Learning Hierogylphics and Academic Mentors

learning hieroglyphics

I started asking myself the other morning if I could remember when I really felt like I was going to become an academic. I was a precocious child – I was passionate from a young age about reading and learning, about conducting my own research into specialized subjects that interested me. But I found myself thinking just now about when exactly the point of no return might have been.

I am the son of a (now semi-retired) professional academic. When I was growing up, I would often visit my Dad’s office in the English Department at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa. My Dad worked for many decades as a professor there, and the university looms large in the city and my snap-shot memories of it. It is a tall, tan building that looks down somewhat imperiously onto the city from atop a small hill. Pushing up from the folds of land surrounding it, it exudes a quiet constancy. Yet despite its classic monastic-fortress on the hill feel, any firmness it might manage is ultimately lost to Durban’s humid haze, and the city’s trademark red sand has coated the building’s stonework altogether too thoroughly for it to maintain any illusion of celestial stateliness – ruddy-cheeked and dusty, the university’s brand of monasticism is less regal abbot, and more older, disheveled but dignified bachelor – tall, skinny and off to one side, a friend of the hosts at the mixer, pulling nervously at his collar.

I didn’t exactly fall in love with the university and academia when I accompanied my Dad to his office as a pre-teen. To be sure, the unique aroma of coffee, chalk dust, cobwebs and toner was definitely evocative, and I enjoyed going into my Dad’s work-space. Besides books and artwork his office was filled with gewgaws and doodads: a foam brick he would throw at people coming into the room, a hard plastic Bart Simpson doll back from when American pop culture was still a novelty in the S of A, copies of British satirical puppetry magazine Spitting Image, packets of Bagel-plant seeds, lewd plush and wind-up toys, an inflatable birthday cake with little lit plastic candles. There were Far Side cartoons everywhere – again, before such things were a professorial requisite – and a poster on one wall that featured a series of images of an old granny in a rocker who as the sequence unfolded leaned forward to the viewer to reveal a scowl and a middle finger. There was at one time a giant bra as a book-end, and for years my Dad maintained a pet in the office: an unopened can of tuna inside a small plastic fishbowl that was filled with coloured pebbles but without any water, which he routinely reminded his secretary to tend to when he was away. This sort of thing certainly piqued my fancy, but I never got the feeling then from all that that academia was a life I would be living in my own adulthood.

The dusty corridors and carpets of the English department felt too hot and cramped to make my spirit soar. My Dad didn’t actively share much about his academic work or experiences with my sister or me, and growing up I knew him more as a thoroughly down-to-earth and unaffected aerobics instructor TV celebrity (which he was) and less as a highfaluting intellectual. I realize now my course to academia was locked in at a different time.

Like many nerdy kids with a penchant for the weird and exotic, one early fascination of mine was Ancient Egypt. It’s hard not to have this as a fascination really – it’s right up there with dinosaurs as a childhood investment encouraged by teachers and popular media. Around the age of ten or so I’d read Wallis E. Budge’s ‘Egyptian Magic’ and had later convinced my Dad to print out on his work printer, before people had printers at home, a copy of Budge’s entire translation of the rw nw prt m hrw, ‘ The Emerging into Daylight’, the collection of magical texts relating to the post-mortem state popularly and somewhat misleadingly called the Egyptian Book of the Dead. After I watched the first Mummy movie with Brendan Fraser as hero and South African actor Arnold Vosloo as the resurrected sorcerer villain, I started wondering about Ancient Egyptian language. How exactly had the film makers reconstructed or imagined Vosloo’s ancient Egyptian spells uttered in the film? Budge’s small book on Egyptian magic was underwhelming. I looked in the library for books on reading hieroglyphics, but the best I could find was silly primers that amounted to a history lesson followed by learning how to write your name for tattoos in Egyptian. I knew about the Rosetta Stone and that some people knew how to read hieroglyphics – if I was going to read about and understand Egyptian religion and magic, I was going to have to understand Egyptian language. But who could teach me?

When I was about twelve I sent an email (also a novelty) to a senior professor of Middle Egyptian linguistics at the University of Toronto, telling him how dissatisfied I was with the books on hieroglyphics in the municipal library in Durban. Rather than send me the electronic equivalent of a hair-ruffle and a ‘you’re cute kid’ this professor took my interest and desire to actually read papyri and ancient Egyptian spells seriously. Without me asking, he mailed me at his own cost the fat undergraduate reader used at his university for teaching Middle Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was one of the most wonderful gifts anybody has ever given me.

I never did master hieroglyphics. Still, I would carry that thick ring-bound textbook with the professor’s hand-written dedication along with me when I went with my Dad on our regular trips to various public swimming pools and the beach. I would pore over it furiously, parse Ancient Egyptian sentences as bees buzzed around the dripping Frooti-Flo or Calypso lolly I held in my pencil-free hand (those are like Otter Pops for American readers). I realized this morning that the Canadian professor’s gift was one key object that made my scholarly spirit soar, made me feel like through my mind and wherewithal alone I could range across time, illuminate my awareness and study anything that I felt mattered. The smell of sunblock-streaked sweat, chlorine and frozen orange flavour still conjures up images of vast stone monuments and temple priests, still opens up my mind to vastness to this day.

I was then, and am still, too mercurial to have stayed put with hieroglyphics and to have not moved on to other projects. Part of me is sad I didn’t learn more hieroglyphics. But another part of me is glad in any case to realize that that Canadian professor set an early example for me of academic encouragement, collegiality and sharing across generational and geographic boundaries. Although I was probably tending in that direction already, and although I never met him, it may well have been his amazing textbook which set me on my path towards professional academia, and for that I’m profoundly grateful.

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