Egypt, where I’ve lived for thirty years, has been a source of inspiration in my life and writing. My non-fiction books, Photography and Egypt (Reaktion Books, 2010) and Cairo City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004) involved extensive historical research alongside an intimate understanding of the country’s present moment, its place in today’s world as much as in that of the past.
Yet in the last decade or so, writing about Egypt has become rather fraught and frankly repetitive. The political side of the story may be summed up as follows: power seeks to preserve itself and Egypt’s seemingly inflexible authoritarian regime has so far managed to bend with the winds of the Arab Spring without breaking. In terms of Egypt’s fragile desert environment, the subject of many of my articles over time, the main advances have been towards greater destruction. To achieve some intellectual distance, I turned to outer space. Meteorite, a cultural history of space rocks published by Reaktion in their ‘Earth’ series (2015).
I first became interested in meteorites thanks to a 1999 talk given by Chris McKay of NASA’s Ames Research Center at an Institute of Ecotechnics conference in Aix en-Provence. Dr. McKay noted that since it had been proved that some meteorites on Earth came from Mars, the opposite was probable, that bits of Earth have reached other planets. A growing body of evidence suggests that some meteorites carry chemical compounds or types of bacteria that could survive impacts, so that the building blocks of life as we know it may have been delivered from afar or conversely, Earth may have sent the seeds of life into space.
As a fellow of the Institute of Ecotechnics, I attended many of these conferences uniting scientists, artists and thinkers around themes in the cognitive and planetary sciences and highlighting advances in varied technologies. Founded in 1973 by a group of like-minded individuals who met in the heyday of Haight Ashbury, the Institute’s goal was to develop a discipline to harmonize ecology and technology, forces increasingly at odds. Their grandest effort was Biosphere 2, built in Oracle Arizona in the 1980s, a miniature Earth enclosed in glass (the size of two football fields) replete with 3800 species of life, everything from pigs to hummingbirds. Eight people lived inside for two years, partaking in a unique experiment whose scale, daring and hard data have only now begun to be properly assessed. The purpose was to observe how humans interact with each other and their environment under specific limitations, how much air, soil and water they needed to thrive, while envisaging how, if humanity is to travel into distant space, it might best manage the long journey.
The project launch was held in the old Motorola research center in Oracle in 1985. It was the glasnost era, and among those participating in the endeavor aside from luminaries of the Royal Society, NASA and the Smithsonian, were the valiant Russian scientists who first experimented with closed systems, contributed to building the Mir space station and sent plants and small animals up with the cosmonauts, dreaming of an interplanetary future for Earth’s life forms. In the captivating atmosphere of that large timbered conference room, I apperceived the value of humanity’s epic quest for knowledge. That value was restored to me while perusing the extraordinarily wide-ranging research concerning meteorites and I hope the book will communicate some of the sense of amazement I experienced while writing it.
In addition to many years as columnist and commentator for Cairo, Beirut and London publications, I’ve worked for Vogue (New York), The International Herald Tribune and Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich). Links to my ‘author’s pages’ are on the ‘non-fiction’ page of this site. I’m currently Middle-East reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement (London).
I’ve recently (2018) completed Asyut: Guardian City, a short illustrated history of the 5000-year-old regional capital in Middle Egypt, co-authored with Ilona Regulski, curator of the British Museum’s department of written culture.
Aside from interests in Egypt and in space (urban, inner and outer) I’m a jazz aficionado and had the honor of working in and later managing one of America’s most splendid progressive music and performing arts venues, the Caravan of Dreams, in Fort Worth Texas (1985-1992). The Caravan was another seminal project realized by the Institute of Ecotechnics, with Kathelin Gray as artistic director.
My forthcoming book, about iconoclast musician/composer Ornette Coleman (Fort Worth, 1930- New York, 2015) is scheduled for publication by Reaktion Books in Spring, 2020. Ornette, who was born in Fort Worth, was the opening act at the Caravan of Dreams and recorded on the Caravan label. Researching Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure, allowed me to revisit Texas’s exceptional music history, and to survey the 1960s-1970s in New York (where Ornette lived) and Europe (where he toured widely) at a time when artists of every genre were breaking with convention, convinced of their power to change the world. Which for a while at least, they did.
Thanks for the visit. (firstname.lastname@example.org)