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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

What ʻĪsā Ibn Hishām told us

Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī

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Title: What ʻĪsā Ibn Hishām told us
Author: Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī
Genre: (Novel)
Written: (1898-1902) (Eng. 2015)
Length: 483 + 361 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: What ʻĪsā Ibn Hishām told us - vol 1 ; vol 2 - US
What ʻĪsā Ibn Hishām told us - vol 1 ; vol 2 - UK
What ʻĪsā Ibn Hishām told us - vol 1 ; vol 2 - Canada
  • or, A Period of Time
  • Arabic title: حديث عيسى بن هشام، او، فترة من الزمن
  • Serialized 1898-1902; first published in book form in 1907
  • Edited and Translated by Roger Allen
  • This is a bilingual edition, in two volumes
  • An earlier translation (and study) of the work by Roger Allen was published as A Period of Time (1992)

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Our Assessment:

B : loosely structured but enjoyable

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       What ʻĪsā Ibn Hishām told us is a work that appeared in serial form in the author's family's newspaper, Miṣbāh al-sharq, between 1898 and 1902. Book editions followed, including a 1927 textbook edition by the Egyptian Ministry of Education, for use in secondary schools -- suggesting the prominence and significance of the work. Roger Allen's 1968 doctoral dissertation (eventually also published, as A Period of Time) was a study and (earlier) translation of this work, so he has certainly engaged with the text over a considerable part of his illustrious career.
       While it does not appear to have been written as a 'novel', it can easily pass as such. There is some commentary on and discussion of contemporary events -- specifically the 'Fashōda question' in Sudan, which is the (main) subject of the first few installments (and also crops up at other points) -- that reinforces the idea that this is newspaper-writing, but in the extent of its invention, and its continuity, the larger whole is definitely more novel-like.
       The presentation can appear a bit awkward: rather than recounting first hand, readers are told ... well, 'What ʻĪsā ibn Hishām told us'. Much -- most, in fact -- of this is not so much ʻĪsā ibn Hishām's recounting his adventures and experiences, but rather presenting verbatim a variety of conversations and dialogue, only some of which he participates in (more often than not he just observes and listens in). But it is ʻĪsā ibn Hishām and what he tells us that provides the context and some of the action behind the conversations he repeats and is involved in -- as well as moving the overarching story (to the extent there is one) along.
       One of the longer background scenes ʻĪsā ibn Hishām relates comes early on, when the author (that's his profession) recounts a dream he has, of visiting a cemetery -- "to find some inspiration". He finds more than he bargained for, in the form of a ghost -- the ghost of "Aḥmad Pāshā al-Manīkalī, the Egyptian Minister of War !". That would, of course -- he's a ghost -- be former Minister of War, under Muḥammad ʻAlī (1769-1849). The ghost immediately demands ʻĪsā ibn Hishām help him find his way, setting the stage for the rest of the novel.
       ʻĪsā ibn Hishām leads the resurrected Pāshā around, both in trying to do some errands -- a protracted legal proceeding as the Pāshā tries to recover his endowments keeps them tied up for quite a while, for example -- and in just giving the Pāshā some insight into the new Egypt; they also wind up traveling to the Paris world's fair of 1900, the Exposition Universelle. In effect, ʻĪsā ibn Hishām plays guide and commentator to the stranger finding himself in these strange lands (then-modern Egypt, as well as fin de siècle Paris) -- with the Pāshā naturally comparing everything (almost invariably unfavorably) to the Egypt he knew.
       As a 'Friend' they later join up -- and go to Paris -- with suggests, the Pāshā might be able to offer a more objective perspective, especially with regards to foreign (especially French) culture, as he is:

someone distinct from the rest of us in that he was far removed from such people and shielded from this world of ours by a considerable period of time. His mind is therefore uncluttered by the kind of information about this civilization that burdens our own minds. As a result his verdict now on the things he is observing will be more valid and his opinions more precise. If we can share such an untrammeled vision with him, ridding ourselves of other inclinations, we'll be able to point with complete accuracy to the elements of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, to be found within this system of Western civilization.
       Such a pairing of characters with different backgrounds and understanding, commenting on what they experience (and experiencing it differently), is a tried and true and very familiar technique, of course, but al-Muwayliḥī hjas a decent comic touch and the short chapters -- necessitated by the serial form of the original -- make for a fairly lively pace. What ʻĪsā Ibn Hishām told us is more a work of social and political observation (and criticism) than, say, adventure story, but the many varied encounters and events do make for an entertaining canvas, too.
       The situation in Sudan -- with Anglo-Egyptian rule (re)established after the Mahdist Revolt -- is one of the main topical occurrences that is repeatedly addressed; as one reporter notes: "the Sudanese problem is the primary event of the day and the focus of everyone's attention". Al-Muwayliḥī has no qualms about criticizing the powers-that-be quite directly: one scene has ʻĪsā ibn Hishām listen in on the Minister of War -- who complains about being back in Egypt and being forced to concern himself with such issues, and recalls fondly sitting out most of the troublesome discussions abroad:
I've spent the entire time in Europe, taking exercise and having a wonderfully relaxed time in Karlsbad.
       The only aggravation he had was a pesky newspaper reporter's questions -- "about things I knew nothing about".
       Another issue of the day is the ongoing debate over the establishment of a Shariah Court and which judges will get appointed to it, where ʻĪsā ibn Hishām and the Pāshā repeatedly hear about different aspects of the situation. Here as throughout, those in authority or considered experts in their field often turn out to be windbags who are also willing to bend and turn as circumstances dictate, with Islamic jurists, too, largely acting as much in their own self-interest as everyone else. Typical, then, also is a visit to a doctor -- who promptly:
gave us a friendly welcome and started using a variety of verbiage that had nothing to do with what we needed.
       Their experiences in trying to chase down the Pāshā's endowments -- which necessitates the hiring of lawyers and the navigating of the legal system -- are similar. Indeed, almost everywhere they go they come across a good deal of rather empty talk and relatively little accomplishment.
       As the Pāshā eventually notes disappointedly:
What is going on with the things we see people doing ? It's almost as though someone has soaked everyone in a jar containing a mixture of all the worst faults to be found in man or else dipped them in a pool full of the various categories of crime. With each step we seem to be encountering every conceivable type of fraud and deceit. Whenever we investigate something, we read whole chapters involving swindling and hypocrisy.
       The more philosophical ʻĪsā ibn Hishām argues that this is just the way it is, and always has been:
Whether the era was backwards or advanced, mankind was always this way; people now are exactly as they always have been, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
       The contrast between the two attitudes -- the constantly head-shaking Pāshā from another era and his matter-of-fact guide -- works quite well. In particular, ʻĪsā ibn Hishām's neutral accounts as things head rapidly downhill become increasingly amusing, such as their experience at an elaborate wedding -- which concludes in chaos, and:
The wedding host was asking for police assistance. All joy turned to sorrow, and songs of celebration were replaced by lamentations. The police arrived to put an end to the fights, and people found themselves on the way to the courts. Thus end all joyous celebrations.
       ʻĪsā ibn Hishām and the Pāshā have a wide variety of experiences and encounters, dealing directly (and frustratingly) with lawyers and doctors, as well as observing statesmen and judges, and observing everything from weddings to nightclub acts and participating in cultural activities that include visiting museums and the theater.
       Often the contrasts that are highlighted are between Western civilization and that of then-contemporary Egypt. The interaction between cultures is also described, at various levels -- including completely blindly on both sides, as when tourists crash a local wedding. Often the arguable superiority of Western ways is pointed out, but al-Muwayliḥī is no apologist for European ways and often critical of these as well, both domestically as well as during the characters' Paris-sojourn. And he is certainly critical of the blind following of Western fashion: one early overheard quick conversation sends up slavish imitation beautifully, finishing with the explanation for a young man having committed suicide: not for love, or because of money or health problems, but because: "the poor chap was copying the latest rage in Paris !"
       The powers that be, and the would-be scholars, are criticized (and made fun of) for not accepting some advancements in science, for example, clinging instead to the stories they are used to -- regardless of how absurd:
How can they argue with the fact that the earth is supported on a bull's horn, and the bull in turn is supported on a rock which is supported on the back of a fish. The fish is swimming in water, and the very first thing that people in paradise eat is from that fish's liver.
       Al-Muwayliḥī is at his most critical of such willful ignorance. So also he has ʻĪsā ibn Hishām lament:
It's perfectly true that in recent years sciences have indeed spread, the number of students has increased, printing presses have increased in number, and people can easily get hold of books. But in fact, few of us show any interest in buying and reading them. As a result, there's no market and business is bad. The people who could benefit most by reading books ignore them. Those who used to buy them as decoration now detest them because they are in such wide circulation and have become quite common.
       His diagnosis, in fact, is strikingly similar to modern complaints, with only the technology different:
Today everyone is caught up in a movement which is neither Eastern nor Western; they are all involved in each other's business. [...} {T}hey devote all their attention in their gatherings to reading newspapers and their ephemeral daily reports. How can they establish for themselves a place in a learned circle when they never stay in one place and are always moving around. You see them coming and going, traveling here, there, and everywhere.
       It all sounds suspiciously like a pre-modern surfing of the Internet -- and so too the consequences:
This inability to put ideas together in their comprehension of books and their sense of boredom has now infected their ability to converse. The only things that they're prepared to listen to are disconnected and fragmentary, or else brief and in extracts.
       Attitudes towards culture, cultural legacies, and history are also explored, the contrast between Western ways and that prevalent in Egypt repeatedly discussed.
       ʻĪsā ibn Hishām notes:
Egyptians have grown accustomed to paying minimal attention to cultural pleasures, to seeking solace by looking at lovely views and spectacular sights, and to gaining insight and mental stimulation from reading books about nature and creation. You find that Egyptians have put themselves into some kind of prison and confined their thoughts about the universe entirely to material things.
       Visiting the museum in Cairo they overhear a father and son discussing the relics on display, and there is a generational divide, the son ("who had studied Western subjects") in awe of the level of civilization necessary to produce these things that are in these: "shrines to our prestige" while his father can see nothing worth glorifying. He even gets in a variation on that (modern art) museum-visitor favorite put-down: "there are many peasant children who labor making stones and relics like these". This general attitude is presented as widespread -- with the Friend going so far as to claim:
You'll not be able to find anything that a person of the East finds more despicable than an ancient object; it has no value whatsoever for him, and he pays it no reverence or respect. Quite the contrary in fact, he regards it as useless stuff.
       Given this, this Friend who accompanies ʻĪsā ibn Hishām and the Pāshā for much of the latter part of their journeys makes the case for just selling the whole lot off to Westerners who inexplicably are fascinated by the stuff:
For Egyptians it would be much better if God used the price these antiquities bring to lessen the heavy burden of debt on their government and the weight of taxation and levies which contribute to their difficulties and restrictions. [...] Every year Egyptians are forced to pay fixed amounts of money in order to look after them, preserve them, and conduct archeological digs underground. [...] I God were to give the Egyptian government a modicum of inspiration, it would be marketing some of these relics which our digs and caves produce on a daily basis. They could then be the source of income, some of which could be spent on things that would benefit the Egyptian people: the spread of education, stimulating culture by printing books
       The Friend is similarly flummoxed when they are in France, in trying to understand the attention to and reverence for art in Western culture -- compared to: "the minimal concern that we show in the East".
       In Paris they also come to discuss the political system and the idea of the 'republic' -- "a level of decadence" that astonishes the Pāshā, who is used to seeing leaders treated as a different class, and can't imagine that this system could be stable. While al-Muwayliḥī covers quite a bit here, his story also comes to an abrupt halt, dangling the promise of a visit to see the Chamber of Deputies in action but then simply ending the story right there.
       As the Pāshā himself recognizes -- even before they head to Paris -- it's a lot to take in and process. Practically summing up this entire tale, he suggests:
I've been seeing remarkable things and hearing strange information. My peregrinations have produced a series of contradictions while increasing my awareness of people's shortcomings. My perception and amazement has now reached a stage of resignation, or, perhaps even more, of apathy.
       Readers -- able to step back from time to time -- have it a bit easier than the Pāshā, and shouldn't find themselves quite so resigned. What ʻĪsā Ibn Hishām told us moves along at a good pace, and offers a great deal of variety. It also addresses many subjects that continue to be of interest and concern, and while the clash of civilizations has shifted considerably over the past century, aspects of it remain relevant in contemporary society.
       ʻĪsā Ibn Hishām criticizes Egyptians, claiming:
As you can tell, they imitate foreigners, but only in trivial and undesirable ways that incite lusts, false ostentation, and phony tinsel -- the kinds of thing that only result in bodily disease and wasted money. But, when it comes to beneficial aspects of civilization, they're not merely ignorant of them, but they even disparage them. In summary one may say that the way Egyptians have adopted the habits of Western civilization is analogous to a sieve that retains all the worthless waste and lets through the useful things with any value.
       While illustrating his novel with local examples from that time, al-Muwayliḥī's effective critique is as broad and relevant as much classical Western satire; surprisingly much of it also feels very modern, the various arguments and examples easily imaginable in contemporary settings (and not just in Egypt).
       A meandering tale that isn't constructed and doesn't proceed anywhere near as tightly as a typical novel, What ʻĪsā Ibn Hishām told us is nevertheless a cohesive (and still very far-reaching) work that also offers a lot of entertainment value. It's an enjoyable read, with some great anecdotes and very funny scenes -- and a lot of interesting arguments.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 July 2015

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What ʻĪsā Ibn Hishām told us: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author and journalist Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī (محمد المويلحي) lived 1858 to 1930.

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