Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 January 2010
Issue No. 980
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A German at the gates

The director of American University in Cairo Press Mark Linz tells Gamal Nkrumah why at its 50th anniversary the unique publishing house he heads plays a pivotal role in a Cairo poised for an unprecedented cultural renaissance

Mark Linz

Chin wedged into his blanched knuckles, playful, his piercing blue eyes fixed in concentration at his glass of wine at the odd moment of introspective reflection, I presume. The genial man facing me is deliberating on work in progress to make improvements in light of the current global financial crisis. He readily concedes that 2009 was a difficult year for publishers and booksellers.

Werner Mark Linz -- the genial international publishing executive for over 40 years, who has served as director of the AUC Press, Egypt's premiere English-language publishing house, for more than a decade, accepts the perception that publishers in the Arab world need to up their game. But then AUC Press isn't any conventional Arab publishing house. Despite the scope for publishing predicaments, though, "we can achieve more than we have to date on a collaborative basis with other publishing houses -- Arab and international," he muses.

For a fleeting moment, Linz reminded me of how French microbiologist and viticulturist Louis Pasteur came to the conclusion that "a good bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world".

We are in a restaurant, appropriately named Arabesque, a stone's throw away from the AUC Press offices. Linz was shuffling in his seat. He readily agrees to an interview. He turns to his right-hand woman, AUC Press Promotions Manager Nabila Akl, to arrange an appropriate date and time. Two weeks later, at his new office he began by reminiscing about his formative years in post-war Germany. He was recounting his childhood memories of playing in the rubble of war-ruined Cologne when he was interrupted by yet another telephone call. A prospective novelist, perhaps? It was an appropriate beginning for a publisher whose Middle Eastern and international connections are megaphones in their own right.

"There are more writers than readers in the Arab world and there is some truth in this."

Our next meeting also takes place in his plush office in the AUC's recently refurbished Downtown Cultural Centre. There is a lot to say, on both aesthetic and practical grounds, for AUC Press is widely seen as a wrong-headed Western imposition on the Arab cultural scene.

Linz's reputation as a miracle worker, however, was over the years enhanced as the very avatar of such an unwieldy monstrosity as the AUC Press. The question is what the mechanism should be, and which bodies should get involved in advancing the cause of English-language publishing of authentic Arabic literary, cultural, social and academic masterpieces in the pulsating heart of the Arab world -- Cairo. He sets his jaw firmly as though he is about to make a difficult decision.

Linz points to a sheet of paper on his cluttered desk, his keynote address at the opening of the new AUC Press Bookstore, designed by Polish architect Agnieszka Dobrowolska, in the historic Sheikh Rihan Building, the spacious home to one of the Arab world's most comprehensive collections of English- language publications. Then he fumbles with the keyboard of his computer. Unable to find what he wants, he calls out for his personal assistant. As the attractive young woman barges in, he glances up at her. "Can you please take a photograph of me," he says in a manner that is almost perfunctory. "Sure, Mark," she smiles. "Could you please stand under the Margo Veillon painting." She understood all too well that it was her duty to look busy and bright. He held a copy of Veillon's Painting Egypt, and posed with a winning wry smile.

AUC Press celebrated the opening of the Margo Veillon Gallery of Modern Egyptian Art on 22 November with a comprehensive retrospective of the prolific painter's "Nocturnes and Fantasies".

Something indescribable happens to the visual cortex of Linz on such exciting occasions. One might be forgiven for forgetting who he actually is at such events, "highlights of his career", but he never lingers in the shadows at such parties.

It was very clever of AUC Press to chose a European, as opposed to an American. Along with his AUC Press venture, Linz also serves as publishing consultant to the Continuum International Publishing Group and crucially other key publishing organisations in North America, Europe and the Middle East. Linz first attended the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1954. He has held senior executive positions with MacGraw HIll and Seabury Press in the 1960s and 1970s.

His stints at several UN-affiliated NGOs including PEN were an asset. The cultural clash of views he found when he took the helm helped to shape Linz into a consensus director of AUC Press. His role as AUC Press saviour at a particularly difficult juncture in its historical development generated simmering tensions with rivals who themselves had an eye on the top job. It is to his credit that he weathered such storms with both polish and panache.

Linz is a most unlikely figure to instill fear in the hardened hearts of his foes, nor does he have truck with the oldfangled uncertainties of his subordinates. He is a jovial German. The affable director of AUC Press describes himself as very pragmatic, but one suspects that he does have strong convictions.

There are many who credit Linz with getting AUC Press back on its feet again after it nearly fell apart. He managed to clear out the deadwood at a time when the country was in economic and social upheaval. Quite what he did is the subject of some myth-making.

He might not be a man of sparkling rhetoric, but he is solid and reliable, very Germanic character traits. He left Germany for the United States at the tender age of 22 and never looked back.

Whether one considers it predominantly Christian or not, Germany is a society, after all, that still believes in Sunday being a day for seelische Erhebung -- spiritual edification. Linz has transcended any such Teutonic capriciousness. His purpose is to gear up his professional balance sheet and never under any circumstances be perceived as a bore. He had no experience of the diplomatic and media minefield that would confront him as director of AUC Press.

It was the work of Mark Linz to uncover the truth about Egypt and the Arab world to a Western audience. Backed by a staff of about 80 dedicated individuals, Linz went well beyond the initial question of the frequently distorted image of Egypt and the Arab world. It was a horrendous challenge to delve into a unique and at least initially alien culture. "If you come in as an outsider, you better be paying attention, because it is a tough game," he explains. Yet, he was both calculating and analytical. The times changed too quickly, but he was always a step ahead.

Linz and his colleagues delved much deeper into the variegated layers of a civilization cast in the role of cultural villain.

Projecting Egypt and the Arab world abroad was an acutely sensitive issue, and it still is. His approach was thoroughly professional. He pays special attention to the works of promising Arab writers -- yes, not exclusively Egyptian ones -- with an eye for the atmospheric and well-observed novel.

The works are invariably vibrant and varied. Arab authors hail from very different social and economic backgrounds.

Capturing the essence of the Arab character in a telling glimpse is no easy matter. Translating an Arabic novel into English often changes the author's life irrevocably. But Linz does not necessarily look for the most exotic page-turner.

His work was intended as a contribution to the urgently needed debate on the historical portrayal of Egypt and the Arab world. It is important to behave briskly in book- signing events and Linz keeps an eye on all the stuffy officials, lackadaisical diplomats, inquisitive bystanders and scrutinising authors.

There is no successful publisher who does not make money. The question is how? He ingeniously exploited the brighter side of the rich cultural legacy of this part of the world before the darker side of the Western judgment jumped to any intemperate conclusions: take for instance, Life is More Beautiful than Paradise: a Jihadist's Own Story by Halid El-Bari translated by the celebrated Hujmphry Davies, as opposed the biography Muhammad Abduh by Mark Sedgwick.

"This is not a time for self-indulgent celebration. It is hard to think of more worth-while goals to support."

Linz brought his innate publisher's understanding to the question of how to sell Arabic literature internationally. He never really ventured into book writing himself, preferring instead to determine which works are worth publishing.

But standing back for a moment, 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of AUC Press, which launched its enterprise with the publication of Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts by Otto Meinardus and George Scanlon's classic A Muslim Manual of War in 1960, in the heady days of Nasser's socialist experiment, an unlikely time for things American in Cairo. 2009 was an eventful year for Linz. In June, he officiated over the "Cultural Celebration" at King Farouk's Corner, Helwan's Corniche some 20 kms south of Cairo. On such evenings he would have a drink or two, but he would inevitably have his luggage in the car, ready to fly to the Frankfurt International Book Fair, or a business meeting in New York or London. He is always ready to start negotiations on the publication of another book -- as long as the money is right.

However, his heart is in that Sheikh Rihan Building, which was originally a palace of the Pasha. This stirring alcazar -- an eye-catching landmark in the heart of Cairo built in neo-Mamluke style -- was AUC's old campus after its establishment in 1919. It was constructed in 1874 for Ahmed Khairy Pasha, a confidante of Khedieve Ismail who was for a time minister of education. It housed Cairo University for a decade before that. As the AUC main campus was transferred two years ago to Katamiya, one of Cairo's new satellite cities, the AUC's traditional premises are now the Downtown Cultural Centre, with its pulsating heart being the new AUC Press Bookstore and the Margo Veillon Gallery of modern Egyptian Art.

But behind the seeming success of these offices is a more complicated picture. "Westerners find it difficult to assess works in a language such as Arabic," he extrapolates. Take the works of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mafouz, for instance. "When I returned in 1995, AUC Press had published 17 titles of Mahfouz. By his 90th birthday, we had 19 titles -- fictional and autobiographical."

"We wanted to make a set of 20 books," Linz chuckles, tickled by the recollection of his own reminiscences. "We decided to translate and publish Children of Gebalawi, which had always been published outside of Egypt because of its controversial nature."

Linz had never once argued with an author, and would not argue now. Mafouz's Children of Gebalawi was a breakthrough for AUC Press. The Nobel Laureate hesitated at first, but then consented to make his masterpiece part of the set. "Nobody raised an eyebrow and now this very important work is part of the canon in English and in many other languages."

There are villains Linz can take a swing at; however, he always gets down to work as soon as he meets anyone promising, a prospective author.

Linz is proud of AUC Press's collection. The range of topics tackled is mind-boggling in its diversity. He singles out some sele c ted highlights of last year's big-hitters, which include Paul Walker's Caliph of Cairo, Stefan Moginet's Writing Arabic, and Giorgio Ferrero's Wonders of Egypt with a forward by Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities.

They have hubris and nemesis, raillery and pathos.

"Egypt has had enormously important historical and cultural eras during the past 5,000 years -- from the Pharaonic period through the Islamic, to the modern era." Linz observes that this unparalleled cultural milieu is reflected in AUC Press publications.

"The last 25 years, even 50 years look small in comparison with the vast historical chronology of the country," he elucidates. "The speed of change and the ever-growing increase in population and consumerism and modernity challenges the political, economic and social systems of the country," he pauses to catch his breath. "The country is undergoing massive transformation."

Most of his suggestions for how we exit this mire are similarly conventional. "Continuing our 25-year tradition and high standard of full-service international book-selling, the new bookstore at AUC'S Downtown Cultural Centre offers the largest and most comprehensive selection of English- language publications in Egypt," notes Linz.

With well over 1,200 publications, AUC Press has no serious rivals in this part of the world. "The backpack people (both Egyptian and foreign) were present at the opening of the AUC Bookstore," Linz shrugs in mock disgust. "I am pleased that they found their way to the bookstore rather than to the Algerian Embassy," he added. The interview was conducted during the week that tempers flared between fraternal Egypt and Algeria ostensibly because of a football match.

Linz was busy for the rest of the day with meetings. He looked a little tired in spite of his constant laughter. He has a way of recalling incidents as though the most infinitesimal disclosure was a way of taking the listener into his confidence.

"AUC Press is the leading English-language publishing house in this part of the world," he repeated, suddenly becoming serious. And then he mentioned his staff. They may not look it, but these men and women are on the frontline in the battle against bigotry and zealotry. "Colleagues share our commitment and significant contribution to culture dialogue."

He is good at identifying individuals with whom he could work. It could be someone young or old, experienced in the field of publishing or a novice with lots of enthusiasm. As long as they had something he could work with, and he does not necessarily prefer those who nod when he emphasises a point. Obviously, he was more susceptible to those least open to perplexity and bafflement.

"Downtown Cairo is poised for a renaissance. The AUC in general is reinvigorating the cultural role of Downtown Cairo." When he is not making a poignant point, a serious statement, he is busy making his listener laugh. "From a personal point of view, I love Egypt, the creative chaos, dramatic developments," he chuckles.

"We organised and redirected in 1985 to a leading university press with high professional standards," he hastens to add on a more serious note. "The university itself has taken major steps to continue to be a leading educational enterprise in the region."

"I came here with a professional consulting mission in the mid-1980s but I came again with a similar mission in the mid- 1990s," he studied me briefly and then laughed.

"There is an ever-increasing interest in Egypt and the Arab world. I live and work in this country because there are exciting professional challenges and I have personally established important roots."

He paced up and down around his office like an animal long used to his cage. "We are addressing publishing programmes relating to Egypt at large and not just addressing academics. Our books are aimed at five markets including visitors to Egypt."

He picks up one of the latest AUC publications: Creswell's Photographs Re-Examined: New Perspectives on Islamic Architecture edited by Bernard O'Kane. The Creswell Photographic archive at AUC includes 12,000 printed images of Islamic architecture, mainly but not exclusively of Cairo. Sir Keppel Archibald Cameron Creswell, who taught at AUC from 1956 until his death in 1974, began the systematic recording in 1920 of Cairo in photographs. Creswell's A Biography of the Architecture, Arts and Crafts of Islam (1961) is now a classic. Such works manifest major milestones in Linz's career. "It is the continuity," he points out philosophically. "Working for perpetuity."

"Rather than brining American and European books into Egypt and the Middle East we are marketing and showcasing Egypt and the Middle East."

Once again he goes down memory lane. "In 1985 we aimed to establish the first full service international bookstore in Cairo. Now there is Diwan and Sherouk. We pioneered the effort to develop the English-language book trade in Egypt. Today, a quarter of a century later, we publish all kinds of books not just academic texts, from popular fiction to poetry -- some 20,000 titles."

"Ventures of this scope and ambition were not often made in Egypt in those days," he smiles at me and shrugs. "We are as true to our commitment to high professional standards, high quality editorial international standards, as we were back then."

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 980 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Entertainment | Features | Living | Sports | Cartoons | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map