Essay by Said Hajji published in the magazine "Assalam" of Tetouan - First year - No 6 - 1933
Egypt currently holds the leadership position in Arabic writing thanks to their dynamism and to the importance they attach to their output which also marks a true era of their literary revival. It is in our interest, we, the youth of Morocco, to better our understanding of this period. We need to submit its various schools to a study which allows us inspire our milieu with a certain energy and a better comprehension of what embodies the literary sphere in its vast dimensions of beauty and enlightenment.
This month, I will speak to the readership about a man of letters who carries the banner for the revival of literary output raised by one school amongst literary schools who have made great contributions to Arabic literature. This school penetrates to the deepest levels of what life contains with respect to sources of intellect and reflects with respect to models of enthusiasm all that characterizes souls endowed with creative imagination and an ever present mindset. Its literary man is the great writer, Abbas Mahmoud Al Akkad.
Al Akkad is a distinguished writer. His work is the product of modern philosophical theory and represents a sensuous trend in the field of literature. I do not know how to properly introduce a man of such broad scope nor how to approach the many contours of his talent or the multiple facets of his genius. Words are often incapable of relaying what one feels deep inside. One finds himself unable to express his feelings be it orally or by wishing to provide a written description. His poems and dialogues provoke deep reflections that can last for hours. One forgets under his elongated shadow, the superficial theories leading to nowhere, filling one's head with teachings that one learns without fully digesting.
Al Akkad is an exceptional literary figure who overwhelms cultivated minds. While you are reading, he casts about you a beam of light that dispels the night's darkness. Life smiles at you and shows a most graceful face. Each of your hours takes the proportions of a day, and each day becomes a month because they emanate from the powerful and resolute inclinations that reside in the intimate depths of the human soul. Reading through one of his poems, you let go of all the narrow confines of the world around you to welcome the sight of the vast horizons of the universe. As you begin to read his poem, "The Universe and Life", you realize that he is inviting you to reflect on the question on which is more compelling, human life or the universe. If (human) life does not strive for a distant goal in harmony with the flow of the universe as a whole, then for sure it will have not much to offer for comparison and all the more less to compete with the universe with respect to value.
In the ordering of concepts, we could have been content with just our terrestrial globe or with one system amongst the innumerable solar systems. If human life is the only sensible thread of existence then why are our senses insufficient in quantity to understand the purpose of life? Why is there no harmony or possible reconciliation between one who seeks to know and the known world? Must one not deduce that it is imperative that in existence there is a power that allows it to understand in an appropriate manner?
This literary figure, distinguished by the depth of his thoughts, is a self-taught person in the most noble meaning of this label. We shall dedicate to him an introduction, if one can call it that, to highlight his thinking and his style during his childhood and academic life. We will extract the elements of his development of reflective dispositions towards the literary field leading to the point where he rose to a privileged place among the most eminent of literary leaders. Hear his message addressed to the readers of our "Assalam" magazine:
"I found at my dad's house a very large quantity of books such as 'Al Mustadraf' ( The Finer Points of Art) and 'A'alam Al Nass' (The Illustrious Men) which deal with what happened between the Baramikas and the Beni Abbas. Then I immersed myself in the 'Thousand and One Nights' and that reading awakened my poetic inspiration as it was from that moment that I began to write verses about the fighting temperament in imitation of the stories' heroes. While I was still in school, we would form Egyptian, English and Dervish armies and never tired from expressing their (adversarial) engagements with boastful verses along the lines of the 'Thousand and One Night'. That was one of the first stimulating experience that encouraged me to compose poems. And because I tended to brag about the subjects I learned in my first scholastic years I composed verses in this manner which I offer one here by way of example:"
"Arithmetic is of great notable advantage
By it man acquired abundant knowledge
Grammar above all other human science
Bridges obscurity to hues of cognizance
Geography points out to youthful spirits
Towns, streams, riverbeds and currents
Learn the Koran, do heed its guidance
Its ransom: from evil to your deliverance."
"When father saw my consistent leanings and taste to read poetry, he made me follow the lectures of the great scholar from Aswan, Cheikh Ahmed El Jeddani. He taught the rhymed prose writings of Al Hariri, known by their Arabic title, 'Al Maqamat', and he engaged in discussions on a number of poems with other lettered men, teachers and judges of Sharia, the religious interpretation of Islamic law. Thus I was able to reap the most benefit from his lectures which I attended with due diligence. This effort whetted my appetite for the literary disciplines. However I limited my interest at first solely to Arabic literature until the day when English tourists of high upbringing visited us at school and, out of politeness, we in turn visited with them at their hotel lodging. While we were there they requested our mailing addresses in order to send us works of English literature as souvenir gifts. For my part, I was entitled to a book on the French revolution written by the great author, Carlyle, without knowing why they had chosen for me this book written with such style of language that was well above the level of schooling I had received at the time. So much so that it took several years later before I was able to read it. However this book was fortuitous for it attracted my interest in reading English texts which I did not hesitate in doing and thus derived such great profit that is not readily forgotten."
Al Akkad never completed the normal cycle of education in the classics because at the conclusion of his primary schooling in 1904 the only possible electives for him were courses on electricity and the natural sciences while attending the School of Fine Arts and Industry. Later he took on the profession of teaching before he was recruited and later dismissed from the functions of various official positions due, to use his own words, "to my repulsion to their overbearing obligations when compared to their unexceptional concerns." I asked him if he had aspired to the aura of literary excellence he now donned since his early childhood. There was no hesitation as he replied immediately,"There were no limits to my ambitions." Is this not a manifestation of his strength of character early in his childhood and one that has not betrayed him throughout the period that led him to the peak of his genius?
I wish now to speak to you about Al Akkad as a leader of a school of contemporary Arabic literature during its revival era. In doing so I will attempt to bring to light both his ideology and methodology.
"My main concern," he told me, "is to get the Middle Easterners used to understanding the essence of the arts and beauty. Among the essential elements of life, there is the aspiration for an ideal, without which no nation can claim any evolution. Let me explain: nations that limit their demands only to satisfy their claims of self-interest are driven by material constraints. They can be exemplified by the hungry who beg to fill their stomachs or the poor who walk half naked and seek to hide their nudity. In contrast, those who celebrate the arts and appreciate both the social and spiritual benefits of beauty do not allow themselves to be driven by a servitude to necessity. They safeguard their mastery of distinguishing and choosing, a mastery which constitutes one of the fundamental elements of freedom. A nation can aspire to realize its political freedom only after it experiences its freedom of artistic expression."
And with this profound reflection full of vitality and power, Al Akkad had replied to the question I posed to him about the mission he set out to accomplish on behalf of his Arabic cultured compatriots. I had hardly begun to formulate my question when our great writer launched into a rigorous exhibition of what he felt deep inside his heart. He was full of hope and without any indecision as if he had prepared his response a long time ago. I had the impression that the man was able to reduce to one thought which displayed many facets of his intellect and provided an in-depth reflection on the deepest part of existence to fulfill his mission of the ideal. With total confidence and determination he was fixated on opening a path of enlightenment for good and beauty in front of individuals enslaved by the material world to such an extent that imaginary fears robbed them of their reason. They were gripped with fright in front of any amulet, cringing backwards in the presence of any delirious hallucination, unbelieving of all that is not palpable and finding nothing to celebrate in the arts, neither in its sacred beauty nor in its eternal soul.
Al Akkad is a bright source for the spirit and for mind. He shines for us non-Westerners who vegetate in the black night the path to follow. He rids us of beliefs that have distanced us from the beauty contained in life ever since we capitulated to the material order; an order that dominated our existence and subjected us to criteria measured by rigorous precision. In fact, Al Akkad fulfilled his mission as he intended. To our knowledge, there has never been another intellectual engaged in a literary endeavor who succeeded in such a short time to reach full maturity of his thinking. With only a couple years past his fortieth, he succeeded in collecting the fruits of his endeavors.
Contemporary Arabic literature had witnessed an extraordinary evolution after World War I. It has chosen to nestle closer to the reality of life with a new style of writing thanks to talented Egyptian men of letters headed by Al Akkad, Taha Houssain and Mohammed Haykal. We can understand the Akkadian thinking in a precise manner when we approach it from an Anglo-Saxon cultural perspective. We can analyze this culture's characteristics with the esthetic values it presents to adapt its criteria to ours and to enlighten our gratification. Al Akkad is well versed in English literature and considers it to be the most authentic of all European writing. He converses on this topic fully confident of his ideas. He maintains that English literature, according to him, is the best of all Western literature, despite the horror inspired by British colonialism which is the worst of all. If one asks to know if the Anglo-Saxon literature best describes human feelings, he doesn't hesitate to reply with great frankness:
"Yes, it reflects feelings with perfection because it represents a nation that knows how to ally its material capabilities to the span of creative imagination. These are the two indispensable elements to understanding life, be it in a real or imaginary context. The English according to those who know them, who lived with them and studied their literature are equally pragmatic as they are imaginative."
Let us proceed now with the Akkadian school of writing. This style reflects a most prominent feature of this literature and provides the best demonstration of cohesion between ideas and the thoughts of the writer. Al Akkad does not belabor to present only the results of his reflections. For him, style is integral to the idea. The genius and mastery of the art of writing is manifested only if one is in total control of the mode of writing. One can not deal with ideas without taking into account the style nor deal with style to the detriment of the desired expression of ideas. They must go together as a pair and only in this manner can the writer's personality and intellectual capacity be affirmed and highlighted.
After an in-depth study of Al Akkad's works of rhyme and prose, I came to the conclusion he hardly shies away from the states of the soul. He never put his feelings in the forefront of his concerns nor highlights the emotions he felt in his writings. His works bore fruit of thoughts full of substance. He perceived life's images in the depths of a ripe reflection. The fertility of his productive prowess won over many who had thought literature was limited to the sentimental side. I don't know how to qualify the latter other than by his representation of man's juvenile naivety without (neglecting) possible comparison with the discerning ability characteristic of an adult. It is true, that some find Al Akkad's style too pompous, enameled with syntactic structures, built heavily on reasoning followed by useless lengthy and relentless suite of ideas. They have a right to their qualifications. Nonetheless it is practically impossible to use words to describe Akkad's style to the reader without the reader's ability to find common ground with this type of writing following the example of those that establish affinity between the human mind and purpose in life. In verse as in prose, Akkad's writings reinforce our belonging to existence. They aid us cross the juvenile phase of reading literature to shower us with the clear and sweet exquisite nectar of the literature of the human mind.
It is not difficult to point out the advantages of the Akkadian method in all the works of the author. His writings are clear and explicit. not with respect to vocabulary and stylistic processes, but in the statement of his ideas and the cohesion with their conception. We have no trouble to journey from the start of his essays or books to their very end. We find wonder in the overall unity which delights us as we spend time reading. We perceive just below the surface all that this great writer has marked on silent pages that begin to speak to us with an eloquence more expressive than that of enlightened minds.
As for a critique of his work, his style is daring and owes it boldness to the power of his mind and his self-confidence. Hear his judgement on his interventions in discussions:
"My method in all contradictory debates consists of laying out first of all the most hard-hitting arguments to demolish adverse theses. I then present a series of less important proofs and follow them with more solid contentions. Such a method takes the advantage of surprise against my interlocutors and, as experience has demonstrated, its decisive impact on the discussion is not lacking in any way."
Let's return now to the Arabic cultural revival which saw the emergence of one of the most influential literary schools led by our great writer. How does he assess the Arab literature of this historical period? With what mental vision does he reflect upon it? And what is his judgement of its various milestones with the strengths and weaknesses? Is the renewal of Arabic literature resolutely engaged towards maturation? Does our thinker have any observations to formulate with regards to the path he has chosen to follow? To all these questions, Al Akkad provided me with the following response that I wrote down as he dictated:
"I believe that this revival has set for itself an objective to strive for perfection and it is effectively engaged on this path. However my criticism for the work thus far is that it lacks diversity and confines its actions within a very narrow circle. This is a serious error which I hope will be corrected once the Middle East recovers its progress and opens new horizons of life, which it currently has failed to do."
By "lack of diversity" and "very narrow circle" Al Akkad means that the contemporary Arab writer has a tendency to exercise his abilities on all the fields of literature while the most genial of writers might shun from time to time what is expedient in order to exhaust all his resources of imagination on a single field.
Al Mutanabbi, Ibn Roumi and Al Maârri are three great poets. Each has specialized in a field in which he had shown particular brilliance. We see each intimately tied to their field, totally dedicating his reflections to it. Meanwhile today's poets, such as Ahmed Shawqi, Hafid Ibrahim and their associates play one chord uniquely and emit identical refrains. One does not find in Shawqi's poems a central idea as the powerful ideas one picks up from Al Mutanabbi's poems. Nor does one find the love of life and the borne passion one detects in poetic works by Ibn Roumi. Or even yet the deep philosophical thoughts mixed with sharp pessimism one observes in Al Maârri's poems. These ancient poets drew inspiration from their life's experiences and not from books. Their poems expressed deep visions of life, in contrast to our contemporary authors whose poetry was largely inspired by knowledge gained from literature. The latter confined themselves behind walls to write in the manner of those who preceded them not bothering to stir up any new ideas or even less to deepen any reflection.
Hence our contemporary literature is akin to a suite of related images that resemble each other, interfering with each other within narrow confines. No author has focused on one amongst the many facets of life to carry out a masterful description of his subject with respect to its development and analysis. How can Arab nations unify their codes for literary rules and artistic criteria? How can they establish a solid link so as to fulfill their duty with respect to the human spirit as was the case in the past? What is the most effective means to obtain this end and lead supporters of reconciliation between different parties of the Arab World to act and support this objective? It is this last question that Al Akkad had taken the trouble to address and he did so with these words:
"The unique material means (for this objective) is through the development of printing houses. An effort must be taken to facilitate the conditions for publishing and distributing across all the parties of the Arab World in a manner so that an editor in Cairo has the same conviction that his work is for the reader from Morocco, Iraq or all other countries of this Arab world. Moreover in addition to intellectual and moral satisfaction he can guarantee some benefit to each of these nations. In summary, the promotion of publishing and distribution is the most important means to which we must resort to if we wish to grow the various countries of the Arab world closer to one another. Moreover, at a later stage of this rapprochement, it would be opportune to organize scientific and literary symposia from time to time to be held in the Arab capitals to allow writers and cultured scholars to attend to proffer their views and share the state of progress reached by their representative nation towards a modern civil society. Thus there will proceed to be an exchange of experiences as well as bringing about a harmony of our ways of thinking."
It is appropriate now for me to conclude my report (of my dialogue with Al Akkad) to direct the reader to the admirable literary work of this writer without equal so that he may carefully study it and enjoy the uplifting beauty of ideas. To borrow from an expression of an article that appeared in the "Al Muqtataf" magazine:
"Each word expressed by Al Akkad is special like a natural whole number; and it is no less miraculous that its arithmetic precision was poured from a mold of beauty deemed to be an ideal manifestation of absolute art."