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Avec Toi

by Raphael Cormack

“The reader is even given a seat beside Taha’s deathbed.”

The one thing about Taha Hussein that has always struck me is the immense devotion he seems to have inspired. How else could a blind man, who did not like reading braille, read and write as profusely as Taha Hussein did? It would have taken considerably more reading aloud and dictation than his one secretary could possibly manage. It seems likely that his wife, Suzanne, therefore, must have spent a large amount of her time reading to him and discussing his work. Despite this, her contribution to his intellectual career is often ignored. As Taha Hussein himself says to her, “what is work without your voice to encourage and advise me, without your presence to guide me?”

On the cover of Avec Toi, Suzanne Taha Hussein’s account of their time together is an appropriate picture of Suzanne reading a book aloud to her husband. Written in the years immediately after Taha Hussein’s death in 1973 (he held on long enough to hear news of the “October Victory” in the Sinai), the book is a collection of her reminiscences about their marriage of almost sixty years. From their meeting in France, and her family’s reservations about their daughter marrying an Arab (and a Muslim on top of that), until the time of his death, she gives us an intimate view of their life together. The reader is even given a seat beside Taha’s deathbed and hears the Dean of Arabic Literature’s last word: “bass” (enough), reminiscent of Saad Zaghloul’s reputed exasperated last words “mafish fayda” (it’s pointless).

The book was originally written in French, published in Arabic in 1979, and subsequently republished in 2011 in the original language. In one respect, this makes it a perfect book to appear in Rowayat as it exemplifies Egypt’s multilingual history. However, this is not the only reason why its appearance in French is noteworthy. It also says that this is a book that is worth reading in the original language, for more than just the information it gives us about Taha Hussein’s life.

A glimpse inside the life of Taha and Suzanne Hussein is also a glimpse into the heart (or at least a major organ) of Egyptian literary life in the mid-twentieth century. This book demonstrates the extraordinary breadth of people the Husseins came into contact with and entertained in their Cairo home. The French Suzanne is more interested in the European, particularly French, intellectuals and it is clear from the book that her Arabic was far from fluent. That said, her stories about the famous names who passed through Cairo are fascinating. After the Second World War, for example, André Gide paid them a visit, where he recited to them his adaptation of Oedipus. Taha Hussein translated this play soon after the meeting.

In addition to the literary, we are given tantalizing glimpses of the personal. Gide apparently loved cherry brandy and was so partial to Miracles, the brand of cigarettes that Taha Hussein smoked that the Egyptian author sent him, to his delight, several packs in Paris. The Husseins also took him to see Najib al-Rihani’s famous revue and, although Gide did not understand a word, he could not fail to admire it. As well as the story of the few days spent with this French Nobel Prize winner, Suzanne’s account also tells of several other meetings with literary figures from across the world including Cocteau, Tagore, and even the deaf and blind Helen Keller (their respective assistants worked very hard that day).

This is not to say that Egyptians are absent from the Husseins’ lives, but more often than not Suzanne filters these characters through stories and letters from Taha Hussein. When doctors decided that their daughter, Amina, should go to France due to illness, Suzanne, along with Amina and their son Moenis, left for France but kept in constant contact with Taha. His letters reveal fascinating insights into the cultural life of the time. In 1922, Hussein was involved with a memorial for Mohammad Abduh. He helped with the logistics but decided not to speak, “My ideas would not please anyone; I think that he is a very interesting reformer but he disfigured Islam, torturing the texts to make them agree with modern science.”

The book is full of interesting snippets like this which are of great interest, both scholarly and general, to devotees of Egyptian culture from the mid-twentieth century. The explanatory notes and afterword by Zina Weygand and Bruno Ronfard are invaluable for filling in story gaps and identifying the recurring characters as well as the smaller cameos. They also usefully, but tantalizingly, make frequent use of Taha Hussein’s son’s unpublished Souvenirs, which cries out to be published, too. The unfortunate lack of any index, however, could infuriate people using the book for anything more than general interest (NB: certain Arabic publishers should note the ire caused by an absent index).

It would be possible for a reviewer to talk about this book with a focus on Taha Hussein and barely a mention of its writer beyond her role as his wife. Tawfiq al-Hakim, who falls somewhere between rival and protégé of Taha Hussein, said that “[t]he wife of an artist must understand that her whole life must be devoted to her husband and that her mission in life is to provide her husband with a charmed and pleasant life so he can be creative.” This book, however, demonstrates how wrong it would be to see Suzanne simply as a woman behind Taha’s greatness. Rather, she is an artist in her own right.

Even from a brief scan of this autobiography, it is clear that it was intended to be more than simply a textbook for people interested in Taha Hussein. Suzanne Hussein artfully constructs her complex narrative of memory and loss. The story is told as Suzanne travels to places the couple used to go together, from Alpine getaways to their house in Giza, and each place ignites memories. In its best moments, Suzanne’s prose can be very moving, though three hundred or so pages of emotion, even if interspersed with anecdotes about famous writers, can become draining. It is exciting that this book is now available in its original French not only because people who cannot speak Arabic can read about the life of an important Egyptian couple, but also because it is worth reading in itself as an interesting example of a memoir literary genre.

Suzanne Taha Hussein constructed this book as a story not of herself, nor of Taha Hussein, but of them both together. Despite its independent merits, it is likely that the biggest audience for this book is one that is interested in its male protagonist. Perhaps we will never be able to separate Suzanne Hussein from her husband, and given her almost excessive devotion to Taha it seems unlikely that she would have wanted us to do any such thing. However, as this book shows, neither should we think that we can separate Taha Hussein from Suzanne’s influence and efforts.

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