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.