During my student years at the American University in Cairo (AUC) in the early 1980s I used to work as an employee at the university library. This was by far one of the most enjoyable jobs I have ever had. On Saturdays, when no classes were held, but when the library itself was open, I used to be the supervisor of the whole library, and in this capacity, I would come at ten in the morning and leave at eight at night. Like many quirky librarians (I suspect), I would spend these long Saturdays observing readers and secretly following them while they performed what I still consider to be a magical act: reading.
I mean reading in the classical sense, i.e. interacting with a book, getting lost in it, and allowing oneself to be taken to places one has never even dreamed existed. I was always amazed as I watched those who seemed to truly enjoy what they were reading, and I was mesmerized as I observed the magical effects reading had on them, that moment when the reader gets a new idea, when their faces shine with inspiration, and when they realize that something profound has happened to them. At the end of the day, I would watch these readers leave the library in what I believed was a state of delightful bliss.
I reflected on these memories when I read a post that my dear friend, and esteemed MP, Ziad Bahaa al-Din added on his blog concerning his experiences while attempting to conduct research in the Secretariat of Parliament’s Economic Committee.
“The Secretariat does not have a single report or bulletin, and has no idea on how to conduct research at all,” says Bahaa al-Din. “In every corner of Parliament one gets the feeling one is in a very huge factory that is full of machines, busy with laborers, but where nothing gets produced.”
“I think that the reason for this unfortunate situation is that Parliament was intended to be an arena for useless and non-consequential deliberations, and thus there was no real need to provide MPs with any research facilities,” he adds. He ends by stating that “this is the legacy we need to change so that Parliament can recover from the state of institutional paralysis we inherited.”
I agree with Ziad Bahaa al-Din’s opinion, but I believe the problem is not limited to the dire straits of the library of Parliament’s Economic Committee; rather, it extends to our public and university libraries as well. Moreover, I believe Bahaa al-Din’s observation also applies to all our cultural institutions and not just our libraries. It also reflects a general approach to knowledge that practically governs our cultural, scientific and educational institutions.
As someone who has dealt with these institutions for many years, 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. Knowledge for them is thus akin to raw data, data that has to be protected, hoarded and preserved.
I think it is this twisted take on knowledge that explains the deep suspicion of reading in our schools and universities and the emphasis put therein on rote memorization. Our educational institutions are never thought of as places for the production of knowledge. Indeed, one hardly ever hears the term “knowledge production” being uttered, and I deeply suspect that if it is, it will be lost on most listeners.
This limited understanding of knowledge also explains how our museums are never seen as places for edification or inspiration, let alone as sites for the production of new knowledge. Rather, they are primarily seen as storage rooms where the nation’s treasures are to be guarded, concealed behind high walls, and reluctantly allowed to those handful of foolish natives who have nothing better to do with their time, but are primarily intended for those precious foreigners who are so eager to come to witness our glorious past and who pay us generously for doing so. But museums that produce new scholarship? Places where people go for edification and knowledge? Buildings that can inspire and motivate and transform? Not really.
This limited view of knowledge also explains how our National Archives (Dar al-Wathaiq) has been converted into a depository of historical information, a safe box for the “nation’s memory,” but a place where little new historical knowledge is produced and where the primary goal is, again, to hoard, preserve and protect.
Reading and contemplation in these cultural institutions are looked at with suspicion. Knowledge is to be preserved, at best recycled, but never produced.
Supporting science, culture and knowledge production is an important endeavor, and a costly one at that, and our new Parliament should work on allocating more resources to achieve this lofty goal. As costly as promotion of culture is, however, the problem does not lie in the resources as much as in the mentality that shapes our perception of science and knowledge. Our cultural and educational institutions must support the production, rather than the preservation or the recycling, of knowledge. And this can be achieved by encouraging, or at least, allowing people to perform this magical act: reading.
Khaled Fahmy is a historian and chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo.
An Arabic version of this article appeared first in Akhbar al-Adab; translated by Aisha El-Awady.