27 May - 2 June 1999
Issue No. 431
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A deep blue distinctionProfile byFayza Hassan
This consummate diplomat loses his reserve when remembering Ras Al-Barr
In the past decade, Cairo has seen a number of public libraries open their doors and, following a new trend, attempt to offer their visitors more than just a studious atmosphere. The Mubarak Library was one of the first to embark on such a project, which usually encompasses the acquisition of state-of-the-art electronic and audiovisual materials, which mainly target young users, more at ease in a thoroughly modern environment.
The head of this library is Abdel-Raouf El-Ridi, Egypt's former ambassador to Washington, retired now from the diplomatic service, who bubbles with enthusiasm when he describes the activities he has introduced in the past few years. He has even included an indoor exercise area where youngsters can take a break, and reserved the terrace of the building for summer concerts. One of El-Ridi's many interests is providing the young with as many cultural experiences as possible. He shares this passion with his wife, Farida, who is involved full-time in Mrs Mubarak's Integrated Care Society. He does not confine himself to guiding teenagers, however, but is always ready to adopt projects which may provide Egyptians with a better quality of life.
representing Egypt at the United Nations; with President Mubarak; searching for a diplomatic answer
Following an article which appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly calling attention to the poor state of 19th-century Cairene monuments, many of which are in the process of disappearing, El-Ridi's reaction was swift, vigorous and efficient. Within a few weeks, he had organised an important conference under Mrs Mubarak's auspices, which was attended by a number of ministers, engineers, architects and members of the media, as well as Cairo's intellectual elite who had long been deploring the fate of these often exquisitely crafted witnesses to our recent past. Elegant and understated, El-Ridi was everywhere at the same time, supervising every minute detail, from the seating arrangement to the impromptu exhibition of photographs of buildings under threat. At the end of the conference, the participants agreed that this event would remain a landmark in the launching of the preservation campaign.
Since then, El-Ridi has never missed an occasion to host more photographic exhibitions or invite specialists to talk on the subject. Is he particularly enamoured of the Art Déco and Italianate constructions of the past century? The library itself, a villa built at the turn of the century which had seen a couple of decades of neglect after the departure of its last occupant, Field-Marshall Abdel-Hakim Amer, is a perfect example of professional renovation and adaptive reuse, providing advocates of conservation with an apt case study. Turn-of-the-century architecture, however, is only one component of El-Ridi's interest in the built environment. "The buildings which have appeared in Cairo since the Khedive Ismail are worthy of attention, of course; but," he says, "they are by no means the most important testimonies of our heritage. Wherever one looks, there are priceless monuments of different periods which need to be preserved. We cannot afford to neglect any of them. They are the true wealth of our country."
Yet El-Ridi's connection to Cairo and its peculiar beauty was established quite late in his life. He was born in Ezbet Al-Borg, "the most important fishermen's village of the Damietta area, situated at the northernmost tip of the Nile, where the river waters meet those of the Mediterranean," he says lovingly. His memories of a childhood closely connected to the sea are lyrical. "It was a village of fishermen and sailors. No one else lived there; we had neither electricity nor running water and, for a long time, the men had only sailboats," he says. "Nothing existed in the village which required a motor."
Living in Ezbet Al-Borg was a unique experience, and has marked him for ever, he claims. Closing his eyes, he remembers the fishermen's boats coming home, loaded with their catch. The thought conjures up the sounds and smells of the port and its surrounding activities, which he is keen on recounting. The preparation of salted sardines, for example, was a task shared by the whole community, and one which, before the building of the High Dam, provided Damietta with its main source of income.
"We used to go out to sea to meet the incoming boats. The sailors on the big sailboats brought back many delicacies purchased from cities around the Mediterranean, which they plied continuously. When they returned, we were given mekassarat (assorted nuts), pomegranates and spices, among many other treasures," he recounts. The sea yielded all the bounty that surrounded his childhood, but it was sometimes unexpectedly vengeful and cruel: "Once, cousins of mine, a father and his six sons, did not return with the others; we were told that they had been swallowed by the sea," he reminisces, and shakes his head, still bewildered at the extent of the catastrophe. After all these years, he is once more overcome by the feeling of doom that settled upon the inhabitants of his village at the time.
One of the memories El-Ridi cherishes is that of the summer resort of Ras Al-Barr, which during the Second World War was "upgraded" to cater for the holidaymakers fleeing the more elitist beaches of Alexandria, as Rommel advanced towards the city. During this period, he says, Ras Al-Barr matched any European beach, with its celebrities and beautiful girls in scanty swimsuits.
His childhood memories are closely associated with his feelings for his father, who "was a good man", and the most important influence in his life, he says forcefully. "My father was a self-made man with little formal education. He built a mosque before building his own house and, when affluence rewarded his hard work, he financed the establishment of a hospital in the village. He understood what it meant to belong to a community."
El-Ridi, whose first name is El-Sayed -- like many boys in the area, he was named after El-Sayed El-Badawi -- was among the first young men who left Ezbet Al-Borg and went to Cairo to seek an education. His father, who had married several times, had many sons, but El-Ridi was the only one to go to university. "It was due to my mother's influence. She was from Alexandria and her people valued higher education. She insisted that I leave the village." El-Ridi admits that he was never a good student, except, he says, when he became interested in politics during his high school years, just after the war. He traces the beginning of his political awakening to 1946, when he was around 14. For the following seven years, Egypt was a beehive of political activity. Through his readings, he became acquainted with Misr Al-Fatah, later joining the group. He revelled in the political process, felt enriched and challenged. In 1952, he took part in the students' demonstrations and watched Cairo change, as the symbols of the ancien régime went up in flames. Then came the revolution and his activism came to a halt with the abolition of the political parties.
Having graduated from law school in 1954, he went to work for the renowned lawyer Mohamed Asfour. He knew, however, that his chances of becoming a lawyer in his own right were slim. The road to the top was long and arduous, and besides, he could not count on his family's fortune to open a practice. At this point in his life, he met a friend who told him that he intended to apply for a post in the diplomatic corps. He invited El-Ridi to follow him. "Why would the diplomatic corps want people like us?" El-Ridi asked him, puzzled. "We are neither well-groomed young aristocrats nor do we speak foreign languages. We don't even play tennis, so what would they need us for?" His friend managed to convince him to apply nevertheless, and to his utter surprise his application was accepted and he was asked to sit for further examinations. There was, however, a major hurdle to overcome. The papers had to be written in English, a language El-Ridi had very little knowledge of. With the help of a basic history book and its translation, he somehow managed to acquire in a few days the necessary rudiments which would allow him to answer the questions. He passed with flying colours.
At first, he disliked the atmosphere at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "They all spoke French to each other," he says and, as he had predicted, he felt a complete outsider. He decided to give it a chance, however, and in 1955, when he was barely 23, he was chosen to go to the United Nations in New York as an attaché. He stayed for almost five years, taking advantage of this opportunity to learn English, and acquire a master's degree in International Relations for the Peaceful Use of Outer Space. His dissertation singled him out as the natural candidate to represent Egypt on the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space. In his spare time, he was generally busy familiarising himself with the arts, of which he had been deprived in his formative years. Music and the theatre took up much of his attention. His posting in New York afforded him much more than the opportunity to brush up on his general knowledge, however. At the United Nations, he found himself in a choice position to understand the implications of the 1956 Tripartite Aggression. It was like losing one's political innocence, he says. It also acquainted him with the major international players and by the time he returned to the United States as Egypt's ambassador to Washington, much later, he found himself on familiar ground.
On his return from New York, El-Ridi was posted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as an assistant to Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad. He no longer felt out of his depth at the ministry. He knew international law, English, the jargon of the United Nations and the ins and outs of international politics. He wrote the official speeches and attended the Non-Aligned conference with Abdel-Nasser. It was another exciting period in his political education, full of hope and pride at Egypt's achievements. It all came to an abrupt end with the defeat of 1967.
Married by then, he left Egypt for Geneva, appointed once more to the United Nations. He came back in 1972, just in time for the October War. From 1974 to 1977, he followed Mahmoud Riad at the Arab League and, although he was contemplating early retirement, he was asked to create a new department of strategic planning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in June 1977.
The following years were taken up with the preparations for, and the signing of, the Camp David Accords. Suddenly, though, El-Ridi wanted no more. He wanted to get away from Egyptian politics for a while, and was ready for another posting abroad. He left happily for Pakistan, where he remained until the beginning of the Afghan war. Soon after, he found himself in Geneva for another three-year stint at the United Nations. On his return, he was just making up his mind to settle permanently in Egypt, when he was named ambassador to the United States, a post he held until he retired.
Recently, we met during an organised tour of Fatimid Cairo. El-Ridi's entire attention was directed towards the sights and the streets and he often wandered away from the group, missing most of the presentation. As we passed Beit Al-Qadi, he stopped suddenly and looked inquiringly at the small modern blocks of apartments in the vicinity. "I used to live here as a student," he said, pointing to a window. "When I enrolled at the Faculty of Law at Cairo University, one of my friends, whose grades at the Thanawiya Amma were below mine, was admitted at the same faculty, but had to go to Ain Shams University. Yet we wanted to share a flat, and decided that, under the circumstances, we would have to find something half way between the two universities. Finally someone led us to a new three-storey apartment building in Khan Abu Taqqiya, a stone's throw from Beit Al-Qadi. We rented the flat on the roof. Every Wednesday, my friend received food packages brought from his village by a relative who came to buy straw at Al-Azhar, and who used to spend the night at our flat. We shared my friend's roasted meat and ducks; when these were about to disappear, the sardines and grilled fish would arrive for me from Ezbet Al-Borg. We must have been the best-fed students on either campus."
It was here, too, that El-Ridi fell in love with the girl next door. "I used to watch her hanging out the washing. I thought the situation was awfully romantic and rather enjoyed the frustration of not knowing her. I never even spoke to her." Although El-Ridi has all but forgotten the girl, he remembers vividly the taste of the food arriving fresh from the village, the noises particular to Khan Abu Taqqiya and the stories attached to the area, which he still recounts with delight. For him, Fatimid Cairo is not only an area with an almost unimaginable concentration of historical monuments, it is an active quarter, with its people going about the business of making a living. To him, protecting them is certainly as important as preserving the mosques and wikalas.
His love of the water never left him, however, and one day, in his office at the library, as he was showing me mementos of his diplomatic career and photographs with international celebrities and heads of state, he pulled out a faded picture displaying young men sitting on a raft, clad in their yellow life jackets, ready to throw themselves into foaming rapids. "This is me," said El-Ridi, pointing to a barely visible curly head on the photo. "It was my favourite sport," he mused, with a wistful sigh. "There is no feeling quite like that of being suddenly lifted up by the water and sucked down to the bottom of the cascade. It beats surfing anyday." Then, warming to the subject, he advised me seriously, as if I had just expressed a burning desire to cross the Niagara Falls on a delicate skiff: "If you fall from the raft, don't fight it: remain in a sitting position and let go. You might be tossed around a little, but no serious harm will come to you if you relax."
El-Ridi is tall, slender and suave, and one is amazed to think that he ever indulged in dangerously rough endeavours. He seems much better cut out for the part of distinguished ambassador and perfect host, a part that made the Egyptian embassy in Washington a favourite venue when he and his wife Farida were receiving guests, or for that of the efficient director of the stately Mubarak Library. Regardless of his origins, there is nothing of the wizened old seadog in him -- except, perhaps, the physical attributes one usually associates with a dark blue blazer, impeccably pressed white trousers, and a yachting cap.
photos: Randa Shaath