Tag Archives: American University in Cairo

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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The Mission school in Alexandria

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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 thirteen.

Saturday, 6 February
Accompanied Mr. & Mrs. Newman, Mr. Brewin and Miss Lines to the American Missions School kept by Mr. & Mrs. Pinkerton. A wonderfully dirty approach to school – obliged to leave our carriage some distance through thick mud. An interesting school; a governess there who looked very delicate – there 3 years – climate does not suit her I think. Bought some Arabic gospels of St. John. Mr B. bought 12 of St. Luke. On our return bought smoke coloured spectacles. After dinner Mr. Pinkerton came to make a call – had a little Newman party in end of drawing room – stayed till 10.

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The American Mission had a sizeable presence throughout Egypt from the mid-19th century. Although the US appointed a first consul-general in 1848, America figured little in Egypt in a political sense. The Christian evangelists, as well as promoting God, were their home nation’s most high-profile representation in Egypt, founding churches and schools. They were instrumental in founding the American University in Cairo, which, incidentally, kicks off its centenary year celebrations this coming Saturday.

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The art of Susan Weeks

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Poking around in the archives of the American University in Cairo the other week I came across a box labeled “Susan Weeks”. Susan was the wife of Egyptologist Kent Weeks, rediscoverer of the KV 5 tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Susan worked with Kent as part of the Theban Mapping Project, for which she was ceramics expert, registrar, headquarters supervisor, project archivist and chief architect until her tragically premature death in December 2009. The box contained some of her pencil and ink sketches and watercolours. If you’ve ever seen a copy of Kent’s book The Lost Tomb, then you will have seen Susan’s sketches, one of which heads each chapter. Unfortunately, the reproductions in the book are not very good – not in the paperback, anyway – so to see the original pieces is a thrill. Plus the book is in black and white and doesn’t have any colour pieces. Below is a selection of some of the work from the archive, only two of which feature in the book. It’s just a small sampling, pieces I particularly liked, and there is much, much more. It’s a shame the work is so little seen. Maybe one day we’ll get to see it published in a book.

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An eyewitness to the burning of Shepheard’s

Another curiosity discovered in the archives of the American University in Cairo. In an old alumni newsletter I saw a notice for the death of Claude Feninger, who was described as the last manager of the old Shepheard’s hotel. Really? I’d never heard of him. A little googling and I find that it’s more or less true and that Claude even wrote an autobiography, Sang Froid: Keeping My Cool in the International Hotel Business, much of which can be read online.

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Born in Cairo of an Egyptian father of Swiss descent and a Neapolitan mother, after completing his education Claude had to wait until the end of World War II before taking the first boat out of Alexandria. He was bound for the Ecole des Hoteliers in Lausanne, Switzerland. After a brief experience managing a small hotel in a Swiss resort town, he returned to Cairo at the age of 25 to become the ‘resident manager’ of Shepheard’s, working under general manger Antoine Foester.

You can’t trust everything Claude writes. For instance he says Shepheard’s was the first hotel built in the world, which is a ludicrous claim to make – it wasn’t even the first in Cairo. He also says that he started work on 12 October 1952, which he calls ‘the best day of my life’. Except Shepheard’s burned down on 26 January 1952. I think that’s probably a typo and was meant to be 12 October 1951. Claude knows very well when Shepheard’s burned down because he was there and he describes the day in his book.

He relates how that Saturday began with Mrs Blanche Weinberg, a long-term resident, knocking on his office door to tell him she was off to spend the day in Maadi with her daughter-in-law. Twenty minutes later there is a call from Mr Ibrahim Yehya, the minister of culture and a family friend. He says there are anti-British riots breaking out in the city and that Shepheard’s may well be targeted. Claude thanks him for the information and goes to find his boss, Antoine Foester. Foester can’t be found so Claude takes his passkey and goes through the hotel, instructing all the guests to leave what they’re doing and quickly assemble in the gardens at the back of the hotel. By noon, the streets are filled with rioters chanting, ‘Death to England. Death to the puppet Farouk’. Black smoke rises above the surrounding streets. Nubian staff are posted at the entrances to the hotel but the rioters force their way in and start fires all over the hotel. As the flames take hold, 250 guests are in the garden, terrified. They need to be evacuated and taken through the city streets to somewhere safe. Claude steps up on a chair and shouts at the rioters. ‘You’ve done your damage. Now I need some help take the guests to safety.’ He was, he says, swamped by willing volunteers.

Once the flames died down three bodies were found in the ruins. Two were looters found in the basement where the hotel kept its silver. The other was found in suite 302. It was Mrs Weinberg, who must have changed her mind about going to Maadi and returned to the hotel. Claude had never checked her room because he thought she was out for the day.

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In the picture above (click to enlarge), the streetfront terrace is at the bottom of the picture with steps in the middle leading up to the main entrance. The domed structure is the Moorish hall. To the left, beyond the burned-out Shepheard’s, is the Windsor hotel, still in business today.

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Tahrir as it might have been

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I’ve recently being doing some work in the American University in Cairo archives, which is where I found the above drawing (click to enlarge). It was in a folder of miscellaneous documents relating to the AUC buildings on Tahrir Square. It shows an alternative reality for a Tahrir Square that might have been. On it are some recognizable landmarks, notably the Egyptian Museum, and the blocks labeled Semiramis Hotel and AUC, while the block labeled ‘Municipality’ corresponds to the Mugamma, Cairo’s hated administrative fortress. What is labeled ‘Parliament’ was at the time the plan was made (it is dated 14 June 1950) the Qasr el-Nil barracks, evacuated by the British Army in 1947 and torn down in 1951–52 to be replaced by the Nile Hilton. (Another document in the AUC archive, dated 1948, refers to a plan to replace the barracks with Cairo’s answer to New York’s Central Park.) None of the other structures shown on the plan – the Arab Museum, Broadcasting House, National Library, Cultural Museum, Premier’s House – were ever built. The drawing is titled ‘View of Proposed Development’ and it is signed JS Badeau – John Badeau was then president of AUC. Why would the president of the American University be replanning Cairo’s central square? Was this ever a serious plan or was it just a bit of presidential doodling? There is nothing else in the archive’s folder relating to the plan and it is a mystery. I’d love to know more.

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