AUC: 100 Years, 100 Stories

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Back in 2018, I was asked by the AUC Press, publisher of Grand Hotels of Egypt and On the Nile, if I would be interested in writing a book celebrating the centenary of the American University in Cairo. I’ve never taught or studied at AUC, but living in Cairo in the 1980s and 1990s I got to know the university well. I was a frequent visitor to the campus, largely because of the bookshop, which had a better selection of English-language novels than many British bookshops. I sometimes attended Thursday night movie screenings, and gallery exhibitions, and would spend hours drinking coffee in the fountain courtyard – well, the AUC girls were so good-looking. I was also a frequent visitor to the offices of the AUC Press to meet with John and Elizabeth Rodenbeck who, as a sideline to their many other activities, were running something called the Society for the Preservation of Architectural Resources of Egypt (SPARE), on behalf of which they employed me to draught a series of maps of Islamic Cairo. So, anyway, I liked the idea of writing about AUC.

The Press wasn’t sure what form the book should take, only that it shouldn’t be a straight history because that had already been written and published by the Press in the 1980s. What we decided on was 100 stories about AUC, each ideally illustrated by a photograph, document or artifact from the university’s extensive archive. If you’ve never visited the AUC archive, it is amazing. Its holdings include not just items relating to the university, but to the history of Egypt. It’s not a stretch to say that you could probably fashion a pretty decent museum of Egypt in the 20th century from the AUC archive.

Added to which, AUC’s own history is almost a microcosm of modern Egyptian history. Its setting, in a former palace on Tahrir Square, means that it has been a front-row witness to so many key events, including the 1952 Revolution, the terror years of the 1980s and ‘90s, and the 2011 uprising, when the AUC Press offices were ransacked by invaders who then made their way up to the roof to fire down on protestors. Its status as an American institution in Egypt has meant it has walked a diplomatic tightrope, at times using US ties to bolster itself, at other times putting as much distance between itself and the US as possible, for instance when the US Embassy in Cairo was closed down because of its support for Israel in the ’67 War. In recent times, the relocation of the academic core of the university out to an impressive purpose-built campus in the desert realms of New Cairo, again, mirrors demographic trends in Egypt.

All of which is to say, it was a fascinating book to research and write. Visually it’s a treat too, thanks to great picture research and design by my partner Gadi Farfour – see for yourself, below:

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Most of the 100 stories that make up the book take up one or two double-page spreads. The stories are organised into colour-coded sections covering history, wars & revolutions, staff & faculty, students, alumni, visitors, AUC’s contribution to Egypt, AUC abroad, the New Cairo campus and the future. Instead of a straight chronology of events, stories in the history section zero in on specifics – “What’s the big idea?” looks at the reasons behind the founding of an American university in Egypt and how the idea was received.

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Wherever possible stories are illustrated by items from the university archive. Some of the old promotional brochures, like this one from the 1930s feature gorgeous graphics.

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The section called Wars & Revolutions has a series of stories looking at how AUC coped during World War II, the 1956 Suez Crisis, the 1967 War and the 2010 uprisings. The latter had a huge impact on the university as for months the streets around the Tahrir Campus were the scenes of regular confrontations between protestors and government forces. AUC set up a project to document the protests on the square, recording oral testimonies and collecting objects from Tahrir. We could have filled a book from this alone.

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We got to interview Lamees al-Hadidi for this spread.

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This is a spread of books written by AUC alumni and published internationally in English.

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All the items on the two spreads above are part of the university archive. The glasses, which belonged to architect Hassan Fathy, have a little reading light embedded in the frame.

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The Police played a concert at AUC back in 1980. Other notable visits that get stories are by Um Kolthum, Hillary Clinton and Martin Luther King. There’s also a story on a notable non-visit by Salman Rushdie, who in 1988 promised to take up an invitation to visit AUC as a distinguished guest lecturer as soon as he finished his new novel. The novel was The Satanic Verses, and after its publication Rushdie decided against coming to Egypt, or any other Muslim country ever again. For anyone interested, The American University in Cairo: 100 Years, 100 Stories is available from Amazon.

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More sad news from the Windsor

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The Windsor Hotel in Cairo is closed. I haven’t been by for some months now, but I saw an article in the online Arabic-language Mantiqi magazine that details what’s going on. I know that for years now, the Cairo governate has been digging up Alfi Street right next to the hotel as part of the new Metro line construction. Inevitably, this has caused subsidence and the Windsor building has suffered slippage. Marileez, one of the Doss family that own the hotel told me, “On the 30th of September as I was sitting with my father and taking care of some business, I heard a cracking sound, looked around and saw the walls opening with big cracks. We immediately evacuated everyone, transferred my father and most of the guests to The Lotus, our other hotel, and never went back.” The Metro people have apparently since shored up the foundations but nobody is allowed back in the hotel and the Doss family have no idea what happens next.

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Photos from Mantiqi

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William Doss 1915-2020

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Sad to hear recently of the death of William Doss, owner of the Windsor Hotel. He died on 30 January at the age of 105. I interviewed Mr Doss twice while researching Grand Hotels of Egypt and ever since I have continued to drop by the Windsor, where he lunched every afternoon with his children, to say hello. In recent years he was too frail for conversation, but when I interviewed him around ten years earlier he was full of terrific stories. As a young man he studied in England and he had brilliant recall of his time there. He bought himself a car and explored the country, and he could clearly remember where he visited, where he stayed and what it all cost, down to the penny. When it was time for him to return to Egypt he had the car – a stylish and sporty little thing, he told me – shipped with him to Port Said. But when the ship docked the car wouldn’t start and had to be towed. So, William made his grand return home in a sports car pulled through the streets by a donkey. He was a living link to the era of the grand hotels of Egypt and Cairo will feel diminished for his passing. My best wishes go to his children Wafik, Wasfi and Marileez, and their families. Photo of William Doss by Hossam el-Hamalawy

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Goodbye Loulou

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Saddened to read this week of the death of Lucette Lagnado, senior investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal and chronicler of a lost cosmopolitan age of Cairo. Her The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is one of the most wonderful of memoirs. It is largely the biography of her father, Leon Lagnado, a Syrian Jew relocated to Cairo, where he ran an import-export business of indeterminate nature. He was a pious Jew by day and playboy by night, gadding about town in his trademark suit, frequenting the city’s hotels and nightclubs.

The family home was on Sharia Malaka Nazli, now Sharia Ramses, just north of Midan Ramses. This was the world inhabited by Leon’s much-younger, bookish wife Edith, and daughter Lucette (Loulou) and her cat PousPous. Lagnado’s book mixes accounts of home life – the daily routines, the neighbours, the world seen from her balcony – with the dashing, glamorous, almost fantasy life of her father.

It all comes to an end in 1962 when almost overnight the family are compelled to leave, with just $212 to their name, moving first to Paris and then on to Brooklyn. Lucette was only six at the time of this upheaval but her memories of early life in Cairo are so vivid and poignant. The book is suffused with a longing to return, to reverse the exodus, and she does eventually go back in 2005, but only to visit.

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Lucette Lagnado on a return visit to her old apartment on Malaka Nazli

She went back to Egypt on a number of occasions after that, and a few years ago we exchanged a few emails and said that we must meet up next time we were both in Egypt. Sadly, it never happened.

Lucette Lagnado once wrote that she left Cairo an Egyptian and returned an American. That was Egypt’s loss. She died on 10 July in New York. She was 62.

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The Levant Trilogy

I never liked The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning’s series of three novels about Guy and Harriet Pringle, who fled the fall of Greece to land up in Cairo during World War II. I found her characters thoroughly irritating and self-absorbed. Given that one of the two main characters was based on herself, I’m sure this isn’t how Manning intended them to come across. But then Manning was described by her biographer as holding an “uncontainable grudge against the world” and seems like a particularly unattractive character, too.

Despite my dislike, I recently bought the three books that make up the trilogy again when I saw them in a secondhand bookshop, not because I want to read them again but because of the beautiful covers that marry sphinxes, pyramids and temples with barrage balloons, search lights and tanks in an almost art deco fashion.

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The Levant Trilogy is preceded by The Balkan Trilogy, which covers the Pringles’ time in Greece. I also love the covers that Penguin gave its paperback editions of these books and the way they join together to form a whole image.

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Famed hotelier outed as vandal

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Marleen de Meyer of the University of Leuven and the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo emailed this week to draw my attention to a bit of graffiti she’d found in a Giza tomb. It reads ‘1860 S. Shepheard Eathorpe’. This has to be the work of the Samuel Shepheard, founder of Shepheard’s hotel, Cairo. Eathorpe is the address of his home in England, which he departed Egypt for in 1860. This defacing of a monument must have been one of Shepheard’s last (and least welcome) contributions to Egypt before retiring.

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The tomb, says Marleen, is G6020 and belongs to a man named Iymery; it’s located in the cemetery field to the west of Khufu’s pyramid. It is published in Kent Weeks’ Mastabas of Cemetery G6000 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1994). The photos here are courtesy of Marleen.

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Goodbye Paul Smith

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No, not the British fashion designer, the other one, the archivist at Thomas Cook. He’s just been in touch with the sad news that after 23 years he has been made redundant. With his departure the archive will likely be much less accessible than before, not least because Paul is the only person who knows what’s in it. The Thomas Cook Archive is a wonderful thing, an extensive repository of the history of tourism, the equal of which I doubt exists anywhere in the world. At the company headquarters in Peterborough, north of London, from his desk just off a corridor (itself an indication of the way things were going), Paul has presided over a storeroom absolutely stuffed with journals, letters, diaries, contracts, posters, tickets, plans and schedules, not to mention crockery and cutlery, uniforms, an ancient Egyptian statuette (once used as a doorstop) and much, much more. Paul made sure all this was accessible to historians, researchers and authors from around the world, myself included. There is a lot of material in the archive that relates to Egypt and my two books, Grand Hotels of Egypt and On the Nile, would not have been written without Paul’s help.

The archive is currently closed and while it will re-open at the beginning of July, after Paul’s departure in June, there are no plans to appoint a professional archivist as Paul’s successor. The archives will be managed for the foreseeable future by internal marketing staff, which means it can only be a matter of time before the whole lot is sold off.

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A great ball and a near drowning

In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty-nine.

Thursday, 4 March
Landed at 2 p.m., drove to Shepherds Hotel – not a bed to be had in the place. All the hotels full; a great ball taking place that night intended for the Prince and Princess of Wales; parties came from Suez, Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said, paid for by the Viceroy. So all Mr. Cook could do was to obtain leave for us to sleep on the steamers another night … Capt. Reis came on board next morning but all the officials had been discharged. Louis the steward who was so attentive was present; he received £3 from us, Hassan £1. At Thebes we gave the sailors a Napoleon – they bought a sheep. Mr. Cook quite well now; he was nearly drowned on the Nile one Sunday when bathing with several of our party.

After three weeks onboard, sleeping in cupboard-sized cabins, Thomas Cook’s must have been desperate for a decent bed on dry land. How disappointed they must have been to find not a single hotel room vacant and to have to return to sleeping on the boat. This would be a recurring problem in the history of tourism to Egypt – at various times well into the 20th century Nile steamers were pressed into service providing for visitors who couldn’t get a hotel room.

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Nothing to report

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In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty-eight.

Wednesday, 3 March
On the 3rd March we had a narrow channel to make and alternately our steamers grounded for ten hours. Once our captain had taken the rope from the Beniswaif and in a passion he let it into the water – a quarrel on both sides and the Beniswaif steamed off and left us in the lurch. Very passionate captains – danced about in rage – Arabic most vociferous. In the evening they would make it up and play chess, smoke pipes and sip coffee. We had 3 or 4 pilots and if we had not threatened to go ashore and take the train, or telegraph, we should not have been off even next morning … So much for Nile travelling where nothing can be believed or depended upon.

After Thursday 25 February Miss Riggs did not make another diary entry for a full five days. During this time she and her fellow members of Cook’s party were onboard their two hired steamers making their way down the Nile from Luxor back to Cairo. We can only assume they made no stops and Miss Riggs found nothing about life onboard of sufficient interest to bother recording it.

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Back down the Nile

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In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty-two.

Thursday, 25 February
Rose at 2 in the morning to see the Southern Cross and called others – moonlight night and stars brilliant. To bed again and at 6 heard the paddle were started – being now on our return journey – stopped at Esné a little – at Luxor Mr. Cook went on shore for letters. Our return journey was quicker on account of the tide but slow in another way; we grounded so often every day and then our steamers had to assist each other. Hours would be wasted in that manner with ropes and sinking anchors – the Nile considered very low.

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