Ghantus al-Rusi (Ignatius the Russian)

27 Oct

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As a youth, C.L.R. James tells us, he used to read Thackery’s Vanity Fair from cover to cover and then, when he had finished, he would start all over again from the beginning. I have now found, for the first time, a book that has made me do the same thing: Ignatius Kratchkovsky’s Among Arabic Manuscripts: Memoirs of Libraries and Men.[1] Written during the Second World War as the author moved periodically Moscow and Leningrad, it is a restrained – but no less entertaining or moving for its restraint – account of a lifetime spent studying, editing, and writing about Arabic manuscripts.

We do not learn a huge amount about his own life from this book. We are given instead something more meaningful. “Please do not take this book for the author’s personal memoirs,” he begins. “These reminiscences are not about myself but about Arabic manuscripts which have played an important part in my life, or which I have been lucky enough to discover or have made available to the learned world.” This understated opening conceals something much more powerful. Through these Arabic manuscripts Kratchkovsky teases out an appealing and compelling world-view.

In this blog I am going to try to explain – in part to the reader and in part to myself – why I think this short collection of memories comes together to form a book that is so good. Part of the reason is, of course, because Kratchkovsky’s style of writing is so endearing: modest but always honest. No doubt, some credit for this must be due to the translator from Russian, Tatiana Minorsky. Another explanation for my attraction to the book is that it is peppered with really great anecdotes. In fact, it is a little tempting to make this a platform to simply re-tell them, but I won’t. It is, unquestionably, a well-written, well-constructed, rich book but this could be said of plenty of books. I felt this work has something more to it, beneath the surface, that is especially affecting. There are, I think, two particular reasons for this, which I shall attempt to elaborate upon now.

The first is that he captures something special and – at least as it appears to me – true about academic study. There are plenty of times when academic work can seem pretty awful. But there are also times when it is close to exhilarating. Kratchkovsky captures this adeptly. He even manages to do this without the normal chauvinism of the arts towards the sciences. He appears a devout believe in the church of human knowledge. Or, as he would put it, describing his time in the St. Petersburg Public Library he would see:

“Someone poring over a manuscript would suddenly throw himself back in his chair while a new unexpected idea thrilled him with the great joy of the scholar – the process of scientific creating equally precious to the man who stands beside a retort in a laboratory or who peers intently at the lines of a manuscript on his desk.”

The book manages to juggle the many contradictions of a scholarly ego in the portrayal of his own academic life. When discovering for the first time in several centuries an important and long forgotten-about manuscript, you can feel like a boundless pioneer with a Poirot-esque intellect. However, more often than not, you realise just how much you owe to others: colleagues, former academics, librarians (whom he never fails to mention), etc. Individual researchers are just one part in a huge interconnected web. Even those who did not seem to have a huge impact in their time (like J.J. Reiske or “Quiet” Girgas) can still speak through the ages.

All of these eulogies to scholarship might seem a little cheesy, but for someone who had lived through the first 45 years of the 20th century in Russia, they were anything but banal. As he puts it himself (to quote him at length again):

“The shades of the teachers do not hide from us the shades of our pupils who passed away before us. Many of these do I see: a life full of hardships and two devastating wars cut down the young shoots before their prime and it was not given to all to attain full blossom. But they had all entered the realm of learning and had felt its fascination. To them, as to me, the manuscripts had spoken in the tongue of the living, and they had often come to me with the treasures which they had unearthed. We shared our joys and sorrows, and together we endured many difficult years when their enthusiasm sustained my failing spirits.”

His picture of scholarship, with an emphasis on the good but also acceptance of the bad, is the first reason I think I loved this book. The second reason is it exploration of manuscript. I do not mean the commonly used sense of the word manuscript (ancient roll of paper that sits on a library shelf) but its more technical sense (writing by hand). It is no surprise that someone who spends his entire life trying to decode the writings of those who are long dead had a feeling for the personality that handwritten texts can convey. “Manuscripts are jealous”, he says, “they like to claim one’s full attention and only then do they disclose their secrets and open their hearts – theirs and the hearts of those who have been connected to them. To a casual observer they remain dumb.” With an eye to the details “manuscripts [often leave] a truer picture of the man than [do] his contemporaries.”

He traces much in handwriting, the weakening script of the old man writing his final letters or the strange markings of a scribe who does not understand arabic Arabic. Perhaps most movingly, he is shown by a librarian in Leningrad a collection of papers written by Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi late in his life as he was succumbing to paralysis. The rough, jerky script “spoke of the stark tragedy of an ebbing life” and the fact that he was losing control of the hand that had written so much but that he was still fighting to use it.

Kratchkovsky, it will come as no surprise, was also a prolific letter-writer. In his life he did not spend much more than two years in an Arabic speaking country (in his defence, this was likely because the Soviet Union did not let him travel). However, he maintained regular correspondence with many Arabic writers. He worked together with Ahmed Taymur Pasha (father of Mohammad and Mahmud Taymur) on a little know manuscript of Abu-l-‘ala called the Epistle on Angels. Kratchkovsky notes that Taymur Pasha has “clear and even handwriting”. He seemed disappointed that “owing to the march of time [his son Mahmud Taymur’s] letters were often type-written instead of being written by hand.

Other correspondents included Mikhaʾil Naʿima, who wrote in excellent Russian but apologised for “being an “old believer” and using the old spelling”, and Amin Rayhani, who once enclosed a dried flower from the Freyka valley in the letter, which Kratchkovsky kept.

Of course it is easy to be nostalgic for past days of letter-writing (days which I myself barely lived through). Email has its advantages, other than being incredibly fast. It has its own idiosyncrasies which can tell us a little more about the author. See, for instance, how much a time stamp saying 3:00 AM can tell us about a correspondent. Still, reading Kratchkovsky it is hard not to feel that something is contained in handwriting, which it is hard to replicate elsewhere.

Perhaps, of course, I am being too starry-eyed about this old, Russian orientalist. He lived in a world that was almost entirely male and his wife, a famous epigraphist in her own right, is almost the only woman to get a passing mention in the book.[2] He is also a member of that discredited guild, the Orientalists. I do not seek to exonerate this group nor, as Robert Irwin has, use Kratschkovsky as an example to counter Said. He was, as we all are, a man of his time. However, I would say that it is to Ghantus al-Rusi’s (Ignatius the Russian, as he was called by Arabic speakers) great credit that he was a pioneer of the study of modern Arabic literature in its own right in Europe. Though, in typical Kratchkovskian style, he refused to be called “the first” to study Arabic literature in Europe when the title was imposed upon him by a publisher.


The copy of Among Arabic Manuscripts that I have in my hands now is from Leeds University. Inside the front cover is a Leeds University bookplate and in the bottom left hand corner two stamps. The top one reads STACK and the bottom one SEMITIC. In the back cover is an issue card from the University. On the left hand side it reads “Staff and Research Students”. This section is stamped once in Green in 16 DEC. 1958 and crossed out. The other side reads “Other Readers” and underneath they are warned in red “Overdue books: fine 1d. per day”. In this section has one similar crossed-out stamp in black ink reading “1 MAY 1961”. I note this partly because Kratchkovsky would have both noticed and noted the same thing.

I also note it, though, for another reason. I have spent over 1,000 words praising this book of less than 200 pages published by Brill in 1953 (the translation that is. The Original Russian was published in 1945-6) but if you want to read a copy it will be hard to get one. There are 13 copies of the book available in UK libraries but other than that it seems very hard to get hold of one. None of the online book-buying sites appear to have copies and Brill has never reprinted it. For the moment I will have to do with re-reading the Leeds edition until I have to return it. I am painfully aware, too, that I have spent this time describing a book that the reader is going to find it difficult to locate. I can only apologise for this. I hope that it does not mean the whole blog is painfully unreadable.

[1] Thanks are due to Margaret Litvin, without whose lecture in Cairo that began with Sheikh Tantawi I would never have thought to pick up an obscure Russian orientalist’s memoirs. And who also sent me additional information about Kratchkovsky.

[2] The only other who springs to mind is a rather eccentric owner of a Kufic Quran


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