Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi has the strange distinction of being the only nineteenth-century Egyptian writer with his very own website. I first heard about him in a lecture by the French journalist and political scientist Guy Sorman. Sorman had just published a book on the Muslim world called Les enfants de Rifa‘a and started off by explaining the enigmatic title.
Rifa‘a (1801–73), he told us, was an Egyptian imam who wrote Parisian Gold, a celebrated account of his study trip to France in 1826–31 and one of the earliest descriptions of European life by a Muslim. Through the influence of Parisian Gold – and his subsequent work as a leading government functionary – he played a key role in Egypt’s great modernizing reforms. His ‘children’, on whom Sorman pins his hopes, are the many progressive people who keep alive the ideal of an enlightened and liberal Islam.
I was intrigued by all this and keen to get hold of Parisian Gold when it was recently published in English for the first time as An Imam in Paris. I dipped in, hardly knowing what to expect, and was instantly astounded by the style and sensibility. The weather is usually the safest of subjects, but overcast days in Paris remind Rifa‘a of an Arabic poem:
The sun keeps on staring at us with a mysterious,
hurt eye from behind a veil.
It attempts to tear apart the resisting clouds
like an impotent man attempting to tear the hymen of a virgin.
This is a pretty startling comparison (and leads into a digression about other uses of the same metaphor), but as Rifa‘a reminds us elsewhere, ‘Something that is considered to be eloquent in one language may in another be wholly devoid of eloquence, or even repulsive.’ A French poet, after all, would hesitate to wax lyrical about his lover’s saliva. So too, ‘If you compare the vulva of a virgin before she has been deflowered to a rose that has not yet blosso
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