The cover of Why am I an Atheist? (Limadha ana mulhid?) by Dr. I.A. Edham. Cooperation Press, rue de France, Alexandria, Egypt, 1937. Image courtesy the Abushady Archive.
A selection of works from Edham the Atheist will be exhibited as part of The Wayland Rudd Collection, a collaborative project and traveling exhibition organized by Yevgeniy Fiks, premiering at Winkleman Gallery, NY, January 17-February 15, 2014.
EDHAM the ATHEIST
An installation by Joy Garnett, Winter 2013/2014
This work draws on the painstakingly constructed identity of Ismail Ahmed Edham (1911-1940), an Alexandrian Egyptian of Turkish descent who supposedly garnered a prestigious academic career in the Soviet Union. Edham was a shy, bookish young man with literary aspirations, who worked briefly for my grandfather in Alexandria in the 1930s. He claimed to have authored an array of scholarly tomes in Russian, German, Turkish, English and Arabic, on subjects ranging from particle physics to the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
However, it can be established that Edham did not write much beyond a few odd, assorted volumes and a stream of literary reviews in local Arabic newspapers that served to stroke the egos of the illustrious poets of his time. It appears that in addition to being a writer and critic, Edham was also a consummate fantasist, a convincing imposter, and an outspoken activist whose local notoriety stemmed from his self-proclaimed rationalism and atheism.
In July 1940, Edham’s corpse was found floating in the Mediterranean Sea off Alexandria's Gilliam beach, near Chatby. He was 29 years old. Pinned to a pocket in his coat was a cryptic suicide note asking that his body be burned, not buried. He left behind a number of baffled friends, and a larger number of enemies.
In this installation, I assemble a selection of photographed pages from Edham’s most infamous tract, Why am I an Atheist? (Limadha ana mulhid?), and from the biography he wrote of my grandfather, Abushady the Poet.
Also included is a painting from my recent series “Tracing the Covers of Nonexistent Books.” These depict imagined covers from the books Edham claimed to have authored, as well as the cover of one reissued book, Sources of Islamic history and other texts (1936; 2009), which was banned in Egypt in the 1930s due to its inflammatory content.
Source materials for 'Edham the Atheist’ are drawn from a larger, ongoing archive project about Egypt, history and memory.
The cover of Sources of Islamic history and other texts, by Ismail Ahmed Edham. Banned book (ca.1935) re-issued in 2009. Cover image source.
I became aware of the existence of I.A. Edham a few years ago, having come across his 1936 biography of my grandfather, Ahmed Zaky Abushady, in the Harvard Library. Edham's book, Abushady the Poet,1 is the only biography written in both English and Arabic about my grandfather, who was an influential, early-20th century Egyptian poet, publisher and bee scientist. On the book's cover, the then-twenty-five-year-old Edham's credentials are listed as follows:
D.Litt. (Hon), Ph.D., Sc.D. (Moscow), Vice-President of the Russian Soviet Institute for Islamic Studies, Member of the Russian Soviet Academy for Science, Formerly Professor of High Mathematics, University of St. Petersburg, Professor of Islamic History at the College of History, Stamboul
An equally impressive list of erudite-sounding publications authored by Edham appears in the book's addendum, including Life of the Prophet (in German); a History of Islam (3 volumes, in Turkish); Mathematics and Physics (2 volumes in German and Russian); and Theory of Relativity (3 volumes in German and Russian).
In Egypt, if Edham is remembered at all, it is for his polemical treatise Why am I an Atheist? (Limadha ana mulhid?), which was printed and published in 1937 by The Cooperation Press, my grandfather's publishing imprint on the rue de France in Alexandria. In this tract, Edham explains how he came to form a group in Istanbul called The Eastern Association for the Advancement of Atheism, "a kind of moderate movement in spreading of free thought and atheist mission work." In 1931, when the movement failed, Edham left Turkey for Russia to study mathematics and theoretical physics, returning to Egypt in 1934 with several advanced degrees. Three years later, the publication of Why am I an Atheist? would be met with widespread outrage and condemnation, putting Edham in the spotlight.
The late, esteemed Leiden Orientalist, G.H.A Juynboll, would eventually cast doubt on the veracity of Edham's credentials and other claims. In an article he wrote for the Journal of Arabic Literature,2 Juynboll noted: "It could be established that Adham never got any doctorate, never became a member of the Academy of Sciences, never published one book or article in either Russian, French or German, never wrote his two-volume work in Turkish, entitled Islam Tarihi, never made friends with the Russian Orientalist Barthold, who had already died in 1930, one year before Adham claims to have gone to Russia, and never met with favourable criticism from the Russian Orientalist Kazimirsky, because there was no such person....After the publication of his Limadha ana mulhid? Adham became known as the 'atheist who spoke his mind candidly.'...Adham's outspokenness is, in our opinion, his most important feature."
1. Edham, I.A., Abushâdy the poet, a critical study. Leipzig, G. Fischer, 1936.
2. Juynboll, G.H.A. 1972. "Ismail Ahmad Adham (1911-1940), the Atheist." Journal of Arabic Literature. 3: 54-71.