Egypt is mourning the recent passing of renowned geologist Rushdi Said, who left our world at the age of 93, leaving behind an invaluable legacy of some ten books and more than 180 research papers on the Nile, the geology of the desert, and mining. His magnum opus, the Geology of Egypt, as well as his famous book on the Nile, are both widely acclaimed worldwide.
“When the rays of the setting sun cast their reflection on his face, his pharaonic-shaped head resembled a hidden jewel glowing with a multitude of hues,” wrote Watani’s columnist Soliman Shafiq describing Rushdi Said as he interviewed him.
Dr Said’s book Science and Politics in Egypt: A life’s Journey, which is essentially his personal memoir, is seen by many as a testimony on Egypt’s recent past and an attempt to shape its future.
Era of change
Rushdi Said was born in Cairo into a middle-class Coptic family a year after the nationalist revolution of 1919, which demanded Egypt’s independence of British occupation. It was a time of political and social renaissance which united Egyptians under the banner of a common national goal. Although he belonged to a religious family, the young Said never heard his father engage in inter-religious debate or speak disrespectfully of any ‘other’ faith. In this, the senior Said was no different from the rest of his generation, a generation that carried the torch of the nationalist movement, fought for Egypt’s independence and acquired its identity from a strong sense of belonging to the Egyptian homeland.
Dr Said considered that growing up in the 1920s was an important factor in shaping his personality. The social and political renaissance brought with it liberal thought, principles of human rights and equality, in addition to modern education and universities. The first Egyptian constitution was drafted in 1923.
Despite the rich environment of his upbringing, Said did not demonstrate any real interest in his Egyptian heritage until one day in 1948 when he was visiting the Egyptian section of the British Museum in London. An English woman attracted his attention to the striking resemblance between him and a limestone bust of an Egyptian nobleman from the Fourth Dynasty; it immediately sparked an interest in his heritage and cultural legacy.
The young Rushdi Said studied geology at Cairo University, spurred by advice from Salama Moussa, a [Coptic] modernist writer whom Said highly respected. After earning a scholarship to Zurich, Switzerland, he asked to be transferred to the United States because he wanted to study for a PhD in petroleum geology, a science still unknown in Europe but highly developed in the US. He became the first Egyptian to earn a PhD from the prestigious Harvard University in 1950.
Dr Said returned to a politically disturbed Egypt in 1951, and was appointed Professor of Geology at Cairo University. He was saddened by the anger and unrest on every face, and the religious inequality and discrimination. The unrest played into the hand of the religious right and eventually led to the July revolution in 1952. This revolution was met with great joy by some Egyptians, but with apprehension by others. By adopting many policies that lacked transparency, the revolution opened the door to profiteering and political hypocrisy.
The climate within the university, naturally, reflected the general mood. Dr Said was met with constant attempts to obstruct his progress and hinder his achievements. This led him to establish a scientific research unit which he led away from the conspiracies and games of the other university professors, a place where he and his students would be able to pursue scientific research and pass his knowledge on to a younger generation. It was at this time that he founded the Egyptian Geological Society.
At the time, Dr Said’s reputation was boosted by the publication of The Geology of Egypt, which soon became an international reference and was translated into several languages. It was also the first geology book for a non-industrialised nation written by one of its scientists, and is still regarded as a milestone in the story of geology.
In the ten years that followed the 1952 Revolution, the political scene was dominated by the revolutionary clan; this resulted in the alienation of the intellectuals who were met with scepticism by the commanders of the revolution. The results of the parliamentary elections of 1964 were quite alarming because they resulted in the election of only one Copt, indicating a deep crack in the once-united Egyptian community. Consequently, the law governing parliamentary elections was amended to grant the President of the Republic the right to appoint ten members to the People’s Assembly. Rushdi Said’s name was among those selected, and he remained MP till 1976.
Despite the honour, Dr Said was not happy with being selected. Ever since his return to Egypt he had felt alienated. Parliament did not conform to Western standards of democracy but was rather formed of members of the same political body who did nothing but rubberstamp the decisions of their party. This pattern of limited democracy prevailed; the parliaments of 1971 and 1976 were no better and became an arena for profiteering and business dealing following the collapse of Egypt’s industry and the shift to a market-based economy during the presidency of Anwar al-Sadat from 1970 to 1981.
The Coptic factor
All along—in fact, as far back as 1951 when he returned from the US—Dr Said was particularly haunted by the issue of Copts within the national community. To him, the problem of the Copts was the problem of the entire nation, and the only solution would be to rebuild the country and breathe back into its people. It has always been said that Copts and Muslims are part of the same Egyptian fabric, but evidence confirmed that this fabric had become tattered.
In the 1970s, the political scene consisted mainly of several competing groups, each trying to put the other aside in an attempt to get closer to power and the decision-makers. After Dr Said stepped down from parliament in 1976, he spent most of his time with his family and watched the political turmoil that followed from a distance. The 1977 bread riots, the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty left the nation divided.
Dr Said bought a plot of land in the Western Desert, near the oases, and built on it his dream desert home. He drew on the Coptic heritage of using material from the desert environment to build a house well-suited to the desert climate, making use of domes and air currents. Underground water allowed him to grow a garden that thrived in the desert and supplied him, at the same time, with food. He loved to receive guests there.
The priceless library
President Sadat’s last years were marked by tightening security and surveillance on many people whom Sadat claimed were ‘a threat to national security’.
Dr Said was in the US getting ready to return to Egypt when he was shocked to hear news that his name had been added to a new ‘watchfulness’ list issued by Egyptian security—‘watchfulness’ being the new euphemism used in place of the dreaded word ‘confinement’. He was advised not to return to Egypt, and was forced to remain in exile. He returned to his university teaching post in the US and, unsure how long he would be staying and having been told that his priceless scientific library was at risk of rotting, he put it up for sale. The library was bought by the University of Berlin and moved to a section under the name of Dr Rushdi Said in the African Studies Department.
After Sadat was assassinated at the hands of the Islamists whom he had so much supported, Hosni Mubarak came to power and issued a pardon of all political prisoners. Only then could Dr Said return to Egypt.
Dr Said was honoured by Egypt’s intellectuals and writers, who repeatedly wrote words of praise about him. He had earlier been awarded the Science and Arts Medal (First Order) by president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, but the homage that was closest to Dr Said’s heart was the one organised by the late Dr Ahmed Abdalla Rozza, founder of Al-Jeel Centre for Youth and Social Studies. Abdalla, conscious of the State’s neglect of Dr Said, arranged an honours ceremony for him in the organisation that he had founded in the Ain al-Sira neighbourhood. Dr Said recalled that Dr Abdalla had been a member of the student uprising of 1972, and said he thought of him as a role-model for the younger generation that he hoped would take on the leadership of Egypt.
Dr Said received more recognition for his achievements from abroad, especially at the time when he had none in his own country. He was given a citation from the Southern Methodist University in Texas (1983); an honorary doctoral degree from the Technical University of Berlin (1986); and the Nachtigal Medal of the Geographical Society of Germany (1986). He was an honorary fellow of the Geological Society of Africa and the Geological Society of America.
The desert as home
“Let me share with you my vision for the Egypt I want you to inhabit.” Thus said Said to the American University in Cairo graduates of February 2005 in their commencement address. “It is an Egypt in which the Delta and the Nile Valley have been transformed into one great garden—a natural reserve free of industry, wholly devoted to agriculture, and inhabited by a population limited enough in numbers to live in harmony with their environment, maintain a balance with natural resources. I envision the deserts of Egypt strewn with well-spaced and well-planned habitation centres, built around extensive industrial bases and fuelled by locally available energy resources. That, in a nutshell, is my vision.”
Watani hosts Dr Said
In January 2000 Rushdi Said was guest of Watani Forum, then chaired by the late Adel Kamel, and reported by Sameh Fawzy.
Dr Said reminisced about his university years, which coincided with the early years of Egypt’s first university. This was established in the second decade of the 20th century through popular contribution and royal sponsorship, on land donated by one of Egypt’s royal princesses. Said was the only geology student in a class of no more than 30.
“Dr Nasri Shukry helped me make a scientific trip up the Nile,” Dr Said said. “The University granted me EGP100—a princely sum then—to travel to Kampala. I took a boat from Shalal, south of Aswan, to Wadi Halfa in north Sudan. On such a generous budget I travelled first class, which only the English tourists and executives who then ruled Egypt could afford. They, however, refused to talk to me or sit to table with me, a snobbish behaviour common to the English in Egypt then. I continued my trip to Khartoum by train, then further to the South of Sudan, which was quite primitive then. I collected specimens of Nile silt from all the tributaries of the river. Back in Cairo, these specimens served the purpose of some extremely valuable research. I left them at Cairo University when I left to the US in 1981, but sadly, the specimens were handed over to an American professor under the pretext that they would be used for research in the US. The changes in the river soil and the earth’s atmosphere and the wars in the region, make these specimens irreplaceable.”
On the topic of climate change, Dr Said related an interesting story. In the 1960s a sealed water barrel was discovered in the Western Desert, left by the Italians during World War II. An analysis of the contents revealed that the water of our present-day earth has been permanently changed by the nuclear emissions that began with the atomic bombs of WWII and continued for both peace and war purposes.
Dr Said worried about overpopulation as a major problem in Egypt. It forced Egyptians in the 1970s to abandon their age-old once-a-year agricultural plan which had afforded an extremely fertile, pest-free, annually-regenerated virgin soil following the inundation at every Nile flood. Instead, and with the construction of the Aswan High Dam, they now follow a thrice-a-year agricultural cycle heavily dependent upon fertilisers and pesticides.
The dam provides Egypt with the water it needs, no matter how abundant or scarce the volume of the annual inundation. It has protected Egypt against the dangers of ruinous high floods and the famine that came with low floods. But it has cost Egypt the rich silt which is now held behind the dam and is prohibitively costly to recoup.
The Nile is Egypt##s sole water source, Dr Said said, which makes it vital for Egypt to come into favourable agreement on the division of the waters with the other Nile basin countries, most of which enjoy abundant rainfall. Projects upstream the Nile, he said, had the potential of spelling death for Egypt.
And in view of Egypt’s increasing population, and with the Nile Valley already chockfull, he said, “Egyptians must be encouraged to move out into the desert to build for themselves homes and lives.”
3 March 2013