Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999
Issue No. 457
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Pack of Cards

By Madame Sosostris

Sosostris* Last Tuesday, my dears, members of the Society of the Friends of Ahmed Bahaaeddin opened a new school library in one of the villages of Assiut, an event that could change the lives of thousands. My dear young friend Youssef Rakha, who also happens to be one of my favourite Weekly colleagues and a great supporter of the society's initiatives, accompanied me to this momentous event.

Aside from its reputation for violent clashes with the authorities, I personally knew very little about Assiut. There are few landmarks, little economic activity and little scope for the kind of educational interaction that is so important for the development of young minds. Yet these very facts make it an ideal candidate for cultural development projects. The nondescript quality of its villages, coupled with an obvious need for intellectual nourishment, make them the development activist's dream.

Happily, the administrative district of Salalma, south of the governorate, also happens to be the birthplace of the late Ahmed Bahaaeddin, one of the greatest names in Arab journalism and a public figure whose contribution is not only canonised but almost unanimously esteemed. In 1997, the establishment of the Society of the Friends of Ahmed Bahaaeddin, a small organisation founded by the writer's family and friends with the aim of undertaking various cultural projects in Egypt and beyond, was thus ubiquitously celebrated. With financial and moral support from Bahaaeddin's many admirers throughout the Arab world, a number of distinguished scholars, writers and journalists formed a board of executives, and work commenced successfully in 1998 with a grant scheme offering young writers and researchers the opportunity to pursue their interests in an open and independent environment, free from academic strictures and commercial pressures. So far, however, the society appeared to be Cairo-centred. Nothing, it seemed, could be farther from its activities than Duweir, the village where Bahaaeddin was born.

symbolic brickL-r: Daisy and Ziad Bahaaeddin laying a symbolic brick to mark the commencement of the Society of the Friends of Ahmed Bahaaeddin's next project in the centre of Duweir: the Ahmed Bahaaeddin Cultural Centre;

school libryYoungsters using the new school library donated by the society while the famous journalist seems to be smiling upon the children from above. This first step in the intellectual development of Salalma's youth will soon be followed by a new gift from the society in the form of a fully equipped cultural centre
photos: Randa Shaath


With aid funds drifting in following the earthquake of October 1992 -- an otherwise disastrous event for the entire governorate -- the government agreed to build a much-needed primary school, but only on condition that local residents provide the land free of charge. Bahaaeddin's extended family in Duweir quickly came to the rescue, with various modest landowners pooling their efforts to supply the necessary land at the most convenient location near the centre of Salalma, where the Ahmed Bahaaeddin School could cater to the educational needs of four villages, including Duweir. So far, however, the school lacked a suitable library. The headmaster observed to lawyer Ziad Bahaaeddin, Ahmed's son and a principal member of the society, that even the teachers' reading needs were seldom satisfied. Many of the schoolchildren had never seen a computer, let alone used one. It was thus that the task of creating a fully-equipped, computer-operated library became the society's first venture outside Cairo. Over a period of two years, publishers were contacted, lists of books compiled, dialogue conducted with the school administration and representative families consulted on the precise needs of students, staff and village residents who would use the library.

The process brought to light not only the altruistic side of all concerned (the majority of the 4,000 books making up the library were donated, as was the equipment, and specialists provided their services free of charge), but also the extent to which Salalma could benefit, on both the intellectual and physical planes, from the support of the society. As soon as the long-awaited opening ceremony was over, in fact, the society's representatives marched festively towards the centre of Duweir, where a symbolic brick was laid to mark the commencement of the society's next project in the area. The Ahmed Bahaaeddin Cultural Centre, to be established in the village over the next few years, will comprise a bigger library, an audiovisual room and informal discussion and learning groups. This is a vital, necessary step without which the example set by the school library will lose its force. All that remained for the visitors to do was to explore the monastery overlooking Deir Doronka, the village that had suffered most from the earthquake, and sum up their impressions of the day over a lovely lunch in town.

I found the opening ceremony itself somewhat rhetorical. It was held in a tent on the school grounds, organised by the school administration and presided over by Ziad and the civil, military and police officials of Salalma. The audience consisted of Daisy Bahaaeddin, the late great man's beloved wife, Ziad of course and many relatives, friends, members of the staff and the school administration, and a dozen or so visitors from Cairo. Besides yours truly, there were members and affiliates of the society who were directly involved in the project, like Hasna Reda-Mekdashi and Mustafa Soueif, as well as scholars Fatma Moussa and Widad Mitri, writer Radwa Ashour and political commentator Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, the only senior member of the board of executives who delivered a speech, in which he emphasised the actual work of the society, evidenced by the imminent change in people's lives brought about by the opening of the library. I do hope that this project, like the others implemented in dear Ahmed Bahaaeddin's name, lives up to the great man's reputation.