Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 October 2004
Issue No. 711
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Defining bibliotheca

On the eve of its second anniversary, Amina Elbendary visits the colossal library

Click to view caption
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Legends surround the ancient library of Alexandria. One involves a boatman and an island: the library was situated on an island off Alexandria, every day the scholars took a boat to reach it. And the boatman learnt from their discussions during these rides -- so much so that he became a scholar and joined the academe himself. Commentators usually focus on how obsessed the scholars were with knowledge, even during a boat ride. Two other tropes are particularly interesting: firstly the island; secondly the relative mobility with which individuals outside scholarly circles were able to enter them.

Literary islands are abundant: one thinks of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan's castaway island, of Homer's Ithaca, even of Robinson Crusoe and William Golding. The idea that man needs a certain distance -- physical and psychological as well as metaphorical -- to reflect on the universe and to confront his human predicament, is appealing. Inherent in such intellectual oases is a somewhat elitist view of knowledge, not necessarily a bad thing. The medieval university towns of Europe, for example, often give a feeling of being suspended in time -- even in these days of Internet glory and instant knowledge. Perhaps this is what the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is meant to represent?

Two years after the official inauguration of the magnificent state-of- the-art edifice, with much pomp and circumstance, the library has yet to define its course. It will take at least a decade before its achievements become manifest; but it is decisions made now, in its formative years, that will shape its future. Two years into its new, 21st century life, one might legitimately ask just what the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is about. Its mandate is too ambitious to be much more than elevated rhetoric, for what does it mean in practice to be "a repository of human knowledge" or "a place of learning, dialogue and tolerance"? Cloisters for books and manuscripts? What about the production and dissemination of knowledge? Is the Bibliotheca meant to be a public library, a research library, an archival library, an academy, an institute, a university, a conference centre or a tourist site? It is certainly trying to be all of these things.

Through its two years the library has hosted an impressive number of scientific conferences and guest speakers, with such international figures as Mahathir Mohamed and Umberto Eco making appearances, and that is not to mention festivals, concerts and exhibitions, making its role as an international cultural centre the most obvious one. High hopes had surrounded the revivification of the library since the early days of the project in the 1980s, and the appointment of Ismail Serageddin as its first director increased them further; the library is still surrounded by a halo of respect in public discourse. The media has been especially reverent, almost to the point of indulgence.

Not a few eyebrows were raised, therefore, when last week the library was critiqued by two well-known columnists in the national dailies: Farouk Guweida in the Friday edition of Al- Ahram, and Gamal El-Ghitani, editor-in-chief of the literary weekly Akhbar Al-Adab, in his weekly editorial. Both were writing in the wake of yet another conference at the library, this time on freedom of expression. Both were indignant that the proceedings took place in English, with Arab participants having to rely on simultaneous translation to understand each other -- a repeated occurrence at the library. Guweida argued that the main problematic of the conference was not clear: discussions focussed on censorship in the media, neglecting the wider political implications. He contended that "freedom of thought and creativity" warranted a more sophisticated approach, wondering why the library ignored leading intellectual figures, thereby raising questions about the invitation process itself.

El-Ghitani criticised what he perceived as the library's detachment from its cultural context, with organisers by and large ignoring Alexandrine academics and intellectuals in favour of visiting dignitaries. Despite being invited to the library (therefore not in a position to complain of being marginalised), Guweida felt alienated there. His column suggests that such alienation sprung not only from the foreignness of the language but rather the unfamiliarity of the discourse itself. While discussing terrorism (the cause of the day), the main working paper failed to differentiate between political Islam and the Muslim faith, thus echoing many of the biases and prejudices of Western commentators. Guweida rejected the underlying argument coupling Islam with terrorism. The fight against terrorism is not an intellectuals' battle against faith, he contended, and the library should distance itself from political agendas.

Last week it was business as usual at the library, with at least three overlapping conferences on millenary manuscripts (the oldest surviving Arabic manuscripts), the fate of the ancient library of Alexandria, and Arab science, each boasting research papers by scholars from Alexandria University as well as Arab universities from Iraq to Morocco, and academics from Turkey, Iran and Europe. Speakers included Aladine Lolah, Abdel- Hamid Sabra and Ramazan Sesen. Certainly the topic helped allay the suspicion that the Bibliotheca is less Egyptian- or Arab-oriented than it should be, for here we had conferences on native heritage that included academics from the region.

Yet the three conferences raise other questions. Organised by the library's Manuscript Centre, headed by Youssef Zeidan, the conference did not have a specific research topic in mind or a particular aim to achieve -- a point that became, in itself, the focus of one of the discussions. And while Zeidan urged participants to focus the discussion on "discourses rather than texts", such analyses were hardly coordinated at all, with the result that the debate was quickly reduced to descriptions of particular manuscripts.

The conference was an opportunity for several of the centre's junior adjunct scholars to present papers; and encouraging young scholars will remain an important cause to champion in the face of entrenched ageism -- the use of Powerpoint presentations notwithstanding -- yet the type of research presented was not markedly different from the content of similar conferences in provincial or metropolitan universities. Is this the generation of scholars expected to effect a paradigmatic shift in contemporary Arab scholarship? And given that the centre's core collection of manuscripts is inherited from Alexandria's previous libraries (the municipal library, Al- Mursi Abu'l-Abbas collection, and the Smuha Religious Institute collection), why not focus on those manuscripts instead of toiling over catalogues of European collections (which is what the young scholars by and large seemed to have done)? That the conference concerned itself with the oldest extant Arabic manuscripts, which are at least a millennium old, perhaps a project should have been conceived for identifying and cataloguing these manuscripts, scattered as they are all over international collections? More importantly, having identified and researched them, what do these manuscripts tell us about Arab history? In fact the debates at the first millenary conference were not unfamiliar at all; they offered little in the way of ground-breaking discovery, and they too failed to look at the larger picture.

The foreignness that Guweida's column hinted at reared its head at yet another of last week's offerings. The "What happened to the ancient Library of Alexandria?" conference devoted a whole afternoon to Arabs and the library. The three papers presented dealt with the by now anachronistic myth that Arab conquerors of the seventh century burnt down the ancient Library of Alexandria. While historian Sahar Abdel-Aziz Salem offered a reading of texts contemporary to the conquest of Egypt, professor Qassem Abdu Qassem analysed medieval Arabic reports in which the burning of the library is mentioned. Qassem endeavoured to contextualise these reports in an attempt to explain why they suddenly started to appear in medieval histories. He suggested that the myth displays the anti-Sunni slant of historians opposed to the Sunni ruler Salah Al- Din Al-Ayyubi's decision to dismantle, and sell off the manuscripts in, Dar Al-Hikma, established by his Shia Fatimid predecessors. For other historians the Ayyubids fabricated the myth themselves, to justify Al-Ayyubi's dismantling of Dar Al-Hikma by inventing a historical precedent.

Yet it was rather bewildering why the third speaker on that panel was announced to be Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. For anyone familiar with Middle Eastern studies Lewis's name is controversial, to say the least, and often associated with the negative connotations of Orientalism. It is not clear why the Library of Alexandria should pick him, out of all Western academics, to discuss a topic that has been repeatedly debated by historians. One's amazement only increased when the coordinator of the conference, professor Mustafa El-Abbadi -- himself an authority on the subject and author of The Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (Paris, 1992) -- explained that Lewis had declined the invitation but finally agreed to send a paper at El-Abbadi's insistence, before duly reading it out to the conference. Discussing the same reports that Qassem analysed, Lewis's paper demonstrated several marked difference -- fuel for debate had he been present. One of the underlying arguments is defensive in essence: the historical myth of the burning of the library was not an Orientalist but an Arab invention, and in fact it was Orientalists who first tried to refute it.

Lewis suggested similar explanations for the construction of the myth, but went on to compare it to other historical myths designed to service propaganda. The fabricated eighth century Donations of Constantine claimed that the temporal powers of the Pope in Rome had been granted by the first Christian Roman Emperor in the fourth century to the Bishop of Rome; such rights were not recognised as fabrications until the 15th century. A more recent example Lewis gave is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, widely believed to be a 19th century fabrication invented by the Russian secret police on the basis of both Maurice Joly's Dialogue aux Enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu (Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu), a French propaganda tract against Napoleon III, and a largely unknown minor French novel of the same period; neither text dealt with Jews. What was the subtext of these particular historical analogies? Could this be an attempt to embarrass the Bibliotheca for having recently displayed the first Arabic translation of the Protocols (the library had removed the manuscript from its displays following an international outcry accusing it of "anti-Semitism")? This panel aside, however, the conference hosted scholars from Alexandria and beyond, promising a substantial volume on the history of the ancient library. A fitting denouement...

Yet much needs to be conceptualised still, if the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is to outgrow its current role of conference centre-cum-tourist site. In light of last week's debates it is perhaps fitting to remember how the famed golden age of classical Arab-Muslim civilisation came about, if only to remind the library's censurers that a cosmopolitan orientation is not in itself reprehensible. Historians agree that this scientific enterprise was largely the outcome of a vibrant cross-cultural interaction of people from diverse backgrounds, made possible through a certain political framework; the will and active support of the political regimes in question; and the outstanding financial patronage of these regimes. Baghdad's Bayt Al-Hikma was not located on an island. Yet, irrespective of the implications of its being modelled on the notion of an island of learning, the Bibliotheca has yet to display the capacity for actively producing knowledge. As it is, academics descend on the library, pontificate about the topic of the day -- then leave. Is this the sole mandate of such a superlatively important establishment? Does it, in the end, amount to a real contribution to Egyptian and Arab scholarship? Such questions are increasingly urgent, for the library has yet to adopt its own scholars and to embark on a serious publication project, its output so far having been limited, its distribution confined. It has yet to fund and patronise its own research, perhaps in the spirit of European institutes, where teams are assembled to tackle particular research questions. And it has yet to construct and to nurture meaningful, cooperative relations with Arab academia at large. Only then can the boatman be said to have been taken on board.

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