Book Review: Taha Hussein’s subtle dualities

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 27 Jan 2024

On the occasion of the 55th Cairo International Book Fair, Ahram Online offers its selected list of the best books, fiction and non-fiction, published in 2023.

Taha Hussein s subtle dualities


Hawamesh Al-Amid: Malameh Al-Tagroba Al-Maarefiya eind Taha Hussein (Taha Hussein: Margins of an Intellectual Journey) Ayman Bakr, GEBO, 2023.

This year, the Cairo International Book Fair is continuing the celebration that began last year marking 50 years since the passing of the country’s leading 20th century intellectual, Taha Hussein. The CIBF is still holding seminars to discuss the works of Taha Hussein. His literary and non-literary volumes are still coming out in new editions, both from public and private publishers.

However, for the 2023 CIBF, several titles were put out to examine the intellectual and literary experience and impact of this remarkable thinker, whose imprint on Arab literature, literary criticism, and intellect go way beyond the established title of “dean of Arab literature.”

One of these is Ayman Bakr’s Hawamesh Al-Amid: Malameh Al-Tagroba Al-Maarefiya eind Taha Hussein. The over-200-page volume is a very inspiring walk through the intellectual journey of Taha Hussein, who was “one of the most influential and most controversial figures of Arab culture” in the 20th century.

Born on 15 November 1889, Taha Hussein passed away on 28 October 1973 after having rocked many boats. Bakr reminds us of that again in his recent title, that rocking went “way beyond the astounding controversy of his hallmark volume of 1926 On Pre-Islamic Poetry that was perceived to put question marks on the divine nature of the Quran.”

Taha Hussein, Bakr argues in Hawmesh Al-Amid, is a man whose pursuit of knowledge was supremely undogmatic. “He was totally liberated from ideology and firm convictions… This is because his pursuit of knowledge was in fact about a quest of liberation from the constraints of his blindness,” Bakr wrote. He added that with such openness, Taha Hussein was always in a place where he could work with dualities.

Taha Hussein, Bakr writes, was always moving between his wish, or rather drive, to create and his tendency to just retire to himself. He too, Bakr adds, was shifting between embracing politics at the expense of immersing himself in culture or the other way around. He was in a long dispute with Mahmoud Abbas Al-Akkad but he would still admire Al-Akkad’s work and would still send him early copies of his latest books.

In fact, Bakr says, at an intellectually structural level, Taha Hussein was inevitably shifting mindsets – between the one prompted by his early formation at Al-Azhar, which mixed with his own blindness granted him a verbal mindset, and the one acquired later which is one designed to fit the requirements of writing. “This is one reason why he spoke so well and why his writings were marked by an unmistakable speech-oriented style; and this is why he hated and almost never revised his articles once dictated,” Bakr writes.

Then, there is the ultimate duality of all: his intellectual association, almost relationship, with Abu Al Ala Al-Maarri, a late 10th and early 11th centuries Arab poet and philosopher, who like Taha Hussein was blind and was willing to dare established conceptions, including some that relate to the core of Islamic faith. The comparison between Al-Maarri’s take on faith, as a deist, was often made with Taha Hussein’s stand on religion.

To each of these dualities, Bakr dedicates a chapter of Hawamesh Al-Amid, which literally translates to “the margins of the dean.” One of the most interesting, and actually timely-relevant issues, that Bakr is proposing in his book is the impact of Taha Hussein’s invertible approach on examining “the future of culture in Egypt” – effectively the title of a book that Taha Hussein put out in 1938, at a significantly historic moment when Egypt was pushing forward the cause of its independence from British occupation.

It was clear in that volume, Bakr argued, that while Taha Hussein was unequivocal about his commitment to Arab culture, to which Egypt subscribed, he was of the opinion that “looking north,” intellectually and not politically, was the way forward for Egypt. Again, Bakr is establishing what he believes to be an obvious fact about the case of Taha Hussein: to simultaneously walk dual paths without falling off into contradictions.

Overall, Bakr’s book offers an interesting and uncommon take on the intellectual journey of Taha Hussein which is still spurring curious questions and offering inspiring ideas as shown in some of the open discussions hosted this year’s CIBF.

Search Keywords:
Short link: