Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 December 2006 - 3 January 2007
Issue No. 826
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A veil on the past

Hala Halim recalls some of the defining cultural moments of the past 12 months as well as a number of the luminaries who died in 2006

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Clockwise from left: Hosni; the dome of Cairo University; one of the submerged artefacts recently brought to light by archaeologists in Alexandria

RUMOURS FROM ANTIQUITY: "Sunken Treasures of Egypt", a touring exhibition of some 500 artefacts salvaged from the Eastern Harbour of Alexandria and Abu Qir Bay, drew thousands of visitors in Berlin where it opened in May before moving to Paris in early December (see Nevine El-Aref "Taking a plunge", Al-Ahram Weekly, 18-24 May 2006 and "Paris plunges into Egyptology", Weekly, 14-20 December 2006). The fruit of excavations led by the Institut Européen d'Archeologie Sous-Marine (IEASM), directed by Franck Goddio with funding from the Hilti Foundation, with the cooperation of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the exhibition highlighted vestiges of two ancient sunken cities, Herakleion and Canopus, as well as a host of later artefacts.

Reviewing the exhibition in Le Monde (see "Une Egypte sortie des eaux", 10 December 2006), Pierre Barthélémy suggested that Goddio's success had brought with it strong enmity, "notably in the community of Egyptologists", before conceding that detractors -- primarily another archaeologist working in Alexandria, Jean-Yves Empereur, who directs the Centre d'Etudes Alexandrines (CEA) -- have discredited the man's work on the basis of his lacking qualifications in archaeology. Barthélémy goes on to demonstrate that Goddio works collaboratively with scholars in the field, such as Jean Yoyotte, an honorary professor at the College de France, whom he quotes as comparing their professional association as that between a blind man and a paralytic, in this case the one providing funding and technology, the other offering scholarly input and hypotheses about the findings.

But these are ancient rumours that have long sent ripples through the choppy waters of Alexandria. In 1996, when Goddio gave his first press conference about the results of his archaeological survey of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour, the issue of his credentials was raised by Al-Ahram Weekly. He responded that his "role is to set up the right expedition with top experts in the field and act as chef d'orchestre " (see my "Harbours unparalleled", Al-Ahram Weekly, 7-13 November 1996). Since the early 1990s the CEA has been responsible for a number of excavations of sites earmarked for construction work, such as the Necropolis of ancient Alexandria, part of which was destroyed in the course of the construction of a flyover, and it was arguably the underwater excavation it undertook in collaboration with Egyptian archaeologists in the area off Qait Bey Fort, thought to have been the site of the Pharos Lighthouse, that propelled it to international fame.

This year the CEA continued with its underwater excavations off Qait Bey, according to Empereur, documenting masonry thought to have belonged to the lighthouse, such as a colossal door, which will be brought to the surface in 2007. Members of the CEA team meanwhile studied artefacts -- ceramics, bone and ivory carvings, mosaics -- salvaged from an excavation at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, excavated a Hellenistic atelier of metalwork on the site of Marea, an abandoned ancient city south-west of Alexandria, among other projects. The CEA's plans for 2007, Empereur discloses, include excavating the southern bank of Lake Mariout in search of ancient artisans' workshops and collaborating, at the behest of the SCA, on the conservation of the archives of Alexandria's Graeco-Roman Museum, itself currently under restoration.

ACADEMIC UPROAR: Late last autumn, when the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research published its "vision" for the reform of the regulations governing institutes of higher education, it provoked a furore in academic circles. Some of the salient proposals contained in the paper include a proposed law governing all higher institutions of learning, with special charters for each university; that institutions of higher learning be run by a board of trustees, composed of stakeholders, that would determine policies; that appointments of university staff at all levels be made on the basis of applications received after vacancies have been advertised; that a quality control and accreditation body be responsible for assessing the "services" provided the student; the participation of civil society and the private sector in establishing universities; the provision of fellowships for students; the amelioration of the basic income of staff members with the provision of incentives and fellowships in acknowledgement of outstanding scholarly performance.

Faten Morsy, a professor of English literature (see "A vision of what?", Al-Ahram Weekly, 23-29 November 2006), criticised the commodification of learning that underwrites the proposal, a response representative of that of many academics, commenting that the "fundamental changes proposed in this 'vision' seem to be the work of a handful of self-interested administrators... definitely serving the interests of an elite that seeks to replicate global economic models regardless of their social consequences." Spearheading the campaign against the proposal was the 9 March Group that works for the independence of Egyptian universities (on which see two articles in Al-Ahram Weekly by Sayyed El-Bahrawi, "Significant dates", 9-15 March 2006, and Laila Soueif, "In search of freedom", 16-22 March 2006). At a press conference held in October, the 9 March Group disclosed its response, decrying the proposal's lumping together of state and private sector universities to the detriment of the former; the commercialisation of education; that the channeling of students' scholarships via educational institutions other than state universities may indirectly undermine free education as provided for in the constitution; the confining of the university's independence to budgetary and administrative issues rather than a matter of greater democracy; the questionable definition of the board of trustees and vagueness of representatives of "civil society" to be allowed to intervene in academia; the preempting of the demand for elections of university presidents and deans by allowing for their selection, through ads, by committees formed by the ministry; the likely silencing of opposition in academia through the selection of professors on a contractual basis; the overlooking of the demand that the university be free of interventions by state security. In addition to the 9 March Group, departments of different faculties at Cairo, Alexandria and other universities have taken a strong stand on the proposals. Although it has been announced that the amendments to the constitution currently under consideration do not undermine free education, Minister of Higher Education Hani Hilal was quoted in Al-Masri Al-Yawm on Tuesday as saying that a draft proposal for a new university law will be submitted to President Mubarak after the Eid.

FOUND IN TRANSLATION: A carry-over new year's resolution from 2005, the Supreme Council of Culture's Third International Conference on Translation finally took place in Cairo in February 2006 (for coverage, see these pages of Al-Ahram Weekly, 16-22 February 2006). The conference, which marked the publication of the 1000th volume in the SCC's "National Translation Project", itself the offspring of an earlier state-sponsored 1000-book translation project, honored 10 translators working from Arabic. Ill-attended to the point where the debate seemed to be a matter of preaching to the converted, the conference was nevertheless an occasion for airing grievances about chronic problems of the "National Translation Project", including a depleted budget that means translators' fees are often withheld, the dearth of copyeditors and proofreaders and a faulty policy of translation. At the time, word had it that a National Translation Centre (NTC) would be established, which was confirmed by a presidential decree in late autumn. While the mission, aims, cadre and structure of the NTC have not yet been fully outlined, Gaber Asfour, the secretary-general of the SCC, stated in an interview with Akhbar Al-Adab (5 November 2006) that its purview would extend to training translators, holding translation workshops and setting up a data base for translations in different parts of the Arab world in addition to pursuing the "National Translation Project". While the NTC is to be an independent body with its own budget and a proviso that it can accept external funding, the board of trustees will comprise several ministers. Asserting that the texts selected for translation would not be confined to literature and the humanities, Asfour nevertheless suggested that the new project may eventually undertake the translation of literary texts from Arabic in collaboration with international publishing houses -- in a move designed to avoid the pitfalls of nepotism and inadequate translations -- with the NTC purchasing a number of copies and marketing them locally in order to subsidise the cost.

TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS: As the year comes to a close, the after-effects of the veil controversy, at the centre of which were statements made by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, deemed religiously offensive, are still playing out. When, in November, the minister was quoted -- apparently in off the record statements -- in Al-Masri Al-Yawm as making comments to the effect that the proliferation of the veil in Egypt was a sign of regression, all hell broke loose. Muslim Brotherhood and National Democratic Party members of parliament banded together to call for confidence to be withdrawn from Hosni, while a smear campaign broke out in the press and a number of demonstrations by students from Al-Azhar and other universities in different parts of Egypt took place. The minister had his defenders, whether in the form of articles in the press or the statement backing him signed by a group of intellectuals, some in the employ of the ministry; the latter, however, turned out to have comprised figures who had not consented to signing the petition. Back in his office after a week's absence, Hosni initially made a concession towards the backlash against him when he proposed the formation of a religious committee at the Supreme Council of Culture, a body that operates under the aegis of the ministry of culture. Under pressure from left-wing, pro- secularist intellectuals, Hosni eventually dropped the idea. Earlier in December, the Freedoms Committee of the Lawyers' Union staged a mock trial of Hosni as well as the Minister of Transportation. While the primary impetus of Hosni's trial was his statements about the veil, several other issues arising from his two-decade tenure at the ministry were mooted, including the 5 September 2005 fire at a Beni Sweif Cultural Palace that claimed some 50 lives and the unchecked smuggling of antiquities. For two responses to the veil controversy, see Abdelwahab Elmessiri's and Sayyed El-Bahrawi's respective articles on these pages in the issue of 30 November-6 December 2006.

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)

The doyen of the Arabic novel par excellence, Naguib Mahfouz's corpus also comprises several other genres, including short stories, plays, screenplays, and generically unclassifiable texts such as the late Ahlam Fatrat Al-Naqaha ( The Dreams ). As critics have observed, among many issues raised by Mahfouz's texts is the many modes of writing they resorted to at different stages, such as critical realism and modernism. Paying tribute to Egypt's Nobel laureate in literature (1988), Roger Allen wrote "What is beyond doubt is that, in the development of that literary genre known as the novel in Arabic, the name of Naguib Mahfouz is already acknowledged and sanctioned as THE central figure, the founding father of the mature form of the novel" (see Al-Ahram Weekly, 31 August-6 September 2006). "On the literary plane", wrote Sabry Hafez, "his career spans the whole process of development of the Arabic novel from the historical to the modernistic and lyrical. He earned the Arabic novel respect and popularity and lived to see it flourish in the works of numerous writers throughout the Arab world" ( Weekly, 7-13 September 2006).

Fouad El-Mohandes (1924-2006)

An actor and comedian who for half a century enriched the repertoires of Egyptian theatre, cinema, television and radio, was co-founder of the United Artists' Troupe, and garnered several awards, Fouad El-Mohandes will long be remembered for his plays, especially his role opposite Shweikar in the play Sayyidati Al-Gamila (an adaptation of My Fair Lady ), his Fawazir Ammu Fouad (Uncle Fouad's Riddles), a Ramadan TV staple, his role in the film Akhtar Rajul fil-Alam (The Most Dangerous Man in the World), among works. See obituary by Amr Douara in Al-Ahram Weekly, 21-27 September 2006.

Abdel-Moneim Madbouli (1922-2006)

One of the most popular Egyptian masters of comedy who worked in a whole range of media -- primarily theatre and radio, and in later years TV and cinema -- Abdel-Moneim Madbouli left several landmark performances such as the radio programme Sa'a li Qalbak (An Hour for Your Heart), the many plays produced by the United Artists' Troupe that he directed and/or participated in including Hello Shalabi and Madraset Al-Moshaghebeen (Hooligans' School), and the TV serial Abna'i Al-A'iza Shukran (My Dear Children, Thank You). In a tribute to Madbouli in Al-Ahram Weekly (13-19 July 2006), Amr Douara wrote "whatever the nature of the roles he played, light comedy or tragedy, on radio, television or film, as director, leading man or support, he gave always of his best, consistently, and for decades..."

Samir Sarhan (1941-2006)

A graduate of the English Department, Cairo University, Samir Sarhan was to return to teach at his alma mater after obtaining his PhD in drama in the US. The author of a number of plays, including Sitt Al-Mulk and Rod Al-Farag, Sarhan is perhaps best known for his involvement in state cultural institutions, from the Mass Culture project to his role as chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organisation, the state publishing house responsible for the annual Cairo International Book Fair, and the Family Library project. Of his lifelong friend and colleague, Mohamed Enani wrote "You must be true to yourself was his unspoken motto: he knew that academic life, sheltered and cut off from the vital sources of inspiration in the daily trafficking of people, was not for him" (see "Obstinate questionings", Al-Ahram Weekly, 6-12 July 2006).

Abdel-Aziz Hammoudah (1937-2006)

Professor of English literature at Cairo University, Abdel-Aziz Hammoudah, who obtained his PhD from Cornell University, served as the head of his department as well as dean of the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University. In her homage to Hammoudah on these pages (see the issue of 7-13 September 2006), Nehad Selaiha portrays a gentle, diligent, scrupulously honest scholar who was destined to fight several public battles and acquit himself with dignity. As dean of the Faculty of Arts, he successfully defended the independence of the academy when the propriety of an assigned literary text was questioned in parliament. Of the six trenchantly political plays he wrote, only four were staged, she wrote, stirring much controversy on account of their iconoclasm and pointedly allegorical nature. His late publications on literary theory likewise sparked an extended debate with Gaber Asfour on the pages of Akhbar Al-Adab several years ago.

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