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The tragedy of books in Egypt

Published in Ahram Online on August 29, 2012

It was republished in Free Speech Debate on September 10, 2012

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

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

The Egyptian School of Medicine and Hospital in 1827, Abu Za’bal, to the north east of Cairo (It was later relocated to Qasr al-Aini ten years later)

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.

Nicholas Perrson Al-Djawāhir al-Saniyya and Nicolas Perron, al-Azhār al-Badī‘a fī ‘ilm al-Ṭabī‘a, trans. Yūḥannā ‘Anḥūrī and Muḥammad al-Harrāwī (Cairo: Būlāq, 1838; 2nd edn. 1852)

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.


Muḥammad al-Shāfi‘ī, Aḥsan al-Aghrād fī at-Tashkhīṣ wa Mu‘ālajat al-Amrāḍ, trans. Nicolas Perron, Ḥusayn al-Rashīdī and Muḥammad at-Tūnisī (Cairo: Būlāq, 1259 AH / 1843 CE),

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?

The Great Exhibition of 1851

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.

Pp. 212-13 of the official catalogue listing under no. 248 the books that occupied pride of place of Egypt’s exhibits.

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.


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  1. Roger Owen
    Roger Owen 07/03/2017

    What a story – and how to explain the sorry state of librarianship in Egypt today – the omnipresent secret poilice??

  2. Elaine Kruse
    Elaine Kruse 07/03/2017

    Such a sad commentary on perpetuating ignorance — Egypt is not alone in that.

  3. Khaled Fahmy
    Khaled Fahmy 07/03/2017

    You are right in wondering about librarianship. Two thoughts come to mine. 1. While many Egyptian universities offer degrees in library science, these degrees are built on outmoded and obsolete curricula, in addition to being out of synch with the actual state of already existing libraries. Secondly, the spirit of public service is nearly completely absent from these libraries. What help one occasionally gets from librarians (and there is some) is due to the kind heartedness of this or that librarian rather than being a reflection of an institutional public service ethos.

    And that brings me to your second question, how to explain the omnipresent secret police. For the more I think about it the more that I am convinced that at the core of the police state that is modern Egypt is the consistent desire to control information and manipulate the official narrative. Accordingly, libraries which are supposed to be places of edification and reflection are turned into places where citizens are meant to constantly feel the hidden hand of the government.

  4. sahar
    sahar 27/08/2018

    I enjoyed a lot the article. I feel proud that I am affiliated to Kasr Al Ainy medical school.

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