Tawfik Hakim’s Sparrow From the East, published in 1938, is an early example of a narratives in which Arab characters visit Europe. In the first chapter, when Andre discovers Muhsin, the sensitive art-loving hero, eating dates in the streets of Paris, he calls him “sparrow from the East,” and the East/West divide is established. Later on, Andre and his wife tease Mushin about the woman he describes as his beloved, asking “is she from a thousand and one nights or Paris?” Exasperated by Muhsin’s sitting in the café gazing at his beloved in the ticket booth, Andre says, “I can’t spend my life sitting like this…you Easterners don’t know the meaning of time.” Muhsin responds, “We have been freed of it.”
Muhsin easternizes himself too, towards the end when his beloved leaves him, he asks why she didn’t tell him the rules of the game from the start, because “it’s as easy for my simple eastern mentality to live in dreams as to live in reality.”
But also in the first chapter, Muhsin attends a funeral, and enters a church for the first time, feeling the same reverence as at a mosque:
“He imagined that crossing the threshold he had left the earth or been raised to another atmosphere with its own perfume and light…and here too there was the same reverence which shook his soul when he entered the mosque of the Lady Zaynab in Cairo. The same serenity, the same darkness in corners, the same thin light hovering like souls in the air: God’s house is God’s house in every place and age.”
His friend Andre is surprised when Muhsin asks why he didn’t give him time to “prepare” calling the church a “public place” just like any other. The same dynamic is there in Muhsin going to the opera and feeling disappointed in not finding people there to enjoy “Art” as a spiritual thing but only as a sign of their wealth.
As Roger Allen puts it, the novel offers a “rather facile contrast between the spiritual east and the material west in a way which shows little characterization and which can be seen as an early precedent to the more sophisticated treatment of the same Arab student in Europe theme to be found in later works by Yahya Haqqi, Suhayl Idris and Al Tayyib al Salih” (The Arabic Novel, 40).
This is most vividly expressed in the terrible and clichéd Anti-Americanism, both Andre and Muhsin concluding Americans are “creatures of reinforced concrete, without soul or taste or past…if you opened their chest you would find a dollar instead of a heart…they come to this old world thinking that they can but taste for themselves and a past for their country.”
The novel becomes markedly more facile when Muhsin enters a restaurant of workers and finds oneof them reading Marx, who turns out to be a Russian revolutionary. Increasingly throughout the novel, Ivan proceeds to deliver sermons on the failure of the West and romanticizes the East, saying that the prophets of the east solved the problem of the poor and wealthy, the happy and miserable, by saying those who did not get their fair share on earth would get it in heaven. If that reads like sarcasm, other statements overlay it which hare more serious about the merit of the East over the West. The West, for Ivan is lacking the “beautiful illusion of the eastern prophets.” Ivan asserts “The secret of great civilizations is that it allowed people to live in two worlds. Modern European civilization doesn’t allow people to live in more than one world.”
That it is an “illusion” is important – Muhsin is aghast. Ivan, flat character that he is, is contradictory at times, a non-believer who believes in belief, saying the prophets brought principles in through heaven and earth, “while Marx was only concerned with the earth, trying to divide it between people equally, so people fought over it.”
Denis Hope criticizes Tawfik saying he “more than any other Arab writer, sees the Arab world through the rose colored glasses of the west.” Yet there are moments which are less didactic, in particular the flashbacks to the revolution of 1919 in the early part of the book.
He couldn’t stand the sight of blood. He still hadn’t forgotten the days of the revolution, the revolution of 1919. During those days he had seen a sight he would never forget, a British soldier standing alone surrounded by revolutionaries who surrounded him and one of them struck him with a rod of metal on his head, and he fell with blood over his face…and then the British soldiers appeared armed with their machine guns and the revolutionaries scattered.
And then there are the scenes which give some setting for the sermons, as Muhsin sees that in the family he stays with, the grandmother teaches her grandson hatred for the Germans. Muhsin wonders:
“Are there women everywhere in France teaching children hatred of the Germans? And who knows probably all the women of Germany teach their children hatred of the French…whatever the reason, what right to they have to bring their children up on hatred? But he too was brought up on hatred, hatred of the British.”
Moving from 1920s France, there are inset stories set in Egypt, such as that of Muhsin’s father the judge who felt the need to give up his job because of his conscious after being told to find a man guilty. That man was a governor of a delta province an Egyptian who went to Oxford and loved everything about England. When he returned to Egypt he discovered that the English were not the gentlemen they were in their own country when they were in Egypt, that he was not a friend here, since “there was only master and slave.” Eventually, after butting heads with colonialist governance, he tried to resign, but was set up and accused of torturing to get confessions.
And there is a story about the the Egyptian mission to ask for independence in 1919, where a man Muhsin knows, a scholar of comparative religion who spends his time staring at women’s legs, befriends Anatol France, who then writes the preface to voice of Egypt, defending its independence. As Samar Attar notes,
When Sa’ad Zaghloul, the leader of the Egyptian revolution, just freed by the colonial authorities, he travelled to Paris in March 1919 to attend the paris peace conference and to push for egypt independence he was totally ignored by the Allies. The French newspapers did not even write a word about his presence in France. In order to elaborate this sticky point in official Egyptian-French relations, al-Hakim presents another Egyptian student in Paris and makes him narrate something more sympathetic about the French people as symbolized by a known writer…
Attar goes on to fit this into the broader theme of the novel, which she describes as being “Are Europeans like us?” Ultimately, according to Ivan, in a long-winded allegorization of Europe as the blonde selfish woman shackling others, dismissing her parents Asia and Africa, the answer is no.
Here’s a passage that struck me, given the contemporary term “Islamo-fascism”:
“Christianity as it bean in the East is love and the moral example, the soul of Islam is faith and order, but the new Christianity today in the West is Marxism, while the Islam of the West is fascism, and it too has the look of faith and order, faith not in God but in a leader, and order not for social balance through humility and charity, but an order enforced by terrorism…these are the religions which the West was able to come up with when it decided to join the East in making religions for the world.”
This might all be part and parcel of the nostalgia for the past in the novel which extends to a monologue against rails and planes: “why this need for speed, as though devils are after us whipping our backs…we have lost those long journeys on horseback and camelback…we say speed and forget that it is a nap in a train carriage.”
Most eyebrow-raisingly of all, there is a tirade against the general public reading, in that literature has gone from the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress to magazines and crime novels. Muhsin goes along with it, romanticizing, “The Arab woman in her tent before she could read, would taste the best of the poetry of Jarir and Akhtal and Farazdaq and sang the songs of Musab and Naseeb and Ishaq al Musili..”
Ivan finally decides the only thing to do is escape and go East. When Ivan insists in his sickness that he wants to travel, Muhsin finally comes to the defence of the “West.”
As William Hutchins puts it, this might indicate that to believe this is about the “real superiority of the east, the cradle of all religions” is to collapse Muhsin and Ivan into a single character. “More extreme statements about Egyptian spirituality…are not put in mouth of Egyptian hero but in that of a European character.” Also that this view point is not al Hakim’s is suggested in in the preface to King Oedipus which credits French with a literary history going back to the ancient Greeks and contrasts this with a gaping theatrical void faced by the modern author in the Arab world.
Muhsin tells Ivan, “You are harsh on the west, whatever else they have taken the world to summits that were unthinkable with their science.” There is esoteric and exoteric science, Ivan responds, like a Sufi. When Muhsin asks him if he would leave Beethoven, he rhapsodies about Mozart and Bach and Raphael and Copernicus and Galeleo and Dante calling them “true Christianity,” and insisting this is why they should travel to the source – the East.
Muhsin asks him if he’s ever been. When Ivan says no, Muhsin thinks of telling him “the source is poisoned” and “Today there no longer is an east for it has become a jungle with monkeys wearing western garments in a disorderly and haphazard fashion indicative of a total lock of comprehension.” But he doesn’t dare say it, and Ivan, recognizing it is too late for him, dies with the words “you go my friend, to the source, and take my memory.”
As Hutchins notes, “if this work which is more a book length sermon than a novel opens with Muhsin’s participation in the funeral of a European he never knew, it ends as he shoulders the symbolic burden of performing a ritual act of remembrance in the east for a deceased European friend.”