Obituary: Jacques Berque
"Is it possible to write the history of a country other than one's own?" asks Jacques Berque in his book L'Egypte: imperialisme et revolution. In his wide-ranging writings spanning half a century, Berque showed that it was possible. Moreover, he proved that an "outsider" can become an authority not only on the Arab world, but also on Islam. One of his highly acclaimed publications is an annotated translation of the Koran (1991), which he worked on for nearly two decades before he felt able to give it to a publisher.
Berque once told an American editor that for a long time he had followed "the evolution of the Arabs" and was gradually "turning towards larger perspectives: those of the role of Islam in the world". He used to say that he had inherited his understanding and appreciation of Islam from his father, Augustin Berque, the renowned Islamologist and authority on Algeria during the colonial period. Perhaps that is the main reason why a British Orientalist, the late Sir Hamilton Gibb, described Jacques Berque as an "Orientalist by heredity" but a "sociologist by training". In later life Berque collected and published some of his father's essays under the title Ecrits sur l'Algerie ("Writings on Algeria", 1986).
Augustin Berque was living in Algeria when his son Jacques was born in 1910. The Berque family lived in different parts of western Algeria before settling in Algiers, where the young Jacques was educated, graduating from Algiers University in 1929, and obtaining an MA a year later. He joined the French army, and from 1934 to 1944 worked as a civil servant in Morocco.
In 1947 he became a Middle East expert for Unesco. He was sent to Egypt in 1953, returning to Paris two years later. He was made director of Muslim Sociological Studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and a year later, in 1956, was appointed Professor of the Social History of Contemporary Islam at the College de France, a post he occupied until his retirement in 1981. Later he presided over two government missions, one at the Ministry of Research (1981-82) and the other at the Ministry of Education (1984-85).
Throughout his years at the College de France Berque was an indefatigable teacher and scholar. While he imparted his extensive knowledge to generations of students, he continued his own studies into the meaning of Islam and the makings of Arab culture. His teachings, however, were not restricted to students at the college. Berque delighted in giving open lectures and in pouring out his views and findings into the many worthy volumes and articles he published, bringing to any subject he tackled "the gifts of an artist and a scholar", as the late Albert Hourani put it.
It was with the approach of the artist as well as the scholar that he could make dull subjects, like land tenure and agrarian reform in the Maghreb or the law-court registers of 19th-century Syria, as interesting reading as his works on Arabic literature or life in a popular Cairo quarter. Although, strictly speaking, he was an Orientalist and sociologist, Berque's scholarship straddled several related disciplines, and his publications bear witness to that.
Among some of Berque's most important works are his books Les Arabes d'hier a demain (1960) and L'Egypte: imperialisme et revolution (1967), translated into English by Jean Stewart as The Arabs: their history and future (1964) and Egypt: imperialism and revolution (1972). The latter, which is divided into five parts, deals with the history and social structure of Egypt from the 18th century up to 1952 when the monarchy was toppled.
In an earlier work, Le Maghreb entre deux guerres ("The Maghreb between two world wars", 1962), Berque appears as a critic of the colonial system. He was throughout a supporter of Algerian self-rule. Another work on the Maghreb, L'Interieur du Maghreb, XVe-XIXe siecle (1978), gives Berque's own interpretation of its history. Based on a reading of 15 texts which he had taught at the College de France, the book runs to more than 500 pages, and is an important document on the history of the Maghreb.
Also highly important is Languages arabes du present ("Present-day languages of the Arabs", 1974), a book which delves into the literary history of the Arabs, their language and culture. Berque's linguistic versatility is made apparent here in his excellent translations of Arabic poetry from the classical period to the present, and in his analysis of the varieties of spoken and written Arabic.
Jacques Berque was an accomplished Arabist, perfecting several Arabic dialects of both the Maghreb and the Middle East. He believed in the importance of bringing together different, but related, regions, whether in the Arabic- speaking world or in the Mediterranean, as can be seen from the titles of two of his books, De l'Euphrate a l'Atlas ("From the Euphrates to the Atlas", 1978) and Memoires des deux rives ("Recollections from Both Shores of the Mediterranean", 1989). He once said in an interview that since childhood he had tried fervently "to synthesise the cultures of the northern shore of the Mediterranean with those of its southern shore".
Perhaps Jacques Berque's most lasting contribution has been to the study of Islam. A devout Christian, he found in Islam "a new version of the truth of the world". He felt at home in France and throughout the Arab world, and was honoured by both. Made a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in his own country, he was decorated also by Morocco, Syria and Tunisia. In Egypt he was made a member of the Arabic Language Academy of Cairo.
In all his teachings and writings Jacques Berque took the stance of someone dealing with a culture both objectively from a distance and subjectively as an insider. In spite of his many accomplishments, he remained extremely modest. He lived his last years and died in a village in the Landes, the region in south-west France from which the Berque family originates.
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