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  • Re-Reading the Arab Darwin: The Lewis Affair and Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace of Desire
  • Michael Allan (bio)

On July 19, 1882, a professor of chemistry and geology, Dr. Edwin Lewis, cited the work of Charles Darwin in a commencement address to the graduating class of medical students at the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut. His reference was part of a talk entitled al-Ma‘rifah wa-l-‘ilm wa-l-ḥikmah (Knowledge, Science, and Wisdom) and centered more broadly on modern science and its relation to knowledge than on any lengthy exploration of Darwin’s theories.1 Nonetheless, in the years to come, this brief allusion ignited an intense series of debates that played out in academic journals, the popular press, and scholarly circles across the Arab world. In most of these discussions what was at stake was not merely Darwin’s propositions regarding the origin of man, but key epistemological assumptions about the boundaries of human reason and the explanatory force of empirical science. For Lewis, Darwin’s theories were important to an argument for the pursuit of scientific knowledge and, in his estimation, especially well suited to the graduating class. For the director of the College and others in the audience, the speech was heard as wholly inappropriate. The ensuing controversy sparked what would come to be known as the Lewis Affair and threatened to dissolve the Syrian Protestant College entirely.

Darwin’s resonance was by no means limited to the Syrian Protestant College. In 1957, when the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz published the second volume of his Cairo Trilogy, Qasr al-shawq (Palace of Desire), he devoted a chapter to a discussion of Darwin.2 The Trilogy, overall, becomes the site in [End Page 319] which a number of critical philosophical and historical issues are folded into the imagined world of a middle-class Cairene family, whose conflicts, tensions, and triumphs constitute the drama that animates the three volumes of this now canonical piece of modern Arabic prose. Collectively the volumes trace the story of a family patriarch, Sayyid Ahmad ‘Abd al-Jawad, his wife, Amina, his daughters Khadija and ‘A’isha, and his three sons, Yasin, Fahmy, and Kamal.3 This robust narrative spans a period from 1917–44, gesturing throughout to a number of subplots based roughly around three generations of national history: the first, the Wafdist generation of 1919, the second, a transition between the wars, and the third, marked by tensions between socialism and Muslim activism.4 In its comprehensive span of material, the Trilogy serves as a cornerstone of modern Arabic literature: as Hilary Kilpatrick claims, “In its length and the scale of its conception the ‘Trilogy’ far surpasses any previous Egyptian novel; indeed, in its own genre it has remrained unequalled.”5

Although a seemingly minimal incident in the context of Mahfouz’s lengthy novel, the discussion of Darwin not only crystallizes a number of issues in the family—regarding religion, authority, and the role of education—but it also stages a problem of reading at the heart of this realist text. In this particular chapter, the youngest son, Kamal, publishes an article on the work of Darwin and is summoned for a discussion with his parents. For his father, al-Sayyid Ahmad, the matter is one of reprimanding his son and cautioning him against the pursuit of such atheistic thoughts, and for his mother, Amina, the matter is one of asserting the fundamental truth of the Qur’an, a model of scholarship consistent with the grandfather’s pursuits. In the contours of the discussion, the reader is offered both an account of what is said between family members and the terms in which they variously hear and understand one another. As a novel (as against a philosophical argument), the intricacies of the passage frame the issue less as a matter of right and wrong than as the grounds upon which right and wrong are felt. The chapter adeptly animates conflicts at play between one mode of judgment and another.

With its careful construction of characters and sentiment, Mahfouz’s chapter appears to offer us what the historical material on the Lewis Affair does not. Whereas the Lewis Affair...


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pp. 319-340
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