On Thursday, in a small room under the national archives, it felt like an emergency room. Fifteen to twenty women and men scrambled back and forth in white lab coats from one station to another, as crumpled old newspapers and small black confetti, the charred remains of book pages, crunched under their feet.
A week ago, a fire broke out at the Institut d’Egypte, an archive in downtown Cairo. Founded as a part of Napoleon Bonaparte’s efforts to bolster his invasion of Egypt with the production of scientific and archeological scholarship, the archive’s current house was built in the early 20th century. Inside were over 200,000 rare books and manuscripts.
Throughout the week before, protesters had been pushed back from a sit-in at the Cabinet building down Qasr al-Aini street towards Tahrir square. As the battle passed the building, a fire erupted on the lower floors and quickly spread to the top.
The press battle took a familiar form, as the protesters blamed the army, the army blamed the protesters, and reporters picked sides. “Eyewinesses were reported to have seen protesters throwing a Molotov cocktail at stone-throwing soldiers at the Shura Council building,” wrote the Egypt Independent, referring to a government building next door, “but the projectile missed the intended target and instead landed in the Egyptian Scientific Institute.” Al Arabiya, which is Saudi owned, reported that the fire “drove several experts to warn of a possible intervention by foreign entities to preserve the heritage at risk.” Surprisingly, Israeli newspaper Haaretz accused “rioters” of setting the fire, showing where the liberal paper’s assumptions generally fall.
Over the next few days, protesters and other Egyptians answering calls on Twitter and Facebook loaded up tens of thousands of manuscripts from pavement outside of the American University in Cairo and the US embassy downtown to the national archives.
Dina, a professional tour guide who had answered the call to “save the books,” was more interested saving the artifacts than the political situation, and had taken on an leadership of the constantly arriving volunteers, having become an expert in the few hours of head start she had over the rest of us. She barked instructions (“If the book is wet, you have to re-wrap it!”), peppered in with peppy encouragement (“Keep up the good work. Good job guys!)
I learned the task in about 30 seconds, and then repeated the task several hundred times over the course of a few hours. It was simple: You unwrap a book saved in newspaper, sweep away the charred shards, lay it on a large piece of butcher paper and wrap it like a piece of glass or pottery. Someone else hermetically seals a plastic casing around the butcher paper, and someone else was putting each plastic-wrapped item in a machine.
“I hate that I’m wrapping the book like meat,” Dina told me, “but what can I do?”
There was somehow far too much work and far too little to do in the aftermath of the fire. Hundreds of books had to be dried and sealed immediately, and then would have to be painstakingly assessed by conservators and experts, but at the same time, most of the books seemed basically unsalvageable. Each newspaper wrapping opened up like a sick joke of a Christmas gift, revealing a pile of papers that could range from a slightly charred exterior to a fully destroyed mound of black and grey that fell apart in your hands the moment it hit the fluorescent light overhead.
I’m as much of a romantic about the importance of archives as anyone, but many of the documents were totally perplexing. I wanted to write down titles, but couldn’t touch my pen and notebook with my ashy latex-gloved hands. I remember something about “mollusks of Wisconsin.” I stand to be corrected by someone more knowledgeable, but I couldn’t imagine who would come to Egypt and sift through an archive to find this.
The work continues through this weekend and next week, even as confusion over access plagues the volunteers’ efforts, in a sort of classic case of Egyptian bureacracy. “Dear volunteers. The management…has been changing its mind often on when they need us or not, and whether they need us or not,” wrote Adham Hafez, an artist helping to organize the efforts, on Facebook. “It's up to any volunteer today to decide if you still want to go, take the chance, and see if they need help or not.”
But of course he had to add a comment on that bureacracy: “We know they do need help, and if they work with their very slow rhythm then the books will die in a few days.”
On Thursday, everyone working would intermittently make comments of self-righteous pity and shake their heads. “It doesn’t seem like people even knew what was in there,” one volunteer, an American art curator said. “Well, it’s the least we can do,” a young AUC student responded.
“Yesterday, I was unwrapping them like this and I found the Description de L’Egypte.” Dina told me, referring to the compendium of reports written by 160 scientists and researchers between 1809 and 1829. Its full title translates to “Description of Egypt, or the collection of observations and research which was made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army.”
“How did it look?” I asked Dina. She clapped her hands and shook her head.
Last night, I was sitting with a few American and Egyptian journalists and translators, and a Palestinian NGO worker who had just moved to Cairo from Ramallah. “I want to ask everyone a question,” the Palestinian asked everyone, “do you think xenophobia is on the rise in Egypt, like everyone keeps saying it is?”
Since mid-November, between the highly publicized arrest of American students and the beatings of journalists, everyone talks about a feeling that the constant accusations of foreign interference in Egyptian affairs has taken its toll in the daily experiences of actual foreigners.
I remembered standing, back aching, in the archives and listening to Dina speak with pain about the loss of the Description de l’Egypte, a historical document produced by an unapologetic colonial invasion, as one her nation’s proudest treasures.