Book review: The life of Egyptian geologist Roshdi Saeed

Mahmoud El-Wardany, Saturday 16 Feb 2013

Renowned Egyptian geologist Roshdi Saeed, 1920 - 2013, recounts in this 2000 publication his early years of education, and struggle to sustain a research institution at Cairo University

Roshdi Said
Life Journey: Egypt's Treasures between Abdel-Nasser and Sadat

Reh'lat o'mr (Life Journey: Egypt's Treasures between Abdel-Nasser and Sadat) by Roshdi Saeed, Cairo: Family Library – General Egyptian Book Organization, 2012. 207pp.

Egypt's Family Library Project selection this year comes to the reader with a broad diversity of titles free from any tendency for 'favouritism.'

The Family Library Project presents a unique set of productions, including the autobiography by renowned Egyptian geologist, Roshdi Saeed, first published in 2000 for his 80th birthday. After living in the United States until his recent death on 7 February at age 93, he writes about his life since birth in 1920 until the year 2000.

Roshdi Saeed belongs to the generation that reaped the fruit of the 1919 Revolution. Born in Cairo to a Coptic Cairene family from the middle class, he gained a suitable education once the occupation was over, following the full integration of Coptic Christians into the National Front and with the constitution of 1923 that gave all Egyptians equal rights and duties regardless of religion.

On another front, the atmosphere created by the 1919 Revolution rapidly replaced the old education system with a new civil education, established a new university and raised Egyptians' awareness of their history and pride. In fact, Saeed's sister was among the first group of Egyptian ladies to be sent to school in England. She later joined the Institute of Fine Art to learn painting.

Saeed joined the Faculty of Sciences in 1937 and studied geology under the guidance of established thinker at the time, Salama Moussa. Saeed describes Moussa's influence on him and the strength of their relationship. As described in his book, in 1945, this relation later led to Moussa bidding him farewell before Saeed sailed to Zurich to further his education.

Challenges of a rising geologist

Following his PhD, in 1950, Saeed spent a year teaching in the US, becoming well-known after the publication of his research. Upon returning to Egypt, the difficulties he faced did not prevent him from teaching at Cairo University, where he also established a unit for scientific research that quickly matched the international universities standards.

Saeed started facing challenges with what he calls '"the rising conservative religious current in Egypt in general and in universities in particular." In his book, he describes his exerted effort to escape with the research section he established and his continual push to keep the institution moving forward amid these social tempests.

However, expanding his work and establishing networks outside the university in his original field of geology led the Minister of Industry at the time, Aziz Sedky, to appoint Saeed as head of the Foundation for Mining and Geological Research in 1968.

The history of Saeed's work in the foundation takes up a significant portion of his autobiography since he realized that after the defeat of 1967, mining basically stopped. It halted not only in occupied Sinai, but throughout the country since mining was a very small business by contractors and not a full-fledged industry.

In addition to the role the foundation played in the Egyptian economy during the War of Attrition years, Saeed established the Egyptian Geological Survey for the first time in history. It quickly developed into a massive project to search for raw materials in Egypt and assess the findings. Thousands of geologists, labourers, engineers and specialists were organised to scan the Egyptian deserts, collect their notes, review data and produce and document results.

Saeed's disappointment over rising corruption

The seventies, however, were the years of regression; Saeed writes about the difficulties he faced.

"The seventies bore a suffocating atmosphere that didn't allow for any initiative or work in the fields of industry or production and fell to the lowest priority for the leaders of the 'Infitah' (economic liberalisation) era. Over and above, the corruption spreading, in addition to the campaign led by the political organisation against me, all influenced the morale of workers and reduced the standard of ministers and their capacity to make decisions. These developments led to my desperation, so I handed the resignation form for my role to the Minister of Industry in 1977 and he approved it immediately."

Thus, Saeed's relation with public posts ended, and he dedicated himself to scientific work requested by global universities and research centres, either as a professor or researchers.

Saeed was included for detention during the Sadat era among more than 1,500 thinkers, politicians and intellectuals and because Saeed was in the US in September of 1981, he was spared from imprisonment. Sadat was later assassinated in October of that year and Mubarak eventually requested the release of all these detainees.

Saeed looks back with contentment despite all, sensing that he did his role despite all the battles against religious currents who accused him of discrimination.

Furthermore, he was honoured by the 1970s generation of Al-Jeel Center for Youth and Social Studies, established by late student leader Ahmed Abdalla Rozza. Saeed mentions he was grateful for this celebration more than any other celebration made by international universities and institutions.

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