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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.

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