Hussein, Suzanne (Brisseau) Taha
Love at first hearing
Suzanne Brisseau, a young French Catholic lady whose studies to be a teacher had been interrupted by the bombing of Paris in the First World War, found work where her family took refuge in Montpellier, reading for a blind graduate student. Taha Hussein, the blind Muslim student from Egypt, was quite a phenomenon. Within five years, [he] had won a bachelor’s degree and a higher diploma (on Tacitus), passed the highly competitive aggregation examination for university teachers and been awarded a doctorate for his work on the fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun. He had mastered Greek and Latin. 
Taha, who called her his “sweet voice,” had an uncanny intuition at their first meeting that she would be the woman of his life, and indeed, some time afterwards, they both thought of marriage. Suzanne, however, had to overcome the adamant opposition of her family when the subject of marriage came up. “What! A poor foreigner, a Muslim, and a blind one to boot! You’ve got to be crazy!” they said to her. But after her priest-uncle interviewed Taha, said he was a genius and gave his support to their plans, they were able to marry with the blessing of her family.
Suzanne was to be not only his wife, and the mother of their two children, she was also his life-long mentor and dearest friend, bringing him happiness and the contacts which his blindness deprived him of. They shared during nearly sixty years a passion for the truth, for freedom, for human dignity, and for God.
Who was this man who so captivated Suzanne’s heart?
Taha Hussein was born seventh of thirteen children in a poor Muslim family in Upper Egypt. He became blind at the age of three, due to incompetent treatment of an eye infection by an unskilled practitioner. Taha took from the experience a profound aversion to ignorance, and an immense respect for science and culture. As in all traditional families of his epoch, he began his education in the Qur’anic school (kottab) where he learned the Qur’an and its melodic recitation by heart. His intelligence was such that he also memorized the Alfiyyah (medieval treatise on Arabic grammar). Singled out by his teachers, he pursued his education at the prestigious El-Azhar University in Cairo.
He spent eight years there and was trained in the traditional culture. But very soon he rebelled in the face of what [in his memoirs] he called “a leaden atmosphere of outdated discourse.” That earned him frequent tussles with the oulemas (learned religious authorities) of El-Azhar, to the point of his being denied the doctorate by the university. He transferred to the Free University of Cairo, founded in 1908, which he entered with enthusiasm, but even there his Voltaire-like spirit brought him into new conflicts. The University of Cairo was, however, a true place of culture, where Egyptian and foreign professors offered a high quality education. He would later write that from the day he entered the University of Cairo, the doors of knowledge were opened wide for him. Taha Hussein received his doctorate there–the first one awarded by the University–on Abu-Alala’ Al-Maari, a blind skeptic philosopher of the 11th century with whom Taha Hussein identified. Subsequently, he had his first forays into the world of Arabic literature, which earned him the opportunity of receiving a government bursary to continue graduate studies in France, where he disembarked in Montpellier shortly after the outbreak of World War I, in November of 1914.
Studies in France, and marriage
During four years in France Taha embarked upon a veritable interior (trans-cultural) journey: he prepared and achieved a license in Classic Literature (Latin & Greek), a post-graduate diploma in history, and a doctorate at the Sorbonne under Emile Durkheim on the famous Muslim historian considered the Father of Sociology, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). He also met the woman of his life, a Catholic French woman, Suzanne Brisseau, during his first period of study at the University of Montpellier. Their son, Moenis, reminisced with a journalist some years ago about his parent’s meeting and marriage:
It was in Montpellier during the First World War that Taha Hussein met Suzanne Brisseau, whose family had moved there from Paris to escape the bombing. Suzanne had been preparing to take the entrance exam for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure de Jeunes Filles, then located in the Paris suburb of Sèvres, but had had to interrupt her studies when the family moved to Montpellier.
Since my father was blind, he needed someone to help him with his French and to read to him. So he put an advertisement in a local paper. Suzanne applied for the job. However, she did more than read to him. She accompanied him to his lectures at the Montpellier Arts Faculty, and later, when they were both in Paris she would walk hand in hand with him from his lodgings to the Sorbonne.
He called her his “sweet voice” because of the quality of her reading to him as he was perfecting his French, since not all of the references for his study were available in Braille. He stated in his Book of Days (autobiographical memoirs) that since he first heard that “sweet voice,” anguish had never entered his heart. 
They were married on August 2, 1917 and two years after their marriage, upon completion of his doctoral studies, the couple moved to Egypt (1919), which was to be ever afterward her adopted country. They would go to Europe periodically for visits or vacations, but their life was in Egypt. (Even during her fifteen years as a widow, Suzanne remained in Cairo until her death.) Their home in Cairo was frequented by illustrious visitors of Catholic, Coptic, Protestant, and Muslim faiths, clerics, philosophers, and atheists; musicians, educators, journalists, government ministers, archaeologists, literary figures… Those who participated in the soirées unanimously praised the couple that welcomed them and offered such stimulating company.
Active professional life during more than forty years
Upon returning to Egypt with his wife, Taha held a series of university posts: professor, Dean of the Faculty of Literature, founding Rector of the University of Alexandria, and even Minister of National Education, but without ever bowing before the administrative or political “powers that be,” nor ever renouncing his work as literary critic and writer. His memoirs, The Book of Days,  was a worldwide bestseller, and his Arabic translations of Gide, Sophocles, and Racine show the breadth and depth of his culture and his openness of spirit. His entire life was an unremitting battle against the darkness and a constant struggle for the dialogue of cultures and civilizations.
When Fr. George Anawati, Egyptian Dominican scholar educated in Egypt, Lebanon, France, and Algeria, first read in his mid-thirties Taha Hussein’s book (in Arabic) entitled The Future of Culture in Egypt  he wrote in his diary: “Egypt is at the crossroads of two civilizations: that is what makes possible the reconciliation of the Christian culture and the Islamic culture.”  Were not perhaps Suzanne and Taha Hussein themselves a Christian-Islamic couple living in deep mutual respect for their separate religions over the course of more than fifty years, a “place of encounter… permitting the reconciliation of two cultures” and two religions in their extraordinarily close-knit conjugal life and their extraordinarily welcoming home?
Suzanne commented in her memoirs, written in 1974, less than a year after Taha’s death:
June 3rd: Yesterday was Pentecost: once more I cherish the crystal clear memory of a Pentecost in Gardone. I listened to Mass in the upper Church. The old priest had read the Gospel of John. The morning was splendid, everything was fresh and beautiful, the sky, the lake, the trees, the flowers. Everything was dazzling, and I came down to the hotel repeating to myself: “I leave you peace, I give you peace." And I told you of these words with great feeling.
As I remember that morning today, I dream of that mysterious pact which has always united us in the respect of our different religions. Certain people are amazed at it. Others understand that I can say my Rosary while you listened to the Qur’an in the next room. I still sometimes turn on the radio to hear some verses of the Qur’an as I begin my Rosary, and at any rate, I understand interiorly.
You often spoke to me of the Qur’an, you would translate for me the verses that you specially loved, you read the Bible, and I spoke of Jesus. You often repeated, on many occasions: “One can’t fool God.” St. Paul said as much. Certainly, one cannot fool God. 
Suzanne wrote of a visit they once made to Jerusalem, and in a single sentence summarizes their rich experience of an interfaith marriage: “we each prayed according to our heart: in the mosque of Omar and in Gethsemani.”
Family and Professional Trials
After the birth of their second child, in the precariousness of their economic situation, mother and children were obliged to take three months repose in France (for the health of both mother and children), which was extremely difficult for both of the spouses. Suzanne wrote, “During three months we wrote each other every day. His letters spoke of his pain at my absence, but also of his courage and passionate love for his country, his projects, his dreams, and the events which he narrated to me with irony, humor or vehemence.” 
She cited several passages from her husband’s letters which testified to the intensity, vehemence and impetuosity of his love, as well as to the violence of his character:
I would like to tell you my distress when I left the ship and returned to Cairo, when I immediately returned to the house and went to our bedroom, and I kissed the rose, and covered with kisses the photo which I cannot see…
It is impossible for me to think of anything other than of you. I cannot help crying each time I go into the bedroom; I find you everywhere there without finding you anywhere… The rose has already wilted…
I’d say that I’m in Cairo for nothing. I’m in the process of wasting three months of my life. Working? But what’s the good of working without your voice which encourages and counsels me, without your presence which guides me? In whom can I confide freely? You’ll tell me: ‘you must write me’. But you know well that writing is not like speaking, and that reading a letter is not hearing one’s voice. And you know well, that many times I don’t say anything, I just take your hand, I put my head on your shoulder… Three months, three months, it’s horrifying, I woke up into a terrifying blackness; I had to write you in order for that to begin to dissipate. You see, absent or present, you are always my light. 
On a certain occasion while Suzanne was still in France, Taha told her of a spicy interchange which he had with several sheiks and ministers on the subject of mixed marriages:
“Doctor Taha, are you married?”
“Yes, of course, sir.”
“Would you bring your wife to the meeting [a homage to another sheikh]?”
“Well, no, sir, because she is in France.”
“In France? And you let her travel there all alone?”
“Well yes, sir; she’s a French woman.”
“And why then did you marry a French woman? If I were free I would pass a law exiling every Egyptian who married a foreign woman.”
“Please, sir, pass that law right away; I’m tired of hearing such discourse and would just as soon be out of here.”
The gentleman broke out laughing, and everyone joined in, at my expense. The sheikh Bekhit spoke again:
“All the same, Doctor Taha, I’d like to understand the serious reasons which led you to marry a foreigner. You are a good Egyptian, a good patriot, very intelligent; how in the world could you do such a thing?”
“I met a young woman, and I loved her; I married her. If I hadn’t done it, I’d have remained a bachelor, or I would have hypocritically married an Egyptian woman whom I would have made miserable because I loved another woman.”
“I can’t fathom that!”
“That you will never be able to fathom, your Excellence; we will never understand things in the same manner…”
Suzanne remarked: “I knew the impulsiveness of his indignation and the violence of his intentions… I tried to soften a bit his reactions. He would show himself full of good will: ‘I will obey you, I’ll be honest in my articles, I won’t cause trouble, my angel; be tranquil. As long as you are at my side, I won’t be provocative; but, for example, I will be aggressive, implacable in arguments.’ And, there it is! He was right!" 
Upon Suzanne and the children’s return to Cairo, their home once again became the meeting place of many intellectuals and people of note in Egyptian society:
Upon the creation of the State University in 1925… we began to have the Sunday meetings, which grew considerably in Zamalek. Taha was a magnet drawing people together. The foreign professors who constituted the first team had barely arrived, and they naturally came to spend a few hours with us, along with their wives." [She mentions the dean, a philosopher, an archaeologist, a poet and professor of literature.]
Egypt was moving painfully toward true independence. All the events, all the surprises found echo with us, such that some visitors were astonished. Taha shook, became indignant, protested, adjured, taught. Since he had none of the dryness of the theorists and politicians, he was bowled over, even though he realized things were inevitable…
She related the terrible things he suffered from the Muslim authorities when his book on Pre-Islamic poetry was banned by el-Azhar University , considered dangerous and unacceptable because of its questioning of the traditional authority given the Qur’an and of its traditional interpretations in favor of his own rationalistic explanations of its sense, based upon his critical study of pre-Islamic Arabic literature. He was astounded, saddened, disappointed at the reactions, at the hate messages, at the ostracism he experienced, that reached the point of needing an armed guard outside the house. Still, he withstood it all with his head high… After the worst had passed, Suzanne took him to a village in Haute Savoie (France) to recover from his bitterness and mend his damaged health. There, in nine days, he wrote the manuscript of the first part of his life story, Al-Ayyam (“Le Livre des Jours”). 
In 1932, because of his staunch opposition to the politicization of honorary degrees at the University at which he taught, he was eventually fired from the University and found himself jobless “paying dearly for the crime of being a free man,” commented Suzanne.
But this time, they really wanted to destroy him psychologically. In addition to firing him from a faculty where he was the honor and pride, they even wanted to burn his books. They took back the house he lived in, covered him with insults, they tried to take from him every means of support, by impeding the sale of the journal he published, and warning all foreign delegations that they must abstain from offering him any work. I must here offer homage to the American University of Cairo, which took up the challenge, and asked Taha for a series of conferences which, beyond a small material support, gave him the invaluable support of a young public which took his side. 
That lasted nearly three years, until the end of 1934. And it turned very quickly really bad. Claude, who had had pneumonia, was barely out of danger, when Taha took to bed with the same disease, very serious at a time when there were no antibiotics and when it was a man already sorely tried who succumbed. There were no certain remedies: one could only keep watch, attend to him, wait… and pray. In his deliriums Taha battled with all his adversaries; he fought all night long, and fell on his pillow, exhausted. Could I ever forget the dedication of Doctor Sami Kamal, his presence and his affection which came to give me courage? Farid spent several nights at the house; I don’t know how I managed to stay on my feet for 11 nights, I who have always needed a lot of sleep. Finally Taha recovered, and I’d prefer only to think of that. 
“One doesn’t live in order to be happy.” When you said those words to me, back in 1934, I was wordless. Now I understand. I know that when one is Taha, one does not live in order to be happy; one lives to accomplish what God asks of you. We were at the edge of despair, and I thought: “No, not to be happy, not even to make others happy.” I was wrong. You gave joy, you inspired courage, faith, hope which were in you. But this happiness which you knew well was not of earth, and which, deep down, in the austerity of great souls, you did not seek, am I prohibited from hoping that it is now given to you? 
Finally, after several more months of a very precarious economic situation, Taha was restored to his university post in December 1934, and things looked up, and in 1936 he recovered his position as Dean of the Faculty of Letters. Re-elected Dean in 1939, the minister refused to approve the choice, and he was obliged to resign as Dean, maintaining however his professorship at the University. He had a series of other high government posts until his retirement in 1944. Yet again in 1950 he was named Minister of Public Education, a post he held until January 1952, after the burning of Cairo. 
Wide circle of friends
They moved to a house in Zamalek [1935?], and continued to host lively gatherings of the most diverse people, friends new and old… Suzanne wrote: “It would be impossible for me to name all those who passed through this house of Zamalek: writers, journalists, musicians, archeologists, diplomats, theatre people, painters, doctors… sheiks talked amicably with our Dominican friends, with the Rector of Holy Family College… Massignon never failed to come to the house, whether on Sunday or not, when he was passing through Cairo…” 
J. J. Perennès noted that,
When a visitor of note came to our priory in Abassiah (Cairo), we very readily paid a visit to the Taha Hussein home, who had become an ally over the years. He himself frequented the Dominican priory,  where there were similar gatherings of notable researchers, thinkers, and political, scientific, religious, and literary figures. Every year he would come to the Dominican priory to request a Mass for the deceased members of his wife’s family, and would attend the Mass on the respective date. .
Later they moved to Ramatan, in Guizeh, but in whatever house, their home was open to a wide variety of seminal thinkers, people of letters and the arts, diplomats, those committed to religious, social, and political change, Muslims and Christians, clergy and secularized / atheist thinkers as well.
Taha Hussein often traveled abroad in order to represent Egypt in numerous congresses or to receive honors given by diverse universities and foreign governments. Madame Taha Hussein accompanied her husband on these trips and left very vivid descriptions and anecdotes from many of the encounters on those trips. Taha Hussein received honorary doctorates in Lyons (1930), Montpellier (1946), Rome (1950), Oxford, and Madrid. In November of 1950, he was invited to inaugurate the Institute of Islamic Studies in Spain. Everywhere they would go, her husband represented the Arab culture in the West, as he had done similarly in Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. 
Their son Moenis described their family life: "At home we always spoke French. My mother never really learned Arabic. She spoke it sufficiently well to go shopping and to handle the situations of everyday life. I think my father was happy to speak French at home. He wrote articles and lectures in French, but less from personal inclination than in response to requests. Arabic was the language in which he thought and felt. It was only later that he transferred his ideas and feelings into other languages." 
Taha Hussein and Suzanne’s children, their daughter Amina and her younger brother Moenis, both were important figures in Egypt. Amina, who died at the age of seventy, was among the first Egyptian women to graduate from Cairo University. She and her brother, Moenis, translated his Adib ("The Intellectual") into French. This was especially important to their father, who was an Egyptian who moved to France and learned the language. Even more importantly, the character of Adib is one of a young man who, like Taha Hussein, had to go experience the cultural shock of an Egyptian studying and living in France. 
During many of the last years of his life, Taha Hussein liked to spend his summers in Italy with his wife, beside the lac de Garde [Gardone]. 
The following texts are taken from Suzanne’s description of his last hours in Villa Ramatan, in Guizeh, a suburb of Cairo :
The day before he died he had a crisis which had already passed by the time his doctor arrived. His doctor read to him the news of his being awarded the UN Human Rights award, and that they awaited him in New York on Dec. 10th. “The doctor read it to him, and congratulated him warmly; his only response was a wave of the hand which I knew so well, which seemed to say: ‘What does it matter?’ and which expressed his disdain, not of homages, but of honors and decorations.”
After giving him a shot, and some light tranquilizers for the night, the doctor left, assuring her that the patient would repose well. Somewhat later his secretary and the housekeepers left as well, leaving her alone with him.
In the course of the night at one point he said to her “They want to do me in; there are evil people.” “Who wants to do you in, my dear? Who is evil?” “Everyone!” “Even me?” “No, not you.” Then, with the bitter irony that marked certain of his moods, “But, what stupidity! Do they want to put a blind man at the helm of a ship?” She comments: at that point, he was certainly remembering, dreaming of the obstacles which he’d faced, the refusals by which he had been countered, the sarcasm, even the insults… He didn’t continue; he just said to me, as so many times: “Give me your hand”, and he kissed it. The next morning he awoke extremely weak, and Suzanne was, by her own admission “bludgeoned by fatigue, in a senseless daze, but strangely calm.” “I sat down next to him. We were together, alone, incredibly close. I didn’t cry; the tears came later. Nobody else knew anything [about his impending death] yet. We belonged to each other, unknown and solitary, just like at the beginning of our journey together. In this last union, this supreme intimacy, I spoke to him as I caressed that forehead which I so loved, that noble, beautiful forehead in which neither age nor suffering had managed to etch a single wrinkle, which no difficulty had succeeded in darkening and which still irradiated its light – “my love, my dear love.” And I continued all morning long, even when we were no longer alone, to say and say again, “My love” because, before all else, and after everything else, and above all else, he was my best friend, and in the meaning which I give to that word, my only friend.”
Georges Anawati wrote in homage concerning the day of his death [October 28, 1973] and gave an exceptional witness to the conjugal relationship of his spouse:
The peace of death illuminated his face with vivid expression; I was privileged to be able, barely an hour after his death, to bow down respectfully before him who had been, during more than a half century, the uncontested master of Arabic literature. In front of him was his admirable spouse, made still greater by the unexpected blow that felled this great oak, destined –it would seem– to defy time. Thus, until the very last minute, she was at his side, she who was the light of his intelligence and of his heart, she who has sustained, with the soft tenacity of her invincible fidelity and tenderness, the unconquered fighter who was Dr. Taha Hussein. 
In her memoirs, at one point Suzanne Taha Hussein addressed to her husband the same words he had written her in a note fifty-four years before: “Stay, don’t go away; whether I go out or whether I don’t, I carry you with me. I love you: stay, stay; I love you. I won’t say ‘good-bye,’ because you are mine, you are mine forever. Stay, my love.” 
Just a year or so after his death, at the insistence of friends, the octagenarian Suzanne undertook to write her memoirs of the nearly sixty years shared with her husband Taha Hussein. She remained in Cairo until her death in 1989 at the age of ninety-four. Her memoirs, entitled Avec Toi [With You], are an extraordinary personal, cultural, and spiritual chronicle. Written in French and translated into and published in Arabic by the author’s intention, the book was never published in French until Dec. 2011 [Editions du Cerf, 384pp], thanks to the intervention of a historian of blindness, who considered the work an outstanding homage to a sightless man of great worth, as well as a testimony to a great woman and their intercultural marriage.
In a continent so divided between Muslims and Christians, the inter-faith (and inter-cultural) marriage of Taha Hussein and Suzanne [Brisseau] Taha Hussein is patent evidence that there can indeed be understanding, love, and mutual acceptance between adherents of these two great world religions–in Africa.
Thomas Kevin Kraft
Anawati, G.C, “Hommage à Taha Hussein” in Mélanges Institut Dominicain d’Études Orientales (MIDEO) 12 (1974), 312-313.
A brief but most admirative personal appreciation of Taha Hussein by a colleague and friend of more than thirty years.
Lachèse, J.-P., “Les ‘Souvenirs’ de Madame Suzanne Taha Hussein” in Mélanges Institut Dominicain d’Études Orientales (MIDEO), 15 (1982), 9-30.
This article represents the first publication in French of selections of Suzanne’s memories now published in their entirety under the title Avec Toi, written only months after the death of her husband. They had first been published in Arabic [1977-79] at her request, although they were composed in French. J.-P. Lachèse describes the memoirs of Suzanne Taha Hussein in offering an extensive preview in French: "The narrative is presented as a one-sided conversation. Mme Taha speaks to her husband as present, and in speaking to him, recalls their life together: personal memories which help us immensely, those of us who didn’t know Dr. Taha, to discover the riches of a personality of which his literary works could never reveal all of his secrets." [p. 11] See S. Taha Hussein, Avec Toi, below, for the recent publication in French of the full text.
Perennès, J.-J., Georges Anawati (1905-1994), Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2008. 366 pp.
This biography of Georges Anawati, an Egyptian Dominican friend, colleague, and admirer of Taha Hussein, gives in numerous places brief biographical information about Taha Hussein and his wife.
Taha Hussein, Le Livre des Jours [The Book of Days], Paris: Gallimard, 1947.
This is the first volume (of two) of Taha’s autobiography. Note: the bibliography of Taha Hussein runs to some seventy books; no attempt has been made here to present his bibliography, but only his autobiography, which touches upon his personal relationship with his wife and children.
Taha Hussein, Suzanne. Avec Toi [With You], Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2011.
This is the memoir of Suzanne Taha Hussein, written in French by Taha’s wife, and published a few years after his death in Arabic translation, but just recently published in French for the first time.
Testimony of Suzanne & Taha’s son Moenis (Reference / UNESCO Courier / March, 1990), accessed 19.7.2011 at:http://findarticles.com/p/articles/ mi_m1310/is_1990_March/ai_8929503/
This section is taken from J. J. Perennès’ biography of Georges Anawati (1905-1994) [Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2008], 134-135.
J. J. Perennès, 135.
J. J. Perennès, 135.
Taha Hussein, Le Livre des Jours (Paris: Gallimard, 1947).
English translation: Taha Hussein, The Future of Culture in Egypt (Cairo: Dar el-Maarif, 1938).
Unpublished diary of G. C. Anawati, entry October 10, 1941, cited in J .J. Perennès, 89.
Suzanne Taha Hussein, Souvenirs, [selections published by J. P. Lachèse, “Les ‘Souvenirs’ de Madame Suzanne Taha Hussein” in Mélanges Institut Dominicain d’Études Orientales (MIDEO), 15 (1982), 9-30 and translated by T. K. Kraft], 13-14. The middle paragraph of this citation was quoted by Fr. Anawati in his memorial homily during her funeral at St. Joseph Church in Zamalek, 31 July 1989.
S. Taha Hussein, 14
S. Taha Hussein.
S. Taha Hussein.
S. Taha Hussein, 19-20.
S. Taha Hussein, 20.
S. Taha Hussein, 20-21.
S. Taha Hussein, 10-11.
S. Taha Hussein, 21, 27.
S. Taha Hussein, 22.
J. J. Perennès, 136.
Testimony of Fr. Claude Gilliot OP to T. K. Kraft OP, Cairo, 19/7/2011.
S. Taha Hussein, 28-29.
Wikipedia, “Taha Hussein,” accessed 19.7.2011.
S. Taha Hussein, 11, 26.
S. Taha Hussein, 11-13.
G. C. Anawati, “Hommage à Taha Hussein” in mideo12 (1974), 312.
S. Taha Hussein.
This biography, submitted in 2012, was written by Fr. Thomas Kevin Kraft O.P., Roman Catholic priest, member of the Order of Preachers (Dominican Friars), Lecturer at Tangaza College (Nairobi, Kenya).