Letters from Cairo relates the experience of two American academics, Franz Dolp (1936-2004) and Roberta M. Dolp (1938-), a young couple who spent two and a half years as researchers in Cairo in the mid-1960s. The letters begin with their move from Northern California – where they had recently completed their Ph.D.s at the University of California, Berkeley – to Cairo in August 1964 and conclude in December of 1966, before they returned to the United States. Roberta is the primary author of over 134 letters during this period – with intermittent contributions by Franz to his own parents. The collection is evenly divided between letters addressed to Roberta’s parents, Josephine and Robert Morrison, in upstate New York (Rochester) and Franz’s parents, Hermine and Frank Dolp, in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, Washington).

As a labor economist, Franz had been invited as part of a multidisciplinary team at the Social Research Center at American University in Cairo (AUC) to study the impact of the High Dam construction on the town of Aswan. Nasser’s increasing political control within the United Arab Republic and move toward anti-colonial nationalization had tightened the reins on public critique and, as the letters reveal, US-led academic research was also under suspicion. From the beginning, Franz encountered significant resistance by Aswan officials toward his requests for access. By December of 1964, Roberta writes that the Dam project is “off” and from that point on Franz shifts his attention to other industries. A biochemist by training, Roberta taught undergraduate biology and physiology at AUC, which was in the process of building its science program and constructing new science facilities. After the first year, she moved to the lab of zoologist Harry Hoogstraal at the Navy Medical Research Unit No. 3 (NAMRU). Hoogstraal’s research was broadly ecological in focus and he hired Roberta to conduct specific biochemical analysis of the fluids of various tick species. In a second study at the Hoogstraal lab, Roberta was co-researcher on a study of migratory plovers.

In addition to its account of personal discovery, Letters from Cairo illustrates two facets of American interests in Egypt in the mid-1960s; one was industrial, wedged between Russian and American power, and the other was scientific, in support of US military presence in Africa. Although their authors were so far from home, the letters also rehearse the political debates that occurred between a radicalized American post-war generation and their parents during the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater campaign.


Editorial notes

Letters from Cairo is organized chronologically, by date of authorship rather than postdate. Letters without clear dates are positioned to best support the flow of the narrative. Undated photographs are paired with specific mentions when possible, but more often are placed generally to enhance the story. Secondary materials such as maps and visual references to books and periodicals, were added later during the editorial process.

Two things are helpful to bear in mind: first, there are most certainly letters that were lost. Second, the original collection contains two types of redundancies, which this volume trims for the sake of readability. In several instances, there are consecutive letters (usually containing financial or legal matters) to Franz’s parents with duplicate information, most surely a result of Roberta’s efforts to ensure that information passed through the Egyptian censors. Another type of repetition appears during periods of travel – during their trip to Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Greece in the summer of 1965, and across North Africa in the summer of 1966 – when Roberta wrote a single letter with a carbon duplicate, sending the original to one set of parents and the carbon copy to the other set. To streamline this volume, only one letter from each duplicate (or near-duplicate) pair is included. From this group, about half the letters are addressed to Seattle, and the others to Rochester.



Thanks are due to Charlene Parkin, Alejandro Villada, and Shannon Bodie for their technical expertise and tenacity, as well as Alethea Wilhelm for her research regarding secondary materials. The project also benefited enormously from the expertise of Peter Magierski, Librarian in Middle East & Islamic Studies at Columbia University, as well as Leïla Ben Kilani on matters of translation.

On a personal note, I am immensely grateful for the omnipresent ‘Cairo’ of my American childhood: the stories of Abbas, the comforting taste of curry and grape leaves, the centrality of a large brass tray that glowed from frequent use, and the intense, unfathomable beauty of the artwork on our walls. I am indebted to my grandparents, who safeguarded their personal records. Finally, the lion share of thanks is due to my mother Roberta (“Bobbie”), who kept such assiduous records of their experiences and, after five and a half decades, so generously agreed to share them.

Laura Dolp

New York City, 2019



Dolp, Roberta, and Franz Dolp. Letters from Cairo, ed. Laura Dolp. New York, NY: Stenen Press, 2019.