Taha Husayn

Traces of a Visionary

by Yousef Hilmy

published April 17, 2015

1. For some, to see means to know. Our eyes isolate, violate, pay no regard to the problem of hallucination and illusion. Our eyes trick us into believing that the “real” is merely what we see on the surface, what we perceive immediately. Taha Husayn, the renowned Egyptian writer and intellectual, was not such a person. His life teaches us that the real is what we feel, that it is what we share, that to a boy who believed “the world ended to the right of him with the canal,” the real is what we can imagine and synthesize.

2. Taha Husayn was born, in 1889, in ‘Izbit el Kilo, a small village in Upper Egypt, near Maghagha. Called “The Dean of Arabic Literature,” he is most famous for his monumental autobiography, al-Ayyam (The Days), which was written in three volumes, between 1926 and 1967. In the autobiography, Husayn—who refers to himself as the “the lad” or “the boy”— traces his early childhood and education, up through his experiences as a student living in Cairo and France in the early 1900s. 

3. Taha Husayn was blind. He had been so from the age of three, as a result of neglect. One day, ophthalmia attacked him, and he was not tended to for several days. It being ‘Izbit el Kilo, which was comprised mostly of fellaheen, there was no doctor or medical professional on site to attend to him. The village barber was eventually called in to treat Husayn. Unsurprisingly, he botched the operation, and from that point on Husayn was left without sight, as a person who, in the words of Jorge Luis Borges, “carries with him everywhere the portable jail cell of his blindness.”

4. But what does it mean to carry around with you this “portable jail cell?” At times, Husayn was inhibited by an acute fear of embarrassment. In “An Egyptian Childhood,” the first section of Al-Ayyam, Husayn recalls an incident that always reminded him of his immense differences from his siblings, connecting both the personal and social aspects of his blindness.

One evening, Husayn was eating supper with his father and his brothers, while his mother, as was the norm at the time, instructed her daughters and the house servant in bringing to the table the dishes required for the meal. Husayn tells us “he was eating just as the others were eating, when a strange thought occurred to him! What would happen if he took hold of a morsel of food with both hands instead of one as was customary?” When he did this, his brothers burst out laughing and his mother began to cry. His father, a stern but calm man, told him in a somber tone that this was not the way one did things, that this was not the way one ate food. Husayn felt the weight of his family’s piercing eyes, without mediation or resistance, judging him for overstepping his bounds, not knowing his place.

From that time on, Husayn tells us, his movements were fettered with infinite caution, fear, and shyness. Writing and recalling this incident, Husayn isolates it as the central event that helped him to identify with Abu al-Alaa al-Maari, a blind skeptic Abbasid poet from the eleventh century. This identification proved to be integral to both Husayn’s personal and intellectual interests in his later years, reflecting itself in his scholarship and his fictional work.

Husayn relates one of the traditional stories about al-Maari, one that was frequently narrated by Arab storytellers: “They say that one day he was eating treacle, some of which, unbeknownst to him, fell down the front of his garment. When he went out therefore to lecture to his students, one of them said to him, ‘Sir, you have been eating treacle.’ Abu al-Alaa quickly put his hand on his chest and said ‘Yes! God save us from gluttony!’ Thereafter he gave up eating treacle for the rest of his life.”

The student’s casual observation, though surely benign in intention, asserts a marked distance between him and al-Maari—one of a kind of sovereign visuality, an awareness. In response to this story, Husayn tells us that until he was 25 years old, he gave up any kind of food that had to be eaten with a spoon, such as soup and rice, for fear of soiling his clothes and having his brothers laugh at him. He identified with al-Maari, who always ate alone, not even with his servant, who would eat in an underground tunnel, so that he could be left alone and eat as he liked. He understood these habits because he saw himself in them.

This displacement, in the blind individual, of mental and physical space is constantly negotiated and overcome. It can be argued that Husayn’s decision to eat alone sits at the nexus of agency and acceptance of his disabilities. And it is this same understanding, this ability to negotiate two different viewpoints, as it were, that would allow Husayn to mediate between traditions (East and West) and to contribute brilliantly to the zeitgeist of a nation grappling with the challenges of modernity and [post]colonialism.

5. Even if he was discouraged by the disgraces of blindness as a social category, however, Husayn did not let his condition impede him. He not only came to terms with his blindness; he excelled in spite of it.

He memorized the entire Qur’an by the age of nine, with help from a teacher at the local Qur’anic school. At the age of 12, in 1902, he left home to go to al-Azhar, the famous Islamic university in Cairo. For the blind boy, Cairo was unforgiving and unfamiliar, full of strange sounds and smells that intrigued and frightened him. Husayn writes that in this period he was “lost in bewilderment.” Although Husayn was living with his older brother, who was also a student at alAzhar, he had little to no help getting to and from school. His days were divided into three marked categories: confinement in his room, which was cramped and where he faced extreme bouts of solitude; the agitated journey back and forth from al-Azhar, which, needless to say, was overwhelming and stressful; and, finally, the courtyard of al-Azhar, which is described in halcyon terms: a place of “rest and security,” in which he felt the conviction of being in his own country, amongst
his own people, and lost all sense of isolation, all sadness. Thus al-Azhar, especially at this formative period of Husayn’s adolescence, is framed in his writings as a place of respite and belonging, but also of “dogmatic tradition” (restricted by the “shackles of
taqlid,” in the words of the reformist Muhammad Abduh) that needed to be problematized and imagined out of. Indeed, it was at al-Azhar where Husayn’s rigorous intellectual spirit was cultivated and shaped.

6. Husayn’s interest in less traditional sources or subjects, like literature, pushed him to enroll in the newly found Egyptian University, in 1908, where he wrote his dissertation on Abu al-Alaa al-Maari. It was also here that Husayn was exposed to “men who wore the fez,” that is, the Western-educated effendiyah class whose secular, humanist thought Husayn would go on to absorb, adapt, and negotiate in his broader literary project.

7. In France, Husayn found eyes. He was looking for someone to read to him. His French, which he had studied in Egypt, was still not perfect and, of course, he still needed someone to help him with reading from non-Braille books (in Cairo, he had a companion who read to him). Suzanne Bresseau, a Catholic Parisian war refugee, responded to an advertisement Husayn had placed in the local paper, became his reader and eventually took on the role of his personal secretary, helping him with scripts and assisting him with the research aspects of his thesis. Bresseau, referred alternately by Husayn as his “sweet voice” or “his eyes,” was integral to Husayn’s academic success in France. A learned woman herself (she was studying for a teaching certificate at the École Normale Supérieure, before a bombardment forced her and her family to leave Paris in 1914), she taught him ancient Greek and Latin, in addition to transcribing his entire doctoral dissertation, which was on the social thought of Ibn Khaldun. Husayn would later write that Bresseau, whom he married in 1917, lifted “the heavy curtain of blindness that from my boyhood had shut me off from the world.” 

8. On their return to Egypt after the war, in 1919, the year of the Egyptian Revolution, Husayn was appointed for a professorship at Cairo University. In his more than 40-year professional career, Husayn held many other positions: founding rector at Alexandria University, Minister of Education under Abdel Nasser, and the editor of various periodicals, like al-Kawkab and al-Jarida magazine, among others. With the Comtean positivist thought he had learned and adapted in France, under notable intellectuals such as Emile Durkheim and Gustave Bloch, Husayn went on to write superb historical, philosophical and fictional work, which negotiated seemingly opposing traditions and argued for a grand synthesis in the form of secular nationalism. Many of the theories Husayn argues for in his texts are, it should be said, questionable and contentious, as is usually the case with any adoption of Western frameworks in the post-colonial era. Even critics of Husayn’s work, however, could not deny how innovative and provocative he was, how dazzling his work was in its wide array of sources. Indeed, in both Taha Husayn’s personal life and literary project we see the traces of a visionary, of someone who at once accepted and transcended his position, who, within and through his blindness, could see and imagine in a remarkable, even revolutionary way.