 100,000 students, of which about one-fifth, or 20,000, were girls (Vatikiotis, p. 219). Although these numbers reflect only a fraction of the school-aged children in a country whose population had topped 6 million, it was an astonishing advance accomplished in a very short period.
Although village families were often large, the high infant mortality rate and the danger of disease and epidemics frequently meant that only a few children survived to adulthood. Traditional medical practices relied as much on talismans and charms written by local religious figures as on natural cures such as herbs and other treatments. Some conditions were attributed to spirits (the jinn familiar to Western readers as the “genies” of the Thousand and One Nights). If a person was diagnosed as being “possessed” by a spirit, the family might turn to talismans and charms, to the visiting of a local saint’s shrine, or even to an exorcism, complete with drummers and other musicians.
One mainstay of village life was the Sufi brotherhoods. Sufism emerged as early as the ninth century as a mystical branch of Islam that emphasized the personal experience of the love of God, ecstasy, and renunciation of the temptations of this world. Some of the greatest thinkers, poets, and leaders of medieval Islamic civilization were practicing Sufis or were strongly influenced by Sufi ideas. Over the centuries Sufism came to be organized into various brotherhoods or orders, each of which professed different views and techniques for achieving spiritual goals. Some preached strict asceticism and withdrawal from the world, while others propounded an approach much more engaged with the daily life of the masses. Many orders included special ritual prayers, sometimes to the accompaniment of music, called dhikr (“remembrance”), as an act of remembering God.
Over time many Sufi brotherhoods adopted more and more radical practices that demonstrated their removal from even the physical laws of this world: eating glass, piercing their bodies with metal skewers, walking on hot coals, and so forth. In some settings, Sufi figures came to be worshipped as saints who possessed supernatural powers of healing and miracle working. Islamic religious reform movements have emerged in opposition to the worship of saints, belief in magic and sorcery, and strange physical practices such as those mentioned above; these movements have directed criticism at local Sufi orders many times in recent centuries. The Islamic reformist movements of the late nineteenth century, and those of the late twentieth century, have all attacked such popular beliefs. In essence, the Sufi branch of Islam has both a classical past found in the writings of great spiritual leaders and poets of the Middle Ages, and a more recent history that has very negative associations for many educated Muslims.
An Egyptian Childhood begins a few years after the author’s birth in 1889 and continues to 1902. It thus begins in the period in which the British had been occupying Egypt for about ten years, and extends through the period of popular demonstrations and strikes. Though this was a time of dramatic social changes that greatly affected the protagonist’s early and later life, only the faintest awareness of these upheavals is recorded in the narrative itself, most of which recounts days lived in the countryside far from the social movements that kept the great urban centers in ferment. No European appears at any point in the book.
An Egyptian Childhood opens with a series of indistinct recollections of the spaces and sounds of the central character’s early childhood home. The scenes are recounted by a narrator who refers to the central character at first only by means of the third-person pronoun “he,” but later as “our friend,” “the boy,” and “the young man.” There is reason for the tentativeness of these early scenes; since Taha Husayn was himself blind, the depiction is not merely that of an adult struggling to recall his earliest memories, but also that of a blind child struggling to understand the world around him. Nevertheless, the narrative only slowly surrenders this information to the reader through oblique indications that mirror the child’s own confusion as to why other people speak of so many things of which he has no direct experience. These memories are at first isolated, but then coalesce slowly into a coherent narrative.
The narrator tells us of the young boy’s world, which extends only a few feet from the door of the house to a cornstalk fence: in one direction it stretches another few feet down to a small irrigation channel and in the other only as far as the neighbors’ yard, which is inhabited by terrifying dogs. Surrounded by his 12 siblings and his parents, the boy is at times neglected and ignored, at times laughed at and teased, and at times cared for tenderly. But he is also surrounded by all of the various sprites and jinn of the folktales he hears told by his mother and others. He sleeps tightly bundled up in his blanket at night, certain in the knowledge that if even the smallest opening is left, the sprites will enter it and grab him while he sleeps.
In many regions of the Middle East food is handled only with the right hand. The left hand, even when thoroughly washed, is considered impure since it is reserved for personal bodily functions. One day the boy decides to grasp his food with both hands, despite what he has been taught, provoking laughter and ridicule from his siblings and the anger of his parents. The painful incident provokes a lifelong habit of eating in solitude and never in the company of others. As he further becomes aware of how food drips and stains his clothing, generating even more derision from others, he comes to refuse anything that must be eaten with a spoon.
From earliest childhood the boy loves hearing stories and songs, the recitation of the Qurʾan, the chanting of the Sufi dervishes, the lamentations of the village women, and the epic-singing of itinerant poets. All of these he quickly learns and memorizes by repeating them to himself. The various tales and songs become woven into his daydreams and fantasies, at times indistinguishable from reality.
AN ARABIC EPIC
One of the stories that Taha Husayn mentions repeatedly is the great Arabic epic poem Sirat Bani Hilal, the epic of the Bani Hilal Bedouins. The epic recounts the migration of the Bani Hilal from their homeland in the Arabian peninsula and their conquest of North Africa, which they ruled until 1160. The epic’s adventures and romances center on the black hero, Abu Zayd, his archrival, Diyab, and the wondrous heroine, al-jazya. Even in the late twentieth century, singers can be found in Egypt who perform this epic in versions of up to 140 hours in length while playing the rabab, a two-string spike-fiddle.
The boy’s parents know that in Egypt and other areas of the Islamic world, one occupation traditionally open to the blind is that of Qurʾan reciter. Many Islamic rituals and celebrations of life include the public recitation of sections from the Qurʾan: engagements, marriages, memorials, circumcision ceremonies, saints’ festivals, Sufi services, and so forth. It is therefore with the purpose of preparing him for this occupation and providing the boy with a livelihood that his parents send him off to the village school. In perhaps the most famous sequence of the book, the narrator describes the boy’s experiences in the Qurʾan school. The teacher, who is also blind, is conceited and arrogant, a liar and a cheat. The boy successfully manages to memorize the entire Qurʾan in a relatively short period, but after a brief celebration, he is then ignored and left to his own devices. One day his father asks him to recite a certain section of the Qurʾan and it soon becomes apparent that the boy has forgotten everything he learned. When word of this is sent to his teacher, the teacher quickly takes the boy back through the Qurʾan from the beginning and then swears to the boy’s father that the boy had never forgotten anything. Although it is clear that the boy did indeed forget, the father relents, satisfied that the boy now knows the Qurʾan by heart. The teacher confronts the boy’s father, saying:
“so you averred that your son had forgotten the Qurʾan and blamed me severely for that! Now I swore to you that he had not forgotten but was only nervous, but you contradicted me and mocked my beard. I have come to-day that you may put your son to the test in my presence, and I swear that should it appear that he has not learnt the Qurʾan, I will shave off this beard of mine and become a laughing-stock among the fuqaha [religious scholars] in this town!” The sheikh replied, “Don’t get excited. Wouldn’t it have been better to say, ’Well, he forgot the Qurʾan, so I have been through it with him again’?” Said “our master,” “I swear by God three times that he did not forget it, nor have I been through it with him again. I only heard him recite the Qurʾan and he recited it to me like flowing water, neither stopping nor hesitating.”
Our friend listened to this dispute, knowing full well that his father was right and that “our master” was lying, but he said nothing and stood waiting for the examination….
(Husayn, An Egyptian Childhood in The Days, Vol. 1, pp. 28-29)
The teacher makes the boy promise that he will review six sections of the Qurʾan every morning, but then passes him on to the care of the teacher’s assistant, the monitor. Instead of reviewing the Qurʾan with the boy, the monitor similarly makes him swear to continue reviewing what he has learned. When the boy should have been practicing his reciting, he is left to play and amuse himself. Aware that the boy is once again forgetting what he has learned, the monitor extracts small gifts and bribes from the boy by threatening to report him to the teacher and his father. Worse yet, the monitor places some of the younger students under the boy’s tutelage, and he, in turn, begins to demand bribes from his pupils instead of teaching them. He is caught in a vicious circle of lies and bribes.
Finally a day of reckoning arrives. The father once again asks the boy to recite for him and the boy cannot. A chain of recriminations leads to the teacher, who again swears that he has been tutoring the boy every day. The boy, in his confusion and fear, lies to his father and says that this is true. In the aftermath of this incident, the boy feels his shame and humiliation so acutely that he places his head upon the pantry chopping block and tries to deliver a blow to his neck with the cleaver, only further angering his parents. The boy is withdrawn from the school and a private tutor is eventually brought to the house to teach him the Qurʾan for the third, and at last successful, time.
The boy’s dreams are tied to his hopes of studying in the great al-Azhar mosque and university in Cairo, where one of his older brothers is already a student. The narrator recounts frankly that this aspiration had little to do with a thirst for knowledge, but rather with the boy’s intense desire to be respected and revered as his older brother and other Azharites were. Each time his older brother comes to visit, the boy hopes desperately that he will be taken off to Cairo with him. But each time the boy is disappointed. On one visit, however, the older brother brings two books for the boy to study in preparation for al-Azhar, one on classical Arabic grammar and the other on theology. These books are beyond the ken of the village Qurʾan teacher and the boy must now study with a respected religious figure, a judge in the village, who is himself a graduate of al-Azhar. The lessons with the judge mark the first step in the slow broadening of the boy’s world beyond the confines of the village.
At this stage, the boy makes no distinctions between the medieval scholarly texts he is memorizing (with little to no actual comprehension of their content), the religious rituals of the local Sufi dervishes, and the sorcery and quack medicine practiced by wandering charlatans. He and a friend enthusiastically purchase cheap chapbooks that purport to contain magic spells, and experiment with trying to call forth spirits and jinn. Only slowly does he become aware of what he perceives as the fakery involved and then his attitude (which now blends almost seamlessly with that of the narrator’s voice) turns toward sharp condemnation of the rural ignorance surrounding him. Various anecdotes recount the ridiculous religious rulings pronounced by villagers who have misinterpreted classical Arabic words in the Qurʾan; others portray the superstitious nature and inefficacy of local healing practices. The latter become particularly poignant when the narrator informs us that this is how the boy lost his sight: his complaints (one assumes about his eyes) were at first ignored, then he was treated with a painful folk medicine that did no good, and finally the village barber was called in and treated him in a manner that left the boy completely blind. He plainly traces his blindness to traditional medicine, referring to it as “this criminal knowledge of women and those like them” (An Egyptian Childhood in The Days, p. 71).
Another aspect of rural life that attracts the boy’s critical attention is the role of the Sufi mystical orders. He comes to understand that the intense rivalry between the orders involves little more than personal feuds between powerful families. Visits by the sufis, thought by some to bestow blessings on a house, are seen as nothing more than a plague of greedy, gluttonous guests who impose severe financial hardship on families that are already struggling to survive.
THE WORLD’S OLDEST UNIVERSITY
The great mosque and college of al-Azhar is the world’s oldest continuously operating university. It first opened in 972 and thereafter rapidly became established as one of the preeminent centers of learning in the Islamic world. Students traveled from as far off as West Africa and China to live and study there. Many students lived within the compound itself in dormitories that possessed endowments to help students from particular regions (such as the dormitory of the Moroccans), while others lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the university. Classes met at appointed times and were conducted with students seated in a circle around their teacher. Typically, the teacher would guide students through a canonical text and its various commentaries; the students often memorized the work as they studied it, even if it was in many volumes.
Eventually a government inspector who has been schooled at both al-Azhar and at the more modern College of Engineering moves into the region. The inspector begins to teach the boy tajwid, the full cantillation, or proper chanting, of the Qurʾan, which is governed by very precise rules of pronunciation and performance, a skill far removed from the inexact, almost garbled renditions of the village Qurʾan teacher. It is also at the inspector’s house that the boy experiences the first glimmerings of romantic love, though he is only ten or eleven years old at the time.
At this point in his life, the boy is moving in several circles of men who are by village standards quite learned. He takes cantillation lessons with the inspector, listens to the sermons at the mosque, has sessions with the judge in the religious courts, and attends the ceremonies of the Sufi dervishes. Suddenly, however, the boy is shaken from this relatively satisfying and secure life. First, his four-year-old sister dies, an event he blames on his mother’s ignorance of modern medicine. Then the family loses two grandparents in a short period. And finally, his 18-year-old brother, recently graduated from secondary school and about to travel to Cairo to study medicine, dies in a cholera epidemic. The family is nearly destroyed by this succession of tragedies. The boy, knowing that his older brother spent so much time on his studies that he had often neglected his religious obligations, takes on in secret the task of performing all of the daily prayers and the fasts twice over to save his brother’s soul. He sees his brother in terrifying dreams night after night for months after his death, and continues to see him at least once a week even beyond that. It is only in this emotionally charged sequence of scenes that the author turns to the first-person pronoun and, while describing the heart-wrenching shrieks of his dying sister, suddenly speaks briefly as “I.”
Then unexpectedly his time arrives. In the autumn of 1902 he is sent to Cairo to live with his older brother and to study at al-Azhar. In a scene that foreshadows much of Taha Husayn’s later career as a reformer and a modernizer, the narrator records the boy’s reaction to hearing his first lecture by a renowned shaykh (or sheikh): “He swore to me afterwards that from that day he despised learning” (An Egyptian Childhood in The Days, p. 83). (Something would later change this attitude, as revealed in the next volume of his autobiography.)
The final chapter of An Egyptian Childhood turns abruptly to the narrator/author addressing his nine-year-old daughter and explaining to her that he has tried to spare her the childhood that he survived. He closes by telling her that he knew that boy who at age 13 was sent off to Cairo, a boy who was diligent and serious, bedraggled and unkempt, but good-hearted and tenacious. And while he in some ways wishes that she too could have known him as he was then, so that she could see the difference between them, in other ways he knows that she would not be able to understand that boy, coming as she does from such a pleasant, comfortable existence:
How has he attained the position in which he is now? How has his appearance become presentable and no longer egregious and repulsive?
How has he been able to give you and your brother the agreeable life you now enjoy? How has he aroused such envy, hatred and malice in the hearts of some and the approval, respect and encouragement in the hearts of others? If you were to ask how he has passed from that state to this, I could not tell you.
(An Egyptian Childhood in The Days, p. 87)
The question of language
When An Egyptian Childhood was first published, modern Arabic literature had been experimenting for several decades with a variety of new literary forms inspired by contact with Western literatures. Classical Arabic literature possessed many forms of fictional narrative—epic poems, romances, picaresque short stories, collections of anecdotes on given themes, philosophical allegories, and so forth—but had not yet explored the potential of extended prose narrative devoid of poetry. Most medieval genres of Arabic literature combined prose, poetry, and even a third mode of composition, saj’, or rhymed prose. When the first “novels” or “proto-novels” were written in Arabic in the 1870s and 1880s, writers such as Salim al-Bustani regularly used poetry for the dialogue between characters or for external commentary on the situation of the characters. Similar adaptations of classical Arabic genres characterized writings such as Hadith Isa Ibn Hisham, Muhammad al-Muwaylihi’s bitingly sarcastic social commentary on newly Westernized classes in Egyptian society, published between 1898 and 1902 and couched in a medieval genre of picaresque short stories. Throughout the nineteenth century Arab writers used European literatures as a catalyst for creative innovation in Arabic letters without fully adopting any of the Western forms.
As European nations solidified their colonial hold on Arab lands, however, the new educational systems brought not only new ideas about technology, science, and social institutions, but also literary ideas. By the turn of the century many young Arab writers were spending a great deal of their time reading and translating Western works, which soon led to their imitation in Arabic literature. While some of these works were scarcely disguised copies of European models, others developed a more indigenous mode while at the same time experimenting with Western genres. Taha Husayn’s An Egyptian Childhood manages to be both something new in the Arabic literary tradition and yet not clearly modeled on a specific European work or genre.
In particular, the linguistic style of the work is so classical that some readers refer to it as almost Qurʾanic. Although in English “Arabic” is commonly referred to in the singular, Arabic is in fact a cluster of related but distinct languages. On the one hand, all modern Arabs speak an oral, local dialect as their mother tongue and this almost never appears in written form; and on the other hand, the entire Arab world is joined by the use of a literary language—referred to as Standard Arabic, Literary Arabic, or simply Written Arabic—that students learn in school. This is similar to the situation of late medieval Europe when people spoke in Castilian, Provençal, German, or English, but used Latin for almost all written documents.
In addition to the difference between the spoken dialects and the literary language, however, the Arabic writing system allows one to read it in two different ways. The modern, easier manner is to read the words without adding the endings that are required by the rules of classical Arabic grammar; the classical manner requires the reader to pronounce case-endings on every word. The Arabic alphabet transcribes only the consonants and the long vowels of each word. Thus the sentence “Muhammad wrote a long book,” which, when it appears on the page in written Arabic as “Mḥmd ktb ktāb ṭwīl” may be read two ways:
- How one reads it in the easier, though still educated, style:
Muḥammad katab kitāb ṭawīl
- How one reads it in the more classical style:
Muḥammadun kataba kitaban ṭawllan
The latter is far more difficult, since these caseendings are not actually printed on the page, but must be supplied from the reader’s own knowledge of classical grammar.
One indication of the highly unusual status of An Egyptian Childhood as a text is that it is always published with all of the short vowel markings and case-endings displayed throughout the text—unlike any other prose work of modern Arabic literature. Indeed, only certain types of very difficult poetry and the Qurʾan itself are also published in this style. This stylistic feature is as powerful and as resonant to the modern Arab reader as the style of Shakespeare or the King James Bible is to English readers. Unfortunately, since this linguistic distinction does not exist in other languages, this extremely rich dimension of the text is completely lost in translation. In the Arab world this text is as famous for its style as it is for the narrative itself. Its style reveals something about the man whose childhood is being profiled—his lifelong esteem for and mastery of the classical Arab language.
Before the appearance of An Egyptian Childhood, Arabic classical literature possessed a long history of autobiography, in the sense that authors penned accounts of their lives to be read by later generations. These texts took a variety of different forms that might (using Western labels) be termed political memoirs, intellectual histories, spiritual confessions, travel accounts, and even works of advice to children. From this tradition Taha Husayn retained the third-person voice used in many pre-twentieth-century Arabic autobiographies and coupled it with the omniscient narrator’s voice common to the Western novel.
Another element that may have come from the classical Arabic tradition is the author’s frank account of his childhood misbehavior. As far back as the ninth and tenth centuries Arabic autobiographies were characterized by a few revealing anecdotes about the author’s childhood misdeeds. In premodern times, Arabic life-stories were often written as moral examples, for use as didactic texts or as manuals of instruction for aspiring young thinkers or spiritual seekers. The mention of childhood failings may have helped to make seemingly perfect adults approachable, and more significantly, imitable. For a respected spiritual or intellectual authority to confess his youthful wrongdoings allowed readers to hope that they too might transcend their petty failings and achieve spiritual or intellectual progress. Over several centuries, this aspect of the Arabic autobiography slowly expanded from a few scattered anecdotes to lengthy sections and even whole chapters. An autobiographical text published in 1888 by ʿAli Mubarak Pasha concerning his childhood, for example, Al-Khitat al-tawjiqiyya al-jadida li-misr al-qahira wa-muduniha wa-biladiha al-qadima wa-l-mashhura (A New Description Dedicated to the Khedive Tawfiq of Cairo and Egypt’s other Famous and Ancient Towns and Villages), opens with page after page of childhood misadventures in which he lies, cheats, runs away from home, quits his job, and is thrown in jail (all before the age of 12!). Thus Taha Husayn’s account of lying, bribery, and intimidation in the village school was not in and of itself a new development in the Arabic autobiographical tradition; however, he brought together in unique fashion elements of Western fictional narrative, stylistic features from classical Arabic literature, and an autobiographical sensibility derived from both the Arab and the Western tradition into a single text. An EgyptianChildhood is not a novel in the standard sense of the term, but it is certainly something more than a standard autobiography.
An Egyptian Childhood is the first volume of a series of three books that constitute the full autobiography of Taha Husayn. This initial volume was first published serially in 1926-27 in the journal al-Hilal and was printed as an independent volume in 1929. Husayn’s significance as an intellectual figure even at this early date is clear from the fact that in 1932, when almost no translations were being undertaken of modern Arabic writings into English, An Egyptian Childhood was published in English, scarcely three years after its publication in book form in Arabic. The second volume of the autobiography, The Stream of Days, was published in Arabic in 1940 and translated into English in 1943; the final volume, A Passage to France, was published serially in 1955 in the journal Akhir Saʿa and then separately in 1967, and was translated into English in 1976.
From childhood to adulthood
In 1926, when Husayn sat down to dictate An Egyptian Childhood, much had changed since the events of
PERSONAL TRAJECTORY: TAHA HUSAYN 1902-1920$
Disgruntled in real life with the restrictions of traditional learning at al-Azhar, Husayn started attending the secular Egyptian University when it opened as a private institution in 1908. He successfully wrote and defended the university’s first doctoral thesis in 1914 on the blind medieval poet al-Maarri (973-1058), becoming the first to graduate from the fledgling institution. That same year he traveled briefly to Montpellier, France, returned to Egypt for three months, and then went to Paris where he studied from 1915 to 1919. In 1917 he married his wife, a French Catholic, whom he had first met in Montpellier when she applied for a job as his personal assistant He presented his second doctorate in Paris in 1919 on the social philosophy of the late medieval historiographer Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and then returned to Egypt In the 1920s Taha Husayn participated in Egypt’s struggle against British colonial rule and cultural domination through his news articles and other writings.
1898-1902 that the narrative portrays. The world had undergone dramatic transformations: in 1905 a European nation, Russia, was defeated by the Asian nation Japan, an event that led to a fundamental reassessment of the apparent invincibility of European arms; in 1908 the Young Turks had brought about a constitutional revolution in Turkey; in 1911 Italy invaded and occupied Tripolitania (Libya); in 1914-18 World War I redrew the map of Europe, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s call for self-determination lent support to a broad range of independence movements, Egypt’s included.
In Egypt a Nationalist Congress was held in 1907 out of which emerged the first political party, the Wafd (“the Delegation”), an organization that fought unsuccessfully for the right to represent Egypt at the Versailles treaty conference of 1919 to bring official closure to World War I. In. 1914 the British had deposed Egypt’s leader, the Khedive ʿAbbas II, in fear of his sympathies for Turkey and the Axis powers. Prince Husayn Kamil was placed on the throne with the title of Sultan—the new title marked a break with the nominal allegiance of Egypt’s ruler to the Ottoman sultan—but he died only three years later in 1917 and was succeeded by his brother Fu’ad.
When Taha Husayn returned from France in 1919, he arrived in a country wracked by anti-British demonstrations. Sa’d Zaghlul, who had served as minister of education (1906-10) and minister of justice (1910-13), had emerged as the hero of the Egyptian nationalist cause. In 1919 he was arrested and shipped to Malta by the British for his pro-independence activities. This, however, unleashed a wave of protests throughout Egypt that eventually led to both his release and permission for him to attend the Versailles conference, but there his hopes were dashed and no progress was made in ending the British occupation. He returned to Egypt but was again arrested and deported, this time to Aden and then to the Seychelles, in 1921.
Finally, in February 1922, in the face of continuous Egyptian unrest, Britain unilaterally declared Egypt an independent state. However, Britain retained ultimate control over Egypt’s military, the right to intervene to protect foreign interests and minorities and to assure the security of the British Empire’s communications in Egypt, and control over its relations with the Sudan. To mark the transition, Fu’ad was given the new title of King Fu’ad I. This independence, albeit incomplete, at least gave Egypt an opportunity for self-rule, ushering in a period (1922-36) described by historian ’Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid Marsot as Egypt’s liberal experiment. Politically, this period was marked by constant struggle between the parliamentary forces that had been created by the constitution of 1923 and the monarchy: a series of prime ministers served in rapid succession, and Parliament was elected, seated, and then dissolved by royal decree several times. Socially, the issue of women’s rights again moved to the fore with the formation of the Feminist Union by Huda Sha’rawi and her dramatic gesture of publicly removing and disavowing the veil at the Cairo train station in 1923. Taha Husayn supported women’s abandoning the veil, pitching himself into the heat of this controversy. As mentioned, his involvement in this, as well as other social controversies of the period, would cost him his job and motivate him to write his three-volume autobiography.
Another significant debate in this period was sparked by the 1925 publication of Al-Islam wausul al-hukm (Islam and the Principles of Governance) by Shaykh ’Ali ʿAbd al-Raziq, which argued that the Prophet Muhammad had founded a religion but not a form of government. Al-Raziq advocated a separation of religion and state, along Western models. This was of course anathema to more orthodox religious thinkers, who believed that Islam offered a complete and inseparable moral system that encompassed all aspects of life and who viewed the secularization of the state as tantamount to atheism.
A literary rebel
Less than a year later, Taha Husayn unleashed a greater furor with his 1926 publication Fi al-shir al-jahili (On Pre-Islamic Poetry). Arab culture has throughout its history revered the corpus of poetry transmitted from the pre-lslamic era as its most beautiful—and most quintessentially Arab—artistic production. The accepted history of this corpus is that it was composed and transmitted orally in the pre-lslamic Bedouin society of the Arabian peninsula and then written down in the second and third centuries of the Islamic era (eighth and ninth centuries c.e.) in urban centers such as Kufa, Basra, and Baghdad. Taha Husayn threw doubt on the authenticity of this account and declared that many, if not all, of the individual poems were forgeries from a later period. It would have been bad enough that he was attacking one of the most highly prized elements of Arab culture, but the language of the poems was also deeply intertwined with the interpretive commentaries on the Qurʾan. In the early centuries of Islam, pre-lslamic verses were often used as evidence in arguments explicating difficult words and passages in the Scripture. To declare the poems to be fakes would be to throw the entire interpretive tradition into question. And there were further fears of what might result should similar methods of analysis be applied to the Qurʾan itself. In the heat of the debate, Husayn was declared an apostate by several religious authorities, was forced to rescind the book (though he later revised it and published it under a slightly different title), and eventually was removed from his post at the University.
In Egypt the veil was the marker of middle- and upper-class women. Lower-class women who worked in agriculture or other outdoor occupations could little afford to be encumbered by such a garment, though all women in Egypt traditionally kept their hair covered with a scarf, as do women even today throughout much of the Mediterranean. In Taha Husayn’s village, for example, women certainly would not have worn face veils. Husayn himself nevertheless became a staunch supporter of women’s rights and a harsh critic of the veil, an item of great controversy during his lifetime. In 1923, a few years before the release of An Egyptian Childhood, Huda Sha’rawi and her companions, having just returned from an international feminist congress in Europe, exited the train that had brought them back to Cairo without their veils. They were photographed “barefaced” and the photographs were published in several daily newspapers, leading to a public uproar. Some were opposed to the very idea of upper-class women appearing publicly without veils, others were incensed that the photographs had been published, and a handful of men supported them. Despite the fracas, or perhaps because of it, the veil disappeared rapidly in Egypt, and by the early 1930s was rarely seen in Cairo or Alexandria until its resurgence in the 1990s.
It was in the thickest and bitterest period of this uproar that Husayn and his family vacationed in France. There, while under public attack on many fronts at home in Egypt, he dictated An Egyptian Childhood. Its immediate and enduring success stemmed from many factors: its astonishingly classical though lucid style; its endearing portrait of the young blind boy who managed to overcome all of the obstacles in his path; its trenchant critique of traditional education and religious practices; and, not least, its reflection upon the historical moment in which it was written, a moment at which Egypt was at a critical crossroads. Would Egypt (as Taha Husayn advocated in later writings) become a Western nation on the Mediterranean’s eastern shore? Or would it interpret its heritage as Eastern and turn back to older models of religion, government, and education? Although many circumstances have changed in the meantime, most notably the complete independence of the Egyptian state from Britain in the wake of the Nasserite revolution of 1952, these questions remain nearly as contested and as relevant in Egypt today as they were when An Egyptian Childhood was first written.
Critics paid close attention to An Egyptian Childhood, not only because of its author’s reputation but also because it was the first contemporary Arabic literary work to be translated into English and a number of other languages. The Times Literary Supplement reviewed it with qualified praise:
[I]f there are some scenes which are damningly accusatory … others have a fine tenderness And all the while we see the mind gradually awakening, the sense of criticism being born in a boy whose circumstances led him to lead the intense life of the imagination. The book is on all counts a very remarkable one How much some of the minor awkwardnesses are due to difficulties of translation is not possible to say These, however, are minor blemishes.
(Times Literary Supplement, p. 185)
As decades passed, fascination with Taha Husayn’s narrative would persist. A half century after its release, Fedwa Malti-Douglas examined the narrative in a way that, according to a reviewer of her work, brought to light features that help explain An Egyptian Childhood’s enduring appeal, “as not only the account of an exemplary individual but as a subtle text that forces questions about the nature of narration, society, and culture” (Beard, p. 112).
—Dwight F. Reynolds
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