Nakhla Zurayq, son of Jiryes Zurayq, was born in 1859 in the Mazraʿa neighborhood of Beirut, into a well-established aristocratic Greek Orthodox Damascene family that traced its lineage back to the (Bedouin) Arabs of al-Zurayqat in the Karak region of Jordan. He is believed to have never married and to have devoted himself wholly to scholarship and letters.
Zurayq received his primary education in Orthodox schools and then in the Madrasa Wataniyya (National School) that had been founded by the muʿallim [master] Butrus al-Bustani as a nondenominational school. He studied Arabic language, grammar, and literature under two pioneers of the Arab nahda, or modern literary renaissance: Nassif al-Yazji and Shaykh Youssef al-Asir. He memorized the Qur’an and mastered the art of tajwid, or modulated Quranic recitation, and also learned English. He attended the salons of the other major pioneers of the nahda in Beirut and showed a great flair for the Arabic language.
In 1889, the evangelical missionaries sent him to Jerusalem, where he took over the administration of the religious bookstore of the English Mission. In 1892, Zurayq was appointed principal of the Young Men’s Preparatory School in Jerusalem, which was initially located on Mount Zion in the same building that housed the Bishop Gobat boarding school for boys. The school was later renamed the Young Men’s College and was moved to the Saad wa Said neighborhood; unlike most other missionary schools in Palestine, the language of instruction was Arabic. Later on it came to be known as the English College. In addition to his administrative duties at the school, Zurayq taught Arabic and continued to do so until his death.
In 1908, Zurayq joined the reformist Arab-Ottoman Brotherhood Association and became a member of its Jerusalem branch. This was the first Arab association founded in Istanbul after the proclamation of the new Ottoman constitution. It called for preserving the Ottoman Empire, , bettering the status of its Arab citizens, and granting them constitutional equality in rights, jobs, and employment.
After the end of World War I, Zurayq was chosen as a member of the committee to revise the textbooks at the Military Academy in Damascus. He was also elected as a member of the Arab Academy, which was founded in 1919 under the reign of King Faisal. But his stay in Damascus did not last long, and he returned to Jerusalem. The Damascene historian and academic Muhammad Kurd Ali described him in the academy’s journal: “Professor Nakhla Zurayq has been one of Jerusalem's great scholars of [the Arabic] language and among those intimate with its deepest secrets.”
Zurayq was given the title of al-muʿallim (master), as he is credited with reviving Arabic language and literature in the schools of Jerusalem. His students included famous Palestinian figures such as Khalil al-Sakakini, Boulos Shehadeh, Khalil Totah, Jiryes al-Khoury, Habib Khoury, George Matta, Ibrahim Tuqan, Wasfi al-Anbatawi, and others who were at the forefront of the Palestinian intellectual, literary, and educational renaissance after World War I. Another student of his, Ishaq Musa al-Husseini, described him as follows: “Our teacher Nakhla is akin to Isaaf al-Nashashibi in a number of ways; but he is more of a teacher than a man of letters, whereas al-Nashashibi is more of a writer than a teacher … A large number of professors and educators studied under him before graduating.”
Zurayq’s residence in Jerusalem, which contained a library with the canonical works of language, literature, and history, became a literary salon where a number of the city’s prominent personalities gathered, among them Salim al-Husseini and Faydi al-Alami, both of whom held the position of mayor of Jerusalem.
Zurayq stood out for his extreme frankness, his self-respect, his honesty, and his devotion to his profession. Known for his passion for Arabic literature and heritage, he saw in their revival and refinement a path to the development and progress of the Arabs. He also held on to his sense of identity as an easterner and hated the superficial imitation of Europeans.
Zurayq died on 21 July 1921 in Jerusalem and was buried there. He seems to have left behind no written works. In the eulogy delivered at his wake by Khalil al-Sakakini in September 1921 in Jerusalem (reprinted in the Egyptian magazine al-Muqtataf in November 1921), his former pupil said: “He was raised among the upper class of Beirut, the most refined city in Syria, where he mingled and lived alongside Europeans. Some of them were dear friends of his, whom he revered and whose morals and manners he admired, and he was comfortable with their lifestyle. In spite of this, he was fanatically zealous about his Eastern identity to the extreme. Nothing was more despicable and exasperating to him, or provoked his ire than artificial pretense, blind imitation and putting on airs, especially if the imitation was a superficial, external veneer. Part of what made him avoid mimicking Westerners was how he witnessed that this mimicry corrupted most people’s sense of national belonging, and weakened their pride in themselves and their spirit of independence. No sooner would they adopt Western dress than they would begin to look down at their own language, traditions and culture, along with all the characteristics and elements that set them apart as a people, which meant they ultimately held their own nation in contempt.”
Ajaj Nuwayhed writes in his memoirs: “At Mr. Salim’s restaurant [in Jerusalem] I would meet the ʿallama [great scholar] Nakhla Zurayq, the most erudite scholar of Arabic in Palestine, dressed in the traditional Arab qunbaz coat, with a long jacket above it. He dressed in the same manner as the great teacher Butrus al-Bustani, in that he continued to wear dress in the way of his people including wearing the sirwal, or traditional loose trousers. Zurayq, however, wore his qunbaz so elegantly that he looked as fine as a chrysanthemum. He came from Lebanon, yet he was as much at home in Palestine and its literary forums as if he were Abdallah al-Bustani in the Patriarchate school [in Beirut], or Jabr Doumit at the American University of Beirut. Whenever I met him at Salim’s restaurant, I would learn so much, for he was a limitless ocean of knowledge.”
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