This morning brought news of 2 bombings in Tanta and Alexandria. The night before an obituary of Pierre Cachia appeared in my inbox. I don’t know what to say about the terrible events in Egypt. It is very hard to say anything now. I do have some thoughts to write about Pierre Cachia, the great scholar of Arabic literature.
Born in Egypt in 1921, he passed away aged 96 on 1st April. He taught a lot of people who now work in Modern Arabic Literature, including Wen-Chin Ouyang, who wrote his obituary that was send round an Arabic Literature listserv. Personally, I was never taught by him but when I was an MA student at Columbia he agreed to meet me to talk about Ancient Greek theatre in modern Egypt. What was meant to be a quick meeting turned into over 2 hours in his apartment, in which he even took a break to make me a delicious Turkish coffee. The secret, apparently, is using Yemeni beans. I saw very briefly the generous spirit that his students talk about.
It is through he writing that I knew him most. His work on modern Arabic literature was instrumental in promoting study of the subject in the anglophone world. When he first published a book on Taha Hussein, one of the most important writers in modern Arabic literature, in 1956 it was in a run of 500 copies.
Cachia later said that the publishers were so unprepared for Arabic that he had to write all the quotes in his own handwriting, which were then reproduced in the book.
After this book, Cachia kept publishing books on Arabic literature as the interest in . What separates them from many other academic works on the subject, is that they are such a pleasure to read. Cachia manages the extremely difficult task of writing with a sense of humour without compromising on the point he wants to make or sounding awkward. One particular favourite of mine is his description of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s attitude to Gamal Abdel Nasser after the 1960s and his attempts to dial back much of what he said:
“It is not difficult to see the source of the bitterness of his declining years; himself a knight of unsullied purity, he is wringing his hands because the dragon has disregarded his assurance that it would be much more genteel not to ravish maidens.”
I will always remember, too, his description of the process of digitising printed texts:
In case you didn’t realise, I love reading his books.
One particular aspect of Arabic literature that Cachia was always keen to promote was the often overlooked colloquial genres, such as balladeers and epic cycles. As with everything, his books manage to take that literature seriously without being stagnant and to make it appealing, without romanticising. These passages from Popular Narrative Ballads of Modern Egypt, which tell the life stories of balladeers show some of this.
Here is one on Cachia conversations with a singer calledʾAbū Dhrāʿ:
Here is another section on a female singer:
In spite of his deep knowledge and experience in the subject and the huge amount of work that he put in to his writing, Cachia also always manages to be modest about his writing. In his writing, as in his teaching life, he also acknowledges that he alone cannot create a full picture of everything and that scholarship, as a discipline, must always involve others. Here is a small paragraph from the same book:
If I ever manage to go into the business of academia, I could only hope to write half as well as Cachia.
Tributes have and will be written by those much closer to and much more affected by Pierre Cachia but, of any scholars I have read, he is probably the one who makes me feel most enthused about the subject.
His family have set up a justgiving page to support a new generation of Arabic literature: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/Cachia