Charting Egypt’s intellectual history over 130 years

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 29 Jan 2023

To mark 130 years since it first came out in 1892, the Dar Al-Helal monthly magazine put out a special issue reprinting articles and pictures that have appeared on its pages for over a century, charting the great debates that have shaped the country’s intellectual history.



The special issue contains 124 articles, as well as several photo features, stretching over 610 pages.

The vast issue tells selected stories from the cultural history of the nation and of its path to embracing modernity right from the very early decades of the 20th century and earlier.

The very publication of the first issue in 1892, according to several commentators who contributed articles to the special issue, was a step in the path of opening up the scene for many an intellectual debate at a moment when the call for modernity was gaining momentum.

The vision of the founding editor of the magazine, Jurji Zaydan, a journalist of Lebanese origins, was to create a platform for new ideas and voices to be echoed and shared. This is a commitment that Zaydan kept until his death in 1914. His successors, first his sons and later others, tried to also honour this commitment.

The selection of articles that is offered to the reader reveals that the pursuit of modernity was central to all intellectual debates at the time. They show that whether on politics, the economy or culture, the magazine did not hesitate or shy away from calling for modernity.

The republished articles of Taha Hussein, Zaki Naguib Mahmoud and others reveal the level of openness in Egypt during the early decades of the 20th century – and actually throughout the decades of the Free Officers regime – when it came to big intellectual debates. Equally, there are articles on art and culture that show the dedication of artists of the time, including such divas like Oum Kalthoum, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Ahmed Ramy and others, to their art.

Other articles and photos highlight other aspects of the nation’s indelible socio-political choices over the years, especially that of a certain bond between the people and the Army, including the times of wars.

The special issue has much to say about the people and the Army, not just with articles from the very rich archive; it also features articles from contemporary columnists, a great deal of which was dedicated to the 30 June 2013 demonstrations.

The special issue also deals with culture, featuring original literary texts that were originally published between the 1920s and 1940s, including pieces by May Ziyada and Ibrahim Abdel-Kader Al-Mazeni. Those are collected in the third part of the volume under the title of “the essence of literature.”

In the first part of this special issue, Al-Helal re-runs a series of articles published by Egypt’s first three presidents: Mohamed Naguib, Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat. It also runs a special note that Honsi Mubarak contributed to Al-Helal to mark the birthday of Naguib Mahfouz. But first of course there is a special note from President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi dedicated to El-Helal on the occasion of its 130th anniversary.

Overall, the volume is a long, slow walk down memory lane. It features some very interesting material including articles on the big intellectual debates of the time, especially on the role of religion and the scope of freedoms. It also includes some light and amusing articles, including one that Oum Kolthoum wrote about her first encounter with Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

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