ALEXANDRIA—Hoda Elmikaty knows more about the Bibliotheca Alexandrina than most. As an electrical engineer she started working on its complex of cables and wires during construction.
She has since put her engineering expertise to one side and has risen through the library’s ranks to become the head of its cultural outreach center, where she seeks to make good on the library’s promise to fill the shoes of its historical counterpart.
Alexander the Great, who gave the metropolis his name, founded the coastal town in 331 BC. The fabled library of Alexandria was one of the most venerable learning and teaching institutions of the classical era. As a hub of education, its reach stretched beyond the shores of Egypt’s Mediterranean—texts and scripts would travel long distances to the library on ships entering the city’s port. Yet it tragically perished in a fire along with its scrolls and their collective insight.
In a bid to correct Alexandria’s lost antiquity, a gleaming new library was built in 2002 with the stated aspiration of reclaiming the mantle of its ancient namesake.
In truth it’s more than a library. It’s a place of research and education, a museum and an exhibition center rolled into one. The complex is housed in a thoroughly modern discus-shaped building made up of engraved granite from Egypt’s south.
From her office, Elmikaty has access to a terrace with a view of the Corniche seafront and, across the water, Alexandria’s citadel, which is thought to be built from the rubble of the fabled and now-lost lighthouse.
Elmikaty has tried to make the institution’s influence felt outside of Egypt by creating collaborative networks with similar African and Arab research centers.
She saw that most research centers in other parts of the world had formed associations amongst themselves to inform each other of what they are doing and to collaborate where possible. The United States has an Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) and Europe has ECSITE, a consortium of science centers, museums and other organizations. But when it came to Africa and the Middle East, there was nothing.
In her role at the library, she has coordinated the first Arab planetarium film production, created a hands-on science museum where visitors are encouraged to touch and interact with the exhibits, and helped organize themed science fairs. The latest fair’s motif was “Earth, Wind and Fire.” But she says one of the most interesting subjects was “Garbage from the Sea,” where they tried to educate school children about the effects of rubbish in the ocean, a problem that’s clearly evident along Alexandria’s seafront.
Her resolute enthusiasm causes her to often interrupt in a conversation, but it’s easily forgiven—not bothersome—because it doesn’t seem to come from a place of arrogance.
Nevertheless, it inevitably annoys some people, “I’m passionate, but I can be dismissive,” she says, “People don’t like that—so I’m working on it.”
Elmikaty is a self-confessed jack-of-all-trades. She graduated from Alexandria University with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering before heading to the University of Liverpool in England where she got her master’s degree in computational mathematics.
She returned to Egypt, where she worked with the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, which had just been given an old simulator by Japan that taught would-be captains how to helm a tanker ship.
But the simulator was antique—the computing was still done by 1970s-style punch cards and readers. Elmikaty and her team set about modernizing it. She rebuilt the computing interface and brought the simulator to a usable state. “After that success, the minister of the academy asked us to build a train simulator,” she says, “We had to build that from scratch though.”
That involved filming whole train tracks with a camera mounted to ensure there were no vibrations on the footage. The project took a total of three years.
Up to that point, Elmikaty had always wanted to focus purely on her career. “I don’t know what happened, but I decided I wanted to have kids,” she says. When she became pregnant with the first of her two sons, she handed in her notice. “I remember my boss asking if my husband was forcing me to quit,” she laughs.
In truth, she is the kind of woman who likes to concentrate on one thing at a time. “My tunnel vision was focused on my kids at that point,” she explains.
Elmikaty’s will power is something that her colleague, head of the library’s research sector, Azza Elkholy admires.
“I find her a fascinating woman,” says Elkholy. “She always struck me as a woman with purpose, she always knew what she wanted and did it.”
After eight years at home with the children, Elmikaty became restless. “I was either going to drive my kids or myself crazy, so I started looking for a job,” she says. It wasn’t easy to explain the gap in her CV, and she repeatedly struck out.
But there was something about the library that interested her despite being disheartened by a lack of success in applying for jobs elsewhere. “I was captivated with this idea of a new library of Alexandria being rebuilt—there’s something special about it.”
The library first took her on as a construction monitor. “For the first few weeks it felt like I didn’t sleep, I had so much to catch up on,” she says. “I had to study schematics to understand the electrical cable systems.”
Elmikaty took a keen interest in the installation of the library’s planetarium. Some U.S. experts helped her set up the projection, lighting and sound systems. “When the Americans left, we realized I was one of the only people who knew how it worked,” she says.
When the planetarium finally began operating, all the educational films were purchased from abroad. “I told them it was getting too expensive,” says Elmikaty. So she set about producing the library’s own films.
Taking on new projects makes Elmikaty a busy person, which can mean she doesn’t always have time for other things that aren’t in the field of her tunnel vision. “She can be so concerned with getting things done that she’s always racing. She could take more time to digest things,” says Elkholy.
Last year was the first time an entirely homegrown production was screened in the library. “We are the only producer of planetarium films in Africa and the Middle East,” says Elmikaty.
Elkholy says that Elmikaty’s story shows it’s not always harmful for a woman’s career to take a few years out to have children—she demonstrated that a career can be restarted. “It’s a challenge and a question that most women around the world face,” says Elkholy, “She did both.”