Remembering John Rodenbeck (1936–2020)
It was with great sadness that AUC Press learned of the death of John Rodenbeck. The former AUC Press director passed away peacefully at his home in the South of France on July 31.
In a 2002 interview for Al-Ahram Weekly Rodenbeck would say that it was curiosity that had first brought him to Egypt. “We really came to see what things were like,” the magna cum laude Harvard graduate told the paper. He and his wife Elizabeth—Buffy as she was known to many in Cairo—ended up spending nearly thirty years in Egypt. “I’ve never had a boring day in Egypt, not ever.” (“John Rodenbeck: Spiriting Quietly,” interview with Jenny Jobbins, Al-Ahram Weekly, June 6, 2002)
He joined the American University in Cairo in 1964 as a faculty member in the English and Comparative Literature Department. “Friends who were taught by him at AUC adored him,” said Nadia Naqib, AUC Press senior commissioning editor. “He was a legendary English professor by all accounts.”
A decade later, from 1974 to 1983, Rodenbeck served as the director of AUC Press. In a rich oral history interview conducted with him in 2006 by archivist Stephen Urgola for the AUC’s Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC) Library, Rodenbeck described his efforts to prevent the actual closure of AUC Press. “What many people had in mind was axing the Press forever . . . my job in fact was to try to find a way to hold on to the Press, I thought that was worth doing.” He was also instrumental in setting up AUC Press’s initial publishing program, focusing primarily on Egypt and books with “commercial possibilities,” such as Lesley Lababidi’s Practical Guide to Cairo, and overcoming the various technical printing challenges AUC Press faced in those days.
“It was John, as director of the Press in 1982, who commissioned me to write The Fayoum: History and Guide, which was my first introduction to AUC Press,” said author, translator, and former AUC Press associate director, editorial, Neil Hewison. “John was always a larger-than-life figure. When he starred (alongside Cassandra Vivian) as King Henry in a Maadi Players production of The Lion in Winter, some time in the 1980s, he told me he’d missed his vocation. ‘As an actor?’ I asked. ‘No—king!’ he replied with relish.”
“The program of publishing translations had been started by John Rodenbeck back in the ‘70s,” said Hewison, in an oral history interview with AUC’s Library. “He had decided it was an important job to do, and I remember looking back in the files one day and finding a letter that John had written, I forget to whom, explaining how important he thought it was to publish translations of [Naguib] Mahfouz especially, because he said, ‘One day this man is going to get the Nobel Prize.’ And he said this about 10 years before Mahfouz got the Nobel Prize. So he was very farsighted in that respect.”
Over the years Rodenbeck and his wife lived in Cairo’s Maadi neighborhood. “At that time Cairo was a city of two and a half million people and you could easily drive from Maadi into town in 12 minutes,” said Rodenbeck in the 2006 interview. The couple, who clearly left a lasting impression on many Cairo old timers, was known for their great parties. “John and Buffy were always party animals, ceaselessly entertaining or being entertained. Buffy or John, more often than not both in the doorway together, would greet guests with a welcome that made everyone who stepped over the threshold feel that they were what the evening or—more often as the years went by—lunch was all about,” wrote Jenny Jobbins in her 2002 profile.
Himself an author, Rodenbeck wrote Reading Egypt: Literature, History and Culture: 40 Years of Publishing at the American University in Cairo Press (AUC Press, 2000) and Insight Guide Cairo (AUC Press, 1998). He also edited Nubia: Sketches, Notes, and Photographs (AUC Press, 2004).
John Rodenbeck is survived by his three children Judith, Max, and Christina. AUC Press extends its condolences to his family at this difficult time.
Extracts from AUC’s RBSP Library’s Oral Histories
Neil Hewison, former AUC Press associate director, editorial:
[Mentioning at the time Hewison started in 1980s] “But basically all we had was the nine Mahfouz novels. And this had been started, the program of publishing translations had been started by John Rodenbeck back in the ’70s. He had decided it was an important job to do, and I remember looking back in the files one day and finding a letter that John had written, I forget to whom, explaining how important he thought it was to publish translations of Mahfouz especially, because he said ‘One day this man is going to get the Nobel Prize.’ And he said this about ten years before Mahfouz got the Nobel Prize. So he was very farsighted in that respect. So he started the program.”
Amina El-Lozy (ECLT BA and MA, ELI instructor, mother of Mahmoud El-Lozy):
“He [Rodenbeck] used to not just talk to you about, for instance, a certain author. No, he’d give you the feel of the era and act it out and walk out of the room and come in again with a flourish…So he was very, really, wonderful.”
Laurence Moftah, ECLT MA, librarian:
“I went to the English Department and then I started studying, you know, you know with Doris Shoukri, it wasn’t an easy business at all, she was very tough. We had very tough teachers too. I wrote my thesis with John Rodenbeck. It was really something great pleasure because he didn’t accept everybody, [laughs] he himself was a great scholar. . . But I enjoyed Cynthia, impatience and everything you can say, with this great intelligence and also Ferial Ghazoul and other teachers, teachers, social professors at the English Department, of course and my beloved John Rodenbeck, I just adored him.”
Mark Linz, former AUC Press director:
[Mentions early Press Director Mason Rossiter Smith] “He was succeeded for a long period by another AUC faculty member, John Rodenbeck, who had editorial interests and indeed published some interesting books.”
Leslie Croxford, ECLT professor (1980s):
“Yeah, I’ll say something about AUC which is my best work experience was actually at AUC, and I think that’s largely due to the interaction with Doris. It’s also due to some excellent colleagues I had at the time like John Rodenbeck.”
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