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:
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.
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.
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.
We got to interview Lamees al-Hadidi for this spread.
This is a spread of books written by AUC alumni and published internationally in English.
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.
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.