In the late 1920s, a young Egyptian scholar wrote a letter to one of Cairo’s most famous intellectuals, Taha Hussein: “just as they said of old ‘we are students of Socrates or Aristotle’ … so we are students of Doctor Taha Hussein”, he gushed. Leaving the obsequiousness to one side, this is a hard statement to refute. There really was no one more important in the mid-twentieth-century Egyptian culture than Taha Hussein – perhaps no one more important in the entire history of twentieth-century Arabic letters.
Hussein was a remarkable man. Having lost his sight at a young age, he devoted himself to knowledge and the study of literature. First, he graduated from Cairo’s venerable Islamic university, al-Azhar, then went on to get two doctorates, one from the Sorbonne. In the 1920s and 30s his career thrived. As a writer, he revolutionized the genre of memoir in Arabic with his autobiographical trilogy The Days (1926–7); as a translator, he produced the first Arabic versions of many classical Greek tragedies, as well as contemporary works by writers like Gide and Sartre; As a scholar, he produced work on some of the greats of classical Arabic literature and led Cairo University’s esteemed Faculty of Arts for many years.
His power and influence didn’t earn him unqualified admiration. Many resented the way he had a hand in everything that happened in Cairo’s cultural scene. One particularly bitter academic, Zaki Mubarak, who thought Hussein was preventing him getting certain jobs, said: “I would grill Taha Hussein and feed him to my children if it were permissible to give my children dog meat”.
Hussein is now remembered an embodiment of intellectual life in Egypt’s “Liberal Age”, a period of exciting but troubled parliamentary democracy between the country’s (qualified) independence in 1922 and the Free Officers’ revolution of 1952, which eventually brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. It was a fraught time, but also an exciting one, politically and culturally. It formed the tail-end of a movement known as the nahda (renaissance), an extremely fertile period for Arabic literature, as writers began experimenting with a huge variety of new influences. By the time Hussein was in his ascendancy, traditional assumptions and values were being called into question; Socialism, feminism and secularism were all subjects of intense debate.
But in spite of his towering presence in the history of Egypt, Taha Hussein is little known in the anglophone world. Until now, he has been the subject of only one full length biography in English by Pierre Cachia, published in 1956. And in the decades since his death in 1973, Hussein’s legacy has proved hard to estimate properly. His works deal with the central questions of twentieth-century Egyptian culture: could Egyptians engage with European literature while European imperialism had the Arab world in its sights? How should the texts of the classical Arabic tradition be studied in modern Egypt and what role should religion play in the country? What duty do intellectuals have to their societies? People have found it hard to summarize his life and influence in a way that does not court banality: “he was a religious Muslim but also a secularist”, or “he admired European literature but not European colonialism”.
Now, in a new biography of Hussein, The Last Nadhawi (ie the last member of the nahda movement), Hussam R. Ahmed looks at his life from a fresh angle. Instead of trying to construct a consistent picture of Hussein’s “thought” from his published writings, he focuses on Egypt’s twentieth-century cultural institutions – Cairo University, the Arabic Language Institute, the Ministry of Culture – and shows how Hussein used them to put his ideas into practice.
Ahmed gives the reader a “social biography”, looking as much at the world that its subject navigated as the details of his life. This is not an introductory work. Ahmed’s approach assumes a degree of knowledge about Hussein and the nahda that many lay readers will not have. But it often proves rewarding and enlightening. Where many scholars have become bogged down weighing the minutiae of Hussein’s writings against each other, Ahmed uses his life to paint a bigger picture.
This is not a book about one man; it is about the building of liberal institutions in Egypt in the 1920s, 30s and 40 – a national university, a parliamentary democracy and free, universal education – through the contributions of Taha Hussein. These institutions came to look functionally. They were accused of corruption, of prioritizing the elite over the ordinary people, of not working hard enough for complete Egyptian independence. After the Free Officers’ revolution in 1952, Egypt’s liberal experiment was branded a failure by many; Hussein, one of its heroes, fell out of favor. He was replaced by a new generation of “engaged”, socialist writers who considered his liberal views about the “universal culture” outdated (universal too often seemed to mean European), and saw his attachment to high culture as snobbish.
Ahmed’s book is not an uncritical attempt to completely rehabilitate Hussein and Egypt’s liberal age; Many of its dysfunctions were chronic, perhaps incurable. But it does represent an effort to look at this period again and say that many of the problems encountered by Hussein still exist. Some of his solutions may even be worth listening to. In the 1970s, Hussein was asked what role his older generation could play in the new Egypt. The answer he gave is the last utterance we hear from him in Ahmed’s book: “What we had fought for is what you still need to fight for, and what the generation after you will need to fight for still.” In the twenty-first century, Taha Hussein may no longer be Egypt’s Socrates or Aristotle but, as this book shows, he remains relevant.
Raphael Cormack is the author of Midnight in Cairo: The female stars of Egypt’s Roaring ’20s2021
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