His Early Life
Jurji Zaidan was born in Beirut, Lebanon, on December 14, 1861 into a Greek Orthodox family and he grew up in very modest conditions. By the time he died unexpectedly in Cairo on July 21, 1914 at the age of fifty three he had established himself in a little over twenty years as one of the most prolific and influential thinkers and writers of the Arab Nahda (Awakening), an educator and intellectual innovator in the Arab world. He could not complete his autobiography1, started only a few years before his untimely death. It covered only the first twenty years of his life but it gave us an invaluable insight into his early years in Beirut and what drove him and enabled him to scale the heights that he did.
Zaidan received a rudimentary education as his father sent him to work in the small family restaurant from age eleven. Zaidan senior, himself illiterate, did not encourage any education beyond simple reading and writing. But his son had a thirst for knowledge and education which his mother encouraged. With the help of teachers that he met in the family restaurant he pursued his studies at home. At the age of nineteen Jurji was able to successfully sit for the entrance exam of the Syrian Protestant College that was to become the American University of Beirut and enrolled in its school of medicine. But his studies came to an abrupt halt because of a strike resulting from a schism between the administration and some teachers over the firing of a faculty member for having expressed favorable views about the theory of evolution. The young Zaidan was a student leader and a strong proponent of reinstalling the professor in his position. In the ensuing turmoil, the administration closed the University for a year which prompted Jurji to leave for Cairo in 1882. Once settled there Zaidan began a long career as a writer and journalist.
He was a self-made man. In his autobiography he frequently uses terms such as "hard work", "perseverance", "punctuality", and “discipline". In his letters to his son Emile, Zaidan writes how reading "about the life of men who reached the top through their efforts and struggle and reliance upon themselves alone" excited him so much, that he was never able to put down the book before finishing it. He felt the stories he read reflected exactly his own situation, providing advice on how to rise above the conditions of one’s birth.
1Juji Zaidan’s autobiography was translated into English by Thomas Philipp in the Annex to his book Gurgi Zaidan: His Life and Thought, Beirut 1979, In Kommission Bei Franz Steiner Verlag. Weisbaden.