The city’s beaches, ancient ruins, and hookah-filled cafés are still popular with Egyptians, particularly in the summertime, and local authorities would like to attract more international travelers year-round. But in the city center, horse-drawn carts jostle with Soviet-made taxicabs and rickety trams. Even though the municipal government has made recent advances in cleaning up the garbage-strewn streets, refurbishing ravaged façades, and repaving broken sidewalks, the library stands out as a paragon of modern efficiency.
“We wanted to create a building that would provide a sense of pride to a city that has in many ways lost some of its luster,” says Craig Dykers, one of the principal architects with Snøhetta, who has been struck by how many members of the Egyptian general public, in addition to academics and students, are drawn to the building. “We never planned for that,” he says. “But it provides a calm and comfortable place for serious research as well as everyday use. Alexandria can be so chaotic, with such an enormously energetic culture. You drive through the streets and you see the muck and the donkeys with TV’s tied to their backs, and then you come into this calm, white, simple space with few affectations. You move into the lower area with the information desk and a series of thresholds. It affects your blood pressure. You feel a sense of relaxation—which is hard to get in a place like Egypt.”
Serageldin, drawing on expertise from his 25 years at the World Bank, has also steered the library toward involvement in the local economy and infrastructure. Under an accord signed with the city government to provide advice on urban affairs, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is helping plan an enormous aquarium on a nearby coastal site and is working on rebuilding the local film industry, which had thrived in the 1930’s.
These projects come under the purview of Alex-Med, which resembles a hectic architectural firm with models of proposed new and now-vanished ancient structures arrayed around its bustling offices. Ideas range from a scale model of the Pharos Lighthouse, which once stood on Alexandria’s shore and was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, to a redevelopment of the city’s eastern harbor. The library already has plans to expand on both sides of its existing premises, adding exhibition spaces as well as a hotel for scholars and conference participants.
Debate at library events is described by human rights activists and Western diplomats as open and unrestricted. “We are free to do anything we want,” says Mohsen Youssef, one of Serageldin’s key advisers. Still, while Cairo-based rights advocate Negad Al Borai hails the library as an “oasis of culture, democracy, and free speech,” he and others complain that the Mubarak government has undertaken few genuine reforms since the library’s creation. Youssef responds to such criticism by stressing that “no one is expecting change overnight. It takes a long time.” There is also skepticism within the institution itself about its ability to touch the masses. To broaden the potential audience, Serageldin plans to build a television studio on the premises to broadcast programs on Egyptian and foreign channels.
The library does provide access to materials that are hard to come by in Arab countries. Even the works of Salman Rushdie are available—albeit on request from closed stacks. “Putting The Satanic Verses on the open shelves would guarantee it’s going to be destroyed,” says chief librarian Sohair Wastawy, who’s committed to including a wide range of authors. “If you don’t know what other people think and write, how can you defend any value you have?It’s ignorance not to acquire these things.”
On Alexandria’s street corners, a new Arabic edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf is on sale—yet the library has hosted the Egyptian premiere of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, vividly portraying Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. “We are working in a country where fanaticism runs rampant,” Wastawy laments. “But we are trying to have an impact. We’re trying to fix Egyptian society through culture and transparency.”
This approach is winning praise from leading foreign peers. “Serageldin has earned the respect of national libraries around the world,” says Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress. “The spirit of the original library of Alexandria is being re-created.” And it could end up guiding the Arab world toward positive change.
Michael Z. Wise is a T+L contributing editor.