Mahmud Sami al-Barudi: Book Review

mahmud-samiMahmud Sami al-Barudi: Reconfiguring Society and the Self. By Terri DeYoung. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015. Pp. xi, 423, with bibliography, notes and index. $49.95 (cloth). ISBN: 9780815633914.

Terri DeYoung’s book discusses al-Barudi’s poetry and how it was shaped by his life. The book is divided by periods, based on the predominant styles of his poetry. Al-Barudi lived from 1839 to 1904. He was orphaned at the age of seven. He studied Islamic law and theology at al-Azhar, and studied poetry with an uncle, then continued studying at the Military Academy, which conducted classes in Turkish. In 1857, he found a position in the Ottoman Foreign Office in Istanbul. He became friends with al-Marsafi. The two men would later work together in Cairo. Al-Barudi continued to study classical Arabic poetry and ethics. During this period, his poetry mirrored classical themes and forms.

In 1863, once Ismail became Khedive, al-Barudi returned to Cairo and sought a career as a poet-courtier. His poetry became more individualistic, adapting some forms and tropes of classical poetry to fit current situations, and abandoning those that did not. He was not as successful a courtier as some other poets, and apparently the court did not meet his ethical expectations. He became an officer in the Army and travelled to England and France. He began to include Western values in his poems, gradually redefining them as Egyptian values. During this time, his poems show influences of the poetry of Abu Nuwas, al-Hamdani, Sayf al-Dawlah, and al-Buhturi.

Al-Barudi was assigned to Crete from 1866 to 1867 to help put down a rebellion. During this period, his poetry was of two types. One type described nature, and was attractive to later poets, such as Khalil Mutran, Shukri, and al-ʿAqqad, all of whom were influenced by European Romantic poets and their descriptive poetry. Al-Barudi also wrote political poetry, with a certain amount of influence from al-Mutanabbi. With the prospect of his upcoming marriage, he also wrote some ghazals.

Returning to Cairo in 1867, al-Barudi, now influential as a poet, began to hold a literary salon for other poets and friends. Al-Marsafi, whom he had met in Istanbul, was publishing Rawdat al-madaris, a journal that was required reading for educators and students. It regularly published al-Barudi’s poems. Al-Barudi also worked in the government. He held a series of political positions, including that of Minister of Education and Charitable Endowments and later, Minister of War. He was dismissed briefly in 1881, brought back as the Minister of War, then appointed Prime Minister. He worked with the Delegate Assembly to pass a Basic Law in early 1882, on which a new government would be based. Due to his objection to a minor incident of punishment in the Army, he resigned. He was close friends with Muhammad ʿAbduh and Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani, and supported efforts to limit foreign influence in the government. Particularly from 1873, al-Barudi’s poetry reflected Egypt as the beloved. It included connotations, phrasings, and symbols that were later adopted by others to support nationalism and political activities demanding an independent Egyptian government.

The British invaded Egypt in September 1882 and captured local political leaders, including al-Barudi. Most were sentenced to exile in Ceylon. Al-Barudi remained in Ceylon from 1883 to 1899. He wrote some new poetry, but also compiled and edited his Diwan. He was allowed to return to Egypt in 1899 and lived another five years. During his absence, newspapers had proliferated. When he returned, younger poets published in newspapers and for the general populace rather than, as al-Barudi had done, writing for a small audience in the upper levels of society. Al-Barudi’s poetry was still highly respected, but was no longer on the cutting edge.

The significance of this book is that al-Barudi, who wrote mostly in the 1800s, served as a bridge between classical and modern Arabic poetry, both by using traditional descriptions and motifs to describe modern situations and oppositions, and by developing new terminology. His use of language was adopted for both political and literary uses. This book is the first extensive work in English solely on al-Barudi. Generally, the study of modern Arabic literature, especially in university classes, has started in the early twentieth century because there were not enough publications in English on earlier years. This work is a significant step towards opening up the 19th century to those who are not fluent in Arabic. In addition, the bibliographic citations are done in a way that would aid further study of the period. When a name or event is introduced, citations provide sources that not only give a brief identification, but also lead a researcher far enough to facilitate further investigation. The book is suitable for undergraduate and graduate students. I would highly recommend this work.

Mary St. Germain
University of Washington