Education, Education, Education

11 May

I have just finished reading Lucie Ryzova’s The Age of the Efendiyya and in this book she goes into great detail about the Egyptian Efendi’s promotion of education above almost every other goal. I therefore thought that I would translate a little section of Mohammed Ahmed Mahjub and Abd al-Halim Mohammed’s memoirs “Death of a World” about their youth and education. Mahjub went on to become a Prime Minister of Sudan and so this book needs to be read with this is mind (i.e. he may have been using it for political purposes to a degree) but it is still interesting to me for two reasons

1: It shows how similar the experience of Sudanese Efendiyya was to Egyptian Efendiyya and that, in fact, they were reading the same writers. Sudan often gets ignored, as I have mentioned before, rather unfairly and it is a very interesting site to look at these issues. Though we must also say that Sudan does not equal Egypt and its historical and political differences should not be ignored.

2: Education and colonialism have a very chequered history in both colonial and post-colonial times. It is interesting to read such a direct account of how a nation colonised by the British was excluded from the educational system but also used it (illicitly) as an expression of their own nationalism. This issue is covered in a book I have mentioned before on this blog by Heather Sharkey called Living with Colonialism


Death of a World – The Joys of Education


Of course education has not fulfilled its task unless it prepares the students for the struggle of real life and allows them to find an honourable livelihood. Yet, at the same time it should also open their eyes to see beauty and art and be able to appreciate them and it should open up their hearts to love and value everything noble in the human race. So how could the education in [Gordon] college, in our time, have been exemplary when it did not teach us to love beauty, art, generosity or nobility?

Education at that time, as far as those responsible were concerned, was nothing but a tool to shape a person enough to manage the workings of the state well. They were interested in what we had to do but never the reasons behind it. For this reason, forbidden [study] groups spread into almost every aspect of life. We read books we were not supposed to read. And we read banned newspapers which we could hardly have laid our eyes upon, except by the negligence of those people who were appointed censors. From here on in our generation was obsessed with reading and “the dearest thing to man comes from it [reading].” [This is put in quotation marks and I suppose it is some kind of proverb] In those days the “Weekly Politcs” paper was still new and was the stimulus for literary and philosophical debates between Taha [Hussein] and [Mohammed Hussein] Haykal at some times, and between academic and religious men at others. And still its pages were not devoid of great descriptive literature. People who were students at the time still remember [the article] “Sunset in Budapest”. It was not just the “Weekly Politics” that we read. After this paper the “Weekly Notice” appeared, full of [Abbas] al-Aqqad’s literary studies of books and people. Anytime al-Aqqad wrote a good article on a book or a person everyone would want to read the book or study the person. So al-Aqqad, the critic, was our guide through the thorny wilderness of life.

It was these banned reading groups which pushed us to study and improve ourselves.

It was these banned reading groups which opened our eyes to the life that different people led. It was them that made us appreciate beauty and art, made us sanctify love, and honour the nobility of man. The intended deficiency of our education is what made us want to learn more [lit. is what stopped any deficiency resulting from our education].

The more we felt restricted the more we sought out freedom. We felt that intellectual thought should play a role in the life of the people, and they [the British] wanted to restrict our thoughts. This is what made us sanctify freedom of thought, and freedom of expression. We read Socrates and saw how he died for the sake of his beliefs. We saw how those beliefs and opinions shined on after their originator was gone. Tyrants die and the people forget them but Socrates the martyr, Socrates the free-thinker, lived for generation after generation and will live for many more.

The feelings of oppression which were planted in our souls as we stood up to the unseen power, are the very things that pushed us on to resist that oppression. This is nothing new, for the Great British Prime Minister Disraeli felt this oppression when he was in the highest position in the whole state. He believed in his right to be there and his right to think and his freedom of expression so he struggled. He relied on the pen to record his experiences and he eloquently expressed his hopes and fears in excellent literature. What are his novels “Vivian Grey”, “Coningsby” and “Sybil” but assertions of the saying: “Life is experience and by expressing that experience we increase the vitality of life and raise the value of human heritage”?

How much we suffered, grieved and wept.

But we dealt with this pain by reading the lives of great men. The “Lives of Plutarch” was much loved along with the other books of biography that we had. We dealt with grief by reading the best Arabic poetry and English poetry. We found in these all that a thirsting grieving soul strove for. As for tears, we did not wipe them away for we said, with Oscar Wilde that “Tears are part of the daily experience of a prisoner, and the day than an imprisoned man does not cry is the day that his heart has turned to stone; not a happy day”

[I’m not entirely sure where this quote is from but I suppose it is in some way based on the Ballad of Reading Gaol]



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