At an event at the Goethe Institute early in June, a dance performance was disrupted by a passerby angered by what he considered to be an inappropriate display between the male and female dancers. A witness described how the event came to a halt when several members of the audience were forced to try to de-escalate the situation after the man, described vaguely as “Muslim looking” took offense to the evening’s program.
It’s not the first time that Egyptians have butt heads over appropriate and inappropriate art. Ismail Serageldin, the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina,—Egypt’s 10-year-old center for culture and scholarship came under pressure after the resignation of Mubarak because of the library’s relationship to the administration of former president through Suzanne Mubarak who was formerly the chair of the library’s board of trustees. He was nearly forced to resign when nearly 2000 people demonstrated outside the library forcing the library to close its doors for nearly two weeks.
The former chief librarian, Sohair Wastawy, at the time was concerned about the Alexandria library’s collection as the power of polarization grows in Egyptian politics, “The library has a huge theater. It has dancing, musical plays, and movie presentations, which, according to the right wing there, are not good things” he told a reporter for American Libraries magazine.
The Muslim brotherhood resents the implication that they are intolerant of cultural expression. When the Egyptian Ministry of Awqaf’s refused to let director Ahmed Abdullah film a movie scene inside a mosque, Muslim Brotherhood MP Mohsen Radybristled, “We must support the mission of art”. Still, Islamists were blamed when the Cairo Library, built by Napoleon and housing over 190,000 rare book and documents went up in flames during pitched political street battles late last year. Chief among the losses, Napoleon’s “Description de l’Egypte” an extremely rare document used by those who study the meanings of hieroglyphics.
While the accusations for the bringing of the library were never resolved, Islamists are not the only ones credited with burning books, Egypt’s former culture minister Farouk Hosni had several times threatened to burn books written by Israeli writers and doesn’t deny it.
Olfat Galfour, has been with the Alexandria library through the good days and bad as the head of publishing and now a consultant, and she is not worried, library burnings or not, “Right now, the idea of revolution is everywhere and many people have no idea what a democracy is and how to express themselves in it”.
The collection at the library in Alexandria includes books considered controversial including books on gay and lesbian issues and books of art that depict nudes, though it isn’t easy to find the books in Egypt. The library is forced to import through vendors or travel to purchase them.
“The people love this library, even when we had protestors at our doors they didn’t compare to the number of Egyptians who defended this library. Suzanne Mubarak sat on the board for a long time, but for our community, that didn’t mean the library belonged to the government, our community has always felt that the library belongs to them and as such they protected it. We are the only library in Egypt with an open reference shelf which means young and old you can access important books on your own from off our shelves.”
For the library, schoolchildren are in their aisles and in the planetarium in full force now that classes are finished and the schedule of workshops is out.“Right now we are in the middle of a massive project to reissue the classics, 100 years worth of scholarship that we are making available with the help of Al-Azhar which we think will show that freedom of expression has long been part of Egypt”.