24 - 30 October 2002
Issue No. 609
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Mohamed Awad:

Campaigns, comics, cosmopolitanism, controversy: four Cs, and without Casper

In medias res

Profile by Hala Halim

There have been many high points in Mohamed Awad's career but this week was special. A past master at polemics, he has had one of his more controversial projects publicly vindicated and paid unmitigated homage. It was Awad's idea to erect an equestrian statue of Alexander the Great on the oldest street of the city that bears the Macedonian's name and lies close to his presumed burial site; Awad's was the intermediary role that resulted in the realisation of the statue, designed in Greece and presented as a gift by various Greek associations here and in Greece; his the design of the plinth, and all in the face of huge controversies over the choice of subject, the design of the statue and the location. He will wax persuasively about Alexander's project being more of the harmonising than the imperial order, about the mount being not an index of the Macedonian as conqueror but an aspect of the legends about his horse, about the stepped plinth as drawing on Egyptian architecture. But as he helped draw the Egyptian flag covering the Arabic- language plaque and the Greek flag covering the English-language one in the presence of the governor of Alexandria and the Greek ambassador, he was, in a sense, performing devotions as much to a family lineage as to an intellectual genealogy.

Legends about Awad abound. In Cairo two society ladies were once describing his filming of illegal demolitions of villas in the dead of night. At the Alexandria Atelier, a young artist detailed elaborate rituals Awad allegedly follows in search of Alexandrian memorabilia at auction sales abroad. There is no doubt that Awad ("Mimi" to his friends) has a distinctive air. He will walk into the room in the middle of a sentence addressed to an off-stage person, but will immediately plunge into the heart of the matter his visitor is there to see him about. This in- medias-res manner might give him a harassed, conspiratorial air. Or, it might be the result of a versatility that leaves him overworked but no less sociable for that.

The facts, then. By profession he is an architect, and a third-generation one, his paternal grandfather having started the practice in 1911. A historian of architecture, he lectures on the subject at Alexandria University. As a conservationist, he is the founder of the Alexandria Preservation Trust, an NGO for the documentation and protection of Alexandria's architectural heritage which has launched several successful campaigns to this end.

Personal charisma and his vocation as conservationist have turned Awad into one of the faces of Alexandria -- photographed and interviewed (Elle Decoration, The Financial Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Liberation...), cast as one of the seven secrets of Alexandria in a book about such arcana, warmly acknowledged in scholarly monographs on his native city, sought after as a conference speaker. Although by no means averse to his status as icon -- which he cultivates -- Awad will candidly admit that he came to architecture almost against his will, despite growing up with the practice all around him.

As a child, studying at Victoria College (re- named Victory College) like his father, he elected to move in with his paternal grandparents. It was a "very stable and loving childhood," with a big circle of family friends. With his grandmother, one of the key influences in his life, he spoke Greek (both his grandmothers were Greek), with his grandfather, Arabic; English with his father and classmates; and French with family friends. He was often taken to building sites by his father and grandfather but "until I graduated [from school] I really never thought I'd be an architect -- I was more into biology and medicine." When he announced his intention of studying medicine "it set up a gloomy atmosphere in the family... they were all thinking if he goes into medicine we must close down this office and practice." Having joined the Faculty of Engineering "with the intention of continuing my father and grandfather's business, and making them happy" he became gradually reconciled to the decision, partly thanks to his father's insistence on sending him for training in Europe in summer.

'My sense is that architecture is a complex, multi-disciplinary profession -- an architect is a jack of all trades because he has to deal with history and technology, and so many other things at the same time, and to teach these talents is a difficult task'
It would seem that the point where his profession became a vocation is when he was writing his doctoral thesis -- an investigation of the impact of economic change on the structure and function of the building industry in Egypt between 1925 and 1985. Using Alexandria as case study, the thesis, he says, traced the growing occidentalisation of the city through the presence of the European communities and the British occupation, as seen in the growth of the European town centre, the dismantling of the guild system, the influx of foreign contractors, the coming into fashion of such architectural features as the boudoir. Awad also went on to analyse housing in the context of socialism, under Nasser, then the impact of Sadat's Open Door policy on the built environment. While doing research for the thesis, partly in the UK, Awad acquired his passion for history, and also began amassing what was to become a huge collection of books, photographs and engravings of Alexandria (he has a lot of competition these days, he jokingly says, with some 20 other serious collectors of Alexandrian memorabilia).

A professor he had worked with in London recommended publication of the thesis (1992); but it would now seem that the long-awaited magnum opus by Awad on Alexandria is not forthcoming. Instead, his published output tends towards comprehensive essays on various aspects drawn from his dissertation. Targeted towards an academic audience or accessible to a more general reading public, the essays have ranged across such topics as the urban metamorphosis of the city in the modern period, the Place des Consuls (later re-named Place Mohamed Aly, now known as Manshiyeh), the profiles and contributions of specific architects. He has also had fruitful collaborations with other historians of architecture.

One such colleague, Dr Christina Pallini, who has worked with Awad on the Italian contribution to modern Alexandria's urban planning and architecture, describes her collaboration with him with a great deal of affection: "His approach to the history of architecture in Alexandria is precious because he's an insider and is like my antennae." Being with Awad's friends (many of whom are from the old foreign communities), she explains, gives her a glimpse of cosmopolitan Alexandrian society which brings her subject matter to life: "you feel he speaks for the cosmopolitans." Although she concedes that "he has no patience for archival research," she finds that the virtue "of his work is that it is global."

In his role as educator Awad's grievance is the narrow specialisation that is promoted. "My sense is that architecture is a complex, multi- disciplinary profession -- an architect is a jack of all trades because he has to deal with history and technology, and so many other things at the same time, and to teach these talents is a difficult task," says Awad. The unfortunate thing about the teaching of architecture in Egypt, he finds, is that "it focuses on one type of architect -- that is the creative designer, but in reality how many architects are there who can handle the many aspects and disciplines involved in the work?" The curricula, he elaborates, neglect such aspects of the architect's work as law, site-management, the psychology of the client, the environment, and ecology.

To judge by the experience of Gamal Samaan, Awad's own teaching fills in the gaps he detects in the educational system. Now Awad's partner, Samaan explains that "Mohamed taught me for two years when he was a junior lecturer and I was an undergraduate. He would always select a number of promising students and give them extra attention, have them over to his office, let them use his library which was much better equipped than the one at university." After graduating, Samaan started working with Awad: "There's no doubt that he leaves a big imprint, both personal and professional, on people who've worked with him. My real professional training was in this office: university gave me the basis, but in terms of practice, in terms of the right environment where you can grow professionally, I learnt immensely from this office. I find that there's a gap between me and others who were my classmates, even with people who started out in this office and then moved on, there's a big professional gap that separates us." Almost echoing Pallini -- who has dubbed Awad "Padrino" (godfather) -- Samaan says "he's a bit of a dictator, yes, but that's healthy, because an architect is supposed to be a one-man show, since his work has many aspects, and is also a form of art. But Mohamed is capable of listening to others. And if he puts pressure on people working with him, his idea is to get the best out of them." Awad, he maintains, "taught me to be a fighter, and to persevere, and to be committed to my responsibilities, because he, too, is very responsible. I do nothing else with my life but work -- sometimes I feel I've become a carbon copy of Mohamed!"

The downtown office also hosts the Alexandria Preservation Trust (APT), and hence draws all manner of visitors -- émigré Alexandrians back in town in search of locations, researchers consulting Awad's collection of rare books and photos (over which he is by no means possessive, as I discovered while working with two other authors on a history of Victoria College that he had initiated), and journalists investigating one of the latest conservation campaigns he is spearheading. The campaigns, on some of which he joined forces with other NGOs such as the Friends of the Environment Association, starting from the early 1990s to about 1997, took the form of legal measures against questionable municipal actions as well as mobilising public opinion through the media. (Having worked closely with him on the call to preserve the house where Lawrence Durrell lived during World War II, I know how responsive he is to taking measures against unsound developments that a journalist can only uncover but not meddle with directly.) One of the most visible of the conservation campaigns was in the mid-'90s when the APT and other associations took a firm stand against the bulldozing of the site where the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was to be built without prior archaeological excavation work; as a result a salvage dig took place at the site which had been part of the ancient Royal Quarter.

But Awad has another, more recent association with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Among other exhibitions and museums within the new institution inaugurated by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak this week is a permanent exhibition of the Awad Collection. Double-billed "Impressions of Alexandria" and "Cosmopolitan Alexandria", the exhibition comprises engravings, maps and early photographs of Alexandria, together with display cases showing such items as a rare first edition of E. M. Forster's Alexandria: A History and A Guide, and a sketch of Lawrence Durrell by the Alexandrian artist Clea Badaro.

The image I keep of Awad is not of him with the statue of Alexander the Great, or of him posing for the Al-Ahram Weekly photographer in front of Al-Bank Al-'Aqari -- a backdrop he chose because of its Ionic design, made by a Greek architect. Rather, it is a glimpse caught of Mimi Awad on a winter's evening, crossing Ramleh Station towards the newsstands, engaged in lengthy negotiations with a vendor, then leaving with something tucked under his arm -- some comic magazines, of which he is an avid collector. He says he has never liked Superman. His favourite is Casper the Friendly Ghost.

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