Egypt’s history problem

The Egyptian film director Tawfiq Saleh passed away on August 18. Despite Saleh’s stature in the pantheon of Egyptian cinema, his passing seemed to generate precious little comment in the national media. He was certainly not the most prolific of Egypt’s directors, with only seven feature films to his credit. But together with such greats as Youssef Chahine and Shadi Abdel Salam, he was responsible for that astonishingly productive moment in Egyptian film history which followed the naksa, or setback, of the Six Day War of 1967. In a matter of just a few years, there emerged from Egypt such classics of world cinema as “Al-Ard” (The Land), “Al-Mumiya” (The Night of Counting the Years) – and, thanks to Saleh, “Al-Makhdu‘un” (The Dupes), the screen adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani’s masterpiece “Men in the Sun.”

But my purpose here is not to furnish the encomium Saleh so clearly deserves. For the moment, I simply want to point to a paradox by which I am struck each time I travel to Egypt. The neglect of Saleh’s passing is emblematic of this, but a further anecdote may illustrate the paradox even better.

Over the past ten years, I have visited Egypt roughly once each year. And in the course of these visits, I have developed a sort of ritual — namely, I make an attempt to visit the Taha Hussein Museum, or “Ramatan,” just adjacent to Haram Street in Giza. The museum is the former home of the great thinker and writer of twentieth-century Egypt. I say “attempt” because I have never quite succeeded in making the visit. I have managed to locate the museum, to view the exterior walls — nay, I have even spoken with the staff, both on the telephone and in person. But I have never actually set foot within the walls of the museum — not once, after ten years of attempts. And every time I have communicated with museum staff, I have received but one excuse for the apparent indefinite closure of the museum — tarmim, restoration.

Egypt can seem utterly saturated with history. What countries can boast so vast a heritage, with such a visible wealth of monuments? But Egyptians frequently have a paradoxical — and, as I will suggest, problematic — relationship with that history, that is illustrated, at least in part, by the anecdotes above. For while there exists a fierce pride in Egyptian history, not to mention an intense interest, there likewise exists a casual, almost cavalier attitude in certain quarters towards preserving and showcasing Egyptian heritage — an attitude that I can only characterize as paradoxical.

I will confine my remarks to Egypt’s modern history, because it is this part of the heritage with which I am most familiar — but more than that, because it is on this score that the casual, cavalier attitude seems most strange. One can readily understand why the ancient heritage upon which Western tourists seize when they visit Egypt might seem distant or foreign to contemporary Egyptians. But surely this sense of distance cannot apply to figures like Tawfiq Saleh and Taha Hussein — figures who were and remain present in the lives of Egyptians, most notably through popular culture.

There is no question that a profoundly corrupt, shortsighted and frankly incompetent state apparatus is responsible to a large extent for Egypt’s failure to preserve and showcase its modern heritage. As has become apparent with the scandals surrounding the Alexandria Library, this was a state apparatus whose very structure and operation was dictated by a need to cater to the whims of the powerful. Perhaps even more sadly, though, this was a state apparatus that often placed a greater premium on Western visions of the Egyptian past than on Egyptian visions.

Much as one can and should blame the state for its multiple failures, the state is not the whole story here. Of course, since the January 25 revolution, Egyptians have remained much preoccupied with the future. But must this preoccupation with the future come at the expense of disengagement with the past? How indeed might a serious, sustained engagement with that past — for instance, with revolutions in Egyptian history — help the country emerge from the current morass? As a historian bearing witness to the January 25 revolution, I was dumbfounded by how seldom Egyptian intellectuals drew upon the great reservoir of modern Egyptian history to inform debates about such varied matters as institution-building, the constitution and social justice.

It would hardly be far off the mark to say that one of Egypt’s greatest resources is its history — and yet, this is a resource to which almost no resort is made, except to attract Western tourists, or to serve as the backdrop for this or that musalsal (television series). I am heartened by the popular revulsion at the looting of the Mallawy Museum and various archaeological sites, as well as by the popular efforts to rescue endangered architectural landmarks in Alexandria and elsewhere. These popular initiatives hint at what Egyptian history needs most at this juncture — the overthrow of the sort of paternalism as the revolutionaries of January 25 sought.

Can one in good conscience call the Mahmoud Khalil Museum — attracting perhaps a dozen foreign visitors each day — a museum? Perhaps only in the most dismal sense of the term: as a place to warehouse dusty relics with which one has no connection. Egypt has the raw materials for literally dozens of museums, which could rank with the very best the world over — places where Egyptians could explore the genealogy of their everyday lives. But this time will only come when the museum is refigured as a place for all Egyptians.

Perhaps, by that time, I will have had a chance to visit the Taha Hussein Museum, once and for all.


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