11 - 17 July 2002
Issue No. 594
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Adel Abu Zahra:

There should be nothing voluntary about citizenship, but in the meantime...

Citizen

Profile by Fatemah Farag
Adel Abu Zahra

Concerned with conservation, environmental protection or civil rights? Then in all probability you will already have come across Adel Abu Zahra somewhere along the line. We first met in 1990, when he was spearheading a campaign against the governorate of Alexandria for having granted an international organisation exclusive access to a side street. It was a decision that was subsequently reversed. Since then we have met several times: when a construction company was planning to demolish the house in which Lawrence Durrell lived in Alexandria and Abu Zahra was battling for its preservation; when the governorate leased a public garden to a private investor, a decision also reversed by court order, when... But enough, you get the picture.

When the principles of citizenship and civic responsibility have been all but eradicated by decades of authoritarianism Adel Abu Zahra stands out. Tall, immaculate, determined, there is no hint of equivocation in his manner. And always there is a file of papers close at hand containing all the documents necessary to defend public rights.

He gives me directions to the new office of the Friends of the Environment Association, an NGO he established in 1990: "It is in Zizinia. Next to the Princess Aziza Fahmi palace. You know, the one they wanted to bring down a few years ago and we fought to keep it standing." Apt directions.

"I am a born reformer," he says. "I cannot see something askew and leave it. If I see someone throw a paper tissue in the street I am liable to run after them and begin a discussion on why they behave this way."

Such are the day to day concerns. But then there are the bigger battles, over the wholesale poisoning of Lake Maryout, against a succession of laws that further hamper freedom of association in Egypt.

"I was invited to speak to more than a hundred employees at the Ministry of Social Affairs on the new NGO law. After my speech one official got up and, shaking with disbelief. 'What are you saying?' he asked me. 'Are you inciting us against the new law ?' I told him yes, this is my opinion, this is who I am."

Professor of Behavioural Sciences at the Arab Academy for Science and Technology, Abu Zahra has taught a wide range of courses, broaching on aesthetics, psychology, the history of science, environmental education and critical and creative thinking. "I think of my teaching profession as an opportunity not just to transfer information but an opportunity to change the way these young people think," he says. "Unfortunately the education system has taught people complacency."

Confronting this complacency is one tactic in combating the malaise that has, Abu Zahra believes, afflicted Egyptian society since the 1967 defeat and which grew with the infitah and migration to Arab gulf countries in the early 1970s. "Notions of collective responsibility and of its associated values have all but disappeared. People came back [from the Gulf] not just with money but with a conservative culture that emphasised an appearance-obsessed understanding of religion. Our society has taken refuge in the womb of the past and lost faith in the future."


"I am a born reformer.I cannot see something askew and leave it"
He remembers a time when it was not so, his own formative times. "I was a university student in the 1960s and a member of the Arab Socialist Union Youth Organisation. I was enthusiastic about the revolution, embracing this collective dream for a better future. I was unaware at the time of the mistakes. I was swept up by the movement... we went to villages to install water pipes and electric wires."

A sense of the collective was something that had always been impressed on Abu Zahra, even as a child. "My mother always emphasised the importance of sharing. When I would buy her something sweet she would never eat it until some one else came and then she would divide whatever I had got. She taught us that everything is more enjoyable when shared," he added.

Today, though, there is too little enjoyment. "George Orwell said that if you want to understand a society look at the language they use. In Egypt today street language is horrible slang. There is nothing sublime about today's music, it is just for entertainment. We tear down our architectural heritage to build ugly high rises. Up until the 1970s we had a clean red carpet that led from the entrance of our building to the elevator. But just come and look at the entrance of our building today." He shakes his head in both defiance and disbelief: "Consider -- this is a society which in the 1930s and 40s published books such as Why I am an atheist and in Alexandria had a cemetery for free thinkers."

Abu Zahra is first and foremost an Alexandrian. Not only does he fight fiercely for the preservation of the city's heritage, he evokes the cosmopolitan history of Alexandria constantly, finding in it a great source of inspiration.

"I am a liberal man and believe in the critical, the creative, mind. I am against the 'one idea'. I do not like the idea of binding myself within a single paradigm," he explains. It is an attitude that could explain why Abu Zahra's name has never been associated with any political party and why he has chosen civil society as the arena within which to fight for a greater sense of public responsibility, of public service.

"I am the kind of person who must play a role which is probably why I never threw in the towel and left the country although I have had more than one opportunity to do so. If I lived in another country I would be living in something, however beautiful, created by another people and it would not belong to me. And so I have focused my energy on how to get beyond the current decline. Eighty per cent of my time goes into volunteer work."

Such effort has been recognised locally -- he is a member of the Egyptian Supreme Council for Culture, the executive board of the Development Research Centre at the American University in Cairo, the committee of Culture and Media of the National Council for Women among others -- and internationally. Last year he was one of ten activists chosen to be awarded the United Nations' Volunteer prize in recognition of his efforts.

Born on 20 November 1948, Abu Zahra obtained his PhD in 1978 with a thesis focusing on discrimination against women. "I have always been concerned with gender issues and the fight against discrimination. I am concerned because women are half this society and without their development there can be no development. As long as we are preoccupied with covering hair what kind of development can there be?"

He is the confirmed bachelor, though matters of a personal nature tend to be brushed aside. "Is this a question," he asks. "Well yes. It has been good in some ways. If I had been responsible for a family maybe I would not have had the luxury of being so free. I would have had to think twice before raising the next case against the governor because I needed space for my children at school. At the same time now that I am older at times I feel I miss the partnership of a woman in my life."

It is a fleeting moment of intimacy. Abu Zahra is clearly not a man who relishes discussions of his personal life. Other passions, though, are a different matter, and are willingly shared. Classical music is one such.

"I hosted a programme on Alexandria television for nine years in an attempt to increase awareness among the general public of classical music. And then I got tired," he confides. His face lights up again, however, when he talks about the life-changing effects of reading Kazanzakas, Chekov and Bertrand Russell.

"I believe in comprehensive human development. Art and culture are not just an amusement, they are a way of changing society, a path towards development. People live to enjoy but here we live below the poverty line, we worry only about filling our stomachs. The object of development, of freedom, is to permit a high quality of life. To open your window in the morning to clean air and the view of green trees."

He could have achieved this quality of life for himself, even in Egypt. But that is not what drives him -- he wants it for everyone. His idea of citizenship revolves around the notion of sharing benefits, of working towards improving the lot of the community, and not just the individual.

"There is a common logic, encapsulated in the proverb that one should close the door from which the wind blows [that one should avoid those things that cause trouble] with which I am at odds. I have entered battles to preserve old buildings, buildings that date back to the cosmopolitan history of Alexandria. But that cosmopolitanism was about humanism, an acceptance of the other. It was a society that could flourish only with tolerance."

"I was giving a talk at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, something we organise every two weeks, and I said something to the effect that not everything is written in the Holy Books. A man got up and was very angry. He told me everything -- science, technology, everything -- could be found in the Qur'an. He walked out of the lecture after insulting me. But I was not angry. People are not used to having their beliefs questioned and it shakes them to the core. But I have seen people who were that unwilling to discuss their beliefs come again and again and are now willing to talk. It is a beginning," he explains. And it is one of the reasons he is concerned with supporting the new library, the inauguration of which, after delays, is now scheduled for 16 October. In fact, he has established the Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, an NGO that "will work towards protecting the intellectual integrity and freedom of the library".

The library is one of the many forums Abu Zahra has identified that can be used to advance the concept of citizenship. "I believe in advocacy. I also believe in the law, public hearings and public consultations. There are media campaigns too, there are many ways of advancing the public interest but the important thing always is that the battle never becomes personalised. I take legal action against the governor all the time, but I take this action against him as a public servant. I have nothing against the man himself."

No surprise, then, that the governor of Alexandria, Mohamed Abdel-Salam Mahjoub, held a grand celebration in Abu Zahra's honour after he received the UNV prize last year. "I was very touched that over 1,200 people attended, some of them coming from as far as Aswan and Minya," he says.

He is perfectly aware of the credibility that has accrued over his years of hard, steady work. "The mother of one of my students called me a while ago and told me that her son, who now works abroad, always tells her how I influenced him and how he still reads my work. A man on the street stopped me and shook my hand, congratulating me on the programme on classical music. Many people realise that I work for a cause and not for personal benefit and this gives me credibility."

"I want to open people's eyes to the future. I have no authority and any power I can exert comes because of my freedom and integrity. I know that I may not live to see the benefits of the seeds I sow, but I am a reader of history and I know that these seeds will give fruit some time down the line."

And he is confident he is not alone. "Before going to sleep at night, particularly after a tiresome day, I remember the men and women who have taken that extra step and made the extra effort. When I travel around Egypt and get tired I meet them at one event after another. I feel as if all I have to do is stretch my hand and I will find hundreds of others to hold on to. How can one not have hope?"

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