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Seven Times Five Equals Tawfiq Al Hakim

Youssef Rakha
Youssef Rakha
Shadi Abdel Salam passed away 35 years ago today, and to mark the occasion I am sharing an extract from Barra and Zaman, also by way of introducing this new blog-newsletter combo. To which end there is, additionally, a rather dubious gift at the very end of this post.

Reda Abdel Rahman, 2010
Reda Abdel Rahman, 2010
All through the first half of the 20th century, it turns out, ancient Egypt is central to the nationalist renaissance being prophesied or planned. That particular zaman is the source, the proof that there is more to Egypt than its current sorry state. It was so popular at one point that even Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) – the quintessential Arab novelist ­– started his career with a translation of Ancient Egypt (1912) by the Reverend James Baikie (1866-1931), a Scottish priest, armchair archaeologist and prolific writer of popular books on subjects such as astronomy and Atlantis. In his first three novels (written between 1939 and 1944), Mahfouz courted pharaonic revivalism before realizing it wasn’t catching on. And, even before he produced the celebrated Trilogy (1956-1957), it was with novels set in contemporary Cairo that he made his name.
Still, savants like the dramatist Tawfiq Al Hakim (1898-1987) consistently evoked the idea of ancient Egypt as a model for revival. As a young man Al Hakim was torn between respectable society – the legal profession of his father, which he naturally inherited – and love of street characters and popular performance. After failing to complete his PhD in Paris, where he spent three years as a flaneur, too immersed in art and theatre to sustain an interest, he came back to work as a public prosecutor and eventually a kind of public intellectual, writing frequently and prolifically in every genre until his death at 89. Al Hakim sought to reconcile his two conflicting loyalties by creating a serious or literary theatre in Arabic, becoming the first Arab author to devote himself to drama and produce plays in the classical tongue. In a sense he too demonstrates the barra-zaman requirement, drawing on a European education to revive and broaden the scope of an age-old literary tradition that had never included drama.[1]
Along with the majority of Egyptians, Al Hakim had been a supporter of the nationalist statesman Saad Zaghloul (1859-1927), a provincially – baladi – rooted lawyer and career politician who, initially by marrying the daughter of Prime Minister Mustafa Fahmi (1840-1914), grew close to the British man in charge, Major Evelyn Baring – better known by the seat of his earldom as Lord Cromer (1814-1917) – rising in the ranks until his relations with the British came to a head following the end of the Great War. In 1919 he led a nationalist delegation – or wafd, hence the Wafd Party, the most popular and powerful national political force through the 1930s – to the Paris Peace Conference demanding independence from Britain. When he was exiled as a result, the whole country rose up against the British, forcing them to bring him back.
So it goes. As a young man Al Hakim personally witnesses the anti-British demonstrations, and his first major work, the 1933 novel Return of the Spirit, is written in the optimistic spirit of the revolution. Stating that the Egyptian people lack only “an idol… that man from among them who embodies all their emotions and hopes… to work miracles,” Return of the Spirit personally inspires Nasser to become that very idol.[2]
The Arabic word I translate as “idol”, al maʿbūd, is literally “the worshipped one”. Though Al Hakim later recanted his support for Nasser, critiquing the Nasserist era in The Return of Consciousness (1972), throughout Nasser’s life he was a repeatedly decorated friend of the idol’s and the acknowledged Godfather of the Revolution.
“A nation that came up, at the dawn of humanity, with the miracle of the Pyramids,” Al Hakim has the French archaeologist Monsieur Fouquet tell the British irrigation inspector Mr. Black in Return of the Spirit, “will not fail to come up with another miracle or miracles. A nation they claim has been dead for centuries, not seeing its magnificent heart soar into the sky from amid the sands of Guiza… Those people whom we think of as ignorant know many things, but they know them with their heart, not their mind. The supreme wisdom is in their blood and they do not know it, the power in their spirit… which explains those moments in history when we see Egypt make an astounding leap in very little time, bringing about amazing achievements in the blink of an eye.”[3]
Return of the Spirit is made up of two volumes. At the start of each there is an epigraph from E. A. Wallis Budge’s Book of the Dead. The second is especially germane: “Arise, arise, Osiris. I am your son Horus. I have come to restore you to life. You will forever have your true heart, your past heart.”[4]
So, too, The Mummy: the epigraph preceding the opening credits is another quote from the Book of the Dead: “You who goes will come back/ You who sleeps will rise/ You who passes will live again/ Glory be to you/ To the sky and its haughtiness/ To the earth and its breadth/ To the seas and their depth.”[5] Only having read this superimposed over the face of a gilded sarcophagus with one eye plucked out can the viewer ease into the opening scene. The Book of the Dead comes back at the very end of the film when, covering his face with his hands, Wanys watches the mummies being taken away: “Arise… thou shalt not perish. Thou hast been resurrected.”[6]
[1] In his 1947 short story “Averroës’s Search”, Jorge Luis Borges has the great Andalusian-Arab polymath Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) puzzling over the meaning of “tragedy” and “comedy” in the course of translating Aristotle’s Poetics, since he has absolutely no concept of dramatic work or stage play.
[2] Tawfiq Al Hakim, ʿAwdat al Roḥ (Return of the Spirit), Cairo: Dar El Sherouk, 2004. My translation.
[3] Ibid..
[4] Ibid..
[5] My translation.
[6] Shādī ‘Abd al-Salām and Jalal Toufic, “The Night of Counting the Years (a.k.a. The Mummy)”, in Discourse, Vol. 21, No. 1, Middle Eastern Films: Before Thy Gaze Returns to Thee (Winter 1999), pp. 89-126, Wayne State University Press.
© therakha, 2016
© therakha, 2016
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Youssef Rakha
Youssef Rakha @Sultans_Seal

In 1963, when he came to Alexandria, David Hockney used Cecil Hotel stationary to make a beautiful sketch…

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