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.


This is, in a nutshell, the concatenation of outward events that is indispensable to understand the pages that follow. If we have chosen to present them in this issue of Oasis, dedicated to Islam in Europe, it is not just for their artistic value. They also describe the successful marriage between Taha’s traditional Islamic education and French culture: history and social sciences (his first doctoral supervisor was Émile Durkheim) but also theatre, art, literature and, above all, music—Suzanne’s great passions. Thus, to quote one of his contemporaries, Taha became the synthesis “of the Sheikh and the Doctor.” [2]


At the Sorbonne, he would have liked to study philosophy and history but the Khedive, receiving him at palace shortly before his departure for Europe, warned him against the “philosophy that corrupts” and decided that he should concentrate solely on history. Thus, as a result of this chance order, the young scholar was forced to learn Latin and immerse himself in the classical world. A waste of time? Not at all. It was precisely thus that Taha became fully aware of the West’s historical trajectory, to the point of calling for a recovery of the Greco-Roman heritage as a shared element between Egyptian and Western cultures. Taha did not envisage this project, which was to lead to the founding of the University of Alexandria in 1942, as alternative to Islam. A reformer and a staunch supporter of freedom of thought and speech, Taha remained a Muslim for the whole of his life and also penned numerous works on early Islamic history. At the same time, he was to be the tireless champion of a universal humanism, introducing free primary education during his brief appointment as Minister of Education (1950–1952).


Written in Colle Isarco in South Tyrol, only a few months before Taha’s death, this third part of The Days recalls—fifty years later—a particularly happy season in modern Egypt, suddenly interrupted by the advent of Nasser and the expulsion of the large foreign communities. There is something exceptional and unrepeatable in the story of Taha and Suzanne: a touch of grace and conjugal love. However, there are also certain favourable conditions which ought to inspire sagacious policies for today: universities of the first order, cultural exchanges, an education in perseverance and a solicitude for the weak that knew of no social barriers. Beacons from the marvellous story of a blind man who knew how to look far ahead and his far-sighted wife.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation



[1] The first part of The Days was written in France in 1926, in the span of only nine days, during the crisis following the publication of his book on pre-Islamic poetry. The second part was written in 1929 and the third part only in 1973.

[2] Mahmoud Teymour, “Taha Hussein,” La Revue du Caire, no. 157 (1953), p. 132. Mahmoud Teymour (the French spelling of Mahmūd Taymūr) is among the fathers of the modern Arab novel.

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: