Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 February 2009
Issue No. 933
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Stand to pavillion

Gamal Nkrumah tracks down the AUC Press at their Naguib Mahfouz pavillion at this year's Cairo International Book Fair. Having started at the fair's inception 41 years ago with a humble lone stand, it has become a legend like Mahfouz himself

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Director of the American University in Cairo Press Mark Linz is biding his time. His mornings are still primarily about meetings. However, he can afford to relax a little after almost three decades of almost single-handedly creating "the leading English language publisher in Egypt and the Middle East," as Mrs Suzanne Mubarak so aptly put it. He has, after all, brought Arabic literature out of the back alley unto the library shelves of the most reputable research centres and institutions of higher learning in the West. Indeed, the former chairman of the university's trustees Paul Hannon has dubbed the Press "the jewel in AUC's crown".

Under his leadership, AUC Press pretty briskly morphed into a highly respectable publishing house in the heart of the Arab world that vociferously rejects the very notion of the "clash of civilisations". Few understand better than Linz the sinister ramifications of conceding the presumed existence of such a clash. "We reject the very concept," he says emphatically.

A literary buff, whose favourites include the late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz's works, Linz is deeply engrossed in his sense of mission. "As the AUC Press approaches its 50th anniversary in 2010, it has, over the past 24 years and especially over the last 12, found renewed talent and energy as it has become the major translator of contemporary Arab literature," he elucidates.

Another opportunity beckoned with the 41st Cairo International Book Fair (22 January-5 February). "Watershed event" is how he described it. "This has been a successful book fair," Linz quickly adds. "We sold more books this year than this time last year." He is quick to point out that the success of AUC Press contrasts sharply with the woes faced by publishers in the West because of the international financial crisis. "Our colleagues in Europe and North America are moaning and groaning because of the global economic meltdown." His mantra is that publishers have to draw all the lessons without reservations.

The Arab world's cultural and literary peculiarities require calibrated responses to a horribly tarnished image complex in the West. But his prescription for putting the wheels back on the marketing Arabic literature in the West is arguably out of kilter with the Orientalist visions of yesteryear.

So what about the charge of cultural imperialism? "We are an independent press sponsored by an independent university," Linz notes by way of explanation. McDonalds imports America. The American University Press exports Egypt. Moreover, McDonalds imports the greasiest, most calorific, sickening and worst aspects of American culture piecemeal. In sharp contrast, the AUC Press exports the most exquisite cultural treasures of Egypt. Strangely enough the humble headquarters of the AUC Press are literally just a stone's throw away from a McDonalds outlet facing the AUC's old main campus.

"Our aim is not to bring more American culture here, but rather to take Egyptian and Arab culture to the West, to make it more accessible to the Western reader," Linz explains. A senior international publishing executive for over 40 years, Linz prefers to dwell at length on the distribution and dissemination of the very best Egyptian culture has to offer. He acknowledges that the AUC Press must make the most of the upsurge in Arabic enrolments in the United States and in Europe.

"We intend to expand both classic and experimental literature," Linz notes. "We are not planning to reduce our current production." There is an upsurge of interest in Arabic literature and the AUC Press is in a perfect position to take full advantage of this old-new phenomenon. A quick glance at the AUC Press Spring/Summer catalogue and the latest Spring 2009 catalogue reveals a great deal. To begin with, the 2000 catalogue starts with a rather glum assessment of contemporary Egypt, albeit boisterously entertaining: Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? by the celebrated economics professor at AUC Galal Amin. The 2009 version is not only noticeably bigger and far more colourful, but it commences with the bombshell My Hope for Peace by Egypt's former first lady Jehan Sadat. The common thread in both is that the political -- and a particular political line -- is being promoted despite protestations of innocence by the publisher.

For the first 20 years AUC Press published one or two books a year. George Scanlon's A Muslim Mannual of War, was one of the first books to be published and like many since by yet another professor at AUC. It is a classic that is still widely used as a reference authority of international repute.

Still in print is Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts by Otto Meinardus. Both Sconlon's War Mannual and the Meinardus masterpiece were published in 1961, the year that AUC Press started its operations. And, irrespective of the titles it was an inauspicious beginning. No books were published by AUC Press in 1962, and in 1963 a single title The Development and Expansion of Education in the United Arab Republic by Amir Boktar was released. Boktar, the first native Egyptian to be published by the AUC Press was curiously a Copt, and a considerable corpus of their output to this day is about Christian Egypt.

This said, Islam and Islamic art has increasingly emerged as focus of their catalogue. AUC Press perhaps a little too long on the mystical side of Islam, which I guess is more accessible and more of interest to a Western secularist audience. Titles such as Living Sufism, Muslim ethics: Emerging Vistas, and The Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity are representative their opus.

It was in the late 1960s that the "AUC by sheer accident of history became a cornerstone of the Egyptian higher educational system," Linz points out. The times were grime and Egypt stood at a critical juncture in its development, political, social and economic. Those were difficult years, he concedes. "The AUC championed liberal arts educational programmes. The best and the brightest Egyptian youth, the most promising ones began to enrol at AUC. As Egypt's socialist phase wound down and Sadat's Open Door policy took hold, America's influence increased rapidly.

By the mid-1980s, the AUC's position was secured as one of the foremost English language universities in the Middle East, the other being the American University in Beirut (AUB). But, as AUB's fortunes faltered during the fractious years of the Lebanese civil war, AUC picked up the pieces -- the peace dividends as it were of Egypt's rapprochement with Israel. The new dispensation of the Cairene university became the perfect starting point of the AUC Press leapfrog expansion.

Linz was first conferred the honour of directorship of AUC Press in the mid 1980s (1983-86) to be precise. He returned in 1995 expanded the venerable institution and turned it into a viable publishing venture. He drew from his long and impressive professional experience, having served as director and consultant of a Princeton- based educational publishing group, a fine arts foundation, a scholarly research foundation, and a university institute in New York. He also served on several United Nations affiliated bodies and a host of non-governmental organisations. Linz first came to Egypt in 1979 which was a watershed year for Egypt in many respects, and for obvious reasons. The AUC published something around 15-20 books a year by that time. Today, no less than 100 titles are published every year.

"I do believe very firmly that what we're doing is critically important to cultural exchange," declared Neil Hewison, the right hand man of Linz. "We are a non-profit organisation. Our goal is to expand the profile of the AUC Press," Hewison echoes Linz, and he adds that "AUC Press offers a backlist of more than 1000 publications."

Like Linz, Hewison stresses that the about-face came with the translation and publication of Mahfouz's novels. AUC Press published 36 titles by Mahfouz in English. And, both Linz and Hewison agree that Mahfouz has had a profound impact on the prospects and prestige of AUC Press. Mahfouz's Echoes of an Autobiography being the archetype of AUC Press devotion to all things Mahfouzian.

The director of AUC Press emphasises that the translation and publication of Mahfouz's novels in English commenced a decade before he actually received the Nobel prize. Indeed, AUC Press must have, in hindsight, been instrumental in the propagation of Mahfouz's genius in the West.

"In December 1985, the AUC Press signed an exclusive international publishing and licensing agreement with Naguib Mahfouz, thus becoming his principal English-language publisher and his worldwide agent for translations and other publishing rights. Prior to the Nobel Prize Award in 1988, the AUC Press had published eight Mahfouz novels in English. And as Naguib Mahfouz wrote later that "it was through the translation of these novels into English that other publishers became aware of them and requested their translation into other foreign languages, and I believe that these translations were among the foremost reason for my being awarded the Nobel prize."

Linz attaches a great deal of significance to the translation work of the AUC Press. "Translations represent approximately 10 per cent of the world's annual new publications, but of these 50,000 translations published annually fewer than one per cent come from the Arabic world and only a dozen important literary works are translated from the Arabic every year."

Bang-up translators such as Denys Johnson-Davies were instrumental in enhancing the reputation of AUC Press as the foremost publishing house in the field of translating Arabic literature into the English language. Johnson-Davies has produced more than thirty volumes of translation of modern Arabic literature and his The Essential Yusuf Idris, a selection of the most important works of Egypt's leading short story writer, is being released in 2009. "The AUC Press has been committed for more than 25 years to bringing the best of Arabic literature to the widest possible readership throughout the English speaking world and beyond. Thus helping to bridge the enormous gap in the cultural understanding between the Arab world and the rest of the human community," notes Linz.

Academic works with a restricted readership would also not have been published had the AUC Press been a commercial publisher. Indeed, a book like the recently released Linguistics in an Age of Globalisation: Perspectives on Arabic Language and Teaching edited by Zeinab Ibrahim and Sanaa Makhlouf would not have seen daylight.

We haven't mentioned latest star that AUC Press is enthusiastically promoting as heir to their beloved Mahfouz -- Alaa Al-Aswany, author of the best-seller The Yacoubian Building and its sequel Chicago. Like Mahfouz, he is an irreverent social critic. Like Mahfouz he is more popular with Western readers than with his own compatriots.

The AUC Press might not intend to be a Trojan Horse for US imperialism. But nonetheless, neocolonialism inevitably seeps in to the its activities here in Egypt, as Sadat's widow's memoirs and the rather tawdry critique of contemporary Egypt mentioned above demonstrates. After all, who selects the so- called treasures of Egyptian culture to "export"? It is Americans and American-trained Egyptians, who invariably reflect what liberal Americans would like to see Egypt as, to see Egypt become, as the McDonalds and Hollywood culture flood Egypt and deluge Egypt's past? There is no separating culture, economics and politics, alas, despite the best of intentions of the albeit well-meaning and highly sympathetic AUC Press staff.

Says Daniel Pipes, of all people: "Naguib Mahfouz is one of those authors, like Norman Mailer or Salman Rushdie, whose biography and political views sometimes overshadow his fiction. Although Mahfouz fills a decidedly smaller stage than Mailer or Rushdie (the Arab- speaking world rather than the English-speaking one), he dominates it far more thoroughly than any novelist here." But the so-called sages of Stockholm are notorious for dishing out their prizes, especially the literary one, for spurious political reasons, and the fact that Mahfouz, the first Arab to get one, was considered by the Islamists an apostate is no coincidence. The fact that Mahfouz is the jewel in the AUC's crown is also no coincidence. It's he who made them and they, in turn, who made him. The relationship is in an uncanny manner the mirror image of Egyptian-American relations in all their complexity.

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