Next to ever-expanding resorts which have sprung seemingly out of nowhere over the past few years and operate for 8 weeks out of the year, is the spot where the battle of Alamein took place. Yesterday, a memorial took place here on Egypt’s north coast to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle.
The American University in Cairo press published a new book in marking the occasion, focusing on this poorly understood period in Egyptian history. The Second World War does not carry the same significance in Egyptian history as it does to its European counterparts, despite Egyptians being caught right in the middle of it.
The book launch on Thursday was attended by several contributors to the book and was accompanied by a symposium and an exhibition that went on for most of the day. The exhibition provided information on all countries which took part in the battle and emphasised the involvement of different nationalities and by consequence, different narratives, a concept the book’s editor, Jill Edwards, says is crucial to the book.
Edwards is a historian and currently a professor at the American University in Cairo who has published extensively on the Second World War and on Alamein in particular. The idea for this book began, however, with a wish to expand the existing academic debate on the subject, especially with the coming of the battle’s 70th anniversary:
“The symposium for military historians and the book show-casing their work has been in gestation since 2009. Its origins were a shorter book published in 2000. The 70th anniversary in 2012 suggested the possibility of expanding on that in commemoration of the battles which took so many lives. As it happened when I began to look for suitable contributors, there [was] enough interest to justify a second volume with a wider international cast. This was important because both sides fielded ‘imperial’ or ‘colonial’ armies, so there was a wide mix of nationalities gathered in North Africa from 1940-1943,” said Edwards.
“So while much has been written about ‘Alamein’ there was no book until now which drew in historians who could add to existing knowledge from their own national archives. But more importantly at this distance to consider the impact that the war had on the existing imperial relationships and how war contributed to a further loosening of ties”, added Edwards.
Edwards is also conscious of the inevitability of recognising current events that have taken place over the past two years in North Africa and says that the region was once the same focus of attention, 70 years ago, in the midst of WWII:
“As I wrote in my introduction to the present volume, it would have been impossible, certainly over the last couple of years, to be editing a book on Alamein and the struggle for North Africa, and not be conscious of the contemporary struggle going on across North Africa to establish stable democracy, a struggle that continues,” said Edwards.
The book is now available from AUC press and features a nuanced approach to the battle which emphasises different narratives of all parties who were affected by the battle, from the “colonial” armies to the non-combatant natives of Alexandria.