The prolific writer and influential public intellectual Taha Hussein, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature fourteen times, was a member of Egyptian PEN from the 1930s and 1950s.
Hussein wrote many novels and essays, including his autobiography Al-Ayyam which was published in English in 1932 as An Egyptian Childhood and was also a distinguished academic, working as a professor of history at Cairo University from 1919. He experienced censorship throughout his life. His literary critical book, On Pre-Islamic Poetry, which was published in 1926, was banned because it suggested that the Qur’an might not be seen as an objective source of history.
Throughout his life, he combined his literary interests with political and diplomatic roles, and was a fierce supporter of the Egyptian revolution in 1952, Arab unity and social reform. Prior to the Revolution, Hussein was censored again when he found himself at odds with the Egyptian government. Stories he had published in the periodical Katib al-Masri came out as a book, The Sufferers, in 1947. The book was banned by the government. It was immediately published in Lebanon, and smuggled back to Egyptian readers from there and only became available in Egypt after the Revolution.
Responding to the banning of his book he was insightful about the perils of censorship: ‘I try to comprehend the source of the fear that turned the government against this book, causing it to deprive it of life in Egypt, and I am unable to understand.’ Government ‘fear’, he stated, ‘is the pitfall of oppression’. He also spoke of how censorship had stimulated new forms of literary expression, including the use of ambiguity, symbols, riddles, and allusions in Egyptian literature.
He became minister of Education in 1950 and he represented the Egyptian PEN centre at the UNESCO International Conference of Artists held in Venice in 1952.
Egyptian PEN was founded in 1934, and was resurrected in 1945, a key moment in the history of PEN’s global expansion, particularly in the Middle East, with PEN Lebanon also being created just after the Second World War. Hussein was an important figure in the early years of the centre, using his global reputation to promote Egyptian PEN on the world stage.
In 1934, he attended the inauguration of the Egyptian PEN centre at the League of Nations Restaurant, Sharia Maghrabi. However, it was at the 1952 UNESCO Conference brought together creative artists, including Henry Moore representing the world of sculpture, and Lucio Costa representing architecture that he made a mark. The conference issued declarations on artistic rights against discrimination on the grounds of ‘political convictions’. But there were also fierce debates about the role of the State with regard to the arts.
Hussein, representing PEN, delivered an important statement on ‘The Writer in the World Today’. Intervening in the heated debate about government responsibilities towards and power over writers, he argued that writers should not be maintained financially by the government. Literary writing is a ‘disinterested, uncompromising activity of a free mind.’ He was ‘bitterly opposed to State and private patronage which endangers the writer’s freedom. A writer, then should have a profession as ‘far removed from the writer’s personal tastes the better.’ The writer’s duty, he concluded ‘is to preserve his integrity’. In the context of the cultural cold war in the early 1950s, the issue of State patronage was a very live one. While both the Soviets and the US ploughed enormous state subsidies into the arts, ‘disinterested’ literary freedom was often politicised as being pro-Western and anti-Soviet . Yet Hussein’s anti-state individualism, a product of his long experience at the hands of state censors, was not reducible to an anti-Soviet cultural politics.
In 1973 he received the United Nations Human Rights award.