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.


Thanks are due to Charlene Parkin, Alejandro Villada, Shannon Bodie, and Heather Cox for their technical and visual expertise, as well as Alethea Wilhelm for research regarding secondary materials. The project also benefited enormously from the expertise of Peter Magierski, Librarian in Middle East & Islamic Studies at Columbia University, the astute reading of Sharad Chaudary, 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, 2020


Dolp, Roberta, and Franz Dolp. Letters from Cairo, ed. Laura Dolp. New York, NY: Stenen Press, 2020.