Georges Henein was a poet who effectively founded what was Egypt’s most interesting artistic group in the first half of the 20th century. Today, he has been largely forgotten in Egypt, as he expected during his lifetime. Most revolutions fail and end up consuming their sons and daughters, and Henein did stir up a revolution.
The Art and Liberty Group, of which Henein was the main founder, was both a rebellious act against the country’s artistic establishment in the first few decades of the 20th century, as well as a coming of age for modern Egyptian culture.
The group pioneered a new way of looking at the West. Although they were largely followers of the Surrealist Movement that had grown up in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, the members of the Art and Liberty Group had acute reservations about blindly following fads and fashions from Europe, particularly during the 1930s and 1940s.
Henein vehemently rejected the fascism that at the time was taking over different parts of Europe. For him, it was an illness that had grown out of unresolved traumas in the European experience after the continent’s modernisation in the 18th and 19th centuries. He believed that Egypt could be spared any similar contagion.
Henein’s main insight, however, was about Egypt’s own experience. He saw something many did not see, or chose to ignore. The liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had led to wonderful advances in art and culture in Egypt, which was at the core of the progress of different aspects of life in the country, Henein thought.
For a period, these advances seemed to be distancing Egyptian society from the conservatism, particularly in religion, that had dominated it in the past. As someone who was deeply involved in art and who had founded an artistic group, Henein appreciated that it was progress in art and culture that underlay the transformation and beautification of Cairo and Alexandria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
However, in Henein’s view, all this was only skin-deep. He saw that the advances that had taken place in culture and art had not truly transformed the belief systems, values, frames of reference, attitudes, and ways of life of large sections of Egyptian society. He saw that the liberalism of the era remained largely confined to Egypt’s upper social strata.
Henein and his Art and Liberty Group colleagues also did not revere the previous generations that had led the march of Egyptian culture in previous decades. In his view, they had failed, and they had been complacent about their failure. They had chosen to live in a bubble, sustaining the false narrative that the society around them was developing and modernising and incorporating liberal attitudes, whereas in Henein’s view it was doing anything but.
Henein and his colleagues refused to participate in what they deemed to be a cheap, self-serving act by the country’s intelligentsia. Instead, he believed that an economic and cultural revolution was needed. An avid leftist, he mixed his surrealism with ideas of wealth redistribution, and for a time he seemed to be enamoured of Trotskyite aspirations for a socialist wave that would overhaul the global political economy.
But it was cultural revolution that he really worked on. He wanted to make a difference to the cultural changes that he deemed were not really happening in Egyptian society. He wanted to try to save the liberalism he believed in from the failure that he was convinced would be its fate in Egypt. He predicted a dystopian future in which conservative religiosity and assertive nationalism would dominate Egyptian politics and therefore also Egyptian society and culture. As a result, true liberty of the individual and the society would be gradually diminished.
Henein was supremely confident, however. Not only was he far from revering the older generation of Egyptian intellectuals, but he was also hardly a star-worshipper. When he deemed that Surrealism in Europe had lost its compass, he wrote to the French writer André Breton, the movement’s godfather and someone Henein had known well, to disassociate himself from it.
Unlike most Egyptian intellectuals at the time, Henein was thus not on the receiving end of a cultural exchange that flowed in one direction from Europe to acolytes in the East. Apart from his own prominent position within the international Surrealism Movement, Henein also managed to establish serious professional relationships with many leading figures in Europe’s cultural life at the time and became a notable columnist in several key French publications. Perhaps most importantly, he also aimed to make a difference and stem the descent that he saw happening in Europe’s cultural life while attempting to do much the same thing in Egypt.
But he saw a distinct difference between the two experiences. Henein understood that Europe, despite its horrendous experience of fascism, had benefitted from accumulated economic and political development and at least two centuries of liberalism that had seeped into the collective consciousness of large segments of society.
Egypt and the East, on the other hand, lacked that accumulation of experience. For Henein, this was the true source of the peril and weakness of Egyptian liberalism.
Despite his gloomy assessment about where Egyptian culture and society were heading, Henein did his best to stem such developments. The scion of a wealthy landowning family in Upper Egypt, he put time, effort, and money into making the Art and Liberty Group the crucible of serious art and ideas aimed at the middle and lower segments of Egyptian society. As other members of the group put it, they were waging a “jihad against ignorance.”
The choice of words was deliberate, as the group was waging a struggle, primarily through the will of its members and with a view to modifying the views of large societal groups, against religious conformity, intellectual confinement, and an assertive nationalism’s demands for obedience.
In this effort, Henein’s co-warriors included some of the most disruptive artistic talents of 20th-century Egypt, including painters Kamel Al-Telmisani and Inji Aflatoun. These were not mere painters pushing artistic barriers, however; they were the conveyors of ideas that they believed would stir up a cultural revolution.
In their reckoning, the luminaries of the previous generation, from thinkers such as Ahmed Lutfi Al-Sayyed and Taha Hussein to towering figures of modern Egyptian art such as Mahmoud Mokhtar and Mahmoud Said, were all part of an establishment that had failed and whose impact was destined to fail. By contrast, the members of the Art and Liberty Group thought of themselves as working from the bottom up with books, exhibitions, publications, and street art made for the masses.
Their approach was opportunistic and often haphazard. Their critics called them harbingers of chaos. But for members of the group, particularly Henein, there was order in the perceived chaos. The surrealist in him conjured up a desired end in his mind that the flurry of exhibitions, writings, and other events were all deployed towards.
He had translated sections of the 14th-century Arab writer Ibn Khaldoun’s pioneering sociological work Al-Muqadimah, or “The Introduction,” as well as verses by the mediaeval martyr and Sufi poet Al-Hallaj. For him, an art that truly refines consciousness has a chance of altering a culture’s destiny. And if that effort proves futile, and the artist ends up burnt at the culture’s stake, the end aspired to is also well worth the martyrdom.
Kamel Al-Telmisani’s 1939 portrait of Henein depicted the founder of the Art and Liberty Group as floating soil out of which flowers sprout. Henein may have thought that he would be forgotten, but he deserves to be remembered today.
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.