Bibliotheca Alexandrina via Wikimedia Commons

New Sun of the Mediterranean

An edition of Fr. Giussani’s book in Arabic is presented at the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, with its architecture evoking the rising sun, an initiative no one could have foreseen, fostered by Wael Farouq.
Roberto Fontolan

From a row of seats in the middle of the room rise six veiled heads. Each is a different color–blue, green, yellow, orange, beige, pink. There is an older woman with five girls and, at the end of the row, a man. A family, perhaps, or a study group. It is the first image that strikes me, seated at the table in the splendid room in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, one of the legendary places of the Mediterranean, utterly lost for sixteen centuries and rebuilt a few years ago. Its opening in 2002 was a global event, attended by dozens of heads of state and their wives, celebrated with readings, dancing, singing, and fireworks. The Egyptians are proud of this majestic work, a “space of freedom” as they frequently describe it: multicultural, multilingual, multiethnic. The library, built by Egyptians, British, and Italians, is truly impressive. The great buildings line a square facing the sea. They are a triumph of glass, concrete, and classical quotations. The form of the planetarium is magnificent, a sphere of black stone flattened at the sides. Viewed from outside, the library is an enormous grey ring tilted toward the Mediterranean. It represents the sun rising, as they say here; light, culture that illuminates. Inside it, the immense space extends downward from above. Desks, computers, and shelves are neatly arranged on decks and terraces. In reality, it is a lot more than a library. Organized into nine departments, it conducts research and promotes studies of all kinds, has a staff of 1,700, and presents 550 events a year. With this great port of culture, Alexandria is desperately seeking to regain its past glories. The legend helps; when you get here you feel you have reached your goal. Amid the thousands of Mediterranean libraries and cities, well, this is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Library of Alexandria.

Fundamental questions

We are here because of Wael Farouq, the Egyptian professor well known to readers of Traces. He worked on the heads of the Alex-Med Department Library (who knew nothing of CL) and all his friends scattered between Cairo and Alexandria; his students, colleagues, and journalists. Luigi Giussani’s The Religious Sense is a book we can’t ignore, and this is all the truer now it has been translated into Arabic. It deals with the fundamental questions of everyday life, reason, and the search for God. Wael’s advocacy of it becomes urgent. Man has always rushed headlong toward the mystery that surrounds and penetrates him–the unknown that is in us, in the depths of the soul and the mind. The unknown lies outside us, in the world we live in and the one we would like to live in; it fills the whole universe. Who am I? Who willed me? Who made all this? And why? What is the reason for everything? Man ardently wants to know these things; he never ceases questioning and seeking. Never. The books that are preserved here, Wael then explains to the courteous custodians of the library, are splendid testimony to what makes us human: consciousness, the awareness of ourselves. Men have entrusted to books their quest, their questions, their attempts to find an answer. In books, they have traveled, narrated, lived, rejoiced, wept. In writing and reading, they have sought to make themselves better. And even God has entrusted Himself to books

So Professor Wael Farouq persuaded everyone and even dragged his Italian friends to Alexandria (including Fr. Ambrogio Pisoni and the constitutionalist Andrea Simoncini, his hosts at a seminar at the University of Macerata in Italy), convincing them with Arab delicacy of the greatness of the idea. Now I find myself here, at the table in one of the rooms of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the logo is magnificent), together with Wael, with Mario Mauro, here from the European Parliament; the Jesuit Father Christian Van Nispen, a luminary of Islamic scholarship; and Hecham Sadek, the Egyptian authority on legal studies. Before us are a hundred and fifty people–given the context, an incredible number, believe me–and the astonished heads of the Alex-Med Department, who, from being institutional hosts presiding at one of the library’s many initiatives, have been transformed into attentive interlocutors. And there will be even more when, at the end of the speeches from the platform, the listeners will vie with each other to ask questions and offer comments.

Bare humanity

Here, in this temple that preserves books, we are speaking of a book. One of the thousands and thousands. What is that something that makes it so special, capable of striking the individual reader, yet so universal, capable of passing through languages and cultures? True, each book in its way is unique, unrepeatable, different. The same is true of men, and it is not hard to identify the special quality of each. But we cannot say of all books that they start living–literally, living–in the lives of their readers.

Father Van Nispen stresses the great store Fr. Giussani set by the question: What makes us men? And he recalls that at his first meeting with his philosophy students he always said, “I have questions for every answer you can give me.” The jurist Sadek, who also acts as moderator, is struck by the “bare humanity” of Giussani’s pages. They speak to me, to you, to our souls, to our depths and, he adds, this text is like a preamble to everything that goes under the name of “human rights.” As before in Italy, Wael spotlights the theme of reason and modernity, while Mario Mauro assures us of the interest of Europe (at least the Europe he represents) in true dialogue, the high road to friendship. The audience is a kaleidoscope of reactions. Some speak of interfaith dialogue, others of freedom of expression, the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims, the need to change the world, and still others want to begin all over again and talk about faith and reason. The most surprising point, one that leaves everyone astonished, is made by a Muslim lady, a poet: “While reading this book I asked myself: what are we teaching our children?” At that instant, the whole room–nuns and veiled heads, intellectuals and young Arabists, journalists and inquiring minds–thought there could be no more authentic and vital question. The power of one book amid thousands, amid millions of others…

Now we can wrap it up. End of the encounter, end of a chaotic and happy day. Perhaps Wael will think: “Fr. Giussani at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina! Would I ever have imagined I’d be the one to bring him here?!”