Saturday, August 09, 2008

An Eclectic Life

Autobiography is my least favourite literary genre, too easily prone to posturing and self-exoneration, or else heavy woe-is-me tales about the author’s suffering at the hands of a cruel world. Life is already too full of braggarts and whiners to have to be subjected to them in books. I remember only two autobiographies that I loved and learned from: Fathi Radwan’s Sira Dhatiya (written in parts and collated in one volume published in 1994), and Edward Said’s Out of Place (1999). Galal Amin’s autobiography piqued my interest because I’ve always enjoyed his elegant prose, “clear as a window pane,” to use George Orwell’s nice phrase (Orwell happens to be a major inspiration for Amin). So I was pleased to find that What Has Life Taught Me? (2007) is neither disingenuous nor ponderous, but refreshingly honest for the most part, deliciously mordant in parts, bland in others, and frustrating on occasion. Which is to say it’s a worthwhile read.

The book is divided into 19 chapters that trace the arc of the author’s interesting life, from birth in a household headed by one of Egypt’s intellectual luminaries of the first half of the 20th century to higher education at Cairo University’s Faculty of Law, on to England for a doctorate in economics and marriage to an Englishwoman, then a long career in Egypt as a university professor and public intellectual, and finally grandparenthood and a pervasive sense of disappointment after the onset of old age. An appendix contains an arrangement of lovely family photos that tell their own story of the life cycle.

Amin is an utterly charming raconteur and a compulsively readable writer. His autobiography is peppered with fascinating details, evocative portraits, and wonderful sparks of humour. The stories about his mother’s reaction to an Italian abortion doctor and his elder brother Husayn’s headstrong resistance to having his tonsils removed are especially delightful. Occasionally, Amin inserts extracts from his letters to family members over the years, a device that I found to be little more than filler that doesn’t enrich the quality of the narrative.

The most inspired parts are Amin’s descriptions of his parents and older siblings (he is the youngest of eight). His modernist father Ahmad Amin wanted only two or three children but his headstrong mother insisted on more, finding in her many children a refuge from an unloving husband and a perfect provocation to her hostile sisters-in-law. Amin’s chapter “The Seven Siblings” is an insightful study of character contrasts, including portraits of the eldest Muhammad (17 years the author’s senior and the mother’s clear favourite), to the frustrated Hafez (a talented playwright who never achieved the recognition he deserved), to the two sisters Fatima and Na’eema: Fatima is modern and adventurous, constantly butting heads with her father, while Na’eema is conventional and uncurious, with no interest in school and no qualms about marrying a suitor who had initially courted but been rejected by Fatima.

Reviewers have noted Amin’s unusual candour in discussing private family dynamics, particularly the details of his parents’ stable but loveless marriage. His account is indeed frank but also sympathetic, lovingly portraying two people of remarkably different temperaments joined in a curious union. Ahmed Amin, the Sharia court judge, university professor, prolific author, and friend of such luminaries as Taha Hussein and Abdel Razzaq al-Sanhuri, was a man with a highly refined ethical sense and an unwavering commitment to the liberal education of his eight children, but at home he was a distant father and a dour, remote husband. He rarely spoke to his wife, never addressed her by her first name, and in several places in his diary (from which his son quotes verbatim), confided an abiding regret that “my wife is not very beautiful,” writing these words in English to hide the sentiment from his wife in the event she laid hands on the diary.

It’s no wonder that Amin’s mother suffered from a palpable sense of insecurity throughout her life. She coped by tenaciously clinging to her favourite son Muhammad, at one point even enlisting the aid of Taha Hussein to prevent her son’s travel to England for doctoral education. She was also fiscally shrewd, saving up enough to eventually buy the house in which the Amin family lived. And she even started charging her husband rent, which he obligingly paid! Zaynab Fahmy emerges as a spirited and remarkably wilful woman in her youngest son’s affectionate telling. Orphaned at an early age, she went to live with her maternal uncle but ran away when he forbade her to marry her beloved cousin (son of his brother), a loss from which she never recovered. In one of the book’s most moving passages, Amin recounts the coincidental way his mother reunited with her first love in 1956, two years after her husband’s death. A short while after the aged lovers reconnected, they died within weeks of one other.

The writing in the rest of the autobiography doesn’t approach the lyricism of the first few chapters (with the exception of the book’s final paragraph), as the author shifts to more public matters of his professional and intellectual trajectory. Here Amin is keen to enfold personal experiences into broader sociological contexts, the same technique he employed to such good effect in Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? (2000) Thus his experiences as an undergraduate at Cairo University and then a graduate student at the London School of Economics are occasions for sobering reflections on the tragic handicaps of Egyptian institutions of higher learning, compared to their thriving cognates abroad. Amin also contrasts his experience as a faculty member at Ain Shams to his later experience as a professor at the more autonomous, resource-rich American University in Cairo, a comparison that is again extremely unflattering to Egyptian national universities. I really didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at his detailed description of the unbelievable exam marking procedures at Ain Shams University.

The most enjoyable parts here are several well-crafted, very moving portraits penned by Amin recalling famous and not so famous work associates, including Cairo University economics professors Labib Shuqair and Saïd al-Naggar, Ain Shams law professors Helmi Murad and Ismail Ghanem, and UCLA professor Malcolm Kerr (later President of AUB before his assassination in 1984). I also particularly enjoyed reading two choice tid-bits recalled by Amin, one a tragicomic episode on June 9, 1967 featuring Rif’at al-Mahgoub, then a professor of economics at Cairo University and later Speaker of Parliament before his assassination in 1990. And another describing Amin’s run-in with Ottoman historian and Orientalist Bernard Lewis while Amin was interviewing for a position at the University of London (he wasn’t offered the job).

Amin is not classifiable within the conventional currents of contemporary Egyptian thought (Islamist v. secularist, Nasserist v. liberal, Marxist v. capitalist), and an important chapter titled “The Neo-Traditionalists” explains why. For a brief spell in the 1980s, he was a member of an intellectual salon that brought together historian-judge Tareq al-Bishri, late activist Adel Hussein, journalist Fahmi Howeidy and a handfl of others to deliberate on religion and modern life. Each in his own way, these influential public intellectuals began to “provincialise” Western institutions and notions of progress, i.e. contextualise them as products of particular histories that are not universal nor always desirable. The recovery of Islamic heritage is part and parcel of this project, and Amin’s chapter gives a thoughtful rendering of what this entails, with fitting mention of his father Ahmed Amin’s lifework.

Throughout the book, Amin is a congenial, engaging narrator, but he does have a very frustrating tendency to make throwaway claims about serious matters without requisite elaboration. A couple of examples are particularly glaring; on p. 190, Amin says he “doesn’t rule out” that Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 was supported or even backed by the American government, but gives no defence of this statement. On p. 300, he says that university and parental intervention to protest AUC professor Samia Mehrez’s teaching Muhammad Shukri’s novel For Bread Alone was justified, but only pages before Amin had praised the academic life he has chosen for the freedom it allows instructors to teach and write without external interference. In these and a handful of other places, Amin’s refreshing eclecticism turns into stubborn self-righteousness, since he simply announces his opinions but does not defend them.

To his great credit, however, Amin does cast his unsparing eye on himself and not just others. He forthrightly recalls and regrets some of his decisions and past behaviour, and again and again confides his lifelong need for the attentions and approval of others, particularly beautiful women, be they students, acquaintances, or perfect strangers. Amin attributes this to an unshakeable sense of insecurity about his own looks, a disarming confession I didn’t expect from a major public intellectual.

And yet for all his voluble recollections of childhood, Amin is puzzlingly reticent about some central subjects in his adult life. He writes plenty about his siblings and their marriages and offspring, but next to nothing about his own happy 40-year marriage to his English wife Jan and their three children (the book is dedicated to them). Family photos make clear that Amin loves being a grandfather, yet he doesn’t write about his experience of becoming a grandfather (nor a father, for that matter). The autobiography ends on a depressing note, with Amin feeling nothing so much as disappointment and indifference in his autumnal years. While this is refreshingly honest, I had hoped for some more introspection about why he feels this way.

George Orwell opened his withering review of Salvador Dali’s autobiography with the now-famous words, “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” Galal Amin’s account of his life is much too gentle and self-regarding to meet Orwell’s severe standard, but I think that his straightforward telling of the disappointments and listlessness of late life Orwell would have surely trusted.