Freedom, Madness and the Deserts of Egypt
Richard Byford

     One of the greatest privileges enjoyed by an academic must be that of taking a sabbatical, and I thank all of you who made that possible for me. Sabbaticals conjure up images of freedom, on full pay, where one can keep the hours one pleases; and on the merest of whims one can arise from the keyboard and step outside free to roam the streets or stop off in the bars to re-inspire that temporarily jaded muse. It’s not really like that -- although I along with one or two of my colleagues did joke about me in my garret, far from the madding crowds, alone with my muse. The muses in my case, it must be stated, were two very young kittens whom I had the good fortune to watch grow up when I was not huddled over my keyboard; and with a pot of coffee percolating away every morning and a good selection of classical music playing away in the background I was comfortable enough.

     A sabbatical however, is hard work strangely enough, for all of you full of envy -- it is not without its pitfalls. For a start, if you're not careful, one can become assailed by those demons that lurk in the back of the mind. I discovered that when alone for long periods of time, many of the slights, insults, grudges, hurts and evils that I have experienced in my lifetime came bubbling up to the surface and I would spend anxious moments, hours even trying to work out the why and the who of many of the problems that I have suffered, trying to make some kind of narrative sense out of it all. This is dangerous as one becomes mentally paralyzed wandering through the house perhaps with coffee in hand sometimes actually talking to one self, and multiple identities begin to emerge, the interrogator, the detective, the bemused puzzled victim etc. This is a threat that one has to guard against; but maybe it is precisely this sewage which emerges from the depths of the psyche that is actually the raw material and the motive force of writing, providing one can discipline oneself. Herein then is the key. Does one actually have the psychological strength and the self-discipline to function on one’s own? Surprisingly, the answer was yes especially when it was a case of becoming engrossed in the reading of the texts of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, particularly when I was in a position to apply my knowledge of hieroglyphs that I had been studying over the last few years. It is though the writing itself, the writing process which helps one out, indeed keeps one out of the hells to which one can consign oneself. Once I started writing I usually couldn’t stop; sentences would appear in front of me in bewildering rapidity; and after I had revised the grammar and developed my ideas further, it was exciting to see in front of me the kind of text that I am more used to seeing when I am reading.

     I have not told you yet, but I was writing a series of travel essays about the desert. Each essay was to be concerned with a period of the desert’s history, and part of the research involved visiting the places, many of which I was already familiar, that I was going to write about. Such places included the oases of the Western Desert, the wadis of the Eastern, the religious and pharaonic centres of the Sinai, and most particularly the massif and mountain fastness respectively of the Gilf Kebir and Gebel Uweinat situated across the sand dunes far to Egypt’s south-western frontier.

     The shape of my project however, began to change especially when I realized that I had completed so much research upon both the pharaonic and Graeco-Roman periods, and that there was so much to write about to the extent that rather than perhaps 30 pages apiece, these two supposedly short essays had blossomed into a full 200 pages. Obviously, this taught me much about the writing process. Within the pharaonic period for example, I had included the quarrying expeditions, the realm of the dead, the horizons, the battles of the gods, the rising and setting sun god to name but a few, and although all these elements neatly dovetailed into each other, as indeed they should have done, an essay really should have focused on just one of these aspects. I was afraid though, when I had first started my reading, that I wouldn’t have enough depth if I didn’t research properly and as a result I was determined to find just about every relevant source I could lay my hands upon. I also discovered that despite the seeming paucity of sources produced by the Greeks, and far too often too many modern writers seem to rely upon just Herodotus, there is in actual fact, much written in the mythologies, the pseudo-histories and the early geographies that help to turn the desert into a rather enchanted region. With all this information I just had to continue with my explorations, and when AUC Press informed me that an average book length is about 100,000 words, I discovered that with my two sections, I had exactly that amount; a book had suddenly appeared in my hands. Celebration of course turns to trepidation when one starts worrying whether or not it is any good.

     I learned much more however. This is the longest piece of writing that I have ever attempted, and I think one’s perspective of what it means to write changes in the senses that one develops a far greater idea of the amount of knowledge one possesses, or doesn’t possess as the case may be; one has a greater idea of how that information can be organized, and indeed when one returns to the smaller pieces, a twenty or thirty page essay, article or lecture paper becomes far less daunting. As a result of that, I now know that I can produce a second volume that essentially covers the original ideas of my project, but I know enough now to be able to be focus on an aspect of a particular historical period, rather than the historical period in its entirety, which is what I was really doing before. I also feel that I can now advise others who wish to embark for the first time on lengthy pieces, now that I have a far greater insight into the writing processes.

     It is true that we already possess a travel writing course which is also of course, a very good one. I too, can now create such a course if necessary, and if I were to produce one, it would have a very different focus. What such writing that I have been doing however, has made me question what exactly does make a text a piece of travel writing. Does a travel writer have to wander his given territory or can he stay in his armchair? Is an account of a military campaign to be regarded as an example of travel writing? If a guidebook is travel writing, what about an academically focused book upon say the religion of pharaonic Egypt? Is anything one writes about outside of one’s own country travel writing? Some novels particularly need a sense of place, of foreignness, and one only has to think about the novels of EM Forster for example, but are these types of travel writing? Jane Austen has her characters go to Bath and Brighton; do we teach this as travel, or are we entering the regions of the absurd?

     There is of course so much more to say and many more issues to explore. I can only say at the moment that whether or not my work can claim to be good in any way, at least I can show a finished product, the fruits of my madness but a coherent product, one which enabled me to explore the writing processes in far greater depth; and if the knowledge I have gained can help my students further explore and appreciate this marvelous country in which they live then at least I would have achieved something worthwhile.

The author is a Senior Instructor in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition.