Archive for September, 2009

Down to Brass Tacks

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The last few days have spun by in a hurry. Last Friday (Yawm al-Jum`a in Arabic) is the Muslim Sabbath and in Egypt that means what Sunday meant in the US until about fifty years ago or so: everything closes down and the big mosques are where people go to hear the weekly “khutba” or sermon from the imam. A lot of people treat the day as a Saturday, of course, and just hang out at home. The stores are generally closed and traffic is very light. I stayed in and puttered.

Certain aspects of life seem to go one, however, because one of the student Fulbrighters, a recent graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, called to tell me he had arrived in Alexandria where he’ll be studying Arabic for the next few months. We had met up in Cairo during the orientation in Cairo two weeks ago, and we had agreed that we would get in touch once he got to Alexandria. Friday evening Wendell called and suggested going out to dinner. I accepted his invitation and occupied myself until our appointed meeting time. Wendell was busy negotiating the lease of an apartment when be called, so at least real estate business continues on Fridays. Unfortunately, his dealings took longer than expected, so he had to cancel at the last minute. We decided to try again on Saturday evening.

At the time we had agreed upon, we met in Wendell’s part of Alexandria, a section called Shatby, which is south of the Alexandrian Library. My taxi driver had the devil’s time finding the restaurant Wendell had chosen and when he finally found it and I found Wendell, we discovered that the restaurant was closed. Not to be deterred, we hailed another cab and set about trying to find our back up eatery, a place called the Portuguese Club. By this time (7 PM), it was beginning to get dark and I was totally disoriented. We were in a part of the city I hadn’t seen before and the cab driver knew only generally where the restaurant might be. Cabbies seem to know only the main thoroughfares; there are so many little side streets and so few street signs that even the locals get lost when they find themselves outside of their neighborhoods. Or so it seems.

We drove to the general area and asked someone on the street where this place was. The young woman the cabbie spoke to knew it and gave the driver directions. We found ourselves on a particularly dimly lit street and were unable to see anything that looked like a restaurant, but we got out, paid the driver, and started looking on foot. We ended up asking another pedestrian who said, “The Portuguese Club? Sure! It’s one street over, half a block down on the left.” Off we went and saw nothing but dark. Undaunted, I asked still another person who pointed to a big wooden gate with a 20 watt bulb hanging over it. “Right there,” he said. Okay. We went up and rang the bell next to the gate, which was opened by the watchman. He asked for identification and we showed our passports. Wendell was asked to give his name verbally.

We paid a ten pound per person cover charge and walked into a very pleasant garden setting with an outdoor bar and lots of upholstered wicker chairs and curved benches. People were drinking, kids were running about and a few guys at the bar were watching a soccer match. There were water pipes being smoked by both men (and women!) and the person in charge of those was busy keeping the embers glowing for them. We sat down and ordered drinks—we had to buy a bar card that entitled us to a certain number of credits with which we could purchase alcoholic beverages: another hidden charge… We ordered food and enjoyed a very pleasant meal and conversation. It was interesting to listen to Wendell’s account of his college years and I had a better understanding, when he finished, of what it takes to be selected as a Fulbright student.

We paid our bill and strolled out into the evening. At the first main street, we said goodnight and went to find cabs to take us back home. The street was busy and there were a lot of people waiting for transport so I had to wait a bit. After about ten minutes, I managed to snag a vacant cab, gave the driver my address and we set off. I was intrigued to see that this part of Alexandria was much more commercial and apparently much more upscale than my area. The streets and the sidewalks were wider and cleaner than those in my area and there were numerous international stores to be seen: Guess; Starbucks and the like. Lots of car showrooms, too. The ride back home was much shorter than the ride out and I was pleased to realize that I recognized my street and could tell the driver where to drop me. I obviously have to start exploring the city more…

The next day, Sunday, was my first day of actual “work” at the library. I was scheduled to show up for an eleven AM meeting with the librarians so that I could be introduced to them and so they could begin the process of deciding what they wanted to do with me and when. Dr. al-Wastawy, the library director introduced me and explained why I was there. I was asked to say a few words (all the librarians are required to know English so that was the language I used) and after apologizing for the fact that my Arabic was insufficient to address them in their language, I thanked them for their invitation and told them that I hoped that we could work together to find solutions to some of the problems they faced in their work. Once I had done this, Dr. al-Wastawy’s assistant, Hend, began to read a handful of e-mail replies she had received from various librarians asking me to work on specific problems or to undertake specific tasks. This was a bit more than I had expected and I felt like I was watching an avalanche bearing down on me. I said that I would try to find ways to help them find solutions, but also said that my skills were not without limitations. The meeting adjourned and I met several librarians who came up to introduce themselves to me, hand me their business cards, and ask if I might have some time for their particular area of responsibility. Oh boy.

Somehow, the collection development people got first dibs on me so I spent the rest of the morning being introduced to the procedures and work flow of that division by Nermin Dahaa, the head of collection development. Nermin is an extremely capable young woman who has been working at BibAlex for ten years. By the time I left her office, I had a pretty clear idea of how things work, who does what when, and how the selection process is carried out. From Nermin’s office, I went to the cubicle of one of the selectors, another young woman, Ahadeer, who showed me how brief records are created in MARC format for selected titles. (Librarianship is a highly feminized profession in Egypt, too, just as it has been historically in the US; nevertheless, I was overwhelmed by the number of women on the staff)

By this time, I was faint with hunger. It was after 2 PM and I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast at 7. When Nermin came to collect me, I asked if we could go somewhere so I could get a bite to eat. She said “of course,” and took me to the café which is adjacent to the library and overlooks the plaza that lies between the library and the Corniche. We spent a very pleasant hour talking about the library, the issues she and her department were facing, and how she came to librarianship. At the end of the break, I went back to my office and found that my schedule for Monday had been slipped under my door. It will be a less demanding day but more focused since I’ll be meeting with the collection development people exclusively and talking about the print versus electronic materials problem. Not a simple topic by any means, but manageable in terms of discussion. In the afternoon, I’ll be speaking with the reference folks, who work closely with collection development in selecting materials. Should be an interesting day.

A Little Look Around Alexandria

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Thursday 24 September 2009

My first task today was to get to an HSBC branch here in Alexandria and pick up my ATM card. Attentive readers may recall that, when I opened my account, there was an issue regarding which bank branch would be most convenient to my place of residence here. An educated guess was made by the Cairo branch employees in consultation with the Fulbright folks and the card was sent up to an office in the Saraya section of Alexandria. The other day, when scouting the San Stefano Mall, I found a bookshop and purchased a city map. Using that in conjunction with my scouting trip with Sharif, my Egyptian acquaintance, I decided that the distance was a walkable one, so I set out.

The weather, again today, was typically late-summer Mediterranean: sunny and clear. The map showed that the Saraya district was about the same distance beyond San Stefano as my apartment is from that shopping center, so about twice as long a walk. I took my time, walking along the shady side of the street for as long as that was possible and then in the sun. Once I reached San Stefano, I took a left and walked north, down to the Corniche, thinking that a sea breeze would make the excursion more pleasant.

An advantage to this plan was also that the sidewalks along the Corniche are actually useable. Along most streets in Alexandria (and Cairo, for that matter), the sidewalks are very narrow—three feet or less, generally—and most people simply walk in the streets alongside the parked cars, which seem to be everywhere. There is invariably some sort of construction or maintenance going on somewhere, which requires you to move into the street, or a lamp post stuck smack dab in the middle of the walkway with an overflowing garbage dumpster on one side, so you either attempt to slither past without getting crud all over yourself, or you go out into the street. Drivers are generally courteous in that they honk if they come up behind you, but if you encounter anyone walking in the opposite direction, it’s always a crap shoot as to who endangers him or herself by stepping out into the traffic. I haven’t figured out the etiquette of that yet… The sidewalks are not well maintained in any case since cars are obviously the privileged mode of transport here, too. Traffic lights are few and far between and, from what I’ve observed, they are generally regarded as serving in an advisory capacity only. If they work at all, they tend to be ignored, at least by the locals. Police are another matter. There are intersections where traffic flow is controlled by the police, at least at certain times during the day. Traffic direction from the police, unlike the traffic lights, tend to be heeded much more strictly.

I had been walking for some time and had not recognized any of the landmarks I thought I had committed to memory during my ride with Sharif, and I was beginning to think that I should either a) turn around and re-trace my steps or, b) hail a cab and give the driver the address and let him (hopefully) find the bank. I was also beginning to heat up. I didn’t know what the temperature was exactly, but it was getting warmer. Just at that point, I looked ahead around a curve in the road and there were the big (and for the moment very friendly) letters HSBC. My oasis. I entered the bank and took care of my business. The ATM card was indeed there and I signed for it, received the little sealed envelope containing my PIN, offered my thanks to the clerk who helped me and left the bank. As I did so, I asked the guard at the entrance if there were a decent coffee shop or café in the vicinity. He led me outside and pointed down a street leading away from the sea and told me that at the next corner I would find what I wanted. “Shukran,” I said, and set off in that direction.

I had been wondering about the social and economic organization of Alexandria during my brief outings but didn’t feel that I could draw any conclusions about those issues until I had seen a bit more of the city. To this point, all of my forays had been taken fairly close to the seaside, the high-rent district in any city. Along the street on which I now found myself, I saw evidence of abject poverty. In a rubbish-strewn vacant lot was what I took to be a sort of squatters lodgings: a small decrepit masonry building with a derelict sofa parked outside the doorway, which was itself covered with a dingy hunk of discarded carpet. The buildings on either side, multi-story apartment blocks, were not in the best of repair and I saw more people in galabiyahs and traditional dress than I had seen in my area of the city.

I looked in at the café the bank guard had recommended, which was empty and dark. There were a couple of cold water pipes (hookahs or shishas) standing about but I didn’t like the look of it so I turned right at the corner and decided to explore a bit. The tram line ran down the center of the street, so I knew that all I had to do was to follow it and it would lead me back to my neighborhood. Or at least I hoped it would. From the map, it seemed clear that there was only one tram line running from east to west and I figured I had made a safe assumption.

The street, while not actually bustling, was busy. The shops were open; owners either standing outside waiting for customers, or talking to their neighbors. Coffee houses were frequent and, in late morning, there were lots of men, singly and in twos or threes enjoying their “elevenses” a small cup of Arabic coffee and a pipeful of flavored tobacco. Charcoal braziers mounted on the outside walls of the cafes glowed with the coals used to light the tobacco for the pipes. These are tended by men whose job it is to keep the charcoal going and light the pipes as needed. We’ve been advised to steer clear of the hookah pipes, even though most cafes have started cleaning the mouthpieces. Hepatitis C is rampant in Egypt and we were told that even if the mouthpieces are cleaned, the tubes connecting to the pipes are not and therefore are a potential source of infection.

The area I am walking through is obviously a working class area, although drawing such a conclusion is fraught with danger. My neighborhood is considered a “good” one but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the street. Public standards of cleanliness are, in my estimation, rather more lax than we are accustomed to in the States, at least outside urban ghettos and depressed rural areas, Mosques are generally very clean on the inside, but shops and even larger stores (the mall was a major exception…) have sticky floors, flies buzzing about and dust. If you’re a clean freak or anal compulsive, Egypt ain’t for you.

Inside, it’s a different story. My building is not terribly impressive from outside; better maintained or newer than others, perhaps, but not flashy or fly by any means. The apartment interior, on the other hand, is generally clean, freshly painted and tidy. The care given to cleaning the insides of homes is evident when you walk down the street and are either hit by droplets of water falling from balconies, or see puddles of water which result from cleaning activities being carried out in living spaces above you. (Another reason many people avoid sidewalks by the way…) Since the social focus in Egypt is on family and relations, and since those relationships are cultivated in private, the interiors of homes often belie their exteriors. All this is to say that it’s hard to judge the socio-economic level of an area from its outward appearance alone. Other clues lie in the types of businesses and styles of dress one sees.

Along my way, I saw the first donkey drawn farm cart I had seen in the city. The two passengers were hawking their load of onions to the residents. Open air stalls, many of which are obviously temporary, are set up on street corners where fruits and vegetables are offered for sale. These sorts of businesses, as well as plumbing and electrical shops, are interspersed among more upscale shops selling jewelry, home furnishings, electronics, and even cars.

It strikes me that there is a major economic and social shift underway in Egypt, a transition similar to the one the US underwent in the 50’s and early 60’s when larger corporations of all kinds began to displace smaller specialty shops. The entire fabric of life is changing. Older men sit in the coffee houses; the younger ones (and increasing numbers of young women) head to the mall. Even if they can’t afford to buy what is sold there, they go there because that’s where their peers are. The San Stefano Mall, which looms ahead of me now and tells me I’m going in the right direction, will no doubt displace many of the small businesses I have been passing by and the owners will be forced out of business or will move somewhere farther away from the mall. A small number will adapt to the change in circumstances and find ways to survive.

Outside the mall entrance is a traditional café. I go in and order a cup of Arabic coffee. While I wait, I pick up an Egyptian newspaper (“al-Masri al-Yawm” roughly “Today’s Egyptian”) and see what I can make of the news. My coffee comes, a small cup containing coffee with a foamy surface. I wait for it to cool a bit and then sip. It’s not well done; some of the coffee grounds sit on top of the drink, making for a gritty taste. When Arabic (or Turkish, depending on where you are) coffee is done properly, brought to a boil three times and allowed to settle, you don’t get the grit until you hit bottom. This isn’t good. Inside the mall, there are at least two Starbuck’s knockoffs where, for a little more money I could have had a latte with no grit. So much for going native.

I enter the mall with the primary aim of orienting myself—not that I plan to spend a great deal of time here, but because when I need something, I want to be able to locate it quickly, buy it and get out. It’s cool inside, though, so I take my time, marking specific stores so I can find my way out again. I go down to the lower level to check out the “Metro” supermarket. I  now have a better idea of what I need to do my cooking and what I would like to eat, so I want to know what I can buy where.

While I’m checking out the cheeses, a woman approaches me and asks, in English, for assistance. (She just heard me ask Cheese Guy, in Arabic,  if he had Parmesan, but my appearance screams “American”). I offer my help: she’s trying to find out what kind of coffee would be best for her coffee machine. The Egyptian store clerk doesn’t understand what she wants so I try to explain in Arabic what the problem is. There’s good old Maxwell House in a can and also shelf after shelf of Arabic coffee and she doesn’t know what to buy.  We finally reach a point where we all get the general idea and come to the conclusion it’s either Maxwell House or nothing. I tell her that she might want to go to the Costa Coffee place (Starbuck’s knockoff mentioned above) and ask if they sell coffee in bulk; that’s the only other option I can think of. I’ve been looking for a cone and filters myself, with no luck.

She thanks me and walks off. I find an ATM, try my card (it works!), and head out. The day is wearing on and I would like to get home. I stop in my local grocery/household store and buy a couple of things, a thermometer and a can opener, and go home. The air conditioning feels good. There’s a phone call from Hend al-Shennawy, Sohair’s assistant, who tells me that on Sunday, there will be a library staff meeting at which I will be introduced and then a subsequent meeting set up for me with the Head of Collection Development and following that another with Hend herself. Work to be done! I’m looking forward to this.


This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Tuesday/Wednesday 22-23 September 2009 Tuesday was a do-nothing day, essentially. The last (official) day of the Eid, so people were probably enjoying the free time they had left in ways they felt were most appropriate. I did some more apartment organizing and worked on the computer when I could get a connection—which was infrequent and inconsistent. I tried cooking my first meal here and met with indifferent success. I did a rice dish that turned out to be a sticky mass with little taste and left my appetite rather unsatisfied. Maybe I’ll improve with practice. On Tuesday, I had missed a call from Dr. Wostawy, the director of the library at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, so when I felt that the hour was decent on Wednesday, I called her cell and reached her in her office. I was somewhat surprised to find her there since I was under the impression that the library would be closed until Thursday. Dr. Wostawy disabused me of that idea and asked when I was planning to come in. “This morning,” I replied, doing some rapid mental calculations about time and tasks to be completed before I could leave. “I’ll be there in about an hour, if that suits your schedule.” Dr. Wostawy replied that there was little going on today at work since many of the staff had taken vacation time and were not planning on returning until Sunday. We arranged that I would call her again when I reached the library. Breakfast dishes quickly washed and put away, the bed made, the thermal curtain drawn to keep out the afternoon sun—it comes straight in the big windows that open onto the balcony and makes the living room into an oven if I don’t do that—dress and get out the door. The doorman greets me and I tell him I’m off to work. I ask if the fare from here to the library really is only five guineas (ca. $1) and he says yes. Okay. I walk to the main intersection half a block away and get a yellow and black cab. I give the driver the address and we set off. The drive is longer than I remember, about ten minutes at 40 MPH on the Corniche. Traffic is relatively light and we zip along, the sea a fresh aqua color on the right. I can see three or four container ships on the horizon. We swing around a roundabout and I get dropped off right in front of the library building. I phone Dr. Wostawy and she sends Amr down to fetch me from the security checkpoint. I ask him how his Eid was and he says, “Great,” Up the elevator and along several corridors (the place is a maze, particularly when you’re away from the public areas, but not as bad as the San Stefano Mall; I lost my way in that place!) until we reach familiar ground and we’re at Dr. Wostawy’s office door. Amr knocks and we walk right in. After shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries for a while (this part of doing business in Egypt takes a long time to master: just how much small talk is enough? When is it too much? What subjects are okay to talks about?) Fortunately, Dr. Wostawy (Sohair from now on…) spent a lot of time in the States, first as a student and then as a librarian and library director, so she has developed a tolerance for neophytes. Especially American neophytes. After about ten minutes, there’s a knock at the door and a man bearing a tray comes in. A cup of coffee is set in front of me (Amr had thoughtfully taken my order on our way to the office) and this seems to be the signal to get down to business. Sohair begins the substantive part of our discussion with a brief history of the library. She was called back to Egypt to run the library part of the Bibliotheca organization five years ago and has been working at the job ever since then. She was asked to take up the position because there are few properly trained librarians in Egypt, and those one does find are not trained to American or European standards. This is not to say that they are not dedicated or hard working; they just don’t have the skill levels necessary to function in an organization of this size or complexity. Or at least they didn’t until Sohair came into the picture. The first thing she did when she arrived was to set certain requirements and conditions on employment. Now all those hired must, for example, achieve a score of 500 or better on the TOEFL (English as a foreign language test). She also has obligatory periodic training workshops and has developed a curriculum of librarianship courses at the “technical-professional” level to aid the staff in improving skills in particular areas. For this, she has drawn on a very successful and apparently well-known program offered at Du Page College in Chicago. It is a testament to her success that Bibliotheca Alexandrina is now a contributor to the VIAF (Virtual International Authority File), joining such prestigious institutions as the Library of Congress, the Bibliotheque National of France, the Staatsbibliothek of Germany and the like in the project. This initiative is part of the so-called “semantic web” one of whose primary functions is to allow anyone in any part of the world working in his or her native language to access authoritative data in that person’s language. The purpose of this is to eliminate duplication of effort and to create a common data file for entities responsible for works of scholarship and literature. At this point, the effort is limited to personal names, but as time goes on, it will be expanded to include “corporate” entities as well. Sohair gives me a copy of the library’s collection development policy, which I will have to read before out next meeting, since this is one of the areas in which I have agreed to work with the Alexandria librarians. As we are talking, there is yet another knock at the door and I meet yet another colleague. Yahya Zaki, a medical doctor and administrator at the Bibliotheca, enters and we are introduced. He and Sohair are old friends, she tells me, and we all go through the small talk ritual once again. Finally, Dr, Zaki gets to the point. He has come to try to get Sohair interested in publishing an adolescent book about Alexandria. A student whom the doctor knows came to him with the idea and he apparently wants the library to consider publishing it. They talk about that for a while, but before we can get back to my business, there is yet another knock at the door and two young people, one male, one female, come in and Sohair begins to conduct business with them. When they leave, she tells me that these two—the guy is from Germany; the woman is Egyptian (I think)—are developing some sort of training program for the librarians. It is obvious that she has a LOT going on here. When these last visitors leave, she explains that she spends a great deal of her time arranging for librarians from other parts of the world to come to Egypt for varying periods of time to train her people because the MLS program in Cairo isn’t worth much. Until very recently, it was a BA degree. Sohair finally got the university to drop the program and re-institute it as a master’s degree. It will still take some time for the changes to take effect and until then, it’s going to be a long haul for those in the profession. Of course, there are other aspects to the problem of librarianship in Egypt. One is social: there is no (or very little) library culture in Egypt.People are not in the habit of visiting or supporting public libraries. There are libraries at the universities, of course. Cairo University has a brand new central library, but public libraries are few and far between, and Egyptians are not accustomed to visiting them for information. That is changing slowly. Sohair told me that she knew the Bibliotheca was going to be a success when her staff began to report that Alexandrian housewives (her term; not mine) were coming in to the library frequently and repeatedly. The second issue is more of a global financial problem: those Egyptian students who might be interested in librarianship as a profession and who go abroad for their training seldom if ever return because the pay and standard of living in Egypt—and in Alexandria in particular—is less than ideal. With a knowledge of Arabic, they find their skills much more in demand in Europe or the United States. This is a trend of long standing; I have any number of colleagues in the Middle East Librarians Association who left their native countries as young students, became librarians, and stayed in the States (or in Canada or Europe) because they were appreciated more—and were more employable—there than at home. This aspect of the librarianship problem is less tractable even than the social issue, I think. In this climate, Sohair has had to rely to a great extent on imported talent, not so much to do the actual work, but to bring her own people up to speed in the procedural and technical areas so that they can do the work. She recounted one instance of this: the library had been given a small collection of works in Korean. It remained uncatalogued for quite a while because there were no Egyptians, librarians or otherwise, who could read Korean and create the necessary bibliographic records. She finally negotiated with the Korean government to send her a Korean librarian who did the work. She got help in another area from the German government and managed to get the person there on the Germans’ nickel! Something tells me that I never want to be seated across from this woman at a negotiating table… There are also administrative issues which are beyond the library’s control. Since the Bibliotheca is a (quasi-?) governmental agency, acquisition is a nightmare. Acquisitions has to get three price quotes on each item before they can purchase it. That must slow things down incredibly! I asked her if there was an Egyptian Library Association; she scoffed and gave a dismissive toss of her hand. “Worthless,” she pronounced. They apparently are not very active nor effective and so do not provide much in the way of professional support or political clout. There is a super-national organization of librarians in the Arabic-speaking countries but that organization, too, is not very effective. The library collects in seven different areas and each is collected at ACRL level three or above, although she acknowledges that there are areas of weakness. That means that each area is a serious research collection, but none of the librarians working in collection development is a scholar in that area, so again, there is a problem with the skill level among staff. It will be interesting to see how we might address this issue over the next four months. We also talked a bit about information literacy, but Sohair said that that area was really the responsibility of one of her staff members and that I would be better served speaking to that person about it. Our interview came to an end and we agreed that since most of the staff would not be returning to work until Sunday, that I take the next couple of days to study the collection development policy and to begin to think about what I wanted to do. I told her I was there to learn as much if not more than I might teach. She proposed a relatively light schedule for the time being. “Go take an excursion,” she advised. We said goodbye and I was escorted to my next appointment by Manar Badr, the Head of Reference Services. We went down several levels to the collection development offices and got acquainted along the way. Her English was very good and she seemed comfortable speaking so I let her proceed. She noted that my name was “very German.” I told her that that was part of my heritage and asked if she spoke German. “Yes,” she replid. “It’s my mother tongue.” Oh, things get stranger and stranger… She led me to her office where I filled out some paperwork for my ID card, office keys and so forth. We then proceeded next door to the office of the Head of Public Services, a woman in hijab, but with her face uncovered, whose name was Omnia Fathallah. We shook hands (she initiated this so I shook hands; otherwise the proper greeting would have been to put my right hand over my heart and make a slight bow). We talked for a bit about her area and indicated that I would be working primarily with the staff in her division. She was very knowledgeable and spoke excellent English. I told her that we would probably begin on Sunday, according to Sohair’s plan and she said that that was agreeable to her. We said goodbye and Manar then showed me the way to my office, introducing me to one of the reference librarians on my level of the building as we passed by. I had mentioned to Manar that one of the people in the art section of the library, Gamal Husni, had wanted me to get in touch with him. Somehow he had heard that I was coming and he wanted to meet me since he had been a Fulbrighter in the States some time ago. Manar helped me find his office and left me in his care. We talked about his work and mine and I mentioned my study of block printing. He was very interested in the phenomenon because of the cultural implications and I told him that I would try to get a copy of my book for the library so that he might see it. I also told him that I was hoping to be able to see the few examples of block printing held in Egypt. He asked which museums had them and I gave him a couple of the locations. Since I had heard that getting to see individual items might be a problem in Egypt, especially for foreigners, I asked him if he might be able to help. “No,” he said, “but my uncle is the Minister of Culture.” Oh! My lucky day! This, of course is the guy who was being considered for the position of the head of UNESCO (it has since gone to a Bulgarian) and Gamal said that maybe, once the dust settles, he might be able to put in a word. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. That about wrapped up my business for the day so I thanked him for his time, said goodbye, and headed for the exit. Outside I flagged down a taxi and gave him the name of the street where I wanted to be dropped off. Reaching my destination, I realized I didn’t have anything smaller than a ten pound note. I handed that to the driver and asked for change. “Nope. Don’t have any.” Right. Thanks. Still cheap, but it’s the principle. Oh well. Back home. The usual ritual with the doorman, upstairs to change, and then out for a quick visit to the grocery store. Yesterday, I happened to notice a grocery much closer to my apartment building and decided to check it out. Not as big as the one I’ve been going to but it had some items that the other one didn’t so I bought a few things. A hot meal, a little computer work, some reading and then lights out.

Settling In

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Monday, 21 September 2009

“Eid Mubarak.” This is the phrase one sees and hears everywhere over the last three days. The end of Ramadan has arrived officially in Egypt. In this country, people no longer depend on the visual sighting of the crescent moon by a group of high religious officials; an astronomical calculation is made by an astronomer, or maybe a group of them, and when the math says that the month is over, the month is over.

The city has been very quiet the past couple of days; all the shops were closed and the streets were generally empty. I didn’t see too much in the way of public celebration, some fireworks, but nothing grandiose. Maybe I’m just in the wrong location. My neighbors went out visiting, or maybe to the beach. The kids were boisterous, no doubt glad for anything that gets them out of school for a day (if Egyptian kids are like kids anywhere…). The holiday is family time and time for people to get back on a normal eating and sleeping schedule. Tomorrow the shops and businesses open again, but government offices are closed until Wednesday. The library opens on Wednesday, too, so I’ve still got a couple of days to get things in order. The apartment is pretty much squared away and I’ve cooked my first couple of Egyptian meals. Pretty basic stuff since I didn’t buy a lot of herbs and spices or staples, for that matter.

The guide books and the Fulbright people touted the friendliness and hospitality of the Egyptian people and I had my first substantive experience of that today. I had been wanting to walk around and see if I could locate my bank branch so I can go and pick up my ATM card on Thursday. I set out to do that about ten this morning and was met by Tawfiq the doorman as I exited the elevator. He asked how I was and we exchanged pleasantries. After the formalities, I asked him if he could tell me where the building housing the bank was. All I knew was that it was on the Corniche (the seafront road) somewhere near my apartment. He didn’t understand “HSBC,” nor did he know the “Burg Delta,” the building where the bank was. I had a couple other clues, but those were equally helpless.

So, he turns to another man standing nearby and has me ask him as well. The second man spoke a bit of English, but apparently not enough to understand what I was after, Just then a third man, came out of the foyer and Tawfiq turned to him and quickly asked him to speak to me. He did. In English. His name was Sharif and after he listened to my story, he insisted on driving me to the bank in his car (which was conveniently parked right there).

We hopped in and he drove me east on the corniche for about a two miles or so (I’m glad I didn’t attempt the walk; I probably would have given up before getting that far; it was already hot!). He pointed out landmark buildings along the way so I’d know how to recognize the place on Thursday. We talked and I learned that he works for Unilever. The multi-nationals are here in Egypt, too, and that goes far toward explaining the rising standard of living, the traffic jams, the increasing number and variety of consumer goods, and so forth. It also explains the advertisements for suburban living. In any case, we turned around and he indicated he wanted to drive me back to the apartment building. I told him that that was unnecessary and that he was probably busy and had to be somewhere. Nonsense, he said. Not a problem. He insisted that I have his cell phone number and he made me promise I’d call him if I needed any kind of assistance.

I got out at the door and we parted. Tawfiq was there and wanted to know if everything was okay. I told him yes, now I knew where I had to go and how far it was. I asked him how much the train cost and he asked me if I needed to go to Cairo. No, I said; just to the new library. “Oh,” he responded. “Don’t do that. Take a cab. Five Egyptian Pounds (less than a buck).”

Okay, that sounds reasonable. “Better than the train,” he said knowingly. Well. I’ll try it on Wednesday and see.

Ramadan’s End

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Today’s the day for getting my Alexandrian life in order, at least as much as I can at this point in the Muslim calendar. I have a list of stuff I need: groceries most of all, and a lot of household things. I’ve found tableware, forks, knives and spoons; a complete set of dishes EXCEPT for dinner plates. Only one of those and that might be a problem if I have visitors. I’m not expecting any guests for a while; so I’ll deal, but I plan to notify the Fulbright folks about that shortcoming as soon as the Eid is over. I could use a proper set of sheets for the bed, too, and that’s one of the reasons I’m off on a scouting mission this morning. I head out and take the opportunity to introduce myself to the “bawwaab” (doorman) in the vestibule; he’s talking to two other men and hands are shaken all around. I ask whether the shops are open today and receive a response in the affirmative. I thank them all and set off.

I begin by retracing my steps from last night, following my street until it intersects the larger road and then walking along the tram tracks until I can cross over to the other side and walk in the shade. It’s about ten AM and there is a moist wind off the ocean, but that doesn’t cut much of the heat, which is beginning to build. There are clouds in the sky today, but none in front of the sun. I’m wearing jeans, running shoes and a stripped cotton shirt. No point in trying to fake out the Egyptian public; they’d take me for a westerner even if I were wearing a galabiyah, so why even try.

This tack has the effect of sparking responses from people on the street, most of them positive. Usually, It’s “Hallu hau air YOU?” I respond in either English or Arabic as the mood strikes me and it’s a sort of game that goes on between Egyptians of a certain economic stratum and foreigners. They want to show that they learned some English and that they’ve marked you as “not from these here parts.” Okay. It’s not a test, but you get “A” for effort. I even got cat called last night on my way home. Kissing noises made behind my back. Gee. Thanks. Or were you calling your cat? Most of the stuff like that you just ignore. Physical intimidation (unless you’re female) is relatively rare, although one of the Fulbright students who spoke at our DC orientation described an incident in which she was seriously groped.

Arab societies are macho and patriarchal in a major way. That point hit me while I was channel surfing last night: a lot of the channels on which traditional programming appears (Koran readings, classical music, programs from the Arab Gulf States particularly) are either single sex or bereft of women all together. On Egyptian programs, men and women often appear together, however, and in some comedy shows (think bad Jerry Lewis) actually involve non-intimate physical contact between genders.

Anywho, my aim this morning is to locate two things: first a decent grocery store, and then a shopping mall (shudder) where I can get some household basics: sheets and towels. About a kilometer along the main road I spy a grocery store that also seems to have lots of household items, so I mark its location mentally and continue on, trying to find this mall. The next person to offer a greeting is an Alexandrian cop, who says “Welcome in Egypt.” Okay. My experience is that the cops in Egypt generally don’t initiate conversations with people, unless the person is known to them. They are very considerate in this regard. This guy is sort of young so I return his greeting in Arabic. I ask him if I might ask him a question (which I realize I’m already doing…) and, in no doubt seriously fractured Arabic, ask him where the shops at San Sebastian are. I get a puzzled look and he does what any of us would do in a similar situation: he asks me to repeat the question. I repeat my question and he asks, “What shops?” I repeat the name: “San Sebastian.”

“Nope,” he responds. “Don’t know that one.” What’s the name again?” I repeat it.
“Ah,” he says. “You mean San Stefano.”

Of course I do. I apologize to him for the mistake. “No problem,” he says. “They’re right across the street. The entrance is around the side of that building,” pointing over my shoulder to a huge modern tower. I thank him and cross the tram tracks and walk toward the building. I notice storefronts bearing European and American brand names (Ooh! Levis!) and also see that there are uniformed guards standing at the entrances to the interior. Some people are entering and bypassing the metal detectors that are a common feature in most “public” buildings: hotels; larger shops like this one, large post offices, and the like. It’s clear that those entering the building work there and that the places are not yet open for business. I approach one of the guards and ask when the shops open. He tells me it’s another hour before they open. Not until twelve noon. I thank him and decide I don’t want to wait around for that long.

I retrace my steps and go back to the grocery store. I walk in, grab a shopping cart, and start looking over the offerings. The organizational principle isn’t readily apparent, so I take out my list and review what it is I think I need, at least to start. I also realize that I might have forgotten a few things: is there a can opener? A pair of scissors? A cutting board? I need to check on those before I spend money. I begin to load the cart and find all of what I need and then some. I see some things not on my list that it would be nice to have, but I remember that I’m going to have to schlep this stuff for a third of a mile and it’s hot out. I take my purchases to the cashier (electronic code reading cash register and all). The young woman rings it all up and tells me what the damage is: two hundred eighty-eight. Hmm, I think, that’s more than fifty bucks. I take out my cash and hand her a two hundred lira note and a one hundred lira note. She shakes her head. “Two hundred eight eighty,” she repeats (unless otherwise noted, all conversations are translated from Arabic). I show her my cash and she takes the two hundred pound note and points to a ten. Oh. Okay. Now the foreigner gets it: Two hundred and eight eighty (208.80). Just like in English. Well, how about that!

The next problem is finding out how long they’re open today. I ask her when the store closes. That gets a blank look. She indicates she doesn’t understand. I run over the sentence in my head and try a re-phrasing. Still no good.

“Okay,” I say, “Your store is open until what hour this afternoon? Three? Four?”
“Oh.” Now we’re making progress. “Two o’clock.” Great, thanks.”

While we were talking a young boy has packed my purchases up in way too many plastic bags (these things are EVERYWHERE in the Middle East and the people who sell them ought to be made to go out and collect every single one found on the street, hanging from tree limbs, floating in rivers and streams and then EAT them! What a blight they are!). He wants to carry them home for me, I think, but I say no thanks, hand him a tip and pick them up myself.

A ten minute perspiration inducing walk gets me back to my front door and into the cool shade of the entryway. Tawfiq, the doorman, is there to open the elevator door and usher me inside. Half an hour later, everything is put away and I sit down to lunch. Now, even if the stores are closed tomorrow (the “official” start of the Eid), at least I won’t starve.

Things are coming together slowly, it appears. I still have to find out what train stop I get off at when I go to the library this coming week and my internet connection still has to get sorted out. Fortunately, I have been able to hook onto an unsecured link belonging to someone nearby. It’s a weak link, and not always available, but at least I have some contact. I just hope it doesn’t belong to the Russian Embassy, which is just across the street from my building. I can look right into their compound, but they seem to keep a very low profile. No monster vodka parties or anything like that. Maybe they’re all on vacation.

I’m going back out after the sun gets lower to see if the mall stores are still open. Unlikely, though; people are still fasting and like to get home in early afternoon so they can prepare the iftar meal and eat it as soon as the sun sets. I would really like to have a towel to dry on. It takes way too long with my handkerchief. Oops. Too much information.

Alexandria- Day One

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Friday, 18 September 2009 A night of broken sleep: wide awake at 1 AM; asleep again until 4 when, over a loudspeaker, the local mosque (a literal stone’s throw away) issues the call to begin the day of fasting; a couple of aspirin for a headache and then awakened at 7 by the alarm. I get my bearings and stumble out to look at the new day. My apartment faces west and the big living room window has a balcony outside it. I open the thick thermal curtain and see that the sun is up and the sky is hazy. I open the balcony door and step out. The air is not very cool, but there is a soft morning breeze and I decide to throw both the heavy curtain and the lighter ones back, open both doors and let some fresh air in. I don’t know how long this apartment has stood vacant, but since the last Fulbrighter to inhabit it left last June (I’m guessing), the air is a bit stale. It’s apparent that the apartment has undergone some remodeling recently and I begin to take a closer look. The wooden floor is new and pretty rough in places, even through the finish. In the kitchen, the cabinets look new, too, but the dishes in them are covered with dust, as are the counters… The cabinets still have empty boxes that contained the tableware, glasses and cooking utensils. I find a package of garbage bags and start packing up stuff to be discarded. I make myself a cup of Nescafe (the only kind Ibrahim bought yesterday; at least it’s hot and tastes sort of like coffee) and continue poking around and assessing my situation. I realize suddenly that it’s awfully quiet outside. There’s no traffic noise. I realize that Friday is the beginning of the Egyptian weekend. A quick survey of the street below reveals that the steel doors over the shop fronts are down: no shopping today. Okay, I’ll just putter around for now and wander out later when it’s cooler. Still don’t have internet connection; one of the tasks Ibrahim had yesterday was to contact the internet service provider—Etisalat—and get the DSL line straightened out. He had told me that it might be a day or two yet and that obviously didn’t include today. My machine is getting the wireless signal from the router, but the signal apparently isn’t getting back to the company. Being out of touch is beginning to be a concern because I don’t know what’s in my e-mail inbox. The TV is also out; it’s a satellite system and I’m clueless as to which box is supposed to control the whole thing. Thankfully, I brought my shortwave set and can get FM Egyptian broadcasts as well as BBC and some German and French stuff, so I feel connected in some way. I wander around the apartment not wanting to go outside into the heat and with no purpose in mind. I finally get the TV working. With a limited number of buttons and possible combinations, it was only a matter of time. Lots of Koran reading today; lots of Jimmy Swaggarts and Oral Roberts types in Arab garb and speaking Arabic, but working toward a similar end. There being no towels to be found, I finally decide that air drying is an acceptable alternative, so into the shower (nice pressure; lots of hot water). With an air conditioning unit on, it doesn’t take too long for the water to evaporate and I get dressed to make my first foray into the city. Ibrahim had told me that a major shopping center (I never thought I’d be glad to hear there’s a mall nearby!) was just a few blocks away and I wanted to see just how far. I walked east on my street until it angled into a larger thoroughfare. There were a few people out and a few lighted shops, but the way was inhabited mostly by stray cats and an orchestra of offensive odors: garbage, oil, unburned gasoline, sweat and all sorts of other gook. A large puddle shimmered in Technicolor under the dim street lights. There was a streetcar line running down the center of this street, bounded on each side by a low masonry wall. When there was a break in the wall at an intersection, I turned back and walked alongside the tracks until I reached an intersection that took me past my street again. Kept on walking northeast, toward the Corniche, and on the lookout for a decent restaurant. I had Dr. al-Wostawy’s warning about bad restaurants in mind, but after a mile or so, I decided that I had tried hard enough. Fortunately, I spied a hotel and restaurant—the San Giovanni—that Ibrahim had mentioned, so I strolled in. A dark-haired young woman in an elegant pants suit ushered me up a short flight of stairs to a seating area containing tables covered with checkerboard cloths. An Egyptian of African descent guided me to a table next to a glass wall looking out over a small cove with waves splashing against a jetty below. I ordered a Stella, an appetizer and a chicken and macaroni dish. I spent a pleasant hour eating and watching people and their children breaking their fasts along the sea and then walked back to the apartment. I sat down to write up the day’s events when, to my surprise, the computer told me that I had an internet link. What joy! I quickly logged on, cleaned out my inbox and managed to post two blog entries before the link went down. I should have my own link in a day or two, but now, even if that doesn’t get seen to, I know I’ll at least have SOME SORT of contact. I probably won’t be able to Skype or do elaborate stuff—I keep getting disconnected at inconvenient times—but at least I have a window of sorts. Now, if only the stores are open tomorrow…

Off to Alexandria

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Thursday 17 September 2009

Up at seven to make myself presentable for the people at Bibliotheca Alexandrina later today. I get a quick breakfast and when I get back to my room, I realize that I haven’t been drinking enough water. It’s hard to find bottled water in the stores when most people are fasting. They are careful to avoid being around food and drink if at all possible and I read in the paper today that people (I assume Muslim people, but who knows?) who eat in public during the day in the month of Ramadan are liable to arrest. And that’s Egyptian law, not Muslim law. I order bottled water from room service and drink it while I finish packing. A little after nine, I drag my stuff downstairs and tell the desk I’m checking out. I am asked to wait while they check the room. Really? I guess they’ve lost too many towels or pillows…

While I wait, I get talking to a woman who tells me that she’s visiting Egypt for the first time in nearly twenty years. She was born in Egypt but married an Australian and has lived in the West for most of her adult life. Her children gave her a tour package for Mother’s Day and she decided to come back with one of her daughters. She shared some tips about dealing with taxi drivers and other bits of info about Egypt. I catch sight of Ibrahim waiting patiently on the street, so I say goodbye and take my stuff outside. We stuff everything into the trunk and the back seat and set off. Alexandria is about 200 miles away and it takes us some 2 ½ hours to get there.

It takes us about half an hour to clear the congestion of Cairo; my mantra about that issue should be well absorbed by now, so I won’t dwell upon it longer. After a while, we reach the ring road and head off toward the west, and then north. We can drive at the speed limit (100 kph) most of the time and the fact that we are now some distance from the Nile is apparent in the drier landscape. The median of the six-lane we’re traveling on is planted with a variety of trees and shrubs; some seem to be faring better than others, depending on how close they are to settlements and how much water they get. Ibrahim tells me that the olive trees planted in the median may be harvested by the locals; the government apparently permits this as a way of assuring (in some way) that the trees are given a minimum of care.

Even on the highway, one has to be careful of pedestrians crossing the road. Imagine driving on I-80 and having to watch for men and women, kids in tow skipping their way through rush hour traffic. I wonder what the yearly death toll for these people is… Every so often there are formal or informal rest areas. Some are obviously the result of individual enterprise; others bear the distinct mark of corporate interest: better, cleaner, more permanent facilities and services, paved parking, etc., but drivers seem to stop at both kinds in equal measure, depending, no doubt, on their financial circumstances. Donkey carts and hitchhikers appear occasionally on the shoulders of the way.

We enter a region where the road is lined on either side with walled compounds of varying size and signs indicating that they are farms. I ask Ibrahim about this and he says that these are the result of government investment in agricultural development. This part of Egypt, called the Wadi Natrun, is a traditional Coptic area and some years ago, it was discovered that there are vast water resources under the earth here. About 150 meters below the surface is a major fresh water aquifer and the government decided that agriculture on a scale larger than the traditional farm would be possible in the area. Hence, the land was acquired and sold to people who wanted to farm it. The plots are of different sizes—five, ten, or twenty “feddan”—the Egyptian measure for land area (don’t know the exact equivalent in acres, but my guess is than a feddan is about a half acre, maybe…). Most of the plots are walled with brick and concrete, with elaborate gateways bearing mottos or the name of the farm. Row crops such as tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables are grown as well as olives and citrus, bananas, too. This isn’t the Oklahoma land rush where anyone can take part; one obviously needs serious capital behind them to undertake the development of the land. Ibrahim told me that he had some land near El-Alamein (yes, the WWII battle site) and wanted to do some farming on it. 150,000 Egyptian pounds to drill a 150 meter well, buy the pump, pipe and compressor needed to get the water to the surface. He said “no thanks,” and walked away.

Unfortunately, it appears that the development pattern here is taking the same form as in the States. Modern shopping malls and housing developments are planned, too, creating more sprawl and congestion for the future. Billboards advertising these ventures dot the highway for miles. Mosques, too, appear at frequent intervals. One particular building struck me because of the seemingly odd construction of its minaret and the two-tone color scheme in the tiles covering it. After a seeing a few, it struck me that the mosques were pretty cookie-cutter and I concluded that somebody might have gotten the mosque franchise for this route. No doubt the reason for the frequency of mosques is the need for observant travelers (long-distance truckers in particular) to have convenient prayer stops when the appointed prayer times roll around. After a couple of hours we leave the highway; at the “toll booth” Ibrahim rolls down the window and simply tells the toll taker that he’s on “official business” and we roll right through. I’ll have to try that the next time I drive to Chicago.

We enter an area where reed marshes stretch away on either side of the road. Ibrahim says that these are salt marches, low areas where water lies year round. [It’s actually the edge of Lake Maryut, an ancient lake now much smaller than it once was because of infilling and other human activity.] I see fishing nets hanging to dry in a couple of places. Shortly after this, Alexandria pops up on the horizon. The city hugs the shoreline for about twenty miles just west of the Nile delta. The traffic here seems as bad as Cairo’s, if not worse since the density of building is higher along the coast and because the main east-west route, the Corniche (coast road) is the only way to get through the city. We drive for several miles along this road, with the usual pedestrians playing chicken with cars zipping along at speed. We find the street (Ibrahim seems to navigate by landmarks rather than street signs (I STILL can’t always locate them when I ride in a car or bus and I think that they are probably not posted uniformly) and turn off the Corniche.

The street we’re on takes us past the University of Alexandria’s College of Agriculture campus and we turn left onto an even narrower street. A hundred yards along that, we turn left again into a still narrower road and park tight up against a wall in front of a row of apartment houses. We’ve reached our destination. A young man comes up, Ibrahim apparently knows him, and together we unload the car. Ibrahim leads me up a set of steps lined with two foot high palms in pots into a dark and elaborate foyer. We drop the bags and walk to an office where I’m introduced to a Mr. Magid. I can’t make out whether he’s the owner, or the manager. In any case, we do the introductions and exchange bits of necessary information and then board the elevator for the ride to the sixth floor.

We emerge into a dim hallway and Mr. Magid opens a door. We step into a foyer with wooden floors and walls painted in an off-white. Mr. Magid turns on the light and I get my first look at my digs for the next four months. My first impression is “holy sh—t.” The place is huge: to the right of the entrance is a dining/living area at least twenty feet long and fifteen wide; the floors are narrow wood strips arranged in a herringbone pattern with a narrow border of strips laid perpendicularly to the walls and separated from the herringbone pattern by an inlay of darker wood strips in a geometric design. The furniture is a mixture of styles and my first impression is Queen Victoria meets Louis XIV on LSD meets New Orleans bordello. The dining table is heavy and dark with six wooden chairs around it. It sits on an area rug with a leaf pattern in it. The living area has a huge overstuffed couch with gold colored cushions and pillows and two matching chairs facing it. A blonde wood table with lion claw feet sits in the middle of the room. The table also rests on an area rug, that one with a modern geometric pattern in it.

At the far end of the room is a floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall window covered with a blackout curtain. Heavy, fringy, lacy curtains hang at either end. After taking this in, I get a quick tour of the rest from Mr. Magid. There is the kitchen, long and narrow with modern appliances, counter space, cabinets, stove, refrigerator and a water purifier sitting next to the sink. Mr. Magid demonstrates its use. A short hallway leads from the kitchen to the bedrooms. The first is obviously for the parents, a queen-size bed, vanity and wardrobe in an atrocious modern style, looking like it was put together by a committee of eager designers each determined to have his or her idea included. Blonde wood with chrome metal, fabric, and rope elements. The vanity is cutesy but small and unobtrusive; the wardrobe is built in and takes up most of one wall. Lots of storage space and that’s all I care about. Down the hall is a second bedroom, more heavy dark furniture, two matching beds with Minne Mouse comforters on them. “My beautiful daughter” stenciled on both. No favoritism here. Another huge wardrobe. At the end of the hall is the TV room, two couches against two walls, a coffee table in the center. Past this is another small space with a tiled floor and three framed pictures. Around the corner and we’re back in the foyer. A second toilet is on the left. Too much space for me.

Ibrahim reminds me that Sohair al-Wastawy, the Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is expecting me, so I throw on a fresh shirt and we’re off. Back down the Corniche to the library, a couple of miles away. Ibrahim is uncertain where to drop me, so he’s on the cell phone trying to get directions. He has trouble reaching Dr. al-Wostawy and after circling the block in a rather convoluted manner, he finally pulls up to the curb outside the library and we simply wait to see the director waving from her office balcony. I wave back and head for the entrance. Ibrahim drives off to take care of apartment stuff; we agree that I will call him when I’m done and he’ll pick me up and take me back to the apartment.

I meet Dr. Wostawy’s assistant, Hind, at the VIP entrance (wow) and she escorts me inside. We go to the director’s office and get acquainted for a few minutes. She’s obviously busy so I don’t take a long time and when we part, Hind takes me back downstairs to meet Ingy (pronounced Injee), who has been detailed to give me a VIP tour (wow, again). Ingy is very knowledgeable, full of statistics and figures about the founding and construction of the library, but she shows me lots of interesting things in the short time we have. Her English is impeccable and I’m glad that I don’t have to struggle with Arabic. I’ve arrived on the eve of the Eid at the end of Ramadan and the library is closing at 2:30, so we skip over a lot of the details; some of the things I’m supposed to see are already closed.

When she’s finished her task, she has me escorted back upstairs to another librarian, Dahlia, who is in charge of library training and who has been asked to show me some of the four specialized libraries. On the way she explains the organizational principle of the building and its various sections. I am particularly taken with the fact that each section has its own reference desk staffed by librarians who specialize in that field. In addition, there is a reference desk located on each of the seven reading room levels. The newest addition to the library is a supercomputer that serves as an archive for the internet. It’s the first one of its kind in the world to be located in a public area (although it’s behind glass, one can see all the components: rack after rack of processing units with incredible calculating speed and something like 30 terraflops of memory. How much is that?! It takes snapshots of the web every ninety days; a monitor shows random samples of what’s archived. There is also a newly installed video and image archive and more stuff coming. We visit the children’s and young people’s libraries, the only sections that actually lend materials. Everyone who uses the library must become a “member,” although it is possible to become a one-day member. Rates are scaled depending on how old you are and how long your membership is.

Closing time has come and gone and I see that Dahlia is anxious to get home. I thank her and wish her a happy holiday. She drops me at the entrance and I call Ibrahim to tell him I’m free. When he picks me up, he tells me that Dr. al-Wostawy has been trying to contact me. I apparently didn’t hear my phone. Ibrahim calls her and hands me his phone. She has some materials she wants to give me and tells me that one of her colleagues is looking for me near the entrance. I hop out of the car and run back to the entrance where I find Amr holding a plastic bag full of books, pamphlets and a list of acceptable restaurants in Alexandria. Dr. al-Wostawy had told me to be careful. “There are a lot of dirty restaurants in Alexandria and I don’t want you to get sick,” she said.

We drive back to the apartment and Ibrahim pulls a couple of plastic bags full of groceries out of the trunk. There’s milk (oh, joy!), coffee, bananas, bread, cheese and other essentials. I offer to pay him, but he refuses. “A gift from the Fulbright Program,” he replies. Does the US Govt. know how generous these people are being? He wishes me a pleasant stay in Alexandria and we say goodbye.”Call my cell if you need anything,” he calls as he boards the elevator. “Right,” I say. As if I’d ask him to drive all the way from Cairo to deliver it. Way beyond the call of duty. Finally, I’m on my own and I proceed to take a closer look at the apartment. What unpleasant surprises await me now that I have to rely on my own wits?

I start unpacking, slowly, deciding what should go where and hoping I’ll remember where I put it when I need it. I could use some more clothes hangers, first of all, and I make a mental note to start a list. The big bag gets emptied first and then stowed away. I grab the package of pita bread Ibrahim left and slap some cheese on a couple of pieces. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I start poking around in the wardrobes and drawers. Where are the sheets and towels? Oh, one pair—no, ONE sheet. Oh, one’s already on the bed. The one I find is a bit worn and too small for the bed. No others? Nope. Oh, well. I’ll make do until I can buy some proper ones. Gee, I’d really like shower; WHERE are the towels? A thorough search reveals none. Oh, great. Guess I’ll have to air dry for now. Another item for the list. I’m getting tired and decide to call it a day. I figure that I can begin stocking up on things I need tomorrow. I put the frazzled sheet on the bed and change out the half-ton comforter for a lighter one. There is a spanking new air conditioning unit mounted in the bedroom wall; I set it on “economy” and drift off to sleep.

The Missing Day

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

[Chronologically, this post should be read after the first one] Tuesday morning. Awake after about four hours of sleep. Morning ablutions and then down to breakfast on the hotel mezzanine. An indifferent selection of pastries, cold cereal, breads of various kinds, jams and jellies, orange juice (thankfully), cold meats and cheese. Even a few pieces of sushi—rice and cucumber rolled in dried seaweed—but I pass on that. I hang out at the hotel for a while, read the English language newspaper that has been dropped outside my door—the Egyptian Mail (“The Middle East’s oldest English language weekly” says the caption under the paper’s name…) and around 10 head out to locate the Fulbright Center so I know how to orient myself for Wednesday’s official visit. The sun is bright and glaring in the smog as I walk to the corner where two taxi drivers ask if I need their service. I decline and turn right onto Amer Street. Half a block down is an HSBC bank branch where I enter to change some money. There is a Cairo cop outside the door, dressed in the standard white uniform with black boots, belt and beret. He glances up at me: “obviously an American,” he thinks; “no trouble.” Inside the door is a bank security person whom I greet in Arabic and he responds. Up a circular staircase to the second floor where two guys at a desk hand me a chit with the number 22 printed on it. There is a counter with three bank employees behind it and about eight or ten men sitting in chairs, waiting. A little illuminated sign tells me that number 16 is now being served, so I figure I have to wait a bit. I find a seat and watch the proceedings. Many of those waiting seem to know each other and quiet conversations are being held here and there. A young woman in dark clothing with her hair covered in a black cloth comes out from an office area and begins mopping the floor at the top of the stairs, She then works her way down the staircase. “Number 18” calls out the electronic female voice. There’s a minor disturbance at the top of the stairs, a verbal altercation between a customer and one of the bank employees. Everyone turns to watch and when the situation calms down, everyone has an opinion about what happened. Laughter seems to be the most common reaction. I’m glad that I decided to take care of the currency conversion early; the pace of service is agonizingly slow. Some customers have to return to the counter twice to complete their business. “Twenty.” Only one person in front of me now. It’s cool and pleasant in the bank and I’m in no hurry to face the heat of the street. Finally, “twenty-two” and I go and take care of my business. I pull out my American currency and the teller goes on auto-pilot. He pulls a form out of his desk, notes the amount I hand him, checks the bills to make sure they’re not counterfeit and shows me where to sign my name on the form. SO much easier than the States where banks treat customers who want to exchange currency like criminals: “Where’s your passport? Do you have an account here? No, we don’t take travelers’ checks.” No wonder the world thinks we’re arrogant. I thank the teller and take the stairs back down and out to the street. Across the way I notice an official-looking building with two more cops outside the gate. Thinking that that must be the Fulbright office, I cross over and immediately see lettering on the white wall identifying the place as the Center for German Studies in Cairo. An interesting discovery, but not what I’m looking for. I approach the two cops who are speaking with a traditionally dressed woman. All look up as I come near; I remove my sunglasses—a courtesy to people in the Middle East, who like to look you in the eye—and say hello in Arabic. I then ask for the street address I want. They point behind me and tell me to follow a street that runs perpendicular to the one we’re standing on. “On the right about halfway down,” one of the cops says. I thank them all and walk away. I find the building where I was told I would. It’s tucked away behind a fence and between two taller buildings. I make a mental note of landmarks and begin to walk back to the hotel. Just then my driver Ibrahim appears from behind the fence. We greet each other and shake hands. He asks if I’m coming in; I reply no, I’m just making sure where I need to go tomorrow. He tells me he’ll see me on Thursday for our drive to Alexandria. I say I’m looking forward to it and we say goodbye. Just before noon I’m back on the street corner ready to do business with the taxi drivers. There are two and the one who speaks first gets my business. He asks where I want to go and I give him the address. The American Embassy in the Garden City section of Cairo. I give him the street address. We hop in; it’s an old car, black and white, a Japanese product showing lots of urban wear and tear. Although there’s a meter, it isn’t turned on. We’ve been told that this is common practice and therefore we should negotiate a fare before we get in. I want to be on time for my appointment, so I skip that detail. We cross the river going east with the driver pointing out landmarks and making small talk. Very small, since my Arabic is rudimentary at best. We get to Garden City in about fifteen minutes but he obviously doesn’t know the area because he can’t find the street. He asks a couple of people who don’t know either but finally a cop points him in the right direction. He finds the street (I can’t make out the street sign amidst all the business signs on the building walls) and stops the car. The one landmark I have been told to look for—an Avis sign—is visible and I just hope it’s the RIGHT Avis sign; I’m sure there’s more than one in Cairo… “How much?” I ask. “Thirty Guineas” (Egyptian Pounds) he responds. About six bucks American; I hand him a 100 Egyptian pound note and get 50 in change. Oh yeah. These guys don’t carry small bills; we were told to expect that, so I walk away about ten dollars wiser, I hope. Our meeting is supposed to begin at 12:30 PM; I have several minutes to wait, but I begin to get a bit nervous when no one else seems to be stopping under the Avis sign. Just as I’m about to ask someone if that is indeed the American embassy just behind the barriers in the street, I see two sort-of-familiar faces. They walk toward the barrier and I overhear them asking about the Fulbright meeting. Okay. I feel better now. I run up and say “hello.” They remember me and now they look even more familiar. We head to the embassy gate and meet up with everyone else. The afternoon is spent getting oriented by various people. The American ambassador, a career foreign service officer (and NOT, thank goodness, a wealthy political donor) who has a long record of service in the Middle East, and was appointed to the post last Spring. Good move, Barack. Four hours later, we’re done and climb aboard a bus for a celebratory “Iftar,” the ceremonial fast-breaking meal taken after the sun sets each day during Ramadan. It has been arranged that we enjoy this feast at a restaurant in the citadel of Salah al-Din, the Ayyubid (Kurdish/Turkish) Muslim leader who is most famous for kicking the Christians out of Jerusalem in 1187 AD. We head east through the slums on the city’s eastern edge toward the Muqattam Hills, the highest geographical feature, anywhere near Cairo, composed of limestone and perfect for quarrying building stone. The sun is about a hand’s width above the horizon when we arrive, and we stand at a railing overlooking the Cairo skyline and the setting sun through a thick veil of smog and dust. The lights come on as we stand and talk; the wind freshens from the south and whips our hair. Along a wide esplanade paved with stone, waiters are busy laying tablecloths on tables, long ones to hold the buffet dishes and round ones where groups of six will sit and eat. The sun is still above the horizon, only barely, when we are called to the buffet line. We claim chairs for ourselves, pairing off and grouping up, and then load our plates. There are dishes that I recognize and dishes I don’t. Mezzeh, the Arabic antipasto is there: hummus (chickpeas ground finely and mixed with cumin, garlic and sesame sauce, tabbouleh (a salad made with cold cooked wheat kernels, onions, tomatoes and parsley) baba ghanoush (roasted mashed eggplant also mixed with garlic, sesame sauce and other spices), grape leaves rolled around cooked and spiced rice), kibbeh (ground lamb rolled in little sausage shapes and hiding pine nuts in the middle; these are grilled), and triangular puff pastries filled with mashed potatoes and then baked. All this is best eaten with generous amounts of pita bread—a pile of frisbee-shaped loaves sits in the middle of each table. It’s apparently traditional to begin the meal with a soup, and two are on offer. One is a vegetable soup and the other a cream type. There are rice dishes, more eggplant, a casserole that reminds me of Greek moussaka, I pick and choose; a little of most things, just to try. The wind blows strongly, flapping the edges of the tablecloth up over the dishes on the table. Hard to eat through linen. Booming in the distance makes us think it’s going to rain, but no doubt it’s the sound of cannons being fired to mark the REAL sunset and the breaking of the fast. Looks like we cheated a little. At our table are two Egyptian women who don’t speak English, but as the meal progresses, we engage them a bit with our limited Arabic; they are pleased to be able to tell us the names of some of the foods we are eating. Two Fulbright students, who I innocently observe seem to be working on similar projects, get into an increasingly tense disagreement about methodology. It’s beginning to make all of us (at least the Americans, anyway) a bit uncomfortable. I try to referee but one of the disputants talks right through me. Oh, I think, I’ve been here less than twenty-four hours and already created trouble. Great diplomatic skills. Finally, I do get in a word edgewise and suggest that everybody chill. Then apologies are offered and accepted and the meal winds down. We’re about to change the subject when one of the Fulbright office people interrupts to request that we move to another set of chairs grouped near the far end of the esplanade. A musical group, seven men and three women, has set up and are ready to play: violin, bass viol, tableh (Arab drum), qanun (zither), oud (like nothing so much as a pregnant guitar or a mandolin with a beer gut), electronic keyboard and four vocalists. For an hour and a quarter the group, Qithara Troupe, plays and sings. The leader, on the violin, is a well-known Egyptian musician who has developed a new sound which combines elements of “eastern” and “western” music. Much of the Arabic influence is still heard and generally dominates, but, as the violinist tells us in a brief interlude, he plays with major and minor chords and chromatic music to develop a new style, a fusion of many musical traditions. Indeed, at various times the music sounds like gypsy music, an Israeli folk song, a Broadway theme, a torch song, and even jazz. Interesting for that and for the fact that during the performance one hears conversations being carried on throughout the audience. Music is a social lubricant here and the etiquette is therefore different from your average big city American philharmonic event. The musicians finally stand and receive our warm applause. As they pack their instruments and quickly move off stage, their place is taken by a strikingly tall man dressed in an elaborate costume composed of knee-length black leather boots, a black shirt embroidered with white piping, black billowy trousers over which he wears a heavy ankle length skirt (also embroidered in white). Two scarves, one black, one white, are wound around his head. He is carrying a number of round, flat objects that look like tambourines. These, too carry the white on black motif . As the dancer approaches the middle of the open space, a new sort of music blasts from two shoulder-high speakers on either side of the audience. Electronic. Disco tempo. A chest thumping bass line with a high, reed flute, snake-charming melody wailing above it. Hypnotic and insistent. The dancer—his name is Ehab El Masry—begins to move, spinning up to a constant number of revolutions per minute. His skirt flies out parallel with the ground, his feet moving heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe in time to the beat. The edges of the skirt show white against the black of his trousers and shirt, rippling slightly in the wind, held straight out by the force of his spinning. With his hands, he moves the tambourines to form different configurations: a line of circles running up one arm; a triangular shape held against the center of his chest; five of them, a triangle on his abdomen topped by a single column covering his neck and face; another single row stretching across his chest from fingertip to fingertip. How many tambourines does he have? I thought three, but then five and now he is holding seven. He tilts his upper body to one side and an asymmetric design running up one of his arms appears. Five minutes pass and he continues to move, changing the patterns of the tambourines again and again, never the same one twice. A change now; he deftly gathers the tambourines and deposits them on the ground in a neat pile, never breaking his movement; never losing the beat. He spins on, booted feet moving to the beat. Suddenly, the skirt is released at the waist and part of it is lifted above his head, revealing colorful stripes. The dancer lifts part of the skirt above his head so that he looks like a wildly spinning oversized psychedelic hourglass. The music pounds away. He moves again and releases one layer of the skirt from his waist, raising the bright colors above his head, twirling it like a cowboy’s lariat on one arm. He twists the garment into a barber’s pole of stripes and holds it at an angle before dropping it to the ground. Another layer of skirt is revealed and he uses this to create yet more patterns. He has been spinning now for nearly fifteen minutes; the music driving him to keep moving. The audience is riveted to this dervish version of the dance of the seven veils. Everyone has the same thought uppermost in their minds: how can he do this without falling down, puking with dizziness? With one last flourish the dance ends; the dancer halts on cue, bows and walks off from under the lights. In a straight line. Amazing. Everyone applauds enthusiastically. Our first evening together as Fulbrighters in Egypt comes to an end. We walk back through the shadows and light to the bus, are driven back to the office, and find our ways home.

E-Day Plus One

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Today was business. After breakfast in the hotel (same fare; no variation) I head off for the Fulbright office two blocks away to the south (I’m getting my bearings,,,). Ranya Rashid, the office manager, arrives at almost the same time as I and smoothes my way past the guard’s station (I don’t yet have my Fulbright ID card…). In her office, we get down to the financial and logistical details of my move to Alexandria tomorrow. I’m given my medical insurance card, my Fulbright ID and sign a couple of forms. A handy backpack and baseball cap (more gifts from American taxpayers) complete my interview with her. It’s decided that because I am not going to be “working” at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (in other words I don’t have an official “lectureship” like the Fulbrighters at AUC), I won’t need a work visa and won’t have to submit to another HIV test (looks like another good day…). Ibrahim, the man who will also be driving me to Alexandria, stops in to make arrangements for meeting tomorrow and I’m issued a cell phone for use in Egypt. I’m then escorted up to the financial officer, Fazy Attia, who hands me a check for my first two months’ stipend. We say our goodbyes I head directly off  to the HSBC branch just around the corner from the Fulbright office to open my bank account. My stipend payments are henceforth to be deposited directly into that account. I ask to speak to Mai Sallam, whose name has been given me by Fazy. She hands me off to her colleague Ahmad Farid, who does the actual work. I’m asked for the usual personal information and my passport is photocopied. There’s a bit of a problem since I’ll be accessing my account from Alexandria; we have to decide which of the bank’s branches is nearest to my apartment. My ATM card is to be issued from that branch, and I don’t want to go halfway across town to get it. Well, Ahmad doesn’t  know the location of the street that my apartment is on so we first ask some of Ahmad’s colleagues. No one knows. In a moment of inspiration, I suggest that Ahmad call the Fulbright office and see if someone there knows. Lines all busy. Finally, Ahmad tells me I can phone him with the information. Do I have a mobile phone number? No, not yet. A phone but no number and no minutes, but I’m on my way to get one. He says fine. Let him know the number when I have it. Will do.

Another HSBC employee stops by and starts asking me questions about Alexandria; I tell him I’ve not yet been there. He wants to know where Iowa is. He thinks it’s a state with lots of snakes. I tell him no. Just corn. The colleague offers to expedite the opening of my account and takes my check to the cashiers’ station. In five minutes he’s back to tell me that the signature on the check appears to be invalid. Great. Back to the Fulbright office, past the guard’s station (easy now, with my ID) and up to Fazy’s office. He takes the check and comes straight back with it, now bearing Ranya’s signature in addition to his. Back to the bank (the guard at the door and I are now on a first name basis by now) and the same guy with whom I dealt earlier sees me and takes the check. He asks if I want to make a withdrawal and I say yes and tell him how much. In five minutes, I have my cash and am out the door.

I set off for the Vodaphone store on Dokki Street to buy a SIM card and minutes. Locate the store, order what I want from the two young men in charge and am back out on the street in ten minutes. I hustle back to the hotel and stash the cash in the safe box in my hotel room. I feel better now. I try to call Ranya to tell her what my new number is, but she’s not answering. I call Ahmad at the bank and give him the information and then make some other phone calls to wrap things up for now.

I spend the rest of the day in the hotel using the computer and watching Egyptian television. Drivel seems to have gone viral and global. Game shows, more soaps than you can imagine (Ranya was complaining during our talk this morning that Egyptians seem to spend all of Ramadan watching this crap instead of working. I despair…) The variety of channels I find interesting. Lots of stuff in English, Spanish, German, and French. Lots of fifties-vintage Egyptian movies, too. The actor from the recent Egyptian film, The Yaacobian Building, seems to have been in nearly every Egyptian production since the early sixties. Weird watching him age forty years in a single afternoon. There’s even a glimpse of Omar Sharif, post-Dr. Zhivago.

I work at the computer for a while and after the sun has been down for a while, I head down to the ground floor and find their restaurant. The hotel brochure says there are three of them, each with a different cuisine: one Italian, one vaguely Middle Eastern, and the third a sushi restaurant, of all things. Well, why not. I sit outside on a patio raised a few feet above the street level. The young waitress who seats me can’t stop giggling once I begin to speak to her in Arabic. It’s a little unnerving when this happens (infrequently, by the way) because I never know if it’s just the unexpectedness of a westerner, specifically an American, speaking their language, or whether I’m making a complete mess of the attempt and they can’t believe someone could speak it so badly.

I order something to drink and seafood fettucine. “Frutti di mare” sounds and looks odd in Arabic: Fawakih al-bahr. Well, eating Italian food in Egypt is strange already, maybe. While I wait, I watch an older guy a couple of tables away, attired in a business suit, order a water pipe and smoke it while he drinks a soft drink from a can. Something else you wouldn’t have seen half a century ago. The drink would have been really sweet tea and the suit would have been a “galabiyah,” the floor-length shirt worn by men which one sees less and less these days.

The waitress with the laughter control problem returns to tell me that the restaurant is out of seafood, so would I like to change my order. Rats. I had my heart set on that dish. Well, I ask if they’re doing sushi still and, to my puzzlement, she says “yes.” Okay, that’s fine. Apparently they have the right kind of ocean fruit for sushi, but not for the pasta dish. Well, it’s Egypt. I get my meal and eat at a leisurely pace, watching the foot traffic on the street next to the patio. Lots of young people, particularly groups of young women in varying grades of “hijab.” Some are in jeans and heels and just covering their hair; others are dressed in long robes and have the lower halves of their faces covered, too. Couples, men and women, are rarer, but not totally absent. I even see some playful slapping and pushing going on among these last pairings, but for the most part such two-gender parties comport themselves more demurely.

Meal finished; sushi not bad, after all. I pay my bill and go off to bed. Tomorrow is moving day. I finally get to unpack.

The Librarian has landed

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Tuesday 15 Sept. 2009

Thirty years since I was last here in Cairo and the city is unrecognizable, at least so far. Descending over the city in the plane, it seemed as though the lights stretched forever in all directions, although that impression could have been due to our landing pattern, circling ever lower. Long strings of street lights marked the major roads; some were long and fairly straight, others wandered in curves. Islands of lights marked areas of dense settlement in seas of relative darkness between them. As we neared the ground, it was possible to see pulsing neon in the commercial areas-restaurants, casinos, amusement areas-and green lights marking the minarets. A long narrow dark band slipped beneath us: the Nile splitting the city in two. Streams of traffic moved along the major arteries; lots of cars on the roads, it seemed.

I was met at customs by Ibrahim, the Fulbright “expediter” who took charge, showed me where to buy my visa ($15 handed to a teller in one of a row of several kiosk-style banks secured an official-looking piece of paper) which Ibrahim then handed, together with my passport, to the customs official in his booth. Once he had stamped my passport, he passed it to a woman in headscarf who was seated behind him. She appeared to enter some sort of data into a computer and then returned the passport to me. With that, we were outside in fresh air (for me the first time in 18 hrs…) and into Ibrahim’s car. It took both of us to heave my 85 lb. suitcase into the trunk… A pleasant evening for late Summer in Cairo. The air was moist, smelled of city and traffic, but not terribly hot. We set off for the Hotel Safir in a section of Cairo called “Dokki,” one of the newer suburbs in the western part of the city. I was totally disoriented until we crossed the Nile and I asked Ibrahim in which direction we were traveling. He replied, “gharbi.” West. That meant away from the Red Sea, generally; Alexandria was off to our right, north down the Nile and on the Mediterranean. The streets were full of people and cars; we had to stop several times as heavy traffic crawled to a halt and then began flowing again. I was startled to see pedestrians crossing the main streets-four or six lanes of traffic-wherever they chose. Most were invisible until we were right on top of them because they were wearing dark clothing. Glad I wasn’t driving…

It’s the holy month of Ramadan and that means that observant Muslims fast from sunup until sundown. Not an easy feat when the month falls in the long hot days of Summer. Work hours are customarily shortened during Ramadan and people tend to shift their active lives to night time. Shops and restaurants are open and doing brisk business; the many mosques are full of light, the minarets marked with green lamps along their lengths. The windows of the mosques, covered with geometric designs in masonry glow warmly in the darkness. Ibrahim points out some of the landmarks along the way: the central train station, President Mubarak’s residence, city hall. Familiar green and white street signs bear both Arabic and English place names. We turn off the main thoroughfare and down a narrower, darker, quieter side street. A neighborhood with people standing and talking with one another outside shops, drinking Coca Cola, smoking cigarettes. Ibrahim pulls up in front of the Safir Hotel, brightly lighted and marble lined. Sleek, modern, (“Recently renovated” says the marketing literature) and efficient. We lift out my suitcase, he summons a hotel employee to take it and we shake hands. “Alf shukr,” I say to him. Many thanks. We’ll see each other again in three days, when he drives me to my apartment in Alexandria. Check in. A mixture of Arabic and English spoken with the desk clerk and the “bell boy,” who is summoned to trundle my heavy bag upstairs to my room. The elevator is remarkably quiet and smooth. I hardly notice its motion at all. The bell dings and we’re on the twelfth floor. Key card inserted into the lock on the door. A quick introduction to the room’s features—TV, AC, mini-refrigerator (no booze in it…), lights. A tip to the young man in dollars (I haven’t yet had time to exchange money for Egyptian Liras) and I say good night to him, “Tisbah ala khayr.” May you awaken well. A forward-looking valedictory. A quick shower to remove the travel grime and off to a surprisingly restful sleep.

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