This is a guest post by the brilliant Raph Cormack, writer and editor of The Book of Khartoum (Comma Press, 2016).
One Sunday evening in the late 1930s in Egypt’s Fayoum Oasis the 26-year-old Nassif Isaac gathered his family in their sitting room. It was him, his 60-year-old mother, his teenage brother and sister – Nagiba and Noshi – and his two young nieces Isis and Iris. Isaac pulled the curtains closed so no light could get intrude on their meeting. Then he recited a verse from the Bible and put some gentle music on the gramophone. The family joined hands and earnestly set about trying to contact the spirits of the dead. Nothing materialised – at first.
For three Sundays they kept trying and on the third they succeeded. Isaac’s siblings, Nagiba and Iris, both slipped into a trance and made contact with their spirit guides, Feda and Whitehawk respectively, who would help them communicate with the dead. The first person to appear to the group was the spirit of their departed father, holding a book with perseverance in Arabic written across the cover. They took this as a blessing and an encouragement. Over the coming years they managed to make contact with Etheria (the world beyond) several times. Their first visitors were family members and school friends but as the years passed they channelled some more famous names including Sir Oliver Lodge, Neville Chamberlain, Isaac Newton, Ahmed Shawqi, Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln.
Many years later in 1996 Isaac Nassif was interviewed about his life of Spiritualism for the Australian Arabic Broadcasting station. Soon after the programme aired he was contacted by a Jordanian living in Australia, keen to learn more. They exchanged messages and soon Isaac was invited to the man’s house. There he gathered the family in a caravan that sat empty in the courtyard. Closing the curtains, he put on his soothing music, and began again to communicate with the spirits.
In the years between these two different séances Dr Nassif Isaac lived a fascinating life that I have been tracing for the past few weeks. Now, I would like to explain why I find him so interesting. I hope to show it is not only for his eccentricities but for the way of looking at the world that he embodies. Perhaps it is best to explain how I first discovered him.
The story begins in an Oxfam bookshop. Tucked inside of a book was an invitation to the residents of Ibadan, Nigeria to see the Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya movement speak on the 13th April 1970. The double-sided sheet of A4 gave a brief history of this branch of Islam but it was one sentence in particular that stood out: “It has translated the Holy Quran into ten different languages including English, Dutch, German, Swahili, Esperanto, French, Urdu, Danish, Yoruba and Mende.”
Rather it was one word that stood out: “Esperanto”. I have found it to be a pretty consistent rule that speakers of Dr Zamenhof’s universal world language, Esperanto, are likely to have a life story worth looking into. I have not yet got a complete working theory of why this is but experience has not yet proved me wrong. So, I felt a reference to the Esperanto Quran was worth digging into.
Fortunately, finding this translation was not difficult. Within a day (and with the help of an Ahmadi friend and the Imam of Baitul Futuh Mosque) I had a pdf copy of the 1970 Esperanto Quran, with parallel Arabic text translated by Professor Italo Chiussi. Unfortunately, there is not space to tell the story of this particular Italian Esperantist who, while strolling through a forest in Frankfurt, stumbled across an Ahmadi mosque and quickly became enamoured of Islam. My trail led me further to Chiussi’s introduction, where he thanks several people for help with the translation: Fazle Ilahi Anweri of Lagos, Gaston Waringhien of the Esperanto Academy and Dr Nassif Isaac of Cairo.
Having lived in Cairo, my attention turned immediately to the last name. A brief online search revealed books in several different languages to his name. On spiritualism there was My Story in Spiritualism in Arabic as well as the English Shortcomings of the So-Called Revealed Religions. On Esperanto he had an Arabic-Esperanto dictionary and a guide in Arabic called How to Learn Esperanto: The International Language as well as a travel account written in Esperanto. Finally, there was one book that brought together his two scholarly interests: The Two Aspirations of Humanity: One Universal Scientific Religion and One International Common Language.
I could now start to piece together a fuller life, told through his two great pursuits: Spiritualism and Esperanto. It appears that his attachment to Spiritualism came before his interest in Esperanto. He describes his trajectory in The Two Aspirations of Humanity. Starting in 1936 he made a number of partially successful forays into the supernatural but it was the 1938 publication of Ahmed Fahmy Abul-Kheir’s translation of the renowned spiritualist Arthur Findlay’s On the Edge of the Etheric that truly opened this door. He made contact with the translator and, within a few days, he had been invited to a séance at the scholar’s house in Cairo.
When he came to the city from Fayoum, he found fifteen other participants around the medium, an “illiterate labourer” called Yasin. Abul-Kheir turned the lights off and turned on the mellow music and Yasin managed to make contact. Shortly after this, Isaac started conducting the séances in his home town I described at the beginning.
By entering into the world of Spiritualism he joined a large contingent of like-minded people. Dr. Abul-Kheir, a university professor and head of the cinema section of the Ministry of Culture, was the most prominent of these. From the late 1930s onwards he contributed several articles on spiritualism to cultural journals and lectured on the subject. True devotees could also consult Abul-Kheir’s own journal World of the Spirit, for more information. By the 1950s, there were two different Spiritualist groups: The Egyptian Institute for Spiritualist Studies and the Pyramids Spiritual Institute.
Isaac’s entry into the Esperantist community is murkier. Despite long excursuses on his development as a Spiritualist, he says little how he became an Esperantist. The language had been invented in 1887 by the Polish Dr L. L. Zamenhof as a simple, logical and universal language for all of humanity. Like Spiritualism, it had a fair number of adherents in Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s who could join the Egyptian Esperanto Association. The journalist Tadros Megalli was a prominent proselytiser for the language and taught it to several people in Egypt. Nassif Isaac first began to learn the language in 1940 and became a student of Megalli.
In 1948 we can see Isaac’s we can see Isaac’s two interests come together for the first time as he embarks on a trip to Europe. First, he visits Malmo to attend the International Esperantists Conference and then heads on to London for the International Spiritualist Conference. There he meets Arthur Findlay, whose book had so influenced his formation as a Spiritualist, along with a world community of spiritualists. It is an important year in his intellectual formation and supported by the two pillars Esperanto and Spiritualism.
After this, his life is harder to trace but the two guiding philosophies remained. From 1952 to 1956 he lived in Reading where he studied accountancy. During the period he corresponded with the Psychic News journal and gave talks at the Edinburgh Psychic College. In 1968 he married fellow-Spiritualist Eunice Morgan, in a ceremony at Arthur Findlay College. Between 1948 and 1987 he also went to 18 international Esperanto conferences, often as the only Arab representative. However, in the 1990s I lose track of him in Australia. I have not even been able to confirm whether or not he is alive.
I want to argue that this life story is more than simply an entertaining narrative; it demonstrates a particularly attractive mode of living. To explain what I mean by this I want to ask the question that has often recurred while researching Nassif: what connects Spiritualism and Esperanto? What is it that unites the two enduring touchstones of his life?
Going through Egyptian Esperantists, we find a surprising number with an interest in the world beyond. In fact, almost all the prominent esperantists were also drawn to the spiritual (if not Spiritualism specifically). One Dr Cohen, as well as being a member of the EEA, was also Director of the Theosophical Society. The aforementioned Tadros Megalli was the scholarly delegate for Metaphysics and Vegetarianism for the International Esperanto League. The largest federation to combine Esperato and Spiritualism was the Brasilian Federação Espírita Brasileira Avenida. How can we explain this connection?
In Nassif Isaac’s short memoirs of his life in Esperanto he begins with a story about his first contact with the language. As he was strolling through Fayoum in 1940, he came across a small, unassuming man. The man began by asking him if he could contact the world of the dead. Having been experimenting with séances Isaac replied in the affirmative and began to expound on the philosophy of spiritualism and its view of death.
It is nothing more than the scientific discovery of another world, into which all men enter, whether they are black or white, religious or irreligious, an atheist or a believer. Death does not distinguish, all who reach it are equal… So we can say that all men are one family.
His unnamed interlocutor asks him if he knows about Esperanto and Isaac is curious, not quite knowing what the he is talking about. The stranger explains, “Esperanto is the international language that aims to destroy the walls of national languages to join together the human family.” So, in his narrative, he directly links his first exposure to Esperanto to Spiritualism. But why?
Firstly, we should stress that Esperanto is not just an international language. It is an international second language. This man informs Isaac that “you learn your native language to use in your homeland. To contact the external world, you use Esperanto; totally logical and miraculously easy. So, from birth, you learn two languages: your native one and Esperanto.”
The result of this is that Esperantists are accustomed to work between two different spheres, one national and one expressly global. This is truer for Esperanto that any other language. If one speaks English and French, for instance, switching between them means switching between two national languages. Esperantists are used to switching and communicating between the national and the international.
This existence between planes is where the connection with Spiritualism comes in; it is one of their core beliefs. Spiritualists cannot abide the word “Death”. People do not die. They merely begin to exist on a different level. This is not meant metaphorically, in a “I’ve only slipped away to the next room” kind of way. It is literal and scientific. A favourite example of spiritualists is radio waves. We cannot sense them physically but they fill the world. It is only when we turn on a radio that we can perceive them. In the same way there is a spirit world that exists all around us but which we can only access through Spiritualist means.
If we think about Esperanto and Spiritualism in this way, then we can see why Nassif Isaac and other Egyptians would be drawn to both at the same time. Both pursuits require someone to be attracted to seeing the world as multiple layers of reality: between the national and international, the living and the dead, physical and the metaphysical. They also both propose ways to communicate between these worlds. Nassif Isaac’s life spent both across the world and between the Ethereal and Eartherial (a nice Spiritualist coinage) reflects this too.
I am not proposing that everyone must learn a new language and start doing séances, though I’m not going to stop you if you want to. What I am saying is that Nassif Isaac, with his twin passions, represents a particularly attractive habit of mind and it is in Esperanto and Spiritualism that he gives this expression.