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An Arab Nationalist Survival against All Odds: Muhammad ‘Ali Eltaher

(The following is a post by Nawal Kawar, Arab World Specialist, Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Eltaher in his youth Cairo – May 5, 1912. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

Eltaher’s old office on ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Street in Cairo in 1939. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

The aim of this post is to introduce the reader to a recently acquired multi-format collection comprised of over 2,000 items including books, photos, newspapers, and correspondence, documenting the history of the Arab world from the 1930s to 1974. This collection was acquired from Muhammad ‘Ali Eltaher’s son, Hassan Eltaher, an author and researcher who also wrote about the events that took place during his father’s lifetime.

Muhammad ‘Ali Eltaher, was born in 1896 in Palestine in the city of Nablus, the ancient Roman town of Flavia Neapolis where he attended a Quranic school. At the age of 16 he decided to leave for Egypt and traveled to Port Said from Jaffa in March 1912 in a fisherman’s boat. He then moved to Cairo where he rented a small two bedroom apartment in the Shubrah neighborhood. In order to make ends meet, Eltaher established a small business importing olive oil from his native town Nablus, in the al-Husayn neighborhood of Cairo. Soon enough, the store became a meeting place for Egyptian nationalists and their counterparts who had sought refuge in Egypt from various parts of the Arab and Islamic world occupied by European colonial powers.

Eltaher’s first newspaper: Al-Shura. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

As an early Arab nationalist, Eltaher began writing about Greater Syria’s grievances during World War I, and criticizing the Sykes-Picot Agreement by means of which Britain and France had divided Greater Syria between themselves. As a result, Eltaher was first imprisoned in Alexandria, then at Giza near Cairo, and finally released from prison in 1917. He decided to continue living in Egypt, and utilizing his writing skills to publicize the Arab nationalist cause on the heels of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Eventually, Eltaher obtained a license and began publishing his weekly newspaper, Al-Shura (Consultation) in Cairo on October 22, 1924. It was described as “a newspaper dealing with Arab issues and oppressed countries,” according to Hassan Eltaher.

Tea party held on December 2, 1928 in honor of the fifth anniversary of the publication of Eltaher’s newspaper Al-Shura. The reception was attended by a large number of journalists, literary figures, as well as Egyptian and Syrian writers (i.e. from Greater Syria).
© Badr Photographers, used with permission.

Al-Shura published news received from Arab and Muslim countries about the colonial powers’ activities. It became the voice of the Arab nationalist movement in the Mashriq (the Near East) and the Maghrib (North Africa), as well as for Muslims in India, Indonesia, and Africa, including the Sudan and the island of Zanzibar.

Eltaher’s world-wide publication prompted the Egyptian Wafd Party’s leader, Makram ‘Ubayd Pasha, to bestow on him the title of Egypt’s ambassador to the Arab World.”  Eltaher was the only journalist/writer who covered the struggle for independence of the North African countries of Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Libya. Even though the license for his first newspaper Al-Shura was revoked in 1931, Mahmoud Azmi Pasha, an Egyptian nationalist, transferred the license of his own newspapers, Al-Jadid and Al-Shabab, to Eltaher, free of charge “…so that his voice defending the Arab rights is not silenced…,” as he wrote to Eltaher in his letter of January 31, 1937. Other publishers did the same, at different times, to assist Eltaher’s nationalist activities.

Wedding portrait of Eltahers – Cairo 1939. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

Foreigner’s prison downtown Cairo in 1941 (Eltaher’s cell is marked by x) ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

“Eltaher did not get married until relatively late in life. He met his wife Zakiyah Bizri in 1938 while visiting her brother Salim in the mountain resort of Hammana in Lebanon, and was married on February 23, 1939. While a Muslim like her husband, Zakiyah was a graduate of les Soeurs de la Charité de Saint-Vincent de Paul, a French Catholic school run by nuns. She would play an important role in assisting her husband in all his nationalistic activities.

After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Eltaher’s publications were short lived, as Egypt imposed strict measures that forced him to cease publication. Through Husayn Sirri Pasha, the Egyptian prime minister, the British succeeded in arresting Eltaher in September 1940 and imprisoning him in “Sijin al-Ajanib” (the foreigners’ prison) in downtown Cairo, even though the previous prime minister, Ali Maher Pasha, had refused to arrest him.

Eltaher in various disguises from 1941 to 1942. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

Eltaher in various disguises from 1941 to 1942. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission

Eltaher in various disguises from 1941 to 1942. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

Eltaher fell sick in the prison and was transferred to the Dimirdash Hospital where he was kept under police surveillance. “But by mid-1941 he succeeded in escaping and spent about eleven months as a fugitive travelling constantly all across Egypt under a variety of disguises” as shown here, according to Hassan Eltaher.

When the Egyptian Ministry of Interior failed to find Eltaher, the government expelled his wife Zakiyah Eltaher from Egypt in October 1941 in an effort to force Eltaher to give himself up. Zakiyah went to Lebanon and lived with her relatives waiting for any changes in her husband’s case. At that time, Zakiyah Eltaher carried a French passport issued by the mandatory French power in Lebanon.

Zakiyah Eltaher played an important role in her husband’s life, supporting him through all the difficult times and crises. She was educated and fluent in Arabic, French, and English. After  Eltaher gave himself up in person to the new Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa al-Nahhas Pasha, Zakiyah was issued a return visa back to Egypt by the Egyptian Consulate in Lebanon.

Zakiyah Eltaher’s passport issued in 1940 by France, the mandatory power in Lebanon. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

Zakiyah Eltaher’s passport issued in 1940 by France, the mandatory power in Lebanon. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

Zakiyah Eltaher wearing Egyptian traditional cover-ups in the 1940s to evade the police while attempting to meet her fugitive husband in the City of Tanta in Egypt. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

Following the 1952 coup d’état by Colonel Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir and General Muhammad Najib, the latter in his capacity as the first Chief of the Revolutionary Council of Egypt, issued a decree permitting Eltaher to republish Al-Shura. However, the Egyptian police at the time forced Eltaher “not to try and publish the paperever again.

Eltaher published eight books, and many of his articles and interviews appeared in several newspapers and periodicals in the Arab world and elsewhere in the world including in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America. While many Arab political figures were pro-Ottoman, pro-British, or pro-French, Eltaher was not a supporter of any of these powers. Nationalist fervor and his concern about the Arab world in general, won him the admiration of Arab leaders as the following photos reveal:

Eltaher with General Muhammad Najib in 1953. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

Eltaher receiving the medal award certificate from Muhammad Lamine, Bey of Tunisia in 1956. Prime Minister Bourguiba and the Royal Palace officials are grinning at something Eltaher must have said. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

King Muhammad V of Morocco decorating Eltaher at the royal palace in Rabat in 1960. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

Grand Order awarded by King Hassan II of Morocco. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

King Husayn and Eltaher during Eltaher’s only visit ever to Jordan in 1956 at the invitation of King Husayn. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

Eltaher and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Crown Prince, and later king of Saudi Arabia, Prince Faysal Bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Sa‘ud. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

After his visit to Syria to attend the commemoration of Syria’s independence in April 1955, upon an invitation from the Commander of the Syrian Armed Forces, Brigadier Shawkat Shukayr, he never went back to Egypt, but settled with his family in Lebanon. Eltaher continued his activities until he died on August 22, 1974. He was buried in a very simple grave in Beirut following a military funeral attended by representatives of King Hassan II of Morocco, President Bourguiba of Tunisia, President Sulayman Franjiyah of Lebanon, among other Arab leaders.

Eltaher’s funeral procession in Beirut in 1974. ©Eltaher.org, used with permission.

For additional information and access to the wealth of documents and photos about Eltaher and the history of the Middle East during this period, contact the custodian Nawal Kawar ([email protected]) at the Near East Section, African Middle East Division, Library of Congress.

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