Tag Archives: AUC Press

Oreintalist Lives

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It’s been around for a little while, but I’ve just reviewed James Parry’s Orientalist Lives: Western Artists in the Middle East 1830–1920 for UK art journal The Burlington Magazine. Even if James wasn’t a personal friend (and the book’s publisher, AUC Press, also the publisher of my books), I’d still have given it a rave review. The book covers a lot of the same ground as Grand Hotels, namely Westerners in Egypt (and in James’s case, in North Africa and throughout the Middle East) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and what they got up to. But whereas in my books I’m mainly writing about tourists and journalists, James focuses on the artists. He’s really good on the practicalities of life on the road for a budding Orientalist, whether it is house-hunting in 19th-century Cairo, the pros and cons of adopting native dress, or the difficulties of over-coming local suspicion when recruiting models – which the English painter John Frederick Lewis attempted to get around by purchasing an Abyssinian woman he liked the look of. The choice of illustrations is excellent, particularly the inclusion of many little-seen self- and group portraits from the artists’ sketchbooks, which have a breeziness and sense of fun badly lacking in the works the same artists produced for public consumption.

In the epilogue James writes about the fortunes of Orientalist art over the last half century, noting how it spent much of the 20th century out of favour, hidden in storerooms and basements, but how it’s now making headlines in the auction salesrooms, largely thanks to the interest from collectors in the Arab world. In fact, Egyptian businessman Shafik Gabr funded the research and production of this book, and it draws heavily – although far from exclusively – on paintings held in the Shafik Gabr Collection. The only shame is, like many AUC Press titles, you need to have Gabr-like amounts of money in order to buy this book.

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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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Classic Egyptian Movies

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AUC Press has a fantastic new book coming out late October called Classic Egyptian Movies, subtitled 101 Must-see Films. It’s a translation (by Sarah Enany) of a book first published in Arabic by film critic Sameh Fathy, in which he picks out his personal landmarks of Egyptian cinema. It’s interesting to see what makes the cut and what doesn’t. The bulk of the films are from the 1950s and ’60s, with only one film from the 21st century. There’s lots of Youssef Chahine, but even more Salah Abu Seif. Farid Shawqi is the actor who appears most, while Souad Hosni is the most represented actress. Each of the films gets a write-up arguing the case for its greatness, complemented by a full cast list and other credits. Best of all, each film is illustrated by its original poster and a film still. It makes for a gloriously colourful and visually rich book, which comes in a neat, compact format. The stylish design is by Gadi Farfour, who was also responsible for Grand Hotels of Egypt and On the Nile looking so great. (Full disclosure: I had the enjoyable job of editing Sarah’s translation.)

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