Ten Random Observations
By Tarek Heggy
First Observation: My visits to colleges of Middle Eastern Studies in a number of prestigious European universities were and continue to be a source of great personal joy and enormous intellectual vitality. Some of the most stimulating and enjoyable hours I spent were in the departments of Middle Eastern studies in the universities of Leiden in Holland, Durham in Britain, Heidelberg in Germany and Naples in Italy, among others. On a visit to Calabria University at the southern tip of Italy last March, I had the opportunity to meet with Professor Alberto Ventura, who can rightfully be described as one of Europe’s foremost experts on Sufism in Islam. Our discussion turned to Ibn Rushd, a major influence in my intellectual formation, and to Mohiedine Ibn Araby, whose life and works are the specialized subject of Professor Ventura.
From our discussion I learned something new about the relationship between the two men. I already knew that Ibn Araby was a great admirer of the ideas of Ibn Rushd; what I learned that day was that the two men enjoyed a warm personal friendship. According to Professor Ventura, when Ibn Rushd died in exile, Ibn Araby was the one who handled the burial arrangements, he who wrapped the body in a shroud and carried it on his shoulders to the grave site. There he placed it in a wooden coffin while placing all the deceased’s works in another wooden box. These were then loaded onto the back of a pack animal, the coffin on the right and the book-laden box on the left, the two lashed to a stout pole strapped to the animal’s back. The cortege moved forward followed by Ibn Araby and others in a dramatic scene pregnant with symbolism in which Ibn Rushd’s works balanced the body of the man I believe was the greatest thinker in Islamic history.
As is my wont, I did not take Professor Ventura’s story for granted but on my return delved into the many books written on Ibn Rushd to verify for myself the accuracy of his account. My research confirmed that the Italian professor who had devoted his life to the study of Mohiedine Ibn Araby deserved his reputation as the ultimate authority on the history of Sufism and Sufis. The most interesting aspect of the story is the affinity that existed between a great Sufi and a great thinker, an affinity that is totally lacking in the attitude of Sunni theologians towards the great thinker Ibn Rushd. This is an issue that needs to be looked into in greater depth.
Second Observation: Much has been written about the corruption of ousted president Hosni Mubarak and all the members of his family. But no one has written about the crass ignorance and complete absence of any cultural depth of this thieving despot. In the period between 1986 and 1996, I met him several times when he visited petroleum and natural gas sites belonging to companies I was heading at the time. In the course of those visits, I had the chance to see for myself that Egypt was being ruled by an uncultivated boor. I could well believe that what he took pride in declaring on several occasions was true: the man had never read a serious book in his life. A pastime I indulge in for my own amusement is to paint a picture of the cultural formation of any person I deal with on the basis of the level of their discourse. I was stunned by the way Mubarak spoke, by his crude style and coarse language, and can honestly say he is one of the most ignorant people I have ever spoken to.
The same can be said of his wife, who is even more arrogant and high-handed than her husband, like most children born, like herself, of European mothers. She is also equally shallow and ignorant. Once when I was still chairman of the Heliopolis Library [before I tendered my resignation because of her meddling in the way I managed the library] I organized a Mozart evening on the occasion of the anniversary of the composer’s death on December 5th. The plan was for the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Ahmed el-Saidi, a good friend of mine, to play a number of Mozart’s later works, including the Requiem which he died while composing. When I knew Suzanne Mubarak would be attending the musical evening, I suggested to maestro el-Saidi that he begin with a piece she could understand [if only partially] and perhaps appreciate. Maestro el-Saidi accepted my proposal that the recital begin with Mozart’s 40th Symphony because it is not as alien to the eastern ear as the Requiem or the works of some composers like Wagner, Liszt or Mendelssohn. As the second of the four movements of the 40th Symphony began, Suzanne Mubarak whispered in my ear, “tell him to cut it short”!! I turned my head away pretending not to hear, horrified at the cruel trick fate had played in allowing a bunch of ignorant crooks to rule Egypt, whose name is a shining beacon in the history of nations.
After the “tell him to cut it short” incident, Suzanne Mubarak objected to my inviting Dr. Murad Wahba to give a talk at the Library on “Education in Egypt: from the school of rote memorization to the school of creativity”. I had no choice but to present my resignation (in December 1997) bringing to an end the one hundred sorry days I had spent dealing with a woman whose blind ambition precipitated her husband’s tragic downfall and blackened his name in Egypt’s history as its most ignorant and corrupt ruler in centuries.
Third Observation: I was asked why I hated Saudi Arabia so much. I replied that I neither hated nor loved it, but that I rejected, condemned, and resisted its pervading cultural climate that it exports to my country, Egypt, as it does to most societies in the world. I reject, condemn and resist the role of the Saudi religious establishment, which I consider to be the root of all evil since the alliance forged between Mohamed Ibn Saud and Mohamed Ibn Abdul Wahab in Al-Dir’iyah in 1955. I reject, condemn and resist the constraints imposed by Saudi men of religion, a caste characterized by extreme ignorance, backwardness and obscurantism, on Saudi women. I reject, condemn and resist the zealotry of the Saudi religious establishment in propagating the Wahabi/Saudi model of Islam, a model that has done more to harm the reputation of Islam and Muslims in the last half of the previous century than anything perpetrated by the so-called enemies of Islam. All of this has nothing to do with the Saudi people or with love or hate. I believe that when the men of deshdasha-land rebel against their anachronistic costumes, particularly the headdress known as the shamagh, which covers not only the head but the mind as well, when the women of that region rebel against the dictum that it is the men who decide what they can and cannot wear, then and only then will their region have taken its first steps towards civilization.
Fourth Observation: One of the things that exasperates me most is the way many in Arabic-speaking societies designate men of religion as ulamas (learned). How can a narrow-minded, ignorant sheikh be described as learned? A man who cannot read-let alone understand- one page of a book by Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Auguste Compte, Kierkegaard, Whitehead, Bertrand Russel, Martin Heidegger, Sartre or John Dewey? How can we use the word ulama to describe someone who doesn’t know whether John Stewart Mill, Ricardo, Malthus, Freud and Durkheim are leading thinkers or automobile brands?
Fifth Observation: In 1914, Taha Hussein, one of the leading lights of enlightenment and reason in all the Arabic-speaking societies, boarded a ship in Alexandria bound for Marseille. In his own words, once the ship set sail, “I removed the turban from my head … and from my heart.” This succinct sentence conveys a powerful message that is self-explanatory.
Sixth Observation: I believe that prosecuting all of Hosni, Suzanne and Gamal Mubarak’s men who dominated Egypt’s political, economic, media and cultural landscape under the ancient regime is the ‘purgatory’ [to use Dante’s term] that will guarantee for the Egyptian people that the black cloud of corruption and despotism under which they have been living for three long decades has finally lifted.
Seventh Observation: In the course of my professional life I met with deposed president Hosni Mubarak quite a few times. Each time I felt a deep sense of shame: how could this ignoramus be the president of a country like Egypt, its name a thing of glory throughout the ages? To this day I cannot understand why Anwar Sadat picked such a shallow, ignorant and uncultured man to be his vice-president. What could have prompted such an ill-founded decision?
Eighth Observation: More than 10 years ago, a senior Egyptian official told me that the interior ministry had finally found an antidote against the poison of the Muslim Brotherhood. I listened with growing amazement as he proceeded to explain that it had been decided to encourage and strengthen the Salafis to hit at the Brotherhood. This is yet another example of the consequences of a ruling caste devoid of any sort of cultural vision for there is no doubt that the Salafis represent a far greater threat to any contemporary society than the Brotherhood. This is just one of countless incidents that attest to the dangerously ignorant leadership that ruled Egypt, the most important country in Africa and the Middle East, for long decades.
Ninth Observation: A few days ago I was walking in Turin when I found myself before the palace of King Victor Emmanuel which stands a few steps away from the Egyptian Museum, home to the largest collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt. As I stood there, I was reminded of the truism that truth is often stranger than fiction. Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, sent his grandson Ismail [the son of Ibrahim] who was to rule Egypt from 1863 to 1879, to study in Italy. The young man fell in love with Italy and all things Italian. When he decided to build the Cairo Opera, the first opera in the Middle East, he stipulated that it be an exact replica of the opera house in Turin. When he organized festivities to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal he commissioned a new opera for the occasion (Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Aida’). When Britain and France forced him to abdicate in 1879, he went to Turin and placed his youngest son, Ahmed Fouad, (born in 1868, he was to become ruler of Egypt from 1917 until his death in 1936) in the care of King Victor Emmanuel II. Ahmed Fouad was effectively raised in Turin; he attended school in the city and, after graduating from the Military Academy, became an officer in Victor Emmanuel’s royal guards. When he became Sultan of Egypt on October 9th, 1917, he appointed so many Italians to his household that Italian became the first language of the palace! It was in this atmosphere that Farouk was born and raised so that, not surprisingly, Italian was the language closest to his heart. In a referendum held in May 1946, the Italian people voted to abolish the monarchy forcing the last king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, to abdicate. He chose to spend his last years in Alexandria, where he died and is now buried. When Farouk abdicated and left Egypt on July 26th, 1952, he chose to spend his exile in Italy where he died (probably by poison) on April 18th, 1965. All this flashed through my mind as I strolled towards the Egyptian museum in Turin, hometown of the House of Savoy.
Tenth Observation: I did not really begin mixing in Egyptian society until 1996. Before then most of my relationships and contacts were with non-Egyptians of all nationalities: European, American, African, Asian, Australian. During those years, I found myself before two options, neither of which was particularly appealing. It was a case of being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, to be precise, between two circles of people: I shared with the members of one circle cultural, artistic and intellectual interests, while with the other I shared social links. A circle of intellectuals and a circle of class! The members of the first circle were intelligent and highly knowledgeable – but filled with bitterness. The members of the other circle were silly and frivolous – as insipid as a meal of watermelons, to quote Nizar Qabbani.
And so life continues to prove over and over that it is a comedy of errors or, as Tewfik El Hakim put it in the title of the last book he wrote, “The world is a farce.”