During pre-university education in Egypt, an Arabic language curriculum introduces students to literary texts that increase gradually in form sophistication and literary value. While the quality of literature increases as students climb the ranks in the education system, there is one common denominator in the education of literature in Egypt: almost none of it is contemporary.
An education through literature, both in teaching literature and how to become a writer, has a direct impact on how students think, not only about literature but about other subjects, such as history, social sciences, and so forth. If classical literature is all that is being taught, are students missing something? Is the absence of contemporary literature intentional?
Before understanding these questions, walking through the basic education system in Egypt is key. Education is divided into three stages: six years of primary school education (normally starting at age six), three years of preparatory school, and three years of secondary school (although there are alternatives for vocational education after preparatory school).
Structuring Education Through Literary Texts
In the first four years, Arabic language curricula feature a selection of short ballads and texts written by college professors and authors who are focused on children’s literature from Egypt and Arab countries, such as Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. The topics of these ballads largely revolve around loving one’s nation and loving God, while also including texts that introduce the student to ways of understanding his/her surroundings.
Further into primary school, students are introduced to texts from established poets and authors such as Mostafa Sadek al-Rafie, Egypt’s most prominent poet Ahmed Shawqi, and Mahmoud Hassan Ismail. The topics of these texts are also centered on nationalism.
Entering preparatory school, the quantity and quality of these texts increases but the message remains the same.
Students are introduced to the novella form through stories like the history of Oqba bin Nafea, a military leader from the early Islamic era in the Arab region that highlights the rise of the Islamic state in the seventh century, an Egyptian history overview titled The Struggle of the Egyptian People, and another historical work narrating the tale of Shajarat al-Durr, a female ruler of Egypt for a brief period of time during the thirteenth century.
Longer prose and pieces appear as students are introduced to extracts from texts by Mostafa Lotfy al-Manfalouti (1876-1924), Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), Abbas al-Aqad (1889-1964), and a text translated from Hindu about animals, Calileh va Demneh.
Poetry in preparatory school curricula features a larger number of prominent poets, including Ali al-Garem (1881-1949), Elia Abu Madi (1889-1958), Ibrahim Tawqan (1905-1941), and Hafez Ibrahim (1872-1932). The topics of these poems largely revolve around nationalism and the virtues of work, science, modesty, and honesty.
*Trivia: There is a poem on football by the Iraqi poet Ma’rouf al-Rasafi.
During secondary school, students are presented in the first year with a throwback to Arabic literature of the pre-Islamic era followed by texts from the early Islamic era then literature of the Umayyad caliphate era, ending with an overview of the literature of the Abbasid caliphate era.
This stage is considered critical as it presents Arabic poetry and literature in its purest forms of classical structure and language. The curriculum also features the story of the pre-Islamic era’s most famous poet and knight, Antarah bin Shaddad.
The second year’s curriculum contains texts from the same historical eras, adding Arabic literature in Andalusia, featuring prominent poets Abu Tammam, Abu feras al-Hamadani, and al-Mutanabbi.
The students in this year are introduced to a “new” form of poetry called Maqama, which appears for the first time during the tenth century.
A novel by the Yemeni author Ali Bakathir (1910-1969) that narrates the early years of the Mamluk rule in Egypt during the thirteenth century also features in the year’s curricula.
In the third and last year, students learn about the evolution of modern Arabic literature from the first half of the twentieth century. They also study an autobiography by Egypt’s prolific intellectual Taha Hussein (1889-1973). The curriculum of these final years of secondary education features the only poem that has a non-classical structure, a poem by Mohamed Ibrahim Abu Senna (1937-present).
Why is Contemporary Literature Absent?
With a predominance of classical form, genre, and era in texts taught in classrooms, the lack of contemporary literature is glaring throughout pre-university education in Egypt.
“Generally the most recent trend when it comes to choosing literary texts is to not be attached to certain literary eras or genres,” says Mahmoud al-Naqa, professor of educational curricula at Ain Shams University, who is also a frequent advisor on Arabic language curricula for the Ministry of Education. However, when the question of why there is an absence of contemporary literature is raised, al-Naqa argues, “fair representation is needed for studying the history of literature, not for studying texts.”
Al-Naqa adds, “contemporary literature is not favored by well-known authors … some despise, for instance, the poetry prose.”
The absence of contemporary literature is not the only problem facing the education of young students about famous prose. Students are often not given the original texts of important literary pieces to read, and instead they are taught the history of literature, not the literature itself.
“What ruined teaching literature is teaching the history of literature instead of literature itself,” al-Naqa added.
Award winning poet and author Mohamed Kheir does not believe that the absence of contemporary literature in pre-university education is intentional. “I don’t think it is intentional,” says Kheir, but rather “more of a detachment of education officials, especially on the primary education level, from the literary scene, its movement, and issues.”
“The education system is generally detached from the contemporary world,” Kheir explains, paralleling the system’s detachment on other core subjects, such as science. “Where does it stand on modern sciences, tools, and theories that have been established all over the world and are refused here?”
”Kheir believes that the education system in Egypt has shifted from its epistemic role and desire to produce knowledge to merely focusing on producing graduates of the system.
Once students enter university the education system’s relationship, or lack thereof, to contemporary literature changes. Kheir says, “at the university level it is elevated to the issue of disputes, rather than detachment or ignorance. Naturally, academics tend to stick to the status quo and classical forms.”
“This is a didactic pattern that tends to avoid teaching what is still disputed. Also, officials, such as in the Poetry Committee [a committee under the Ministry of Culture], are overly focused on the classics and because of their official status they are more effective in the public education system,” added Kheir.
Kheir believes that the absence of a contemporary component of literature in the curricula has a devastating effect on students.
According to Kheir, the absence of contemporary literature is “a large-scale knowledge problem and has created a huge gap between the world as it is and the world as the student is taught. A student graduates as if we are still in the era of the Arab desert nomads. Upon facing the shock of discovering that today’s poetry is not like what was taught, a student either denounces the whole thing, lignifies or starts learning the modern way very late.”
Mohamed Makhlouf, a professor of modern literature at al-Azhar University, believes that the lack of contemporary literature in education can have a devastating effect.
“A student sees through our [educators’] eyes,” says Makhlouf. Makhlouf believes limiting choices of literary texts will result in students not accepting new forms and styles. Accordingly, they will distance themselves from contemporary literature or will feel alienated to the idea.
“When you narrow a spectrum for a young person will find nothing but nothingness,” says Makhlouf.
[This article was originally published on al-Diwan blog.]