Image: James Sanua

James Sanua


Yaʿqūb Ṣannuʿ يعقوب صنوع (James Sanua by his own French transliteration) was born in Cairo, in April 1839,[1] as the son of an Egyptian Jew with Spanish Sephardic roots. First, he studied the books of the three monotheistic religions and, at the same time, Hebrew, Arabic, English and Italian, under the supervision of his father Rafāʾīl. Impressed by the precocity of the young talent, Aḥmad Yakan Bāsha[2], his father's employer, granted him a scholarship, which made it possible for the thirteen year old James to complete his studies in Italy. He arrived in Livorno in 1853, where he acquainted himself with Italian drama and the ideas of Mazzini's Young Italy movement.

In 1855 Sanua returned to Egypt. After both, his father and his wealthy protector died he found himself financially on his own. He subsequently became a private teacher and worked his way through the rich Egyptian families until he attained a position at the Ecole Polytechnique (al-Muhandiskhana), where he taught from 1868 until 1871.  At the same time, he was employed as an examiner at the governmental schools.

On 25th February 1868, he was initiated to the Egyptian Masonic Lodge La Concordia, where he ascended to the Degree of a Master on 24th December of the same year.[3] He was a very active Freemason throughout his entire life and is to be found in different other lodges such as the Kawkab ash-Sharq, which the famous Jamāl ad-Dīn al-Afghānī  led in 1878.[4]

In 1870, when Sanua was still busy teaching at the Ecole Polytechnique, he decided to found his own Arabic theatre. Sanua was inspired by the performance of an open-air café-concert of an Italian troupe during the summer of 1870; he then started to translate European plays into Arabic, before attempting to write his own. For his first play, Sanua casted some of his students from the Ecole Polytechnique. After his initial success, Sanua applied to the Khedive for a regular income for his troupe, like that usually paid to the European theatre companies. He was therefore invited by the Khedive to perform at his palace Qaṣr al-Nīl in just three months since the start of his theatrical activities. On this occasion, his troupe performed three of his comedies, anīsa ālā mūḍa (The Fashionable Young Lady), ghandūr miṣr (The Egyptian Dandy) and al-ḍurratān (The two Co-Wives). Sanua reports that after the first two plays had finished, the Khedive was so delighted that he came up to him onto the stage and said: 'You are truly the founder of our national theatre, you are our Egyptian Molière.'[5] Nevertheless, the third play's harsh criticism of polygamy created problems. After witnessing the struggles of the main character Aḥmad's two co-wives, the Khedive was furious and told Sanua that if he were not man enough to satisfy two wives, he should at least leave the ones who were able to do so alone.

By the end of the year 1871, Sanua's theatre was shut down and he became more involved with Freemasonry. In 1873,[6] he established the Lodge of Progress (Maḥfal at-Taqqadum), which was mainly attended by students and officers, according to de Blaignières.[7] After its forced disappearance in 1875, Sanua established the Society of the Lovers of Knowledge (Jamʿīyat al-muḥibbi l-ʿilm) in which a lot of Azhar-shaykhs are said to have participated,[8] among them Jamāl ad-Dīn al-Afghānī.[9]

The second one of his secret societies was forcedly closed too and in 1874, Sanua departed for a long travel through Europe. Back in Egypt, he tried to convince the Khedive Ismāʿīl about the necessity of liberal reforms.

As the Khedive failed to listen to his demands, in 1877, Sanua founded a satiric newspaper in order to raise national and political consciousness among the Egyptian people. However, his first Abū Naẓẓāra Zarqā (The Man with the Blue Glasses) lasted only two months before being forbidden. On the 30th of June 1878, after two failed attacks against his life, Sanua was finally forced to leave his beloved homeland and to go into exile.[10] Nevertheless, in less than eight weeks after his departure from Egypt, Sanua was ready to continue publishing his newspaper, even in a slightly changed format, with a caricature on the cover-page.

In Paris Sanua held lectures in different literary circles and actively participated in Masonic lodges. He claims to have been in touch not only with the most outstanding exiled Egyptians in Paris but also with the most important French politicians up to the rank of the President. In public he usually performed as the “over-orientalized” character, Shaykh Abou Naddara, who displayed his galabiyya, turban and his multiple decorations. Sanua most obviously fought for a free Egypt - free from the local tyrants and the British occupation. At the same time, he kept loyal to the Sultan as the representative of the Islamic Umma (community of the faithful) throughout his life. Most importantly, the Egyptian exiled nationalist constantly tried to mediate between “the East” and “the West” and always displayed a special sympathy for Islam.

As far as family is concerned, in 1884, Sanua married a French Jewish lady, Zélie Blumenthal with whom he had two children, Hilmi and Louli (1886-1967)[11]. After a long active life as an editor of his diverse magazines, James Sanua retired in 1910, only two years before his death.

[1] This date is the one quoted in his Ma vie en vers et mon théâtre en prose. There he writes that he was born in April 1939 maybe also due to a Reimzwang, in order to make it rhyme with Nil. Sanua, J., Ma vie en vers et mon théâtre en prose, Imprimérie Montgeronnaise, Paris, no date indicated. Irene Gendzier indicates 9th February as his date of birth without specifying a source. Gendzier, I. L., The Practical Visions of Ya'qub Sanu', Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge and Massachusetts, 1966, p. 11; Whereas Ibrāhīm ʿAbduh does not mention a day but just the year (1839). ʿAbduh, I., abū naẓẓāra imām aṣ-ṣiḥāfa l-fukāhīya l-muṣawwara wa-zaʿīm al-masraḥ fī miṣr 1839-1912, maktabat al-ādāb, al-qāhira, 1953, p. 17.

[2] Khedive Ismāʿi̇̄l's brother.

[3] Vid.: The Duplicate of his Certificate issued by the United Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of England.

[4] Vid.: Keddie, N. R., Sayyid Jamāl ad-Dīn "al-Afghānī", A Political Biography, University of California Press, Berkley / Los Angeles / London, 1972, p. 100.

[5] Sanua, J., Mémoires, unpublished, by courtesy of Mrs. Eva Milhaud.

[6] Dates according to De Baignières, P., op. cit., pp. 14-15.

[7] De Baignières, P., L'Egypte Satirique, Album d'Abū Naẓẓāra, Imprimerie Lefebvre, Paris, 1886, p. 12.

[8] Paul de Baignières falsely attributes to Sanua the foundation of the first Masonic lodge in Egypt. Ibid.: p. 15. E. Guillon who also had met Sanua personally commits the same mistake in his Notes pour l'histoire de notre temps, L'Egypte contemporaine et les intérêts français, Gratier, Grenoble, 1885. Quoted in Landau, J. M. (1973), op. cit., p. 46, note 73. The first Masonic lodge was founded by the French General Kléber in 1799 and called Isis. Its logo was Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Vid.: Wissa, K., "Freemasonry in Egypt 1798-1912: A Study in Cultural and Political Encounters", in Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), Vol. 16, nr. 2, 1989, p. 161.

[9] ANZ 1879, nr. 15, 1 July 1879, p. 58.

[10] Sanua reports his leaving Egypt as a personal decision for the sake of his physical integrity. Aboard the steamboat 'Freicynet', he spent, according to the seventh issue of the Riḥla, his time among the passengers of the first and the second class, playing the flute for the ladies. A very different picture of a travel into exile, is depicted forty years later by the journalist Bayram at-Tunisī who was squeezed into the forth class by the French Consul in Alexandria… Vid.: Booth, Marilyn, Bayram al-Tunisi's Egypt, Social Criticism and Narrative Strategies, Ithaca Press, Exeter, 1990.

[11] His daugther Louli later became famous as a feminist and the founder of the École de Haut Enseignement Commercial pour les Jeunes Filles.