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A Man of Letters

A Man of Letters

Taha Hussein
Translated by Mona El-Zayyat
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    A Man of Letters
    Book Description:

    Taha Hussein (1889-1973), blind from early childhood, rose from humble beginnings to pursue a distinguished career in Egyptian public life (he was at one time Minister of Education). But he was most influential through his voluminous, varied, and controversial writings. He became known by the unofficial title 'Dean of Arabic Letters,' and the distinguished Egyptian critic Louis Awad described him as "the greatest single intellectual and cultural influence on the literature of his period." Based on the true story of a friend of the author, this novel—unfolding between Cairo and Paris and through vivid personal correspondence—draws a picture of a powerful friendship and of a young man's dilemma: the man of letters of the title finds himself split between—and in love with—two cultures essentially incompatible, East and West. In his desperate struggle to reconcile them his soul is estranged and he is thrown—or escapes—deeper into the backstreet abyss of First World War Paris. In the end it is perhaps the very impracticality of his own morality that destroys him.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-472-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Chapter 1
    (pp. 5-8)

    They claim that the most prominent characteristic of a man of letters is his keenness to create a bond between himself and the people. He feels nothing which he does not divulge and experiences no emotion which he does not advertise. If he reads a book, goes for a walk, or converses with people, and these actions arouse some impression in his soul, stir some sentiment in his heart, or provoke some thought in his mind, he will find neither peace nor tranquillity till he has recorded this impression, sentiment, or thought in a notebook or on a piece of...

  4. Chapter 2
    (pp. 9-12)

    I made his acquaintance in Cairo, before his departure for Paris where I later caught up with him. I came to know him by chance and I vehemently disliked him when I first met him. We were in the old Egyptian University, now Cairo University. It was the first week following the inauguration. I was attending lectures there and was very enthusiastic, brimming with curiosity, determined not to miss a single word. I would therefore always sit close to the professor. One evening, I was listening thus to a professor when I heard a whispering voice from behind me. Although...

  5. Chapter 3
    (pp. 13-14)

    The carriage carried us through various neighborhoods with contrasting atmospheres. I sensed this in the people’s voices and sounds of their movements, in the intensity of agitation surrounding us. I sensed it also in the very movement of the carriage itself and in the driver’s tone in urging the people in front of him to move out of his way or to beware of his horses and his carriage.

    The district was graceful and elegant. The air was sweet and pure. The movements and sounds around me, although not devoid of tension and hostility, were nevertheless pleasant and charming. When...

  6. Chapter 4
    (pp. 15-18)

    We turned right, took a few steps, and reached a corridor. We climbed up some more steps. A young maid walked with us carrying in her pretty hands a night lamp, from which a faint light faltered. When we reached the top of the stairs my host paused, feeling for something in his pocket. He took out a key and turned it in the lock before him. When the door opened he loudly instructed me, “Take your shoes off, you have reached the sacred room!”

    Immediately, I stooped to remove my sandals. What was strange about that? I was accustomed...

  7. Chapter 5
    (pp. 19-26)

    He became calmer, his voice less loud, and his tone more gentle. He spoke to me, almost in a whisper, in a voice that bespoke a profoundly affected soul and a heart brimming with love and tenderness: were I able to see his face then, I would have undoubtedly recognized tokens of emotion and tenderness.

    In this gentle voice he asked me, “Suppose I were now in my village and you were in your city. Suppose I wished to visit you and spend part of the day with you. Where could I meet you?”

    I said, “People are visited in...

  8. Chapter 6
    (pp. 27-32)

    It was as though that verse by al-Mutanabbi had suddenly awoken my friend from a deep slumber and had aroused him from a stupor, as though it had awakened him and me to our proximity to each other. It was not credible for two ignorant village youths to carry on such a conversation or to recite such poetry. For how distant were those naive, simple conversations of the countryside, devoid of philosophy or profoundness, from this lengthy monologue my friend was pouring forth like an unmanageable torrent, which he inadvertently garnished and embellished with philosophy, profoundness, and precision of thought...

  9. Chapter 7
    (pp. 33-48)

    “Would that I had not listened to you, my friend. I would have preferred to leave for France without going to our sad countryside to see my parents, my family, and our village—to immerse my soul in these beautiful surroundings where I was raised. I had suspected that in that short trip to the countryside I would encounter pains it would be wiser to avoid. I felt I should embark on the new life with a radiant soul and a heart devoid of sorrow, free of anguish, and despairing nothing. I detest farewells and feel that parting, as some...

  10. Chapter 8
    (pp. 49-62)

    He recited this verse in his broad voice, stressing its rhythm, pounding the ground with his cane and thrusting his tarbush on the table before me. Then he sat down, neither extending nor anticipating a greeting. It was as though he thought that the verse he had thus recited was the best greeting he could proffer me and that my surprise at seeing him and my anticipation of an explanation of this verse and of his motive in reciting it were the best greeting I could return. Most probably he considered greetings and responses to them as a form of...

  11. Chapter 9
    (pp. 63-68)

    “Between you and me, my dearest friend, there now exists a tepidity which I sensed since yesterday when we met in that coffeeshop of yours, always crowded with sheikhs and ringing with the noise of their discussions of jurisprudence, grammar, and literature. Their voices blend with the violent noises which emanate from the people, the tram, and those carriages which emerge in the evening from the Darb al-Gamamiz to Muhammad Ali Street to spread out in the districts of Cairo and distribute meat. All this noisy confusion should have veiled this tepidity till we had entered into a lengthy discussion....

  12. Chapter 10
    (pp. 69-76)

    “Did I not tell you the day before yesterday that I would become a hero before tomorrow was half over? As of yesterday, I have in fact become a hero—a fact I doubt you will contest after having read the letter I sent you a while ago.” He said this, then lightly struck the table before him with his cane. When the waiter arrived he asked him for a kettle of tea. Tired and weary, he resumed, his voice broken and dispirited, “Yes, as of yesterday I am become a hero, the hero of an episode which might be...

  13. Chapter 11
    (pp. 77-82)

    “The house has not sheltered me since I parted with you yesterday, my dearest Hamida. Yet I spent all my time here since the train took you away from Cairo and till this moment, almost noontime, in which I am writing to you. This is because there lies in my heart an image which does not want to leave me and with which I do not wish to part. It is the image of you before you left. You sat in a comer of our room, brooding and silent. When I approached you and called your name, you unwillingly raised...

  14. Chapter 12
    (pp. 83-94)

    “Her image has not left me, my dear friend, yet days and days have gone by since the train carried her to her village in the countryside. Many things have taken place since then and many conditions have changed. I have met those I have met and spoken to those I have spoken to. I have done insignificant and significant things. Then came the voyage. The train bore me to the sea, and the ship carries me to the land beyond the sea. Here am I, writing to you from one of its cabins. God is witness to the fact...

  15. Chapter 13
    (pp. 95-102)

    “I sensed that I heard a voice calling me from afar and that I was approaching this voice, or it was gradually approaching me. This sensation lasted for a moment, I know not long or short. But I found that I had come close to that voice or that it had come close to me. Here it was, right beside me. Here do I hear a knock on the door. Here am I crying out in surprise, or in something resembling surprise, in my Arabic language, ‘Who is it?’ And here is the door opening. And here is someone entering...

  16. Chapter 14
    (pp. 103-106)

    “Life is not a game, dearest friend, or say, not all of life is a game. Madness is permissible for short periods. If it is prolonged, the destiny of its sufferer is the asylum. I feared that my madness should be prolonged. I feared being taken to the asylum. But I was subdued after being enraged and regained my reason after having strayed. My first encounter in France was evil, but I hope that in the future I shall only encounter continuous good.

    “I write to you from Paris. I live here as a permanent resident, not as a visiting...

  17. Chapter 15
    (pp. 107-110)

    And it was indeed long, that time during which my friend’s letters were cut off from me. I had expected that he would leave me for a month or two. I had not thought that he would be able to survive this period without becoming overwhelmed with those strange thoughts boiling within him which would turn him back to me, in search of some reassurance, serenity of soul, and appeasement of conscience. But week upon week went by, and one month after another passed without my receiving a letter or anything similar to a letter from my friend. Strangely enough,...

  18. Chapter 16
    (pp. 111-118)

    The entire academic year passed and I received neither letters from nor news of my friend. But I asked about him at the university as I had done the previous year and I learned his news as I had done the previous year. I learned that he was studying energetically and distinguishing himself. He had started studying Latin after having satisfactorily mastered French. I wrote to his elderly father of this news, and spoke of it to his friends until his name became a symbol of hard work and success in life among us.

    The means for my departure for...

  19. Chapter 17
    (pp. 119-124)

    “Thus did you cross the sea in these winter days of war. You were exposed to violent perils in this crossing, perils which you literally concocted for yourself and which were mere figments of your imagination, my friend. Your ship was not threatened by submarines. Had the university suspected that you would be exposed to such a danger it would not have sent you to France. For it is very mindful of your safety. And your ship, despite its small size and old age, was not liable to sink or to be smashed by the waves. For if it were...

  20. Chapter 18
    (pp. 125-126)

    “If you should have any hopes, dear friend, that I am still in possession of some remnants of sanity or willpower, then dismiss such thoughts from your mind completely. Evidence presents itself everyday that I am declining to insanity with a rapidity which is gaining momentum, as a body falling to the ground gains momentum from one second to the next. If you are in any doubt of this, then know that I spent the entire Christmas and New Year holidays only reading, while people were swept up in the usual diversions of such days, usually days of joy and...

  21. Chapter 19
    (pp. 127-128)

    “The examination was not difficult. Yet I failed it—a most wondrous and magnificent failure—this failure where the student does not achieve one or some points, but achieves the comfortable zero. The university will know nothing of this exam. For I applied to it in secret. I therefore do not have to account for money it did not spend, or to explain a matter it has not been informed of. I had no doubt I would pass. For my private professor, who teaches me Latin, had promised me I would, and I had promised myself I would. I prepared...

  22. Chapter 20
    (pp. 129-130)

    “So, you have visited France and lived in it! And you are returning to Egypt now without that meeting between us which we so longed for. I do not know if this saddens you or not. But it truly saddens me. For I was anxious to meet you after our long separation. And I was anxious to meet you to seek your help against myself and against those trials and misfortunes which are overtaking me. But the university did not allow us to meet, and circumstances did not permit your stay in this country to be extended so that we...

  23. Chapter 21
    (pp. 131-136)

    I returned to Paris after spending three months in Cairo. I saw my friend, but hardly recognized him. Only his voice, which had not changed, and his broad laugh, which had not been refined by his stay in Paris, were still recognizable. Other than these two things, everything about him had changed so much that I utterly disavowed him. For my friend was despondent, drowned in such sorrow as, when witnessing it, could ruin your view of life. And my friend was happy, drowned in such felicity as could arouse consternation for him from this excessive entrenchment in joy. And...

  24. Chapter 22
    (pp. 137-138)

    One evening the concierge brought me a huge suitcase and this letter.

    “Dear sir,

    “You doubtless know who I am. For your friend often spoke to me of you. He always described you as his dearest friend, his most faithful, and the most careful with his secrets. I bring you this suitcase after having kept it for a whole year (not because I was expecting its owner to come back to me, for the doctors had led me to despair of his recovery), but because it pained me profoundly to part with it, to part with his books and personal...