Version classiqueVersion mobile

Entre réforme sociale et mouvement national

Alain Roussillon

Réformer les représentations

Literature, Art and National Identity in the Era of Social Reform

Robin Ostle

Texte intégral

  • 1 See for example Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel and Lucien Goldmann, The Hidden God, London, (...)

1The period which extends from the reign of the Khedive Isma’il (1863-79) until the 1920’s, when Egypt became one of the new independent nation states of the Arab World, saw radical transformations in the forms of literary expression in the general area of high culture. These transformations were most apparent and dramatic in prose literature, for in spite of all the elements of narrative and drama which undoubtedly exist in pre-modern Arabic, the modern forms of the short story, the play, and the novel did not exist in this literature before 1840. In the light of the work of so many critics and theorists from Lukacs to Goldmann and beyond,1 who have explored in great detail the complex nature of the relationships between literary form and its contextual reality, let us accept without further argument that these literary transformations were an integral part of the wider social practices which took root in 19th century Egypt. Obviously the Khedivate of Isma’il did much to hasten the pace and dimension of the social and cultural changes which were to alter the face of Egyptian society and create the conditions for the rise of new professional classes. During his period government schools were established with curricula which departed from the old traditional patterns of Arabic and Islamic studies, and most important of all "Dar Al-’Ulum" was created in 1872, thus breaking the dominance which Al-Azhar, mosque-university, had long exercised over education. This process of the secularization of education culminated in the founding of the Egyptian University in 1908: such new institutions of learning were vital instruments in promoting the equivalent of an Egyptian liberal bourgeoisie which began to supersede the elites of the Turko-Egyptian aristocracy. It was also Isma’il who dreamed of creating the Paris of the East and who began the westernization of Cairene architecture in earnest, through the planning of such new quarters as Tawfiqiyya, Isma’iliyya, and ‘Abidin. More generally, throughout the 19th century

2Egypt became very much part of a global economic system, and European communities of French, Greeks, Italians, and British became established in the expanding cities of Cairo and Alexandria. An inevitable part of this process was the cult of occidentalism which began to affect the lives of indigenous urban elites, not just in Egypt but in other cities of the Near East and North Africa. This was expressed in architecture, dress, furnishings, educational systems, and in those cultural pursuits amongst which the production and consumption of literature occupied a central position.

3The juxtaposition of Isma’il’s New Cairo with the Old City of the Fatimids and the Mamluks was the perfect symbol of the cultural polarities which grew apace in Egypt in the late 19th century. Muhammad ‘Abduh was particularly sensitive to the dangers caused by the increasing existence of two different educated classes in Egyptian society, one emerging from the traditional Azharite system and the other from the government schools, Dar Al-’Ulum, and ultimately the Egyptian University. ‘Abduh was to devote much of his life’s work to narrowing the margin between these intellectual elites:

  • 2 Hourani Albert, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, O.U.P., 1962, p. 139.

His writings were directed not so much to convinced Muslims doubtful whether modern civilization was acceptable, as to men of modern culture and experience who doubted whether Islam, or indeed any revealed religion, was valid as a guide to life. It was this class which was the greatest danger to the umma, if it was won to metaphysical secularism; but equally it was from this class that only the leadership of a revived umma could be drawn.2

4Cultural tensions became deeply rooted in Egyptian life, and were perceived in the differences between modern technocrat and religious conservative, or between urban sophisticate and rural peasant. Such tensions were to become the very stuff of modern Egyptian literature in the period of its renaissance. It is significant that the area of literature in which external formal transformation is least apparent is that of poetry, for the external facade of its classical form was to endure until the Second World War, long after the novel, the drama, and the short story had become permanent features of both modem Egyptian and modern Arabic literature. On the scale of polarities in Egyptian society which had been accentuated both during and after the reign of Isma’il, poetry was inevitably ranged on the side of the traditionalists; indeed it was one of their most powerful weapons. It was the supreme Arab art, and even at the turn of the century the qasida form was still eminently recognizable as that which had been used by the great pre-Islamic poet Imru’l-Qays some thirteen centuries earlier. The neo-classical poets such as Mahmud Sami Al-Barudi (1839-1904), Hafiz Ibrahim (1871-1932), and Ahmad Shawqi (1868-1932), were the equivalents in literature to the followers of Sheikh ‘Ali Yusuf and Mustafa Kamil in politics, they were fiercely anti-British but were equally dedicated to the maintenance of indigenous values and traditions. In this they were the literary disciples of the intellectual tradition which includes Tahtawi, Muhammad ‘Abduh, Muhammad ‘Umar and Sheikh Al-Maghari: they were in no sense against modern or western civilization, but they sought to justify this within the context of traditional Islamic civilization. There is also a strong element of cultural atavism in their mission: faced with the apparent omniscience and omnipotence of Western Europe, the neo-classical poets allowed Egyptians to feel that at least in the realm of poetry they had no reason to feel inferior as they continued to display tenacious self confidence in the pride of past achievements. It was much to Mahmud Sami Al-Barudi’s credit that he was able to re-create the dignified artistry which had been characteristic of the best poetry of the classical ‘Abbasid period.

5It was the Khedivial court that was graced by the most brilliant and sophisticated of the Egyptian neo-classical poets: Ahmad Shawqi, who for some twenty years until the outbreak of World War I was the official poet of ‘Abbas II. He was the last of the great court poets in Arabic literature. His panegyric or madih poems are not the most satisfying part of his work, hardly surprising since they chart the vacillating career of his patron who tried vainly to preserve his own position by playing on both pro-Ottoman sentiments and those of the emergent forces of Egyptian nationalism. His descriptive verse (wasf) was usually inspired by the inconsequential brilliance of court life and high society in Cairo or Alexandria, or by the genteel urban landscapes of parks and gardens. But where Shawqi or his contemporary Hafiz Ibrahim struck the widest response in Egypt was in their satirical attacks (hija’) on the British presence. Hafiz Ibrahim made his reputation with the passionate poems which he wrote attacking the Dinshaway atrocity of 1906:

  • 3 Hafiz’s poem, "Haditha Dinshaway", is quoted in M.M. Badawi, An Anthology of Modern Arabic Verse, (...)

When you tire of your pigeon sport amongst those hills,
then hunt the local peasants! We and the wild doves are one.
We both have rings around our necks!3

6A year later in 1907, Lord Cromer, who had been an all-powerful presence in Egypt for twenty-three years, resigned from his position as Consul-General, and his departure was the occasion for one of Shawqi’s most renowned poems, "Farewell Lord Cromer":

  • 4 Ibid., p. 17.

Is it today that we’re alive or the age of Isma’il?
Or are you Pharaoh strutting down the Nile?
Or do you lord it over Egypt’s land, neither consulting
nor called to account?
When you left, the country blessed your going,
like the end of some dreadful plague.4

  • 5 See Al-’Aqqad and Al-Mazini, Al-Diwan: Kitab fi’l-Naqd wa’l-Adab, Cairo, 1921.

7Shawqi’s collected works illustrate the dramatic thematic expansion which poetry in Egypt experienced during the twenty-five years which preceded 1914. Browsing through the volumes of his collected works one finds that scarcely any aspect of public life in Egypt has escaped his attention, much of his work effectively being journalism in verse: there are poems about fires and other disasters, educational reforms in Al-Azhar, the opening of new buildings, the foundation of new educational institutions, the social problems connected with the position of women and marriage customs. Whatever else one may say about the neo-classical poets, they could not be accused of a lack of concern with the topical issues of modernization and social reform. And yet it is significant that the poems which stand the test of time are the inspired passages of wasf or hija’, where Shawqi is writing easily and masterfully within a long tradition, and where there is a genuine harmony between the topic and its literary convention. In many of the examples of his "verse journalism’ the literary conventions are quite out of tune with the thematic content, and literary anachronisms abound. For the neo-classical poets and their public, there was a conscious link between the language and form of poetry, and the idea of a proud Arab cultural identity supported by historical achievement. This is why the conventions of this type of poetry resisted for so long the pressures for transformation being made of them by the wider evolutions in society. Both during and after the First World War, the neo-classical mode was superseded by romanticism and subject to the vitriolic attacks of the Diwan triumvirate of Al-’Aqqad, Shukri, and Al-Mazini.5 They were members of the new generation of Wafdist Egyptian nationalists who sought to dethrone Shawqi as the Prince of Poets. They called for a new poetry that would be "human, Egyptian, Arabic’ (insani, misri, ‘arabi) — the priorities are significant. In spite of their loud critical rhetoric, the actual achievements of the diwan poets fell far short of their claims, and their criticism was based much more on political and personal issues rather than on the fundamentals of literature. Furthermore, it could be argued that until 1930, the best examples of neo-classical poetry could still surpass any of the new prose genres in terms of the sheer quality of literary technique.

  • 6 For an excellent biography of Haykal, see Charles D. Smith, Islam and the Search for Social Order (...)

8It is not particularly surprising that the group of politicians and intellectuals around Ahmad Lutfi Al-Sayyid who created the newspaper Al-Jarida and the political party Hizb Al-Umma should be associated with one of the more dramatic stages in the evolution of form in modern Egyptian literature: this was the publication of the novel Zaynab in 1913 by Muhammad Husayn Haykal.6 The whole Jarida group was something of a paradox in intellectual and political terms; while they were definitely not anti-Islamic in any sense, neither was Islam for them a rallying point or an important principle of social or political organization. They certainly believed in independence for Egypt, but not through violent action against the British. Rather they seemed to see the British occupation almost as a necessary period of preparation for self-rule. Established landowners such as Haykal or Lutfi Al-Sayyid himself did not view with equanimity the violence and social disorder which they felt would result if the British left Egypt before the country had been "properly prepared" for independence. A prerequisite of this stage of "proper preparation" was wide-ranging reform inspired by the precepts of English and French social and political thought. The paradox which surrounds Lutfi Al-Sayyid and the Jarida group is that they articulated the clearest and least ambiguous theories of Egyptian nationalism, while they espoused political positions which were the least likely to bring about independence.

  • 7 Haykal Muhammad Husayn, Zaynab, Cairo, 1963, Preface, p. 10.

9Zaynab is a symbol of the contradictions which affected the Jarida group as a whole, and although it was by no means the first original novel to appear in Arabic, more than any other work it established this genre as a serious and permanent feature of both modern Egyptian and modern Arabic literature. According to Haykal himself,7 he had not begun the composition of Zaynab with the intention of writing a novel, but he had started it as a short story. However, the young Egyptian law student in Paris found that the combination of the flow of his imagination and his longing for his home country drew out the dimensions of the work far beyond his original plan. Parts of the book were also completed in London and Geneva. The cultural polarities which became increasingly entrenched in Egyptian society from the late 19th century are an integral part of the book. Hamid, the hero, has strong autobiographical similarities to Haykal himself. Although he is the son of the local landowner he is equally at home in New Cairo. He returns to the village of his birth from the city, usually to spend the long summer holidays there. He is well aware of the gap between him and the peasant workers created by his class and his education. This gulf informs the very structure of the novel which is composed of horizontal strata with few convincing vertical links between the different groups of characters. The relationship between Hamid and Zaynab the peasant girl is one of the strangest features of the book: there is a mutual attraction, but neither takes the affair seriously because it simply does not occur to either of them that it can lead anywhere. The social barriers are so immutable that even the thought of transcending them does not arise in the mind of the peasant girl or the landowner’s son. Thus the fates of Hamid and Zaynab are worked out to an unhappy and unsatisfactory end in both cases, but for each of them this happens within their respective social milieux which hardly impinge on each other.

10The politics of the Jarida group were combinations of ideas, theories, and strong, sincere emotions. It is entirely appropriate that literature should play its part in expressing the dreams and visions of this new generation of Egyptian liberals. The fact that Haykal wrote Zaynab in the form of a novel, almost in spite of his original intentions, is some indication that he and his generation were experiencing and feeling in a new way as well as writing in new forms. This was a time when crucial changes were taking place in political and intellectual circles about the idea of the nation and cultural nationality. In Zaynab there are long sustained idylls on the beauties of the Egyptian countryside in which Hamid wallows in lengthy phases of self-indulgence and not a little self-pity. The portrayals of the peasant characters Zaynab and Ibrahim are remarkable for their romantic idealism, as the fellahin, after centuries of consistent neglect in the Arabic literary tradition, now assume positively heroic dimensions and become the embodiment of virtues. This represents the pastoral tradition which dominates the book and expresses the aspirations of Haykal and his associates. The element of satire is also definitely present although it is heavily muted. Hamid is well aware of the sufferings of the peasants, and the injustice and unenviable nature of their lot, but he is not particularly exercised by this. The gap between them and his own social status is wide, but he accepts this as a fact of life. Indeed there is a direct relationship between the inner structure of the book and Hamid’s acceptance of the social status quo. The bridges which Hamid builds across the gap to peasant characters such as Zaynab and Ibrahim have no enduring substance. He is essentially preoccupied with his own predicament: that of a rich young man who has been educated according to European principles and in European institutions, but who cannot behave in his own society as he would in Europe. He agonizes about the shackles which restrict his own freedom and liberty much more convincingly than he does about the eternal poverty traps which imprison the peasants. The tragedy of Zaynab who cannot fulfill her true love is as much a commentary on the problems which confront Hamid as it is an indictment of the peasant condition. Hamid is aware of the suffering of the peasants, but he is usually able to drown this unease in a welter of egocentric emotion to which the peasants, the animals, the crops and the beautiful countryside are a convenient background. His is a classic portrayal of the "woolly" liberal.

The Rise of Painting and Sculpture

  • 8 See Badr al-Din Abu Ghazi, Jil min al-Ruwwad, Cairo, 1975, p. 17.

11Even more dramatic than the formal transformations of the new prose genres in Egyptian literature was the re-appearance of an area of artistic endeavour which had for long lain dormant in Egypt — that of representational painting and sculpture. In view of the long-standing religious prejudices against representational art in the general arena of high culture, it was to be expected that enthusiasm for these activities would be strongest amongst those who were firm believers in the eclectic adaptation of western manners and customs to Egyptian society. Qasim Amin had returned from a visit to Paris dazzled by the works of art which he had seen in the Louvre; Ahmad Lutfi Al-Sayyid wrote enthusiastically in Al-Jarida about painting and sculpture and lamented the fact that this was not yet a part of modern Egyptian cultural life.8 During the second half of the 19th century Egyptian high society had become increasingly accustomed to the visits of European artists who pursued their own cult of orientalism. In 1891 the first public exhibition of works by foreign artists who had been inspired by themes drawn from Egyptian life and architecture was held in the Cairo Opera House. Eventually, in 1908 the first School of Fine Arts was founded in Cairo under the patronage of Prince Yusuf Kamal. One of its first graduates was Mahmud Mukhtar, born in 1891 in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra.

  • 9 Ibid., pp. 49-50.

12Like Haykal, Mukhtar was the son of an umda, and while still a child had demonstrated precocious talents for modelling figures and animals from clay. He enrolled as a student of sculpture in the Cairo School of Fine Arts in 1908, the year of its foundation, and in 1911, the year in which Haykal was completing the writing of Zaynab, Mukhtar went to Paris as a member of an educational mission to further his formation as a sculptor.9 The quality of his work gained him respect and recognition amongst artistic circles in Paris and from 1913 his works began to appear in exhibitions. His crowning achievement in the French capital came in 1920 when a model of his statue "The Renaissance of Egypt" was awarded the major prize in the annual exhibition of works by French artists. This model was the forerunner of Mukhtar’s most famous public statue. In its full scale form it was unveiled in 1928 in the forecourt of Ramsis Station, and was subsequently moved in 1955 to its present site astride the approach to Cairo University. A peasant girl stands proudly erect, drawing aside her hijab with one hand, while the other rests firmly on the head of the sphinx beside her. The iconography of the peasant figure buttressed by the power and the glory of the pharaonic past expressed a vision of Egypt which increasingly inspired the country’s political and intellectual elite after World War I. Haykal’s Zaynab in literature, and Mukhtar’s "The Renaissance of Egypt" in sculpture, established motifs and symbols which were to recur in literature and art throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. The fact that both these works were conceived and largely implemented in Paris was eloquent testimony to the power of the extraordinary love-hate relationship between Egypt and Western Europe which dominated the era of social reform.

The Pharaonic Heritage

Come friends, both of you go down into the Valley, turn to
the chambers of those royal suns that have set.
Tread softly through their enclosures, wander humbly
through their resting places.
Greet and salute the remains of the glory of Tutankhamon
And a tomb whose stones and clay shine and diffuse a
scented beauty.
Such was its splendid history, its lofty stone might have been
hewn from Sinai’s peaks.
Its denizen was called king, then took the name of
precious treasure.
Stand then and hail him as they hailed him in those olden days
For there is a majesty long established, which has
endured for forty centuries.

  • 10 Shawqi Ahmad, Al-Shawqiyyat, vol.1, Cairo, n.d., pp. 266-274.

13These lines are from a substantial poem by Ahmad Shawqi10 in celebration of the discovery of the tomb and treasures of Tutankhamon, and they illustrate an element in the politics of Egyptian culture which was to increase in strength and significance after 1918. The opening tones of the extract are of quiet reverence and wonder at the near miraculous discovery of such a fabulous treasure, tribute to a great civilization. The exhortations which begin the initial lines are almost invitations to worship. The tension gradually builds as the mood moves from that of initial awe, to the joy of the discovery that this light of Egyptian power and achievement has endured for forty centuries. The discovery of Tutankhamon was a great sensation at the Lausanne Conference of 1922-23, the Conference which ended with the peace treaty between the Allied Powers and the Turkish Republic which had replaced the Ottoman Empire. In the same poem, scorn is directed at Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Secretary from 1919-24 who presided over the various stages which led to the first proclamation of a circumscribed Egyptian independence. This combination of the art of the Prince of Poets and the majesty of the Pharaohs was a powerful antidote to the humiliation and frustrations suffered by the Egyptians in increasing measure from 1914 onwards.

  • 11 Vatikiotis P.J., The Modern History of Egypt, London, 1969, p. 246. Also Albert Hourani, Arabic Th (...)

14As a result of the war experience, the course of Egyptian nationalism underwent something of a sea change.11 By declaring Egypt a protectorate in 1914, the British finally severed its links with Istanbul and what was left of the Ottoman Caliphate, and reduced the country to the level of a colony. Before the war, the various strands of Egyptian nationalism were ambiguous to say the least, and it was also more a preoccupation of the leaders of society than a movement that could call on genuine mass participation: thus Mustafa Kamil had sought to use both the Khedive ‘Abbas and the influence of the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul as counterweights to British influence in Egypt, while the Khedive was equally happy to use both Istanbul and Mustafa Kamil in order to try to preserve his own power base. After the war it was Sa’ad Zaghloul and the Wafd party who led Egypt, via the 1919 Revolution and the numerous tortuous negotiations at home and abroad, to the Declaration of Independence of 1922 and the first Wafdist Government in 1924. His political parentage was much closer to the Umma-Jarida group than it was to the National Party of Mustafa Kamil, and his own social origins conformed to the pattern which had become dominant in the new power circles of post-war Egypt: he came from the Gharbiyya province in the Delta where his father was an ‘umda. He was yet another member of that new elite of professionals who found education and social and political advancement in the cities, but whose roots remained identified with landowning farmers on a small or large scale in the Egyptian countryside. This model of individual social transformation had become almost commonplace in Egypt from Muhammad ‘Abduh onwards: it was a pattern shared by the writer Haykal and the sculptor Mukhtar, and the elite which it produced was to endure until the 1952 Revolution.

  • 12 Al-Shawqiyyat, vol.I, pp. 17-33.

15The poem quoted above was by no means the first in which Shawqi and others had glorified the great Pharaonic heritage as a source of national inspiration. As long ago as 1894 he had made fulsome reference to ancient Egypt in his poem "Great Events in the Nile Valley",12 composed on the occasion of the Conference of Orientalists in Geneva, but after 1918 the combination of motifs from the pharaonic period and the life of the fellahin became particularly dominant. With Haykal in literature and Zaghloul in politics, the figure of the fellah began to occupy a central place in the discourse of art and politics alike, and the sculpture of Mukhtar added wondrously to the dimensions of the theme. Both the pharaonic and rural motifs were timeless features of the local scene, essential symbols of the continuity of the community of that part of the Nile Valley which was now to form the modern Egyptian nation state. An obvious comment to make at this point is that the basic cultural reality of the vast majority of the Egyptian people was — as it still is — Islamic, a factor which was recognized fully in the poetry of Shawqi and others prior to 1914. After the war the Islamic elements are muted or non-existent in the iconography of the new painting and sculpture, and in most avant-garde literature they are relatively underemployed. The Islamic dimension is almost totally absent throughout all stages of Mahmud Mukhtar’s work. In the 1920’s it might almost be said that the dominant cultural symbols of Egyptian art and literature were created in spite of the prevailing cultural realities of the majority of the population, and this is at a time when at many levels Islam was obviously as vital and dynamic as ever. The ferocity of the controversies waged between the religious establishment and unorthodox thinkers such as Taha Husayn or ‘Ali ‘Abd Al-Raziq were eloquent testimony to this, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood movement at the end of the decade is one of the dramatic success stories of modern Egyptian history.

16Naturally the vision of Islam held by Muhammad Husayn Haykal and many of his contemporaries was not that of the typical Azhari ‘ulama’; thus Hamid, the protagonist of Zaynab, rails at the "heavy cold shackles of convention", and there is a clear implication that many of his problems stem from the backwardness of the prevailing manners and customs sanctioned by the religious establishment. The peasant girl in Mukhtar’s statue "Renaissance of Egypt" gazes optimistically into the future, and at the same time draws aside part of her head covering or hijab. This was a most appropriate symbol for the views of many of the new generation of intellectuals in the 1920’s: just as Al-’Aqqad and his colleagues sought to break the time-honoured canons of the language and form of Arabic poetry in their radical literary manifesto Al-Diwan: Kitab fi’l-Naqd wa ‘l-Adab published in 1921, so others sought to breathe new life into what they saw as the ossified structures of Islamic tradition. Yet they were far from being "anti-Islamic". To be sure, this new generation of Egyptian intellectuals were not institutional ‘ulama’, but with their faith in wide-ranging rational inquiry they were themselves representatives of a long tradition of Islamic thought which goes back at least to the mu’tazili theologians of 9th century Baghdad. While such figures have rarely been central to the pre-modern development of Islam, neither have they ever been absent from the rich history of ideas in this civilization. In the final analysis, Taha Husayn and his contemporaries were ardent nationalists and the nation was the home of the whole community, both Muslim and Christian Egyptians alike. Of course Taha Husayn recognized that Islam had a crucial role to play in Egyptian nationalism, it being the bedrock of the religious and cultural life of the majority of Egyptians. The first volume of his autobiography Al-Ayyam was published in 1926. Inevitably the author rails against the ignorance and inefficiency which were rife in the traditional Muslim education available to most rural Egyptians. But his satire, though biting, springs from a basis of deep affection and a sense of identification with the people and their culture. This is the satire which seeks not to destroy a system but to reform it, with sharp compassion, from within. And yet for Taha Husayn, Islam — or indeed Coptic Christianity, was only part of the essential fabric of the nation. The new nationalism for him and his like-minded contemporaries was not one that was conditioned solely by Islamic perspectives of history and civilization: in Mustaqbal Al-Thaqafa fi Misr, he makes it quite clear that in historical terms his country owes much to the legacy of Greece and Rome and has always been an integral part of the great Mediterranean civilizations. While he in no sense denies any of the realities of the Islamic past and present, he is quite clear in expressing that the totality of the civilization of his nation extends back over several milennia. The book was published as late as 1938, but it is obvious that such ideas were widespread amongst artists and intellectuals in the 1920’s. At one point in his poem on Tutankhamon Shawqi exclaims:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 267.

Rome trod the earth by the light of the sons of Amon, who also cast their glow upon Athens.13

  • 14 Abu Ghazi Badr al-Din, Jil min al-Ruwwad, p. 131 sq.
  • 15 Excellent black and white photographs of this work may be consulted in Contemporary Art in Egypt, (...)

17Some of the most skilful and instructive iconographic representations of the different cultural strands of Egyptian nationalism during this period were painted by Muhammad Nagi (1888-1956), one of the great pioneers of modern Egyptian painting and an exact contemporary of Muhammad Husayn Haykal.14 A number of his works from the 1920’s and 1930’s are designed as murals, and one which has decorated the hall of the National Assembly since 1922 bears the same title and the same combination of motifs as Mukhtar’s statue: "The Renaissance of Egypt".15 A variety of fellahin along with their animals throng in an enthusiastic procession around a chariot drawn by water buffalo: in the chariot stands proudly erect the figure of an ancient Egyptian queen-goddess, contrasting with the nakedness and obvious poverty of some of the villagers. His panel "The Tears of Isis" is eloquent with the same symbolism: the goddess Isis mourns her murdered husband, the God Osiris, whom she was eventually able to bring back to life through her divine powers of regeneration. The face of Isis is not the usual stylized representation of a Pharaonic divinity but the face of a contemporary Egyptian woman. In the background appears the Valley of the Kings, and that other timeless feature of the Egyptian landscape, the peasant and his farm animals. Of all the cultural foundations which were to be the basis of the new Egyptian nation, none was more important than the Pharaonic in the early years of independence. After all, the fragments of the Hellenistic or Roman civilizations in Egypt which remained visible were as nothing compared to the tangible majesty of the Temples of Luxor and Aswan or the Pyramids of Giza. Thus Ancient Egypt became a recurrent feature in the art and literature of the new nation-state. Mukhtar’s statue of Sa’ad Zaghloul in Cairo, which looks across the Nile towards Tahrir Square, stands aloft on columns which are Pharaonic in design. Ancient Egypt was the setting for one of the earliest plays by the pioneering dramatist Tawfiq Al-Hakim (Aminosa 1922), and in his novel ‘Awdat Al-Ruh published in 1933 but written in 1927, national revival drawing strength from Pharaonic glory is an important theme. As late as the end of the 1930’s and the early 1940’s, Naguib Mahfuz based his juvenalia (‘Abath Al-Aqdar, Rudabis, Kifah Tiba) on the same phase of Egyptian history. Nor did the poet Ahmad Shawqi exaggerate in his poem on Tutankhamon when he claimed that at least in this instance, Egypt had gripped the imagination, not just of the negotiators in Lausanne, but of the whole civilized world.

Rural Visions

18Muhammad Husayn Haykal and his generation were dedicated to creating a sense of national community both to combat the colonial presence and to create a new nation-state. The material which provided the symbols to flesh out the abstract ideas of "the nation", "the people", and "the homeland" was to be found in the milieu which contains the majority of Egypt’s population — the countryside. And yet the contradictions had never been sharper. The whole process of occidentalism which had affected the major urban centres of Egypt in the latter half of the 19th century, and which was expressed in town planning, cultural pursuits, and secular developments in the educational system, merely served to accentuate the traditional tensions between urban centre and rural hinterland. Egyptian politicians and intellectuals struggled to construct new political, social, and artistic identities for their community, and the countryside became a vital ideological necessity as a source of imagery for national authenticity. Yet rarely can the political and intellectual elite of the period have been less well-equipped to come to terms with the countryside; although figures such as Haykal and Mukhtar had their social origins in villages in the Delta, they were products of the New Cairo. They were graduates of secular educational institutions, and they and many others completed their intellectual formations in England or in France. They had to face the contradiction that for them, the countryside was the haven of traditional values and virtues, and yet at the same time it was the refuge of poverty and ignorance. This was the labyrinth of uneasy ambiguity which works of art and literature began to explore in increasing detail after World War I.

  • 16 For these and other biographical details on Nagi, see Abu Ghazi, Jil min al-Ruwwad, p. 31 sq.
  • 17 See figure 10 in R. Ostle, "Literature and Art in Egypt 1914-1950. Form, Structure and Ideology", (...)

19The Egyptian countryside was one of the major creative preoccupations of the painter Muhhammad Nagi, whose relationship with this problematical sector of Egyptian national life shows many affinities with the visions of writers such as Haykal the novelist or Ahmad Zaki Abu Shadi the romantic poet. His biographical details display the typical pattern of that formation which had become common to many of the new Egyptian bourgeoisie: he was born in comfortable circumstances in Alexandria in 1888, and on completing his secondary education he went to France where he studied law at the University of Lyon from 1906-10. The years 1910-14 were spent in Florence where he absorbed himself in the study of art, and after the outbreak of war he returned to Egypt and established himself in Thebes in order to explore the art and architecture of the Pharaonic era.16 In Nagi’s youth the family house in Alexandria overlooked the Mahmudiyya Canal which circles round the southern fringes of the city between Lake Maryut and the main urban centre. Today it is overgrown, unused, and almost invisible, but in those days it teemed with the people, the boats, and the produce that plied in a constant stream of activity between the city and the Delta region to the south and the east. The full length of the Mahmudiyya canal extended from the western harbour area of Alexandria, around the edge of the city, and through the northwest section of the Delta to the town of Al-Mahmudiyya on the Rosetta branch of the Nile. On the way it passed by the village of Abu Hummus from which the Nagi family originated. In forming a link between Alexandria, which was an even more occidentalized city than Cairo, and the rural life of the Delta, this canal created an aquatic margin between town and country which Nagi was able to observe from the comfort of his home in the city, or from his visits to the village of Abu Hummus. Many of the urbanized elite of Nagi’s generation had become marginal to that countryside in which many of them had their social origins and to which not a few of them owed the basis of their wealth. His famous canvas "The Artist’s Family in the Countryside"17 is the perfect commentary on this situation: the urban elegance of the artist’s father and his sister on the right hand side of the picture contrast starkly with the poverty of the people and the mean lowly dwellings of this typical Egyptian village.

  • 18 Ibid., figure 11.

20It is above all in his drawings and sketches that Nagi comes closest to the harshness of the reality of life in rural Egypt for the majority of the fellahin who lived and worked there. A large number of these drawings are now on display in the new Nagi museum near the Pyramids: the most impressive examples show nothing of the spirit of romantic fantasy which inspired Haykal’s novel or the romantic poetry written in Egypt between 1910 and 1930 (see such drawings as "Woman Grinding Corn", "Motherhood", "In the Market", "The Rebaba Player", and "‘Amm Gum’a with his Lamb"). On the other hand Nagi’s more polished oil paintings such as "The Basket Maker" and "The Fisherman"18 are blander and more reassuring works: both represent visions of rural toil, but this is less the toil of exhausting drudgery than a vision of honest and honourable labour, surrounded by an air of contentment and rural charm as preceived by the urban sophisticate. The untroubled visions of the peasants and their milieu have not yet been overwhelmed by the sourness and disillusion which began to become increasingly apparent throughout the 1930’s.

The Female Ideal19

  • 19 For a fuller version of this section, see my paper, "The Romantic Imagination and the Female Ideal (...)
  • 20 Hourani Albert, Arabic Thought, pp. 164-170.

21The majority of the pioneers of the intellectual and artistic life of Egypt during the era of social reform stood firmly on the side of the feminist reformer Qasim Amin (1865-1908): both in Tahrir Al-Mar’a and Al-Mar’a Al-Jadida, Amin had made no secret of his opinion that one reason for the superiority of societies such as the British and the French was their evolution from despotism to democracy, and the progress which they were making in the fields of women’s rights. Such progress in his view was both a precondition and an accompaniment to development and modernization,20 a view which was shared by the political theorist Lutfi Al-Sayyid, the sculptor Mahmud Mukhtar, the painter Muhammad Nagi, and the writers Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Tawfiq Al-Hakim, and Taha Husayn. Thus it was that the theme of female emancipation became one of the causes célèbres espoused by Egypt’s liberal reformers in the early decades of this century, for the stand which one took on the sensitive issue of the position of women in society was one of the touchstones by which one defined one’s position in relation to tradition and modernity.

22The new generation of romantic poets who began to appear in Egypt from 1910 onwards started to move poetry away from the previously dominant neo-classical mode. One feature of the classical tradition against which they reacted strongly was what they perceived as the heavily physical conventions of old Arabic love poetry. For them, this element of the classical Arabic literary imagination was an integral part of that wider mentality which had reduced women to the subordinate and degraded status which Qasim Amin and his disciples sought to reform. Accordingly, some of the Egyptian romantics began a process of idealization which derived from the European romantic tendency to confuse the human and the divine in the transmuting experience of love. Thus ‘Abd Al-Rahman Shukri (1886-1958) proclaims in the preface to his fourth diwan:

  • 21 Shukri ‘Abd al-Rahman, Diwan, Alexandria, 1960, pp. 99-100.

By love poetry I do not mean the poetry of lust or sexual passion, but that of spiritual love which rises above all descriptions of the body, except those which reveal the working of the soul.21

  • 22 M.M. Badawi A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry, Cambridge, 1975, pp. 116-145.

23The high priest of the romantic movement in Egypt was Ahmad Zaki Abu Shadi (1892-1955). The periodical Apollo which he founded and edited from 1932-34 was an inspirational publication to young writers and artists in Egypt and other Arab countries, and Abu Shadi and his associates became known as the ‘Apollo’ group.22 He spent the years 1912-22 pursuing medical studies in England, and on his return to Egypt in 1922 he became one of the most distinguished members of the new Egyptian intelligentsia who identified wholeheartedly with the renaissance of the new nation-state. Abu Shadi’s first major diwan was published as early as 1910 with the title Anda’ Al-fajr. This was reprinted in 1934 with some later additions which were not included in the first edition. The dedication to this second edition is to the mysterious woman Zaynab who became the leitmotiv of much of his later poetry:

  • 23 Abu Shadi, Anda’ l-Fajr, Cairo, 1934, p. 16.

Twenty-five years have passed away, and the flame of my love
still leaps and flickers.
I am still that maddened youth with pounding heart.
Love’s memories and its frenzied visions parade before me
sleeping and awake.
She is part of me, so how can I forsake her? Oh welcome,
imagination, which lets me hold and touch.23

24The reference in the first line is to an unhappy love affair which traumatized the poet in late adolescence but which remained one of his most consistent sources of inspiration throughout his career. The diwan which he published after his return from England also has this title (Zaynab, 1924), which is shared with the novel by Muhammad Husayn Haykal. It is above all through his love poetry that Abu Shadi makes his most important contribution to the overall development of the romantic movement. Unrequited love was the basis of most of this verse, but through his simple and relatively unaffected poetic diction, and the intense and subtle analysis of all the finer shades of his emotional states, Abu Shadi created a genuine new departure for this age-old theme. In the poem "Zaynab", he surrounds his beloved with an atmosphere of sacred adoration as his emotions rise to heights of platonic intensity:

  • 24 Abu Shadi, Zaynab, Cairo, 1924, p. 16.

Be, oh my angel, an ideal of purity which brings me
close to your God...
My feelings, my passion, my all, are pledged to that
which is most perfect and beautiful in you.24

  • 25 See figures 5, 7 and 16, in Ostle, "Literature and Art in Egypt 1914-1950".
  • 26 Abu Shadi, Zaynab, pp. 38-40.

25Although some of the amatory verse by Abu Shadi certainly contains powerful erotic overtones, much of his love poetry published in the 1920’s in the collections Zaynab (1924), and Al-Shafaq Al-Baki (1926-27), shows a tendency to produce the idealized, almost disembodied images of womankind which were becoming typical of the female ideal in the new romantic imagination. One can observe similarly ethereal visions of women in many of the statuettes produced by Mahmud Mukhtar in the 1920’s and which are on display in his museum in Cairo; some of the more notable examples are ila ‘l-Nahr, Munajat, ‘ala difaf Al-Nil, and Fellaha.25 These are remote Madonna-type figures whose effect is anything but erotic. They are the three dimensional versions of the nude goddess figures which illustrate many of the series of diwans by Abu Shadi, usually depicting personalities or events from Ancient Greek or Egyptian mythology (see the illustrations in the original editions of Al-Shu’la 1933, Atyaf Al-Rabi’ 1933, and Al-Yanbu’ 1934). The sculpture of Mukhtar and the love poems of ‘Abd Al-Rahman Shukri and Ahmad Zaki Abu Shadi created idealized and platonic representations of female figures, emphasising the fact that relations between the sexes prior to marriage had more to do with flights of the imagination than with any tangible physical contact. Romantic love is played out in the realms of fantasy both blissful and anguished. Thus Abu Shadi composed the poem "Oh My God"26 in which it is clear that the object of his adoration is a woman, but a woman who has a divine, unattainable quality which makes it impossible for him to gain her in his lifetime.

26It would be misleading to imply that the poetry of platonic adoration was the only form of love poetry practised by the Egyptian romantics, although it could fairly be described as a dominant mode. Sensuality and downright eroticism are also represented in full measure, particularly in the work of Ibrahim Nagi (1898-1953) and ‘Ali Mahmud Taha (1902-1949). The latter became very much the major cult figure of romantic poetry both in Egypt and beyond, because of the nature of his life and his art. Taha had a bohemian attitude to the prevailing manners and customs of the majority of his society, and this he indulged through his frequent visits to Europe, and his own life in the cosmopolitan centres of Cairo and Alexandria. His poetry is a celebration of all the fantasy and exoticism which the avant-garde of his generation associated with Western Europe. The scenes of Venice, Switzerland, France, or the Italian lakes were magical visions of luxury, beauty, and sexual liberation. One of Taha’s greatest gifts as a poet was his ability to create through his language that sense of musical delight which has been rivalled by only a few other poets in the 20th century, such as Ahmad Shawqi or the Syrian Nizar Qabbani. This combination of the entrancing musicality of the verse and the excitingly erotic subject matter had a powerful effect on the youth of Taha’s generation for whom sexual repression remained very much the norm outside marriage.

27It would be fair to conclude that a general feature of life in Egypt during the era of social reform was that there was often little direct organic relationship between theory and practice, or between ideals which were proclaimed and the realities which prevailed amongst the majority of the population at large. This applied to numerous different aspects of the life of the nation. The country became independent, but the continuation of British power and influence called into question the very basis of that independence. Democratic processes were supposed to apply, but the monarchy and the politicians conspired to undermine these processes. Leaders of society called for greater equality and emancipation for women, but the numbers who derived any benefit from this were insignificant. The romantic imagination accompanied the rise of the new nation-state, and this encouraged an intense concentration on the individual sensibility, but individual emotional liberations were not accompanied by widespread liberalizing tendencies in society as a whole. The literature of this time provides an intriguing commentary on the dislocations between theory and practice, and on the contradictions and ambiguities of the age.


1 See for example Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel and Lucien Goldmann, The Hidden God, London, 1964.

2 Hourani Albert, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, O.U.P., 1962, p. 139.

3 Hafiz’s poem, "Haditha Dinshaway", is quoted in M.M. Badawi, An Anthology of Modern Arabic Verse, O.U.P., 1969, p. 20.

4 Ibid., p. 17.

5 See Al-’Aqqad and Al-Mazini, Al-Diwan: Kitab fi’l-Naqd wa’l-Adab, Cairo, 1921.

6 For an excellent biography of Haykal, see Charles D. Smith, Islam and the Search for Social Order in Modern Egypt, Albany, N.Y., 1983.

7 Haykal Muhammad Husayn, Zaynab, Cairo, 1963, Preface, p. 10.

8 See Badr al-Din Abu Ghazi, Jil min al-Ruwwad, Cairo, 1975, p. 17.

9 Ibid., pp. 49-50.

10 Shawqi Ahmad, Al-Shawqiyyat, vol.1, Cairo, n.d., pp. 266-274.

11 Vatikiotis P.J., The Modern History of Egypt, London, 1969, p. 246. Also Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, p. 209.

12 Al-Shawqiyyat, vol.I, pp. 17-33.

13 Ibid., p. 267.

14 Abu Ghazi Badr al-Din, Jil min al-Ruwwad, p. 131 sq.

15 Excellent black and white photographs of this work may be consulted in Contemporary Art in Egypt, edited by Hamed Said, Egyptian Ministry of Cilture Publication, 1964, pp. 116-120.

16 For these and other biographical details on Nagi, see Abu Ghazi, Jil min al-Ruwwad, p. 31 sq.

17 See figure 10 in R. Ostle, "Literature and Art in Egypt 1914-1950. Form, Structure and Ideology", in D’un Orient l’Autre, vol. I, Configurations, Editions du CNRS, Paris, 1991, p. 523 sq.

18 Ibid., figure 11.

19 For a fuller version of this section, see my paper, "The Romantic Imagination and the Female Ideal", delivered to the colloquium on Sex and Gender in Modern Arabic Literature, University of Nijmegen, April 1992.

20 Hourani Albert, Arabic Thought, pp. 164-170.

21 Shukri ‘Abd al-Rahman, Diwan, Alexandria, 1960, pp. 99-100.

22 M.M. Badawi A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry, Cambridge, 1975, pp. 116-145.

23 Abu Shadi, Anda’ l-Fajr, Cairo, 1934, p. 16.

24 Abu Shadi, Zaynab, Cairo, 1924, p. 16.

25 See figures 5, 7 and 16, in Ostle, "Literature and Art in Egypt 1914-1950".

26 Abu Shadi, Zaynab, pp. 38-40.


St. John’s College, Oxford

© CEDEJ - Égypte/Soudan, 1995

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search