Essential reading

Mohamed Salmawy
Thursday 1 Feb 2018

Mohamed Salmawy identifies three books that make this year’s Cairo International Book Fair a must-visit

If you go to the Cairo International Book Fair, which opened its doors to the public on Saturday, do not leave without having purchased three books which I believe are the most important works published recently in their respective fields.

The first is one you will not find in bookstores yet, as it was made available for the first time at the book fair. It is The Queens of Egypt, by eminent Egyptologist and former minister of antiquities Mamdouh El-Damati. Published by the General Egyptian Book Organisation, it will surprise you with the number of queens who contributed to shaping Egyptian history from the old, middle and late Pharaonic kingdoms through the 300 years of the Ptolemaic era and the Islamic eras. The book introduces us to no less than 20, starting with Meryetneith who governed Egypt following the death of her husband King Wadjit.

Meryetneith was the first woman to govern a country in human history. She ruled Egypt for 10 years from 2939 to 2029 BC. When her son came of age and ascended the throne, she took a backseat in power in her capacity as queen mother. The book concludes with the Sultana Shajar Al-Durr who paved the way to the beginning of the Mameluke era in the 13th century.

Following the death of her husband, Saleh Nijm El-Din, she assumed command of the army and led it to victory against the crusader forces of Louis IX. In between these two remarkable figures, the author unfolds the pages of a special history that reveals the glories of the Egyptian women who took the helm of our country with strength, skill, wisdom and cunning. Some queens took the throne alongside their husbands, offering them support and advise, while others ruled independently, assuming the titles of male rulers. Many of the periods under the rule of the queens of Egypt were characterised by growth and prosperity.

The book is filled with facts to which many historians have paid scant attention. For example, when we mention the name Cleopatra, we generally think of only one queen: Cleopatra VII, celebrated by ancient historians and in the arts and letters of every era because of her famous affairs with the most powerful emperors of the time. Often overlooked are her political acumen, her prudent management of the affairs of her nation, and her legendary shrewdness in dealing with Rome, the most powerful empire of that epoch. In addition to underscoring this point, El-Damati draws our attention to the importance of the first Cleopatra, the daughter of the king of Syria and the key to the restoration of concord between Egypt and Syria after years of discord. At the age of 10 she married Ptolemy V, who had inherited the Egyptian throne at the age of 16. She eventually became a cause for the resurgence of hostility between the two countries when she was eliminated.

Nefertiti is famed as the queen of Amenhotep IV of the 18th Dynasty, more famously known as Akhenaten. El-Damati establishes that she was more than just a pharaoh’s wife. She had considerable influence in the kingdom and, moreover, she may have governed independently for more than a year following Akhenaten’s death. Indeed, according to the author, she may have been the pharaoh Smenkhkare.

The Queens of Egypt ultimately affirms that the empowerment of women is not a phenomenon exclusive to modern Western civilisation, which brought the women’s liberation movements we know today. It was a fundamental issue throughout the thousands of years of Egyptian history in which women prevailed in some eras, even if they were suppressed in others.

The second book is Kyrie Eleison by the journalist Hamdi Rizk. Published as part of the Rose El-Yusuf “Golden Book” series, it is inspired by a love and admiration for the Copts and introduces us to important pages in our contemporary history. For example, there is a highly significant scene that involved many parties, none of which wrote about it before it was related to us in Rizk’s book.

It features the first meeting that Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi held with the editors-in-chief of the major newspapers only 48 hours after coming to power. In that meeting, Rizk had the courage to ask what the constitutional status was of the Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide, who was effectively controlling every government decision. Rizk was a harbinger of the revolution that would erupt a year later and that called not so much for the ouster of Morsi as it did for the fall of the rule of the Supreme Guide.

The author closely observes the sectarian politics of the Muslim Brotherhood and its intimate relationship with terrorism since the founding of the organisation. In his investigation, he relies not only on Hassan Al-Banna’s public speeches but also his secret communications. Rizk also broaches the question of the Salafis who continue to disseminate their extremist ideas without restraint in spite of how such ideas may lead some to violence and terrorism. Just as he asked Morsi about the unacceptable status of the Supreme Guide, he boldly asks for an explanation of the curious status of the Salafis in society in the era after the 30 June Revolution.

As for the third must-read available at the book fair, it is The Deep Revolution by the journalist Mohamed Shoeir, assistant editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram. One, of course, is immediately struck by the original and highly significant title of the book, which attempts to answer many of the questions that people continue to ask about the 25 January Revolution. Was it really a revolution? Does it mean more or less to us than the 30 June Revolution? What did each of the revolutions do for us? How did they change our lives? Did they accomplish their aims?

And, finally, is there hope for the future? Part of the genius of the title chosen by the author is that it offers an indirect answer to all these questions, although the author, in the end, stresses that the answer to the last question depends on us. In fact, the last chapter of the book is an appeal to us, as Egyptians, to build hope together. In that chapter, which is given the title “Aspiration and hope: join in the path and let’s get to work”, the author invites us to work together to forge the “fourth path”, which is distinct from the three other paths that he believes are prevalent in society: namely, the path of “perpetual revolution”, the path of “rejectionists of the 25 January Revolution” and, thirdly, the Muslim Brotherhood path that rejects the first two.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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