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A Legacy of Dialog: Alexandria Library “Brought Back to Life”

February 15, 2010

Bibliotheka Alexandrina is a space that is at once expansive and embracing. From the outside, the structure housing the library’s cavernous reading room – the largest reading room in the world, according to our tour guide – slices into the Mediterranean sky like a glass full moon lodged halfway between earth and heavens. Inside, tall pillars brace the enormous sloping roof with its eye-shaped, lidded windows that soften and make sense of the light.

The building invites reflection and collocation. Built in the memory and tradition of the ancient Alexandria library, it is, in itself, a promise that the city can once again claim its inheritance of cross-cultural exchange and dialog – a process of dynamic and transformative information-sharing that Ambassador Hagar Islambouly, Head of the External Relations Sector at the library, calls “cross-fertilization”. It is a process of generation, production, and dissemination of knowledge. Islambouly envisions a space that will host guests from all over the world, promote understanding of the “other”, and help heal what she calls a “serious rift between the Western World and the Muslim World.”

In this tradition, the library is a fitting place for a conference on “Freedom of Expression in the Digital Age,” and it comes at the perfect time. As the Director of the Anna Lindh Foundation, Andreu Claret, said, “2009 has not been a good year for perceptions.” Claret, a journalist who headed the Central America bureau of the Spanish News Agency between 1987 and 1991, cites two main causes: the Gaza War and the economic crisis. Among other things, media coverage of both has exacerbated what he calls “a polarization of narratives.”  The foundation, a Euro-Mediterranean civil society organization headquartered in the Alexandria Library, made several fascinating, albeit unsettling, findings….

In a study of perceptions on the Mediterranean’s Northern and Southeastern shores, the Anna Lindh Foundation found that 66 percent of people polled on the Mediterranean’s Southestern shore could not recall any media that changed their perception of Europe in a positive way. Furthermore, 79 percent of Europeans polled could not name a media source that changed their perception of the Muslim South in a positive way.

With such a dramatic divide in perceptions, many suggest more support for media freedom and work to build the capacity of journalists to report across cultures. These are both goals shared by the Anna Lindh Foundation, in alliance with collaborating organizations such as the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. “Freedom is a prerequisite for reporting across cultures,” Claret said on Monday at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. “Without it, it’s reporting across barriers.”

Claret said he believes in the need to increase the capacity of journalists to report across cultures, which begins with gaining knowledge of the other; of complexity. “Without knowledge, there is no way to report across cultures.” That search for knowledge also involves the difficult exercise of confronting one’s own, personal tensions…tensions Claret said should be faced with humility. Claret offered a quotation from the British author Lawrence Durrell’s tetralogy of novels, The Alexandria Quartet:

  • ‘There is no other. There is only oneself facing forever the problem of oneself’s discovery.’

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