The Cairo genizeh is not simple for me. The synagogue which housed it was originally a church, and hasn’t been used for worship in a long while as there is really no Jewish community left in Cairo. The Cairo genizeh is described as a lost library in the many books that have been written about it. However, it’s obvious to me that the library wasn’t at all lost to the people who actually used the synagogue. Dr. Schechter, the academic from Cambridge who “discovered” it, in the 1890’s, revealed for academics something the local community had always known about. This strikes me as not much of a find, and I don’t like the self-laudatory way the intrepid discoverers write about their brave efforts to trawl the loot. Of course, not a single medieval Jewish text remains here. Dr. Schechter was allowed to take away “what he liked” from the genizeh. “I liked it all,” he said, and removed 193,000 manuscripts to Cambridge, where they now exist as a collection under his name.

03.01.2017, Cairo




Mashad مشهد


TEHRAN تهران

This is the end of the journey.

I have arrived at the most famous library ever lost, and the edge of the land. The library of Alexandria was so close to the port, that when the Egyptians fought the Roman fleet in a sea-battle in 48CE, the library caught fire and most of it’s staggering holdings of seven hundred thousand scrolls were destroyed. Nothing remains, not even a good sense of where precisely it stood. It stands mostly in fable, which is not to be located.

Now there’s a second library of Alexandria, built in 2000 by the sea shore. I pay for a tour, since it’s the only way to gain access to the library interior. The Egyptians are so fond of their security measures that I may not take so much as a bag into the paved area that leads toward the library door. I cannot hope to bring my camera close to the library, nor inside, let alone use it. I look carefully at the rusting barriers stamped Biblioteca Alexandrina and I notice that they are not original. When this new library was opened, sixteen years ago, it was not blockaded. Photographs show it accessible from all sides, but now the side facing the sea has green corrugated metal sheeting all around it and the walkways are all closed off, save for the one entry that has the inevitable body scanner and guards checking for bags.

Later, I sit on a piece of rubble facing the Mediterranean. It is sunset and I am in a black mood. Not even the sea can cheer me up, though it tries to – flinging spray over rock defences and twinkling in the late sun. What is it that makes me miserable? I don’t like this pretence of rebuilding the great library of Alexandria. I prefer to arrive at a frank erasure than a fake. Better to leave the library unbuilt, as the economics to sustain it are no longer in place in Alexandria.

Rather than feel sad about the library here, I should be rejoicing at my good fortune to have lived in the right time and place as to have enjoyed extreme privilege in the way of books. I was born at the right time to exploit a moment in British culture when suddenly it became possible for working-class parents to allow their children to apply to universities, because it was free. There was a short window that I slipped through before the universities were forced into rapid expansion, partly due to the numbers who could apply, and had to reduce that they could offer to a student. Soon after that, study stopped being free of charge. Now it’s punitively costly to study in the UK, and also very meagre fare.

I am pretty certain about this because I only really left university courses six years ago. I went from being a student straight into teaching: I had a front-row seat on the decline. My children might never afford to go to a university. I also was born at a time when public libraries in the UK were relatively well-funded, and so, of course, I took for granted that the library was a living room. I could read any book on its shelves any day I pleased. My local library is usually shut, so my children are unable to walk into it every day after school as I did.

I sit on the rocky shore watching men fishing, with the arid plains behind me. I am at the edge of a building site, flanked by the thunderous and dusty dual carriageway that cuts the sea off from the city. I am not alone here. A couple sit on a sea defence sharing an evening picnic, their heads close together. A huddle of six school girls share their yogurts with the stray cats. Groups of teenagers clamber and posture on the rubble. Many selfies are being taken. Hidden in a bag beside me is my Bolex. I don’t know what to do. I cannot film the new library and nobody can tell me where the ancient library was in Alexandria, just that it was near the port. Should I to go to the port and film the sea? I feel like that is the only solution, though it’s very weak. Only I am far from it and it’ll soon be dark. I can’t walk get back through the traffic… I am hampered by an overwhelming sense of futility. I decide to film the sea from where I am rather than hazard the traffic and the police. I am close enough. It’s time I went home.

02.01.2017 As I can’t get any sort of privileged access to the papyri from the Villa I walk down the steep hill to the archeological museum in Naples to see the unraveling machine that is permanently exhibited there with a papyrus lodged in its jaws.

The papyri resemble nothing more than large, burnt, crushed-out cigar butts. They were carbonised by the 400 degree gasses emitted from Vesuvius, which instantly killed the residents of Herculaneum almost two thousand years ago.

The rolls have fused together around their sticks and can’t be unraveled. The litany of unraveling techniques that have been attempted over the years amounts to a comedy of human error. In one case, a papyrus was treated with a mixture of ethanol, glycerin and warm water. It dried up and then, in slow motion, exploded into more than three hundred pieces. Countless scrolls have been lost for good in these bungling attempts.

The machine at the museum was invented by Father Antonio Piaggio from the Vatican library, in 1780, and unsurprisingly, it proved to be extremely ineffectual. It is displayed in an ornate glass and walnut cabinet placed in the center of a small room, with a student invigilator in the corner reading his book. “Can I film it?” I ask. “Of course.” It’s a dusty vitrine, and the animal gut used to unwind the papyrus is dessicated. I can’t see even a single character written on the charcoal surface of the fragile papyrus. It vibrates as visitors pace the room, rather like a cobweb.

30.12.2016 When we arrive from Rome, fireworks are being sold (and exploded) on street corners. We can’t tell whether this happens all the time or has do to with the season. We assume that the poor planning and construction here can be attributed to a feeling of futility – why invest in a landscape which may vanish beneath another pyroclastic flow from Vesuvius within the next century? The Italian government will give forty thousand euros to any family who will leave the area and relocate. A 2007 emergency plan intends to evacuate six hundred thousand people in 72 hours when the eruption of Vesuvius is immanent. Each of the eighteen municipalities of Naples is twinned with a region of Italy, who would shelter their people until the danger has passed and either they go home… unless they have no homes left to go to.

I had hoped that the Villa of the Papyri would be less closed than the official email I had received from the government had claimed it was, but I arrive to find that it’s entirely closed and not a part of the main site of the ancient Roman town, which is open. To reach it I would take a path from the far side of the site, which is now walled off. I stand at the wall and miserably admit to myself that I am as close as I can get to this library.

I am by the edge of the deep pit dug through the ash to reveal the Roman town, of Herculaneum. Immediately above the ruins the shattered peak of Vesuvius looms; a classic volcano shape. It’s very close. The floor of the pit is wet and filled with greenery. Looking to my right, I see a sequence of arches giving onto the former beach. I see my two children looking into them far below me. Each arch is full of skeletons, lying in contorted postures. They are the remains of the Romans who were killed instantly by gases at 400 degrees that rushed from the volcano.

31.12.2016 All day the fireworks cracked. At midnight they became apocalyptic. From the terrace we stare out across Naples to Vesuvius across thousands of small fires. A carpet of fireworks is spread evenly across the whole city and beyond. The same tiny fireworks flash irregularly up the lower slopes of Vesuvius until the housing ceases. It’s very much like sitting at night, watching the embers of a dying bonfire when they’ve turned to black. If you stir them, they come to life again in brilliant orange points of light.

Slow red flares and occasionally the spreading puffball of a larger rocket punctuate the constant flickering of cheap fireworks. At midnight, the outline of the collapsed cone is a black silhouette with the small fireworks pouring down its flanks, but ten minutes into the New Year Vesuvius has entirely vanished. The urgent acrid smell of gunpowder burns in my throat. Looking down, I see a black cat streaking under the banked up cars which are jammed higgledy piggledy into the hotel forecourt. A huge bat swoops toward the tower above me on the right as behind me on the terrace a family group sets fire to a whole box of the same cheap fireworks that I see everywhere about. They weakly explode in a snapping gravelly cascade. Their sound mingles with the flow of explosions hammering out over the whole land surrounding me for many miles in every direction. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Nor will I again. It’s curiously democratic. Rather than a municipal display of glory, the fun of setting a flame to a wick is distributed, seemingly, across the entire population.

29.12.2016 We have come to the Etruscan museum to see a golden book; three sheets of incised gold written to Astarte, a Phoenician Goddess, in the sixth century BCE, before the identity ‘Roman’ came into being. One sheet is written in Pheonecian, and refers to the king of Carthage. The other two are written in Etruscan. I have read that the sheets are punched with holes by which they could be joined by strings into book form. However, the sheets are displayed with nails to fix them to a wall, not strings to join them. The holes are around each edge, not only the side to be joined. Not then, properly, a book. Now I am here I don’t mind that it’s not a book. The sheets could work as a book, also they are extremely old—considerably pre-dating the concept of a library. I surreptitiously draw the Bolex from a black cotton bag I am carrying on my shoulder. “Go away and look at something else,” I tell the children. “I am going to film it.” “Are you allowed to do that?” enquires Orla. “Maybe not,” I say, “so buzz off, in case we get into trouble.” They buzz off.

I look at the Phoenician script in gold, and part V of Eliot’s The Wasteland swims about me, with other scraps; “To Carthage then I came, burning.” This in turn provokes the opera I currently love best to play silently in my head, which is Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. This is followed by fragments of the Aeneid, translated by Seamus Heaney. I let this happen to me for a while. I’m not sharing this as some sort of checklist. I sometimes don’t really enjoy it when a cascade like this is knocked into momentum in my mind, because sometimes it’s invasive. I’ve caught myself muttering “Fuck off, TS Eliot!” to myself, which I should not do because it’s eccentric. Today, I like it, though I keep it to myself. “A current under sea picked his bones in whispers as he rose and fell.” The golden text wasn’t found until 1964. That’s after The Wasteland was written. Although there’s no book here, I am glad that the quest for it has brought me to this former Papal Villa; an empty, tranquil space far from the crowds that swarm the Forum.

I stow the camera out of sight, though there’s really nobody to see, and walk through the rooms of ancient shards and figures. Many of them bear text. I learn that objects were given voice by these texts. They speak themselves through the reader, because in ancient times text was always read aloud. In the fourth century Augustine noted his surprise that Ambrose read silently.
Here I discover that italic, of script, simply means italic, as in Italianate. I am delighted by this, but did I know it before? I’m very forgetful which is a disability that nevertheless allows me the enjoyment of learning to be experienced more than once with the same information.

28.12.2016 I didn’t want to take my children with me for most of my journey, because they are deeply distracting. But I didn’t want to shut them out of it entirely. So I am bringing them along to what I assume will be the easiest library sites, as they are the only ones within Europe.

I part with Andy and the children on the Capitol. They walk southwards to the Coliseum at the far end of the Forum, and I turn north to the reason we are here—Trajan’s column.

The column celebrates Trajan’s battle victories over Dacia, now Romania. The story of his victories is detailed in a procession of bas-relief scenes that wind clockwise up the column, from base to tip. The column was once the center of the Ulpian library, also founded in 112 CE by Trajan, who you might remember from my visit on Dec 7th had the splendid temple to himself built on the acropolis at Pergamum in what is now Turkey. Roman libraries had two reading rooms; one for Greek texts, the other for Latin. The two Ulpian library buildings positioned to the East and West of the column used to double as platforms from which the frieze carved onto the column could be read. The libraries were to facilitate reading in a double sense.

I can’t get close to the column, which is tremendously tall and built from stacked drums of white Carrera marble, each hollowed out to create an internal staircase, which spirals up to the statue of Trajan which still surmounts the column. The ground on which the column stands is significantly lower than street level, maybe five meters lower, and it has a generous space around it before walls are raised to form the street-level pavement on which I stand. It’s entirely impossible to read the frieze that spirals up the column. It’s not adjusted to read from ground height and progresses skywards at unvarying scale. I vaguely make out the figures of men and horses, a city wall, a boat, a forest of bossed shields…all progressing up the twisting ribbon like a road.

The sharp winter sun bleaches the bright side of the cylinder and eclipses the dark side. The carving is white and in low relief. I can’t read it. Also, the surrounding trees preoccupy me. They are umbrella pines, very tall and spare, supporting a single cumulous of needles, densely and darkly packed in one single mass at the top of the spindly trunk. They are everywhere, just as in a Samuel Palmer drawing. Rome is a deeply beautiful city; at times expansive as when you cross the Tiber bridges, or walk around the walls of Sant’Angelo fort, at other times wonderfully and eccentrically detailed in its frenzied architectural repurposing. However, I enjoy the trees most.

16.12.2016 When I finish this journey, more people will ask me what Iran was like than any other of my stops along the Silk Road. But I can’t tell you what Iran is really like. Many aspects of the country are confusing and challenging. None of my bank cards work, for example. As a woman I must have my head covered at all times in public, even in the car. I cannot access the BBC website, but I can read The Independent online. I cannot use Facebook nor YouTube, but local people all have apps to get around the official blocks. I cannot drive a motorbike, but I can drive a car. The cars are old, contributing to appalling pollution in the big cites, which disappear under smog mid-morning.

My phone doesn’t pick up any kind of signal other than wifi. I cannot drink alcohol. The portions of traditional food are always too large. I must wear a long coat that reaches half way to my knees at all times in public because I am female. The year starts mid-March, not January. The weekends are on Thursday and Friday. And they start their CE when the prophet Mohammed was 40, about 600 years after our year zero. Finally, the time is +3.5 GMT. I’ve never before been in a half hour country. More than any of the other countries I have visited, the Iranians want you to love their country. They are exceptionally proud of it, and they desire to share its magnificence with you. Women and girls of all ages want to talk to me, and a photograph with me is often requested.

I call room service to ask for a bowl of stew, which proves difficult, even though I speak very slowly. “I am sorry,” says the operator, “I have trouble understanding you. Your English is so different to what I am used to. You do not speak like our usual guests. Where are you from?” I laugh. “I’m English!”

15.12.2016 The former caravanserai in Nishapur houses the local library. It’s in one of the original barrel-shaped brick store rooms. It’s shut, though. The other rooms in this former travellers resting place are filled with craft shops. As we leave Nishapur the ground frost makes the dry brown fields shimmer in the low silvery sunlight. The road is pegged with coloured posters, each different, at two hundred-meter intervals. “Are these election posters?” I ask. “These are martyrs,” Ali replies. “Martyred in the war with Iraq.” “Have these posters been here since 1987?’” I ask. “Of course! They put a new one each year in case it becomes dirty.”

A shepherd is herding a flock of black sheep along a track in the level frosty land. I have not seen anything I think they could eat. The arid fields are polka dotted at regular intervals with white plastic bags that have caught on the spikier dry tufts and sticks. Their balloon forms are lit by the low sun like giant puffball mushrooms. It’s a two-hour drive to Mashad. Plastic bags all the way. We climb to higher ground into freezing fog. In the fog, busloads of workers are leaving the “Iran Car” factory from the night shift. We pass thirty or forty coaches heading back to Mashad in the fog, their curtains drawn, among the power lines and wind turbines.

15.12.2016 The Palace of Happiness and “new Shapur” or Nishapur was founded in the third century and was a key city on the Silk Road, rivaling Damascus in size. It reached the height of its prosperity under the Samanids, in the tenth century. When the husband of Genghis Khan‘s daughter was killed there, in 1221, she ordered the slaughter of the 1.7 million inhabitants. The skulls of men, women, and children were piled in pyramids by the Mongols, and Shadiyakh was destroyed.

I walk along the ruined spine in the dust, following the narrow paths of the motorbike tracks, and feeling absurdly like Mary Poppins in my long black coat and scarf, clutching my heavy leather case. My driver Ali miserably follows me. He emits a cry of alarm when a small motorbike ridden by two boys makes for us, weaving their 125 through the humps and hollows of Shadiyakh. They stare as they pass, but I ignore them, kicking my way through the thorns and stepping over a busy line of black shiny ants carrying husks to and fro.

Reaching the tumulus, I like its formless generosity. Gaping holes have been opened in its sides, possibly in the hope of finding ancient treasures. The bricks of the palace walls are still evident, just as they are in the excavated area I’ve left behind me. Here they have eroded into soft humps. The boys have circled back, and now they join me on the tumulus, revving the bike to climb it and then weaving through the corridor to disappear from sight on the far side of the mound.

I turn as I hear another small motorbike speed over the line of humps, this one bound for somewhere further in the farmland. Now the boys appear above me on the flat top of the mound, causing Ali to shift about uncomfortably. It’s hard to say why, but the boys don’t worry me. One boy comes over to inspect me. I film him. I feel no threat from them at all, and I don’t think I need to acknowledge them. It’s clear that they belong on the mound, and they are part of this desolated landscape. I film a hole disappearing into the clay of the site. It’s so large that I could easily climb into it. Then I film the line of ants climbing, scaled, into a similar hole of their nests. I film dust, and lumps, and shadows. I keep asking Ali to move his shadow out of my line of view. The sun is very low on this midwinter afternoon, so our shadows are etiolated and hard to control. “Can I see what you’ve filmed?” asks Ali. “Not till it’s back in England and been processed in a lab,” I say. He doesn’t understand this, but I don’t explain further.

15.12.2016 In the Tehran Arts University library, on Enghlab Street, I meet Mojgan, the chief librarian. I don’t think I can speak freely with Firouzeh in attendance, so I ask her to wait, though this feels impolite. In Mojgan’s office, hot milk is being served in a motley assortment of cups and glasses. It is provided for all the staff at mid-morning to ward off the effects of air pollution. Mojgan offers me her ration, and I drink it, carefully tipping the cup first, so that the skin will stick to the side and not my lip. Mojgan shows me the reading rooms which have no books shelves, and the stacks. Books here must be ordered from the main desk. This is a pity, because the ordering of library shelves always yields pleasures. As Mojgan walks with me through the stacks I glimpse a short run in the music section: ‘Beethoven, Beethoven, The Bee Gees, Bon Jovi’.
I ask Mojgan if she knows of books hidden or destroyed during the 1979 revolution. No, she says, but many images were deleted. She tells me that there’s a hidden library kept in another part of Tehran that contains all the books of paintings that had to be purged of nudes after the revolution. Images of European old master paintings are currently allowed, but the copies that were defaced in 1979 are kept in case the nudes become once again inadvisable, when they can be switched for the current library copies. Prudery and lechery are very near neighbours, or maybe even twins.
I walk Enghlab Street searching for a second-hand book of poetry by Hafez, since by all accounts he is the greatest Persian poet, though the only one I know well is Omar Khayyám. The bookshops all display posters depicting pomegranates and watermelons, wishing a happy Yalda. At Yalda, on the winter solstice, Iranian families gather at night to read together and to eat watermelon (for Spring), and Pomegranate (for winter), which relates to the Greek myth of Persephone, though they don’t speak of her. They read Persian Classics; whichever story they like best from Shahmeneh, and they use the poems of Hafez to tell their futures.
Firouzeh hands me a copy of Hafez, illustrated in a florid contemporary version of the Persian miniature, as most of them are. She tells me that after making a wish I should open the book at random. In prepared editions, the ‘omen’ (a translation of the poem’s text into an forecast of prediction) is printed at the foot of the page. I hold it and think of my son at home, and that my long journey has made him sad and fragile. I open the book, and Firouzeh translates the omen for me. “The omen is about travel!” she says. “I am far from a loved one, but my efforts will make me more professional, and will improve the future for us all.”

14.12.2016 I have no lost library site to visit in Tehran itself, but since the Persians are such a literary culture, I have come in search of stories of books involved in the politics of the recent and turbulent past of the country.
In a small bazaar by the park I hunt for better modesty clothes. My guide Firouzeh helps me choose a black head scarf. The scarf I brought with me to keep my neck warm on my motorbike has turned out to be too small and slippery to operate properly within the dress codes, and is anyway too pale to fit in with Tehranian fashions, since women here almost universally wear black from head to foot. Next, we hunt for a garment which will cover me from wrist to knee, with a high neck. I thought my winter coat would suffice, but it’s far too hot for indoor use, and I didn’t somehow comprehend that women in Tehran would have to wear a coat all the time, not just outside.
As I walk beside Firouzeh among the stalls in the rain, she receives a call on her mobile. She stops and looks back. I wait. She turns and begins to walk back the way we have come with an anxious flickering gait. It’s a few paces before I recognise that her movements match those of a mother who has lost a child in a public place. “Firouzeh!” I call. She turns and her face is strained but she sees me. “Ouf,” she says, “I thought I lost you.”
This morning, Haleh (a writer whose contact I made through a friend in London), rang Firouzeh and asked to speak to me directly (Firouzeh doesn’t invite this direct speech). She asks if I would like to go to a party in the north of the city. She could pick me up herself, and I could get a taxi home whenever I wanted to. I know this will dismay Firouzeh, and predictably, she is alarmed. “But I am responsible for you!” she says. I ask if she thinks Haleh would take me into bad company. “I cannot tell! I do not know them!” Firouzeh frets. Her agency is also displeased. As a compromise, she says she will take me to the party herself and wait for me outside in the car with the driver. Haleh tells me to dress up. “I can’t, I have only my day clothes,” I say. “Put a bit of lippie on,” says Haleh. Over lunch in a café above the bazaar, two women speak to Firouzeh about me, and ask to be introduced. They tell me I would look much prettier with makeup. They are both in their late-forties and are made up with red lipstick, much mascara and kohl, full foundation, with eyebrows darkly drawn on. I say they would look much prettier without makeup. They laugh uncertainly, and Firouzeh changes the subject.