03 APR 2013 POSTED BY Y
Professor Fatma Salem Seif Al Maamary was the first person from the Gulf to be awarded a PhD. Y talks to her niece and biographer Dr Asyah Al Bualy. Words: Joe Gill
On Fatma Salem’s first day at Cairo University in 1929, she and her fellow students – all male – were invited to meet Professor Taha Hussein, who was also a family friend. “He asked each student what they would like to drink in order to ease the tension which was palpable,” recalls her sister Etidal Salem Seif in a new biographical study.
“Fatma asked for a cup of coffee, astonishing every person in the room. The office attendant and her colleagues all sent condemning looks.” In those days it was considered improper for a woman to drink coffee in the presence of men, never mind a student to ask for one from her esteemed professor. But instead of retracting her request, Fatma rejected her colleagues’ criticism, saying: “Why are you all staring at me in this way? I drink coffee at home with my father and uncle.”
This is only one small example of the way in which Fatma Salem defied the conventions and restrictions of her time to blaze a trail for Arab womanhood in the highest echelons of education in Egypt, the UK and later Oman.
A new English edition of the biography of this pioneering Omani academic now brings to English readers the singular personality that lay behind Professor Salem’s incredible achievements.
Born in a time when most women in Arab countries were confined to the home and educational opportunities were very limited, she led the way for the future generations of Arab women who aspired to become academics and intellectuals, becoming the first person, male or female, from the Gulf countries to earn a PhD.
Last week saw the launch of the English edition of a biographical study written by her niece, Dr Azyah Al Bualy, in front of an audience of 300 in Qurum, where Fatma lived for many years after returning from Egypt in 1974.
At the event, Najat Salem Rashid spoke of her great aunt’s formidable character: “She was a selfless character who so fundamentally believed in education for all. We feel her uniqueness was to inspire a love of learning. She was a woman far beyond her time. Her achievements are still relevant six decades later. Her traits of pursuit of excellence, service, discipline and quest for knowledge are ones that I strive for today.”
The heart of the biography is the testimonies from family members, academic colleagues and other friends on the life of Fatma through her time in Egypt, England and later Oman.
As Dr Al Bualy explained to Y, the book “has a flavour for an ordinary reader, not just an academic readership. That is why I interviewed a variety of people who knew her, her neighbours and students, to give a genuine picture of this woman.” One of the people interviewed was the Minister of Higher Education, HE Dr Rawya Saud Ahmed Al Busaidi, who was Professor Fatma’s niece.
For Dr Al Bualy, the importance of the English translation of her book, first published in Arabic in 2006, is clear.
“The Arabic edition of the book was very renowned. In fact it created a lot of awareness about Fatma Salem throughout the Arabic world, including giving rise to the award she received posthumously in Syria in 2008.
“We are talking about an Omani symbol who carries a lot of weight, historically and culturally.”
In her book, colleagues and family members describe Fatma Salem as a dedicated, selfless and even romantic person who cared deeply for those around her, playing a major role in raising her siblings and exerting a powerful influence on the children of the family, including the author. Dr al Bualy recalls being told the importance of books and reading by Fatma, who she thought of as her grandmother, in no uncertain terms when she was very young, a lesson she never forgot.
“Many people, not just British but English speakers from other countries, will read it and come to know about her life and what she symbolises. It will correct a lot of notions and ideas about the Arab world and Arab women, in particular women in the Gulf. We are talking about a women who was completely exceptional in the early 20th century. It is very important to emphasise this idea and to show the world that this is a symbol for Arab women.
“Not only that but she has encouraged a lot of women who are not stereotyped, who are educated and forward looking, also for the coming generations, they are going to be proud of her and inspired by her as an Omani woman.
Fatma came from a prominent and wealthy Zanzibari family who valued education and intellectual achievement. Her father and his brother wanted to educate their children – not least their daughters – in the heart of a culturally rich Arab society, and that meant moving to Cairo. She arrived by steamer in Port Said with her father in 1918.
In 1927 she was among the first group of eight girls to receive her Baccalaureate Certificate from the Sanniyah School in Cairo, the first secondary school for girls in the Arabic world. This was just one of many firsts for Fatma.
She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the Classical Studies Department of the University of Egypt in July 1933. Deciding to teach, she graduated with a Diploma of Education in 1937. Then, in May 1942, she was awarded a Master’s degree from the Classical Studies Department of King Faud I University. It was at this point that she applied for a permanent position as a lecturer in the Faculty of Arts.
“She was a pioneer – a lot of highly intellectual, cultured and educated women in this and the coming generation can be very inspired by this symbol,” says Dr Al Bualy.
Fatma was never to marry, something referred to by a number of the friends and family interviewed in the book. “Whether or not she had [a man in her life] is a secret that was buried along with her,” says her younger sister Etidal.
The author adds her own insight on this subject: “She was totally loaded with responsibilities of the rest of the kids in the family. She was a very strong and confident personality and was totally occupied with her career, so some men might have been intimidated by her,” explained the author.
Of course, the fact of her not marrying would probably never have been raised had she been a man.
In the early ’50s she went to the UK on a scholarship to pursue her doctoral thesis, completing her dissertation in Latin on Juvenal’s Satires in 1955. She returned to Egypt where she continued lecturing and publishing in Cairo and Alexandria until she retired in 1973.
Alexandria was once the home to the ancient world’s most famous library until it was destroyed by invaders some 1500 years ago. Later it was Arab Islamic scholars who preserved and revived Greek knowledge through their translations of ancient Greek texts (eventually transferring this lost cultural world to Dark Ages Europe).
In a remarkable turn of the wheel of knowledge, Fatma Salem’s research on Roman writer Horace’s The Art of Poetry was included in a paper to mark the opening of the new Alexandria Library in 2002, the year of Fatma’s death.
Fatma discouraged her niece from writing this biography when she first started working on it in her ’20s, saying: “There will be a day when my biography will be documented, even if it is a century after my death.”
In her own moving ‘ A Message of Love’, Dr Al Bualy talks of the two women’s common zodiac sign of Pisces, birthplace in Zanzibar and schooling, and asks: “Were you determined to create a similar version of yourself? Or is it my subconscious desire to formulate myself into another Fatma Salem?”
Dr Al Bualy’s motivation in writing the book was not just a love for her remarkable aunt but a passionate desire to preserve those values she represents – “ethics, being genuine, honesty. You find a lot of people now who want to creep on top of other people’s efforts – opportunists. If you look at it, older generations were different.”
With this new edition she has moved closer to fulfilling her wish that Fatma Salem should “remain a symbol that deserves to be revived in all times. In particular in this own deficient time of ours.”
This testimony and work of love is now there to be read by Arabic and English speakers alike.