Groundbreaking Exploration of the Birthplace of Writing: A Review of Al-Bishak’s Black Papyrus

A committed scholar is identifiable by his uncanny passion for fulfilling Robert Frost’s vision of “taking the road less travelled” in the field of his academic endeavour by breaking fresh grounds and creating new pathways to uncommon knowledge. Professor Al-Bishak, a brilliant, academic iconoclast and literary Egyptologist, fits into this mould. He chose for his doctorate degree dissertation a daunting topic requiring hardcore research and rigorous defence. Titled African Literature and the Chronological Limits of the Eurasian Literary Tradition: A Study of the Origin, Context and Style of Kemetian (Ancient Egyptian) Literature, the thesis delves into the history of scribal (written) literature by revisiting the debate on the origins of writing and scribal literature in the world. 

His book, Black Papyrus: Global Origins of Writing and Written Literature Traced to Black Africa, published in 2022 by NIRPRI, and sponsored by TETFund, is a modified version of that dissertation, which he submitted to the Department of English, Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nigeria, for his PhD in African Literature with speciality in Literary Egyptology.

The book is not just a result of the quest to fulfil the requirements for the doctorate degree, which took him almost eleven years to accomplish, but also a culmination of almost fifty years of research triggered by his avid reading of history and archaeology books on the subject. Among them are Galbraith Welch’s Africa Before They Came and Margaret A. Murray’s The Splendour That Was Egypt. These two books, in particular, marked a watershed in his academic pursuit that led to the production of this scholarly and monumental publication. Incidentally, they were written by white or Eurasian authors, which explains why Al-Bishak’s tenacity for uncovering the African literary past has no racist undertones but the single-minded pursuit for the untainted historical facts.

Black Papyrus is more than just a book of literary history. It is a rejoinder. In fact, it is a protest against the widely accepted lies about Africa, which describe her as the “Dark Continent” full of savages: “barbarous without a refined culture or civilization” (p. 11) and incapable of originating the art of writing. In other words, the book is an attempt to demolish the literary history constructed by most Eurasian scholars, and replace it with the authentic historical accounts of fair-minded or objective writers.

The 183-page book is made up of seven chapters, which retrace the African past to Kemet (ancient Egypt) where writing originated among the black Africans and circulated globally. It compares the emergence of writing in Kemet with the Mesopotamian cuneiform of ancient Iraq, often touted by the Eurasians as the first writing script in the world. On account of dating, Al-Bishak on pages 51–53 shows that medu-netjer (Kemet’s script called hieroglyphs by the Greeks) is older, and that the cuneiform actually originated from Africa, and had been written on the continent before the black writers migrated to Iraq and was adopted by the Sumerians.

The first chapter, ‘The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt and Denigration of the Blackman’ introduces the subject by highlighting the testimonies of some authoritative historians like Cheikh Anta Diop, Margaret A. Murray, Lewis Spence and William Kelly Simpson about Egypt as the “mother of civilization”. The second chapter, ‘Literature, Racial Prejudice, its Meaning, Emergence and Techniques’ zooms in on the taxonomic features of different literary genres and traditions, their origins, and the prejudice that often colours the understanding of literature and other concepts based on the misrepresentation of historical facts.

The author observes that the modern cultural bias against Africa is so rooted in the educational system worldwide that accepting the misconception has virtually become the norm even among Africans. He states on page xvi: “The teaching of literature has followed the same colonial trend whereby the authority of conventional African literary studies instructs that the origin of African written literature is traced to Africa’s contact with Eurasia. To entrench Eurasian education, the missioners abolished the use of millennia-old indigenous African writing scripts such as the Egyptian medu-netjer (hieroglyphs).” He further asserts that the writing scripts were replaced with the foreign (Roman and Arabic) scripts and literatures of the colonizers, laying the foundation for the Eurasian scholars’ claim that Africa inherited formal education and the written literary forms from Eurasia. Consequently, their African literary apologists of the Eurasians proclaim such falsehood to their students thereby further obscuring the intellectual breakthroughs of the ancient black Africans. Such feats of the ancient blacks are never featured in the works of modern Western and Asian historians whereas the African literary and other global accomplishments had been acknowledged in the writings of ancient Eurasians. Al-Bishak cites on page 23 a white female author, Professor Hilde Hein, who made a bold statement about the deletion of acknowledgments of black contributions to white civilization in modern Eurasian writings due to racism.

The author quoted from an authoritative source the factor responsible for this unfortunate situation: “Ancient Egyptian literature was not included in early studies of the history of literature because the writings of Ancient Egypt were not translated into European languages until the 19th century when the Rosetta Stone was deciphered.” (p xxiii). Other factors included loss of the texts of Africa’s literary history over time due to unfavourable climatic conditions, vandalisation of ancient Egypt’s famous libraries by invading foreigners, damage by natural disasters and deliberate distortion of the historical records.

In the subsequent chapters variously titled, ‘The Emergence of Writing and Written Literature’, ‘The Pioneering Literary Status of Ancient Egypt’, ‘Ancient Egypt Influenced Early Greek Writers’, and ‘Textual Analysis of Ancient Egyptian Written Literature’, the author hammers home his points in a convincing manner that leaves no room for doubt. Backing up his argument with facts from the works of ancient, classical and modern historians on the emergence of writing before and after the Eurasian colonialism of the African continent, he asserts that modern African literature is the logical continuation of the age-old written tradition of the black Africans which began in Nubia (Sudan), Kush (Ethiopia), etc. over 5,000 BCE before some of them migrated with their writings to Egypt. Also relying on the archaeological science of Egyptologists and his first-hand experience during a personal trip to historic sites and museums in Egypt in March 2016, the author further concludes: “The argument that modern African scribal literature is a legacy of Eurasia cannot stand since Eurasian scribal literature is, at best, an adaptation of the original Egyptian scribal literature” (p. 104).  “The actual race that originated writing or scribal literature in the world is the Negroid (blacks in Africa), where the proto-Saharans lived. They practised their writing and literature for over 3,500 years before the earliest recorded foreign presence or the invasion of North Africa around 1,500 BCE courtesy of the Hyksos (‘foreigners’ or ‘shepherd kings’) from Sumeria (Assyrians)” (p. 150).

With this publication, the author has not only corrected the misrepresentation of the history of scribal literature so that humanity may benefit by the knowledge of the contributions of the different races to world civilization but also put the Black Africa in the rightful place in terms of her contribution to knowledge; her invention of literacy, formal education, literature, school etc., which are the foundations of intellectual development.

Black Papyrus is a great exploration with a rich intellectual depth – a delight for literary scholars. Though it is purely an intellectual work, the author managed to present it in a language that makes it accessible to both the academics and the reading public. It is hoped that the next edition of the text will be in a bigger font size to make it more reader-friendly.

Al-Bishak is a multiple award-winning academic, literary scholar, journalist/ broadcaster, novelist, poet, culturologist, essayist, and orator. The ardent Africanist and literary critic has spoken eloquently in international conferences on the need for Africans to propound and use African knowledge and theories to justify their works in the literary realm as well as published a book in that regard. Titled Leoparditude and African Drama: Professor Iowuese Haghers Plays Explained (2000), the book articulates an indigenous literary theory called Leoparditude to explicate the works of African writers. He applied the theory in analyzing Hagher’s dramatic art.

Professor Al-Bishak holds one of Nigeria’s highest national honours, Member of the Order of the Niger (M.O.N.). He is currently on the academic staff of the Federal University of Lafia, Nasarawa State, in the Department of English and Literary Studies, Faculty of Arts.

Umaisha is an award-winning literary journalist, and is currently on the staff of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, Abuja.