6 - 12 June 2002
Issue No.589
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

John Rodenbeck:

The bare necessities, then more

Spiriting quietly

Profile by Jenny Jobbins

(photos: Randa Shaath)

John Rodenbeck

The brass sign on the door is placed under the glass panes, at knee level. John Rodenbeck, it says. The Maadi garden, sealed off from the front path, is a mass of green and the flame trees are in bloom. The garden is the domain of the landlord, who lives on the ground floor. There are other apartments in the house but most visitors climb the old wooden staircase to the first floor.

John Rodenbeck and his wife Elizabeth -- Buffy to many in Cairo -- were always party animals, ceaselessly entertaining or being entertained. Buffy or John, more often than not both in the doorway together, would greet guests with a welcome that made everyone who stepped over the threshold feel that they were what the evening or -- more often as the years went by -- lunch was all about. The hall was bright and sunny with cheerful rugs, paintings and photographs, a profile of Rodenbeck by Margo Veillon, slight academic untidiness and always flowers.

I ring the doorbell. Rodenbeck flings open the door wearing a blue T-shirt, baggy beige slacks and leather sandals with a thong round the big toe. His still-boyish face is a little pink, as if he has been sitting in the sun -- there is a huge roof garden filled Persian-style with potted plants.

The hall is almost empty. Invitations are propped on a lone cupboard, papers strewn on a chair. The rugs and all the pictures have gone. The hall table has gone. So has the dining table and most of the rest of the furniture. So has Buffy.

"She slipped away," Rodenbeck says. "It's the Egyptian custom. When people emigrate they spirit themselves away quietly before they get a court case slapped on them."

I ask if he is expecting that to happen to him.

"No," he admits.

We sit in what is still his office. The high walls are in a colour which would once have been described as puce but is now a fashionable pale silvery-mauvey-brown, a colour much admired when it first spread itself over these walls and is now even more to be appreciated when there is so little else in the room.

"The bookcases belong to Max," he says. "And the rest of the furniture in the flat is AUC's."

The chairs, the bed, some cupboards.

But he insists neither it nor he is sad. "It's a new life," he says.

John von Behren Rodenbeck has held a post in the Comparative Literature Department at the American University in Cairo since 1964 -- on and off, mostly on. But when AUC resumes next September Professor Rodenbeck will not be returning. He is off to pastures new, to his Languedoc home in the South of France, where Buffy is at this very moment busily watering the flowers. Just like she used to water her elderly ladies in Cairo, passing from couch to couch bearing comfort and small gifts.

"Physically it can't be more of a contrast with Egypt," he says. "It's always cool. I have water gushing everywhere. It's green. I have three streams. It rains once in a while and when it's clear the sky is absolutely burning blue, much more brilliant than one ever sees in Cairo."

But he might have stayed in Egypt had the property laws regarding foreigners been a little more relaxed. In a letter to Al-Ahram Weekly he pointed out the virtual impossibility of non-Arab foreigners buying in Egypt, despite rumoured changes in the legislation. "I... have been a resident... for over 30 years, but when I retire I shall pack up my bags and furniture and leave forever," he wrote.

John RodenbeckWe sit, he on the sofa, I on a dining chair, with his mug of black coffee and my glass of iced tonic balanced on a chair between us.

Rodenbeck spent some years at the University of Virginia after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in 1958. What brought him to Egypt?

"Oh, that was curiosity. We really came to see what things were like. We had a few Arab friends in the US and actually I was interested in going to AUB [the American University in Beirut]. I don't think at the time I'd ever heard of AUC. But what happened was in 1964 when I was getting my doctorate and leaving the University of Virginia I wrote to AUB, and what they did was forward my enquiry to AUC." He was interviewed in Washington. "What they offered sounded interesting for a couple of years, and so we came out to Cairo in 1964. I had a two-year contract. We stayed one extra year and on the very eve of the '67 War we left and went back to the US. The ship we were taking made a little cruise because it was June and the beginning of the summer season, and so we had an opportunity to stop and see Beirut and Rhodes and Dubrovnik, and finally Venice.

"Four years later we were back. We decided that Egypt would be a better place to bring up our children."

The children were Frederika, now professor of Art History at Sarah Lawrence in New York, Max, a journalist living in Cairo, and Christina, known as Twist, who is a publishing editor in London and was born during their first stint in Cairo.

"We were finding what most people who've had experience in the Middle East find in the US -- it is very boring. And I've never had a boring day in Egypt, not ever. If foreigners feel a little ennui coming on they should look out of the window: there's always something, something in the street.

Was there a danger he might be bored in France?

"I love France. We've had the house for 14 years. We're out in the country and there are things to keep me busy in a physical way. I have six feddans of garden to look after. A lot of it is trees. And I'm taking with me my library, in fact it's already there, so I expect to continue doing the same kind of research in France that I was doing here.

The area, 35 kilometres north of Carcassonne, is, like Egypt, steeped in history. "There were big farms in Roman times; it was much more heavily settled then than it is now. It's only reverted to woods in the last 60 or 70 years. I'm surrounded by forest. It's great walking country. People are extremely nice, rather like Egyptians in that way. We also expect to come back from time to time to see friends and to visit our favourite dentist, Sabri Karnouk."

But it's hard to see Rodenbeck finding much mental stimulation in pruning trees.

"I have several literary projects. One is to put together my published papers in the form of a book. The other is a book on Alexandrian literary life." On this subject, Lawrence Durrell comes near the top of his hit list. "A lot of what has been written about Alexandria is inexcusably awful," he says. "Why weren't those books [the Quartet] ever properly edited?" he asks. "They still have some terrible, terrible mistakes."

When the Rodenbecks arrived such figureheads as Judge Jasper Brinton and Sir Keppel "Archie" C Creswell were still alive, and residing in Cairo. Creswell, as professor emeritus, was an AUC colleague "He had just joined before I got to Cairo and I think I'm the only person around who knows the story of how that came about. The deal was that AUC would receive [Creswell's] library and keep it intact in return for giving him this professorship, which carries a stipend, and enabled him to work using his own books. It was a situation that made everyone happy all round. Of course it was the beginning of the Department of Islamic Art and Architecture at AUC."

The judge and Creswell died in the same year, 1974. But many friends were coming and going. The judge's son and daughter- in-law, John and Josie Brinton, Said Zulficar, Sir Michael and Lady (Hilary) Weir. Meanwhile Elizabeth had made a name for herself as a cartographer and illustrator.

So it wasn't just the teaching that kept him here?

He wants to talk about AUC Press, but first I want to hear about the English department. Rodenbeck, who has done a good deal of acting (he appeared in Ali Badrakhan's Shafiqa wa Metwalli and in Youssef Chahine's Iskandariyyah Laih and Hadutah Masriyyah, as well as in several radio productions including Twelfth Night, Othello, Death of a Salesman and Uncle Vanya) speaks like an actor. "We are not teaching English. What we teach is effectively how to read, literary analysis. I see English and comparative literature as one small element in the cultural history in which all of us are engaged. That includes Egyptology and that's what the humanities are about."

Many things tied him to Egypt. "I like my students, and I think they've improved. I like teaching girls. It's very important that girls should be taught, particularly in this part of the world. [The World Bank] did a complete economic analysis of inputs and outcomes and found that educating a woman was a better investment than producing another surplus engineer."

What goes in to teaching a discipline like literature, he says, means you have to know so much about everything. "And there's an additional incidental pleasure, like speaking to my class about Virgil, and being able to look out of the window and watch somebody carrying something in the way it's described in the text. Nothing is abstract. Everything has a concrete wrapping."

I ask if Americans are at a disadvantage, being unfamiliar with a Virgil-like environment.

"You're really making me think now what deficiencies there are in American life that makes it so divorced from the kinds of realities that were recorded in the typical novel. There's another book there. For instance, watching these American movies, movie after movie after movie, What you see is incredible political alienation. The conviction that the government is evil and is out to kill you. That's the real vision, not what Mr Bush says. the real vision is in what's in the movies. Being outside the US is a good place to see it.

"But if anything else I have only lately recognised the kinds of moral computations, the kinds of judgements between right and wrong that keep people ethically alert and alive. You're confronted with this every day here. But in places like America they get ethically burnt out and they're just not capable of judging anymore. They can't tell the difference between or sort out bad behaviour and good behaviour."

I ask about the press. "I took over the press in '74. They were going to abolish it. One of the problems was the way they reckoned costs. I was the one who introduced accrual accounting into AUC. What accrual accounting does is give value to the thing that you produce. For instance, the way they were keeping accounts before I got there was that the books had the value of the paper. And that's bad." The word "bad" is barked like a moral in a fairy tale. "The place was run like a candy store.

"We concentrated on Egypt first of all, especially on Cairo, and then looking at the rest of the Middle East second -- and forgetting everything else. There were all kinds of other areas involving manuscripts -- for instance, some in my field -- which didn't seem to be germane. It wasn't the job of a press in Egypt to publish that kind of thing. And then of course to look for commercial-type books."

One such title was the Practical Guide to Cairo. "There was already a practical guide to the standard monuments... but there was no guide to Cairo. And those of us who had been here in the 1960s and early 1970s realised that there was no guide to anywhere. The last field guide to Cairo was the Guide Bleu which was published some time around '58 or '59. But the manuscript was completed in 1939."

Nothing else had been published on Egypt since the revolution. "There were no maps of the city that were accurate, no information about anything" -- again, the bark ---- "Information about anything of any kind was regarded as deeply suspect."

It was not as though material was unavailable: the 1929 Baedeker's Egypt was packed with information about sites which are still today being "discovered" by archaeologists. How could people not have been aware these things were there? "People don't care and they don't read." Rodenbeck says. "I think it's largely an honest mistake."

So the press embarked on guides as commercial titles. But it faced huge production problems. "The importation of machinery was prohibited, and we had a museum of printing equipment. We worked at a very, very primitive level. I was saddled at the same time with all the printing work for the university."

Rodenbeck found himself trying to run a publishing business, but spending all his time in the print shop supervising the mass of university papers. "We were lucky in that we had a wonderful crew -- Naim, Abbas, Edward, and the foreman and master printer, Lucio Spadaccini. AUC was given machines as a charity by the US Embassy when it shut down its printing operations, which was in 1967. My typewriter had been used by Sir Walter Smart, who was oriental secretary at the British Embassy, under Miles Lampson, and the real boss. Antiques, that's what we had."

In those days the press could not handle book production, so partnerships had to be forged with firms abroad. It was then, about 1979, that the first Mahfouz publication, Miramar, translated by Fatma Moussa-Mahmoud, was published.

"My predecessor had signed a contract for the translation rights of four novels," Rodenbeck says. "We took one of the smaller ones and sat down and made a beautiful translation." This was polished by Rodenbeck, who also annotated it to counteract what he calls the "dumbing down" of readers -- the assumption by publishers that reading a novel is an aesthetic experience and you don't need to know what's going on.

"If you're dealing with a Mahfouz novel which has a specific historical and topographical focus you are nowhere. There were -- and probably still are -- people reading a book like Midaq Alley which dates from before the revolution and reading that as a description of Egypt in the 1980s. That's just utter lunacy."

Some translation problems had to be discussed with the author. "There were passages in Miramar that were completely opaque, that nobody could explain. One thing about Mahfouz is that he's a genius. He's extraordinary. But he's also an absolute expert on social history." He regrets that the annotations were dropped in later editions.

Rodenbeck asked novelist John Fowles to write the introduction to Mirimar. "He didn't charge anything, he did it as a service to literature. That helped to get the book sold."

Rodenbeck edited the texts himself, doing a lot of rewriting. "I got agreement to cover all the major novels. The best asset to the press when I left was the arrangement with Naguib Mahfouz."

Distribution was another problem. "With the first SPARE (Society for the Preservation of the Architectural Resources of Egypt) map, Buffy sold 15,000 copies by getting in a car and going around from place to place to place. That's how it's done. You don't do it by sitting around in your office and having a cup of coffee with somebody who walks out without an order."

Rodenbeck went back to teaching in 1983 after nine years at the press. He was happy to go back. "I like my students. I'm going to miss them."

As for Egypt, he bemoans the increased urbanisation. "This area is going to be just as crowded as the rest of Cairo," he says, indicating the tree-filled space beyond the window. "It's crowded, noisy, unpleasant." But he thinks the AUC move to the desert is "a big mistake, a terrific disruption".

Will there ever be a novel from him, I ask?

"No... maybe. The trouble is you're in a place so long everything becomes so normal."

What about France?

"Yes, at this point it would be more likely that I wrote a novel about France. I cannot ever see myself wanting to write a novel about Egypt as such." There are currently lots of demographic novels full of local colour. "But what you sense is that there isn't any real sympathy or sensitivity at work." Some, like Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings, are "unreadable". "It's faded away now. I expect he was ashamed of it."

But there are bright stars. Adhaf Soueif, whose The Map of Love was shortlisted for the year 2000 Booker prize, was one of his students, as well as Samia Mehrez and several members of the staff of the Weekly, including the late Wadie Kirolos, a student in the 1960s.

He has sent off two Parthian shots, one to The Cairo Times and one to The Guardian, both on the Israeli-Palestinian question. "Everyone seems to have lost sight of what's obviously the easiest and simplest and most available solution to the Middle East problem, and that's for the Israelis to pack up and go to the US." This is simple, preamble-free, Rodenbeck logic.

And so for the last time I leave the apartment where I have stayed, Christmased, lunched and dined, sharing so many happy occasions. I think of the innumerable times I have called up over the years just to ask a question. Who can I ask now?

"There's always e-mail," he replies brightly.

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