• Reports
  • August 28, 2008
  • 5 minutes read

Ballad of the Old Cafés

Ballad of the Old Cafés

For centuries, the academic center of the world lay in the Fertile Crescent, stretching from Egypt to Iraq. Institutions like Baghdad“s Dar al-Hikma (a vast academic center that thrived from the ninth to the 13th centuries) and the Great Library of Alexandria produced innovations including key astronomical discoveries and the foundation of modern algebra.

Even in modern times, the relatively liberal and cosmopolitan natures of Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad made them magnets for intelligentsia. Coffee shops buzzed with debate and printing presses churned out revolutionary tracts. Schools like the American universities in Cairo and Beirut helped educate some of the area”s top politicians and intellectuals, while others spawned proud anticolonial movements.

In recent years, however, war, unrest and economic malaise have caused a sharp decline in these centers, while the tiny Gulf emirates have begun using their vast oil riches to establish themselves. Western universities have started moving in, helping the new academic stars battle the old capitals for dominance.

Those old capitals are in real trouble. In 2004, Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, regional director of the U.N. Development Program, characterized traditional Arab universities as “buried in dust or smothered by ideologies.” A UNDP report that year lamented that advanced research there was “almost nonexistent.” Since then, the slump has only accelerated.

The war in Iraq has destroyed most remnants of academic life there. Lebanon”s civil war has fractured its universities along sectarian lines and threatened learning. And Egypt”s exploding population has overwhelmed its academies; Cairo University”s student body, for example, has grown almost 50 times since the 1950s. The increasingly authoritarian government has also clamped down on free speech and academic autonomy.

All that has led to a massive exodus of intellectual capital. The U.N. estimates that in the past 30 years, 23 percent of Arab engineers and 50 percent of doctors have emigrated. According to UNESCO, the Arab world loses 10,000 Ph.D.s annually, a per capita rate four times greater than China”s. This flight promises to wreak havoc beyond the ivory tower. The International Organization for Migration estimates Arab brain drain costs the region $1.5 billion each year in lost revenues.