THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
AT first I did n’t appreciate Raghib. Starting upon new work with one of the highest classes in an Egyptian mission college, dealing with the intricacies of English grammar and idiom, I was not altogether confident anyway. Egyptian students know disconcerting things about the grammar of our language. And Raghib, knowing more than most, amused himself during the first few weeks in trying to take me unaware. Very innocently he would rise and ask me some apparently simple question, which, alas, was full of guile. He kept me constantly in hot water.
So one day I decided to quash him for all time. He rose with one of his innocent catch-questions, and I was primed. That one point of idiom I knew better than he did. So I started in on him. Soon he was back-watering rapidly. In two minutes he had surrendered and was crying for mercy. But I persisted, and before I had done, the class was in roars of laughter at his expense. So I felt very self-satisfied.
After the class had grinningly filed out, Raghib remained behind. Looking at me mournfully out of his innocent eyes, he asked me sadly, ‘Why have you despised me in the face of all these students, my collaborators?’
My self-satisfaction rapidly faded, and from that time forth Raghib and I had an understanding.
When Raghib’s first composition came to me, I wept — from what feelings you may judge. To try out the class, I had given them a simple subject, ‘Young Animals,’ and here is part of what Raghib wrote: —
If we cast our eyes over this subject with a spirited eagerness and manful way, we find that the benefits of animals, as a total, are prodigious and unparalleled. Bethink the sheep, which has four feet, two eyes, and a neck with a head, and which gives us milk of no parallel and excellent flesh. Are these not resulted from this young animal? Is it not the camel which walks through deserts listlessly and endures the pangs of hunger coolly and severity of thirst without lodging a complaint? Is it not the camel from which we make our boots and shoes? Certainly, it is indubitable. The cow has two big eyes, a long neck, ended in a head upon which two horns are standing. The cow is of inexhaustible avails. Before setting on foot for its benefits, we must say that it is humble. If we idealize its advantages, we shall become owed by ourselves to it.
How was I to correct that composition? The grammar was not bad, as Egyptian students write; unquestionably the English was idiomatic; and Raghib would believe my criticisms were prejudiced. I made a few perfunctory remarks (red ink) on his paper, and called him to me after class.
‘You’ll have to change your style, Raghib,’ I told him. ‘Write simply and naturally. This is absolutely no good.’
Raghib was hurt. ‘ It is easy to write simple English,’ he declared scornfully. ‘All students can do that. But no other student can write as I do! ’ Seeing me unconvinced, he went on, ‘ See the idioms I use — almost nothing but idioms. You have said it is good to use idioms.’
I saw that further protest was useless; interference with Raghib’s peculiar genius was truly of ‘inexhaustible avails.’ So he wrote on, triumphant.
After a time, I became absorbed in Raghib’s compositions. They were the oases in a desert of grammatical errors. He never failed me. However abstruse or however simple the subject I assigned him, he managed always to flood it with idioms and effervesce it with his inexhaustible enthusiasms.
Very soon I found that Raghib was not truly at his best until he was assigned a proverb subject. Proverbs are favorite themes among the students: they love good-sounding generalities. And Raghib’s style was eminently suited to proverb-compositions. Given such a subject, he wrote furiously for fifty minutes, and begged an extra five minutes to express a thought which he said was ‘struggling in him for expression.’ This boon I consistently denied him. Early in the term, I assigned him the subject, ‘The child of to-day is the father of to-morrow,’ and smacking his lips he went to work.
If we cast our eyes over this motto with precise correctness of its meaning from a moral point of view, it seems obvious to us that man, in all his stage, is changeable. For instance, to-day is small; to-morrow is old; shortly after is a millionaire, — and in a word, the world has ups and downs. Then we must prepare for our future as children, during our childhood, what we can afford. We must illuminate our intellect with the lustre of knowledge, and secure education which goes by us in after-life. Or at least it is our duty to go after any calling from which we obtain our daily bread.
As time went on, I found myself choosing themes for the class with Raghib in mind more than the benefit of the class. It was undoubtedly solely for his benefit that I selected the subject, ‘A fool and his money are soon parted,’ and he responded fervently. After three paragraphs of ‘nothing but idioms,’ he concluded smashingly, —
Then it is our duty to advise the fool to become aware of his bad habits and banish from himself the diversion of this vanished world and act the manly part. And let him know that if he spends his money in useful things he may be honored, loved by people, and the case is the reverse with those who spend their money in low things. Oh, fool one, you are bubbling, you are pursuing your low ideals and leaving the golden untouched which elevates you to the highest sky. In all likelihood, if you do not give up this habit, you will strip down to the indigence.
By that time, I had become so accustomed to Raghib, and had developed such a powerful ‘teacher’s conscience,’ that I unfeelingly dipped my pen deep in the bottle of red ink and scrawled after Raghib’s final masterly sentence, ‘The meaning is very obscure.’ Thus does the unfeeling world reward the few geniuses in its midst.
But Raghib, like a real genius, bore in his heart no malice for his critic. On the last day of school, after we had stumbled through the final exercise in our grammar-and-idiom book, Raghib rose and asked permission to address the class. Curiosity prompted an immediate assent. Drawing a manuscript from his pocket, he tossed back his long black hair, and read feelingly, —
‘Before setting on foot for delivering my speech, here is a great impulse struggling with me for expression. O would that I knew, what is it? The deep thanks for you, which would not enter under description. It is for everyone to profess that our illustrious teacher did his best and exerted himself to the utmost to shift for us the best mode of teaching by which we can learn English tongue easily and surmount the difficulties of it.
‘By your unparalleled conduct we learn that slothfulness, indolence, and touching the hands of the rude and curs, drag us down to the precipice of devastation and pit of misery, and the case is the contrary to this if we take pattern after character, strictest diligence and laboring earnestly which raise us to the highest pitch.
‘Now it would be melancholy and lamented to say that the hour of departure is come. My heart falls within me on calling to mind that this is the last period of study. Now we take leave of your diligence and perseverance on work with a renewed character. We take leave of your rosy face which indicates your dexterity and efficiency.
‘ At last, I ask God to touch your hand on all hands. May God protect you against the brands of sin and evil. Gentlemen, we must make a covenant with ourselves not to forget our illustrious teacher. We must fall in opinion with our brain to remember our teacher as long as we live.
‘ Our teacher, notice but ratify without scruple that your name is written in the pages of our hearts, and do not go away but with the end of our lives!’