Book Review: Enduring Arab diplomat’s compelling account of war and peace in Egypt

Ahmed Aboul Gheit witnessed the military preparations to regain Egypt’s pride after its defeat in the Six Day War of June 1967. (Shutterstock)
Updated 09 July 2019

Book Review: Enduring Arab diplomat’s compelling account of war and peace in Egypt

BEIRUT: Ahmed Aboul Gheit is part of a select group of high-ranking Egyptian diplomats whose career has spanned the end of the monarchy, the 1953 creation of the modern republic of Egypt, and on until today.

He worked closely with Mohamed Hafiz Ismail, the Egyptian national security adviser, from August 1972 to February 1974, and witnessed the military preparations to regain Egypt’s pride after its crushing and humiliating defeat in the Six Day War of June 1967.

His unparalleled knowledge of that historical period provided the information for an article published on Oct. 6, 2009, in Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper.

Twelve further articles were to follow in the space of a year and as a result of their popularity “the idea for this book was born,” said Aboul Gheit in the introduction to “Witness to War and Peace: Egypt, the October War, and Beyond.”

The book, which has been translated into English, is an event. An Arab leader rarely writes memoirs during his tenure of office.

US career diplomat Francis J. Ricciardone, in his foreword to the English edition, said: “The past great leaders in modern Egyptian-Israeli-Palestinian and broader Arab affairs, presidents Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, regrettably have left scholars no published memoirs comparable to the records published by their Israeli or American counterparts and their senior diplomatic and military advisers.”

With a profusion of details and impeccable research, Aboul Gheit shows in the first part of his book how Egypt “regained its strategic balance vis-à-vis Israel both on the battlefield and in the region.”

In the second part, he streamlines Egypt’s efforts to end the Arab-Israeli conflict and find a viable solution to the Palestinian question.

The author concludes with a plea not to repeat the circumstances which led to the bitter defeat of June 1967. “It is not right that this chapter in our history should be closed just like that. All of us in Egypt should be able to learn from what happened, in victory as is defeat.”

Maybe this is the next book that he should write.

Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins. (Supplied)
Updated 23 July 2019

Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

  • Inside the Emirati artist’s inaugural solo exhibition in London, ‘I Met a Traveler From an Antique Land’

LONDON: You are searching for treasure. Several potential locations are marked with an ‘x’ on your map. You move methodically from site to site, always to be met with disappointment — never striking gold. Are you, in following trails set by others, missing the treasure ‘hidden’ in plain view?

This is one of the conundrums posed in the artworks of Sheikha Alyazia Bint Nahyan Al-Nahyan, whose inaugural solo exhibition in London presented a thought-provoking range of work fusing the ancient past with modern life.

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins, reflecting Arab, Roman and Phoenician influences. She described the coins, embedded in the marble, as symbolic of the great treasures buried in secret locations that were sought out and fought over by many. 

Al-Nahyan named her exhibition — held at Pi Artworks from June 25 to July 7 — with the opening line of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias”: “I met a traveler from an antique land.” (Ozymandias is the Greek name for the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II.)

Mishmash Dirham. (Supplied) 

The poem, published in 1818, imagines a meeting between the narrator and a traveller who describes a ruined statue lying in the desert. The description of the statue is a meditation on the fragility of human power and on the effects of time: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains: round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Maybe a positive thing from looking to the past is that it proves it is only human to repeat the mistake and the lesson,” Al-Nahyan told Arab News. “Studying the past is a realization of human nature, individually or in groups, right or wrong. This natural feeling of connectivity is something I usually aim for.”

There is humor in some of her work — particularly the depictions of old commercial airline advertisements from the 1950s and 60s with ancient figures superimposed in the frames. They certainly give the viewer pause for thought about how much our world has changed in the short time since air travel became widely available.

The exhibition’s curator, Janet Rady, said of Al-Nahyan: “She has been practicing art from a very young age and is self-taught. She is incredibly talented, and you see this in the wide range of her work, which uses all sorts of different media. I can’t necessarily call her a pop artist or a collage artist or an installation artist; she is in fact all of these things, but it is the concept behind her work — connecting the past with the present — which is important.”

The UAE’s UK ambassador, Mansoor Abulhoul, was present at the opening and he particularly admired Al-Nahyan’s works based on the classic wooden board game Carrom paired with a modern video game.

Carrom Station in Motion. (Supplied) 

“I first played Carrom with my cousins as a boy, and she has combined it with modern computer games, which is very creative,” he said. He pointed out that her innovative work ties in well with the dynamic of the UAE.

“Next year we have EXPO 2020, with its theme ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.’ It’s very much about our roots and how we take them forward, how we develop the mind and global cooperation,” he said. 

The exhibition included a short clip from Al-Nahyan’s upcoming film “Athel,” written by Al-Nahyan’s sister, Sheikha Shamsa. It centers on a strange encounter in the desert between a pre-Islamic poet and a modern-day TV presenter. “Athel” is set for release later this year and stars Hala Shiha and Mansour Al-Fili.

“The idea behind it all is taken from the tradition of Arabic poetry — its wisdom and, sometimes, risks,” Al-Nahyan explained. “And ending with a realization of one tribal law putting redemption and family before all.” She added that there are some “light-hearted” moments in the film too.

Arabic poetry is an ongoing inspiration for Al-Nahyan’s work, adding another layer of meaning to many of her pieces.

“The Arabic language is poetic, and Arabs and other cultures around the world have documented their lives through poetry,” she said. “So, for example, when tackling the topic of what is considered treasure, we found different meanings in various verses. Like when (pre-Islamic poet) Zuhair Bin Abi Salma refers to glory as the only true treasure.”

There is a much to absorb and reflect on in this exhibition which opens windows into many facets of Arab history and culture and poses universal questions about humanity and what constitutes real treasure.