In the Rifa’a Al Tahtawi Library in Sohag, seven hours by train from Cairo, I saw an image I normally associate with whimsical films. An old man produced a book. When he opened it, the page produced a gush of dust, forming a momentary cloud in his face, set against decrepit card catalogues and dusty shelves. Fire damage gave the ceiling a ghostly pallor and four red fire extinguishers sat like guards at attention by the door. The last American researcher had come to the library three or four years ago and everyone was still talking about it.
I had come to help a friend with her own historical research, on the thought and work of Tahtawi, a major educational reformer in early 19th century Egypt and one of the first Egyptians to write about life in Europe. He is a minor national icon today. His bust can be found around Cairo, and here in Sohag a large statue is covered with presidential campaign posters, as if to be associated with the legendary figure might obtain votes.
We arrived at the library, and my friend spoke with the director, a tall, graceful man with short white hair and long, youthful eyelashes. She handed him a folder filled with credentials, introductions from her university and the commission supporting her research in Egypt.
Conducting research in Egypt’s archives is a bit like going to a used bookstore. If you just want to browse and poke around, you’ll find something unexpected and exciting. If you have a specific need, like most scholars, the work can be maddening. Bureaucracy awaits you at every corner. Librarians with little knowledge of the library keep a suspicious watch. At the national archives, my friend told me, if you search for something in a year that you haven’t specifically been granted to study, your permission can be revoked instantly.
American University in Cairo professor Khaled Fahmy bemoaned the problem in a popular periodical. “As someone who has dealt with these institutions for many years,” he wrote, “I have come to believe that those responsible for them are informed by a singular idea, namely, that knowledge is finite. Reading is potentially a suspicious activity, and those responsible for these cultural institutions therefore view themselves as custodians of knowledge, and consider their prime task to be to strive hard to protect and safeguard knowledge, but never to disseminate or produce it.”
There are few open stacks in Egypt, and even fewer libraries where you can borrow books. In November, a library downtown caught on fire during protests. I helped briefly with the rescue effort, mostly a futile effort to package and dry severely wet and charred old books, and noticed that nobody seemed to know what had been in the library. “The real tragedy,” Fahmy commented, “is that nobody — not even scholars — knew of its existence in the first place, nor did those who lament the lost manuscripts ever bother to read them.”
In Sohag, I watched as my friend massaged her relationship with the director. He was obviously impressed with her accomplishments, her strong Arabic and historical knowledge, but he didn’t want to show it. Others milled about the room, reading newspapers and eating lunch. The director served us tea and made small talk about American views of Egyptians and the presidential election. He watched as she handled the old books and ledgers, and eventually his gaze settled on a newspaper. I began to read on a Kindle, and everyone in the room was curious about it: the cost, the ability to store hundreds of books on a single device. This proved far more exciting than the dusty volumes on the shelves.
This library holds Tahtawi’s personal books, published works in Arabic and French that he obtained over a lifetime, mixed in with a great deal of the strange and unexpected, including at least four copies of ‘Treasure Island.’ The University of Sohag had been keeping Tahtawi’s manuscripts, but we discovered that they had been removed. My friend called a family member of Tahtawi, who she had met by coincidence in Cairo. He told her that the family forcibly took the manuscripts from the University library when they discovered that the library was not taking proper care of them. Many had crumbled beyond repair.