A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Egypt's Neglect of its Modern History

Here's a thoughtful peace by Paul Sedra on "Egypt's History Problem." An excerpt:
Over the past ten years, I have visited Egypt roughly once each year. And in the course of these visits, I have developed a sort of ritual — namely, I make an attempt to visit the Taha Hussein Museum, or “Ramatan,” just adjacent to Haram Street in Giza. The museum is the former home of the great thinker and writer of twentieth-century Egypt. I say “attempt” because I have never quite succeeded in making the visit. I have managed to locate the museum, to view the exterior walls — nay, I have even spoken with the staff, both on the telephone and in person. But I have never actually set foot within the walls of the museum — not once, after ten years of attempts. And every time I have communicated with museum staff, I have received but one excuse for the apparent indefinite closure of the museum — tarmim, restoration.

Egypt can seem utterly saturated with history. What countries can boast so vast a heritage, with such a visible wealth of monuments? But Egyptians frequently have a paradoxical — and, as I will suggest, problematic — relationship with that history, that is illustrated, at least in part, by the anecdotes above. For while there exists a fierce pride in Egyptian history, not to mention an intense interest, there likewise exists a casual, almost cavalier attitude in certain quarters towards preserving and showcasing Egyptian heritage — an attitude that I can only characterize as paradoxical.
He concentrates on Egypt's neglect of its modern history, which I think is the most neglected of all; Pharaonic is seen as the main draw for tourists, with the Coptic and Islamic periods less so, and modern history largely an afterthought. His conclusion:
Can one in good conscience call the Mahmoud Khalil Museum — attracting perhaps a dozen foreign visitors each day — a museum? Perhaps only in the most dismal sense of the term: as a place to warehouse dusty relics with which one has no connection. Egypt has the raw materials for literally dozens of museums, which could rank with the very best the world over — places where Egyptians could explore the genealogy of their everyday lives. But this time will only come when the museum is refigured as a place for all Egyptians.

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