A Child From The Village by Sayyid Qutb, edited, translated, and with an introduction by John Calvert and William Shepard (Middle East Literature in Translation: Syracuse University Press) Although the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb is not a household name in the United States, he is well known throughout the Islamic World as a seminal thinker in the Islamist movement, influential as far away as Pakistan and Malaysia. A member of the Islamic Brotherhood, he was jailed by Gamal Abdul Nasser's government as early as 1954. He became one of the most uncompromising voices of the movement we now call Islamism and is best known perhaps for his book, Ma'lam fi al-tariq (Milestones, 1965), after publication of which he was accused of conspiring against Egyptian president Nasser and arrested. He was executed in 1966.
This memoir tells of Qutb's childhood in the village of Musha in Upper Egypt. Qutb documents the era between 1912 and 1918, a time immensely influencial in the creation of modern Egypt. Written with much tenderness toward childhood memories, it has become a classic in modern Arabic autobiography. Qutb offers a clear picture of Egyptian village life in the early twentieth century, its customs and lore, educational system, religious festivals, relations with the central government, and the struggle to modernize and retain its identity. In their rendering of the work into English, translators John Calvert and William Shepard capture the beauty and intensity of Qutb's prose.
A Child from the Village was written just prior to Qutb's conversion to the Islamist cause and reflects his concerns for social justice. Interest in Qutb's writing has increased in the West since Islamism has emerged as a power on the world scene.
message. Despite its tone of nostalgia, A Child from the Village paints a picture of the Egyptian countryside that is not entirely happy. The specter of peasant indebtedness and loss of land haunts the pages of the autobiography, as does disease caused by unhygienic conditions and the peasants' recourse to folk remedies and barber-surgeons rather than scientifically trained physicians. The joys of Ramadan, birth ceremonies, and other festive occasions are juxtaposed to death, tragedy, and the laments of women whose families patiently endure hard lives. Captives of poverty and ignorance, the peasants of Qutb's autobiography toil endlessly in their fields with little expectation that their lives will improve. They are the victims of the few large landowners and politicians who controlled Egypt's wealth. According to Tetz Rooke, who examined a wide range of Arabic childhood autobiographies, the critical portrayal of rural life found A Child from the Village represents a "break with the tendency towards pastoral idealization which dominated much of the first Egyptian creative writing concerned with country life." lt may thus be seen as a "precursor of the later Egyptian novel that embraces the subject of the village with a true-to-life, descriptive intent such as al-Ard [The earth, 1953] by 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi (1920-1987)."4 In the context of the mid-1940s, Qutb's book manifests a growing awareness among Egypt's intelligentsia of socioeconomic issues. It was during this period, for example, that dissident elements within the Wafd founded the Wafdist Vanguard in order to influence the party leadership in a leftist direction.
Implicitly and sometimes explicitly in the book, Qutb advocates the need for reform and modernization at the village level. Qutb believed that the introduction of modern schooling in Musha was a step in the right direction, but he also believed that there was need for many more improvements, especially in the areas of land reform and health care. In his view, the Egyptian government was the obvious agent to undertake the necessary reforms, but too often the state's ameliorative efforts were imposed with a heavy hand or else were ill conceived. Qutb provides a harrowing account of a government operation, probably staged shortly after World War I, to confiscate all weapons belonging to the villagers of Asyut Province as a precondition for its integration into the structure of the State on a more thorough basis. He describes how soldiers, having surrounded the village, brutally interrogated the peasants, at one point firing bullets over the heads of the assembled village elders. Events such as this reinforced the peasants' traditional distrust of a governmental authority that in the past periodically subjected them to corvée labor. Elsewhere in the book, Qutb documents, sometimes with humor, the unwelcome and often inexpert intrusions of various government officials into the affairs of the community. We are introduced to medical officials, coroners, judges, and others, all of whom attempt to order and police the countryside in ways that make sense to the State but not to the villagers. In much the same way as the Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim's novella Diary of a Country Prosecutor, A Child from the Village documents the gulf in understanding that existed between urban officialdom and the dwellers of the countryside, the difference being that in Qutb's book we are provided with the perspective of the peas-ants rather than that of a government official. Qutb appears to argue that if modernization in Egypt's countryside is to be effective, it must take into account the sensibilities and social and economic realities of its inhabitants.
Within two years of the publication of A Child from the Village, Qutb adopted the Islamist position upon which his fame rests. Whatever the exact reasons for his ideological change, the significant point is that Qutb's early Islamist writings display many of the same basic concerns for social justice and national community that figure in his secular writings, including A Child from the Village. A discussion of the ways in which Qutb grafted the symbols and doctrines of the Qur'an is beyond the scope of this introduction. What can be said is that A Child from the Village illuminates an important element of the context out of which Qutb's Islamism emerged.
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