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Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The tragedy of books in Egypt

Looking at Egypt, historian Khaled Fahmy affords a harrowing insight into the status of that most indispensable of commodities: the book

Khaled Fahmy, Wednesday 29 Aug 2012
Khaled Fahmy
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In recent weeks I encountered two incidents that made me feel extremely sorrowful about the situation of books, reading, and indeed culture, in Egypt.

The first happened in New York City, and requires a brief background

For the past few years, I have been working on a book that tackles the social and cultural history of Egypt during the 19th century. The book includes two chapters on the history of medicine. The first is about the history of Kasr Al-Aini medical school and public hospital, founded in 1827; the second deals with the history of public health in the country at large.

One of the central questions I pose in these two chapters regards how Egyptian society perceived modern medicine, and in particular those procedures that, at first glance, may be seen as  offensive to religious beliefs and social traditions, such as dissection, vaccination and post-mortem examinations, especially of women’s bodies.

In order to answer these questions, I spent years conducting research in the Egyptian National Archives (Dar al-Wahta’iq). There I uncovered scores of fascinating original documents that shed light on the reaction of average Egyptians to such novel practices and institutions as vaccination against smallpox, modern hospitals, government clinics and the elaborate measures to collect and update vital statistics.

What I had greater trouble learning about, though, was the stance of physicians themselves to these new practices.

It is well known that the first batch of students to enter the Kasr Al-Aini Medical School had earlier been educated in Al-Azhar and therefore had considerable knowledge of shari‘a and fiqh (dogma), so I was keen to learn what they thought of the modern medicine that they were now learning in their new school.

However, the Egyptian National Archives, as rich as it is in information about patients frequenting Kasr Al-Aini, is paradoxically not that informative about that hospital’s teachers and doctors.  I therefore decided to move to the adjoining building, the National Library (Dar al-Kotob), for books that these doctors might have published.

Here I was aided by researchers such as Aida Nosseir who had compiled bibliographies of the first books published by the famous Boulaq Press, Egypt's oldest print-house. Amazingly, about one third of Boulaq’s publications in its first thirty years of its existence were medical titles.

Most of these medical books were translated from French by Kasr Al-Aini’s earliest graduates, those same students who had earlier studied in Al-Azhar. Some were not transaltions but authored books originally written in Arabic. Examples of the latter are Rawdat Al Nagah al-kobra  fil ‘amaleyat al soghra (Wide Path to Success in Minor Surgery), written by Mohamed Ali Al-Bakly in 1843, and Bahgat Al Ru'asa fi amrad al nisaa' (Pleasures of the Professors in Gynecology) by Hassan Al-Rashidi. 

Both authors were among the most notable physicians of the 19th century. The first was deputy head of the Kasr Al-Aini Medical School, the second chief at the Civilian Hospital in Azbakeya.

Having compiled a list of 30 such books, I was very keen finally to sit down and read them in the National Library. However, my hopes were very quickly dashed as the National Library is, to put it gently, a total mess. Readers’ services are unheard of, catalogs are designed to misguide and confuse readers, and staff feel offended if approached for help and advice.

Worse still, I was able to find only a few of the books I was looking for. The majority of the titles I had been dreaming of consulting were simply not there. When I inquired from the “librarians” (I feel obliged to use quotation marks so as not to offend this venerable profession), I was met with bemused looks of people who could not understand why an apparently sane person could possibly be interested in consulting such out-of-date medical books. Soon the answers came back, as curt as they were infuriating: ‘In restoration’. ‘Miss-shelved’. ‘Missing’.

This all happened years ago. Since then, I have lost all hope of ever finding these books in the National Library, and satisfied myself with the gems of archival, non-published material I had found in the National Archives.

Then to my utter surprise, I came across these books in New York!! Two weeks ago, I went to Bobst Library of New York University to check some citations. As anyone who had been to Bobst knows, Philip Johnson apparently designed the building for no other reason than to induce vertigo to its users. Throughout my years of working in Bobst, I would avoid the harrowing experience of gazing down its massive, space-wasting light shaft and would head straight down to the basement. There, and to my extreme joy, I found out that Bobst has 89 of Boulaq’s earliest medical books on microfiche.

Having experienced how these amazing Egyptian books were missing from Egypt’s national library, I became intrigued to find out how a microfiche copy of them ended up in a university library in New York City, and one that is not among the largest or oldest, and certainly not the most beautiful university libraries in the US.

A small notation mentioned at the head of each fiche gave me a clue: the paper originals from which these fiches were copied are housed in the library of the University of London, and specifically of SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studied. The question remained, though, for why was the University of London interested in acquiring 19th-century Arabic medical books that had been translated from French?

The plot thickened. The collection of fiches were not only of medical books, but covered many other subjects, including an Arabic translation of an Italian manual on how to dye silk, the first book ever to be published in Boulaq (1823). The latest book in the collection was a book on mathematics published in 1850.

Why was the University of London library interested in acquiring this eclectic collection of Boulaq publications? And if they were keen on preserving the earliest publications of this pioneering press, something that the Egyptian National Library apparently was not as keen on doing, why did they stop acquiring these books in 1850 despite the fact that Boulaq is still in operation?

I had a hunch that the answer to this question lies in an event that took place the following year, namely, the inauguration of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, a.k.a. the Crystal Palace Exhibition held in Hyde Park in London in 1851.

As is well known, this was the first in a series of World’s Fair exhibitions that were subsequently held in such cities as Paris, Chicago and Vienna. The 1851 London Exhibition, besides being the first of these impressive fairs, was specifically designed to celebrate industry and technology. Organized by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, it was meant to reflect the new belief that industry and technology have the answers to all humanity’s dreams. The huge Crystal Palace that was especially constructed out of iron and glass was meant to demonstrate man’s triumph over nature.

Less known, perhaps, is the fact that Egypt participated in this exhibition. Also less known is that the Egyptian pavilion was as large as that of Turkey, even though Egypt was still, technically and legally, only a mere province within the Ottoman Empire.

Browsing through the catalogue of the exhibition, scanned and available online via Google, I found a detailed description of the artefacts sent by Egypt, a list that showed the level of science and technology reached in Egypt at that time.

Among the 391 pieces on show were an “Egyptian plough,” “Mint-water from Rosetta,” “Narguilé, or water-pipe,” “Cap of fellah in brown beaver” and “Refined Sugar from Ibrahim Pasha refineries’. In the midst of this amazing Borgesian list of exhibits stands item no. 248 which simply states: “One hundred and sixty-five volumes of works in Turkish, Arabic and Persian, published at Boulac.”

This, then, must be the reason behind these books’ presence at the University of London’s Library. Most likely when the Egyptian delegation, which, as the Catalogue tells us, was headed by a certain Captain Abdel Hamid from Alexandria, returned to Egypt, they left behind these books which most likely were then donated to the University of London.

What I found most amazing about this story is that back in 1851 when the officials in Egypt decided to join the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, they thought that 165 books that had recently been published in Boulaq deserved to be among the exhibits in this fair. And looking at the very humble nature of the other aretefacts, these books most probably occupied pride of place in the Egyptian pavilion.

And there was something to brag about. The collection of modern medical books translated into Arabic only few years after they had been published in French, showed an awareness of state-of-the-art medical literature, as well as the ability to produce elegant books in a clear script, fine paper, and impressive leather binding.

When one delves into these books, as I did to my utter joy in the basement of Bobst, one finds another source of amazement. For one thing, the rhyming introductions penned by the Arab editors and translators (some were Syrian, while others were Tunisian, in addition to many Egyptians) showed an acute awareness of the huge volume of the Arabic-Islamic medieval medical lore and an extreme comfort in building on it when translating modern medical literature. For another, one can easily sense the deep sense of self-confidence and pride at the accomplishments of both the Kasr Al-Aini Medical School and the Boulaq Press. For what is clearly stated in one book after the other was referring to this huge project of publication was not about “borrowing form the ‘Other’” or “Catching up with the West”, as we are wont to say nowadays, but as resurrecting, phoenix-like, an art which used to thrive in Egypt, but which had long since perished.

After days of tracking the story of these books and many more days actually reading them, a deep despondency descended on me. For here I am, sitting at a library in New York City, reading medical books that had been printed in Cairo after failing to find them back home. And while the University of London Library saw that it will have served its purpose as an institution of learning if it microfiched these books and thus made them available to a wider readership, our libraries are still informed by a philosophy of hoarding knowledge, at best, and losing books, at worst, including books that are considered rare publications by any account.

And then I found myself dealing with the second incident to which I referred at the beginning of this article. At around the same time I was basking in the pleasure, at long last, of having found these rare books, I was informed that a textbook I had requested to use for one of my courses at the American University in Cairo (AUC) has been banned by the national “Office of Censoring Publications”. 

The book in question, A History of the Modern Middle East, is considered among the best textbooks on the subject, and one that has been used numerous times before at AUC. On investigating the matter further, we were told that the Office of Censoring Publications (and yes, post-Revolution Egypt still has an office with that title) objected to a number of maps in the book. Specifically, a couple of maps putting Halayeb and Sahlateen on the other side of the Egyptian-Sudanese borders were deemed wrong and offensive. But the Office of Censoring Publications was eventually gracious enough to propose manually correcting the offensive maps. Only then will the book be un-banned.  

Thinking about these two incidents, I couldn’t help but compare our conditions in 1851 and in 2012. 

During the mid-19th century we were truly a civilized nation, for we approached science with a spirit of free inquiry, not stopping twice to think about its provenance and not bothering about questions of authenticity, national identity or national security.

By contrast, now after our universities and libraries had failed even to preserve the books we had once translated and published, and after squandering our scientific achievements, we have been forced to seek our own scientific productions abroad. 

Then, and to add insult to injury, we handed over the responsibility for protecting national security to employees at a censoring authority that has the chutzpah of naming itself the Office of Censoring Publications, and who prove with their mediocrity their utter ignorance of anything to do with knowledge, science or scholarly research.

My despondency, nay, fury, does not stem from the harm I know has been caused to free speech or academic freedom by those in charge of our national security. I too am concerned by our national security. But my fury arises from the deep conviction that national security is never achieved by banning books -- it is achieved, rather, by disseminating them.

(Article published in Literature News in Arabic, and was translated and published with permission from the author)

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20



John McCann
04-09-2012 10:40pm
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Historic Preservation
Speaking of the book, one of the periods after a glorious flourishing of learning in the Islamic culture, was when the Gutenburg Bible was introduced, and made reading a possibiiltiy, and the advanceent of civilization. Except in Islam. Because of their views of the gorgesous but time consuming illunimted Qur'an's, they could not embrace the modern printing press for religious reasons, thus setting their forwaard looking scholarship backwards, and his still not caught up to the rest of the world. The Chinese revered calligrphy as the highest form of art, but did not hinder them from embracing the printing press.
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19



Angela
03-09-2012 06:12pm
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Proud to see such scholarship come out of Modern Egypt today
Thank you Dr. Fahmy for your fascinating article. I look forward to reading the finished book and your other works. Not only does your article illustrate the fundamental role of Islamic and Eastern science to modern medicine, it serves as a reminder to Egyptians today of our glorious past. Hopefully, one day, we will be able to return to such scholarship.
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18



Angela
03-09-2012 12:25pm
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Proud to see such scholarship come out of Modern Egypt today
Thank you Dr. Fahmy for your fascinating article. I look forward to reading the finished book and your other works. Not only does your article illustrate the fundamental role of Islamic and Eastern science to modern medicine, it serves as a reminder to Egyptians today of our glorious past. Hopefully, one day, we will be able to return to such scholarship.
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17



Menna
31-08-2012 04:39pm
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The importance of culture
I've found this article very interesting, makes me want to know more about this subject. Thank you for sharing your experience, I'll definitely read your book. However, I think the key to this "books carelessness" would be a deep mind-changing towards culture , in general. Television and other popular media should convey the importance of being educated and, above all, the importance of having thirst for knowledge; young writers, artists and intellectuals should be given the chance to speak about their works, be role-models to others who have the same ambition. This problem is, actually, common in other countries, as well. We're witnessing a cultural decay, just look at the people who are being admired and imitated nowadays. The child that is born in this shallow society will grow up with the notion that nobody actually cares about culture , and that's more important to be popular and rich rather than be smart and have groundbreaking ideas. To feed our minds with knowledge is as i
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16



Menna
31-08-2012 04:30pm
0-
0+
The importance of culture
I've found this article very interesting, makes me want to know more about this subject. Thank you for sharing your experience, I'll definitely read your book. However, I think the key to this "books carelessness" would be a deep mind-changing towards culture , in general. Television and other popular media should convey the importance of being educated and, above all, the importance of having thirst for knowledge; young writers, artists and intellectuals should be given the chance to speak about their works, be role-models to others who have the same ambition. This problem is, actually, common in other countries, as well. We're witnessing a cultural decay, just look at the people who are being admired and imitated nowadays. The child that is born in this shallow society will grow up with the notion that nobody actually cares about culture , and that's more important to be popular and rich rather than be smart and have groundbreaking ideas. To feed our minds with knowledge is as i
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Sawsan Mostafa Ali
01-09-2012 04:38pm
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WITH MY RESPECT TO YOUR COMMENT
Please read what lies behind the lines. The writer tells us this very long story just to tell us at the end that a book contains a wrong map about Shalteen and Halaeb is banned in Egypt. He does not really care about libraries and culture . He is only trying to build a public opinion aginst the banning of the book in order to make them give him a licence to teach it at the AUC
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sawsan mostafa ali
31-08-2012 01:14pm
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TWO POINTS
1- National libraries need millions to stand within the world libraries- look at the budget of Alex. Library. 2- In case of such wrong maps in the book titled (A history of the Modern Middle East) - I agree on banning it - as this a is very serious matter. Do not forget that we have taken Taba from Israel by a map in a very old book to state that Taba is a part of Egypt for a long long time. ( Accordingly, a wrong map about Haleeb and Shalateen is really a matter of national security, or you want one day that Sudan to take it as part of it according to this wrong map? I see that banning the book is not even enough but we need a research about this subject to clear it and to insure that Halaeeb and Shalateen are parts of Egypt not Sudan).
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14



sawsan mostafa ali
31-08-2012 01:14pm
9-
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TWO POINTS
1- National libraries need millions to stand within the world libraries- look at the budget of Alex. Library. 2- In case of such wrong maps in the book titled (A history of the Modern Middle East) - I agree on banning it - as this a is very serious matter. Do not forget that we have taken Taba from Israel by a map in a very old book to state that Taba is a part of Egypt for a long long time. ( Accordingly, a wrong map about Haleeb and Shalateen is really a matter of national security, or you want one day that Sudan to take it as part of it according to this wrong map? I see that banning the book is not even enough but we need a research about this subject to clear it and to insure that Halaeeb and Shalateen are parts of Egypt not Sudan).
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Mona
03-09-2012 04:41pm
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History Books
Why not look at the first Western historian Herodotus 500-BC, in his chronicles "The Histories", from wich all ancient scholars studied, as Socrate, professor to Alexander The Great, and see what was revisioned for Wars profits.
Dr. Malek Towghi/Tauqee (Baluch) ---USA
02-09-2012 05:57am
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No Title
A disappointing comment. Such a large number of supporters of the comment reminds me of the Mubarak-Nakhnoukh era poll riggings.
Khaled Fahmy
01-09-2012 02:42pm
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Banning books is not the answer
I agree with you that the map may be offensive. But I cannot disagree more with the decision to ban the book that contains it. First, because banning the book will not make it disappear. Second, the comparison with the Taba case is not correct. The maps presented in that case were authentic maps I.e. A truly historical map going back to a specific period (I believe to 1905). This is not the case here. This ia book published in 2004 that contains a map ***about*** the interwar period. It is not therefore a map ***from*** the interwar period. I cannot therefore see any legal significance for it. Third, accepting the principle of banning books that offend us, or which contradicts our conception of national security opens a Pandora's box. For one thing, who is to decide what is offensive and what is not? For another, there are thousands and thousands of books and articles out there that contain offensive material. Shall we ban them all? Finally, I believe that we should defend national sec
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Adly Mostafa
31-08-2012 10:41am
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Excellent article - Need arabic version
Dr. Fahmy why don't you write the artcle in Arabic too?
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Khaled Fahmy
31-08-2012 05:11pm
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Arabic translation
Please see my answer to comment no. 5 below
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Dr. Malek Towghi/Tauqee - USA
31-08-2012 01:02am
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Brilliant and Timely
Dear Dr. Khaled Fahmy, This piece is also timely because Egypt has reached a critical point with two options ahead: 1. to continue the retrogressive march of obscurantism (neo-Ash'arism?) that disturbed the brilliant Enlightenmentarian process of the 19th & early 20th century -- the glimpses of which in one field are reflected in your essay --; 2) to pick up the pieces and resume the abandoned progressive march of Enlightenment and Civilization. world. **** With some academic-professional relevance in mind, I forwarded your piece to my daughter, Dr. Fouzieyha (Fauziyyah) Towghi, who has an MPH from U of Hawaii and a Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology from UC, SF & Berkeley. She called me back to thank and tell me that she is already familiar with, impressed by and has benefited from your publications in her researches -- and that she has used and is using some of your writings as required reading for her students in relevant courses. So, Sir, let me humbly thank you for being a guide
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Adly
31-08-2012 12:34am
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Excellent
Excellent article, please keep writing in English. Thanks, could u please translate in Ahram in Arabic. Thanks.
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