If I had more stamina and a larger hunk of intelligent imagination, I could write a memoir in which I trace my journey from the flat fields of the Mississippi Delta to the flat fields of Suffolk. Every now and then, I have one of those snakebites of memory that, with a little effort, I could stretch into a chapter. Then a wave of boredom comes over me, and the very thought of spending a year or so with my former self makes me want to head for the sofa and click on the news. Watching the news feels more purposeful than writing a memoir. The past is past, but the news, addictive, mesmerising, anxiety-inducing, is Here and Now.
Still, I had one of those icy shards of memory tonight. The main story was Egypt, but the scene had moved from Cairo to Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, and the broadcaster Lindsey Hilsum was standing on an overhead bridge, looking down on the sea of young Alexandrians marching for freedom, jobs and democracy. It was a moving sight, and for once the unshakeable Miss Hilsum was almost speechless.
But sometimes, the news is too Here and Now. Already forgotten is that, on New Year’s Eve in Alexandria, a suicide bomber attacked one of Alexandria’s Coptic churches, killing 21 Egyptian Christians and injuring 100 more, including Muslims at the mosque nearby. Already ‘old news’: only weeks before, some three dozen Alexandrians were killed by the Egyptian police. And some stories never make it to prime time. I just learned of one by chance. Wondering who the ‘Coptic Christians’ were, I googled and found a New York Review of Books blog by Ingrid Rowland called ‘Saving Alexandria’. It’s the story of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the remarkable new Library of Alexandria.
Once upon a time, the Royal Library of Alexandria was the most important library in the ancient world. It has burnt twice, once by Julius Caesar in 48BC-an accident-and again in 391AD, when the great library was des-troyed by the flames of religious fanaticism, a cult of destruction that has been reignited in the 21st century by fanatics who are just as determined to cast out learning, art, science and philosophy in our age as their fore-runners were in millennia past.
But in 2002, the new Library of Alexandria opened, a breathtaking building with a circular face that rises like the sun. It is the glory of modern Alexandria, bringing together important collections and manuscripts, the latest scientific research, the most advanced digital equipment, even a planetarium. An eight-story complex that hosts conferences on politics and science, philosophy and literature, it is also a place where young Egyptians, religious and secular, come together under one roof to work, think, write, read and share a common civility.
One of the most hopeful stories to emerge from the turbulence last week was how, as unrest broke out, Alexandrians-the Library’s director Ismail Serageldin, employees, protestors, neighbours, citizens-surrounded the Library, determined to protect it from vandals and looters, the fanatical destroyers of the ultimate symbols of civilisation. As I read, I allowed myself to believe that Egypt won’t be Iraq, that Cairo won’t be Baghdad, that the cult of destruction isn’t inevitable.
And then I remembered a day in the early 1970s, a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. A speaker proclaimed that, when the revolution came, museums would be turned into day-care centres and crèches. The crowd roared in approval. I never wanted a revolution. I just wanted an end to a terrible war in which 50,000 American soldiers had already died. I also believed that museums, like libraries, are the beacons of our civilisation. I became less radical that day. Like the Alexandrians protecting their Library, I saw the difference between rage and blind rage, even if I never weave that feeling into a memoir.