Childhood revisited

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

There are different ways to read Sayyid Qutb’s autobiography A Child from the Village. One can simply view it as an intimate document of rural life at the turn of the 20th century or as data providing clues to the understanding of Qutb’s eventual adoption of the radical Islamic activism that he later became famous for and which eventually led to his execution in 1966.

Qutb had originally been considered part of the Egyptian literary elite, focusing on education and social matters. His autobiography was written just before his espousal of extremism and as a treatise on Egyptian rural it is remarkably rich and insightful.The ‘pictures’ of village life are woven through the memories of Qutb, but events are analyzed through a child’s perceptions, which significantly enhances the book’s charm and humor.

Qutb details every aspect of rural life from the different methods of baking bread to the primitive latrine and waste disposal system.Although the village is starting to experience signs of modernity in the areas of medicine and education, progress is slow because the community appears to be paralyzed by ‘fear.’ Villagers young and old are possessed by fears largely based on superstition and myths.Several chapters are titled by the persons who invoke fear, ‘the Magzub’ (an individual deemed to be in a state of divine attraction).’The Local Doctor’ a terrifying figure for the village children. ‘The Afarit’, who appear in a multitude of personas from ‘black cats’ to ‘jinn.’ Qutb recalls how any unfortunate event was attributed to the working of ‘the Afarit.’ The death of his baby brother was considered the work of a ‘quarina’ (female jinn) who strangled him. It was only later that he recognized that his sibling died of tetanus and he admits that it took an enlightened headmaster to help him to conquer his deepest fears. Nevertheless he believes that “the Afarit that inhabited his mind in childhood and youth will inhabit his imagination forever.

Superstition is inextricably linked with religion and folklore. A system of hierarchy existed in the village with the local sheikh or ‘wali’ at the top of the heap and villagers placed great belief in his healing powers. Even as a young child Qutb could sense the gullibility of those around him and the abuse of their naivety by the sheikh. He also had similar disdain for the Qur’an reciters who held a privileged position in the community because they had the ‘baraka’ or blessings, of God. Constantly being called upon to recite Qur’an in homes throughout the year, they were extremely well fed and therefore subject to great envy. However the young Qutb was astute enough to recognize that they were often crude, greedy and lax in their duties.

The author grew up feeling privileged as the son of a relatively well-to-do respected member of the community.Wanting to improve their son’s status, his parents enrolled him in a ‘modern’ primary school rather than the traditional ‘kuttab.’ His father was considered to be a progressive thinker who would call the local doctor rather than resort to folk remedies or barbaric practices of the village. He was a member of the Nationalist Party and politics were engrained in his son’s consciousness at an early age. His mother sensed his academic prowess and from a young age she pressured to pursue his studies beyond the parameters of his society.

The young child was proud of his remarkable reading abilities which he used to help others, thereby increasing his fame among the locals.What clearly set Qutb apart from his peers was not just his intelligence but his heightened sense of social awareness. He is painfully alert to injustices around him.The government pressurized the ‘umdas’ or mayors, who in turn abused the villagers who often took advantage of the ‘foreigners’ (Nubians) that they employed to help with the harvest. He felt great empathy for these impoverished migrant workers whom he befriended and tried his best to assist. Nevertheless he is overwhelmed by feelings of guilt.

“He is a robber. He has robbed these ‘foreigners’ and many millions like them who create the wealth of the Nile Valley yet go hungry .

Apart from an acutely heightened sense of social injustice there is little evidence in his writing to portend to his future in radical Islam. In fact it is almost impossible to reconcile the empathetic gentle child with the dangerous activist he became. One can only assume that events later on in his life such as years of imprisonment and torture ignited the ferocious doctrine for which he became renowned.

The strength of A Child from the Village undoubtedly lies in its vivid picture of rural life.Those familiar with Egyptian villages will be struck by the incredible lack of social and political development that has taken place in a hundred years and the inflexible adherence to gossip and folklore.

During Qutb’s youth Egyptians were experiencing revolutionary Nationalistic fervor somewhat similar to the Democratic zeal being currently articulated. The grievances and feelings of resentment expressed towards the British back then simply appear to have shifted towards the government and National Democratic Party today.

However, it’s possible that Qutab was not deliberating setting out a social treatise. He simply wanted to ‘give the new generation a picture of what is good and what is bad in our nation’s countryside’, in the hope that they would have ‘an opinion as to what should remain and what should be discarded.’

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