Al-Ahram Weekly Online
9 - 15 May 2002
Issue No.585
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Egypt land, from abroad

The Massachusetts Review: Egypt, Raymond Stock, ed., Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, Spring 2002. pp328

The current edition of The Massachusetts Review, an American quarterly, is entirely devoted to Egypt and includes two essays on the Alexandria Library, a little known short story by Naguib Mahfouz, an extract from a work by Ahdaf Soueif, a piece by Zahi Hawass on the Valley of the Golden Mummies, Caroline Williams on Islamic Cairo and photographs by Barry Iverson, Linda Connor and Robert Lyons. While the collection, edited by Raymond Stock, has a distant, expatriate feel to it, it nevertheless contains pieces by leading authorities on Egyptian history, culture, art and literature. And though the reader sometimes has the sensation of standing at the window looking in, this position allows more of the Egyptian stage to be taken in than might have been possible from a closer vantage point. Reading the articles in the review may even explain to Egyptians the values that many foreign expatriates find in Egypt.

The Massachusetts Review is a cultural periodical, and as such it presents only a partial view: there is no natural Egypt here, no scenery, no environment, no crowds, no pulsating heart. Rather, it is the historical and literary Egypt, the pre-revolutionary 20th-century Egypt, that Stock has presented in his anthology. As such, these essays could be considered as a kind of fond final look at the Egypt of the last century, a veritable box of gems.

However, time moves on, and since the publication of this issue of the Review was intended to coincide with last month's expected official opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, two of its contributions are related to the new Library, one looking at the present building and the other examining the ancient institution.

Austrian-born Christoph Kapeller, one of the new Library's architects, describes in detail the building's conception and the "creation of a building that conveys [a] sense of timelessness." Kapeller might have used the prosaic image of a microchip as the inspiration for the design of the roof disk, but he clearly is not lost for descriptive words. "The new library of Alexandria viewed from [Qaitbay fort] feels familiar and alien, ancient and contemporary, glittering and shining like a polished mirror in the morning, gray and huge like Moby Dick in the afternoon light." Out of respect for the Greek geometricians who worked in Alexandria, the building's proportions have been especially finely calculated in every detail from floor space to shelving. Some of the spaces are innovations in themselves -- the main reading room is the largest in the world.

"It is now up to the users to fill the library with content and ideas," Kepeller comments in his essay, adding that he hopes the Library "will create a life of its own and act as a catalyst for further developments and projects within the old center of Alexandria".

One admires his vision. But whether one regards the Bibliotheca Alexandrina as a future repository of scientific and literary achievements or as a waste of space and money, there can be little doubt that it has yet to prove its connection with its more famous ancient ancestor. Indeed, thus far the only touch that recalls the original classical Alexandria Library has been the gifts of copied early books from other museums and libraries.

The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina stands beside the present Alexandria University building (though it is not attached to it), and in the same way the original Library was a part of the Mouseion established by Ptolemy I and his son Ptolemy II, and continued by their descendants. In a masterly essay in the present collection, Literary Alexandria, John Rodenbeck, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo, traces the history of the ancient institution through the names on its roll of glory.

At its peak, the Library was the greatest teaching and research centre in the world, flourishing from the beginning of the third century BC until long after the finest hours of the Roman Empire. But by the end of the fourth century AD, at the time of Theon, the last director of the Mouseion, both the Great Library and its sister institution at the Serapeum had perished.

Yet in its heyday the library had witnessed the greatest of Alexandria's two periods of international glory, a period lasting for 800 years. "It should be emphasised that the basis of all research at the Mouseion was the written word," Rodenbeck says. Thus, there was little distinction made between literary, scientific or humanistic studies, or, at the time of the institute's final flowering, philosophy. From Demetrius of Phalerum, probably the Library' s first director, through the scientist Strato, the geographer Eratosthenes, the poets Callimachus and Theocritus and the grammarian Aristophanes (who introduced accents into the transcription of Greek), the Institution kept alive traditions of classical learning and scholarship in the Eastern Mediterranean and throughout the Hellenic World.

"Just as there is a debt to Alexandria whenever a pipe-organ is played or an Archimedes screw is used, whenever a Western-style atlas or calendar is consulted, wherever medicine, astronomy, grammar or geography are taught, or whenever a problem in mechanics or geometry is solved, so there is also a debt wherever a Western or Western-influenced novel, poem, play or opera is written [or] read," Rodenbeck tells us.

The city's second flowering was much briefer, dating roughly from 1905 to 1952. Many newspapers were published in the city in those years, it being the original home of Al-Ahram as well as of the Egyptian Gazette, but, as Rodenbeck points out, "it is today by a wide margin the largest city in the world without a daily newspaper."

Rodenbeck presents a touching portrait of an important figure in the literary Alexandria of this period, the Greek-Egyptian poet Cavafy, born Konstantinos Kavafis, the youngest of eight brothers, in 1863. Cavafy was a prolific poet during his years as an official at the Ministry of Public Works, though since he retained his Greek nationality, never taking Egyptian citizenship, he never secured a permanent post at the Ministry. He retired in 1922, dying 11 years later. He only preserved the best of his poems for posterity, and though he was known to small circles of cognoscenti during his lifetime, wider fame followed only after his death.

Rodenbeck also follows the careers of the native-born Italian-Alexandrian Giuseppe Ungaretti and of the British writer E M Forster, whose guidebook to the city, Alexandria: A History and a Guide, edited in 1935 by Rodenbeck's old friend, the late John Brinton, is legendary. Rodenbeck gives ample proof that Forster's 1924 novel A Passage to India was actually largely about Alexandria. By contrast Lawrence Durrell, that most unauthentic of all the Alexandrian voices, was really writing about Greece in The Alexandria Quartet.

Rodenbeck reserves harsh words for Durrell, who spent less than three years in Alexandria about which he learned and observed little and cared less. "Durrell's sense of the city is as mythic as his topography and is profoundly marred by various forms of ethnic prejudice," Rodenbeck writes. Indeed, this reviewer remembers listening to Durrell speaking on the BBC about his last visit to Egypt in the early 1980s, when he referred to the annual Nile flood, seemingly unaware of the fact that the Aswan Dams have long put paid to this phenomenon.

An unexpected contribution to this collection is an essay by Jeffrey Hammand, a self-styled "Egyptomaniac", who by his own account caught the craze for "Egypt Land" at the age of 10 but still has not visited the country. "Having carried around this dream of Egypt Land in my head for forty years," Hammand concludes, "I could very well get off that plane and see absolutely nothing at all."

Come on over, Mr Hammand. I'm sure you'll see more than Lawrence Durrell ever did.

Reviewed by Jenny Jobbins

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