I was born and grew up in Egypt as a British (colonial) subject. This made me part of the privileged European community which–especially in its largest concentrations in Alexandria and Cairo–could function largely in isolation from Egyptian society. Not so my own family: my father’s occupation as a bank official entailed residence in provincial towns where European families were counted by the tens rather than by the thousands, and by disposition both he and even more my mother were open to friendly relations with Egyptians; and as far as I have been able to ascertain they were the very first foreigners to decide that their sons should attend Egyptian schools where Arabic was the medium of instruction.
This did not shatter all barriers. When later I wrote a memoir combining my mother’s reminiscences with an account of my own intellectual formation, the title I gave it was Landlocked Islands (American University in Cairo Press, 1999), for my home language and cultural leanings were French, and I was well aware that although we had daily, casual and good-natured contacts with Egyptians, there were unmapped gulfs between us. But what is significant in the present context is that I was at ease with my friends’ literary perceptions, and for leisurely reading I turned as comfortably to a book of Arabic fiction as I might to a collection of French poetry.
Yet my encounter with the local folk literature in my late teens was a discovery for me, for it had never commanded attention or respect from the foreign community or from the educated city-dwelling Egyptians with whom I associated. Certainly, none of my teachers had ever had a word to breathe about it. To me it now was a treasure house of quaint perceptions, startling valuations, novel twists of expression. I took to travelling to saints’ festivals, haunting tiny holes in the wall that functioned as bookshops in the poorer quarters of Cairo, persuading singers to dictate their lyrics to me. And I took notes.
Then, abruptly, the Second World War snatched me away from all this. I served– mainly with a Scottish division–in North Africa and Italy, and when that was over, as soon as I had saved enough money, I headed for the University of Edinburgh to work for a PhD. This was to launch me into a long teaching career first in Edinburgh, then in Columbia University.
There I first had to get acquainted with European Orientalism before it acquired a bad name. Its pioneers had set about uncovering the character and achievements of the Arab-Islamic civilisation in its heyday; they acquainted themselves with classical Arabic and delved into the writings of pre-fifteenth-century Arab thinkers and scholars. By what they achieved in the field they chose for themselves I was