A major exception to this, however, was the life of the writer, playright, linguist, satirist, poet, journalist, publisher, political cartoonist, religious critic and revolutionary James (Ya'Qub) Sanua, known by his nickname "Abu Naddara" the man with the eyeglasses, and sometimes by the title "The Egyptian Moliere." Sanua laid the foundation of the modern Egyptian theater, a forerunner to its well-known film industry in which, scholars have noted, Jews were well represented. He was highly criticized for daring to write his 32 plays in the colloquial, rather than traditional classical; he championed the common people and did not hesitate to write criticisms of Egypt's upper class and of the policies of its ruler, the Khedive Ismail (1830-1895). The corrupt and extravagant Khedive, Sanua charged, was despoiling their beloved country and all but selling it into the hands of the British, or "perfide Albion" as he sometimes called them. Sanua's political activities eventually brought upon him two assasination attempts by the Khedive's men and permanent exile to Paris in 1878.
" Abu Naddara" was born in Caïro to a well-connected Italian Sephardic family. He was raised as a Jew by his father Raphael Sanua, who had been born in Italy and ironically went on to become a valued advisor to the Egyptian royal family. In addition to his Jewish upbringing and finency in eight languages, Abu Naddara became so well-versed in the Koran and Islamic lore that he earned himself the title "sheikh", a factor which led to rumors of his conversion to Islam and no doubt eased his way in the surrounding Muslim world. As a youngster he was sent, at the Prince's expense to study in Leghorn, Italy, where he remained for three years and had his first taste of modern nationalism through exposure to the Italian Risorgimento ( " resurgence"). This movement, led by such famed leaders as Mazzini and Garibaldi, from approximately 1815 to 1870 aimed for the unification of a fragmented Italy and its liberation from foreign rule. Egypt itself, from the 1850s onward, was experiencing the gradual encroachment of Great Britian (it formally occupied the country in 1882) and, like many, Abu Naddara was disturbed by these developments. When he returned to Egypt, he brought the ideals of nationalist aspiration with him. In 1863 he was appointed as professor at Cairo's Polytechnic School. There, he came in close contact with a group of students of similiar nationalist tendencies who would eventually go on to serve as high officers in the Egyptian army. Among them was named Urabi Pacha, who 18 years later went on to stage a rebellion against the Khedive and the British forces in Egypt. The revolution was squelched, however, and in 1881 the former student was exiled by the British to the Seychelle Islands. Abu Naddara himself was never a military figure; his nationalist battles were fought on the grounds of culture, language and writing. His major contribution to Arabic literature was the innovation of writing in common, colloquial Arabic, which had tremendous appeal to the Egyptian masses. Most writing at that time was in classical Arabic, which could only be understood by the very well-educated. Criticism and parody of the Khedive and of the inequalities of Egyptian life were a common theme in his 32 plays, some of them adapted directly from the work of the great French playright Moliere ( 1622-1673 ). Aside from authoring the plays, Abu Naddara produced and eventually served as an actor in them. Manuscripts of these plays have become scattered over time and none have ever been translated into any other language. Yet they continue to arouse interest as an important part of modern Egypt's cultural history and one play was even revived and performed in Cairo in recent years. In their own day, the parody and biting satire presented to eager audiances drew the attention of the Khedive who, considering the plays subversive, forced the theater to close its doors in 1872. The termination of these unorthodox thespian activities, however, did not squelch Abu Nadarra's revolutionary tendencies; in fact, it intensified them. With no theater left to run, he fell into collaboration with other similar-minded revolutionaries, namely Jamal al-Dinal Afghani and Mohammad Abdou. The three launched a newspaper. Since Egyptians are fond of nicknames and Sanua had long since come to be known by his own, "Abu Naddara" (the man who wears glasses), he decided to give the newspaper his name. Like his plays, the newspaper articles were written in colloquial Arabic and filled with satire, parody, and expressions of Egyptian nationalist patriotism; "Egypt for the Egyptians" was a common slogan, and the call for social reform was a persistent one. The humor was accompanied by numerous cartoons and caricatures of popular figures, which Naddara drew himself. After 15 issues once more Abu Naddara's work drew the attention of the Khedive who was not amused by this continued agitation. After two assassination attempts by the Khedive's men, Abu Naddara was formally expelled from Egypt on June 22, 1878. He continued to write until the end of his life along similar themes from wherever he happened to find himself. He earned his living lectures and writing articles and columns for the world press. The exile was well-received in France, Great Britain's major rival, and by 1901 Abu Naddara had made Paris and the French language his home. From a distance he pursued his anti-Khedive, anti-British, pro-Egyptian nationalism, ans social reform campaign with undiminished vigor using such techniques as imaginary dialogues, letters and sketches. The writting and newspapers were smuggled into Egypt where they were widely appreaciated in "enlightened" circles. Abu Naddara also traveled widely in the Ottoman world and for a time became a spokesman for France in her competition against British imperial ambitions. Upon his return from one of these trips, he was received by the French President Sadi Carnot (1837-1894). He visited Turkey twice and was decorated by Sultan Adbel Hamid (1842-1918). In 1900, the Shah of Persia conferred upon him the title, Chaer-el-Molk (poet of the Empire). While Sanua sought Turkey's support for the desirability of an evacuation of the British forces from Egypt, the Sultan was interested in Sanua's contribution in fostering a Pan-Islamic plan since this might assist to drive the British out. Thus he tried to bring together the two governments in a coordinated effort against Britain.
During the last years of his life, he became disillusioned with France with the signing of the "Anglo-French entente" in 1904 by mutual arrangement, France would not interfere with Britian's handling Egypt. Another source of his frustration was the " Young Turk" revolution of 1908, which aimed to sweep away the imperial cobwebs and which reverberated among the entire Ottoman world. Its leaders showed no interest in the nationalist aspirations of the Egyptians. These two discouraging developments helped lead the almost 70 year old journalist to retire from political life, but they could not erase the contribution he had made to Egypt's movement for political independance. Abu Naddara died in 1912, survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, and was ried in the Jewish cemetery of Montparnasse where his tombstone can still be found today. His daughter, later Mme. Louli Sanua-Milhaud, went on to become a prominent French suffragette and founder of a girl's school in Paris. He has been the subject of a number of scholarly studies and a collected volume of his plays was published in Beirut in 1963.
Victor D. Sanua Ph.D. Research Professor in the Departement of Psychology,
St. John's University.
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