01 June 2018

The Education of Salâma Mûsâ

Salâma Mûsâ

As with Dr al-Pachachi’s Living to Some Purpose, and rather in parallel with it, I am fascinated by these memoirs, these autobiographies of ancient Arabic men who write of their experiences in a wildly changing world. I feel that more old folk, men and women alike, should write their memoirs. I cannot help but add my vigorous assent to Mr Mûsâ when he thus explains himself: ‘All life deserves to be known and to have its experiences told.’ On principle, I firmly believe that the elderly have a great deal to teach us, and any written record of their experiences and perspectives is a great gain to the world.

Salâma Mûsâ, born in 1887 to a relatively well-to-do, rural landed Coptic Orthodox family in al-Zaqâzîq, a town in the Ægyptian Nile Delta – oversees a grand sweep of revolutionary change within his own country, much of which he himself championed. Even though his father dies when he is still an infant, his childhood is a happy one, at least until he has to go to school. His school years are miserable, and he remembers the atmosphere being a joyless military or prison-like one in which the teachers beat their students and encouraged students to beat each other if they misbehaved. Mûsâ, having a stubborn personality, rebels by reading and discussing ‘forbidden’ topics and subjects. He also observes the effects of British rule and of conservative Muslim norms in Ægypt, and comes to be convinced that both of these were actively holding Ægypt back.

Mûsâ is thus exposed at a young age to the ideas of Nietzsche and Darwin. Like many of his cohort in Christian Arab modernity – including Farah Antûn, Jurjî Zaydân and Shiblî Shumayyil – he is mesmerised with these novel, subversive and grand ideas, made all the more attractive to his nineteen-year-old self by their direct transgression against the norms of the conservative Muslim majority. The younger Mûsâ turns his back on the ‘stagnant’ faith in which he’d been brought up, and dedicates himself – really throws himself – into these ideas with the all-consuming zeal of the newly-converted. The good news of Progress, of Science, of Evolution, of Industry – these are the Big Concepts that need to be brought to the Ægyptian people, whether they would have them or no.

One would expect such a man, with an intellectual bent laser-focussed on the attainment of the modernity of Europe, to have nothing good to say about his fellow countrymen, particularly the rural folk, the fallâhîn. But Mûsâ surprises here. He observes the fallâh with a mixture of pity, compassion and condescension – and in a man less given to doubting himself, this attitude would likely come off as insufferable. Instead, Mûsâ speaks forthrightly: it’s good for the fallâh to be independent, to exercise the knowledge he has of his own land, and to be allowed to use it in responsible ways. Mûsâ draws a benign comparison of the Ægyptian fallâh to Pearl Buck’s hard-working Wang Lung, and observes and deplores the exploitative British imperialist imposition of a cotton monoculture on Ægypt. The monoculture drains the Nile, waters lands which ought to be kept dry, breeds disease and parasites, and destroys the health of the peasant – even as it forces the peasant to sell his crop to Manchester factory owners for a pittance, when he could be growing food and sustaining his own family. There are passages in his observations of country life that could be lifted wholly from EF Schumacher or GK Chesterton.

… To a point. Mûsâ may have a note of populist insistence on the dignity of the farmer, but only insofar as it serves to get him off the farm. Industry, after all, is one of Salâma Mûsâ’s watchwords. He wants farms to be small, variegated, self-sufficient, and rare: he is convinced that small local factories will liberate the farm family from its drudgery and provide options for a decent life that would be otherwise unavailable to them.

Salâma Mûsâ also studies in England and France as a youth. He has very positive things to say about both – particularly in regard to the emancipation of European women, something which he desires for Arab women both Christian and Muslim. Though elsewhere he inveighs against the racism and imperialism of the English colonial functionaries, when he is in England proper, he exhibits little but heartfelt sympathy for the English people and admiration for the English culture. (One may note that this selective Anglophilia is a common attitude among Arab nationalists generally.) He additionally recounts a fiery, passionate sexual relationship he carried on with Elisabeth, an Irish schoolteacher a year or two his senior, which ends in heartbreak for him. They bond over shared political concerns, but mingled with Mûsâ’s preference for older women, their relationship soon turns physical, and ends – unwillingly, it sounds, on his part – when they returned to their respective home countries.

When in England, too, he meets and befriends several prominent personalities: primary among them Bernard Shaw, whom Mûsâ has a tendency to hero-worship. He joins the Fabian Society. He also expands his literary horizons while in England. Putting Nietzsche to the side, he engages briefly with Herbert Spencer, then more deeply with HG Wells, Henrik Ibsen, Fyodor Dostoevsky and most of all Lev Tolstoy (whose portrait he keeps iconographically over his bed); only afterwards does he come to the writings of Karl Marx, JW von Goethe and Sigmund Freud. It’s in England, and particularly under the influence of Bernard Shaw, that his political views begin to consolidate into a recognisable form of socialism.

Mûsâ spends much of his adulthood publishing articles and translating texts into Arabic for the benefit of his readership. He develops his own voice and propagates it in opposition to what he considers the ‘flowery’, ornate and pretentious language of his contemporary Arabic belletrists. Not stopping there, he decries such Arabist authors as obscurantists who flatter and fawn on the wealthy and powerful. His political consciousness is honed by his experiences of the World Wars; he is (initially) taken with Wilsonian idealism and the promise of self-determination for non-European nations. To be honest, Mûsâ’s account of these years is slightly frustrating for its political naïveté. But three things seem to happen to him that turn his thinking in interesting directions.

The first is his marriage. Though his initial romantic encounter with the Irish schoolteacher left him slightly embittered to the thought of marriage, and though he is given to the idea of the literary man as a necessary loner and even a ‘psychopathic personality’, in 1923 he manages to be charmed by a Coptic schoolgirl with a far more ‘traditional’ frame of mind. Even though her husband is an advocate of ‘freethinking’, of birth control and female emancipation, she manages to have no less than eight children with him. Mûsâ is not only no stranger to the irony of this situation, but he is open about how it changed his frame of mind in a much more traditional direction; he begins to have an appreciation for the ‘ordered way of life’ that marriage affords him, and to let himself be ‘educated’ by his wife and children who, he begins to understand, have as much to teach him as he them.

The second is the atom bomb. The Second World War seems to have left a deep impact on Salâma Mûsâ, and in the unholy destructive light of the split nucleus over Hiroshima he beholds the monstrosity of Science, unrestrained and uninformed by religion and morality. The atom bomb at once deepens his appreciation for scientific knowledge, and awakens him to its world-threatening dangers. It’s noteworthy that Mûsâ’s correspondence and exchange of ideas with Gandhi occurs in the wake of the Second World War, as the Gandhian (actually Anglican) idea of the ‘seven social sins’ begins to make itself felt in Mûsâ’s thinking.

And the third is Christ Himself. Salâma Mûsâ began his life as a Coptic Christian (and never really left the Church in a formal sense), but he seems to have ‘rediscovered’ the Christ of his youth through the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. It’s slightly unfortunate that his rediscovered Christianity took on something of a large-scope œcumenist bent – and I say ‘slightly’ only because I acknowledge the same tendency within myself, looking for wisdom in the ancient traditions of Confucianism, Platonism and Zoroastrianism. Mûsâ allows not only these (especially Platonism), but also the Sûfî mystics to speak for him; to him the Tasawwuf expresses in poetry the highest aspirations of the love exemplified by the life of Christ. I also find slightly discouraging his emphasis that philosophy and theology are the same discipline – he never quite makes it to being a Perennialist. But, again, it seems to have led him in interesting directions, and toward a partial return to the faith of his youth.

What seems most interesting is that as his career progresses, Mûsâ begins to cast off many of his naïve assumptions about human nature generally and Western culture particularly. Whereas in his younger days he had embraced Wilsonian idealism, by the dawn of the Cold War he had set his face against Wilson and his ideological heirs completely. He had already begun using ‘democracy’ in scare-quotes and savaging Western nations for their hypocritical selectivity in their application of ‘human rights’, particularly when it came to countries like Ægypt and India. (His ire is particularly roused at Eisenhower’s interference in al-Suways, as he had long been an advocate of nationalisation.) Although Mûsâ is still very much a socialist – and specifically a partizan of Gamâl ‘Abd al-Nâsîr, one of the few Ægyptian politicians who appreciated his activism and scholarly talents – his embrace of the Soviet Union, remarkably, is not owing to his socialism or to his reading of Marx, but is instead motivated by an almost Thucydidean realism: Soviet rivalry with America keeps Ægypt safe, at least for the time being, from external interference. Likewise, his enthusiasm for the Chinese Communist victory is not predicated on any special enthusiasm for Mao Zedong, but instead on the potential liberation of the Chinese peasantry (for whom, by way of the fallâhîn, he had a natural and heartfelt sympathy) from their habitual forms of deprivation.

Placing Mûsâ in Ægyptian politics of the time is not particularly tricky. He supported the constitutional-monarchist Hizb al-Wafd; however, the major politicians of the Wafd detested him for his supposed Westernism and for his (in the Ægyptian context) hard-left views on œconomics. He viewed with alarm the rise of the Ikhwân al-Muslimûn and their Sunni fundamentalist brand of politics, and he suspected (as it turns out, rightly) that the Brotherhood had been fomented by the British in order to divide and confuse the supporters of Ægyptian political independence. Mûsâ may be considered – by analogy with Russia – a zapadnik. His thought and his assumptions are Shavian – needless to say, they are founded on a Western, specifically British, education. But that same education turns against British imperialism with the same vehemence that Gandhi’s did. In this, his ‘trajectory’ mirrors that of Aleksandr Herzen in Russia.

But the grand strokes, the political gambits, the high romance and the drama of ideological struggle and imprisonment for one’s conscience – though these things are all important to Salâma Mûsâ and he lavishes great attention on him, it’s really the smaller, merely-human moments that make his autobiography come alive. Climbing trees, stealing crows’ nests and escaping the schoolmasters in his youth. Hiking in the French countryside. Sharing tender moments with Elisabeth (or with his wife-to-be). Helping a threadbare Cairo doctor overcome a cocaine addiction. Weeping for his late mother at his wedding. Holding his sister’s hand on her deathbed. Sympathetically accompanying Mayy, a waning Coptic socialite, during her slow, tragic descent into insanity. Perhaps this would be true of any memoir, but for Mûsâ in particular these moments go a long way toward grounding and humanising an intellectual who spends so much of his life immersed in books and big political questions.

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