Forty days have passed since the death of Yunan Labib Rizq, professor of contemporary history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre. Dr Rizq’s weekly page in Al-Ahram, entitled A Diwan of Contemporary Life, presented Egyptian history throughout the past 100 years using as his source the files and reports of the Cairo daily Al-Ahram during that period, was a masterpiece of history art and was eagerly awaited by readers every Thursday. He magnificently blended the arts of journalism and historical commentary to tackle all the detailed memoirs and articles, presenting the reader with a fine, delectable record of history.
Yunan Labib Rizq was born on 27 October 1933 and graduated with a degree in history from Ain-Shams University in 1955, receiving a doctorate from the same university in 1967. The author of 40 books on the history and social life of pre-1952 revolutionary Egypt, Dr Rizq was awarded the State Appreciation Prize in social sciences in 1995, the award of the Arab Thought Organisation in 2002, and the Mubarak Award in social sciences in 2004.
Layers of history
In the 1980s Dr Rizq played an important role in the recovery of the Sinai region of Taba when, as a member of the arbitration committee between Egypt and Israel, he presented documents and photographs proving that Taba was a pure Egyptian village. He was also on the Egyptian delegation to the Madrid Conference in 1990 and in negotiations with Sudan in 1992-1993 over another disputed area, that of Halayeb on the Egypt-Sudan border. Dr Rizq was a member of the Shura Council, the Supreme Council of the Press, the Arab Historians’ Union and the Egyptian Association for Historical Studies.
Dr Rizq refused to ‘religionise’ the history of Egypt or divide it into Coptic and Islamic eras. In an interview with the British Middle East magazine, he explained: “The Egyptian identity is constituted of accumulated layers which could never be set apart. It is very hard to separate the Pharaonic period from the next Arab omnipotence or the modern period. They are all the outcome of a single historical movement.” Dr Rizq went on to say that he believed history could be divided into three periods: the old, the middle and the modern. He ardently defended the State as a civil entity and fought against all attempts to regard it as a religious entity, bearing into consideration that Egypt had been a civil country for more than two centuries. “Religion is one of the factors of making history but not the essence of history,” Dr Rizq said.
Dr Rizq argued that Egypt’s contemporary history began with Muhammad Ali’s ruling Egypt in 1805, and he rejected those historians who attributed Egypt’s modernisation to Ottoman rule, which began in Egypt in 1517, because this period, he said, was more akin to mediaeval times. He denounced theories that referred to the French Occupation as the spark of modern society, and said a nation could not be said to begin a period of modernisation or reform under an occupational context.
Points of view
Commenting on the hijab (head scarf) issue in which a public outcry arose against Culture Minister Farouk Hosni in 2006 for daring to criticise hijab, Dr Rizq wrote an article entitled Death to Qassem Amin … Death to Hoda Shaarawi. Amin and Shaarawi spearheaded the women liberation movement during the early 20th century. Rizq denounced the censure of personal opinion and criticised Parliament for condemning Hosni’s views. He stressed that it was the right of any person, minister be it or doorman, to express his view point on any matter regarding society. It was the mission of the Egyptian parliament, he wrote, to defend society and protect it from reactionary currents and ultra-conservative streams (including Wahabi influences) imported from neighbouring countries.
Dr Rizq’s difference in opinion with prominent geographer Gamal Hemdan, on the other hand, was extremely courteous. He criticised Dr Hemdan’s magnum opus The Egyptian Personality, where the author described the Egyptian personality as “constant and perpetual” because the geography of Egypt retained the same properties throughout the ages. Dr Rizq, however, argued that Hemdan’s viewpoint disregarded the ever-changing nature of mankind and that history is liable to constant change; and the Egyptian personality therefore cannot be deemed fixed over successive generations.