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The constitution: Language and identity of science

Published in Ahram Online on November 21, 2012

Cultural and civilisational diversity of the Egyptian society inspired mega project like arabising medicine in the 19th century. But, unfortunately it did not motivate the members of the Constituent Assembly.

A few days ago I met with some friends to read the draft constitution that the Constituent Assembly is about to finalise, the first copy of which was published in the press a few days ago.

As soon as we started to closely read the text, we were shocked by the poor language, lack of vision, contradictory ideas and flawed logic in all the chapters and provisions of this pivotal document. It is as if the Constituent Assembly was essentially interested in writing an essay full of vague elaborate phrases, but lacks substance and value.

We couldn’t decide which provisions were the most humorous and amusing. Was it Article 9 that assumes there is an “inherent character of the Egyptian family”, or Article 17 that proposes that the state has shores, seas and lakes that need protection? Perhaps Article 54 that suggests a “considerable” percentage of GDP should be earmarked for scientific research, or even Article 62 that states that “participating in sports is a right for everyone”.

Personally, I believe Article 11 is one of the most amusing and indicative of the flawed logic of this hapless document. It states: “The state shall safeguard the cultural, civilisational and linguistic unity of Egyptian society, and work to Arabise education, sciences and knowledge.”

Like any essay they make us write in school, this article at first glance appears worthy but a closer reading reveals its defects. Egyptian society, like any other advanced complex society, is culturally diverse with a multi-layered civilisation. The first part of the text should have instead declared: “The state shall safeguard the cultural and civilisational diversity of Egyptian society.”

The second part of the provision on Arabising sciences is also very problematic because it assumes that Arabising sciences is a goal in itself, not as a means for another end that should be defined. I believe without stating what the intention here, we as a society that uses the constitution to define its goals will not be able to raise the standards of sciences or even the Arabic language.

Members of the Constituent Assembly may not know that we already took huge strides in Arabising sciences during the first half of the 19th Century. I will briefly recount the huge effort spent Arabising the science of medicine in the Egyptian School of Human Medicine that is now known as Kasr Al-Aini School of Medicine.

The Qasr al-‘Aini School of Medicine when it was still located in Abu Za’bal, to the north east of Cairo, 1827

The founder of this school is Mohamed Ali Pasha who embarked on creating a modern regular army and believed that this army needed a medical division that would look after the health of his soldiers. The first director of this school was Dr Antoine Bartholomew Clot, aka Clot Bey, who advised the Pasha to start a medical school as the building block for the desired medical division.

Remarkably, the French Clot Bey advised Mohamed Ali – who spoke Turkish and never learnt Arabic – that Arabic should be the primary language of instruction. In many meetings, the French doctor told the Turkish pasha that doctors who are “the sons of Arabs”, meaning Egyptians, must be able to communicate with their patients and give them medical information in their own language.

After the pasha agreed and the school was inaugurated in 1827 a critical problem emerged. All the students were Azharites who only knew Arabic while the teachers were mostly French who did not speak Arabic.

Clot Bey invented creative ways to overcome this structural obstacle that almost destroyed his fledgling institution. He commissioned several interpreters from the Levant whose families had come to Egypt in the previous century, and put them in charge of translating French lectures before they are taught in class.

To make sure the translators understood the lectures they were given in class, Clot Bey asked them to translate the lectures back into French so the professors could revise them. In time, these interpreters became very knowledgeable of the content of lectures they were translating, namely modern medicine, so Clot Bey asked them to translate medical journals and not only lectures. He asked the first graduates to also do that, and to improve translated texts he sent proofreaders from Al-Azhar to the Boulaq Press that was publishing these books.

By the 1880s, Boulaq Press had published more than 100 books in a variety of branches of modern medicine, including gynaecology, obstetrics, pediatrics, surgery, autopsy, public health and nursing. All these were written in proper fluent Arabic. This effort was assisted by the fact that many Azharites who worked on this colossal project as doctors, translators and proofreaders were knowledgeable of the heritage of ancient Arabic medicine, most notably Ibn Sina. This enabled them to find Arabic equivalents to French medical terms they were translating, and their interest in the French language in terms of reading, writing and speaking – especially after traveling on medical missions to Paris – played a key role in making this pioneer project a success.

Arabising medicine in Egypt in the 19th Century is an admirable project worthy of reflection and research. First, it was a project that positively influenced efforts to improve health conditions for Egyptians and crowned by graduates from Qasr Al-Aini eradicating epidemics such as the plague and cholera. Also, launching the first national campaign outside Europe for inoculation against smallpox, as well as collecting a vital database that enabled Egypt to have the first modern census in the entire region.

Second, it was a project that was not adamant to Arabise medicine as an end in itself but as a means for a noble cause to improve the living standards and health of Egyptians. More importantly, it was a project that was not rooted in a desire to safeguard identity or protect the cultural unity of the Egyptian people – as stated in Article 11 in today’s draft constitution. We can even surmise that the success of the project was primarily based on not obsessing about the issue of identity.

Self-esteem, self-confidence and faith in the future rather than obsessing about the authenticity of identity and purity of essence, are the secret to the success of this mega project. How else could we explain the decision by a Turkish pasha and a French doctor to adopt Arabic as the language of instruction in Qasr Al-Aini? How do we explain the interest of Azharite doctors to learn French alongside their proficiency and pride in the Arabic language?

The culture of a country does not flourish by being closed on itself or obsessing about the purity of its identity or paranoia about the Other next door or outsider. To the contrary, culture flourishes by embracing other cultures, borrowing from them, adding to them, and fusing what it takes or borrows into its own environment and heritage then re-exporting it in a form that would fit other cultures and civilisations.

Unfortunately, this vision of culture, the secret to advancing science and reason for prosperity of knowledge is not what inspired the members of the Constituent Assembly to write this hapless and incredulous text. If only they had spent more time reading our modern history and learning the lessons of one of our most successful experiments in Arabising sciences.

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