Egyptian pillars in 1919: Revolution of the minds

Hani Mustafa , Saturday 9 Mar 2019

Hani Mustafa celebrates a sampling of 1919’s cultural pillars


The 1919 Revolution was as much a cultural and intellectual as a political movement, inconceivable without the contribution of numerous figures who may not seem directly connected to it.

Ali Abdel-Razek (1888-1966)

 Ali Abdel-Razek

Best known for his seminal work Islam and the Foundations of Governance (which resulted in his dismissal from the Al-Azhar Scholars Committee and the revocation of his alamiya or religious scholarship degree until his brother Mustafa became sheikh of Al-Azhar in 1945, this typical 1919 Revolution thinker argued that the creed should be wholly separated from forms of governance such as the caliphate that made claims upon it.

In fact, much about the biography of Ali Abdel-Razek resembles that of Taha Hussein. He too hailed from Upper Egypt and studied at Al-Azhar before moving onto the secular university upon its opening in 1908, though unlike Hussein he did not abandon his Al-Azhar studies and earned the alamiya in 1912.

He too travelled to France, catching up with his brother the economist Mustafa Abdel-Razek, later moving to Oxford before returning to work as a religious judge in 1915.

He was also a member of parliament and the minister of religious endowments, as well as a member of the Academy of the Arabic Language.

Tawfik Al-Hakim (1898-1987)

 Tawfik Al-Hakim

A pioneering man of letters, master playwright and philosopher, Tawfik Al-Hakim was barely 21 when he joined his uncles in the demonstrations of 1919 and was briefly jailed at the Citadel Prison before being transferred to the Military Hospital.

He resumed his studies in 1920, earning the baccalaureate in 1921. Producing his masterpiece novel Return of the Spirit in 1927 (it was not published until 1933), the experience was to prove essential to his vision and thought throughout his long life.

Bowing to his father’s wishes, he graduated from law school in 1925, but failed to complete his legal education in Paris where he immersed himself in the arts and was recalled by his father in 1927.

He worked as a provincial prosecutor before taking on a cultural position in the education and social affairs ministries, Dar Al-Kotob and UNESCO.

Ali Al-Kassar (1887-1957)

 Ali Al-Kassar

The quintessential Nubian, who was not in fact Nubian but had lived among Nubians for many years while working as a cook and a saddler, among other blue-collar jobs, was among the greatest comedians of his time.

Making up Osman Abdel-Basset, the struggling poor man character with whom he was to be identified and the main competition for Al-Rihani’s Kishkish Bey, Al-Kassar formed his own theatre company in 1916, and became phenomenally popular on stage, where he presented over 160 plays, and on the silver screen.

As a kind of everyman, Abdel-Basset embodied the hardships and struggles associated with living under occupation, and the resilience and hope expressed in the revolution.

Abdel-Rahman Al-Rafei, (1889-1966)

 Abdel-Rahman Al-Rafei

Perhaps the most important turn-of-the-century historian, Al-Rafei’s books are the principal reference for the rise of the nationalist movement and its progress through the 1919 Revolution all the way to the July Revolution of 1952.

He became a prominent member of Al-Watani (or “the National”) Party, having joined on the instigation of the great pro-Ottoman politician Mohamed Farid in 1908, and attended conferences in Brussels (1910) and Rome (1911) in this capacity.

He also wrote in Al-Liwaa, the party paper. He later worked as a lawyer with offices in Zagazig and Mansoura, during which time he wrote such seminal volumes as The Rights of the People (1912).

The late journalist Mustafa Amin thought it likely that he was part of the secret armed wing of the revolution, having been jailed for a year for his political activities in 1915. He played a central role in the 1919 Revolution in Mansoura.

He wrote books on 1919, the Orabi Revolution and the British occupation, Mohamed Ali’s and Ismail Pasha’s reigns and the trajectory of the national movement.

Naguib Al-Rihani (1889-1949)

Naguib Al-Rihani

Born in Cairo to parents of Iraqi origin, the comedy legend dominated theatre and cinema during much of the first half of the 20th century.

He had been dismissed from the Georges Abyad theatre company, which produced historical melodramas, for his light-hearted style of acting and his humour, and he joined Aziz Eid at the Arab Comedy company, performing adaptations of French dramas.

As of 1916 and for many years across stage and screen, Al-Rihani invented the character of Kishkish Bey, the provincial upstart indulging his lust and poor taste in Cairo.

During the 1919 Revolution he performed sketches making fun of the British and criticising their dominance, notably by Badie Khairy. And he was part of the post-1919 boom in theatre, also led by Ali Al-Kassar and Youssef Wahbi.

Rose Al-Youssef (1897-1958)

 Rose Al-Youssef

Born Fatma Al-Youssef to a Lebanese Muslim family, Rose Al-Youssef grew up with a Lebanese Christian family who called her Rose, and did not find out about her birth until the age of 10.

Aziz Eid introduced her in Alexandria and taken her along to Cairo, but she gave up acting following a dispute with Youssef Wahbi that resulted in her leaving the Ramses troupe, and took an interest in the newly booming press.

In October 1925 she launched her legendary magazine, Rose Al-Youssef, a socially oriented publication only obliquely connected to politics.

Yet here as in her later newspaper, also called Rose Al-Youssef, Al-Youssef’s unequivocal support for the nationalist movement and her extreme acumen as a journalist resulted in persecution and financial straits that forced her publications to fold.

Mohamed Bayoumi (1894-1963)

Mohamed Bayoumi

The film pioneer Mohamed Bayoumi, who produced the first issue of the cinematic newspaper Amon in 1923, was born in Tanta one year before the invention of cinema.

Being an avid artist in childhood, he managed to procure a camera at an early age despite being the son of a modest merchant.

Dismissed from the army three years into his career as an officer in 1918, as a result of his political views, Bayoumi studied cinema in Italy, Austria and Germany, returning to Cairo in the wake of the 1919 Revolution to make the 12-minute film Barsoum Looks for a Job, starring Bishara Wakim, in 1923.

Sayed Darwish (1892-1923)

Sayed Darwish

The great Alexandrian composer Sayed Darwish is among the most important musical innovators in the modern Arab world.

He studied at a religious institution in Alexandria, learning to write music as well as becoming a oud virtuoso and singer before moving to Cairo in 1917.

He composed for the theatre, developing strong links to the Naguib Al-Rihani and Ali Al-Kassar companies, as well as producing some of the most memorable patriotic and anti-occupation songs in Arab history (including the present national anthem).

When the British decreed that uttering the name of Saad Zaghloul would incur six months in prison and 20 lashes, he and his long-time collaborator lyricist and playwright Badie Khairy produced Ya balah zaghloul, a song ostensibly about an eponymous kind of dates.

Darwish was not only part of the 1919 Revolution but also contributed to the nascent national identity with such works as the famous operetta Al-Asharah Al-Tayebah (Lucky Ten), written by Khairy and performed by Al-Rihani, Hussein Riad, Stephan Rosti, Zaki Murad and Rose Al-Youssef in 1920.

Aziz Eid (1884-1942)

Aziz Eid

Actor, playwright and theatre company manager Aziz Eid was a bank employee before he embarked on an artistic career in 1905.

He took part in French company productions at the royal opera house, learning from the masters, and worked with many theatre companies before founding the Ramses Theatre Company with Youssef Wahbi in 1923.

Together with such woman stars as Dawlet Abiad, Saliha Qasin and Zeinab Sedki and fellow actors Omar Wasfi, Fouad Selim and Hussein Ryad, among many others, Eid participated in the actors’ pageant in support of Saad Zaghloul early in the 1919 Revolution.

He was dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte. Chanting “Total independence or instant death”, the demonstration moved from the centre of the acting world on Emadeddin Street through the Opera Square and onto Qasr Al-Nil Street on the way to Saad Zaghloul’s house (known as the House of the Nation) in Mounira, where they had a heroic confrontation with British soldiers.

Taha Hussein (1889-1973)

Taha Hussein

The blind “Dean of Arabic Literature”, as he is widely known, left Al-Azhar to join the newly opened secular (later Fouad I, then Cairo) university in 1908.

He studied Islamic civilisation as well as Arabic and Oriental languages, earning his PhD on the Abbasid poet Abul-Alaa Al-Maarri in 1914. He then travelled to France where he earned another PhD on Ibn Khaldoun in 1918, returning at the zenith of the 1919 Revolution.

Back in Cairo, he taught Graeco-Roman history and Arabic literature, introducing “Cartesian doubt” to Arab literary scholarship and (notably on the publication of On Pre-Islamic Poetry in 1926) incurred the wrath of the religious establishment and traditionalists for suggesting that Quranic stories are mythology that must not be taken at face value and claiming that most pre-Islamic verse was actually composed after Islam.

Hussein’s brand of enlightened liberalism and his early revolt against colonial arrogance were part and parcel of the desire for national independence embodied by the revolution.

Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891-1934)

Mahmoud Mokhtar

The great pioneering sculptor joined Prince Youssef Kamal’s newly established school of Art in 1908, having moved to Cairo from his birthplace in Mahalla in 1902.

After clashing with a British army figure during a demonstration he was dismissed from the school, but his talent earned him a way back in, and he was part of the first Egyptian delegation to study art in Paris, where he thought anew of ancient Egyptian sculpture and forged his style.

His contribution to the 1919 Revolution is the seminal sculpture The Renaissance of Egypt, a large granite version of which (completed largely thanks to voluntary contributions) was installed in a public square in 1921.

Representing the spirit of Egypt, the piece was placed at the central railway station in 1955 before being moved to its present position between the Nile and Cairo University.

Following Saad Zaghloul’s death, on the request of the government Mokhtar made two sculptures of the great statesman to be placed in Cairo and Alexandria, and he used the base of the latter – iconic – piece at Raml Station to carve two murals showing Zaghloul in confrontation with Lord Milner and Zaghloul being carried by supporters.

Um Kolthoum (1898-1975)

Um Kolthoum

Arguably the greatest Arab singer of the 20th century, and certainly one of the world’s greatest singers of all time, the Star of the Orient, as she was called, performed religious chanting with her father Sheikh Ibrahim Imam as a child.

She was discovered by the master musicians Zakaria Ahmed and Abul-Ula Mohamed in Sinbellawin, Daqahliya, in 1916. By 1921 she was performing at the Bosphorous and Ramses theatres in Cairo, where composer Mohamed Al-Qasabgi taught her to play the oud.

She would later pioneer singing verses by such poets as Ahmed Shawki, Ahmed Rami and the Abbasid poet Abu Firas Al-Hamadani. Aside from

Um Kolthoum’s patriotic songs, her emergence typified the post-1919 and nationally aware shift from the repetitive tarab (or enchantment) of such female stars of the late 19th century as Almaz, Bahia Al-Mahallawi, Bamba Al-Awwada, Naima Al-Masria and Mounira Al-Mahdiya (the latter was called the Sultana of Tarab) to a more modern musical orientation, and she was the first to perform for the national radio on its opening in 1934.

Ahmed Shawki (1868-1932)

Ahmed Shawki

One of the language’s most significant versifiers, the Emir of Poets, as he was christened by his peers across the Arab world in 1925, grew up as a vassal of Khedive Abbas Helmi, whose anti-British stance — expressed in the poet’s verses — resulted in Shawki being exiled to Spain in 1915.

There he immersed himself in Andalusian poetry and European culture, keeping up with the situation in Egypt and expressing popular sentiments as well as homesickness — until he returned following the 1919 Revolution’s triumph in 1920.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Revolution of the mind

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