Views of Europe from a Combative Intellectual

Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq's Literary Investigations

Among the many Arab intellectuals who travelled through Europe in the 19th century, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq stands out as a dazzling character. He was a brilliant intellectual, and he was a combative spirit. A portrait by Barbara Winckler

Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (1804-1887) was in many ways more progressive than the celebrated pioneers of the nahda, the Arabic renaissance He was a writer, journalist, linguist and translator; he was publisher of al-Djawa'ib, the first Arabic newspaper not controlled by the government.

A contemporary of Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, he maintained contacts to European intellectuals and Orientalists as well as to Arab thinkers, especially those of a reformist tendency. As a master of the Arabic language who understood its subtlest nuances and commanded the art of rhetoric, he was also one of its most important modernisers.

An unusually full and interesting life

He contributed significantly to the development of a modern (newspaper) language freed from excessive rhetoric, and he coined numerous modern terms, such as the Arabic word for socialism. He led an unusually full and interesting life; here, it is only possible to mention a few of the major elements in it.

Faris al-Shidyaq was born in 'Ashqut, in what is now the Lebanon. Born into the Maronite faith, he converted to Protestantism, which was a dangerous undertaking at the time: his brother died in a Maronite prison.

In 1825, he went to Cairo. From 1834 onwards, he spent 14 years on Malta working as a teacher and proof-reader for the American Presbyterian Mission.

Translating the Bible into Arabic

In 1848, the London-based Society for the Propagation of the Gospel appointed him to a post in England. During the nine years that followed, he spent time in Paris and various places in England while collaborating on a new translation of the Bible into Arabic - the first modern rendering. He divorced his first wife, an Egyptian, and married an Englishwoman, thereby acquiring the protection of the British Consulate.

In 1857, he moved to Tunis, where he converted to Islam, possibly in order to ease his access to government employment within the Ottoman Empire. And indeed, in 1860 the Sultan appointed him to a position in Istanbul.

The circumstances of Shidyaq's funeral illustrate how hard it is to categorise or pigeonhole the man; when he died in 1887, the various religious denominations were unsure who "owned" him. Eventually, after an inter-denominational prayer, his body was buried in an area between the Christian and Druze sections of Mount Lebanon.

Extremely trying physical and spiritual conditions

Shidyaq describes his experiences and impressions of Europe with a breadth and depth that puts other travellers' tales in the shade. Entrusted with a multiplicity of tasks, or simply looking for his next job, he moved from one place to the next, often under extremely trying physical and spiritual conditions.

In all this, he represents a striking contrast to (for example) Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi. This Egyptian Azhar Sheikh and later government official remained within the safe but not narrow ambit of Paris for the entire duration of his government-sponsored study-trip. The report he wrote is quite sober and factual. Shidyaq's book is very different.

Published in Paris in 1855, al-Saq 'ala al-saq fi ma huwa al-Faryaq (One Leg Crossed Over The Other) is a literary masterpiece that transcends and surpasses the purely "documentary".

It is a work in four parts, nearly 700 pages long, and the fourth section deals mainly with the periods spent in Europe by the author. It also cuts across all genres: not a classical traveller's tale, not really an autobiography and not a pure lexicographical study, Shidyaq's book yet manages to be all these things at once.

Discussions on philosophical and social matters

The protagonist's name is "Faryaq", easily decipherable as a compound made up of the author's abbreviated first and last names. The book describes his life, but it also offers discussions on philosophical and social matters, and descriptions of places visited, as well as linguistic and literary excurses.

These multifarious themes are often presented in the form of arguments between Faryaq and Faryaqiyya, his intelligent, cultivated and self-assured wife. In a work bristling with irony and self-irony, both the achievements and the negative aspects of modern European civilisation are subjected to a critical examination; and the social conditions in Europe during the Industrial Revolution are not left out.

It is notable that Shidyaq does not portray Europe as a monolithic block. Instead he differentiates according to countries and social classes. In comparison to France, England generally comes off better; certainly, Shidyaq criticises the way all human dealings in England tend to be oriented towards profit; he also complains of a shortage of savoir vivre, too little spontaneous expression of feeling, a lack of generosity and hospitality.

Adopting typical English prejudices against the French

On the whole, however, he leaves a positive impression of England. It was his first adopted home in Europe, he himself was well-off there, and perhaps he even adopted the typical Englishman's prejudices against the French.

Shidyaq praises the honesty, reliability and loyalty of the English, as well as the free and relaxed relations between the sexes. He pays particular attention to the women: in England, he says, they are modest, clean and faithful; in France, however, it's not just the women whose personal cleanliness is found wanting - the streets, the sanitation and the mores of the people are all found to be in a lamentable state.

According to Shidyaq, French women display their charms shamelessly while tyrannising their husbands and demanding an expensive lifestyle. The author lauds the institutionalised forms of public life in England, saying that everyone enjoys the same rights there, and that the authorities are never capricious in their use of power.

Lack of recognition in the Arab world

In 1867, however, Shidyaq published Kashf al-mukhabba 'an funun Urubba, more of a classical travelogue; and it presents a more positive picture of France as a nation of culture with a highly developed art of living.

Shidyaq was undoubtedly a combative intellectual, and he was never deterred by taboos. His work includes criticisms of the Bible, erotic descriptions, defences of the rights of woman, arguments favouring a separation of Church and State, caustic critiques of the Christian clergy in the Lebanon, and condemnations of large landowners and religious sectarianism.

For the period in which he was writing, this was extremely provocative - and it still is, in part. This is surely why Shidyaq has never been granted proper recognition in the Arab world. A full appreciation of his substantial work is long overdue.

Beate Winckler

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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