A Million

Library of Alexandria, Alexandria, Egypt

“Right before firing me, my boss suggested I try my hand at another profession. According to him, journalism required a firmer grasp of reality than the one I had proven to have. He was not a man to mince his words.”

Much to his relief, they all laughed. He was at the signing event of his book “A Million”, whose 10th edition had just come out, and the room was full of widely recognized authors on whom he hoped to leave a favorable impression. To that effect, he had even chosen to wear a rose on the lapel of his suit.

“I have been laughed at and called a fool ever since I was a child, but that has never dissuaded me from continuing to do what I do best, which is to retire to my cloud-based kingdom, where everything falls into place, for there I can assign new meaning to what I have been able to observe in the outside world.”

A person from the audience raised his hand and asked, “And where did you get the idea for your book?”

With a wan smile, he answered by pointing his finger at the window. The faces of the assembled crowd registered a question mark. Hence, he expounded on his reasoning:

“After being fired, I felt I needed to take some time to myself. That is how I landed up in Alexandria. The goal was to gain new perspective by departing from home and distancing myself from family and friends. I was still single, had just been sacked and felt real empty inside. I knew that, in order to get my life back on track, I had to develop a plan. So, I turned off my phone and went to take a stroll along the beach to clear my head and let my thoughts take wing. Ironically enough, looking for my purpose in life, I stumbled across the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.”

“And what did you find there?” someone chimed in, eager to know what happened next.

“Two separate structures, one cylindrical and one oval, which I later found out people called ‘The Celestial Sphere’, towering over the sea, built to commemorate the ancient Library of Alexandria. So, basically, a symbol of our human need to preserve our cultural heritage. What struck me the most were the carved letters, which belonged to different languages, some of which had gone extinct, that graced the exterior of the main building. That art piece lead me to think that, although we Arabs have a tendency to do that, perhaps we shouldn’t content ourselves with the life our ancestors used to lead nor aspire to emulate them in every way possible. In fact, it may be wiser to try and honor their memory by breaking free of the old mould our inherited language wants us to fit into, by showing the same courage they had to redefine their surrounding environment.”

A journalist asked, “And what did you do?”, to which he answered:

“I decided to come up with one million different ideas about how to best honor our past and compile them into a book. I wanted to take a closer look at how and to what extent the way our ancestors thought, felt and envisioned their future has driven us, as their descendants, to adopt a specific stance on life and maintain it to this day. I wanted to examine their societies as a whole and pore over the documents that detail how the rich and the poor lived, the ones with the brains and the ones with the brawn, the men of the cloth, of the pen, of both and of neither, the ones who spent all day at the nearest coffeehouse or equivalent and the ones who worked their fingers to the bone from dawn to dusk, the husband and the wife, the ones with family and the ones without. My interest in discovering and capturing what sets our society and culture apart from others and how big of an influence our past wields on our present times took me on a journey across the whole of Egypt. I spent time in the rural and the urban areas, in the North and the South, among nomadic herdsmen as well as suited businessmen of large cities, and I got to fish, paint, dance the tahtib and listen to the lyre music the people from Port Said play. I struck up conversation with scientists, literati, street kids and even prison inmates.”

He heaved a deep sigh before continuing:

“Thirty years of my life I spent traveling and documenting the beauty of this country, and then, I decided the time had come to release my work, to bring my artistic creature into the world and let it stand on its own two feet. I am hereby lending my eyes to the world and can only hope that those who may be so bold as to take a look through them will love my culture as much as I do.”

His speech earned him a rapturous ovation from the audience. He smiled and gazed out of the window, through which the Bibliotheca Alexandrina could be seen, reflecting the light of the sun. He felt proud of being who he was.


Written by Mahmoud Khaled Abdel-Jawad.