Roger Allen, editor-translator of the recently-published What ʿĪsā ibn Hishām Told Us, retired in 2011 from his position as the Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he served for forty-three years as Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature. He is the author and translator of numerous publications on Arabic literature, modern fiction and drama, and language pedagogy.
Central among these has been his work on Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī’s Hadith ‘Īsā ibn Hishām. Allen first worked with the text as an undergraduate at Oxford in 1964, where he was one of the institution’s first students of modern Arabic literature. He talks about the role the book plays in modern Arabic literature and literary studies and about his controversial decision to re-introduce material that al-Muwaylihi excised from the book versions of this project.
You have a long history with this text, from reading it as an undergraduate to editing the author’s—and his father’s—complete works in Arabic to this new project. How did you get from there to here?
The history of this text is a history of my encounter with modern Arabic literature.
Mustafa Badawi was appointed at Oxford as the first-ever specialist in modern Arabic literature in 1963. He suggested to me: Why don’t you continue with [Muhammad al-Muwaylihi’s Hadith ‘Isa ibn Hisham], because you seem to be kind of interested in this. So I made it the subject of my doctoral dissertation.
I then proceeded to work on my dissertation, and published it the first time as a microfiche in 1974. It was a very radical move in those days, publishing a scholarly work on that kind of [modern Arabic] text.
When Badawi retired in 1992, he said the one thing he’d like to do was to see the first doctoral dissertation he’d supervised published as a book. It was published in 1992 as A Period of Time, and it included a translation of part of Muwaylihi’s book.
Then in 1998, the Director-General of the Supreme Culture of Culture in Cairo, Gaber Asfour, called me into his office and said, “You’re the Muwaylihi man. We have this new project. I want you to prepare the Arabic edition of the complete works of Muhammad al-Muwaylihi the son and Ibrahim al-Muwaylihi the father. That came out in 2002 and 2006.
And then one of my former students working for the Library of Arabic Literature, Shawkat Toorawa, was discussing it with me. And he said, “Why don’t we include it in the LAL project?” I said, “Well, I’ve prepared the complete works in Arabic, I’ve published an English edition of part of it. So what would I do?” And then I had a bright idea. I’d been working with all these different editions of the book. But what I’ve done now, in this new work, is to go back to the original newspaper articles.
Which is, like with Dickens, the way they first appeared. And I specifically published everything from the original newspaper articles, including a large amount of stuff that Muwaylihi excluded, I’m almost certain for political reasons. He’s talking about the British in the Sudan, and the British occupiers of the region were not too terribly thrilled about that.
Did censorship influence what went into the newspaper episodes or, eventually, into the book? It must have influenced the school-textbook edition that came out in 1927.
We have no information about that, which makes my decision somewhat controversial—to publish everything he wrote when he decided not to publish everything he wrote. But eventually I came to this decision, as somebody of British origins, and thinking that British censorship was certainly quite strict, either direct or indirect through various contacts.
Muwaylihi belonged to a very interesting salon run by a redoubtable lady called Princess Nazli, who was a member of the royal family. Muhammad Abduh was one of Muwaylihi’s mentors. Qasim Amin [author of Tahrir al-mara’a (The Liberation of Women) and al-Mara’a al-Jadida (The New Woman)] was there. Ali Yusuf, another newspaper editor. They were all colleagues and friends. What we can’t know was whether Muwaylihi self-censored or whether it was external. I don’t suspect that anybody official said to him, “Take that out.” Although whether that’s the case in 1927, with the school textbook, that I don’t know. That’s probably more likely. There may have been some less-than-subtle hints: Okay, don’t put that in the textbook. It’s not nice to have this scurrilous attack on the Azhar sheikhs in Cairo. It’s not nice to have the princes of the royal family talking about horseracing and betting, and who’s bought the most expensive European car. And a whole host of highly questionable anecdotes about Muhammad Ali. That’s the sort of stuff that got left out in 1927.
But again, I haven’t found anything authoritative, which would say yes, this definitely was excluded for censorship reasons.
So, although he wrote about cutting the “ephemeral” and leaving in the “eternal” in his book, we ultimately don’t know why he made certain editorial choices.
The question becomes: Is he deciding to try and turn a series of newspaper articles into something that might resemble a proto-novel, a form that he would’ve known very well from his time in Europe? Or is the primary desire not to publish some of the more sensational, oppositional stuff?
I decided I wasn’t going to address that. I’m simply going to publish the original newspaper articles. And these new volumes that we just published begin with four articles which aren’t in the book, all of which are extremely critical of the British and of those in the Egyptian ministry who cooperate with the British.
But you don’t see it as a proto-novel.
In my dissertation, and in the study of the book that I wrote, I described this as a bridge work. In other words, this is not a novel. Several Arab writers and critics have tried to say that this is the great beginning, the first Arabic novel. There are loads of much better novels written before this, particularly Jurji Zaydan’s historical novels, and even earlier than that.
The reason this book seems to me to be quite important is it’s a transitional work, partially reflecting the classical tradition of Arabic narrative, but also trying to bring it up to date by talking about the present day through maqamat, a form not necessarily intended for commentaries on the current state of affairs.
Certainly, I think he was trying to give more internal cohesion to the narrative. But I don’t think he’s saying, okay, let’s try to write a novel. He’s still adhering to principles of pre-modern Arabic narrative.
When I was doing my research in Cairo in 1966, before publishing my dissertation, I talked to a lot of Egyptians, none of them involved in literature or its study, and asked, “What do you think of Muwaylihi’s book?” And they all said, “I hated it. We had to read it at school. And we had to learn all these fancy words.” And I thought, Oh, it’s just like me with Chaucer in England. Having to study an older text in an older language and having to learn all the pedantic details about historical references.
But it’s still regarded as one of the great pioneer works of modern Arabic narrative.
What marks it as a great work?
The thing which most people admire about it is of course is its language, and its providing a continuity with the past. I’ve just written a few articles about the canon in Arabic literature, and next May in Oslo there’s going to be a conference where I’ll talk about a phrase which is being bandied around: “the end of the nahda.” 2011 is the end of the nahda.
One of the things I’m going to start by saying is, “Can somebody tell me what the nahda is? Who decided? And is there only one nahda?”
Whether there’s a nahda or not is an overlay imposed on the tradition. My point being that Muwaylihi’s work firstly looks backward, and then celebrates continuity with the past.
But the second thing is that here is a modern Arab author who spent a lot of time in Europe and even more time in Istanbul, with the Ottomans, coming back and saying, “Okay, I am going to write a narrative placed firmly in the present day.” That’s something which Jurji Zaydan hadn’t done, which none of the previous Lebanese novelists have done, and which will lead into [future narratives].
We have to wait to the 1920s and 1930s before the novel as a genre really takes off. But there’s Muwaylihi sitting there, in 1898, or if you like 1907, actually providing his readers with commentary on current events. And developing the fictional notion of using narrative to be highly critical of society.
Zaydan uses, as you note, a modern form to talk about ancient history, while Muwaylihi is using an ancient form to talk about contemporary events. What is the politics of using maqama?
It’s cultural conservatism. The newspaper in which Muwaylihi published this was his and his father’s newspaper. It was famous for its fine, very elevated style, at a time when other writers are trying to simplify literary Arabic style. Zaydan was one of them, and [Mustafa Lutfi] el-Manfaluti another. The Muwaylihis were not having any of this. They decided: We’re going to write in an extremely elevated style. The father as well.
The other factor is that the father is only 14 years older than his son. The age gap makes them almost brothers, rather than father and son. They founded this newspaper, which is an interesting combination of cultural conservatism and openness to Europe, but on strictly conservative terms. They’re filtering Europe’s culture, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. They’re unlike earlier authors such as [Rifa’a] al-Tahtawi, who goes to Europe and says, “Oh God look at this, this is all mind-boggling.” Muwaylihi goes there and visits the Paris exhibition of 1900; he is ruthless in his criticism of Western culture as he sees it.
But, in Hadith ‘Isa ibn Hisham‘s section on Paris, he uses an interesting lens: an extremely conservative Egyptian, who’s the pasha [character], another slightly less conservative person, and a French intellectual who’s going around with them. And they have these debates about modernity, change, and cultural authenticity. And this is what makes Muwaylihi’s work continuingly important. Because many of those issues are still alive. Nahda is an Arabic word, but it’s not a concept which was originally developed in the Arabic-speaking world. It raises the whole question about whether this model of history works when you’re talking about literature.
Western scholarship’s been very slow to wrap its mind around the idea that we’ve got to adjust our sense of what the aesthetics of another culture are, as opposed to imposing our own romantic and post-romantic notions upon a period of six centuries.
There’s a new book out by my colleague at Columbia, Muhsin J. al-Musawi, called The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters. It’s a hugely important book about Arabic knowledge and will completely debunk the notion that from the thirteenth century to the nineteenth nothing interesting happened. And Muwaylihi’s text is a part of this, with the continuity of the maqama tradition into the modern period, beyond Muwaylihi, all the way up to Bayram el-Tunsi and ‘Abd al-Salām al-‘Ujaylī, and even the Palestinian writer Emile Habibi. Muwaylihi’s primary role, in fact, is that he is a very sophisticated critic of his own society and its relationship to European culture.
Do you still see it as a bridge work? Rather than standing as a neoclassical work in its time?
As literary genres develop, there’s not a single track. Muwaylihi is one of a number of means whereby a pre-modern Arabic tradition of narrative, most importantly, continues to use some of the same principles of pre-modern narrative, but also changes in order to adapt itself, to introduce the short story, the novel, and yes modern drama, into the Arab culture.
When I think of the western term renaissance, translated as nahda, it seems to be a rising out of nothing. But the maqama and saj` really hadn’t fallen out of use.
The Lebanese writer Nasif al-Yaziji published some maqamat in the 1850s, and a lot of modern scholars said it’s because he’s read the French scholar Silvestre de Sacy’s edition of Hariri’s maqamat. Absolute nonsense.
This maqama tradition hadn’t died. And it doesn’t die after Muwaylihi either. And that’s part of the continuity. And the whole idea of saj` is in the Qur’an and is regarded as an intrinsic part of Arab culture, and many writers have made use of it.
And by the way, every time I’ve been to an Arab conference in recent years, I’ve composed a maqama myself. And some of them have been published.
What’s the reaction been among Arabic readers to the new edition? I imagine a “Harper Lee” contingent who are annoyed that you’ve taken a classic and re-introduced early material.
Unfortunately, it’s too early to say. It’s only been out for a month or so.
But do you feel, in the end, this intervention was definitely the right thing to do?
I’m totally happy about this. And I think this is the right thing to have done, because it’s a period piece set at the end of the nineteenth century when Egypt is under British occupation, and is not terribly thrilled about it, and Britain and Egypt are allegedly cooperating in the war in the Sudan against the so-called mahdi of the time. The so-called Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
Muwaylihi’s father has an entirely separate work which is heavily about Sudan. So they were all clearly thinking about it, and I think now this edition is a much more authentic reflection of the original occupation than what eventually comes out in his book.
Did Muwaylihi’s father have a role in editing his work?
No. But it’s very interesting. This book is called Hadith ‘Isa ibn Hisham. His father published a very similar work, which eventually gets called Hadith Musa ibn Isam.
How is his father’s work different?
Muhammad’s work, Hadith ‘Isa ibn Hisham, is much longer, and it’s about Egyptian society. The father’s work is shorter and is clearly much influenced by the success of his son’s work. He only publishes episodes when the son is obviously re-thinking and deciding what the next group of episodes is going to look like. The father realizes what the son’s doing—this is really big, and immensely popular. The newspaper has letters from readers rather like Dickens, saying: “I don’t like what you did with so-and-so in the last episode, so change it in the next one.” But he doesn’t.
Dickens changed things based on readers’ comments, but Muwaylihi didn’t?
No. But Muhammad Muwaylihi took over the newspaper from his father in 1901 or 1902. Then, in November 1902, Muwaylihi’s son was in a Cairo coffee house and made some snide remark about a young nobleman who came over and slapped him on the face. This was a huge scandal, and much of Cairo, which was quite resentful of the two Muwaylihis and their political opinions, launched an attack on Muwaylihi in Ali Yusuf’s newspaper called ʿĀm al-kaff, of The Year of the Slap.
Muwaylihi was very much influenced by that, and eventually closed down the newspaper in 1903 and retired to the family house in Helwan. He basically never left the house thereafter. He only wrote two things after that.
So do you see him as sensitive to other criticisms in the salon, or elsewhere?
I’m sure that before he wrote, he probably listened to debates in Nazli’s circle. There are some hints. A member of that group seems to have been an author who used a pseudonym Muhammad `Umar to write a book called The Present State of the Egyptians and the Secret of their Backwardness, which seems to contain passages taken almost directly from Muwaylihi’s text.
What it suggests to me is that this entire group, Muhammad Abduh and his followers, were discussing every aspect of Egyptian life: changes in Egyptian cultural values, the British occupation, and so on. And so there had been a quite rigorous filtering process before Muwaylihi put anything down on paper.
It was an oral filtering process.
Yes. Which of course is quite traditional: the institution of the majlis, the evening soiree where men get together. Well, women get together too, but that’s not public, that’s private, and it probably doesn’t get published.
Are the episodes in the book historically accurate, as far as we know?
They regularly reflect news items in the newspaper itself—actual news items. There’s the reforming of the courts, in which Abduh was radically involved. Issuing of fatwas. There’s the famous fatwa called the Transvaal fatwa, which is about who is allowed to declare meat halal. There’s regular commentary on the Boer War. There’s a lot of reflection of current issues in the episodes themselves.
Muwaylihi is particularly concerned with the chaos of the Egyptian legal system of the time, which is entirely accurate. Muhammad Abduh’s trying to change it: how judges are appointed, what qualifications are they supposed to have. Much of what he’s talking about here is a direct reflection of articles in the newspaper.
Why do we not then consider him a prominent newspaper columnist instead of a litterateur?
The newspaper, Misbah al-Sharq [Light of the East], was famous, or infamous, for the high level of its concern with literacy and reflection of culture. It had translations of works of French philosophy, including Montesquieu, one of Muwaylihi’s favorites, but also publications of previously unavailable classical Arabic texts. Because while his father was an adviser to Sultan Abdulhamid in Constantinople, Muhammad spent all his time in the sultan’s library, and transcribed a whole series of texts.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to do with this project is that Muwaylihi quotes poetry as though there’s no tomorrow. And frequently, in the text, he says, “As the well-known poet says,” and then quotes two lines of poetry. So I send it to Geert Jan van Gelder—he found two thirds of the identified poems’ poets.
Now it’s done, hallelujah.
How much did Muwaylihi bring back from the library in Istanbul?
I don’t know. A French student has been given access to the Muwaylihi house, which is still in Helwan. Maybe we’ll find out the answer to your question, but right now we have no idea.
What we do know is there’s a heck of a lot of stuff in that house.
What sort of Western texts interested him? Philosophy?
We don’t know precisely. Montesquieu is the subject of a whole series of articles in the newspaper. He also quotes Herbert Spencer. So we don’t know everything he read, but we know that he was able to read a heck of a lot.
He was interested in Western philosophy, but what about in the Western novel?
I’ve suggested—I forget where—that the episode in Paris where he goes down into a replication of a coal mine at the Exhibition reads to be me totally like Zola’s Germinal. Did he read Zola’s Germinal? Well, it was a big deal in France right at that time when he was there. Do we know? Does he mention it? No.
Who do you see as the audience for this new parallel text?
Presumably and primarily the scholarly community. The text has pedagogical purposes, certainly. It has historical purposes, to a certain degree.
Also, every one of these [LAL] Arabic texts is the most rigorously edited and accurate copy of that text that is available. The organizers have been clear: Whatever the text, that’s project number one. Before you talk about translation, or anything about translation, you have to produce the most rigorously edited text. Is that valuable? You bet your life it is.
With an English-only edition, the question of who the readership is becomes quite different. Because somebody who might be interested in this as an early example of narrative from a non-Western culture—and I’m thinking now as a comp lit person—will be much more interested in that.
Were there particular difficulties in this translation?
I often think I must’ve been foolish to decide to translate this as my first major enterprise in translating Arabic narrative into English, because it’s extremely sophisticated and complex. It uses a very high level of style. And you have to make decisions as to what kind of English language you’re going to use for it. Muwaylihi runs away from anything vaguely colloquial. So you have the question of English style, and there’s a huge amount of poetry in it. So there are very large issues of translation here.
For this text, I made a digital copy of my [1974 and 1992] versions of the first part, but I made copious changes to that authentic, authoritative—in quotes—translation that I had already published. I redid it in many ways.
I teach a seminar in translation, and one of the thing I tell my students is, “No translation is ever finished.” Cynically, I describe it as a process of gradually giving up.
But you’ve worked with it for fifty years now. Surely this is pretty close to the best possible edition.
The Arabic is clearly the best version of this work currently available. It’s been edited by me, and by Phil Kennedy, and by the group, and it’s now in the best possible shape it could be, which cannot be said about some of the previous ones, including my own of 2002. It’s an improvement on that.
Yes, I think this translation is the best I’ve done for much the same reason. The LAL has the most rigorous standards of not only choosing the original people to work on it, but then this whole team gets involved. This translation has been seen by—I don’t know how many people—but at least three or four have gone through it with a fine-tooth comb.
Do you think, then, that this is the best way to do translation?
I’ve now done translations in a whole variety of ways. Firstly on my own, which is the normal way, which has its virtues, but you’re perilously on your own. Then I’ve done it with a colleague. Then there’s the PROTA project which I did with Salma Jayyusi, who sent the text not to another Arabic literature scholar, but to an exponent of that genre in English. And then you would negotiate back and forth.
But probably the most interesting to me was the project in Europe called Mémoires de la Méditerranée. The one I did was Dunyazad by Mayy Telmissany. In that case, a group of specialists of modern Arabic literature got together and chose an autobiography or a memoir by a living Arab author. It was sent to a variety of translators in Europe and translated into at least six languages. We brought them together with the author and went through the process of reviewing our translations of that text. Along with five other language translators, we all went through the Arabic text and compared our translated versions.
I can envisage a translation process from a number of different points of view, and they all have their particular virtues. But the important thing is that translation is a maximal act of interpretation.