31 May 2009
An evening on the subject of “ Gamal Hemdan—Lover of the Nation”, held at the Talaat Harb Cultural Centre last month to commemorate the death of Hemdan, turned into a truly memorable event. A documentary about his life, directed by Walid al-Tawil, was screened.
Hemdan was a veritable 20th-century polymath. His works were pure genius, combining geography, history, psychology, economics and politics. Among his most prominent books are The Personality of Egypt , Studies of the Arab World and The Contemporary Islamic World Geography . Although time separates these three books, they form a harmonious trilogy unified by a comprehensive viewpoint. They provide deep insight into Egypt’s natural, economic, political and cultural character and of its position in the surrounding regional environment.
Professor Abdel-Moneim al-Gemeiey, an expert on contemporary literature, says Dr Hemdan used writing to battle against oppression. The author of more than 20 books, he possessed a unique literary style and talent. Under him the science of geography was a universal and encyclopedic social science. Taking geography as an access road to other branches, he skillfully used this multi-disciplinary approach to study Egypt’s location, history, culture and its future.
One of Dr Hemdan’s best known sayings was that Egypt is an unparalleled geographical phenomenon. It might have been possible for Egypt to be the ‘Japan of the Middle East’ were it not for the foreign occupation that aborted the renaissance experiment of Mohamed Ali Pasha. Gemeiey suggests that a street should be named after Hemdan, or a museum set up in his name.
Hemdan was not merely an eminent geographer, but also an example of a serious and fully dedicated academician and scholar. For almost 40 years he willingly withdrew from public life and dedicated himself to intensive meditation, research and prolific writing. An encyclopedic intellectual of a rare calibre, Dr Hemdan managed to invest his wealth of knowledge in the service of a broad spectrum of social sciences, beside his major specialty: geography.
Writer and researcher Abdullah Bilal said Dr Hemdan had the ability to present a problem from different perspectives, and could usually offer a solution. Bilal suggested an annual competition for research on the issues Hemdan espoused such as random development and construction, particularly in Sinai.
Mohamed Rifaat Imam, professor of contemporary history at Alexandria University, talked about the clash between science and authority, which could be represented by university authorities or the political hegemony. Dr Imam commented that Dr Hemdan chose to live in seclusion after he met with opposition from the university authorities. In response to a question put by Watani as to whether talented people should opt for seclusion to escape being crushed by hostile forces, Dr Iman replied that not everyone would choose to live like a hermit and work on their own, but it was important to take up the gauntlet and not give up.
Seham Shams, director of the Shams Cultural Association, said she was ready to republish anything Hemdan had written at her own expense.
Hemdan was born in Qalyubiyah, north of Cairo. He graduated with honours with a degree in geography from Cairo University in 1948, and was soon appointed a staff member in the university arts faculty. From there, he took up a scholarship to Reading University in England where he went on to obtain his M.A. and Ph.D. His M.A. thesis, Population of the Nile Mid-Delta; Past and Present , was highly commended by his professor who believed the thesis was eligible for a Ph.D. This he obtained in 1953, and was then appointed as a lecturer back at Cairo University. On his return Dr Hemdan found great changes taking place in the Egyptian society following the 1952 Revolution. He was looking forward to making a positive contribution to the development of society through his intellectual and scientific work, but with his highly sensitive disposition he found he was unable to cope with the climate of ‘political correctness’ that had come to dominate universities and negatively affected academic activity.
In 1959 he was awarded the Egyptian State incentive prize for arts and letters, but he refused to accept it because he felt that others who did not deserve that honour had been awarded that prize before him.
In 1963 he resigned his post at the university in protest at not being given a due promotion. After that he lived in seclusion and dedicated his life to writing and research.
Dr Hemdan was offered but refused the presidency of Kuwait University, and was also nominated for the post of permanent Egyptian delegate to UNESCO, he preferred to withdraw from the hustle and bustle of public life. He chose to live in voluntary, almost hermit-like seclusion; his self-imposed solitude provided him with the right atmosphere for uninterrupted and free meditation, research and innovation.
He thought of geography both as a science, an art and a philosophy. He advocated what he called ‘living geography’, or everyday geography. If adequately defined, the pattern, nature, conditions and laws relating to life in a place can be thoroughly identified. Geography, Dr Hemdan believed, was a tool to induce and take inspiration from the spirit of place to reach an accurate scientific definition of its characteristics.
Gamal Hemdan was found dead in his apartment in Doqqi, Cairo, in 1993. Some people believe that Mossad engineered his murder on the grounds that he had written some strong criticism of Israel. But to this day no evidence was found to lead to the murderer.
Time and place
Dr Hemdan’s outstanding intellectual and geographical achievements constituted the most important accomplishment of the Egyptian geographical school. It stresses Egypt’s uniqueness and singularity of geography and history in terms of time and place. In his works he adopted a multi-disciplinary approach, encompassing geography, history, sociology, politics and culture. His writings clearly manifest a unique wealth of knowledge, an immense power of meditation and observation and a distinct, devoted affection for his country.
He left behind a rich legacy of writing in both Arabic and English, including 17 books in Arabic and eight in English, in addition to several articles in Arabic, published in newspapers and magazines.
Possessed of a futuristic outlook, Dr Hemdan predicted several events that he thought were compatible or incompatible with the facts of geography. Chief among these was his prediction of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
His encyclopedic work The Personality of Egypt , the most outstanding of his intellectual achievements, was the product of 10 years of dedicated effort during which time he used 245 Arabic and 691 foreign language reference books. In this prestigious book, he elaborately expounded the constituent factors making up the Egyptian personality from the early days of the pharaohs. To him, Egypt was the central chapter of the book of geography, one that turned into the opening chapter of the book of history, maintaining throughout a coherent civilisation across history. To Dr Hemdan, Egypt was a geographical anomaly. Apart from the Description de L’Egypte , which appeared in print during the French Expedition to Egypt, Dr Hemdan’s The Personality of Egypt remains a seminal scientific masterpiece on Egypt.
Dr Hemdan won several scientific prizes and merit awards, including the State Incentive Prize for Arts and Letters in 1959, the State Merit Prize for Social Science in 1986, the Scientific Criticism Award from the State of Kuwait in 1986 and the Order of Merit of the First Class for Science and Arts in 1988.
In line with his full dedication to science and his almost ascetic attitude to formalities, he refused to break his self- imposed solitude. Apart from the first prize awarded to him in 1959, he refused to receive any of the other prizes.