Nader Habib , Soha Hesham , Tuesday 14 Mar 2023

The Egyptian art academy in Rome  Zaki
The Egyptian art academy in Rome Zaki


Sweeping soft victories

Jihan Zaki, Al-Dibomasia Al-Thaqafia Bayn Al-Asl wa Al-Soura (Cultural Diplomacy from the Original to the Copy), Dar Al Maarif, 2022, pp289

In nine carefully structured chapters, the accomplished scholar, cultural diplomat and member of parliament Jihan Zaki has produced a book of immense relevance, packing an immense amount of information into a condensed space. Her history of cultural diplomacy just may be the first of its kind, and it summarises the history of the topic through the ages in an erudite and engaging way. She is qualified to write it too, having been the head of the Egyptian art academy in Rome when the January Revolution broke out in 2011, and played a vital role in helping to explain what was happening to her Italian hosts.

Despite its global outlook, Cultural Diplomacy from the Original to the Copy is written from a decidedly Egyptian standpoint, and Zaki progresses through the various stages of Egypt’s extremely long history. She starts with ancient Egypt, where Egyptian diplomacy started, moving onto the Ptolemaic, Roman and Islamic eras. She deals with the collapse of Egypt’s role after it became part of the Ottoman empire, building up to the dawn of modern diplomacy in the course of the culture shock of Bonaparte’s French Campaign of 1798-1801. It was this that led to the rise of Muhammad Ali Pasha in 1805 and the subsequent emergence of modern Egypt. Zaki also deals comprehensively with the use of soft power – which turns out to have been an indispensable buffer against all kinds of problems and obstacles – through the various regimes of modern Egypt both before and after the July Revolution of 1952.

The book benefits from not one but two introductions by the Secretary General of the Arab League Ahmad Abul-Ghait and PM Karim Abdel-Kerim Darwish, the head of the foreign relations committee in the People’s Assembley. Abul-Ghait takes the time to explain the concept of soft power as one of several elements contributing to a nation’s standing at any one time. This covers cultural heritage as well as ongoing creative endeavours. Darwish, for his part, focuses on cultural conflicts, the rise of extremism and xenophobia the world over, and the consequent necessity of the role of cultural alongside political diplomacy to facilitate international communication and cooperation among different peoples.

In the first chapter Zaki presents the work of a young statesman who in BC2247-2241 led an expedition south past the first cataract of the Nile and, through cultural exchange as much as political negotiations, established a connection with the people who lived there. The ancient Egyptians had a full code of protocol, which the book surveys, with Zaki spending time on sartorial traditions and their importance in private as much as public life, since any individual was seen as “the emissary of their house”. The book introduces us to ancient costume designers before moving onto the role that obelisks played in presenting the culture and civilisation of Egypt to the people of the countries to which they were taken by force or gifted.

The book comes into its own as it presents the incredible political, economic and military as well as diplomatic genius of Muhammad Ali, who initiated scholarly contact with the West and created a whole bureaucracy around dragomans like the Armenian Boghos Youssoufian (better known as Nubar Pasha) who in 1819 became the first foreign minister of Egypt. Modern Egyptian diplomacy developed fast under Khedive Ismail, when Egypt took part in the 1867 Exposition de Paris and the seeds of modern Cairo were planted. But Zaki doesn’t stop there, and it is by bringing the story of cultural diplomacy right into the present moment that her book manages to to stand out.

Reviewed by Nader Habib

Ahmed Abdel-Latif, Ossour Daniel fi Madinet Al-Kheyout (The Ages of Daniel in the Marionette City), Al-Ain Publishing House, 2022, pp279

In this dystopian novel, author Ahmed Abdel-Latif blends fantasy with reality, setting the action in a nameless city of threads populated by marionette dolls. The opening scene features dolls in the balconies observing the death of other dolls in the middle of the street, contrasting the innocence of those creatures with the brutality of real life. There are three versions of Daniel, the marionette that is shot, and one of them works at the archive where he reads about an older version of himself who was sexually abused by his teacher in the time before the flood…

Novelist Ahmad Abdulatif was born in Egypt in 1978. He is a journalist and translator from Spanish, which he studied in Madrid. His novels include Sanei Al-Mafatih (The Key Maker, 2010), which won the State Incentive Award, Allem Al-Mandal (The Clairvoyant, 2012), Ketab Al-Nahatt (The Book of the Sculptor, 2013), which won the Sawiris Cultural Award, Elias (2014) and Hessn Al-Torab (The Earthen Fortress, 2017), the latter nominated for the Arabic Booker in 2018.