Modern Egyptian Culture
– Part 13: The curator of beauty
Unlike all the figures this series has presented thus far, Tawfik al-Hakim was first and foremost an artist. A playwright, novelist, and writer of short stories, al-Hakim wrote for both, the intellectual elite as well as the masses. He worked with filmmakers and theatre producers on films and plays based on his writings. In one such film, he played the elderly himself facing his younger self. Though he had come across a bit woody in front of the camera, he later confided to a friend that he had relished the experience.
Like all artists, Tawfik al-Hakim wanted an audience - and he got it. Several of his plays and stories were immortalised in some of the most successful films of Egyptian cinema, including by Mohammad Abdel-Wahab (modern Egypt’s and the Arab world’s preeminent musician). Al-Hakim gave his audience various genres, from historical dramas with unmissable reflections on the politics of modern Egypt, to satires often revolving round a highly deprecated version of himself, to comedies anchored on the joie de vivre of Egypt’s liberal age (from the early 1920s to early 1950s). Most of his work, especially the many that were made into theatrical and cinematic productions, were lighthearted, yet far from intellectually vacuous.
Often there was playfulness. For a period, al-Hakim cultivated a reputation as “the enemy of women”, but behind the caricaturist fights, there was a man deeply in love with feminine beauty, and acutely aware of feminine power - which for him became beguilingly bewitching when it combined beauty with brightness. Perhaps his finest play is Shahrazad, which extrapolates the famous A Thousand and One Nights story into an imaginary future in which Shahriar (the masculine concept) is not only reformed by life with Shahrazad, but comes to appreciate that his ascension towards perfection is a function of his deciphering the magic of the feminine ideal.
Al-Hakim was a connoisseur of beauty. He searched for it and generated it in words and sentences and in scenes and dialogues. His inspiration, however, was beauty in cultures. Al-Hakim curated two cross journeys from and to western civilisation - particularly its Greek and French compartments - in which he presented what ancient Egypt had inspired them and what modern Egypt needed to see and internalise from their treasures. But unlike many of the luminaries of modern Egyptian culture, in these journeys of the mind al-Hakim was not overly interested in political and social structures or in abstract philosophy. He chased beauty in prose and poetry, in architecture and design, and in art and fashion. Whereas, for example, Taha Hussein (the subject of article 11 of this series) compared the ideas of Racine to those of Abu al-Alaa al-Maari, al-Hakim juxtapositioned the beauty in their words.
The recurring undercurrents of harmony and beauty and pleasure, presented subtly but beautifully and in flowing digestible Arabic, made Tawfik al-Hakim a darling of Egypt’s liberal classes. He gave them images of the Egypt they loved, and he connected this beautiful Egypt with the West, particularly with France, at the time the liberal classes’ cultural Mecca.
For some, Tawfik al-Hakim had crossed the line from a connoisseur of beauty to a seducer. Unlike almost all the figures this series has presented so far, al-Hakim did not seriously cast a critical view on Egypt’s experience let alone its societal characteristics. Some of his early works - most notably his most famous: “The Diaries of a Public Prosecutor in the Egyptian Countryside” - was a subtle exposure of hardwired problems in Egypt’s interior lands. But he had wrapped his exposure in velvety prose, layered analogies, and flights to the esoteric, which made the work (and others in the same vein) hardly analytical let alone truly critical.
Al-Hakim’s critics have a point. He generally evaded confrontations, whether with the authorities or with the prevailing preferences of the masses. He did not indulge in populism, but he was hardly a Taha Hussein or an Akkad whose drives to expose what they considered ills in the society led them into acute confrontations that they neither skirted nor tried to evade their costs.
But artists are different from philosophers. Perhaps their role is not to ignite fires - and potentially end up burning at stakes - but rather to induce subtly in society the love of the aesthetics, which naturally give rise to the need to reflect, improve, beautify, and evolve.
There was another reason Tawfik al-Hakim avoided bluntness. He held back a part of himself, a special intellectual compartment that he allowed only a few glimpses of. That was his thinking on divinity and its relationship with humanity. He chose not to publish the papers he had written on these subjects and had confided these papers to friends who respected that wish.
It is a loss. Al-Hakim approached divinity with the veneration of a believer, with the love of a devotee seeking to approach, yet also with questions he deemed crucial for his understanding. Like many seekers, he needed to situate his belief within the knowledge he had acquired - which in his case was vast and from the depths of the Egyptian and French cultures. Al-Hakim gave his readers glimpses of these questions in short stories that explore the meaning of good and evil, judgement and punishment and reward, and the notion of divine justice. But he had kept his attempts at answers to himself and to the select of readers he had entrusted these papers to.
At this late stage of his life, Tawfik al-Hakim was not a thinker with definitive conclusions; he was not a Nietzsche for example. Perhaps if the thought that he had kept were to find a wider audience - and perhaps in a more permitting social environment - his contribution to modern Egyptian culture could have transcended being artistic. His contribution, perhaps also to Islamic philosophy, could have been similar to that of the Russian thinker Nicolai Berdaeyev who had initially challenged, but through his intellectual journey ended up hugely enriching, Christian Orthodoxy.
Tawfik al-Hakim was a jovial, lighthearted commentator on public affairs in his eighties. He neither retreated into a cocoon living within his memories, nor grumpily rejected the new art movements that took Egypt by a storm in the last quarter of the twentieth century, which were vastly different from the trends that he had helped shape decades earlier. Instead, he questioned himself, his generation, and the arts he helped propagate. He was never bitter; rather always imbuing his skepticism of what his work had all meant with ample doses of sarcasm and often hilarity. He remained an artist until the very end.