In the lobby of Dar El-Kotob, Egypt’s national library, stands a tall wooden case whose glass sides have grown misty with neglect. Inside is a globe whose oxidizing plaque identifies it as a donation of Prince Yusuf Kamal.
I would have ignored the globe were I not stewing over a long wait for a photocopy, and had time to fritter away in the pale bowels of the library. The name Yusuf Kamal was familiar. I had written a paper on the Museum of Arab Art (now the Museum of Islamic Art) and quoted a passage from a 1915 report by its first Egyptian curator, ‘Ali Bahgat. In it, Bahgat bemoaned the lack of private donations (“Notes sur le musée arabe”). Yusuf Kamal was an extraordinary exception. A founder of Cairo’s School of Fine Arts, his bequest to the museum comprised the full contents of his lavish palace. The prince was also a benefactor of the Egyptian (Cairo) University, which aspired at the turn of the century to teach “fields of knowledge which [were then] neglected in Egypt, like the arts and humanities, history, and the higher sciences – subjects which elevate the individual and his community to make a nation great among nations.”
From 1903 on, and thus at the time of Yusuf Kamal’s bequest, the Museum of Arab Art was housed in a grand work of Mamluk revivalism (much in vogue at the time) in Bab El-Khalq. Its architect was an Italian named Alfonso Manescolo, one of many foreigners of that era who worked in and as the Egyptian state. Upstairs was the Khedival Library – the predecessor of Dar El-Kotob. Both remain, the museum on the ground floor and a branch of the library’s manuscripts collection above it. Today, however, Yusuf Kamal’s globes are melting – quite literally – into the sands of time. And in January 2014, a car bomb exploded outside the museum, targeting the Security Directorate next door. Thousands of artifacts cracked and shattered, casualties of a war in which they could not take sides.
The main site of Dar El-Kotob is on the Nile Corniche in the neighborhood of Boulaq, a 1990 concrete block disguised as a 1950s time capsule. This was my first visit, and without a State Security- approved permit for the National Archives next door, I had to limit my exploring to the library.
When I first walked in, no one took note. Finally, someone chatting near the entrance raised his eyebrows and wagged his head slightly, gesturing toward the question “What do you want?” “I’m here to conduct research,” I said in Arabic, feeling at once that this was much too obvious to state aloud and that the man found it highly unusual. I walked through a disabled metal detector and over to an unlabeled counter, where I scrawled my identifying details in the first of three thick registers. I handed over my passport and was presented with a torn piece of scrap paper.
“Write your name in Arabic please, and your address.” This done, I collected my badge and followed the man’s directions up the stairs. I was standing in a long industrial corridor. Puffs of smoke hung in the gray air. I strolled up and down, but saw only offices with barely legible placards. At last, someone noticed my confusion and waved a hand toward a narrow hall behind the stairs. Here was the periodicals reading room. Inside the nearly empty room, I approached a middle-aged man seated behind a wooden desk. Beside him there was a glass case with the day’s newspapers. The front page of each of the papers showed the smiling and resilient staff of EgyptAir, ready to continue their duties after the previous week’s crash over the Mediterranean. The headlines, invariably, screamed with exciting breaking news: “Sisi offers assurances that all necessary steps will be taken!” Al-Wafd, the paper of the dinosaur opposition, went one step further. The word “CONSPIRACY!” – in red – caught my eye. In slightly smaller type the headline continued: “…Of the great powers to destroy Egypt’s economy.”
“Sit down, sit down.” Maged, the employee, waved me to a seat. “Where are you from?” I told him. “Do you know Professor Lisa? Laura? Anne?” He cycled through the first names of other foreign women who had visited the periodicals room. “Okay, you know Samira?” he asked finally. I wondered if this was someone else with whom I should have registered. “Just call her.” After a moment’s pause: “You don’t have her number?” I caught a whiff of disapproval. Finally, Maged gestured across the room. “Just go over there and see if they have what you want on microfilm. If not, you can come back.”
The microfilm room had six machines lined up on one side, and drawers containing a full collection of Al-Ahram on the other. A broad woman in a navy blue niqab sidled up to me. “What periodical do you want? What year?” she shouted good-naturedly (at least I heard it as good-natured, given that I could see only her eyes, separated by a skinny cloth septum). Then she shuffled away, never to return. A man appeared and I repeated my request. I settled into a few hours of blissful squinting beside a bushy-bearded man who came to clean the microfilm machines with an old prayer rug.
Passing through the periodicals reading room on my way out, another middle-aged man now occupying Maged’s chair beckoned me over. “Do you have Facebook?” he wanted to know. I demurred. When I explained what I was researching (history), he was ardently disappointed. “Literature is better,” he told me. I assured him I also enjoyed literature and reeled off a few Egyptian novelists whose work I had recently read. He interrupted: “No, no — poetry, poetry! Did you know I’m a poet?” I didn’t. “You can find some of my books upstairs.” I promised to look for them. “Would you like me to write a poem for you?” That would be lovely, I replied.
I returned several times after that to Dar El-Kotob, each visit a little less mystifying than the last. Once, after swimming though vast empty floors, I arrived at the main reading room. I presented my credentials and again scrawled my details in a thick register. I was directed to a table of employees with old PCs whose job was to type my search into the digital catalog. Once we identified a few titles of interest, my searcher pointed me to another wooden desk flanked by walls of wooden card catalog drawers. There, a young man instructed me to write out the call information (number, title, location) twice for each book. I carried the forms to a huddle of men in the next room who, when they had collected enough titles, made for the stacks. The first several books I requested were missing, so this process took a few hours. As the room was fortified by concrete against the Nile breeze, inside it was an airless summer afternoon. The floor fans buzzed lightly and busts of Mohammed ‘Abduh and Avicenna returned my stare through foggy plexiglass. A loud meow emanating from the old card catalogs announced the arrival of a fluffy orange and white cat. It circulated among the patrons and retreated, ignored, from whence it came.
I discovered that the library held the handwritten diary of an Egyptian official stationed in faraway Siwa at the turn of the century. Unfortunately, the manuscripts room was dark and padlocked shut. I asked downstairs what time it closed. “It doesn’t have hours,” I was told. “Maybe 2, or 3, or 4.” Happily, the next morning I arrived to find it open.
The inner sanctum was an oasis of bright whites wrapped in a mammoth edifice of dim grays. Once I had the book in hand and little else to distract me, it was easy to forget the hurdles. But the greatest was yet to come — in the innocuous disguise of a photocopy request. Knowing that I had only a couple of days left in Egypt, I inquired with one of the employees and was directed to fill out the first of many forms.
It was Tuesday. “Come back next Monday for your copy,” an authoritative man told me. This was not going to work: I was leaving Thursday night. “Okay, you can come back Thursday morning then.” I returned Thursday morning. The employees exchanged glances and asked me to sit down, relax. No copy had been made. I didn’t want to relax, but my standing was making everyone uncomfortable. “Twenty, maybe thirty minutes, wait.” Thirty minutes passed; someone padded by with a tea cart. I asked again. “Just fifteen minutes maybe.” I waited; nothing came. The employees and I collectively fiddled with our cell phones. When someone finally arrived with a sheaf of papers, I wanted to embrace him. But my elation was premature. This was not the photocopy of my diary, but a new set of forms in quintuplicate for me to complete. Forms in hand, I climbed several floors to the cashier’s office.
The cashier was a no-nonsense woman comfortably enjoying middle age. There was an old radio on her desk and a small glass of tea. We didn’t exchange words, or at least she didn’t. She scribbled a long list of numbers on my stack of papers and spun her calculator around to show me the sum: 149 LE, or about $16. It seemed like a lot. She opened the wooden drawer of her desk to make change; it was bursting with bills. I flew downstairs with my multi-page receipt and proudly presented it to the manuscripts staff.
A little later, a man showed up with a CD – the long-awaited photocopy.
No, we were not done. He booted up his computer and proceeded through a virus scan. Then we sat down together and I filled out another form. At last, we carefully reviewed each scanned page of the document to confirm its presence, my hand poised over the disk drive impatient to eject.
Leaving Dar El-Kotob for the last time, I passed two of Yusuf Kamal’s globes. Like much of Egypt’s nobility, their owner left after Nasser’s rise to power and died in Austria in 1965. It is too simple to romanticize the historical moment to which he belonged. But his globes are more than stale relics of a genteel curiosity. As a traveler, collector, and amateur geographer, Yusuf Kamal brought pieces of the world to Egypt and pieces of Egypt to the world.
I collected my passport and stepped out into the street. Traffic on the Corniche was at a standstill and the Nile glittered under the heavy sun. I paused for a moment to take in the pregnant mid-afternoon stillness of this city of 16 million. Then I began to walk to Tahrir, leaving the last century behind.
(*The image is a page from a nineteenth-century science book that I happened upon in Dar El-Kotob.)