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Volume 15, Number 1January/February 1964

In This Issue

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Portait Of An Editor

Fresh out of school, a young Saudi Arab set his sights on recording—and nourishing—a reawakening of Arab literature.

Twenty-seven years ago, during Dhu al-Hijja, the last month of the Islamic year, a new Arab magazine devoted to literature, science and history slipped quietly into the world. It was called al-Manhal, a poetic name that conveyed the image of a mountain spring, a place where one might refresh both body and spirit. The editor was 27 years old. He was optimistic about the chances for success despite outspoken reservations of his faculty colleagues at the Shari'ah school where he had completed his own studies only seven years earlier. He allied his hopes with the "Arab awakening," the cultural renaissance that had begun to gather momentum in the Middle East and North Africa. Although his aim was high, his funds were low. He had, in fact, so little capital that he could afford to have only 250 copies of the first issue of the magazine printed, even though the job was done on an antiquated foot-treadle press. The place was Medina, Saudi Arabia. The time was February 1937.

One evening last summer, Ustadh 'Abd al-Quddoos al-Ansari, now, at 54, a distinguished man of letters in the Arab world—editor, publisher, essayist, historian, poet—sat under the stars on the roof deck of a friend's home in Jiddah and recalled his early struggles to get al-Manhal started. At one point the period-piece quality of his recollections was refracted through the piercing whine of a Boeing jetliner coming in for a landing low over the rooftops. He remarked this breach of time, then smiled quietly.

"To start with," he said, "al-Manhal had no writers, no readers, and no advertising. I had to sit down and write the entire first issue. I started out with only 40 Saudi riyals—$10.66. I had to borrow to the brim from my friends to pay for the first printing. The paper was the kind you use to wrap groceries in—very poor. The type was set by hand, and there were many errors. But I went ahead. I had the feeling that time would improve the magazine. It was difficult, but the will of God kept me going forward."

Al-Manhal has both observed and served the renaissance in Arab letters which was godfather to its birth. 'Abd-al-Quddoos, who was born in Medina in 1909, has helped to shape more than a quarter-century of Saudi Arab literary history; he himself is a central figure in that history. The American visitor who heard him tell of the beginnings of al-Manhal prevailed upon his courtesy for a series of discussions about his experiences as an editor and about modern trends in Saudi Arab literature. Following are the highlights from those conversations.

Was your father a literary man?

"No. He was just a man. He composed some poetry from time to time. He was a religious man who died at an early age in Medina, Saudi Arabia. I have little memory of my father, for he died when I was only five years old."

How did you become interested in literature?

"When I was a student at the Madrasat al-'Uloum al-Shari'ah in Medina the idea of a literary movement was just getting started. My friends and I started the movement in Saudi Arabia. In 1928, my last year in school, a magazine in Egypt called The Near East raised a crucial question: 'What form will the awakening of the Arabs take?' I submitted an article outlining my views and proposed that we should have a public press in Saudi Arabia. Our writers needed a place to express new ideas and contribute to the Arab awakening."

Was there a reaction to your proposal?

"When the article was published the director of my school encouraged me to establish a magazine in Saudi Arabia."

What steps did you take?

"Before I completed my final year I applied to the Government for permission to establish the magazine. The Advisory Council to King 'Abd al-'Aziz asked for information about my education, culture and character. They also wanted to see what I had written."

Had you published by then?

"Oh, yes. I had published in al-Siyasah al-Ushu'iyah, a weekly political paper in Cairo, and in al-Ahram and al-Muqtataf, also in Cairo, and in al-Murshid al-Arabi in Damascus. I collected the articles I had written and sent them, along with my school and character certificates, to the Majlis al-Shurra, the Advisory Council. They agreed that I should get a license to publish."

How did you develop as a writer, and how did you support yourself?

"Let me go back to my education at the Madrasat al-'Uloum al-Shari'ah. It is a school, by the way, that has many famous graduates—ministers of state, writers, qadis, and others. We studied the Koran, of course, and the Hadith, the body of sayings of the Prophet, as well as geography, history, arithmetic, logic, philosophy, grammar and composition. I stood at the head of my class. The Deputy Amir of Medina was the head of the Examinations Committee and he told the director of the school, 'I want this boy to work for me.' After graduation I went to work for the Diwan, the Council, of Medina.

"Then the headmaster asked me to come to the school for an hour each day and teach literature to the students. Many of the young men I taught became outstanding writers. But there was something else that interested me. I wanted the students to be able to speak well on their feet, so I started a debating society.

"I also wrote for the Saut al-Hijaz newspaper and for Umm al-Qura, the official weekly newspaper of the Government. As you may know, the name means 'Mother of Villages'; it is the origin of the word Mecca."

Had you started any extended writing—a novel, say?

"About a year after I finished school I completed a long story entitled 'The Twins.' I had it published in Damascus at my personal expense. It ran ninety-eight pages. That was in 1930."

Why did you have it published at your own expense?

"There was no other way for a young writer to get published in the Middle East. This is a typical problem for the Arab writer. The essays you see in the newspapers and magazines are contributions. These are the economic facts of life for our writers. For instance, al-Manhal has never been able to pay contributors.

"But, to go on ... In 1931 I published a book on rhetoric called Corrections and Reforms in the Diction and Style of Press and Diwans. In this instance the word diwan refers to collections of poetry. I also undertook a study of the ancient ruins, many of them pre-Islamic, around Medina. I went into the mountains on foot and by donkey and made sketches and ground plans based upon my own measurements. After I had collected much original and valuable material I wrote a history of the city and its historic environs called The Ancient Ruins of Medina. It was published in 1934 by the Arab Archaeological Society of Medina."

Once you had your license to-publish al-Manhal, how did you get into production?

"There was an old and small print shop in Medina and there was an electric press in Mecca on which Umm al-Qura was published. But I could not afford to publish in Mecca. However, I corresponded with Muhammad Sa'id 'Abd al-Maqsoud, the publisher of Umm al-Qura. Finally he agreed to print al-Manhal, and I moved to Mecca in 1937. In 1955 I moved the magazine to Jiddah, where for the first time it was set by machine."

Have you ever had to miss an issue?

"We were suspended for three years during World War II because of the paper shortage. Otherwise, I have never skipped a month."

What is your present circulation, and what countries do you now mail to?

"Each issue has 2,500 subscribers. The magazine goes to Arab readers in most of the countries of the world. It goes to practically every country except Russia."

Is it banned in Russia?

"No, but I prefer not to send it there. They have sent me many pamphlets and other materials. However, I refuse to send them the magazine."

Are there any readers in the United States?

"There are six subscribers in the United States. One copy goes to the Middle East Collection of the Hoover Library at Stanford University. An old friend of mine, Dr. George Rentz, who was with the Arabian American Oil Company for many years, is now curator of the Collection. Another I exchange with al-Bayan, an Arabic newspaper in New York. The remainder of the subscriptions in the United States go to individuals."

How would you describe the contents of a typical issue?

"There is an editorial every month. For example, I recently wrote an editorial proposing the development of a Saudi Arab corporation to publish and distribute national magazines. Then there is a literary essay, a short story—which may be written in Arabic or translated from another language—and two poems. One of the poems may be in the old style and the other, modern. Usually there will be an historical essay—or an essay on one of the sciences, or on philosophy, economics, psychology, or sociology.

"The contents vary, of course, from issue to issue. Its main character, however, is the same. The objective of each issue is also the same; that is, to disseminate a mixture of our past Arabic culture and the modern one in order to benefit the reader and provide him with the things that stimulate his mind and enhance his culture."

Is there a letters-to-the-editor section?

"I publish some letters to al-Manhal, but they are carefully selected. We get many letters in which writers criticize other writers. I never publish malicious letters that create ill feelings, open up wounds, and leave scars. I look for enlightening letters and comments."

What was the price of the magazine when you started, and what is it today?

"At first it cost subscribers one-quarter of a Saudi riyal. In 1936 the riyal was valued at 3.75 to the dollar. Today, al-Manhal costs one riyal—about 22 cents a copy. The magazine is sold entirely by subscription at 12 riyals a year. Printing costs are quite high in Saudi Arabia, and the unit cost of the magazine is one and one-half riyals per copy. That, of course, leaves me with a half-riyal per copy deficit. This is made up through advertising."

Most of the literary magazines in the United States are subsidized by wealthy patrons, by foundations, or by universities. Have you ever had a patron?

"No. There is no such help for the magazine from groups, universities or national institutions. The Government has extended much help to the magazine, foremost of which is free air-mailing privileges inside the country and abroad, placing of ads for some of its Ministries and major branches, and tax exemption for the paper.

"The writers continue to contribute their work in the spirit of the old 'Arab awakening.' They write for the love of writing. We have had contributions from many of the greatest men of letters in the Arab world—all without remuneration. I have mentioned that I once had to write entire issues by myself. Now there is competition to be published and I have a large backlog of contributions from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq. .. ."

We are told that poetry is the most beloved of Arab arts. Has there been any over-all trend in poetry in Saudia Arabia in modern times?

"At the beginning of this century the poetry here was based upon the forms and structure and content of the poems of the ancient days. The language and mode of expression looked back to the beauty and enchantment of the traditional poetry. The subject matter hadn't changed much—love, battles, and the courtly bravery of heroes, for example. But then, a new development began: poetry moved in the direction of politics and sociology and historical comment. During the war between the Hashemite clans and the Saudis, poetry began to take on a strong political flavor. The political poetry, filled with the fervor of Saudi national consolidation, was really remarkable. The poets on both sides also wrote many fine odes. This striving of the poets was as intense as the historic contests between the tribal bards in pre-Islamic times. A newspaper, Bareed al-Hijaz, published the poems written by the poets of the two fighting parties.

"Then King 'Abd al-Aziz completed his conquests and Saudi Arabia was united, and the bird of poetry soared high. When the papers began to be published in the Kingdom during the 1920's the wings of the bird found new strength, for now the young poets gave voice to their thoughts.

"Elsewhere the Arab awakening' was gathering force, and the Arab world began to communicate. The stimulus of personal reaction was generated between men of letters in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. During this time new young Saudi Arab poets appeared on the newly-emerging stage.

"This poetic upsurge started about 30 years ago. The first of the new poets to break away from the fixed style of the ancient poetry lived in the Hijaz. They arose in Mecca and Medina and Jiddah. The flare they lit shone to the south, to 'Asir Province and the city of Jaizan. Young poets arose there to take up the torch. The light shone east into the Najd. There other young poets came forward to carry the torch. Since that time the light has continued to shine in Saudi Arabia's modern poetry."

Who are the poets whose innovations have been outstanding during this period of change?

"In Mecca there are Abdul Wahhab Ashi and Muhammad Sa'id Amoudi. In Medina there are Sayyid Obeid Madani and Hashim Rashid. In Jaizan . .. Sayyid Muhammad Sansousi, who is called the 'Poet of the South.' Also from Jaizan, Muhammad Essa al-'Uqeili. From the Najd there have been Abdulla ibn Idrees, Muhammad ibn Bleihed, Abdulla ibn Khamis and Sa'ad al-Bavvardi. I should also name Khalid al-Faraj, and some others, from the Eastern Province. All of these poets have been published in the newspapers, and some have had collections published."

Has there been any new development in even more recent times? Is there a current trend?

"In Saudi Arabia there is now a considerable friction between the modern poets I have mentioned and an ultramodern group. It is hard to make the differences clear. Let me try to generalize.

"The first modern revisions of 30 years ago were concerned mostly with the content of poetry. There were some subtle changes in form, but the poets preferred to pour new thoughts into old molds. Now this is important: the feeling for rhyme and rhythms was retained. As you may know, it is possible to rhyme dozens of lines upon the same consonance in Arabic. (I am told you cannot do this in English.) Most important of all, the modern poets of 30 years ago preserved the great force and flow of Arab poetic rhythms—the heart of the old Arabic poems.

"By way of contrast, some modern poets encounter such difficulties in the old rhythms and cadences that they are now attempting to write poetry without them."

As a critic and editor, you have seen these changes in the making. How would you evaluate them?

"There is always friction between the old and the new. Fortunately, there is no question as to the permanent value of the ancient poetry—it is, and has been for centuries, part of the Arab heartbeat.

"The modern poetry that began in the 1930's is stronger and more forceful than the new free verse. It stimulates greater response—it truly moves the reader. It wears the robe of tradition and profoundly touches the Arab spirit by means of repeated measure, the pattern of its traditional rhythms, and in the repetition of sounds at the line endings. The free-form poetry has nothing of this quality—this special Arab fire and spirit. It has only scattered images, stumbling dreams, and false ideas in shapeless molds..."

According to a recent study of Arab short stories, there is a movement away from the traditional moral fables to stories that are closer to the daily reality of living. Has this trend affected Saudi short-story writers?

"It is too soon to judge properly. You see, the short story has developed very slowly in Saudi Arabia. It is still mostly a local development. There are good young writers who are evolving their own style. I would mention Muhammad Ali Mughrabi, Muhammad 'Alim al-Afghani, Ahmed Sibaie, Muhammad Sa'id 'Amudi, Muhammad Ameen Yahyah, and Muhammad Zarie 'Aqil.

"There are other outstanding prose writers—novelists, essayists, and so on—who should also be mentioned as outstanding examples in Saudi Arabia of the renaissance in Arab letters: Ahmed Abdul Ghafour Attar, Shalceeb al-Amawi, 'Ubeid Madani, Amen Madani, Hasan Kutbi, 'Abd al-Hameed 'Anbar, 'Abd al-Haq al-Naqshabandi, Muhammad Amin Yahya, Salem Rouehi, Ibrahim Nasir, and Abdul as-Salam Hashim Hafiz."

What about your own writing at present?

"I have just completed an 885-page history of Jiddah, which was commissioned by the Municipality. I had already written histories of Medina and other historical places in the Hijaz, and the biographies of men of letters from this area, so I was entrusted with the task of preparing a modern history of the city and its learned men."

What will you write next?

"Actually, I should like to take a rest from writing—except for the magazine, of course. I have been thinking about getting together a collection of my essays. I have written hundreds, you know. It would be a matter of selection, and would probably require two or three volumes."

Are there any American or English writers who have impressed you?

"Three writers come quickly to mind—Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells. Each of them has impressed me in his own way. I enjoy the wit and sarcasm of Shaw. I have been stimulated by the bright and shining ideas of Wells. And I find that Hemingway has an unusual style—he mixes imagination with fact in such a way that he creates a new picture of life. I have enjoyed others, but those three names come quickly to mind."

Ustadh 'Abd al-Quddoos al-Ansari is a busy man. In addition to his active career as editor and writer he serves in an advisory capacity in the Saudi Arab Government. In order to engage in the conversations reported here he had to set aside time early in the day, in the evening—whenever he could spare the time, sometimes as little as 15 minutes. A good friend, a man of letters, patiently undertook the very difficult task of translating the questions from English to Arabic, and the answers from Arabic to English. At the close of one particularly taxing session, 'Abd al-Quddoos began to speak of the differences and similarities of the poet at work in Saudi Arabia and the United States, creating poems from native materials. His voice rose and fell in measured cadence.

"I believe that poetry flowers from the differences of our countries. In the desert the land is bare; there is no growth. The stars shine clear in the night; the moon is bright, and the barren mountains rise above the long dunes moving under the wind. In the desert the poet's mind and heart are stirred, and his imagination leaps....

"And there is the land where all is fertile—where there are running rivers and waterfalls—where all is green and flowers abound. There, too, the poet's heart is quickened. Such differences are found in our countries. And within each country, too, there are both the flowering earth and the desert....

"In each country the poet's sense grows keen and strong, and poetry yields the nature of the land and the people."

This article appeared on pages 3-7 of the January/February 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1964 images.