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preserving intelllectual capital in Tunisia and Egypt

January 31, 2011

After my last post that went viral (by the standards of my usually sedate blog), I want to now shift focus to initiatives to maintain the life of the mind in Tunisia and Egypt, even if these do not get as much airtime as the other more ‘exciting’ stuff. I wonder how many knew that Afghanistan was at one time a thriving country with great libraries and progressive universities before the war that destroyed and depleted everything. Having spent much time last semester studying about libraries of the Ancient world and their bibliophilic culture, I have much respect for the intellectual history of Egypt and how they have attempted to preserve that through the many storms encountered.  I am glad there are initiatives to preserve the intellectual treasures of Tunisia and Egypt, and even to help them move forward post-uprising.

Even if some of the comments on my post that was republished in Loyarburok showed a distastes for ‘academics in their hallowed halls,’ as a scholar in training, I’ll still link to this letter from American academics, specializing in Middle East and other areas of studies, to Obama. I’ve met a number of such professors here in my university and I have respect for the work that they do. I have met some students from Egypt and Tunisia, as well as other parts of the Middle East,  and I admire their level of commitment to the intellectual life.

I will add to the list of initiatives below as more come to my attention. Instead of all the anti-intellectualism Malaysians like to spout in defensiveness, they should humble themselves and take a leaf out of the book of these young people.

Here are some of the initiatives

——————-Start here—————————

1. Appeal: Help our Tunisian University colleagues

Books which were banned under the Ben Ali regime are now beginning to be available in book stores in Tunis. Salma Yabes, manager of the Librairie al-Kitab in Tunis, said on January 20, 2011 that books which were banned under the Ben Ali regime have become available in the book store because friends and families who hid censored books in their homes now give them for free to the shop. In turn the shop provides these volumes for free to intellectuals, researchers, lecturers and professors.

Tunisian researchers, lecturers and professors will be crucial in building a new democratic Tunisia. Knowledge of current research is a high priority for them. In the past it was not possible to order books on the internet as they would be confiscated by the authorities upon arrival in Tunis. Tunisian researchers lack all kinds of books, but volumes in political science (democratization, authoritarianism, Islamism, and MENA international relations), sociology, anthropology and ethnography, and studies on contemporary Islam are in particular

Librairie el-Kitab in Tunis is now working to establish contacts with
publishers and order books, but there is also something YOU can do to help our Tunisian colleagues.

You can help in two ways:
1)      Send one or more copies of books you have authored and other spare publication that you think falls in the categories above (they can be in English, French and Italian).
2)      Send contact info of you publisher(s) to the Librairie al-Kitab so that they can get in touch and order books directly. The Librairie al-Kitab is the biggest book store in Tunis and usually serves Tunisian academics. In the beginning they will make copies of books available
in their book shop and at a later stage they will distribute the books to
the relevant professors at the various universities and research institutes.

The books will be distributed/given for free.

This is truly a positive contribution we can make and we encourage you all to become involved.

Librairie al-Kitab
43, avenue Habib Bourguiba
1000 Tunis Le Colisée
Phone: 00216 71 258 566
Fax: 00216 71 332 450

Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle                 Francesco Cavatorta
Ph.D. Fellow                            Senior Lecturer
Dep. of Cross Cultural and Regional Studies             School of Law and Government

University of Copenhagen                        Dublin City University
Snorresgade 17-19, 2300 Copenhagen              Glasnevin, Dublin 9
Denmark                         Ireland
E-mail: E-mail:

Dr. Francesco Cavatorta
School of Law and Government
Dublin City University (DCU)
Glasnevin, Dublin 9
Tel: 00-353-1-7007858

2. Young Egyptians Rallying to Protect the Ancient Heritage of their Country (this shows you how much they love and revere their culture. They are not barbarians!)
3. This is the negative part of the uprising, when thugs and looters take advantage of the disorder to reap profits, at the expense of scholarship.

The Chronicle of Higher Education January 31, 2011

Antiquities and Scholarship Find Themselves Caught Up in Egypt’s Political Turmoil

By Ursula Lindsey


Archaeologists inside and outside Egypt are anxiously monitoring the fate of the country’s antiquities, after several museums and archaeological sites were looted following the pervasive protests and security vacuum that have gripped the country. Demonstrators here have taken to the streets for the last six days, calling for an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year authoritarian rule.

The turmoil is also affecting research projects.

Some future archaeological missions to Egypt have been canceled, and some foreign teams here are leaving. But others are staying put.

After tens of thousands of protesters took control of Cairo’s central Tahrir Square last Friday evening, and the police abandoned the streets, a crowd of 1,000 people broke into the gardens in front of the Egyptian Museum, which is home to some of the country’s most precious Pharaonic antiquities, including the famous Tutankhamen trove.

Looters ransacked the museum’s gift shop, making off with souvenirs and gold jewelry. Citizens and museum officials locked arms and guarded the building until army forces arrived.

But a group of men climbed the museum’s fire escapes and entered galleries on the top floors. They were apprehended by tourist police inside the museum.

“They were looking for gold, and they thought there were golden statues in the museum that they can sell in the market,” the museum’s director, Tarek El Awady, told The Chronicle. “They grabbed gold-plated statues, but when they realized they were actually wood, they threw them on the floor.”

“Only 13 showcases—out of hundreds—were damaged,” said Mr. El Awady. “Seventy-five artifacts were moved or damaged, but I think none are missing. Our conservators will work on restoring these artifacts once the situation calms down.”

Mr. El Awady said small groups of looters have continued to attempt to scale the museum’s walls and break in, but they have been apprehended each time by the army units now guarding the building.

The situation is more difficult at some of Egypt’s many far-flung Pharaonic excavation sites, many of which are located in the desert. Storage magazines near the Pharaonic sites of Saqqara—home to a world-famous stepped pyramid—and Abusir—another famous necropolis—have reportedly been looted. The Imhotep museum in Saqqara was also attacked by looters, apparently unsuccessfully.

Some of the artifacts in the looted storage facilities haven’t even been studied yet, said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. “It is obviously, as with all antiquities, quite a tragic loss,” she said. Ms. Ikram hoped that most of the artifacts might be recovered. “Art dealers and museums should be aware that anything that comes from Egypt is very suspect,” she noted.

Research Suspended

There are over 200 foreign archaeological missions working in Egypt this year—ranging from two to 10 people each. There are also more than 2,000 foreign Egyptologists living in Egypt, many of whom are now evaluating their positions.

A foreign archaeologist working on a tomb excavation in the southern city of Luxor said a Belgian, Spanish, and American mission had left town, but her team felt “secure enough that we can stay.”(The archaeologist preferred to remain anonymous, saying, “I don’t want to act as a spokesperson for the Egyptian antiquities ministry.”)

“The situation here is pretty stable,” said the archaeologist, referring to the West Bank of the Nile in Luxor, where she works. “We don’t know what’s going on in the East Bank.”

The East Bank is home to most of Luxor city —where protesters set the local police station on fire—and to the temples of Karnak and Luxor, two of Egypt’s most famous tourist attractions.

The Associated Press reported that on Luxor’s East Bank, locals fought off a gang of robbers who tried to break in to the warehouse of the Karnak Temple.

At many sites, antiquities officials, excavation teams, and nearby residents have banded together to re-enforce security.

Mr. Al Awady, director of the Egyptian Museum, said what mattered was that “Egypt’s archaeological heritage has not been affected badly by this political situation. One of the most important things is to keep this heritage for coming generations. We want people to help because we don’t have enough resources to protect the sites and museums ourselves.”

The army has now deployed to protect all of the country’s national museums.

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