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American University in Cairo celebrates centennial with gift of art

The American University in Cairo kicked off its centennial year by rededicating its original campus as a cultural arts center.

The American University in Cairo (AUC), founded in the aftermath of World War I in 1919, has over the years seen monarchs and military men come and go across Egypt's political stage and stood witness to the Arab Spring and 2011 revolution as it unfolded outside its gates on Tahrir Square. This year, the institution, with a global ranking of 420th by QS Top Universities, celebrated its 100th year by inaugurating the Tahrir Cultural Center (TCC) on the site of its original campus in downtown Cairo, where its first graduating class of 28 students received their diplomas in 1923. 

One of the first exhibitions presented at the TCC, which opened in February, was “Bint al-Nil/Daughter of the Nile,” featuring paintings by Sherin Guirguis, an Egyptian American artist paying homage to the Egyptian feminist Doria Shafik. The choice of a feminist-focused exhibition seems apt for a university that admitted women in 1928, years ahead of many universities worldwide.

On Feb. 19, 1951, Shafik, founder of Bint al-Nil, a women's party, and an eventual political exile, organized 1,500 women in front of the university and then led them to the nearby parliament building for a demonstration demanding the right to vote. Their four-hour protest was one of the key events leading to Egyptian women's right to vote and to stand for office being enshrined in the 1956 constitution. 

The main building on AUC's downtown campus was originally a palace built in the 1870s in neo-Mamluk architectural style as the residence of Ahmed Khairy Pacha, who at the time served as education minister. Ewart Hall, built as an annex to the palace in 1958, has hosted conferences and other events attended by key figures from Egypt and around the world, including the singer Umm Kulthum, the educator Helen Keller, the writers Noam Chomsky and Naguib Mahfouz and a number of politicians and leaders, among them Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan.

When the original campus could no longer accommodate AUC's growing faculties, the university established a new campus on the southeastern edge of the city, in New Cairo. The then-first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, inaugurated the facility in 2009. Today AUC has 5,568 undergraduate students, 56% of whom are women. There are 455 faculty members, 56% of them from Egypt, 21% from the United States and the remaining from various other countries.

Prominent lecturers over the years have included Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright and former European Commission member Emma Bonino. The university’s 38,000 alumni include more than a few household names, among them Queen Rania of Jordan, ’91. In a 2010 speech at AUC, Rania talked about the importance of civic engagement in the Arab world in terms that Doria Shafik could just as easily have spoken. Rania stated, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned since graduating from AUC, it’s that, often, social progress doesn’t come from governments looking down, directing change. It comes from communities, families, and individuals looking up, driving society forward themselves, fueled by nothing more than an idea and an instinct to do good.”

Other alumni of note include Rania Al Mashat ’95, Egypt’s first female minister of tourism; Omar Samra, the first Egyptian to climb Mt. Everest; Thomas Friedman, ’74, and Nicholas Kristof ’84, New York Times columnists and commentators; Tarek Amer ’80, governor of the Central Bank of Egypt; and Sahar Nasr ’85, Egypt’s minister of investment and international cooperation.

The new cultural center will present programs and events aimed at the current AUC community, alumni organizations and Cairo cultural circles at large. TCC Director Aly Mourad told Al-Monitor, “Egypt needs more cultural centers to spread culture and arts. This is the only way to revive the country, through enlightened children and young people, not only via education, but also culturally.”

The center's activities will include concerts, art exhibitions, movie screenings, theatrical performances for children and adults, folklore dance workshops, book clubs and seminars.

The New Cairo campus also features in the university’s rich cultural heritage, in particular as home to its photography and cinema collections, which includes photographs documenting Egypt as it has changed over the centuries.

Ola Seif, curator of the photography and cinema collections for AUC's Rare Books and Special Collections Library (RBSCL) told Al-Monitor, “We own a collection by K. A. C. Creswell, who is considered the founder of the study of Islamic architecture in the region, surveying and photographing Islamic monuments in detail. It covers [photos of] most Islamic architectural sites in Egypt and on the riverbanks of the Euphrates.”

Another unique collection consists of the life's work of Van Leo, an Egyptian-born Armenian portrait photographer who became prominent in the 1940s. Before his death, he donated his entire collection of 15,000 photographs and quarter of a million negatives to RBSCL​.

RBSCL's collection also includes a copy of the “Description de l'Egypte,” the multivolume work commissioned by the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to document the political, cultural and natural landscape of Egypt, and an impressive collection of Arabic inscriptions by the Swiss historian and pioneer of Arabic epigraphy Max Van Berchem.

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