These older students used to declare that they had never known anyone to rival Sheikh El-Shinqîty’s capacity for memorization and for reciting traditions by heart with text and authorities complete. They spoke of his incalculable temper, which would flare up at the moment’s notice, and his incredible fluency of tongue. They even nicknamed him “The Passionate Moroccan.” They talked of his having lived in Medîna and visited Istanbûl and Spain; and they quoted poems of his on these experiences. They told of the wealth of manuscripts he possessed, together with printed books not only from Egypt but from Europe; despite which he spent most of his time reading or copying in the National Library.
Then they roared with laughter over a famous incident which brought him considerable notoriety and in the end did him a great deal of harm. It arose from his theory that the name ‘Omar, contrary to normal doctrine, is fully declinable.The first time the boy heard this story he understood nothing whatsoever. But it all became perfectly clear to him after he had made progress in grammar and learnt the difference between indeclinable and partially or fully declinable nouns. This was the story as the young men told it: Sheikh Shinqîty used to engage in epic controversies with various groups of doctors over the declension of ‘Omar. Once in particular they had assembled under the presidency of the Rector, and requested Sheikh Shinqîty to expound his theory on the declension of the word ‘Omar. The Sheikh, in his gruff Moroccan accent, replied: “That I won’t do until you sit as students before your master, at my feet.” At this the doctors were taken aback; till one of them, sharper than the rest, got up from amongst them, walked forward, and sat down cross-legged at the sheikh’s feet. Whereupon Shinqîty began to expound. “Khalîl,” said he, “quotes this line:
You who disparage ‘Omar
Have told imaginary tales of him.”
But the sheikh sitting at his feet broke in with his sly, reedy voice: “I met Khalîl yesterday and he quoted the verse to me differently; he didn’t decline ‘Omar as you do.” But Shinqîty cut him off short: “Liar!” he said. “Khalîl died centuries ago, and how can anyone talk to the dead?” Then he called upon the doctors to brand his opponent as a liar who knew nothing either of prosody or grammar. But this appeal was met with a burst of laughter; and the assembly dispersed without deciding whether ‘Omar was as diptote, as the grammarians say, or a triptote, as this particular sheikh maintained. As for the boy, he listened carefully to this anecdote and stored it up in his memory. He was highly amused by what he understood of it and curious about the rest.
The sheikh was reading with his students the poems known as the Mu‘allaqât. The boy’s brother and some of his friends used to attend this lecture on Thursday or Friday every week and go over the text beforehand as they did for other lectures. So it was that the boy heard for the first time:
Halt both, and let us mourn for my beloved and her house
On the sand-dunes’ edge between Haumal and Dukhûl.
But alas, it was only too soon that these seniors abandoned a course so difficult to digest. The boy’s brother made an effort to memorize the Mu‘allaqât, and got as far as Imru’ul-Qaîs’ and Tarafa’s poems, which he repeated aloud, so that the boy could not help learning them too. Unfortunately he went no further than this before deserting the course for another which was more conventional. But those two poems remained graven on the boy’s memory, though he had very little idea of what they meant.
[…] The boy’s introduction to literature was in fact scrappy and unsystematic. He picked up various fragments of prose and verse, but never concentrated on anything for long. All he did was to learn a passage here and there when occasion offered, before switching back to more conventional studies.
One day at the beginning of a new academic year the young men came back home in a state of wild excitement over a new lecture they had heard that morning in the Porch of ‘Abbas, on literature, or more exactly on the anthology entitled El Hamâssa by Sheikh Marsafy. They had been so entranced by this lecture that they bought the anthology that very day on the way home and determined not only to attend the whole course but to learn the contents by heart. […] But their admiration for him was tinged with mockery, and all his sarcasm could not cool their faith in Azharite learning. These conversations enraptured the boy and he yearned with all his heart to attend the lecture himself. But it was not long before the young men, who had left so many literary lectures, abandoned this one too. They did not consider it a serious course, since it was not on the basic syllabus of the Azhar, but was one of the supplementary courses initiated by the Imam under the heading of “Modern Sciences,” which included geography, mathematics and literature. Besides, the sheikh’s sarcasm was so extravagant and biting. Accordingly his opinion of them fell, as theirs did of him. He found them ill-equipped for literary studies, which call for taste rather than dialectical skill, while they considered him incapable of true scholarship and fit only to recite poetry and crack everlasting jokes. Nevertheless they were meticulous in attendance at this lecture, because the sheikh was a close friend of the Imam and enjoyed his support. […]
The young men tried very hard to be regular at this lecture but lacked the necessary perseverance. In the end they gave it up and returned to lingering over their midday tea, which they could now enjoy at leisure. So after learning by heart a fair proportion of the Hamâssa the boy was cut off for a time from all contact with literature. Then one day came the news that Sheikh Marsafy was to devote two days a week to reading the Mufassal, Zamakhshary’s grammar.
The boy went to this new lecture and after one or two visits was so delighted with the sheikh that he attended his literary lecture too, on the days when that occurred, and became from that time forward his devotee. The boy had a very retentive memory and there was not a word the sheikh uttered which he did not treasure, not an idea or interpretation of his which he could ever forget. Many a time the sheikh quoted a line containing some words he had explained before, or alluded to an anecdote he had related in an earlier lecture. On such occasions the boy was able to repeat from memory almost anything that he had previously heard from the sheikh’s lips; his anecdotes and explanations, his theories and opinions, his criticism of the anthologist or his commentator, his corrections and continuations of Abu Tammâm’s extracts: no matter what it was, the boy had it by heart and could repeat it at will.
No wonder the sheikh took a liking to the lad and began to engage in discussion with him during lectures. He called him up afterwards and walked with him to the gate of the Azhar and even requested his company further on the road. One day he took him so far that finally the two of them, with some other students who were with them, sat down at a café beside the road. It was the boy’s first experience of cafés. There they stayed from the middle of the day until the muezzin chanted his call for afternoon prayer. The boy returned home in ecstasy, brimful of hope and energy.
Once outside the lecture-room the sheikh could talk about nothing else but the Azhar and its sheikhs and their false methods of teaching. Whenever this subject cropped up the sheikh become bitterly sarcastic. He was merciless in his criticism both of his teachers and of his contemporaries. But all this only made his students the more fond of him. Upon the boy in particular his influence was lasting and profound.
Little by little the young man came to prize this lecture above all the rest, and two other students who were closely attached to the sheikh became his special friends and later his constant companions. They met in the mid-morning to attend the sheikh’s lecture and then went to the National Library to read ancient literature until late afternoon, when they came back to the Azhar and sat down in the passage which runs between the administration and the Porch of ‘Abbas. Here they chatted about their teacher and the book they had read in the library, then turned to making fun of the other lecturers, and in fact of every sheikh or student who came in or out of the Azhar. After evening prayer they went into the Porch of ‘Abbas and listened to a lecture on the interpretation of the Koran, which since the Imam’s death had been given by Sheikh Bakhît.
But these three listened to Sheikh Bakhît’s lectures in a very different spirit from the other students. They came merely to laugh at him and to record his mistakes, which were especially frequent when he was dealing with language or literature. What they really enjoyed was meeting afterwards to laugh over the howlers he had made retelling them next day to Shaikh Marsafy, who was thus provided with fresh material for sarcasm at the expense of his colleagues.
The three friends felt cramped in the Azhar, and this sheikh and his teaching only intensified the feeling. They longed to break out and be free, and when Sheikh Marsafy taught them their chains seemed to vanish into thin air.
I know of nothing in the world which can exert so strong an influence for freedom, especially on the young, as literature, and above all literature as Sheikh Marsafy taught it when he was explaining the Hamâssa, and later the Kâmil, to his class. What then did this study consist in? Unfettered criticism of poets, anthologists and commentators, not to mention the various philologists. Then testing and exercise of taste by inquiry into the elements of beauty in literature: in prose and poetry, in general drift and detailed meaning, in rhyme and rhythm, and in the combination of individual words. Then experience of the up-to-date sensibility which was part of the atmosphere of his circle, and a constant sense of constrast between the gross taste and jaded wits of the Azharists and the delicacy and penetration of the ancients. The final result of all this was to arouse an utter disgust – as a rule entirely justified, though in some cases unmerited – with the taste, scholarship, conversation and general behavior of the sheikhs.
All this explains why out of all the students that thronged to his first lectures there was soon only a small group left amongst whom those three friends in particular where outstanding. They made only a small band, but it was not long before they became notorious throughout the Azhar among both doctors and students, especially for their critical attitude towards the Azhar, their contempt for its inmates. So the Azhar came to hate them – but at the same time to fear them too.
Sheikh Marsafy was not merely a teacher, but a man of the broadest culture. In conversation or lectures at the Azhar he assumed all the gravity of a learned sheikh; but when he was alone with his intimate friends he lived the life of a humanist, conversing with perfect freedom on any subject under the sun and quoting the poetry and prose, yes, and the lives, of the ancients, to prove that they had been as free and unconstrained as he was and had talked of everyone and everything with the same unhesitating candour as himself.
It was the most natural thing in the world for his pupils to follow his exemple. They loved and admired him; they regarded him as a model of patience under adversity and contentedness with little, of abstinence from unacademic pleasures, and freedom from the besetting sins of his kind: this is to say, intrigue, backbiting, imposture, and above all toadying to the great.
They had seen with their own eyes, almost felt with their own fingers, that he was like this. Had they not actually shared his life with him on their visits to his home? It was an old, tumbledown house in Haret El-Rakrâky, a filthy side-street near Bab El-Bahr. There at the far end of this alley lived Sheikh Marsafy, in a miserable ruin of a house. On entering the door you found yourself in a dank, narrow passage, which, apart from the most noisome smells in creation, contained nothing whatsoever but a wooden bench, long and narrow and bare, propped up against the wall and covered with its crumbling dust. After welcoming his students the sheikh would sit down with them on this uncomfortable bench. Yet he was perfectly happy and contented as he listened with a smile on his lips to what they had to say, or talked to them with a charm and sincerity and freshness that no one could rival. Sometimes he was occupied when they came to visit him, in which case he would invite them into his room. To reach this they had to climb up a decrepit old staircase and cross an empty hall-passage open to the sunlight. Then on entering the room they would find a bent old man sitting on the floor with scores of books around him, in which he was searching for some fragment he wanted to complete, some word or verse he needed to check or explain; or making up his mind about one of the traditions. On his right would lie the coffee things. He did not get up for them when they came in, but always showed himself delighted to see them. He invited them to sit down wherever they could find a place and asked one of them to make coffee and serve it to the company. Then after chatting with them for a few minutes he would ask them to join him in the researches on which he had been engaged when they came.
There was one visit to the sheikh which the young man and one of his two friends are never likely to forget. One day about the time of afternoon prayer they went up to his room and found him sitting on a low couch in the hall-passage. Beside him was a wizened old woman, bent almost double with age. The sheikh was giving her food. When he saw the two students he greeted them warmly and asked them to wait for a moment in his room. Then a few minutes later he reappeared and excused himself with a good-humored smile: “I was just giving her something to eat,” he said. “It’s my mother.”
Out-of-doors Sheikh Marsafy was a pattern of dignity and composure, always calm, unruffled and serene. He was the very picture of ease and prosperity and would strike you in conversation as a man whom fortune had smiled upon and blessed with a life of comfort and security.
But his pupils and intimate friends knew the truth. In actual fact he was one of the poorest and most destitute of men. Week in week out he ate nothing but his bread ration from the Azhar dipped in a little salt. At the same time he was giving one son a first-rate education, keeping others in decent comfort as students at the Azhar, and thoroughly spoiling his daughter. He managed all this on a slender allowance of no more than three and a half pounds a month. His first-class degree brought him one and a half pounds, and besides this there was the literature course which the Imam had given him; that produced another two. He was too embarrassed to draw his allowance at the end of the month himself; it disgusted him to have to join the throng of sheikhs who regularly pounced upon the usher at this time to claim their cash; so he used to hand over his seal to one of his special pupils, who would draw this meager pittance from him in the morning and deliver it to him in the afternoon.
This was the sheikh’s manner of life as his pupils saw and shared it: hard, yet dignified and free. Their experience of the other sheikhs, however, filled them only with fury and contempt.
[passage taken from Taha Hussein, The days, translated by E.H. Paxton, Hilary Wayment, Kenneth Cragg,
The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2002, chapter 19]