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Imam with a Mission

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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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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 blossomed and afterwards to a rose in bloom, that is considered gruesome by the French.’ There is a minor eighteenth-century literary genre, initiated by Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721), which satirizes European society by presenting familiar scenes and institutions through the eyes of naïve (and sometimes sexually obsessed) visitors from the Orient. Rifa‘a is, as it were, the real thing. An Imam in Paris has its longueurs and is prickly with footnotes, but it offers a wonderfully disorientating and often amusing picture of a Europe inevitably seen as exotic. A dance in Paris, we read, ‘is a special kind of jump, which is entirely devoid of even the slightest whiff of debauchery’. An Egyptian servant, sent off on business to a slaughterhouse, ‘returned seeking protection from God and praising Him – May He be exalted – for not having made him a bull in the land of the Franks’. French coffee houses astonished Rifa‘a by their size and efficiency. On one occasion, he felt as if he were ‘in a huge bazaar because of the huge numbers of people there . . . One got the impression that this coffee house was a street, and I realized it was an enclosed coffee house only because I saw our multiple images in the mirrors.’ The experience (like so much else in France) reminds him of Arabic poetry, this time on the theme of mirrors and reflections. Different sexual mores tend to attract the eyes of foreign visitors, and the chaste and reserved Rifa‘a clearly shuddered with fastidious delight at the comparative prominence of women in French public life. He notes that everybody in France is ‘in thrall to the arts of love’. He deplores the fact that ‘The men are slaves to the women here, and under their command, irrespective of whether they are pretty or not.’ And he ties himself in knots of embarrassment describing their clothing: ‘The women of this country are used to revealing their face, head, the throat as well as what lies beneath it, the nape of the neck and what lies beneath it, and their arms almost up to their shoulders.’ But is Paris a pleasant place to live in? ‘It has been said’, Rifa‘a assures us solemnly, ‘that Paris is a paradise for women, purgatory for men and hell for horses.’ Why horses? Because they have to ‘pull carriages along the stony ground of Paris day and night, and when it is a beautiful woman who hires a carriage, the driver overworks the horses in order to take his client to her destination as quickly as possible. The horses in this city are constantly subjected to torture.’ An Imam in Paris vividly reveals Egyptian ignorance of the West through the things Rifa‘a feels he has to explain – that Parisians eat with knives and forks, often have lifelike paintings on their walls, have nothing to fear from scorpions, and that there are more carriages in the streets of Paris ‘than there are donkeys in the streets of Cairo’. It offers an intriguing glimpse of Eastern prejudices and fantasies about Europe, the obverse of the ‘Orientalism’ so common in the West at the time. Yet such fascinating detail can easily distract one from the real purpose of the book. Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition of 1798–9 had made only too clear the superiority of European technology, not least in the military sphere. When the reform-minded Mohammed Ali seized control of the sleepy Ottoman province in 1805, he was determined to bridge the gap. Rifa‘a and a group of twenty-five princes were sent to Paris as students with a clear mission – to discover the secrets of Western success. (They were naturally perceived as ‘colourful’ by their French hosts and featured as characters in a vaudeville show – along with the giraffe Mohammed Ali had sent as a gift to King Charles X.) It was Rifa‘a who produced the only published account of their trip. Astonishing as it sounds, therefore, An Imam in Paris was really a work of industrial espionage, a bit like the books on Japanese management methods that Western businessmen used to devour in the hope of beating them at their own game. Rifa‘a boldly claims that he hopes to ‘arouse all Islamic nations – both Arab and non-Arab – from their sleep of indifference’. He compares France and Egypt, implies where Egypt should learn from France, but always takes care to avoid anything that might offend the pasha or the religious authorities. This required considerable evasion and diplomacy, since current scientific theories (for example, about the rotation of the earth) did not always accord with the Koran. Furthermore, since it was obviously a great privilege to be sent to Paris, Rifa‘a heaps lavish praise on his patron and, like the class swot, keeps stressing all the books he’s read and the things he’s learned in order to justify the trust that has been placed in him. As a result, An Imam in Paris is a very strange text to read. But there is no doubt that it helped inspire a series of reforms which improved the status of Egyptian women, developed a secular press, introduced French as the language of administration, encouraged the translation of important scientific papers and promoted universal education. Impressed by French Egyptologists, the country also started to reconsider its Pharaonic past as more than just an age of pre-Islamic darkness. This last provides a neat illustration of the speed and scale of Westernization in Egypt. When Rifa‘a was writing around 1832, he could treat opera as an utterly bizarre and alien form of entertainment where the performers’ gestures ‘are like those of deaf people and make clear many wondrous things’. Less than forty years later, in 1871, Cairo opened its own opera house with a grand première of Verdi’s Aida, an exotic tale of ancient Egypt. There were, of course, limits to the reforms. Rifa‘a gives an eyewitness account of Louis-Philippe’s coup d’état of 1830 (which replaced a reactionary autocracy with a constitutional monarchy), but Mohammed Ali remained an absolute ruler. Educational opportunities were expanded, but rote learning remained the main teaching method. And a new openness to science never went so far as to permit direct challenges to the revealed truths of Islam. Shortly after returning to Egypt, Rifa‘a wrote a letter to a French scholar arguing that publication of his account was ‘the most effective way of encouraging Muslims to seek enlightenment abroad and then come home to promote and naturalize it in their own country’. There are real questions, of course, about how far enlightenment, progress and prosperity can simply be acquired abroad and brought home like holiday souvenirs. There are others about whether long-term scientific innovation requires a level of scepticism which simply cannot co-exist with state-protected dogmatic religion. And there are even bigger issues lurking here about ‘the clash of civilizations’. It is for reasons like these that Guy Sorman uses An Imam in Paris as a touchstone for thinking about the tangled relations between Islam and modernity. Others will just enjoy it as the most amazing and entertaining curiosity.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 3 © Mathew J. Reisz 2004


About the contributor

Matthew J. Reisz is a freelance journalist and the editor of the Jewish Quarterly, and has long been fascinated by relations between Israel, the Arab world and the West.

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