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Anniversaries are for taking stock, of both the past and the present. As we enter a year of important centenaries in recent world history, above all for Europeans but for many others too, it was good to begin by the event we held on Sunday 9 March with the Children’s Centre for Civilisation and Creativity, formerly known as the Children’s Museum in Heliopolis, Cairo. We were commemorating the pioneering flight made by the British aviator, Frank McClean, and his small team, from Alexandria to Khartoum between January and March 1914, using a first design of float-plane – a plane that lands on water – seating four people. It was the first international flight from Egypt. It faced huge technical and organisational challenges. It was part of the early aviation activity which from 1910 had made Egypt one of the focal points on the world map for the new art of flying. From those beginnings came Egypt’s own national aviation history, and to this day it is a thrilling experience to fly along the Nile to Luxor or Aswan, noting the narrow strip of blue and green looping through the dusty yellow of the arid deserts. You cannot fail to reflect on the extraordinarily rich Pharaonic culture that was nourished over thousands of years by the Nile waters. And those waters, in 1914, were being splashed down onto, at regular intervals (the plane had a maximum range of 180 miles/x kilometers) by this ungainly, fragile-looking machine that was emblematic of the new modern age.
At our commemoration on Sunday we had present descendants of both McLean and of his chief mechanic, Gus Smith, who had come to Cairo to mark this event in their family histories. And we were celebrating too the British link with the wonderful Children’s Centre for Civilisation and Creativity, which was redesigned in recent years by a British architect deeply knowledgeable about Egyptian history over its seven thousand years. The museum and its park were full of excited children, Egyptian and foreign. We looked at some of the 400 photos taken during the flight, and a replica of the plane.
Talking to some young Egyptians during the event, I found they were imaginatively engaged with its possible meanings. I have always admired Egyptians for being keenly interested in their history, and they approach it factually, not inclined as some others do to fabricate myths. What lessons could be drawn for Egypt today, as it finds a way forward from the political turmoil of the past three years? There are a thousand possible answers to that. A few that I would offer are these.
First, that set-backs are short. The First World War caused untold havoc and for a while delayed the peaceful application of the experiments that people like McClean were making – technology in the service of communications and development. But, when it ended, those positive changes resumed and led towards better lives for entire peoples.
Second, that today’s technology is no less revolutionary, no less capable of transforming lives, than the technology of a century ago. I was at a celebration by Vodafone Egypt the other day of their highly successful female literacy and entrepreneurship programme, Connected Women, in partnership with Life-Makers, using simple and effective mobile phone technology.
And third, falling into the trap of violence is something that all societies should exert every effort to escape from. The First World War (and still worse the Second World War) destroyed large parts of Europe’s prosperity and civilisation. The conflicts raging today across parts of the Middle East are no less destructive and terrible. They are hard to stop but not inevitable. Egypt’s deep traditions of civilised and peaceful living, and willingness to embrace the future, are probably part of the solution.