Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Gaber Asfour: Combining the Intellectual and the Official Worlds

Gaber Asfour
Dr Gaber Asfour sits next to Dr Awni Abdul Rauf, the former dean of the linguistics department at Ain Shams University. Source: Nan Deko, Wikimedia Commons.

Youssef  Sharqawi

Gaber Asfour left behind a massive legacy in Egypt and the Arab world throughout his life. Over three decades of enlightenment and cultural efforts, Asfour captivated a large audience through his writings, lectures, seminars and conferences.

He also headed and managed influential cultural institutions, which later became beacons of cultural enlightenment throughout the Arab world.

Intellectual Figure

Gaber Asfour was born in Al-Mahalla al-Kubra in 1944. He received his primary and secondary education there, then joined the Department of Arabic Language at the Faculty of Arts in Cairo University in 1962. He graduated in 1965 with an excellent grade and was ranked first in his class.

Under Suhair al-Qalamawi’s supervision, Asfour presented his masters and doctoral theses. His doctoral study, titled “The Artistic Image in the Critical and Rhetorical Heritage of the Arabs,” was an actual academic, scientific and methodological gateway for a conscious, educated generation of researchers who studied the Arabic and Islamic heritage as constructively criticised it.

Describing Taha Hussein‘s role in his life, Asfour once said: “When I read ‘Al-Ayam,’ it captivated me to no end. It even helped me determine my path. I read it, and I decided to be like Taha Hussein. When I found out that he wrote novels beside studies, I did the same.”

After that, Gaber Asfour began his enlightening academic, research and critical career for nearly half a century.

The former Egyptian Minister of Culture, Helmy al-Namnam, summarises Asfour’s career in three main features: a university professor, a public intellectual, and an official in cultural institutions.

As a professor, Asfour left behind many students and scholars. He taught Arabic literature in many universities, such as Cairo University, the University of Wisconsin, Harvard University in America, Kuwait University, and Uppsala University in Sweden. Also, he left a collection of unique academic books, whether about Taha Hussein in his doctoral theses or Arabic heritage criticism.

As an Intellectual, his writings in major Egyptian and Arab magazines and newspapers were not just fillers without significance. He grappled with the cultural reality and waged wars on the forces of darkness in the Arab region, such as his battle against the Muslim Brotherhood. His critical and intellectual opposition stance thwarted the Brotherhood project alongside other intellectuals’ efforts.

As a cultural official, Asfour founded the National Centre for Translation. When he was Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Culture, he presented a personal initiative to establish the National Project for Translation. Later, it became the National Centre for Translation. In addition, he turned the Supreme Council of Culture from an ineffective body that only grants state incentive and appreciation awards into an actual cultural institution, and the council received many of the most renowned intellectuals from all around the Arab world and the globe.


Enlightenment was a focal point in Asfour’s writings and cultural institutions management. It started in his study about Taha Hussein in the early 1980s and extended to most of his books, such as “The Ordeal of Enlightenment,” “In Defence of Enlightenment,” “Margins on the Enlightenment Notebooks,” “The Lights of Reason,” “Countering Fanaticism,” “Critique of the Culture of Underdevelopment,” “Novel and Enlightenment,” “For Enlightenment and the Civil State,” “Betting on the Future,” “On a Different Culture,” and “Facing Terrorism.”

Even when he wrote about literature and literati, he invoked enlightenment as a general course of action. The urgency of this enlightenment issue, as Muhammad al-Mahmoud says, made him an enlightened encyclopedic intellectual before he was a literary critic.

Asfour believed in cultural openness to the fullest extent. He communicated with all spectrums of culture in Egypt and the Arab world, from the ocean to the gulf.

Because he was a multi-dimensional intellectual with diverse interests, he attracted the most important cultural actors in the Arab world to participate in conferences, seminars and publications in Egypt. He responded to the invitations to participate in all Arab world countries. All that vital interaction stems from his belief that the Arabic culture, however diverse culturally and geographically, is of one destiny by virtue of linguistic and heritage unity.

From Necessity to Freedom

Asfour carried this slogan throughout his life and deployed it into his critical speech. About this, he says: “History may not be a homogeneous upward line, but at the end of this line, the accumulations of the past and its experiences push it not to repeat itself, and then history does not go back, but it does make a promise.”

For Asfour, this promise is represented in a kind of democratic socialism, where there is a great deal of freedom, democracy, and justice; a welfare state with a strict and progressive taxation system that enables it to provide services and social welfare to the less fortunate. But not at the expense of people’s freedoms, as that democracy, citizenship, and separation of powers should be the pillars of social justice.

Asfour was a critic of poetry and prose and an academic professor who specialised in critical and rhetorical heritage literary theory. His extensive and elaborate work on concepts and ideas led him to an intellectual “discourse” that addresses issues such as “progress” and “modernity” and “development obstacles,” as well as “ideology” and “interpretation” issues. He was the very manifestation of the thinker, teacher, planner and manager of delicate cultural projects.


Gaber Asfour left more than 60 books and dozens of studies, researches and translations, distributed between traditional rhetoric, old Arabic criticism, doctrines and currents of modern criticism, and criticism of temporary literary genres. In addition, he published books that dealt with the problems of the renaissance, modernisation and enlightenment, which constitute more than half of his entire bibliography.

He received many awards, honours, and official and international distinctions and recognitions through his scientific, intellectual, and cultural life. He passed away on Dec. 31, 2021.


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our bloggers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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