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Obituary - Pierre Cachia


Pierre Cachia slipped away peacefully on 1st April, a few days shy of his 96th birthday, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. With the passing of this key architect of Arabic studies who made modern Arabic literature a serious academic subject in both the UK and US, those of us who have studied and worked with him will not only mourn the loss of a friend, teacher, and mentor, but also the irretrievable era in which a first generation of post-War American and European Arabists and Orientalists made tremendous strides in fashioning academic studies of modern Arabic literature into what it is today: grounded in native fluency of the Arabic language, informed by real experiences lived in close proximity with Arab writers and storytellers, and took seriously the concerns and priorities of Arab scholars, critics and intellectuals.

Born in Faiyum (Fayyum) on 30 April 1921 to Maltese father and Russian mother, Pierre grew up in Upper Egypt. He successively attended French, Italian, Egyptian and American schools before he enrolled at the American University in Cairo, where he earned his BA degree. After war service with the British 8th Army in North Africa, Italy and Austria, he moved to Scotland. He received his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh in 1951 and joined its Faculty. He was appointed Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at Columbia University in 1975 and would remain there until he retired in 1991. However, he continued to teach and write, and in fact he published many of his important works after retirement. He wrote scholarly articles and books on a variety of subjects, translated classical and modern literary and critical works, and published other scholars in Journal of Arabic Literature, which he co-founded and on whose editorial board he served for many years.

His first book, Taha Husayn: His Place in the Egyptian Literary Renaissance (1956), epitomises Pierre’s approach to research and scholarly writing. Based on extensive readings in Taha Husayn and the literature around him and his era in Arabic and European languages, and informed by extensive fieldwork as well as interviews with those who knew Taha Husayn, this comprehensive literary biography gives us a complex portrait of the man behind his gargantuan legacy and, more importantly, it comes to terms with the urgent and critical issues that shaped the thought and writing of Taha Husyan as well as his generation of Egyptian intellectuals. It is written in Pierre’s infinitely readable prose, elegant, clear, terse and fluid all at the same time, and grounded in his profound knowledge of the classical Arabic literary tradition. His subsequent books on Arabic literature, An Overview of Modern Arabic Literature (1990) and Arabic Literature: an overview (2002), the first based on his various articles and book chapters and the latter on his life-long contemplation on how to write a concise history of Arabic literature for American and British university students, are eloquent expressions of his views of himself as a scholar and, above all, teacher.

Pierre always put his students first. He wrote with them in mind. His published works on Arabic literature are meant to provide them with the necessary foundation and key concepts that would allow them to pursue their interests in depth. He translated Arabic literary and critical works with the same purpose in mind. The Monitor: a Dictionary of Arabic Grammatical Terms (1973) and The Arch Rhetorician or The Schemer’s Skimmer: a Handbook of Late Arabic Badi‘ Drawn from ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s Nafahat al-azhar ‘ala nasamat al-ashar (1998) are intended for students of Arabic language and literature and to give them access to Arabic grammatical terms and rhetorical devices.

But Pierre’s single most important contribution lies in his work on Egyptian folk literature. Popular Narrative Ballads of Modern Egypt (1989) and his various essays now collected in Exploring Arab Folk Literature (2011) are a testimony to his life-long interest in and commitment to colloquial literary expressions. He put ‘folk’ literature, orally transmitted in the colloquial register, on the map of literary studies, and made it not only legitimate but also fashionable to pursue academic studies of folk literature. He is matchless in his knowledge of Egyptian folk ballads and in his keen understanding of the rhetorical devices of the Egyptian colloquial. He was able to unravel and decipher any complicated, multiply layered pun at the drop of a hat.

Pierre taught many students. All of us who had the privilege of working closely with him will remember him as a gentleman scholar, who spoke impeccable Arabic and English, and who loved to tell stories, but whose sharp wit made his humorous stories even more memorable. He was generous to a fault to anyone who sought his help, but always gave us ample space to develop our own ideas and projects. He was more interested in showing us how to be a rounded human being than an ambitious scholar, and taught us that honest work would always make a difference. He was like a father to me. He took me in when I arrived alone in New York in 1982, leaving behind my family in Tripoli, Libya. Since then, and wherever I go, I carry with me the warmth of his welcome, and of his office and living room, where we spent long hours talking and bantering and exchanging stories.

His children, Susan, Philip and Helen, have set up a charity fund in his memory to support what Pierre cared about the most—the next generation of scholars of Arabic literature.

Wen-chin Ouyang