Saturday, October 20, 2012

Tahtawi : Epilogue

This is the conclusion to the preceding post, so please read that one first.

Due to a reactionary change of regime after Mehmet Ali died, Tahtawi's School of Languages didn't last long. By 1850 it was closed and its director was banished to the Sudan. The intrepid American traveller Bayard Taylor, himself a translator, met him in Khartoum and found him disconsolate and bitter. Then came another change, and Tahtawi returned to Cairo, where he finished his life in ease and honour. But he didn't reopen al-Alsun. And so it remained nothing but a memory for a century, until a famous author, Taha Hussein, when minister of education in another era, revived it in 1951. When I visited it in 1980 it had over 1,000 students and a dedicated staff, and it taught a wide range of languages. But it was housed in a rather shabby former secondary school in the Zaitoun district. Since then, however, it has moved to a modern building on main campus of Ain Shams University, where it ranks as a faculty. So the spirit of Al-Alsun lives on.

One noticeable change is that there are now as many women students as men. There were no women in Tahtawi's time, despite the fact that he believed in and argued for education for girls. But then there were no girls in the preparatory schools from which he recruited. Expert Translator training requires good prior education.

References and Further Reading
George Antonius, The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement. 1939. 492 p. A free full download is available here.

Tahtawi. An Imam in Paris: Account of a Stay in France by an Egyptian Cleric (1826-1831). Original title: takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis bariz. London: Saqi, 2008, 416 p. This is the annotated English translation by Daniel L. Newman of Durham University. Available from Amazon. A good deal of the information above is drawn from it. There are also French and German translations.

Tahtawi. Mawaqi' al-aflak fi waqa'i' tilimak. Arabic translation of Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque. Beirut, 1867. Notice that Tahtawi didn’t think it advisable to publish it in Egypt. On Tahtawi and self-censorship, an interesting article has appeared recently:
Myriam Salama-Carr. L’autocensure et la représentation de l’altérité dans le récit de voyage de rifā’a rāfi’ al-TahTāwī (1826-1831) [Self-censorship and the representation of otherness in Tahtawi’s travelogue, 1826-1831]. TTR (Montreal), vol. 23, no. 2, p. 113–131. Abstract here.
Tahtawi. Murshid al-amin li 'l-banat wa 'l-banin. [The reliable guide for education of girls and boys]. 1873.

The Description de l'Égypte that Jomard edited, initially by order of Napoleon, is a masterpiece of engraving and printing. Alas, a copy of the precious first edition (Paris, 1809-1828) got burnt in the riots in Cairo last year. There's a CD of it if you can find it, and there are reproductions, including an inexpensive, scaled-down Taschen edition, available from Amazon.

There's a Wikipedia article on Bayard Taylor here.

The website of the modern Al-Alsun is here, but it's poorly maintained. The school is now a faculty (kulliyyat al-alsun).

The portrait of the young Tahtawi has been widely reproduced. I haven't been able to trace who drew it. I first saw it hanging on the wall of the dean's office at al-Alsun in 1980.

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