July 11, 2023
9 mins read

The last time I visited Cairo, the capital of the Arab Republic of Egypt, was five years ago, in September I had stayed in transit for two nights, but Egypt was not the object of interest for me at the time (never mind the fact that I had made an elliptical reference to the city in a series of reports that I wrote for DAILY TRUST, when I returned home). September 2002 was six months before the illegal Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and everybody in the world knew that the aggression had become inevitable. Along with close to a hundred other journalists from around the world, I had been invited to travel extensively in Iraq, meet its people and also witness the last elections held by Saddam Hussein and the Baathist Party. Travelling to Iraq in those days was very difficult, because there was an international travel sanction; one had to travel either through Amman, Jordan, or Damascus, the capital of Syria. In my case, I had transited through Cairo, waited for two days to pick a flight to Damascus (the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world) which was at the heart of Umayyad rule), before finding a somewhat hazardous route to Baghdad, in the company of Iranian Shiite pilgrims travelling to the holy places of Najaf and Karbala. That story I have told elsewhere, and it should not detain us here today; suffice it to say that five years after that trip, and against the backdrop of the illegal invasion, occupation and destruction of Iraq by the American imperialists, I still retain profoundly emotional memories of the people that I met in my travels around Iraq, from Baghdad, Babylon, Najaf, Karbala and Samara, amongst other places. Last Wednesday, like DON QUIXOTE, the hero of Miguel de Cervantes’ famous book on chivalry, I once again mounted my own ROSINANTE, that hobby horse of travel, to do another trip out of Nigeria. I write these lines in Room 354 of Cairo’s INFANTRY HOTEL. The truth is that I have stopped trying to rationalise my love of travel, but wired into my subconscious, or my DNA, is the gene of my nomadic ancestors! The passion to travel is of course very much at the heart of being human, and as Doctor Karl Sagan said in his remarkable television series of the nineteen eighties, COSMOS, directly related to travel is also the urge to tell Travellers’ tales. Human history is littered with stirring stories of discoveries, adventures and encounters which taken together, affirm the essential unity of mankind, while also showing us the remarkable ways that the human species has peopled the world within geographical frames, that in turn conditioned the context within which they burnt their imprint on nature and also contributed to the making of human civilization. In that sense, it is always an imperative to visit Egypt, because of its place as a source of African history; of human civilization; the land of the gods; the home of the Pharaohs; the place of the splendour of the great River Nile (the longest river in the world) and in much later centuries, the location of superb examples of Islamic civilization. Lets not forget that Ibn Khaldun, one of the greatest thinkers that ever lived, and the scholar whose work, MUQADDIMA, is universally recognised as having given birth to the science of sociology, lived and died in Cairo. He loved the city and once described Cairo as “the metropolis of the universe, the beacon of Islam, a city of fountains and gardens, lit by the moon and stars of erudition”. Forgive me if I seem to be jumping ahead of myself; but just about two weeks ago, I received a text message from Doctor Yahaya Hashim, who jointly runs the NGO, DRPC in Kano, with his wife, Doctor Judith Walker. We had not been in touch for a The We ratings of a Media Life. long while, and he needed to discuss urgently with me. When I made contact the following day, it turned out that they had read the piece that I wrote on this page a few weeks ago on the problems of sexuality, which happened to fall within the frame of the work that they had been doing in the area of maternal and child health in Northern Nigeria. A team of government officials was travelling to Egypt to study the truly marvellous work that is being done about issues of maternal and child health ( as I have discovered with this visit), and they were inviting me to be part of the delegation, to observe and write about what we saw and went through. This is how come I am writing these lines in a hotel room in Cairo, which is owned by the Infantry Corps of the Egyptian Army. Invariably, I have tried to reflect very carefully on the earliest imageries that I formed about Egypt. During the 1960s, a young man would suddenly return to Ilorin, after being away for several years, studying at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo. It was always one of the biggest events of the year, because these young men seemed to have emerged directly from the pages of the ‘Arabian Nights’ book that was part of our evolving world, complete with a Jellabiya and red fez cap with sash, exactly like that one that members of the Native Authority police wore on ceremonial events. They had Arabic mannerisms, laced their Yoruba or Hausa with Arabic words and carried themselves in ways that seemed to befit graduates of the most important institution of learning in the Islamic world. There was always a lot of feasting, procession around some parts of Ilorin which was capped with a visit to the Emir of Ilorin to receive his blessing. There was something very magical about those years and their association with the long distance trip in search of knowledge in the great Al-Azhar University! Much later in life, I discovered a different set of associational symbols with Egypt, thanks to the works of Cheikh Anta Diop (THE AFRICAN ORIGINS OF CIVILIZATION), Professor Ben Johanna, Karl Sagan and J.D. Bernal(BLACKS ATHENNA), and several other works by writers who The Writings of a Media Life. established the profoundly African roots of ancient Egypt’s splendour and the unity of experiences which the African interior had with the flow of the waters of the Nile and the conveyance of influences back and forth. I still remember how my history teacher, I think in form three, described the 14th century pilgrimage of Kankan Musa to Mecca, and the caravan of gold which went through Cairo, Ibn Khaldun’s “metropolis of the universe”. Egypt has another special, if tragic flavour for me, which was related to my father’s inconsolable sadness when Gamal Abdul Nasser died in 1970. So the imageries of Egypt that I could recall form an interesting tapestry indeed. Over the past one week, we have travelled around the Cairo area to see how much work that Egypt has done, with a representative selection of its five thousand primary health care units; the intense collaborative partnership between the state and the Islamic religious establishment to promote maternal and child health issues as well as coming to terms with the imperatives to plan population growth rate of a country that is 94% desert, which has only six percent of its land inhabitable, just a narrow strip around the River Nile. Yes, for the ancients, Egypt is a gift of the gods; the Nile is the spring of its very existence and basis of its grandeur; but for the people who are their modern heirs, everything must be done to judiciously utilise the ancient gifts, in the context of the needs and realities not only of today, but for the sake of the people who will inherit its tomorrow. Over these several days, we have seen how the determination to serve the health care needs of its people firmly sits with the needs of its present and future. Regrettably, on a trip such as this, one cannot get to see as much as one has read, but we have been to the famous Cairo Museum, which houses the gifts of its magnificent past; I think that every educated human being must endeavour to see the artefacts of the pharaonic period, such as the incredible haul from the tomb of the boy king, Tutankhamen, not to mention the remains of the Pharaoh Ramsey II, still locked in his sleep after 3000 years, inthat glass cage in the mummies section of museum. He was the The Writings of a Media Life.Pharaoh that entered history as a result of his altercation with Prophet Musa (Moses), A.S. Who can forget the pyramids, with their intricate construct, their intimidating presence and the thought of just how many years it took generations of slaves to construct; and further down they valley, the mysterious sphinx, which lost its nose to the vandalism of a French soldier’s bullet, during the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt? It would have been incomplete to visit Egypt without sparing a day for a quick dash to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. It has the antecedent of being the city of Alexander the Great and home of the famous library/research centre of antiquity. Many famous scientists worked within the haloed precincts of that library, including Eratosthenes, who calculated precisely the circumference of the earth; the mathematician Euclid, who systematised geometry, and told the pharaoh, who was having a problem solving a mathematical question, that “there is no royal road” to mathematics- a quotation that Marx loved very much; and not to forget the last leading light of the library, hypatia, a truly remarkable scientist and a woman, who was set upon by a religious fundamentalist mob, on her way to work one fateful morning! Alexandria was an embodiment of learning and enlightenment in antiquity, and its disintegration represented a major blow to human advancement for very long time. Back in Cairo, we also saw the work which has been and continues to be done from Al-Azhar University, the oldest university in the world, about which every Muslim can be proud, as a centre of learning and research, which encapsulates the  contributions which Islam has made to and continues to make to the treasure house of mankind. We met the Sheikh Al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti, who both told us the Islamic viewpoint on issues of family planning; we had interactions with researchers working in scientific institutes affiliated to Al-Azhar. But at the background, is the inescapable presence of Cairo, with a daytime population that is close to twenty-five million people and its night time population of about fifteen million. It is a night mare trying to keep such a city functional, providing infrastructure for The Writings of a Media Life.modern existence: electricity, water, railroads, the metro, hospitals, schools and even security. It is never too far from the surface that Egypt is a national security state, with a state apparatus as edgy as befitting of any such security-obsessed state! Unfortunately, if Cairo is Ibn Khaldun’s metropolis of the universe, it is amazing that he does not seem to be a popular figure from the city’s past. Educated Egyptians might politely remember his name as a great Muslim intellectual, but they would also quickly remind you of his Tunisian and Andalusian roots much more than remember the services that he rendered to Fatimid rule in Egypt or the fact that he died in their city. I wanted to visit his tomb, but nobody seemed to know where it was, neither would I get to visit the Ibn Khaldun Institute, run by an Egyptian-American intellectual, who is apparently unpopular with Egyptian officialdom. His crime is that he has carried out too many studies of ‘minority’ groups like the Nubians, drawing conclusions that the establishment here finds unacceptable. A trip to Cairo will not be complete without a visit to the sprawling “City of the Dead”; am not too sure of it now, but I think that my earliest discovery of that neighbourhood came from reading the works of the Nobel Laureate, Naguib Mahfouz. The city of the dead is a huge cemetery dating back to the Mameluke period around the Seventeenth century. They were constructed with remarkably pharaonic grandeur, and many of the tombs were dug in the pharaonic style complete with chambers. As a result of the serious shortage of accommodation, thousands of families, over several generations, live in these tombs, including an eighty year old man who moved in there sixty years ago, together with members of his family. He welcomed me to his abode and over the next one hour, members of the house hold showed me round the tombs and they also discussed their lives in the city of the dead. I have enjoyed my visit to Egypt, including the breezy cruise on the River Nile! It is also noteworthy that as I write these lines, it is exactly twenty-five minutes to midnight in Cairo, but twenty-five minutes to ten on Tuesday night in The Writings of a Media Life.Nigeria. In Cairo, I have just twenty-five minutes to my birthday, September five, while two hour separates me from the event at home. I feel like a time Traveller really, thus coming full circle to that small issue of the nomadic gene that I carry around with me. Travel is one of the greatest pleasures that a human being can enjoy.


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