Cultural diplomacy: Human soul and nation's soul

Gihane Zaki
Sunday 21 Jan 2024

Ali Mubarak is an outstanding figure considered by historians as a significant contributor to the process of creating sentiments of nationalism or a sense of belonging through his unprecedented achievements, his active role in the public sphere, and his various rich Arabic publications that highlight the concept of Egyptian identity (Al-Haweya in Arabic) and help integrate it.


Many people might have no idea what “soul” originally means, yet some should comprehend that it refers to that intimate part of the relation to God, the part which survives after death.

The soul is the intangible aspect of a human being, anchoring him with uniqueness, values, and humanity. Even though the soul has several names given in ancient cultures like Ba (Egyptian), psyché (Greek), and anima (Latin), it all beholds a spiritual essence to its meaning.

Given this spiritual context, would it make sense then to speak about a “nation’s soul”?

Should we consider a nation’s soul as a mindset, an intangible emotion of belonging, which we call in Arabic “Intima’a,” that brings people of one nation together?

From what I studied and experienced in my personal life, what motivates my soul to write these words today is the apparent correlation between the human soul/conscience (Al-Damir Al-Insani) and the nation’s soul (Al-Damir Al-Wattani).

Fortunately, you can live at the same time and space as exceptional souls worldwide who have this mindset, and they can disseminate its powerful energy to their communities.

In the 20th century, Egypt knew leading figures in the intellectual and social transformation/modernisation of the country while preserving its authenticity and identity, such as Mohamed Abdou, Ahmed Amin, and Taha Hussein, to mention only a few.

Mubarak, in his 1500-page  fictional narrative entitled "Alam Al-Din," underlined the relationship between geography and history that was previously mentioned clearly by Professor Guy Davenport (University of Kentucky).

Moreover, in his most famous publication, Al-Khitat Al-Tawfiqiyya Al-Jadida, composed of twenty volumes, Mubarak illustrates the correlation of history and geography and uses the relationship between those two elements to create a national identity for Egypt. In this work, he emphasises his conviction and strong belief in the importance of knowledge, awareness, and consciousness that bring technical progress and material affluence, much needed to produce self-respect and patriotic pride.

The rise of a smart politician and a cultured statesman

Like many other leading figures in Egypt, Mubarak came from a peasant stock and might have spent his entire life within a very narrow compass in the Delta. Still, his destiny led him to a larger place. It motivated him with ambition, generous behaviour for distinction, and a strong sense of curiosity to acquire knowledge that allowed him to move ahead far from his clerical reality. (His family are the Mashayikh, from which the judge, the imam, and the khatib were chosen.) In his youth, Mubarak studied at the Kutab of Birnbal (a village north of Daqahliya) and attended a government prep school before being admitted to the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo. Being exceptional, he was chosen later in 1844 to join the prestigious Khedivial student mission “Al-Angaal,” sent by Mohamed Ali to France.

Arriving in Paris, students who had yet to study French were at a complete loss. However, determination and hard work soon made them speak and write it, and Mubarak was one of the first three in his group. He was then well prepared to move from Paris to Metz, where he spent two more years at the military academy École d'application de l'artillerie et du genie. Then, after a year, he joined the French army.

Going across France during his studies and training with the French army, he started to admire their schools, books, professional curricula, administration, and bureaucracy system.

Having lived in France, experiencing beauty, culture, and elegancy in every aspect of daily life, Mubarak considers education as primordial/crucial to a brighter future and the unique way to push Egypt forward. He firmly believed that beautification of public spaces and education in public schools must enlighten a nation's soul! 

Beautification and education to enlighten the soul of our nation

Following Khedive Ismail's accession to power in Egypt in 1863, Mubarak was one of those recalled in the reorganisation of public administration. 

Three years later, in 1866, Ismail's newly created National Assembly passed an education bill – upon Mubarak's proposal – recommending the opening of primary schools in provincial centres, the reform and inspection of the Kattatib along the Nile valley, and the creation of girls' schools.

In 1867, he was primarily responsible for the famous 10th of Rajab Commission’s report, recommending initial steps toward a national system of education; the reason why historians gave him the title of “Father of Education” in Egypt who recall Charlemagne in France some long centuries before. Edward Dor Bey, inspector-general of schools under the Khedive Ismail,  points out that Mubarak’s reform represents the first organic law to govern public education in Egypt. It marked, he declares, "One of 6 letters of the most decisive elements that Egypt will have in its way to progress."

One of the most imperative needs of schools was procuring competent teachers. The matter was given a great deal of importance, and within this scope, Dar Al-Ulum School was founded. In parallel, the first educational magazine in Arabic, Rawdatal-Madiris, was created after securing an adequate budget to this effect for spreading knowledge and upskilling student capabilities, being written in an easily understood, succinct, and expressive language.

Egyptian National Library had its share of Mubarak's footprint in 1870 since he played a considerable role in rehabilitating the Darbal-Jamamiz Palace to receive the appropriate equipment, a wide range of publications in several languages, manuscripts, and rare books, to be a research library where school teachers can inhale knowledge, being inspired by similar institutes in Europe.

This wide range of national responsibilities allowed Mubarak to play an influential role in the modernisation and beautification of Cairo.

In this big city of Cairo, streets were surfaced with crushed stone and sand; squares took shape like Abidine Square, Ezbekiah, Bab Al-Looq, and Al-Fajjalah; gas lighting and water-work were introduced; and the Nile was spanned by Qasr El-Nil Bridge.

This program of construction and improvement of communications was extended to Alexandria and Suez.

Turning the impossible into possible!

"Everyone should be knowledgeable about the history of his or her community," Mubarak said, confirming that the only way for a country to grow is to share/appreciate its past. He underlined also that indifference vis-à-vis what the ancestors had lived cannot foster growth and social cohesion.

Interest and awareness of ancient Egypt's history still need to improve the pedagogical methods of the Egyptian educational system.

A reawakening (Nahda) of interest and awareness of ancient Egyptian history happened during the late 19th century when most Egyptians considered that the physical remains of their ancestors were sacrilegious objects.

*The writer is a member of the Egyptian House of Representatives-Foreign Relations Committee and a researcher at the French National Center CNRS-Sorbonne University.


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