Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (574)
Calling all doctors
An international conference for surgeons in 1935 would be the last such gathering in Egypt under King Fouad. Though it should naturally have been free of politics, the conference's preparations were not all that smooth owing to student unrest at the time of the British, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk
On 23 December 1902 the International Medical Conference was held in Cairo, the first international conference Egypt hosted. The conferences that followed covered the full gamut of the fields of human knowledge and activities and Al-Ahram, true to its journalistic mission, was always on hand to cover them, down to the minutest detail.
The last such conference Cairo hosted in the era of King Fouad was the International Conference of Surgeons. Of the 762 participants expected to attend, 200 were from Egypt. The remainder represented 42 countries and included "a large number of eminent physicians and master surgeons" as Al- Ahram wrote on 23 December 1935. The conference was scheduled for the last day of that year.
The 33-year interval between the two medical conferences witnessed numerous developments that would naturally affect the latest conference. Above all was the trend towards specialisation; indeed, specialisation within fields of specialisation, as will be apparent when we follow the proceedings of the conference. In addition, the new conference would take place against a vastly different political backdrop. In 1902, Egypt was still under British occupation and British Consul General Lord Cromer had the affairs of the country firmly under his thumb. In 1935 Egypt was, officially at least, an independent kingdom and Egyptian officials did not have to have their decisions on every matter, large or small, stamped by the British high commissioner's office.
Also in the intervening years, Egypt's first modern university was established. Founded as a private university in 1908, it was reformed as a national university in 1925. The School of Medicine, its first and most prestigious faculty, would be the venue for the conference. The base of Egyptian medical practitioners expanded in tandem, producing in the process numerous luminaries in the field. Some of these were charged with organising the conference. They included Dr Mohamed Shahin, Dr Ali Ibrahim, Dr Naguib Mahfouz, Dr Abdel-Rahman Omar, Dr Mohamed Khalil Abdel-Khaleq and Dr Ibrahim Fahmi El-Minyawi.
Readers of Al-Ahram of 27 December could not help to have been impressed by the attention the conference organisers devoted to every detail of the programme. The inaugural session would be held in the Egyptian University's conference hall, with its 4,000-seat capacity. Between 10.30 and 11.00, participants would enter the hall and take their seats. Within the next 15 minutes, His Majesty King Fouad would arrive. After the applause subsided, speeches would commence, beginning with the minister of education and followed by Dean of the Faculty of Medicine Ali Ibrahim, Chairman of the International Surgeons Conference Committee Dr Verhogen, Dr Carvan on behalf of the foreign participants in the conference and finally Dr Mayse, secretary of the International Surgeons Association. "At this point, His Majesty will leave the conference room, after which there will be a 10-minute break. When the proceedings resume, conference chairman Dr Schumacher will deliver a speech after which a group photograph will be taken on the university's bleachers." Nor did organisers omit mention that formal dress was obligatory, and that on top of their tuxedos some participants would sport sashes: green for the members of the organising committee, white for the members of the subsidiary committees, yellow for university staff members and blue for the exhibition committee.
Papers would be delivered primarily on surgery on the parathyroid gland, the sympathetic colonic nerve, the colon itself and on surgical intervention in cases of bilharzia. "There will also be papers on various other topics as well as documentary films. Papers will be delivered in the Physiology Lecture Hall at the Faculty of Medicine."
Organisers attended to several other details. Students from the Faculty of Medicine and the preparatory department in the Faculty of Science were instructed to arrive at the lecture hall early and take their places before 10.30 "in view of the many participants and in order to avoid crowding at the doors". Interestingly, a committee of the Faculty of Medicine's student union was charged with maintaining order on campus. This was because the university's rector, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, who fought many a battle to safeguard the university's independence, "refused to allow any sign of the police on university premises". As though to declare their full support for El-Sayed on this, the student committee appealed to every student to "act as a soldier and remain vigilant over the preservation of order". Indicative of the importance attached to this conference, loudspeakers had been installed outside the lecture hall and a transmitter had been brought in to transmit the proceedings inside to students and teachers outside in the campus and to the public at large on the radio. All classes in the university would be cancelled that day so as to permit faculty members to attend the opening ceremonies.
Finally, as was the custom whenever an Egyptian ruler, be he sultan, king or president, graced an inauguration ceremony, authorities hastened to make the appropriate preparations. On this occasion, as King Fouad would be entering through the Royal Gate, "the university administration and various government authorities undertook to decorate the gate and plant gardens on both sides of the walkway leading from there to the assembly hall." Organisers also had a gold sash made with a picture of Qasr Al-Aini Hospital embossed on it to present to His Majesty. Al-Ahram took the occasion to remind readers that it was Napoleon Bonaparte who had converted the palace into a hospital and that Mohamed Ali transferred the School of Medicine to that location in 1827.
But all this scrupulous planning could not prevent the unanticipated spanner. On 30 December, just 24 hours before the inaugural ceremonies, the palace announced that King Fouad would not be appearing and that he would instead be represented by His Highness Prince Mohamed Ali Hassan. The reason, or at least that which was stated, was that the king had to be on guard against "the fluctuating weather conditions" at that time of year. The organisers were naturally disappointed, especially after all the innovative decorations they had prepared for the king. "They had commissioned a plaque that had been mounted over the door of the assembly hall and upon which 'Fouad I' had been inscribed in gilt-coated Al-Ghazlani script on a blue tinted marble background." While it is true that the previous year had seen intense nationalist activity, one of the major centres of which was the university, there is little cause to doubt the official reason the palace cited for the palace's last minute change of plan. It is well known that the king's health had been gradually deteriorating over the previous few years, requiring the utmost precautions against the unpredictable elements.
In spite of this setback, arrangements for the conference proceeded in full swing. The day before the conference, the foreign participants began to arrive in Alexandria. At 8.00am, the French SS Champolion, carrying 108 participants, weighed anchor in the port, and three hours later the SS Mariette Pasha discharged a second group of 92. Whether or not the choice of these liners was a coincidence, there names would have served as a reminder of the role of European experts, especially the French, in the early development of modern Egypt.
Top Alexandrian municipal officials were on hand to greet the arrivals who were treated to a tour of the catacombs, the government hospital -- "the largest hospital in Egypt after Cairo's Qasr Al-Aini" -- and the Greco-Roman Museum. At 6.00 that evening the participants boarded a train that had been designated especially for them and set off for the capital.
In Cairo, the traffic authorities had taken precautions to facilitate the transport of the participants from the train station to the university. Automobile traffic was allowed on the "British Bridge" (Kubri Al-Galaa today) and Abbas Bridge. But no automobile would be allowed onto university premises unless it bore a special blue licence plate. People driving to or from Giza and Pyramids Road were advised to take only Abbas Bridge.
Although this was a medical conference, that it took place in the university and that the student unrest of the previous year had not yet died down, ensured that politics would leave its mark on the occasion. It is best to let Al-Ahram recount these events even though one suspects it downplayed them considerably.
It relates that at 9.00am on the morning of the inaugural ceremonies, a Faculty of Law student, addressing a crowd of peers, proclaimed that the restoration of the constitution did not dispense with the need to continue the struggle for full independence. His speech concluded amidst the cries of nationalistic cheers. Afterwards, a group of students from the Higher School of Fine Arts "formed themselves into ranks of five abreast, marched into the university grounds, rallied around the memorial plaque which they draped with their flag and proceeded to recite various chants". Students from the School of Applied Arts, Fouad I, Al-Qubba and the Khedival secondary schools, and other schools followed suit.
When Minister of Education Ahmed Naguib El-Hilali arrived at 10.00, the students surrounded his car and cheered to the long life and independence of the university. "Then a student posted a picture of the late Mohamed Abdel-Hakim El-Garrahi, formerly a student in the Faculty of Letters, on the doorway where the conference participants would enter, at which point the ardour of the students mounted and they cried out chants to Egyptian independence and for the downfall of Britain." Even when Taha Hussein, with all his prestige and popularity among students, came out to attempt to calm them down, they would not let him proceed. He said, "I have come to convey to you a message from the rector of the university and the faculty. We ask you to desist from this rally so as not to offend our guests. Then, after the reception is over you may do as you wish." To which the students responded: "Down with Britain!"
Nor was the prime minister spared the students' anger. When they saw Tawfiq Nasim's car approach they crowded around it and cried out for general amnesty. As the driver was unable to move forward, Nasim ordered him to back out and drive away. The premier did not attend the inaugural ceremony. The same treatment was not accorded to the Wafd Party leader whom Al-Ahram photographed as he stood on the balcony of the assembly hall appealing to the students to stop their aggressive chants. The newspaper did not mention whether the students heeded his appeal.
The student demonstration did not end there. After the inaugural ceremony ended, the conference members emerged and made their way between two rows of students until they reached the memorial plaque where "they stood humbly and in awkward silence and then removed their hats in honour to the souls of the martyrs."
Naturally, Al-Ahram was eager to get the inside story on how these events affected the conference. Fortunately, after a number of contacts were made and with the help of the secretary-general of the organising committee, Al-Ahram 's correspondent on the scene succeeded in securing an interview with Dr Schumacher. The conference chairman was most reassuring. "What happened cannot but leave me with a good impression," he told Al-Ahram. "All of us know that we were among the young, and we are all aware of the ideological ardour of the young. We too were young once and we too vented our political passions in that innocent and harmless manner. Moreover, most of us are university professors and have had previous experience with such harmless disturbances. All the participants in the conference understood what you call 'the incident' for what it was. We realise that in Egypt there are alert and intelligent youths who took this opportunity to appeal for the cause of their country in front of 692 conference participants representing 42 nations from around the world. I and other foreign participants spoke with many of the students and were thus able to learn first-hand much about the political situation in this country that we had not been aware of before."
Curiously, Al-Ahram gave scant coverage to the scientific substance of the conference, perhaps because this was overshadowed by the demonstrations or because it felt that the papers and discussions were too complex for its readers. All it mentioned was that there were two sessions in the Physiology Lecture Hall, one at 8.00 in the morning and the second at 2.00 in the afternoon. The latter focussed primarily on surgical intervention in bilharzia cases, and most of the papers were delivered by Egyptian physicians.
The evening of the final day of the four-day conference was the time for the upbeat summing up and glowing statements by foreign participants. Many expressed their admiration for the modern and efficiently run hospitals they saw in Egypt, with particular praise reserved for Al-Muwasah Hospital in Alexandria and Fouad I Hospital in Cairo which were on par with, if not superior to, the best hospitals in the West.
Dr Maier, secretary-general of the International Surgical Association, lauded the expertise Egyptian physicians had acquired in bilharzia and the skill with which they performed splenectomies. "Most foreign surgeons consider this as one of the more challenging operations, whereas for Egyptian surgeons it has become virtually second nature due to frequent practice and exposure to it," he said. He added that the conference participants were highly impressed by the great service Egyptian physicians were performing for their country. Tangible proof of this could be seen in the fact that in 1925, 25 per cent of the deaths in Egypt were related to bilharzia and that in the space of just 10 years this figure had dropped to only four per cent.
The foreign guests also praised Egyptian hospitality, as well as the excellent hotel facilities. The conference chairman said that in all his many trips around the world he had never seen more luxurious hotels than those in Egypt nor better and quicker service.
Although the conference ended, for most participants their visit to Egypt had not. It would not do for all these foreign guests to have come so far without seeing some of Egypt's antiquities, for which reason the organising committee had arranged a trip to Luxor. Among the sights they took in were the temples of Thebes, Luxor and Karnak where a resident French archeologist "explained all the renovations that had been done and all the mysteries of these ancient sites". It was then sunset on the West Bank in Habu, "a sight which dazzled the foreign visitors", after which the visitors were loosed into the city "and the shops filled with a frenzy of bartering and haggling".
After the visit to Luxor, the foreign guests were taken by a specially designated train -- equipped with two dining cars and eight sleeping cars -- to Port Said, where they boarded the SS Mariette Pasha. Although the ship sailing off into the horizon closed the curtain on the four-day surgeons' conference, an international event of this sort naturally had an aftermath.
For one there was a slight flurry over the incident of the alleged desecration of a British flag. On 3 January 1936 the Egyptian Gazette, mouthpiece for the British community in Egypt, reported that the British flag, which had hung in the university's assembly hall along with the flags of the other nations represented in the conference, had been torn down and ripped up in front of the members of the Egyptian government and representatives from 42 nations at the conference. The prime minister announced that there was no truth to this story whatsoever. "The British flag continued to flutter in the hall alongside all the other flags, and when it was taken down at the end of the reception along with the other flags it was completely intact, and it was presented in that condition by the secretary of the conference to the prime minister."
On the conference itself, Al-Ahram turned its pages over to Aisha Abdel-Rahman, who wrote under the pen name Bint Al-Shati' (Daughter of the Shore). Under the headline, "A landmark day in the history of science: on the 10th International Conference on Surgery in Egypt", the writer and literary scholar praised the conference as "a faithful mirror of the dedication of scientists and technicians to the advancement of human happiness". Such international occasions in which "an outstanding group of erudite people representing a branch of the sciences, literature or the arts meet to discuss their common goals and endeavours" were a feature of modern civilised life. Ancient history offered no testimony to a phenomenon of this nature. Rather, it was "a manifestation of the spirit of modern democracy which is currently prevailing throughout the world" and "an embodiment of the spirit of cooperation in its fullest and most ideal sense".
There was a point in history, Abdel-Rahman continues, in which science remained the hidden secret and closed preserve of scientists who were "separated from the people by a broad and profound gulf". An example of this from the annals of history was that "while Ancient Egyptian priests advanced to the heights of pure monotheism, the rest of the people continued to roam the bleak darkness of paganism, worshipping cows, hawks and idols made of stone."
Bint Al-Shati' believed that the value of such conferences extended beyond the confines of science. In addition to being an important means of pooling and disseminating knowledge and know-how, they established an important link between producers and consumers, and beyond that they were a conduit that enabled participating nations to familiarise themselves with the civilisation, customs and traditions of other nations. "As soon as participants return to their homelands they are swarmed by members of the press who relay to their fellow countrymen everything they saw and experienced," she writes, adding, "The value of these accounts resides in the fact that they are drawn from first-hand testimonies rather than from the imagination of writers who often convey to their readers a distorted picture of distant lands, especially countries of the Orient."
Finally, according to Abdel-Rahman, such international conferences had an important political spin-off. They helped promote better relations between participating members because the participants themselves were generally people of goodwill and free of politically inspired ulterior motives. Thus, through the International Conference on Surgery, Egypt not only acquired knowledge, "it also gained the type of friends who can best appreciate the extensive efforts our nation exerts in the pursuit of the advancement of the quality of life of its people". Given the gulfs in international understanding today, the remarks of Bint Al-Shati' merit some earnest reflection.