|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
1 - 7 March 2001
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Al-Ahram Weekly appeared for the first time on 28 February 1991. An anonymous man in a Cairo suburb picked up the first issue at the newsstand on his street and, pleased with this first attempt, made it a habit to look for it every Thursday. Over the next ten years, he cast himself in the role of invisible critic, albeit one that the newspaper's staff learned they had to reckon with
Profile by Fayza Hassan
Paolo Lombardini became a presence in my life long before I ever met him. As head proofreader of our paper, I came to fear his brief letters, which invariably pinpointed shortcomings in our general knowledge. In my capacity of watchdog, I should have been able to spot the mistakes and correct them before the pages went to print, but try as I might, my accuracy obviously still left much to be desired. Annoyed at constantly being corrected, I told myself at times that Mr Lombardini, being Italian, was probably in Egypt on a short contract and would soon be gone; at others, I simply wished that he would tire of reading the Weekly from cover to cover and would turn his attention to other publications where, in all modesty, I could say that proofreading was far laxer.
Much to my chagrin, he did not depart; nor, I was sorry to notice, did his interest in our paper wane over the years. Most Saturdays brought a short note, almost terse, informing us of a new slip. His remarks did not fail to attract the attention of our editor-in-chief, who decided that we should publish them as soon as they came in. My own punishment consisted in proofreading such messages as "In Al-Ahram Weekly of 29 June-3 July 2000, we can read... that Zineddine Zidan is an Arab player. Actually he is of Berber, not Arab, ancestry;" or: "In the article titled 'Smoke where there's fire,' [we can read] that tobacco consumption has a long history, going back to Ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Actually tobacco is a native plant of America and it was not known in Europe before the discovery of the continent."
Had Lombardini confined himself to things European, which in a way I could concede as his area of expertise ("In A Diwan of Contemporary Life, we can read that 'Mussolini was strung up on a tree in Milan before the Allies entered that city.' This is not correct: he was shot at Giulino di Mezzegra -- Lake Como -- and then his body was hung, opprobriously head down, in a gas station at Loreto Square in Milan"), I would have been less peeved by his observations. But the ground he covered was quite extensive, unfortunately. Having read in one of our travel articles that "the original island of Philae now lies beneath Lake Nasser," he felt compelled to inform us that "it is actually located in a small lake formed by the Aswan Dam below the High Dam." On another occasion, objecting to our assertion that "Cairo was more than a haven for the Holy Family who sought shelter in Egypt from the persecution of the Romans," he objected that "there was no Cairo when the Holy Family came to Egypt (it was founded ten centuries later) and [the family] was seeking shelter not from the persecution of the Romans, but from King Herod (Matthew 2 -- 13/21)."
Over the years Lombardini became my bête noire. How did he manage to pick up every single mistake? I duly checked his corrections and invariably found that he was right. I became curious. I tried to imagine a face behind the words. I had to meet him. Was he a schoolteacher? A scholar? A whiz kid who compulsively surfed the Internet and delighted in showing off his knowledge? I had never been introduced to a Lombardini at conferences, receptions or artistic events. The letters, however, kept coming regularly: "In 'Upstream [actually downstream] on a midsummer night' (Al-Ahram Weekly, 17-23 August) we can read that the word 'luxury' derives from Luxor. In fact it derives from the Latin word 'luxus,' extravagance, luxury, excess. Best regards."
The mystery remained intact until one of his precise little messages pointed the finger at my very own handiwork: accusing me of having "berated a poor taxi driver for saying Eddz [Aids]" in a previous column, he rebuked me for calling "the sister-ship of Esperia, Ozonia (for Ausonia)." He was right again, of course, and at this point I decided that a phone call was in order. If he knew that much, we could offer him a job, I told my editor-in-chief, trying not to show how miffed I was.
The voice over the phone was youthful but sophisticated and an appointment was set for the next day. I imparted the news to my younger colleagues who bemoaned the absence in their surroundings of young, well-educated gentlemen. I added that Lombardini was probably rich (who but a man of leisure had the time to go over every printed word in a newspaper?) and good-looking to boot (since he had all the other required qualities, why should he be lacking this one?). The more sceptical girls ventured that he could just be a bright schoolboy, a thought that I confess had crossed my mind, in view of the youthfulness of the voice. I nevertheless insisted that no schoolboy would have had time to accumulate so much eclectic information. Although I personally suspected that Lombardini would look like an absent-minded professor with longish hair and cigar ashes all over his coat, I refrained from sharing this sentiment with the others; having caused their expectations to reach their highest point, I found myself hardly able to wait for my mysterious tormentor's appearance.
photos: Randa Shaath
No one, not even I, was prepared however for the neatly dressed, very distinguished, bespectacled older gentleman who was ushered into my office right on time. In the first few minutes during our meeting he explained that he was now retired and therefore had plenty of time for reading. He made it a point to pore over our paper, which addressed so many topics of interest. Mercifully, he remained unaware of the flurry of exits his arrival had caused among the girls positioned in strategic posts allowing them to observe unseen this Apollo with the World Encyclopedia printed inside his head. Later, I had a great deal of trouble making them believe that I had not meant to deceive them, but had been misled by the sound of a voice.
Neither a teacher nor a scholar in the ordinary sense of the word (he only admitted to a good memory), Lombardini settled in Cairo for good after retiring from his last job. He made this decision after careful consideration. Mainly a self-taught man who has worked in various capacities in many foreign countries, he feels at home almost everywhere. He could have gone back to Italy, but after a short trial period in his native Sardinia, he decided that he could not stand its orderly provincial lifestyle; he could have gone to Canada, where he has family, but discovered that the climate depressed him immensely; then again, he could have chosen to pitch his tent in the Seychelles, but "what is there to do on an island after two beautiful weeks of holiday?" He therefore opted for Cairo with its hustle and bustle and its gentle people whose unconcerned attitude appealed to him. "It reminds me of life in Italy when I was a boy," he said. "I like the leisurely pace, the lack of formality, and the fact that basic things are not yet beyond reach financially. There is room for individual preferences, I can live here as I please." Which is comfortably but frugally, in his sparsely furnished third-floor apartment where our next meeting took place and where he leaves all the windows open, even in winter, "to let in the mild air and the sounds of the street," he explained, adding that he never feels cold in Egypt, not even in January, because the sun shines all the time.
Returning on a hazy morning from a trip to Ismailia at the time when the Italian company for which he worked as an accountant was winding up its business, the car in which he was traveling slammed into the rear of a stationed truck concealed by the fog. He remained in hospital for several months. When he finally recovered, he cashed in the money owed him by his employers and took over their guesthouse in Zamalek, off Hassan Sabri Street.
As a result of the accident, his sight is now impaired. Bright lights bother him, and that, he explained, has prevented him from watching television for the past 15 years. To keep informed, however, he has been buying books and newspapers and does not feel that he is missing out on anything of importance. He reads carefully (don't I know it!) and remembers everything he reads. Oddly enough, he favours fiction and mystery books: "You would be amazed how much general information one picks up this way." A Woman of Cairo, In the House of Muhammad Ali, Too Rich: these are among the books that have recently attracted his attention. His period of expertise, however, is the second World War, which he lived through in Italy as a teenage boy. Al-Alamein still holds fascination for him, even after the numerous visits he has made to the site. Ancient Egypt, on the other hand, makes for arduous reading. He confesses that he cannot warm up to an era three thousand years past. He has therefore confined himself to remembering only the most salient points. As for current events, he usually gets their drift from the street, where he knows everybody.
Although he lives alone, Lombardini is certainly not a lonely man. He loves people and enjoys the company of animals. Buffo ("Clown"), an enormous baladi dog, is his faithful companion. Hearing his name, Buffo looked sharply up, then settled discreetly in the adjoining dining room; he kept casting long glances at us to let us know that he was keeping watch as we resumed our conversation. I could have sworn that a smug smile played on his pendulous lips when his master, detailing his daily occupations, mentioned his Saturday trips to the Ataba market, where he can buy "chickens' spare parts" for the soup he cooks for "Buffo and his cat." His animals, explained Lombardini, have trouble digesting tinned pet food, and by the look on his face, it was clear that he disapproved of those who relied on this form of nourishment for the sake of convenience. So, apparently, did the tabby that materialised at the end of the corridor as he spoke, took one insolent look at us, then stretched luxuriously before retreating in the direction of the bedrooms, seemingly reassured that her master would never rely on Friskies to assuage her delicate appetite. "This is Buffo's cat," Lombardini repeated seriously. "When the dog was a baby, I used to walk him up and down the street and he would get inordinately excited at the sight of kittens hiding in the nearby garages, but never attempted to cause them any harm. This one was tiny and lost, so I took it home for Buffo and he has adopted it ever since." Unlike the dog, which is a real companion, the cat has not been honoured with a proper name and is simply referred to in conversation as "Buffo's cat."
Lombardini's interest is not confined to books and pets, however. Friends and family come to visit from various parts of the world all the time, and what better guide could they hope for than one who knows the history of the country inside out? He has made the tourist circuit more times than he cares to remember. He also has an Egyptian family that seems to have elected him as an honorary member. He drives every Friday to Nozha Al-Gedida, where Ghalia, her husband and three children live, and shares a meal and a few hours of relaxation with them. The children call him Giddu (grandfather), and he likes that very much. Usually he looks forward to his weekly expedition across the nearly empty city, on the day of rest when traffic is relatively light. Once, however, he did find the trip rather harrowing. "It was Ramadan," he recounted; "Black Friday, 8 December of last year. Soon after I left Zamalek it began to rain." He did not want to turn back and disappoint his friends, so he followed the flow of cars slowing down. Of course he arrived late for Iftar, but they had been waiting for him and although he knew that he would have trouble driving at night because of the bright lights of the oncoming traffic, he stayed on to make up for his lateness. It took him three and a half hours, in the still pelting rain, to return home. When he arrived, he felt that he had escaped from a mortal danger. He almost had no courage left to take Buffo out, he said, patting the dog that had inched its way towards its master. "Fortunately it does not rain often here," he added, "and I can take pleasure in my Fridays with my Egyptian family without having to worry."
As I rose to take my leave, Lombardini admitted that he had been searching the pages of our newspaper thoroughly but could spot no mistakes lately. "You know," he said teasingly, "if you are too careful, I will become bored and stop buying the Weekly."
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