The cover of Why am I an Atheist? (Limadha ana mulhid?) by Dr. I.A. Edham. Cooperation Press, Alexandria, Egypt, 1937.
Image courtesy the Abushady Archive.
A selection of works from Edham the Atheist is included in The Wayland Rudd Collection, a collaborative project and traveling exhibition organized by Yevgeniy Fiks (premiering at Winkleman Gallery, NY, January 17-February 15, 2014) that focuses on the representation of Africans and African-Americans in Soviet visual culture. A point of departure for this project is Fiks’ collection of over 200 Soviet images (paintings, movie stills, posters, graphics, etc.) of Africans and African-Americans spanning from the 1920s to the 1980s. This exhibition will travel to First Floor Gallery Harare in Harare, Zimbabwe in Summer of 2014. A book will be produced in conjunction with this project.
Joy Garnett: EDHAM the ATHEIST
(Winter 2013 / 2014)
I am attracted to stories about individuals who create new or false identities, especially when elaborate fabrication is involved. The works presented in “Edham the Atheist” draw on the painstakingly constructed identity of one such individual, Ismail Ahmed Edham (1911-1940), an Alexandrian Egyptian with literary and scholarly aspirations. Edham flaunted a long list of academic credentials he attained while pursuing advanced degrees in the Soviet Union. However, it has been suggested by some that Edham never left Egypt.
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 house 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 spreading free thought and atheist mission work." By his own account, in 1931 when the movement failed, Edham left Turkey for Russia to study mathematics and theoretical physics, returning to Egypt in 1934. Three years later, the publication of Why am I an Atheist? would be met with outrage, placing Edham in the spotlight. In July 1940, Edham’s corpse was found floating in the Mediterranean Sea off Alexandria's Gleem beach, a suicide note pinned inside his coat pocket. He was 29 years old.
For this installation, I have assembled a selection of photographed pages from Edham’s infamous tract,1 and from the biography he wrote of my grandfather, Abushâdy the Poet: a critical study.2 I have also included a painting of the cover of one of Edham’s banned books, which bears his portrait, and which starts the series, “Tracing the Covers of Nonexistent Books.”3 Both the portrait and the photographed pages, which show Edham’s Soviet credentials, reveal a young North African man who needed to reinvent himself, and to whom a prestigious education in the Soviet Union seemed the perfect solution.
Edham the Orientalist (from the series “Tracing the Covers of Nonexistent Books”), 2013. Oil on birch panel. 16 x 12 inches. Based on 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 “Dr. Edham” a few years ago, having discovered his 1936 biography of my grandfather, Ahmed Zaky Abushady, in the Harvard Library. Edham's biography, Abushâdy the Poet, is the only work about my grandfather written in both English and Arabic. The then-twenty-five-year-old Edham's credentials are displayed on the cover:
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 impressive list of publications authored by Edham appears in the addendum:
- Life of the Prophet (in German);
- History of Islam (3 volumes, in Turkish);
- Mathematics and Physics (2 volumes in German and Russian);
- Theory of Relativity (3 volumes in German and Russian).
Many years later, the esteemed Leiden Orientalist, G.H.A Juynboll, would feel compelled to shed light on Edham's fabrications. In an article published in the Journal of Arabic Literature,4Juynboll notes: "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., Why am I an Atheist? (Limadha ana mulhid?), Alexandria, Cooperation Press, 1937.
2. Edham, I.A., Abushâdy the poet, a critical study. Leipzig, G. Fischer, 1936.
3. Source materials for Edham the Atheist are drawn from an ongoing project about Egypt, history and memory.
4. Juynboll, G.H.A. 1972. "Ismail Ahmad Adham (1911-1940), the Atheist." Journal of Arabic Literature. 3: 54-71.