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New Texts Out Now: Mervat Hatem, Literature, Gender, and Nation-Building in Nineteenth-Century Egypt

[Cover of Mervat Hatem, [Cover of Mervat Hatem, "Literature, Gender, and Nation-Building in Nineteenth-Century Egypt: The Life and Works of `A'sha Taymur."]

Mervat F. Hatem, Literature, Gender, and Nation-Building in Nineteenth-Century Egypt: The Life and Works of `A’sha Taymur. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Mervat Hatem (MH): The modern construction of Egyptian history gives the grand old men of nineteenth-century Egyptian modernity (Khedive Ismail, Sheikh Rifa` Rafi` al-Tahtawi, and judge Qasim Amin) credit for promoting the interests of women by respectively building the first general school for women in al-Siyufiya (1873) and publishing one important book that supported the education of women (1873) and another to advocate their liberation through the abolition of the veil (1899). This dominant narrative usually acknowledged `A’sha Taymur, the prominent nineteenth-century writer of fiction, social commentaries, and poetry, but presented her as part of another patriarchal narrative of her life and work. In explaining how she emerged as a pioneering woman writer, most historians (men and women) focus their attention on how Taymur’s mother wanted to teach her embroidery, which she hated and resisted, wanting instead to learn how to read and write. Her father saved her from the reactionary expectations of her mother by supporting her aspirations for a literary education, paving the way for her emergence as one of pioneering women of the century.

I found this narrative, which claimed to be about women’s liberation, to be troubling: the contrast between the support of the father for his daughter’s ambitions and her mother’s opposition to change, coupled with the way this narrative infantilized Taymur forever by maintaining a puzzling silence on her adult struggles and the works that made her prominent, had conservative political and social implications. I wondered if a fuller investigation of Taymur’s life and work would provide us with a better understanding of the entirety of her life and, more importantly, an appreciation of her work that entitled her to the status of one of the prominent writers during this important period of Egyptian history. Finally, I wanted to figure out how this complex  investigation of her life and work will offer us an alternative narrative about women’s liberation in modern history.

The results of this project proved to be worthwhile. A more layered construction of the life of this important author—especially her adult struggles, which included major personal sacrifices and traumas—emphasized the many obstacles and difficulties which all women (including women of privilege) faced at every stage of their life cycle in breaking new ground. The examination of her published works sheds light on how the social and political systems of the time simultaneously influenced her work and illuminated the important contributions she made to the society-wide debates on social and political reform in the 1880s and 1890s. The alternative narrative set aside the old partial, patriarchal, triumphal, and male-centered modern narrative that has dominated our understanding of the changing gender roles of this period. It offered in its place a more dynamic one that focused attention on the important sacrifices and contributions made by the women as they pushed for expanded participation in the affairs of their societies. 

J: What particular topics, issues and literatures does it address?

MH: The interdisciplinary character of this book shaped the definitions of its topics, issues, and literatures. As a political scientist by training, I was interested in contextualizing Taymur’s life and work and examining how both added to our understanding of the political, social, linguistic, and literary transitions from an Ottoman Islamic community to a more narrowly national one. Taymur’s biography, especially her family’s history and social class milieu, showed the complex multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic makeup of the political classes that ruled the Ottoman Empire and its provinces in the nineteenth century. Her parents were of Kurdish and Circassian ancestry, and her early education emphasized the three languages (Turkish, Persian and Arabic) associated with Ottoman government and literary production, including prose and religion, that set them apart from other communities. I used the changing fortunes of these languages in the second half of the nineteenth century to show the gradual decline of the Ottoman political community and the development of a new national one that relied on Arabic as the new language of government and education, as well as of the majority of Egyptians.  

Next, I examined the heterogeneous literary map of this important period, which included the works written in the indigenous maqama style and the important Turkish and Arabic translations of Abe Fenelon’s Les Aventures de Telemaque, as well as some of the early attempts to write an Arabic novel, to discuss the existence of different forms of representing the concerns of the community and how it was being imagined in hybrid old and new ways. This made it possible to weave Taymur’s work of fiction, Nata’ij al-Ahwal fi al-Aqwal wa al-Af`al (1887); her social commentary, Mir’at al-Ta’mul fi al-Umur (1892); and her collected Arabic poems, Hilyat al-Tiraz  (1892) into this fast changing literary scene.

In a parallel vein, I looked at how the turbulent 1870s and 1880s, which witnessed the forced abdication of Khedive Ismail, his replacement by his son Tewfik, and the onset of British occupation, left their imprints on the literary works produced in the 1880s. For example, Ali Mubarak’s `Alam al-Din sought to explore the differences between the Orient and the Occident in the exchanges between a Muslim sheikh and an English orientalist who travel to France; this indicates the changing terrain on which these conversations were taking place and the relations of power between them. In contrast, Taymur’s work of fiction Nata’ij al-Ahwal fi al-Aqwal wa al-Af`al (The Consequences of the Changing Speech and Practice), published in 1887, addressed itself to the crisis of the dynastic government and how its reform included the prince’s embrace of self-discipline and the nationalization of his government, a redefinition of his relations with his courtiers, the propertied class, building bridges with his “people,” and a new reliance on the political royal couple as a new pillar of government.

Finally, Taymur’s Mir`at al-Ta’mul fi al-Umur, published in 1892, took on the equally daring ijtihad (reinterpretation) of a key Qur’anic verse that she claimed was dealing with the gender rights that men and women have in the family. She explained that she took on this task because of the destabilizing changes taking place in families of different social classes that signaled males abdicating their responsibilities and leadership roles in that key institution. The book provoked public debate with an Azharite sheikh, who took issue with Taymur’s interpretations, as well as with Abdallah al-Nadim, the key nationalist figure of the period, who praised it. I argue that this debate, not the one that Qasim Amin’s book The Liberation of the Woman fueled in 1899, was the first important public debate on gender roles and issues. What distinguished the former debate from the latter was that a woman (Taymur) took the initiative in opening up the discussion of gender rights in Islam and in the family, making women active subjects instead of the mere objects who appear in male discussions.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writings?

MH: I have always had an interest in history and the way it shapes the politics and the agency/consciousness of various gender groups and actors. My work has also always emphasized the use of interdisciplinary approaches that characterize the work of most students of gender studies. This book represented a continuation of these substantive, theoretical, and methodological concerns. It has, however, a distinct broader and overarching concern: the examination of how the comparative development of new definitions of community in the Ottoman center and one of its provinces (Egypt) led to two different routes to modern nation- building. I make that argument through the nuanced and critical discussion of an aspect of Benedict Anderson’s work on Imagined Communities that has not been discussed in Middle East studies—that is, the contribution that the novel (and I would add other forms of fictional works) made to the representation of modern national communities. I think it is fair to say that nineteenth-century Arabic and Turkish literary productions provoked society-wide debate about the reform of the Turkish and the Arabic languages as new markers of the development of modern and smaller national communities. This contributed to the nationalization of the Ottoman Empire, providing two different routes to nation-building. In the case of Egypt, the use of Arabic as the increasingly dominant language of education and then of government enhanced the accelerating development of a politically autonomous, smaller Arabic-speaking national community within the Ottoman system. At the Ottoman center, the call for the reform of the Turkish language seemed to be designed to create a nation at the heart of the far-fledged multi-ethnic and multilingual empire. Both of these larger political and cultural processes had implications for the discussions of the new gender roles of women and men as other markers of the new communities.

Anderson conceptualized modern imagined communities as horizontal fraternities, but he was frequently criticized for not having developed this gender aspect of his work. In this book, I am preoccupied with how these fraternities worked—that is, the forms of social solidarity they contributed and the gender discourses with which they were associated. In addition to the exploration of the changing definition of femininity and masculinity during this period offered in Taymur’s work of fiction, I look at how sheikhs Abdallah al-Fayumi, the Azharite sheikh who criticized Taymur’s work, and Abdallah al-Nadim, who praised it, offered  modern definitions of fraternity. Both used the discussion of women in general (and Taymur in particular), who were not related to them by kinship, as a new source of privilege that they claimed as male members of a gender group, that is, a fraternity. This modern definition of fraternity compared with earlier ones that can be found in the Islamic religious tradition. It adds a very important dimension to our understanding of the modern debates on gender where men discuss women among themselves. This development did not only take place in Egypt, but was also observed by women analysts in Europe. Up until now, historians have dealt with these modern debates as though they are simply about women (which they are), ignoring the fact that they are also about how groups of men have tended in modern times to cement ties of similarity and difference among themselves by exercising the modern prerogative of being able to make general claims about women as a group. Sheikh Fayumi, Taymur’s critic, breaks with the medieval Islamic interpretations of the concept of leadership in the family, which was dependent on their obligations as providers, to suggest that men were entitled to leadership not because of what they provide, but because they were men.

J: Who do you hope will read this book and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MH: One of the benefits of doing interdisciplinary work is that it can appeal to multiple audiences. In this case, I can see this book as attracting students of political science, history, literature, and of course women’s studies. Political scientists may be interested in a work that takes as its primary focus of analysis the way literary works can play a distinct and important role in the development of the imagining of the community. They offer discussions of its sociology, history, materiality, and the roles that men and women play in it. Anderson suggested that the novel helped in the original imagining of the community, but I would add that its changing role has not been fully theorized. In particular, this means addressing how the novel continues to provide illuminating insights into our understanding of the changes within a community, especially when used by male and female writers who discuss their gender experiences and roles in the family and the community, issues that are generally not well covered in political or sociological studies.

Given the importance I attach to the role of literary works in nation building, I also hope that students of literature can find in the framework that I offer for understanding the changes taking place in the literary forms, language, and genres in the region at mid-century a different approach than the modern one. The latter dismisses in very harsh terms earlier forms of fiction as less worthy of study on their own terms or as an important sources of the changes taking place in the language, literary forms, and the substantive themes and preoccupations of the writers and their readers.

Historians may find the comparative transition to nation building in the Middle East helpful and useful. I think Middle East historians have increasingly encouraged us to connect the study of the Ottoman center and its periphery for an additional appreciation of the complicated and comparative processes of change taking place during the nineteenth century at either end of this regional picture. I think this book adds to the expanding literature that takes critical views of some of the assumptions that students of the region make about the effects that modernity has had on the region. While modernity is taken by some as having underlined the need for change, the changes associated with it were far from unambiguously positive or negative. They are certainly important enough to disentangle and study. The part of this process of change that appeals to me is the unpacking of the interaction between the old and the new without attaching a predetermined normative value on the outcome.  

Last but not least, I hope that students of women’s studies in general, and Middle East women’s studies in particular, will find this book to be of interest. At the heart of the book is the biography of Taymur, a nineteenth-century woman writer, whose struggles to find her voice and to participate in the affairs of her society will be hauntingly familiar but also different, reflecting the specificities of her time, class standing, and individual history. I think the modern definitions of women’s roles that have largely emphasized women’s roles in the family and the rearing of children as key and self-affirming will also find that for those who chose to take a different route, the social and familial social censure was severe.

Taymur’s interests in the high politics of her time and in religious interpretations may seem unusual, but they challenge us to expand the boundaries of what was possible for women in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. More importantly, her life and work can now help us to challenge the male-centric construction of Egyptian women’s history so that it begins with women—not just Taymur, but also the minor figures who appear in her life and work: the blind Fatima al-Azhariya, who taught her Arabic grammar, and Sitatta al-Tablawiya, who taught her poetic meter, as her adult tutors, as well as the slaves and household servants who Taymur cited in her social commentary as playing in an important role in the lives of their mistresses. In the sexually segregated world that she inhabited, these other women, and especially her daughter, helped her resume her literary studies and emerge as a prominent author. She paid them back in some small way by writing about the plight of women of all classes in the face of new modern definitions of masculinity that encouraged men, not to be providers, but to thoughtlessly treat the property of their wives as their own, to be spent on new sources of entertainment (bars and singers) and new forms of consumption (alcohol).

J: What other projects are you working on now?  

MH: I have a couple of projects that I am working on. I have written many articles and book chapters on the effects that economic globalization has had on the Middle East (its class, gender, and generational divides) and how the region has responded to these effects by shaping the politics of globalization. In almost all of these articles, I discuss the ways in which gender relations or roles have been affected by the politics and economics of globalization, but also about the alliances and tensions between Middle East feminists and their Western counterparts and how they used gender in the representation of their views of global policies and relations.  

The second project deals with gender and revolution in the Middle East. For me, the Arab spring has offered a rare opportunity for the examination of how our theories on gender and revolution capture (or fail to make sense of) the dynamics of change taking place on the ground. I have not decided yet if this book will be comparative (taking Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen as cases in point), or will just focus on Egypt.

Excerpts from Literature, Gender, and Nation-Building in Nineteenth-Century Egypt: The Life and Works of `A’sha Taymur

Fraternity and the Nationalization of Islamic Government

Taymur turned next to the discussion of the development of fraternal bonds as basis of national government. For her this required movement away from the pre modern vertical and hierarchical dynastic political community, which in an Egyptian context referred to the Mamluk master-slave model, with its definition of the relations between the prince and king, the political class and the larger population he ruled. This transition was a difficult one because it seemed to be fraught with potential political threats from these groups. Yet failure in this transition posed equally serious dangers. So Taymur began to discuss in great detail the process by which the relations among three important political actors (the prince and king, the political class which helps him to govern-and the rest of the population) could contribute to horizontal national fraternities.

The discrediting of kinship (maternal and paternal) bonds as a basis for the political operation of government, which served as the starting point of the story of prince Mamduh, was generally associated with the rise of civil forms of modern government characterized by the more egalitarian fraternal relations among men of different classes. Mamduh’s changing relations with Malik [his vizir] and `Aqeel [his courtier] as well as those with his subjects offered insights into the nationalization of dynastic government. While the narrative began with Malik and `Aqeel defining themselves as slaves of the monarchy, [his father’s] decision to put them in charge of the prince’s education signaled the beginning of the abandonment of the old master-slave model that guided the absolute form of dynastic government in favor of a more fraternal model. Dushnam and Ghadur’s [members of the princely government] influence over Mamduh was also part of this transition to the fraternal mode underlining some of its sources of danger. By encouraging Mamduh to resent the power and authority of his counselors, they hoped to improve their position with him and/or eventually to usurp the throne. The result was a return to personalized or absolute rule in which Mamduh was contemptuous of all the members of the political class as well as most of his subjects. He refused all contact with anyone who was enslaved, be they white of black. He considered it to be beneath his dignity to deal with freed white slaves who attained high status because that did not wipe out the fact that they were bought for a price like animals. He was also brutal in his treatment of African slaves considering their skin color to be akin to misfortune. Finally, Mamduh was also cruel to the needy (arbab al-hajat), who approached him with petitions to redress acts of injustice, treating them as low lives, and common criminals only worthy of more punishment. Under this extremely hierarchical dynastic form of government, it was very easy for Dushnam and Ghadur to usurp the power of the politically isolated prince who had no other basis or source of political support.

In one of the most significant political speeches in the frame story, Malik sought to offer Mamduh his views of how the general public can provide him with a reliable frame of reference in evaluating the advice of his counselors and courtiers. The following was the most important fragment of the long speech:

He who wishes to evaluate the advice given to him by other, must accept as truthful that which is familiar to the common folk [al-`amma]…Whatever is met with the peoples’ [al-nas] approval should be followed and that which they censure should be avoided. A rational man should follow the examples set by others.[1]

Malik gave the social standards of al-`amma and al-nas a paramount role to play in the social education of the prince and his ability to evaluate the advice he received from his counselors. To protect himself from the hypocrisy of friends and foes, the prince needed to test their views and opinions against the sensibilities of the masses and/or the people to distinguish good from bad counselors and right from wrong. As such, the masses were the arbiters of proper behavior and the prince had to conform to the standards they set for the community. Following the social practices of the majority provided the basis of rational ideological and political behavior because of the social injunction to benefit from the experiences of others. This was an interesting theoretical role reversal which transformed the nineteenth century assumed passive role of the masses (al-`amma) and the people (al-nas) into a more active one that set the ethical and social standards of royal behavior. In emphasizing these new linkages between the prince and his subjects, Malik offered the bases of modern princely government, which redefined the relations between the prince and his subjects transforming the monarchy into a national institution. Modern dynastic government sought to make itself part of the social fabric. The ability of the prince to see himself in  al-`amma and al-nas and vice versa contributed a major departure in the definition of Islamic dynastic government. 

Taymur as Viewed by her Contemporaries

Shaykh Abdallah al-Fayumi was a member of the ulema class who also had an active interest in literature reflecting earlier ideals of learning, which grounded all forms of literary writing in the study of the Qura’nic text as the paragon of the Arabic language. In the long introduction to his response to Taymur’s [Mir’at al-Ta’mul fi al-Umur] titled Lisan al-Jumhur fi Mir’at al-Ta’mul fi al-Umur, he offered the following interesting account of how the literary circles reacted to Taymur’s work and the effort to recruit him for a response.

I attended a literary gathering with many other discussing lofty issues that were both old and new. As we began to disperse, a sincere friend approached me and shared an “amazing report.” He said: “I had read a beautiful work titled Mir’at al-Ta’mul fi al-Umur written by `A’isha Taymur, the daughter of Ismail Pasha Taymur, whose poetic and fictional works established her reputations as a model for others. Many of her peers acknowledge that if all women were like her, then they would be preferred to men…While her literary skills and her accomplishments could not be disputed, [her latest work] showed that this acclaim had gone to her head leading her astray into areas where she should not have ventured. While it was the duty of the literary writers and the men of religion to give advice and to guide the community, God singled out the wise men of each generation for this important obligation. These men struggled to advise the nation, help it reach happiness and develop its sources of wealth sacrificing their souls to the comfort of the public.

A Qura’nic verse that underlined the importance of the community stated: “let there be among you a community (umma) that calls for goodness, commands right and forbids wrong.” The prophet reiterated that theme describing “religion as advice. People asked him: who should deliver it? He answered: God, the prophet, religious leaders and the ordinary Muslims.” It was particularly important to speak out about matters which if not addressed would lead to the violation of the sacred canon and practice. At the outset [of Mir’at al-Ta’mul fi al-Umur], Taymur engaged an imaginary learned religious man (`alama) in the explanation of her views. We waited for a member of the ulema to respond to her call [for an exchange], but no one has bothered to withdraw their swords in response. [The friend] declared he was busy with other serious battles and appealed to me to take on that burden.

I declared myself to be similarly occupied and added that I had despaired of worldly occupations, separated myself from both the riffraff and the astute and gave up on people [observing how] a brother [could not be trusted] and friendships turned sour. Mountains of ignorant men, who occupied the place of honor in government agencies, became fat and arrogant overshadowing those who were learned filling these different arenas with multiple expressions of diseased brotherhood.

[The friend ] answered that matters have reached a climax and you must answer this call [issued by Taymur] offering effective medicine to this general malady. I said that I feared that I might [in going after her] face an early death, but he reassured me that in this case I was going to be rewarded against my will.[2]

[1] `A’isha Taymur, Nata’ij al-Ahwal fi al-Aqwal wa al-Af`al (Cairo: Matba`at Mohammed Effendi Mustafa, 1887/8).
[2] Shaykh Abdallah al-Fayumi, Lisan al-Jumhur `ala Mir’at al-Ta’mul fi al-Umur (Cairo: Multaqa al-Mar’at wa al-Thakira, 2002), 48-50.

[Excerpted from Mervat F. Hatem, Literature, Gender and Nation-Building in Nineteenth Century Egypt: The Life and Works of `A’sha Taymur, 92-93, 130-31. © 2011 by Mervat F. Hatem. Excerpted by permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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