'Living on the Edge': Shukri Ayyad, Pioneer of Modern Literary Renaissance

By 
Elie Chalala
Shukri Ayyad by John Sayre for Al Jadid.
 
Come this Summer, it would have been a year since the death of Egyptian writer, literary critic, and academic Shukri Ayyad at the age of 78, whose loss marked the end of a cultural era, that of the second-generation pioneers of the modern literary renaissance. 
 
Ayyad had great influence on Arabic culture, establishing a new construction in the world of Arab literature. “Ayyad combined an open-minded awareness of the literary and artistic achievements of the West with a profound and enlightened understanding of the Arabic literary heritage as well as the depths and breadths of Islamic thought,” commented Youssef Rakha in the English-language Al Ahram weekly. He was pre-eminently knowledgeable about the deep dialogue between the Arab and other cultures, Rakha noted. Ayyad was also more informed than anyone of his generation in modern literary criticism; this was the subject of his doctoral thesis, which he ended with a creative dialogue with the most recent of critical approaches, structuralism. 
 
Shukri Mohamed Ayyad was born in 1921 in the Delta village of Kafr Shanwan, in the Menoufiya district. Privileged to learn from two of the period’s most eminent men of letters, Taha Hussein and Sheikh Amin Al-Khouli, he studied Arabic literature at Fouad Al-Awal (now Cairo) University, earning his masters degree in 1948. 
 
From the early 1950s to the late 1970s Ayyad worked as a lecturer, researcher and critic, and held several high-ranking cultural and literary positions. He was dean of the Theatre Institute, head of the Arabic Literature Department and vice-dean of the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University.  
 
Besides academia, reported Shams al-Din Moussa in Al Hayat, two other areas attracted his attention: literary creativity and intellectual discourse. He authored books such as “Arab Culture,” “Religion, Science and Society,” and “Language and Creativity.” 
 
Ayyad influenced the course of Arab culture from both inside and outside the academy. Moussa wrote that Ayyad was part of a great tradition of intellectual literary figures including Ahmad Lutfi Al Sayyid, Sheikh Ali Abed Al Raziq, Ahmad Amin, Hussein Haykal and Taha Hussein, a list that could also include another generation of Egyptian writers like Louis Awad, Mahmoud Amin Al Alim and Ali Al Rai. Ayyad was influenced by these figures, and was marked by the breadth of their vision while remaining distinguished from other critics of Arab novel writing.
 
Besides Taha Hussein, whom Ayyad tried to defend against accusations he was an atheist, Ayyad was also influenced in his early life by Salama Moussa, especially by Moussa’s writings on Freud, the unconscious, and different socialist schools. 
 
As a youth, he published several stories which earned him the acknowledgment of leading literary critics. Ayyad, however, eschewed the limelight, withdrawing from the public arena, and instead devoted himself to studying ancient Greek in order to complete his Ph.D. in 1953. He studied the earliest Arabic translation of Aristotle’s Poetics and examined its influence on Arabic literature. 
 
Ayyad wrote about 20 books on Arabic poetry, language and theater, published regularly in Al Hilal magazine, and wrote a volume of poetry and the novel “Heavenly Bird.” His books included, among others, “Music of Arab Poetry” (1968), “Literature in a Changing World” (1971), “Restricted Vision: a Study in Cultural Interpretation of Literature” (1978), “Introduction to the Science of Style” (1982), “Research Trends of Style” (1985), “The Department of Creativity” (1987), “Language and Creativity” (1988), “Between Philosophy and Literature” (1990), “Critical and Literary Schools of Arab and Westerners” (1993), “The Hero in Literature and Myths”(1959), “The Short Story in Egypt:  a Study of the Foundation of Literary Art” (1968), “The Experience in Literature and Criticism” (1968), and “Taghour: Poet of Love and Peace.”
 
In “The Intellectual Roots of Modernism: Issues and Critics’ Testimonies” (1991), Ayyad distinguished himself with his knowledge of phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, and deconstruction. As Moussa wrote in Al Hayat, Ayyad adopted a critical style from the new methodological schools like structuralism and deconstruction, excluding Isloubiyya [stylistics] because, in his opinion, it was not a school of criticism, and the name itself is said to go back to the Arab Maghreb region.
 
According to Maher Shafic Farid, an assistant professor of English literature at Cairo University, Ayyad also wrote one book in English, “Repercussions and Deviations: A Study of Arab Contemporary Mind/Thought through Its Literary Creations/Productions” in collaboration with Nancy Watherton.  He has also a chapter about the “Provincial Literature in Egypt” published in the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, and translated into English one of his novels, “In the Clinic,” which was published in “Arab Writing Today: The Novel,” edited by Mahmoud al-Manzalawi.
 
He was often described as a loner who opted for solitude and isolation.  In his latest work, “Al-Aish ala Al-Hafia” [Living on the Edge], an autobiographical account published before his death, Ayyad wrote, “The point of all this is to say that living on the edge – whether that is the edge of poverty, of sickness, or of madness or the numerous other afflictions which resemble them is not necessarily dangerous to the self, given that the human being is able to preserve his balance. Thereafter comes the role of knowledge and culture in forming one’s mind and taste. And my biography in these two fields is similar to my occupational biography. From the day I gained consciousness I have always tried to be in control of my affairs, and to earn what I could by my own effort,” according to one press report.
 
His practice and writing reveal his abiding liberalism, a trait which was apparent in his interview with Majdi. Ayyad counseled moderation, convinced that the partial accomplishment of ideas is better than achieving nothing. He supported the intellectual right to work within the boundaries set by the state so he will not incite the state to “crash” him; he hoped that through this strategy the state will become accustomed to freedom, eventually allowing individuals to enjoy more freedom.
 
Six of his novels centered on the concerns of a middle-class character interested in creativity and culture, and the personal stresses those interests engender. According to Sabri Hafez writing in Al Arab newspaper, his characters become increasingly tormented the more they become aware of their surrounding environment. In their early period, the stories were poetic. According to Hafez, his collections were influenced by Chekovian sensitivity, and were marked more by realism, something that distinguished him from the dominant romantic school at the time.
 
It came as no surprise, according to Sameh Karim, writing in Al Ahram Arabic daily, that Ayyad developed areas of study, focusing on three fields derived from al-Kholi: the renewal of rhetoric studies; forming the modernized out of the inherited; and establishing a new methodology of applied criticism.
 
While some of his colleagues like the late Ali Al Rai limited their expertise to specific fields, Ayyad had good grasp of modernist, post modernist and structuralist schools. Ayyad, like another figure of his generation (albeit from a different theoretical background), Mahmoud Amin Al Alim, was able to establish a dialogue with these approaches in a way that unarguably enriched the movement of Arab critics, according to Hafez.
 
He was a critic of non-Marxist realism, and launched sharp attacks on modern Western schools, the foremost of which was structuralism. His approach combined both Western culture and traditional Arab or turath culture.  
 
Ahmad Abed Moueti Hijazi noted in a recent article in Al Ahram daily that Ayyad did not go so far in rejecting narrow Western rationalism as to adopt the position of the Salafis, who call for the return to the early days of Islam. What he rejected, Hijazi pointed out, was what he found to be inessential and inhuman. He looked into Western civilization from the critical perspective that distinguished what could be emulated and embraced, and he treated the Arab-Islamic culture in a similar manner, distinguishing between what should be abandoned and what should be preserved.
 
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, No. 30, Winter 2000.

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