From Cairo to Montpellier and then to Paris, the interior journey of the young student Taha Hussein

This article was published in Oasis 28. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:41

Rihla is the Arabic word for travelogue, a literary genre that was highly popular from the classical era onwards. The third part of The Days, the autobiography written by the great Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein (1889–1973),[1] also falls into this category.


Yet his journey, which took him from Cairo to Montpellier and then to Paris, is a wholly interior one, lacking any kind of visual description. It could hardly be otherwise, since the author became blind at a very early age after a poorly treated illness in his native Upper Egypt. Perhaps it is this tendency to introspection that allows his narrative to concentrate on the essential: the encounter between the Arab-Islamic culture in which Taha Hussein had been raised and Western modernity, embodied for him in early twentieth-century France.


The story begins in 1910 when the author, at that time a young student sent to al-Azhar to obtain the qualification of ‘ālim, decides to abandon the mosque, tired of repetitive lessons and rote learning. He enrols at the Egyptian University, just founded by the Khedive to promote Western-style education. His first contact with the modern academy is electrifying. Taha dwells on his enthusiasm for the courses and their contents: they open up the history of the ancient Near East and its newly rediscovered civilizations to him. He is fascinated by the professors’ personalities and innovative methods. Many of them are Westerners but they teach in Arabic, such as the Italian Carlo Alfonso Nallino and David Santillana. But there are also several Egyptian professors who help the young student not to be overwhelmed by the comparison with the West.


Sheikh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Jāwīsh, the editor of a nationalist newspaper for which Taha has begun to write, is the first to suggest that he go to France. Won over by the plan, the young man determinedly overcomes the numerous obstacles that stand in the way: blindness, poverty and a complete ignorance of French. Taha finally arrives in Montpellier at the end of 1914. Here, on a fatal day in May 1915, he has his first meeting with Suzanne Bresseau who, probably in response to a newspaper advertisement, comes to read him French literature and thereby supplement her meagre student’s budget. The two begin to see one another. Shortly afterwards, Taha is recalled to Egypt but he returns to Paris in 1916, finds Suzanne again and, with her support, tackles and passes the much-feared exams for a licentiate in Letters and a diploma in Higher Studies. In 1919, he completes his studies by obtaining his doctorate in history with a thesis on Ibn Khaldūn. In the meantime, Suzanne has become his wife, in August 1917, thanks to the intervention of a priest uncle who convinces her family to consent to this strange Franco-Egyptian, Muslim-Christian marriage.

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To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “The Synthesis of a Sheikh and a Doctor”, Oasis, year XIV, n. 28, December 2018, pp. 110-111.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “The Synthesis of a Sheikh and a Doctor”, Oasis [online], published on 27th March 2019, URL: