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Transnational Revivals: Middle Eastern Voices in Modern Egyptian Culture

Session II-09, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
In recent years, a new body of academic works placed greater emphasis on trans-regionalism and transnationalism in Middle Eastern societies. Underlying the movements of ideas, peoples, and printed materials in the Middle East, such scholarship challenged nationalist and essentialist notions regarding Arab cultures. Taking Egyptian literature and print culture as a case study, our panel aims to explore the articulations of revivalist movements of Arab modernity (known as a Nahda) in Egypt from transregional and transnational perspectives. In other words, while scholars, and Egyptian writers at the time, localized the movements of the Nahda, referring to a specific "Egyptian Nahda," we attempt to examine different types of transregional entanglements and engagements within the Egyptian public sphere, in the period spanning from the British colonialization of Egypt until World War II. Egypt at the time served as a vital printing center and thus works of Islamic and Arabic literature published in Cairo animated global discussions about canonicity, Islam, and the relationships between Oriental Studies and Egyptian academic, literary and cultural production. Focusing on the Egyptian public sphere as a site where works of poetry, history, and fiction circulated, and as an exilic location for many Arab and Muslim intellectuals, we investigate the following questions: How did writers in Egypt reflected on, and used, works in such languages as Ottoman Turkish, Persian, and Hebrew? How do such works – their composition, printing and circulation – relate to the professionalization of Egyptian academic and scholarly institutions, like university departments, archives, printing houses, and libraries? How did the movement of Palestinian, Iraqi, Syrian, Iranian and Turkish intellectuals, to and from Egypt, shape Egyptian discourses and conversations? How do these transregional compositions intersect with reformist, Pan-Arab, Pan-Islamic and Patriotic-Egyptian discourses? The papers in the panel will contextualize close readings of literary and religious texts within broader cultural and political settings. Our deliberations, moreover, will reflect, and offer a revision of, new scholarship on Arab revival movements, Arabic literature, and Egyptian history.
  • In this paper, I argue that the Egyptian Nahda shaped the Iraqi Nahda. While scholars tended to emphasize the ways in which Iraqi connections to the Levant, especially to the influential centers of culture production in Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, influenced the Iraqi public sphere, I suggest that Egypt, a nodal point of the Arab Nahda, played an equally significant role in Iraq's literary life. To illustrate this point, I study the relationships between Shiite and Egyptian intellectuals, in order to underscore the fact that relationships forged by the circulation of print products challenged sectarian boundaries. The Egyptian print market, in other words, cultivated important dialogues between Sunnis and Shiites and inspired shared conversations relating to modernity, colonialism, constitutionalism, nationalism, and Islamic reform. Broadly speaking, the modern Iraqi print market was flooded with Egyptian printed products. Iraqis read newspapers, Arabic and translated novels, and works of political theory, originating from Egypt. They published in Egyptian journals, such as al-Mu’ayyad and especially al-Risala, and commented on Egyptian publications in their own works. In this context, Shiite newspapers like al-'Ilm (published in Najaf in the early 1910s) referenced the works of Islamic religious reformers like Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849–1905)and critiqued Egyptian thinkers like Salama Musa (1887–1958). A unique domain of intellectual exchange between Iraqis and Egyptians was Arabic neoclassical poetry, which Shiite poets used as an important venue for cultural and political expression, on matters such as the Ottoman Constitutional Revolution (1908) or the perils of colonial intervention in Libya. Shiite poets thus shared the thematic and artistic concerns of the Egyptian masters of the neoclassical genre, like Ahmad Shawqi (1868-1932) and Hafiz Ibrahim (1872-1932). In this context, I pay particular heed to Iraqi thinker ‘Abd al-Muhsin al-Kazimi (1870-1935), a Shiite poet who resided in Egypt. Isolated from his networks in Najaf and Kazimiya, and benefiting from his familiarity with Pan-Islamic activist, he fostered a new Iraqi-Egyptian network. I look at his activities in circles affiliated with Muhammad ‘Abduh, at poems he dedicated to Egyptian friends and luminaries, from Sami al-Barudi to Sa‘d Zaghlul, and at his activities in the Eastern Society (Jam‘iat al-Rabita al-Sharqiyya). My close readings of a poem he wrote after ‘Abduh's death highlights the manner in which Pan-Islamic concerns disseminated sectarian boundaries and how transnational Islamic relations were important in Egyptian religious and poetic circles.
  • Since the emergence of Nahda movement in mid-nineteenth until mid-twentieth centuries, Hebrew language occupied a noticeable place in the social and cultural atmosphere in Egypt. Hebrew was used in newspapers, in tombstone inscriptions, in posters for movies and events, and in sings for Jewish spaces that were visible to the public. Hebrew served as the language of performances that non-Hebrew speakers attended, Hebrew words were used in the cinema, and Hebrew phrases penetrated the economic transactions among traders and gold-and silversmiths in the Jewish quarter in al-Muski district. These indications refer to the fact that Hebrew was not confined to the use and the consumption of only Egyptian Jews, but enjoyed a recognizable place in the public sphere. Aside from its circulation in the popular mass culture, Hebrew held the attention of Egyptian intellectuals preoccupied with the cultural revival of their nation and language. The instruction of Hebrew in public universities in early 20th century aimed to enhance the understanding of the history of ancient Egypt and the origins of the Semitic peoples. As Hebrew was gaining strength in mandatory Palestine, Egyptian intellectuals approached this evolving national linguistic project with variegated attitudes. Some intellectuals admired efforts made by revivers of modern Hebrew in bringing their language back to life and adapting it to address the needs of modernity. They saw in referencing these efforts an opportunity to emphasize the likelihood of succeeding in their revival project of Arabic and to fuel their colleagues’ and their audience’s enthusiasm to follow the model of Hebrew. Other writers were drawn to ascertain the historical and linguistic affinity between Arabic and Hebrew in their quest for the Semitic origins of Jews and Arabs as evident in their language. In contradistinction with these views, other intellectuals dismissed the achievements of the revival of modern Hebrew deeming them unworthy of imitation, underscoring the superiority of Arabic over other languages, including Hebrew with respect to Arabic’s richness of vocabulary and meanings and its ability to fulfill the requirements of modernity. Drawing on writings of Egyptian intellectuals in published periodicals and books, I would like to explore the ways in which Hebrew language was invoked in discussions of intellectuals in Egypt pertinent to central issues in Nahda movement, such as the enhancement of modern Arabic, the search for origins, the reckoning of the past, and the understanding of Arabic and Islamic heritage.
  • By the 1920’s, in the Egyptian public sphere, romantic aesthetic ideology advocated by the Diwan group and others had succeeded in overcoming classicist resistance and asserting a conception of literary writing that is humanist and liberatory while at the same time showing a distinctive national character. Such expression required universal, which is to say, European, literary forms. Nevertheless, the pre-romantic Arabic literary heritage, stigmatized as “oriental” within the world literary framework, could not be ignored or suppressed, and persisted as a primary site of contention in literary debates. Moreover, the strength of anti-colonial public discourse problematized identification with Western cultural models. This paper examines a significant trend that emerged in this context, the promotion of Eastern literature as a configuration of world literature opposed to the array of national literatures dominated by Europe. Egypt’s leading proponent of Eastern literature in this period was ‘Abd al-Wahhab ‘Azzam (1894-1959), who after earning a doctorate at SOAS was the first professor of Eastern languages at Cairo University, and went on to become a prominent Egyptian diplomat. His extensive publications include translations of many of the major Persian works of the Indian poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938). This connection is of significance, in that Iqbal sought to create, by way of his Persian poetry, an Eastern Islamic literature of romantic and humanist character as a counterpart to Western literature while devaluing territorial nationalities. For this reason, Iqbal played a major role in ‘Azzam’s similar advocacy. The journal al-Risala established from its first issue in January 1933 a column entitled “On Eastern Literature” authored primarily by ‘Azzam. He inaugurated the column with translations from Iqbal’s work “The Message of the East,” composed as a response to Goethe’s “West-East Divan.” This paper focuses on the concept of Eastern literature and ‘Azzam’s advocacy of it in the 1930’s in Egypt. The paradoxical category of Eastern literature, which adopts orientalist premises as well as romantic literary norms, could not become the basis of an alternative world literary framework. It constitutes, however, a way in which the supposed “easternness” of the Arabic literary heritage was reconceptualized, with the aid of transnational linkages, as a means of inhabiting world literature alongside European literatures but at the same time in opposition to the West.