Issa J Boullata, the prominent Palestinian scholar, writer and literary translator, writes about the books and authors that have had an influential impact on his life.
The first book I ever read by myself from cover to cover in one sitting was an Arabic one entitled The Little Red Hen. I was about eight years old in 1937, a pupil in the third elementary class at a government school in Jerusalem during the British Mandate of Palestine. The joy I felt during the weekly hour in Sitt Wasila’s class devoted to silent reading of Arabic books she distributed to her pupils was ineffable and is still with me to this day. Little did I know then that that was the opening for me to the endless world of literature.
I had learned to read Arabic with Al-Jadid, the popular and extensively used series of four reading books (Jerusalem, 1924–1933) by the great Palestinian educator and author Khalil Sakakini (1878–1953). Right from the first page of Book One, I learned to read the words ras and rus (meaning ‘head’ and ‘heads’ as the illustration showed), and on the second page dar and dur (meaning ‘house’ and ‘houses’ as the illustration also showed) using an additional letter to those learned earlier, and so on to the end of the book, which culminated in teaching the Arabic alphabet from reading the names of illustrated everyday things seen and experienced by the pupils, and without learning it abstractly as single letters arrayed in a specific order. Book Two introduced simple sentences and easy grammatical structures, using daily conversation; and Books Three and Four elaborated by offering further simple readings and brief stories, without the insipid rules of traditional grammars.
Hence, I could easily read and enjoy Al-Dajaja al-Saghira al-Hamra’ (The Little Red Hen) in the third elementary class and, later, many other similarly delightful books in the weekly silent hour of Sitt Wasila’s class. But imagine my great surprise and delight on seeing Khalil Sakakini himself in my class one day. He was paying an official visit to my school as the government’s Inspector of Arabic. He was a strongly-built man, tall and portly and awe-inspiring. He wore a red fez and had a commanding and dignified presence. His eyes shone brilliantly with intelligence, and an encouraging smile never abandoned his lips. He spoke in classical Arabic and I was asked by Sitt Wasila to read a text to him. I read it aloud, trying to conceal my nervousness and slight intimidation. When I finished, he asked for the meaning of the word fawran that I had read in the text. No one in the class knew, so he used it in a sentence and asked again for its meaning. I raised my hand with a few other students but he did not call on any of us. He used the word fawran in another sentence and asked for its meaning again. More students now raised their hands to answer. But he did not call on any of them until he gave a third sentence using the same word again. At that moment, almost all the students raised their hands eager to answer, and those asked said – correctly – it meant ‘immediately’.
I admired Khalil Sakakini and wanted to be like him when I grew up, a good teacher and educator with an excellent knowledge of Arabic language and literature. I later learned that he was the author of more than a dozen books; that he was an indomitable man whose participation in Palestinian politics in Ottoman and British times often led to his imprisonment; that he always cherished freedom and dignity and truth and justice as essential human values worth struggling for; that he had a good sense of humour, was interested in music, played the violin, and liked good food and a hearty life enhanced by physical exercise and sports; that at different times of his life, he was a member of a variety of literary circles in Jerusalem which gathered the best Arab intellectuals and writers of the day for informal conversations which were a pleasure to attend; that he had friends among the writers of other parts of the Arab world and was in contact with them; and that he was elected as a member of the prestigious Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo.
Of his books which I later read, I liked in particular two very personal books: firstly, his book Sari (Jerusalem, 1935) in which he gathered all the letters he had sent from Jerusalem to his son Sari who was at university in the USA between 1931 and 1935; and secondly, his book Li-Dhikraki (In Your Memory, Jerusalem, 1940) in which he poured out his heart at the death of his beloved wife Sultana in 1940 for whom he had earlier written his best poetry. While many Arabs would rather keep such personal feelings and thoughts private, Khalil Sakakini made his public, strongly believing that the best literature is written about the genuine inner experiences of a human being, expressed beautifully to display the impact of living on him and to wonder at the meaning of life. His other book that I also liked was his posthumously published memoirs Kadha Ana Ya Dunya (Such Am I, O World, Jerusalem, 1955) in which he opened himself up to be fully known as he had passed through life, recording his various experiences, his thoughts, and his feelings without reservation. The book is not only a frank register of his life but also of Palestine, its society, its people and its intellectuals, and is written as if consciously addressed to history so that all may know the point of view of the uniquely untraditional person he was, who always yearned courageously and outspokenly for something new and better, and disliked being bound by conventions. “Such am I, O world,” he told history, using the very words of the heroic and ebullient classical Arab poet he liked most, Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi (915–965).
After the 1948 Nakba, he lost his home in Qatamon, one of the most beautiful Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, to the Zionist fighters; his belongings were savagely plundered and his library was barbarously looted. He had to flee for his life and his family’s, and take refuge in Cairo for some time. Then I briefly saw him afterwards in the Old City of Jerusalem, which had come under Jordan’s rule after the rest of Jerusalem and much of Palestine had come under Israel’s, following the 1948 war at the end of the British Mandate. A fallen titan, a broken old man, his dignity still bristled; the shine in his eyes had dimmed a little but he still believed that justice would eventually prevail and truth would always triumph. The streak in his thinking that had begun in the latter part of his life to favour the poetry and thought of the pessimistic and sceptic classical Arab poet Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri (973-1058) had become stronger in him. He did not live much longer after that, and he died in 1953.
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When in 1938 I completed the third elementary class, which was the highest in my school, my father did not want me to continue my education in the free government school system. He sent me to complete my schooling at CollËge des FrËres, a private high school established in 1878 in the Old City of Jerusalem and run by the Christian Brothers, an internationally known Catholic teaching order, who were helped by a number of non-clerical teachers. It charged high fees, but my father wanted me to have the advantage at it of learning French and English in addition to Arabic, and of benefiting from its distinguished curriculum and, possibly, from its famous discipline. The change to a boys’ school with male teachers after my earlier schooling at a co-educational school with female teachers was a little disrupting, but I quickly adapted myself to it, despite the daily attendance of mass and catechism classes compulsory for all Christian students – the Muslim students and the few Jews being exempted. The school day was longer and fully occupied with intensive courses, except for a mid-morning break and a mid-afternoon break of fifteen minutes each, and a lunch break of one hour.
What I missed greatly was the silent hour of Sitt Wasila with her interesting, colourful books. My new school had a library, but it consisted of locked glass bookcases hung along one wall in the long corridor of the school’s second floor in three sections: Arabic, English, and French. It had no catalogue, not even a list of its books which never seemed to increase in number. The Brother responsible for it unlocked one of its bookcases for a few minutes once a week and gave the eager students who cared to come and swarm around him what he selected for them to borrow and read. I was usually the first to arrive. After several years, I thus came to read many of the Arabic books of Kamel Kilani for children and young adults, mostly graded and simplified books in large print and with pictures, based on selected (and expurgated) stories from the One Thousand and One Nights and on other Arabic classics, but also adventure stories adapted from Western literatures like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Noticing I was an avid and rather more advanced reader, FrËre Epiphane, the Lebanese Brother responsible for the Arabic bookcases, slipped me more than one book per week. When I was in my early teens, he selected for me Arabic historical novels to read and especially those of Jurji Zaydan (1861–1914), which I enjoyed because they taught me Arab history while entertaining my inquisitive mind. Arab history was shamefully deficient in the school’s curriculum, and so was geography. Pretty soon, I was surfeited with the books the school ‘library’ could offer, and I needed richer and more satisfying readings, when I was lucky to fall upon a treasure trove at home.
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It was a collection of Arabic books and magazines that belonged to my father in the 1920s and 1930s and that were kept in a crate under a couch. He was a civil servant in the government of the British Mandate: a superintendent of the Telegraph Office in Jerusalem at one time, and a postmaster later. As a younger man and freer then of family and work responsibilities, he used to read widely in his leisure time. Overworked and latterly bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis, he had little interest in reading; but he gladly let me read his collection and took pleasure in discussing my readings with him. To me, this was even better than Sitt Wasila’s reading hour of my childhood, for I was now intellectually blossoming in the secondary classes at school in the mid-1940s, and he was a very knowledgeable guide and a most loving mentor to me. To him I owe a great measure of my literary orientation.
Prominent in the collection were some of the books of Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883–1931), of whom my father was an admirer. His The Prophet, rendered into Arabic by Archimandrite Antonios Bashir (d. 1966), was my introduction to Gibran’s contemplative thought and lyrical style, which immediately charmed me. This charm was further reinforced by reading his Dam‘a wa Ibtisama (A Tear and a Smile, 1914), Al-Arwah al-Mutamarrida (Spirits Rebellious, 1908), and Al-Bada’i‘ wa al-Tara’if (Wonders and Curiosities, 1923). Fascinated by Gibran’s poetic prose style and by his rebellion against social conventions and his defence of the downtrodden, I later read all his works wherever I found them, and I even pursued the works of all his colleagues in the Pen Bond of New York which he led, especially those of Mikhail Naimy, Iliyya Abu Madi, ‘Abd al-Masih Haddad, and Nasib ‘Arida.
Another book in my father’s collection was Al-‘Abarat (Tears, 1915) by Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti (1879 –1924), a collection of sad stories that he adapted from Western literature. An Azhar graduate, he clung to a traditional prose style which oddly conveyed a melancholy romantic mood bordering on sentimental pessimism. I later read more of his books elsewhere but did not take to him.
A different author was Anatole France (1844–1924), and my father’s collection had two of his novels: Thais and Le Lys Rouge, translated into Arabic by Muhammad al-Sawi Muhammad. Even in the Arabic translation, the pure and limpid language of this 1921 Nobel laureate and master of literary style came through. I liked him and later read in French some of his other books including his Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard; I admired his satiric tone and delicate irony, and I learned from him what a subtle and powerful tool language can be.
Not so was the style of another book in my father’s collection: Les Amants de Venise by Michel Zevaco, translated into Arabic as ‘Ushshaq Finisiya by someone whose name I don’t even remember. Nor so was the style of another translated novel on Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) telling about his political and ecclesiastical intrigues and his many mistresses and children. Although I appreciated the fact that he patronised great artists like Raphael and Michelangelo, I don’t think he ever made me forgive his misuse of office, but rather made me ever wary of people in high positions.
Books of a totally different nature in my father’s collection had a great influence on my thinking; they were by Salama Musa (1887–1958), the Egyptian liberal thinker and moderniser who, while studying in England, adopted the socialist philosophy of the Fabian Society and propounded it in his Arabic writings. Of his other writings, I read his book Nazariyyat al-Tatawwur wa Asl al-Insan, popularising Darwin’s theory of evolution, and I have ever since supported this theory and concurred with its more recent scientific findings; likewise, I have supported Salama Musa’s feminist views and his call for an Arabic literature of free ideas and simple style addressed to the common people, not to the elite.
The Arabic magazines in my father’s collection were incomplete series of well-known monthlies, most of which dealt with topics similar to those above. They included Al-Hilal of Jurji Zaydan (which was historical, literary, and general), Al-Muqtataf of Ya‘qub Sarruf and Fares Nimr (which was scientific and general), Minerva of Mary Yanni (which was feminist, literary, and general), and Al-Nafa’is al-‘Asriyya of the Jerusalemite Khalil Baidas (which was fiction-oriented and published literary translations, especially from Russian fiction). There was also Al-Riyada al-Badaniyya specialising in medical information and health, and it included sexology in which, as a teenager, I was extremely interested. These and other magazines opened for me monthly contacts with Arab writers and intellectuals from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. I was certain the Christian Brothers at my school would not approve of my readings, but I did not let that thought deter me.
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When my father’s crate of books had nothing more to offer me, I came to know a much larger crate that contained over 50,000 books and periodicals. That was the library of the YMCA. I was in my last three years of secondary school in 1944–1947 when I joined the YMCA and was more eager than ever to read and have social contacts with a larger world. The Christian Brothers forbade their Catholic students to join this Protestant institution; but since I was an Orthodox Christian Arab, I was free to join and I did, despite my school’s discouragement. I never regretted this act, for in addition to athletics at the YMCA, I made new friends and a new world opened up for me in the public lectures, the art exhibits, the musical concerts, and occasional plays I could attend there. No one ever tried to make me a Protestant at the YMCA, as was propagated at my school.
Unlike the YMCAs in some other parts of the world where the institution specifically caters to the working class, the Jerusalem YMCA established in 1931 was a centre of bustling social, intellectual, and athletic activities, and was housed in a monumental building that had a graceful high tower in the middle and was flanked by two domes, under one of which was a large auditorium with a stage, and under the other was the athletic department with a swimming pool in the basement; it had trees and a lovely garden in front and a large soccer pitch with rows of seats in the back. It was a landmark building of Jerusalem standing on St Julian’s Way opposite the majestic King David Hotel. Once inside it, one felt the plush atmosphere of the place with its modern furniture and shining cleanliness.
Its library had a large reading room with tables and chairs surrounded by comfortable leather armchairs; in this reading room were a card catalogue of the books, stands for the current newspapers and periodicals, and shelves with reference books and encyclopaedias. Its large collection of books was kept in an inner space behind the reception desk at which was a librarian always ready to fetch you the books whose catalogue numbers you gave him or her. This was a library different from the ‘library’ of the Christian Brothers’ school and the crate collection of my father. Since Jerusalem had no public libraries, this was my first experience with a real library, and it was here that I continued to form myself intellectually. In it, I continued to regularly read Al-Hilal and Al-Muqtataf monthlies my father’s collection had introduced me to, but also other literary journals like the then new Lebanese monthly Al-Adib of Albert Adib, the older Egyptian ones Al-Risala of Ahmad Hasan al-Zayyat and Al-Thaqafa of Ahmad Amin, as well as a newer one, Al-Katib al-Misri of Taha Hussein, and others. I also read more books by authors I had been introduced to through my father’s collection, and discovered many, many more, including writers in English I began to admire, such as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Graham Greene and Aldous Huxley. I also liked Marcel Proust, AndrÈ Gide and AndrÈ Maurois. And it was at this Protestant institution’s library that I first came to use The Catholic Encyclopaedia and The Encyclopaedia of Islam, whose existence I did not even know. In addition to all this, the courses I took with Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1920-1994), who was my teacher of English literature at school and a member of the YMCA where he established the Jerusalem Arts Club after returning from Cambridge in 1943, gave me ideas what to read; the courses I took with Mounah Khouri (1918–1996), who taught me Arabic literature at school and was a member of the YMCA too (later Professor of Arabic Literature at Berkeley, California) gave me further ideas what to read. Both teachers became my friends and published writers, and I owe them much of my literary orientation.
Then I joined the University of London, where I earned a First Class BA (Honours) degree in Arabic and Islamic studies, and later a PhD in Arabic literature.
I did in fact become the teacher and educator first inspired by Khalil Sakakini, and for 56 years I taught, first in Palestine until 1968, then in USA (Hartford Seminary) until 1975, then in Canada (McGill University, Montreal) until my retirement in 2004. I was subsequently honoured by the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) when its board bestowed upon me the 2004 Mentoring Award at the recommendation of my former students and my scholarly colleagues. Two of them (Kamal Abdel-Malek and Wael Hallaq) had edited a festschrift in my honour entitled Tradition, Modernity, and Postmodernity in Arabic Literature: Essays in Honor of Professor Issa J. Boullata (Brill, Leiden, 2000), to which twenty scholars among these former students and colleagues from the Middle East, Europe, USA, and Canada contributed literary articles. Moreover, I did become, like Khalil Sakakini, the author of many books.
I still do remember The Little Red Hen and Sitt Wasila’s silent reading hour, and the romantic readings in my father’s collection. Is it a wonder that my first book published in 1960 was on romanticism in modern Arabic poetry, and that my second one published in 1971 was on the Iraqi free verse poet, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (its 6th edition is published this year).
Wordsworth’s saying “The child is father of the man” cannot be truer than it is in my own life.