Ann Bos Radwan: Endeavour of compassion
Longevity should never imply stasis -- or failure to respond to change
Her last day at the office seemed like any other. As executive director of the Egypt Binational Fulbright Commission, Ann Radwan collected papers and signed cheques; she spent some time with her colleagues. Within two months she would be back in the US. An advertisement had appeared in the daily Al-Ahram, calling for candidates for the position; they could be either Egyptian or American, for the commission's governing board is made up of both nationalities.
She could not risk divulging her feelings on the last day of a career that extended 21 years, making her this institution's longest standing director. Her tenure as executive director had been renewed repeatedly until her retirement age could be extended no further, in recognition of her unique ability to push the commission in new directions.
With prominent, chiselled features, a kind of blonde Samiha Ayoub -- the famous Egyptian talent whose principal strength lay in her mesmerising presence on stage -- Ann Radwan sits on the edge of her chair. She looks uncomfortable when asked by the photographer to "sit back and relax" -- such an attitude does not come naturally to her. "I hate leisure," she says in a typically emphatic tone, "absolutely despise it." Though she hails from academia, her specialisation being history, Radwan sees herself more as a "strategic planner" than as an administrator of detail.
The Egypt Binational Fulbright Commission, one of the oldest in the world, was established in 1949, three years after Senator William Fulbright founded an eponymous international programme. It was an endeavour borne of World War II, reflecting America's concern with forging positive ties with the rest of the world through education and culture. Egypt was specifically important because it was integral to American interests in the Middle East.
Carrying the official name of "the Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange", the Fulbright Commission has operated in Egypt as an educational foundation with the aim of promoting the exchange of ideas and expertise, and affording scholarships and grants to Egyptian and American scholars. The bi-national designation derives from its governance by an independent board of directors, both Egyptian and American, representing major positions in government and business.
Radwan's stationery and pens still lie on her desk -- an elegant piece of furniture, its sparse lines offset by the expansive space around it. Wrought iron armchairs are juxtaposed with tropical plants, giving an impression of colour and light.
Strewn with inviting leather sofas, the spacious halls leading up to Radwan's office, as much as the office itself, are eclectic celebration of styles: Classic French and English pieces combined with turn-of-the-century art deco. She inherited her mother's gift for interior design, an enthusiasm for creating new things out of old.
Literally, she joined hands with the Antiquities Authority to renovate the commission's current headquarters, to which it partially relocated from the Belmont Building overlooking the Nile in Garden City. She put on overalls and with loving care helped install the white muslin curtains that now adorn the commission's vintage wooden elevator. The panelling in the main hall, the long-suffering victim of thumbtacks while the US Library of Congress rented the place, is now restored to its original rich veneer. This is no ordinary office: It exudes both palatial splendour and inviting homeliness, paradoxically. The commission will move yet again this month, to a villa built specifically to house it in Doqqi -- one of Radwan's many initiatives to consolidate the commission's presence in Egypt.
Longevity comes with its rewards, but also its disadvantages. She will not elaborate on the latter. Time to move on, she laughs: "After all, I've been in this position longer than most people have been married."
Radwan obtained her PhD in economic history in 1977, at the University of Pennsylvania's Economics and South Asian Studies Department. Herself a Fulbright scholar more than once, she was in India in the early 1960s, and in Egypt in the early 1980s, when she undertook a comparative study of government-press relations in Egypt, India and Pakistan.
As her career unfolded Radwan put her resources at the service of fund raising, pursuing multinationals as well as foundations and institutions -- government funding for education, she always felt, remains precarious. Today the Egypt Fulbright Commission is one of the best provided for organisations worldwide, thanks to help from Egyptian institutions and banks as well as American and British corporations. Some $1 million have been raised in addition to the $900,000 stipend paid yearly by each of the Egyptian and American governments. The former started contributing in 1999.
Radwan also introduced peer evaluation into the commission. Informed by the concept of competitiveness, a process was established whereby applicants are judged on merit, based on proposals or research presented in the hope of winning scholarships on the programme. The commission now reaches out to universities in the provinces, "breaking the monopoly that has been exercised for so long by Cairo, Alexandria and Ain Shams Universities."
In the light of inequitable inter-government relations, Radwan regards culture and education as the level playing field. "It is one domain where, with enough contacts between academic institutions on both sides, the interests and aspirations of both, which often appear at odds with one another but could be brought closer, are effectively negotiated." In this context she is proud of relatively new grants offered in the fields of music and art -- "it's important for people; development can't be all bridges and sewers."
The principle of fair opportunity remains paramount for Radwan. It was as a renegade steel mill worker who agitated for fair wages and was consequently stigmatised as a "Bolshevik" that her grandfather emigrated from the Netherlands to th e United States. Her grandmother had likewise emigrated from Russia, via the UK and Canada. "If they had not taken the opportunity, and the risk, I'd probably be still in Europe, digging ditches." Yet equally she is aware of the brain drain depleting human resources in Egypt. "The issue at stake is to have people learn, and then come back here to use their knowledge."
Then again, she goes on, all depends on the systems, whether and how they support individuals. She is all too conscious of the frustration of those who possess capabilities but are not afforded due opportunity when they need it. She cites Nobel laureate Ahmed Zuwail, induced to leave Egypt when bureaucratic restrictions impeded his exceptional drive and desire to achieve. "We need less bureaucracy," she says, "more credit and reward for potential."
Part of Radwan's jurisdiction concerned developing links between American and Egyptian academic institutions yet, ironically, she feels US presence in Egypt is insufficient -- a failure she attributes to governmental restrictions, which impinge on the Egyptian universities' ability to scout for opportunities and forge partnerships.
She cites Turkey as an example of a country where universities, thanks to their relative autonomy, have had more discerning dealings with universities overseas: Students who start out in a Turkish university end up graduating from the US, or vice versa.
Aware that interchange is necessarily a two-way process, Radwan was careful to raise the number of American scholars and students who, following a similar selection process in the US, come to spend time in Egypt. The achievement in which she takes the greatest pride -- to date -- is a joint Egyptian- US MBA programme she established in 1999 between Cairo University and Georgia State University, and for which she raised a considerable amount of funding. It was 11 September that undermined the programme: "Scholars on both sides became more reluctant to participate, neither feeling comfortable in the other's environment."
She is concerned that the current buoyant phase might not continue in the life of the Fulbright Commission. As tools of rapprochement, she says, culture and education are always precarious; they are never among the priorities of governments. "They're seen as a good enough thing, but are never sufficiently spent on, really. They're usually the last to receive funds, and the first to be done away with."
Ironic that William Fulbright's own basic insight, though rarely more apt than now, has never seemed more elusive: "His basic wisdom was that if people knew more about one another, they would go to war less." Recent regional and global events would attest to the fact that culture and knowledge, however invaluable, are "a fragile instrument that cannot really change the world. There are just not enough funds to create the critical mass -- in the US, for instance, and in Egypt -- that can bring about a change".
Having lived at the centre of Egyptian society in several capacities and through different eras -- as a married woman (she continues to carry the name of her former husband, in addition to her own maiden-name of Bos), as a scholar and administrator, as an expatriated career woman, she speaks from the vantage point of someone who "has seen it all".
Current Egypt-US relations, for one significant example, "are not the worst I've seen, believe it or not": "1956 [when the US under Eisenhower intervened to stop the Tripartite Aggression on Egypt] was the best of times. After that there was the High Dam crisis, then 1967, then 1973. Things did not really get better until Egypt signed the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, let's face it."
While she lived in Egypt, she never once felt that people judged her as an individual by what Washington was doing. Yet things seem to have changed: "People in Egypt and the Arab world know the American people gave the Bush administration a vote of confidence when they elected him for a second term. The Arab world knows what democracy means, and that the American people have a huge amount of say in the policies of their government. So it no longer works for an American to say: My government does this, but I'm different."
Aware of ongoing domestic debates about the future of Egypt -- the constitutional changes recently announced by the president included -- she is tactful in giving her views, brushing aside the notion that US pressures could have contributed to the latter step: "I just think more credit should be given to Egyptians, and to other people in the Arab world, for wanting change and being able to bring it about. There should be more faith in oneself. This is how events in the Sudan, in Libya and Lebanon should be seen."
As a principal player in the arena of American-Egyptian educational exchange, she gives no credence to reports that Washington intends to interfere with educational, especially religious curricula: "I'm not part of the government, so I can't say. But you know conspiracy theories abound."
She sees her relationship with Egypt transcending her Fulbright career: "My ties with Egypt were there before, during and after the commission." Her dynamism makes room for a social life inextricably intertwined with her work. She attends receptions and functions, an activity she sees as part and parcel of a vocation in which personal ties and reciprocity are indispensable: "If I'm invited to an event, I must attend. After all, I must do so if I want people to come attend the annual dinner that our commission hosts."
Only natural, then, that her own staff should be arranging an in-house farewell reception. Her firmness and avowed impatience with even the slightest professional slips have not prevented her humaneness from touching them, her legacy being that of someone who always strove to give recognition where it was due.
Next to the building where she lives in Aziz Abaza Street in Zamalek, some 100 cats daily feed out of little troughs she has set up on the pavement for the purpose. Higher up, on the 10th floor, two falcons and countless lesser birds daily feed at her window sill. In caring for animals, she has established her own little foundation -- a network of individuals willing to participate in this endeavour of compassion. It is an informal foundation, made up of those who work in her building and the surrounding garages. She has arranged for the continued provision of food and care for the animals even after her departure. She will leave, confident that the warmth she experienced, and the countless bonds forged in the years that she lived here will endure.
By Aziza Sami