"Egypt For The Egyptians"

The Story of Abu Naddara (James Sanua) 1839-1912

A Jewish Egyptian Patriot

By Victor D. Sanua, Ph.D

While it is well known among scholars that Jews made many significant contributions to the commercial, industrial and intellectual development of modern Egypt, very few of them were active in the political life of the country. As is common in Jewish history, they frequently did not feel themselves to be a full part of the land, for Jews who had lived in Egypt for centuries existed largely in self governing communities. By the 1900s, the majority of Jews were those who had arrived in the wake of opportunities opened by the 1870s construction of the Suez Canal and thus had relatively shallow roots in the country. A specific attraction for these immigrants was the so called "Capitulations" laws, which permitted these Jews to keep a European nationality and be subject only to foreign courts. Under such circumstances, political activity among the native population appeared either superfluous or outright dangerous.

A major exception to this, however, was the life of the writer, playwright, 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 Arabi 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 assassination attempts by the Khedive's men and permanent exile to Paris in 1878.

"Abu Naddara" was born in Cairo 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 fluency 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 Britain (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.

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 playwright Moliere (1622-1673).

Abu Naddara was formally expelled from Egypt on June 22, 1878 and he became a resident and a great admirer of France. He continued to write until the end of his life along similar themes from wherever he happened to find himself. He earned his living by giving lectures and writing articles and columns for the world press.

He visited Turkey twice and was decorated by Sultan Abdel Hamid (1842-1918). In 1900, the Shah of Persia conferred upon him the title, Chaer-el-Molk (Poet of the Empire). While Sanua sought Turkish 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, France and Turkey, 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 where, by mutual arrangement, France would not interfere with Britain's handling of 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 independence.

Abu Naddara died in 1912..... a collected volume of his plays was published in Beirut in 1963.


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