Father Emmanuel Pisani’s intensity and rapid-fire conversation belie his life’s vocation and the lofty goals he pursues.
The 50-year-old French monk is the director of Cairo’s Dominican Institute of Oriental Studies, a prominent academic centre whose genesis lies in a tiny monastery established by three Dominican brothers from Jerusalem more than a century ago.
It is now a global magnet for scholars of Islam and Arab civilisation and, more importantly to Father Emmanuel, it acts as a bridge between Christianity and Islam.
The holder of a doctorate in medieval Islamic philosophy and a fluent Arabic speaker, Father Emmanuel says his leadership of the institute is more than a job or even a calling — it is everything.
It is not easy, but it’s our hope, my calling and my mission in life. It’s what gives my life a meaning
Father Emmanuel Pisani, director, Dominican Institute of Oriental Studies, Cairo
“It is not easy, but it’s our hope, my calling and my mission in life. It’s what gives my life a meaning,” he told The National during a tour of the institute’s library of more than 180,000 volumes, which has one of the Middle East’s largest collections of Islamic heritage books in Arabic.
“I have no spouse or children. So, if I have no calling or a sense of purpose, then my life will be difficult. What I try to do is what gives sense to my life.”
When founded in the late 19th century, the monastery was located in the desolate desert on the eastern side of the Egyptian capital. The focus of the founding monks and their successors was the in-depth study of Egypt’s history to enable them to better understand the Bible from a historical perspective.
They also immersed themselves in theology and the interpretation of the Quran at a time when Egypt was witnessing a renaissance in Islamic thought led by scholars such as Mohammed Abdou and Rasheed Reda.
Inside the Cairo library built by Christian monks to study Islamic heritage
The monastery has not changed its location — although it became a research institute in 1953 — but the area around it has morphed beyond recognition.
The cemetery on whose edge it once sat has been rolled back to make way for a motorway. The barren desert that once surrounded it has become a busy but drab district of government, police and military buildings that becomes eerily deserted after sundown.
Visitors to the institute, however, only have to take a few steps after passing through its metal street door to be rid of the dreariness of its surroundings and savour the place’s isolation.