Archive for October, 2009

A Pleasant Interlude

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, 25 October 2009

Last week drew to a pleasant close with the arrival on Friday of twenty-two or so Fulbrighters from Cairo who were on a two-day tour of Alexandria. I had been looking forward to seeing my colleagues and was waiting for their bus outside the Fish Market Restaurant, on the waterfront in the district of Alexandria known as al-Anfushy. I had not been to this part of town before and was struck by the differences between this area and others I had seen. Al-Anfushy is one of three or four districts that occupy Alexandria’s most prominent geographical feature, a peninsula that reaches straight out into the Mediterranean. The peninsula roughly resembles a capital “T,” the arms of which on either side of the vertical line bow slightly upward in the middle. This is feature divides the harbor at Alexandria into two separate harbors. The harbor to the West is the commercial port; the one to the East, where I was standing, was for small fishing boats and pleasure craft. There are also beaches here.

Just to my left, not a half mile to the North, was the location of the famous Greek lighthouse known as the Pharos, whose site was now occupied by the fortress built by Mamluk Sultan Qayt Bey in the 1480’s. Across the water to the west lies a much narrower peninsula which embraces the waters of the harbor from that side. That peninsula was originally a causeway built by the founders of the city in the 4th century BC. Over time, it has silted up and now forms an unbroken link with the mainland. The city, with the spectacular slanted disc of the Bibliotheca in the middle foreground, stretches away to the West along the coast. This is the high rent district and it shows distinct influences of the various European communities who have lived here over the past two centuries. Buildings of four to six stories with classical architectural features look out over the water, fronting on the broad Corniche. There are also several large mosques here, surrounded by gardens, masonry walls and ornate iron gates. The street level space in virtually every one of these buildings is a coffee shop, with wicker or wrought iron chairs and tables lining the sidewalks.

The parking lot of the restaurant where we were to eat lunch had a row of red plastic traffic cones lined up along one side and I assumed that the guarded space was for the Fulbright bus. I knew that their arrival time was only approximate and thought that perhaps they had already arrived so I wandered toward the restaurant, which was one of several shoehorned into a space between the Corniche and the sea. To my right, a building of two stories blocked my view of the harbor. The structure seemed to hold at least two eateries. After passing through a couple of archways, I emerged on a plaza where a large group of men was just dispersing after their noon prayers. I thought, “What a lovely place for a service.” I wandered down the length of the esplanade, looking in restaurant windows on both the first and second floors for familiar faces. Seeing none, I returned to the street and stood beneath one of the palms lining that stretch of the road.

After about five minutes, a big sleek tour bus pulled up and disgorged the Cairo Fulbright contingent. Hearty greetings were exchanged and Noha, one of the Fulbright staff handed me my passport (I had surrendered it to her when I was last in Cairo so my residency visa could be processed by the Egyptian government). I was glad to have it back. Noha and the other members of the Cairo office then led us up a set of stairs in the building I had passed by earlier where a large open room holding numerous tables lay before us. We were guided to two long tables and seated ourselves according to individual whim and a degree of chance. Mezze (Middle Eastern antipasto) in its various guises appeared, together with baskets of fresh pita bread. Between bites of food, conversations blossomed; I caught up on what people were doing in Cairo and how their teaching and research projects were progressing. Many people expressed excitement about touring the Bibliotheca on Saturday. Once the remnants of the mezze were cleared, the main course was served: shrimp and baked fish with a side of spiced rice. Just the sort of meal one needed for a busy afternoon of sightseeing.

We spent a pleasant hour or so eating and enjoying the view across the bay. Then, we boarded the bus and made the short drive to Sa`d Zaghloul Square, where accommodations in the Sofitel Cecil had been arranged for the group. One of the Fulbright staff had already secured room keys and these were distributed as we rode along. (I had my own place, of course) After everyone checked in and had a bit of a rest, the group reassembled in a second floor conference room where Ms. Nadia Fanous, an Alexandrian personage of some standing whose family has a long history here, was introduced as our guide for the rest of the day. She gave us a brief overview of the history of the part of Alexandria we were going to see and then led us downstairs.Out on the street, we crossed the busy thoroughfare of the “downtown” section, playing tag with waves of vehicles. Ms. Fanous pointed out the European style architecture, the (now much diminished) financial district and one or two famous landmark buildings.

Passing along to a narrower street, we turned right and entered an enclosed garden in the middle of which stood Alexandria’s synagogue, a structure erected in the late nineteenth century when the Jewish community numbered in the tens of thousands. A magnificent building with Victorian influences apparent, Italian pink granite columns, Corinthian style capitals, stone balustrades along the upper gallery. The man who spoke to us about the building is the synagogue’s custodian and one of four Jewish males still living in Alexandria. At sixty-two, he is the youngest. The remaining twenty are all elderly women. To be able to convene a minyan (requiring ten adult Jewish males), the community relies on the sons and grandsons of the community’s women, even though those men may profess another religion. When the community disappears, the building will become a museum. When this prospect was brought to the attention of the caretaker, he pursed his lips and shrugged. “It’s God’s will,” he said.

After looking around the interior, we went out a side door into a courtyard on the east side of which stood the Jewish School, a four-story building with an inscription on the side in Arabic identifying it as such. The garden was filled with various trees and shrubs planted in brick lined beds. Canals for watering were laid out between some of them.

We exited the precinct, thanking our guide and boarded our bus, which stood waiting for us.

Our next stop was the Coptic Cathedral of Saint Mark. This had been the seat of the Coptic Popes for centuries and all of their remains are interred in a crypt beneath the building. Removing our shoes, we descended and viewed the final resting place of the church’s highest ranking servants, a low chamber with a plexiglass front through which one saw mostly dust. A couple of the faithful were writing prayers on scraps of paper which they then pushed into the crypt through a small hole in the plastic window. Our next stop was the newly renovated Alexandrian Opera House. We were greeted by Hoda Abboud, the institution’s public relations manager. She gave us a tour of the performance space, extolling its acoustics and the clear sight lines of almost all of its 700 seats. She also showed us a ballet practice space and the loge and balcony levels. Quite a nice theater and more evidence of the effort to re-mold Alexandria as a cultural, educational and commercial showcase.

Another stop was the city’s cultural center where citizens were exposed to various art forms through exhibitions, children’s and adult art classes, concerts and the like. There was a quite spectacular exhibition of modern Japanese ceramics in place when we visited, with some astonishingly breathtaking work by masters from different geographic locations in that country. A guitar master class had just taken place in the performance space that afternoon. The building was once called the Muhammad Ali Club and was an exclusive retreat for the city’s nineteenth and early twentieth century elite.

From here, back on the bus for a quick tour of the `Attareen (perfume makers) district which today is home to scores of furniture shops that turn out ready-made antiques. French Empire furniture still holds a sizable market share in Egypt and there were tons of it here. Street after street of small, one- or two-room shops with half finished chairs, breakfronts, wardrobes, and sofas standing on the narrow sidewalks. Even now, with daylight quickly fading, the work continued unabated. We drove past the Roman theatre ruins, but were unable to see very much of it in the twilight.

This was undoubtedly the least pleasant part of the tour, for me, at least, riding through a working class district in a huge, flashy tour bus. It was uncomfortable not in a physical sense, but rather because it emphasized our position of privilege in relation to the inhabitants. We gawked through the windows; the residents gawked back. And gestured. I realize that we would be perceived as privileged by the locals even if we were touring on foot, but the distance created by the bus’s walls and windows only enhanced the sense of removal from the reality of these people’s everyday lives—on which we were intruding in a very high profile manner. We were now hurrying to dinner, reservations for which had been made at Santa Lucia, an upscale restaurant behind the hotel where the group was staying. Dinner was veal scallopine, served with a green salad and rice and broccoli as sides. Chocolate mousse topped off the meal.

After dinner, most people chose to walk back to the hotel so smaller groups broke off from the main one and wandered up over a slight rise toward the ocean. The street along which we walked was filled with people, mostly young men but many women as well. For the first time since I arrived, I was witness to the sort of harassment that women (particularly, but not exclusively, young western women) have to endure here. My presence among a number such women seemed to aggravate the situation. Testosterone fueled adolescent fantasies were no doubt being exchanged among these guys. Although I was unable to actually comprehend any of the comments being tossed our way, the tenor of the words was easily understood. That gauntlet was run without incident, however, and we emerged on Sa`d Zaghloul Square and entered the hotel.

In the foyer, we were greeted by a band of men playing drums and a trumpet and singing in a celebratory fashion. The reason for this was quickly apparent for at the foot of the staircase surrounded by the drummers and singers, was a newly wedded pair. Women in the wedding party suddenly let fly with their characteristic sound of joy, the ululation, which I can’t describe in words and can only very poorly imitate. You will thank me for not ever trying to imitate it, trust me.

The party processed past the front door and moved off in the direction of the reception room; our presence was apparently not viewed as an intrusion; we simply joined in as another group of celebrants. Once the procession passed by, some of the Fulbrighters decided to retire to “Monty’s Bar” a watering hole on the hotel’s second floor. Monty’s is named in honor of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the British World War Two general who fought against Germany’s famous “Desert Fox,” General Erwin Rommel. Monty apparently ran his North Africa campaign from this hotel. I did not check the veracity of this story, but Monty’s photo was prominently displayed on one wall. In any case, we rounded out the evening with a glass of whatever and then made our separate ways off to bed. My road lay along the Corniche, so I hailed a cab and went home.

Saturday morning, I met the group at the Bibliotheca, where we were treated to an extensive and quite whirlwind tour not only of the library (which everyone judged to be a magnificent building), but of most of its ancillary units as well. We saw the museum devoted to Shadi Abdel Salam, a famous Egyptian film director, philosopher, and designer. It was he who designed Cleopatra’s ship for Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1962 film “Cleopatra” which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Next stop was a space called the Culturama, which featured another interactive display on nine projection screens, the same system we had experienced at the University of Cairo’s Central Library last week. This program gave an overview of Egypt’s history in visual form, complete with virtual tours of some of the more famous historical sites, such as the temple at Luxor. Next we visited a small museum devoted to the life of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The exhibit even included the bloody, bullet torn military tunic he was wearing when he was assassinated. Our final stop was the antiquities museum, which contains numerous artifacts relating to Egypt’s—and particularly Alexandria’s—history. Many of the items on display were uncovered during the excavation of the library’s construction site.

Again, we were pressed for time, so we hurried to the bus for our final stop, lunch at the Greek Club, which is located near the end of the peninsula that forms part of the harbor. We sat on a second floor terrace and ate lunch with a group of Egyptian Fulbright alumni.

I sat at a table with several students, Bruce Lohof, the director of the Cairo Fulbright office, and two faculty/administrators from the University of Alexandria. Ismail Gomaa is a professor of environmental geology and Muhammad Ibrahim is Vice Dean for Community Development and Environmental Affairs. He is also a professor in the business school. Both men had held Fulbright teaching fellowships in the United States. We enjoyed our meal and lively conversation about Egypt’s development, the Egyptians’ Fulbright experiences and the state of the world in general.

All too soon, the time for departure arrived and we strolled out onto the sea wall for a group photo before taking or leave. The group boarded the bus and I hailed a cab for the ride back to my apartment. Tomorrow, it’s back to work.

Who gets the RFP for Innovation? Musings on Openness and “the Cloud”



Our campus is looking at potential alternatives to a campus-wide system (for the purposes of this piece, it’s irrelevant which one), and, in the way of all post-modern organizations, is developing an RFP (Request for Proposal).

As I say, this is a time-honored tradition; you want a new service, or the replacement of an existing one, you “buy” one, and in organizational parlance, that means a “purchase process” consisting of:  RFI (Request for Information), followed by an RFP, then a review of received proposals,  followed by a purchase, followed by the culminating FAIUIBA (Forget About It Until It Breaks Again; and yes, I did just make up that acronym, but anyone who works with organizational IT knows I’m not describing a mythical creature!) at which time the cycle begins again.

However, gentle readers, I am not stretching a point or telling you anything you don’t already know when I stress that the phrase “time-honored tradition” is nowadays more of a shibboleth than laudatory; and one would think this would be especially true in the fast-moving world of Information Technology.  Yet it is perhaps here, more than any other service area, where the tradition dies hardest.

Open is here to stay

The great “open” movements that are already transforming education, as well as society at large, are little recognized when it comes to the “purchase process” described above.  (Keeping in mind, of course, that all the “open” movements are co-mingled with that giant conceptual cloud:  “cloud computing,” wherein you get your tech services and software from non-campus resources).  Let’s take one small component of the “open” environment:  Open Source Software.  If you are reading this post on the Web, it was created on server-side Open Source Software (in this case, Drupal; which means the software was developed by no single individual or company, but by a universe of like-minded developers; and that it cost us Zero Dollars to test, “buy,” download, and install).  Chance are about 50-50 you are reading this post on an Open Source Web client (Firefox is the most widespread one).  You are then free to download this text into an Open Source desktop application (such as Open Office’s Writer)

So, I can create, read, download, and re-format everything for/from a Web page, all without any money changing hands, all dependent on no corporation, but rather a group of like-minded developers whose only inherent interest is to make a better product.  Sweet, huh? 

Where’s the Rub, bub?

So, when it comes to selecting a new University service (e.g., Course Management System, Content Management System, Integrated Library System, email system, etc.) why wouldn’t your search begin with Open Source Software?

Well, there are a number of reasons, but today I’ll concentrate on one:  And that is, in most instances, Open Source has neither the same place at the table, nor the same advocacy, as does commercial software.  And the reason is simple:  By its very nature, Open Source is dependent on a spirit of innovation, and a strong user base; the developer’s goal is to share their work.  Commercial software is dependent upon a sales team, who innundate us all with mail (electronic and paper), phone calls, advertising, etc; their goal is for you to buy their product, because once you do, you won’t switch, at least not for a long time.  (Don’t forget FAIUIBA!)

Becoming the voice of the Open

So, how do we get Open Source (as well as its kindred movements, Open Access, Open Educational Resources) its proper place at the table?  Only by calling our institutions to task, namely:  If we claim we want to nurture innovation, “transformation,” and places where experimentation and education go hand-in-hand, then we have no choice:  Alternatives beyond those presented by salespeople must be explored, encouraged, and given room to grow. 

And if you’ve read this far, one last suggestion:  If you find yourself on an academic committee that is formulating, or evaluating, an RFP, do something radical:  Remind your colleagues that the “P” in RFP stands for “Proposal” instead of “Purchase.”  If you can get that radical idea across, try to at least broach the idea that “free” is not all bad, and supporting those who are in favor of innovation and sharing is not terrible, either.

Time for a Trim

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, 23 October 2009

The past few days have been a whirl of activity, finally. Among other things, I have arranged a schedule for the first set of collection development training workshops. We begin next Monday and I will offer six sessions over three days. Each of the workshops will be offered twice so that all reference shifts will be able to attend. So that’s three preparations for six classes and it will no doubt be intense. I’m looking forward to getting the party started. Look for reports about how it goes…

Second, I have engaged an Arabic tutor who has agreed to work with me on my colloquial Egyptian. We have arranged to meet for two two-hour sessions each week. From now until the middle of January (with some exceptions), Sayed Abd al-Kader and I will be speaking colloquial Arabic with each other. That should jump start the linguistic engine. Dr. Abd al-Kader is one of those professors I mentioned in an earlier blog as holding two posts; for him, one here at the University of Alexandria and another at the University of Cairo. He lives in Alexandria most of the time and commutes to Cairo on the days he teaches there. Our first week has gone well, I think and it is encouraging to me that I can understand 90% of what he says the first time. Now, if only I could get to that level of comprehension when dealing with Alexandrine taxi drivers and shop clerks!

Suddenly, there has been a spate of social events on the calendar, as well. This weekend about twenty Fulbrighters are coming to Alexandria for a visit and tour and I’ll be joining them for most of that; I’ve intentionally held back from visiting a lot of the tourist attractions in the city precisely because I knew that my fellow Fulbrighters would be coming and I thought that once I have seen the sites on that itinerary, I can then go out on my own and see what we don’t see together. In addition, there is a lecture at the Swedish Cultural Center next week, an Egyptian Architectural award ceremony at the library, and a Fulbright dinner in Cairo. The first two of these events invited me to attend (In her stead, in one case, I think…). So the social calendar begins to fill as well.

Having been here some five weeks now, there are certain personal matters that it becomes important to attend to. I refer to those cyclical events that one doesn’t necessarily think about at home, but which, when you’re abroad, suddenly take on increased import. Buying (or trying to find) your favorite soap or toothpaste (realistically, how much of that stuff do you want to schlepp along in your already overweight luggage?) sits at the lower end of that list. Finding a good dentist, pharmacy or clothing store, depending on the length of your stay, assume much greater importance. The Cairo Scholar Google group postings are FULL of queries about these concerns as well as finding a good plumber, carpenter, yoga class, contact lens solution supplier, computer repair person, and barber or hairdresser. It is this last category which has been of particular interest to me of late.

Now, this category doesn’t apply to everyone—mostly to those of us fortunate enough to still have something up there to cut. For us the issue is: what is the result going to be? Will one emerge from the chosen establishment looking like a military draftee on induction day, or will the barber/hair stylist’s handiwork require you to wear a wool cap for the next four weeks? Not a happy prospect in this country, I can tell you. So, the issue, then, is to find a decent barber shop and how does one do that in a foreign country? Well, you could camp out in front of a different shop each evening (barbers, like most other businesses are open primarily in the late afternoons and evenings in Egypt) and observe how exiting customers appear, or you could ask around among fellow European or American sojourners—or Egyptians—who might be sporting a cut you admire for a recommendation. Or you could simply scout out a clean, well-lighted, heavily visited shop and walk in. Not having too many American or European acquaintances close at hand, my option was the latter.

On the designated evening (Wednesday last), I screwed up my courage and walked out into a very pleasant, cool and breezy evening toward my destination. On one of my many walks along Abu Kir Street, a major commercial thoroughfare not far from my apartment, I had passed a very nice-looking shop with two or three chairs advertising itself as a “men’s hair stylist.” I saw this as a positive sign thinking that anyone who aspired (at least) to actually style hair, rather than simply cut it, might be a cut above the generic barber shop. The door of the shop stood open but a rather tattered bead curtain hung from the interior of the frame. I pushed my way through, with a rattle of beads, and was immediately greeted by the barber (okay, stylist) who invited me to sit in a chair in the waiting area. He was engaged in a conversation with two twenty-something Egyptian males so I picked up an Alexandrian newspaper from the stack on a nearby table and began to work my way through the headlines.

After some minutes, one of the young customers apparently reached a decision and proceeded to have his hair washed while his companion waited. The barber took over as soon as the shampoo had been completed and started to work on his customer’s head. The teenager who had performed the shampoo on the first customer then appeared at my shoulder and motioned me to take a seat in front of the sink. A towel is draped around my shoulders and I recline into the notch in the sink. The water is shockingly cold and raises a doubt or two about my choice of barbers. But I decide to suck it up and withhold judgment a while longer. It’s only water and soap, after all. The shampoo is too heavily scented for my taste. The boy’s hands are gentle and he’s obviously been taught some sort washing technique because he’s thorough. More cold water to wash the lather out and another brief scalp massage using a fresh towel.

I’m then led to the second of two barber chairs in front of a large mirror. I take my seat and a second barber suddenly emerges from an interior room somewhere. A paper strip is wrapped around my neck and the customary cloth drape is tied on top of it. The second barber, like the first, is in his thirties, clean shaven and casually dressed. His hair, tight dark brown ringlets, is tidy and cropped pretty close. I wonder who did his do. He asks me what I want done. I reply that I want a trim, nothing severe, not more than a centimeter or a centimeter and a half taken off. He looks a little taken aback but then nods his head okay.

My initial fear is that he is going to whip out the clippers and in a few short minutes undo what it has taken my regular barber ten years to work into shape. To my relief, he picks up his scissors and begins to snip away. He’s being cautious and seems intent on his work as I watch his progress in the mirror. He makes his first pass around my head, getting the general outline of the finished product. When he gets to the sides of my head, he asks whether I want my hair to cover the tops of my ears (my customary fashion) or shorter. I tell him to uncover the ears. I figure that way I may be able to postpone my next visit for a week or two longer. Just in case I don’t like what he does. A second pass brings us closer to the desired result. The teenager shows up again and slips a single edge razor blade into a holder lying on the shelf beneath the mirror. The stylist uses this to even up my sideburns and to scrape away the gray hairs marching down the back of my neck.

So far, this has all been relatively conventional and I’m starting to feel a bit more at ease when things start getting interesting. I’m asked to recline against the headrest. As I lean back the stylist dips his fingers into a jar of some sort of lotion which he proceeds to apply to my face: a stripe across my forehead, each cheek, upper lip, and nose. The lotion is heavily scented; as I said, I’m not a fan of scented grooming products. Okay, now this is unexpected and a little unnerving, but I decide to see what this is all about. The next five minutes or so are devoted to a facial massage which I experience as a kind of heavy petting. It is sensual and shockingly intimate, a reaction that surprises me and brings unbidden images from the Thousand and One Arabian Nights to mind. I’ve never had anyone massage my face before, and certainly never a stranger! Not on the first date anyway. Not even dinner and a movie. Just at the point where I think this is getting a bit kinky–having your eyelids and nose (your nose!) massaged is a weird experience– a hot steamy towel is produced and placed over my face. After a few seconds, it is used to gently remove the excess lotion. A second towel follows the first and the process is repeated. The steam from the towel heats the lotion and its fragrance colors the air.

I am directed to sit up again and the stylist returns to his scissors to make a few final adjustments to his work. Those pesky geezer-ish ear and nose hairs are clipped away and the eyebrows pruned. Next the hair dryer is unholstered and, with the assistance of a rat tail brush, a final styling is wrought. Then, the aerosol hair spray appears and is liberally applied. A cloud of mist surrounds my head and a totally new odor intrudes on my senses. Again, I’m not a fan of scented personal hygiene products. Finally, the cloth drape is untied and the paper collar unwound. The teenager is called and he brings a hand mirror with which I can assess the result from various angles. Well, it’s only hair and I’m not unhappy. There’s way too much artifice in the result but it’s not terrible so I ask the cost (25 Egyptian pounds= $5) and pay. The teenager gets a tip for his shampoo work; I thank the barber and exit the shop.

The cloud of fragrance follows me and I find myself wondering what sort of insects or feral animals might be attracted to the multitude of odors I’m wafting into the night air. My only hope is that the cacaphony of odors will prevent any potentially threatening species programmed to respond to a single fragrance will be confused and not immediately identified me as a potential source of food–or an object of affection. My first task when I get home is to shower this stuff out. I also need to give myself a couple of days to make a dispassionate assessment of my new haircut and to consider whether or not to find a different place next time. All in all, no permanent harm done; the hair–or at least some of it–will grow back and I haven’t seen any shocked expressions on the faces of people I encounter in the street, so maybe it’s okay.

Another Hiatus

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, 19 October 2009

The past week has dragged. There. Said it. With the librarians engaged in a marathon two-week training program—both for themselves as well as for a cohort of Bahraini (I think) librarians—I have been at loose ends for much of the time. I made a point of getting out and walking around my part of the city at least once a day, a new direction or distance each time, just to see what’s there. I’ve found that the evening is the best time to emerge since that’s when the streets come to life, as I’ve indicated before. That has been helpful both psychologically as well as physically and now that things are beginning to roll again at the library, I think I’m going to find myself short of time all too often.

Given the dearth of eateries in my immediate neighborhood, I had been looking for one that was at least within walking distance—for me, a mile and a half or so—and although I found a couple, neither served Egyptian food. Determined to rectify this absence, I set out to see if I could identify any likely possibilities. In one of my tidying up fits, I happened to run across an e-mail I had printed out from a friend of a friend whose family lives in Alexandria. He mentioned a place called Muhammad Ahmad’s and I check my Alexandria map, which has a key listing restaurants, to see if it is mentioned. There it is, in the city center and not far from the Corniche. I got a cab and had the driver drop me off close to the spot marked on the map. The streets were filled with people taking the evening air or shopping in one of the innumerable electronics shops, clothing stores, parfumeries, and the like. But I didn’t see the restaurant, so I finally stopped in one of the shops and asked.

“Where’s Muhammad Ahmad’s restaurant?” Big smile.

“Ah. Muhammad Ahmad! Come my friend.” Hand on my shoulder guiding me to the shop’s entrance.

“Three streets down, turn to the right. Can’t miss it.”

So, it was true. I had been told that it was a famous location and that anyone in the vicinity would be able to direct me. Great.

“Okay. Thanks.”

I head off in the direction indicated and make the turn indicated. I walk down one and then two blocks without seeing anything. Of course, what AM I looking for? I don’t really know what a popular Egyptian restaurant should look like. I know the word for restaurant, but I’m not seeing it. So, I ask again. The person I query points over my shoulder. I turn around and there it is. Big sign, lots of lights. The entire front of the place is open to the street and most of the tables are full. Just as I step up, the table nearest the doorway becomes free and the waiter quickly seats me. All around people are busy eating and talking. I’m handed a menu and see that the full name of the restaurant is Muhammad Ahmad’s Fool Restaurant.

Now, “fool” in Arabic is the word for broad beans. Fool is the Egyptian equivalent of American comfort food. It’s eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and is prepared in a variety of ways depending on which city you happen to be in and what time of day it is. “Fool mudammas” is the most common form, broad beans cooked in a sauce and served with such condiments as chopped onions, sesame sauce, tomatoes and the like. That’s ALL they serve here.

I’m reminded of the Belushi-Ackroyd “Saturday Night Live” skit sending up the archetypal New York City Greek diner: “Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger!” “No Coke; Pepsi!”


“No BLT. Cheeseburger.”

Well, this is the real deal. I peruse the menu and choose the “Fool Alexandrina” figuring that is what I should have in Alexandria, at least for a Fool virgin. I order a hummus salad, French fries, and a bottle of water. The first thing to show up is a basket with three pieces of pita bread in it. The salad follows almost immediately and I start in on it. The place bustles; empty tables are cleared in a flash and quickly filled by a steady stream of newcomers. My meal arrives on a small aluminum plate: a dish of beans garnished with tahini sesame dressing, some chopped green onions and diced tomato. Not spicy, but tasty and filling, which is the fool’s essential virtue.

As I eat, a gang of men shows up carrying huge aluminum cooking pots. They carry them past me into the restaurant, followed in short order by another group of men carrying stacks of yellow plastic milk crates filled with pita bread. A portly guy with a fringe of short grey hair around his head strolls to the entry and observes the work. I gather that this must be Muhammad Ahmad. He’s wearing a short sleeve polo shirt which is straining to contain his ample girth. His herniated navel perches like a dinner roll on his belly.

This guy is a remarkable mixture of anger and gentleness. One minute he’s patiently instructing a young worker on how to sweep the trash from in front of the establishment, the next he’s chewing a new sphincter for one of the bread delivery people. Apparently, the guy had set a bread crate down on the street instead of on the truck bed and the owner doesn’t want dirty bread in his place. I appreciate his concern but note that the bread gets delivered anyway. Waste not, want not…

I finish my meal and ask for the check. Ten pounds! You are joking. Two bucks? Another satisfied customer. I leave a nice tip for the waiter and saunter out into the evening. I find the coffee house I had visited earlier in the week when I toured the acropolis and order a Turkish coffee and a slice of gateau with cream. I spend twice as much on dessert as I spent on dinner, but it puts a nice touch on the end of the evening.

Toward the end of the week, I become aware of stirrings at the library. The head of collection development, Nermin, contacts me and asks to meet so we can move forward with the program. On Sunday, I meet with Nermin in my office and we try to hash out what she would like me to do and balance that against what I think I can provide. Something has obviously been lost in translation somewhere along the line because I have to tell her at the end of our time that I will have to re-think my plan of action before I can do what she would like. I agree to send her an outline of a three-session workshop in the next couple of days. I take my notes home and spend the next day working on an outline for the sessions.

Monday dawns through overcast and heavy humidity. The sea is obscured completely at 7 AM and the temperature already stands above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Radio Cairo tells me to expect temperatures as high as 30 (Centigrade=about 85 Fahrenheit). The wet air makes the atmosphere even more oppressive so I put the AC on, the first time I’ve turned it on in the morning since I’ve been here. Today will be busy; I have scheduled a brief appointment with Dr. al-Wostawy so I can formally present the library with a copy of my book, and then I’m meeting a man who I am interested in engaging as my Arabic tutor.

I get to the library about a half an hour before my appointment with Dr. al-Wostawy and settle into my office. Just before 10:30, I call Sohair and tell her I’m here and need someone to escort me to her office (I still don’t have a pass card and don’t yet have access to the staff areas…). Amr, the very personable young factotum shows up about 10: 40 and we go up to Sohair’s office. As usual, she’s got three things going at once. She motions me to a chair and I wait until she’s finished with her other business. We talk briefly about her trip to Qatar and how I’m getting along. I present her with a copy of my book, which she is pleased to accept and asks me to autograph it. I tell her that I don’t want to take her time, but we end up spending twenty minutes or more talking about her plans for the “one millionth volume” celebration, which will mark that collection development milestone for the library.

By the time I leave, I have two additional assignments; first, Sohair wants my recommendation for the one millionth title: what should it be? Oy! I promise to give it a shot. I gather from what she says about a couple of ideas I throw off the cuff that it should somehow exemplify what the Bibliotheca is all about. Additionally, she has been given the task of writing up an abstract that is to be used by the director of the Bibliotheca, Ismail Serageldin (Sohair’s boss), as he fashions his address for this occasion. She asks if I might put something together about the role of the Fulbright program in the evolution of scholarship that she can pass along to him. Big oy!

I take my leave promising, on my way out, to get something to her as soon as I can. Amr is waiting for me with a telephone in hand and (oh, joy!) a pass card that will allow me greater freedom of movement in the library. We go back to my office, Amr installs the phone and gets me my extension number. The pass card needs to be validated so we will meet tomorrow morning at eleven to get that processed. I go to work for a while on the collection development project while waiting for my appointment with the Arabic tutor to roll around. Shortly before I’m about to close up shop and head out for the meeting, two young women from technical support show up and get the computer in my office set up so I have an account on the library’s system. Now we’re cookin’! I’ve almost got everything I need now.

I leave the building and wait in the place the tutor and I agreed upon. Ten past the hour and still no sign of him. I go up the stairs to the restaurant and see no one looking remotely like an Arabic teacher. As I’m descending the stairs, though, I’m passed by a man who says hello in English. Aha. Uncertain, though, that it is he, I continue to the foot of the stairs. The man I passed is at the top of the stairs and I watch as he takes out two cell phones. He’s obviously looking for a number and two seconds later my phone is ringing. We signal each other and introduce ourselves.

The library coffee shop is closed for some special gathering so we stroll across the plaza and grab a cab that takes us to the Mahatet al-Raml district close to the city center, where we enter a coffee house and order mango juice. We have been chatting in Arabic since we met and I’m struggling to keep up, but Sayid Abd al-Kader’s enunciation is clear and his speech moderated so that I’m getting nearly everything he says. And I’m making myself understood (will wonders never cease!).
We talk for a while—he’s a Professor of Arabic and English at both Cairo University and the University of Alexandria—and agree to meet twice a week for two hours at a time.

I tell him that I’m interested in working on my colloquial rather than classical Arabic and he agrees. He asks me how I want to approach the project and I tell him I’m interested in improving my ability to communicate verbally. We talk about possible topics for discussion and what sort of instructional materials I might want to use. We agree upon that matter and then set up a schedule. I’ll be meeting Sayid Mondays and Wednesdays at 1:30 for about an hour and three quarters each day. I’m hoping that four hours a week will be enough. I can’t afford more than that anyway.

I grab another cab back to Saba Pasha and spend the rest of the day digesting everything I now have to do. Have to get up to speed in a hurry now!

Thirty Days Later…

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, 13 October 2009 Today marks the end of my first month in Egypt; perhaps a good time for a bit of reflection on what thirty days here has brought—or not. I can understand now why most holders of Fulbright grants spend a year in their posts: it takes a couple of months just to get one’s bearings and to learn to navigate the broad waters of a different culture, language, and modes of living before one can become productive. Those who have teaching positions may have a somewhat easier job of it in that they are just transposing their classroom activities to a different geographic location. There is the language issue, but for faculty teaching at the American University in Cairo, English is the official language of instruction, so that’s one less obstacle to overcome.

I have been making an effort to get out and around more and have achieved a certain comfort level with my surroundings. I’ve started buying my bread (the Egyptian “baladi” (country style) bread, that is) from a sidewalk vendor who charges the equivalent of 20¢ American for a plastic bag containing five pieces of flatbread the size of a salad plate. A little rubbery in consistency, but great with cheese or hummous bi-tahini dip. I practice my Arabic at every opportunity but despair at my glacial rate of progress in that effort. I have contacted an Arabic tutor, whose name was given to me by the library director and I hope that a couple of sessions with him each week will move things along more rapidly. My four-month stay here probably doesn’t provide enough immersion time for my skills to improve substantially, but like most endeavors, it will depend on the effort I put into the project.

Yesterday, I decided it was time to do some exploring of an historical nature and went to visit the ancient Greco-Roman Acropolis, dating to the founding of the city by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. My primary reason for wanting to look at this site was because Sohair, the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, had told me that there were remains here that gave one an idea of how the scrolls might have been stored in the ancient library of Alexandria. I checked the location of the site on my map of Alexandria and saw that it was located in the southwest section of the city, west of the Bibliotheca and south, in the direction of Lake Maryut, the brackish lake that sits just behind the coastline and pinches the city in the middle. I grabbed a cab and gave the driver the name of the site. He didn’t seem to know the name of the location, but I told him the name of the city district in which it lay and he said okay.

We set off west along the Corniche, the preferred road for most travel if you’re going any more than a few blocks (For this reason the Corniche, which is six lanes wide, is very congested at the beginning and end of the working day and has heavy traffic most of the time.). After we pass the library, we turn off the Corniche and travel to the southwest through heavily used streets. Cars compete with buses and rickety old trams whose tracks are buried in the asphalt of the streets. The asphalt is poorly laid and even more poorly maintained so that the surface often resembles puddles of molten wax. Along the east side of the street leading to our destination, known as the Pillar of the Horseman, there are numerous shops or stalls open to the sidewalk, displaying all sorts of cheap household products, sorry-looking vegetables and fruits, car parts and supplies, and fabrics, among other things. Male pedestrians wear traditional galabiyas and the women are predominantly dressed in hijab. An air of poverty is everywhere.

On the opposite side of the street was a ten-foot masonry wall, broken occasionally by a gate or archway. This was the Bab Sidra cemetery, the main Muslim burial ground for this part of the city. Earlier in this journey, on a nearby street, my cab had passed a red and white ambulance moving slowly along and followed by a group of ten or a dozen men on foot. It was apparent now that this was a funeral procession on its way to the graveyard.

We arrived at the gate of the archaeological site where a couple of tour buses were parked. I entered the gate, purchased my entrance ticket, went though the omnipresent metal detector (which, as usual, beeped, but I was waved on anyway…), and entered the compound. Like the cemetery, the archaeological site was surrounded by a high wall. It encompassed an area of about five acres bounded on the south and west by streets and on the other two sides by apartment blocks that rose one or two stories above the wall. The center of the space is dominated by a limestone hill surmounted by a red granite pillar some seventy feet high. This column was raised in 300 AD to honor the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who saved the city from famine. Apparently, until the Arab conquest in the 7th century AD, the column had a statue of the emperor astride a horse at its top, hence the name of the location.

There is a walkway around the perimeter of the site which leads past various points of interest, some of which are marked by large signs identifying their former functions: the cisterns that held water for the Greco-Roman buildings at the site, a pool, the Roman bath, and so forth. The sun was out and blazing and the wall prevented any air movement from reaching the lower parts of the site. It was near noon and the heat was intense. I made my way up to the pillar’s base, which was reached by a raised wooden walkway. Up here, about twenty or thirty feet higher than the entry point, there was a bit of a breeze and it was possible to wander around what was once the center of the ancient city. Bits and pieces of columns, once supports for the porticos and roofs that covered this area, lay around the perimeter; some were only partially unearthed and stuck out of the ground at angles. The paving stones of the floor had long since been carried away for other building purposes and one walked across the bare limestone and soil of the hill. On one edge of the rise was a pair of statues of sphinxes, facing the west. My guidebook said that there was also a 20-foot statue of Isis here that had been hauled out of the ocean near the harbor forty years ago, but it must have been moved elsewhere since the book was published. At least I didn’t see it.

At the northeast corner of the hill was a staircase leading down into a pit of sorts. At the bottom, there was an opening in the rock that led into a long series of tunnels. Lights mounted in the ground inside showed a series of niches and shelves cut into the walls at intervals. These, I gathered, were the sort of spaces that, in the ancient library, would have held papyrus scrolls. What these spaces were meant to hold, I am not certain, but corpses would have been my guess. In another wall at the base of the pit was a second opening containing more niches. This area was labeled the “Sanctuary,” and lay in what would have been the sub-basement of the Temple of Isis that once stood on this part of the acropolis. At the end of a long gallery, deep under the ground, was a reproduction of a statue of a sacred Apis bull, two skeletons of which had been discovered here during archaeological excavations. The worship and ritual burial of these animals was a feature of certain Egyptian cults.

Back out into the noonday sun, I completed my circuit of the site, pausing at the souvenir shop to see if there were any postcards of the monuments here. Unfortunately, there were only the clichéd shots of the pyramids and the sphinx. How disappointing. I left the enclosure then, intent on getting back to the Corniche and seeing a more modern part of the city. As I left the gate, one of the automatic rifle toting Egyptian cops guarding the site asked me if I were looking for a cab. I said yes and he found one for me. Not that they were especially scarce in that location, but I think he felt that I shouldn’t wander too far in this neighborhood on my own. Or maybe he was just looking for a little supplement to his no doubt meager salary. In any case, he found a cab for me in short order and I was on my way.

My driver was very congenial and we shared a conversation that was a cut above the ordinary. It started with the usual overly generous assessment of my Arabic abilities: “Tahki al-Arabiya Kwaiys.” (“You speak Arabic well.”)

“Shukran, bi-LLahi, mish kwaiyis kteer.” (“Thanks, by God, not very well at all.”)

This is followed, customarily, by protestations and counter-protestations to the contrary nearly ad infinitum, or at least until one person (usually me), surrenders and says, “ Thanks, you’re too kind.”

But this guy understood that my Arabic wasn’t great and took time to speak slowly and to find alternate words when I didn’t understand the first one. He told me about how marvelous Alexandria was fifteen or twenty years ago, when it was still primarily a seaside resort town. Now, he said, the population (I had heard a figure of six million; the driver insisted that it was twice that!) had made living here very difficult. Housing was at a premium and the cost of living had thrown a lot of people into poverty. I told him that such was the case in most cities of the world. He also revealed that he had done some travelling, once to France and once to Israel, of all places. He confessed to having been seduced by the beauty of the country but despaired of ever seeing real peace because of Israeli arrogance and unwillingness to rein in their territorial ambitions. He spoke of the absolutely wretched state of Gaza and marveled at how people there could manage to live. He also expressed admiration for the States; I hear this so often that I suspect—make that KNOW—that it’s a reflexive ploy exercised on Americans to secure a bigger tip. It worked with me or at least I allowed it to work. And he dropped me in front of a hotel with a sidewalk café where I immediately ordered a cold mango juice and a sandwich.

A space at one of the outside table came open and the waiter asked me if I wanted to sit outside. I said yes and moved. The sidewalk was wide and that meant that the traffic noise and fumes were somewhat reduced. The shade was pleasant and I relaxed as I waited for my food. Horse drawn carriages in various states of repair were carrying people from one point to another along the seafront and there was the obligatory parade of sidewalk hawkers selling everything from woven doormats to sunglasses to “Rolex” and “Omega” watches. Uh huh. Guaranteed to function until at least tomorrow…

I did succumb to one panhandler, a guy in his fifties who was missing most of his left leg, a feature he made a point of emphasizing in various ways. I figured, “I’m in a Muslim country and charity is one of the four obligations imposed on the faithful.” Well, I don’t fit either of those categories (Muslim or faithful) so maybe it’s because someone with only one leg has a lot less of a chance here than a person with two, and even those with two are fighting against considerable economic odds. No real social “safety net” in Egypt…

My sandwich was larger and tastier than I expected and rose from the table quite satisfied. I paid my bill and wandered around the square for a while. This was obviously the “high rent” district with a few really nice hotels and a well-watered and maintained park with an impressive statue in the middle. I saw a couple of places I decided I would come back to and then headed for home. I felt that I had done enough of the tourist thing for one day.

Later, after the sun had set, I went back out to eat dinner and do some grocery shopping. I’m still taken with the transformation of the city at night. The lights come on, the storefronts are bright with all sorts of things for sale and people are out walking everywhere. Alexandria’s shabbiness seems to disappear and the city becomes almost livable. I wanted a restaurant nearby so I walked to the Four Seasons Hotel, housed in the same building as the mall I occasionally use. I sat outside on a raised deck overlooking the Corniche and indulged in a little more extravagance with a meal of sushi (prepared by a Japanese chef, who must be wondering how the hell he ended up here!) and a bottle of Egyptian beer. The Corniche isn’t much quieter by night and any romance the location might provide is dissipated by the rush of cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles. This place needs an urban planner in the worst way!

Autumn is on its way in Egypt, too. October’s temperatures here are a far cry from those in Des Moines at this time of year, but the sun has set by 5:30 now and my thermometer read 62 degrees this morning. I’ve been sleeping with the AC off for the past couple of nights and when I open the living room curtains, there’s a haze over the ocean that doesn’t lift some days until 10 AM. Definite signs of a change in season. It will be interesting to see what two more months’ time will bring.

Cairo Redux and (Surprise!) Another Library

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, 10 October 2009

This weekend featured another Fulbright social/cultural event in Cairo. I had planned to make the trip and attend. This weekend’s focus was to be the new (and newly remodeled) Cairo University Central Library and I thought that I should see how an Egyptian university library runs things. I booked tickets for the 2 PM train to Cairo and took along a book since it was a daytime trip and I would have light to read by. As backup, I bought a copy of Newsweek on the railway platform.

The trip down to Cairo was smooth and uneventful; the countryside slipped past rapidly and, since this was an express train, our next and final stop was the Egyptian capital. I emerged from the train station, ran the usual gauntlet of cabbies wanting to take me anywhere, and took the stairs down to the Metro station. Compared to the chaos of the streets above, the subway is a different world. It’s relatively clean, it runs on time, and is quite orderly, judging from my brief experience with it. It is also much, much cheaper than a cab. One Egyptian pound will get you from one end of Cairo to the other. A real deal. It’s also much faster than a cab.

I emerged in the Dokki district, on Tahrir Street, and asked a cop for directions to the Safir Hotel. He said, “Go right, then left and then right again. The entrance to the hotel will be on your left.”
I thanked him and moved off in the direction indicated. Of course, he hadn’t told me exactly how far it was but I knew from looking at the street map that it wasn’t more than a few minutes’ walk. His directions proved to be a little more difficult to follow than I expected, but I emerged in a park which, after asking again for directions, I recognized as being the opposite end of the park I had seen during my first stay here in September. I found the hotel, checked in, and then went out for a walk, stopping by my bank’s ATM along the way to replenish my dwindling economic resources.

Toward evening, I returned to the hotel where I ate dinner and was waited on by the same young woman who had served my meal the last time I was here. Amal (that’s her name) remembered me and we caught up with some personal news. She told me she had enrolled in an English course and I said that she was clever to do so. I sat on the veranda watching foot traffic as I ate, enjoying the cool evening air.

The next morning, after a terrible night’s sleep (some moron at the front desk made a wake-up call to the room at midnight and I couldn’t get back to sleep for several hours after that), I got up showered, had breakfast and checked out. The Fulbright group was to meet at the University gate closest to the university’s Metro stop at 9:30 and that was only two stations from the Dokki Station. I found the Metro easily enough and boarded the train.

There were obviously classes being held at the university on Saturday because many of the train’s passengers were young and carrying books, notebooks, and backpacks. I disembarked at the Cairo University station and followed the hordes of students up the stairs, across the tracks and down the other side to the university’s entrance (the subway runs above ground here). Only people with university IDs were allowed past the gate; there were Cairo cops in their white uniforms and black berets checking documents at the entrance. The street in front of the gate was filled with cars and mini-buses dropping off and picking up students at a steady clip.

The air was thick with petroleum fumes and I tried to find a place along the narrow sidewalk that was somewhat removed from the worst of the exhaust but which still allowed me a view of the gate so I could spot our leader, Noha, when she arrived. I was apparently the first to arrive but within five minutes I caught sight of Mike McMullen descending the stairs from the subway platform and waved to him. Shortly after that, we were joined by Scott Hibbert, Tessa Farmer, Kathleen Cain, Karl Lorenz, Katherine Goodin, Joelle Petrus, Kristine Potts and several other Fulbright students. Noha was running late and a quick phone call to her by Kathleen revealed that she was already in the library organizing our IDs. She showed up after a few minutes and we received our IDs. The guards at the gate, unfamiliar with the cards, which were in English, at first refused us entry, but eventually allowed us to pass.

The university is unbelievably huge. There are (officially) some 200,000 students enrolled there sand the institution is widely acknowledged to be almost unmanageable because of its size. The admissions process is much like that in many European countries: if a high school student achieves a certain grade point average, he or she is guaranteed a place at the university. A concomitant relaxation of secondary education standards (and the large number of college age young people) has resulted in an astronomical increase in the number of eligible students. Faculty are underpaid and the professoriate is filled with people who hold positions at two or even three universities in order to make a living. Educational standards are said to have fallen dramatically over the past several decades.

From the few conversations I’ve had with Egyptians about this issue, it appears that the government is using the universities as a sort of economic safety valve. Students engaged in study with dreams of improving their standard of living are not as volatile as unemployed, undereducated young people with no prospect for a better future. If the economic situation doesn’t improve soon for countries like Egypt, young people will come to realize that it doesn’t matter how well educated you are. If there are no jobs, there are no jobs. Egypt seems to be at a tipping point, politically and economically. There is great human potential here and a certain dissatisfaction with a government that portrays itself as democratic but in reality is not, or at least is so only superficially. The economic gap between rich and poor is wide and widening with money and political connections more important than the rule of law.

In any case, now that everyone has arrived, we make our way out of the car exhausts and walk to the new central library. The new library is a five-story building that, architecturally, is a rather striking mixture of traditional Mamluk style stone work and modern sensibilities with odd angles and projections. Inside, marble and natural woods predominate. You have a partial view here: We assemble in a large group study room on the third floor; there is a large table in the center of the room with canned soft drinks and juices and bottled water at each seat. The interior wall is floor to ceiling glass and a row of smaller windows in the outer wall provides a view of the plaza below. We are joined by Dr. Sharef Shaheen, the director of the library and a professor of library science at the university. He proceeds to give us a presentation (augmented by the ubiquitous PowerPoint) of the history and organization of Egypt’s libraries.

Public community libraries are a rarity in Egypt; many public schools lack them as well. There is a public “library of record,” analogous to the Library of Congress in the States. The Dar al-Kutub requires Egyptian publishers to submit for deposit there ten copies of every book they publish. Given the short publication runs of most books printed here, many publishers see the ten copy requirement as onerous and damaging to their profit margin. Consequently, some of the smaller publishers evade this requirement. What the penalty for such transgressions is, I don’t know.

There is also the National Library of Egypt (NLE) which has some 28 branches around greater Cairo, with two main branches, one for archives and another, located on the Corniche along the Nile, being the main research location with books, journals, electronic resources and the library’s administrative unit. Most of the items in the NLE’s collections (90%) are depository items; gifts account for another six percent with the remainder constituted by purchases and gifts. Holdings run at about 4.5 million monographs, 11,000 journal titles (4,800 Arabic, the rest in other languages), 110,000 manuscripts, nearly 70,000 music recordings and notational items and 10,000 maps. There is also a large agricultural library because that activity is so important to Egypt.

The Egyptian government is making serious efforts to build its electronic information capabilities and e-government is making important inroads. The parliamentary record is now published online, for example and the ministerial cabinet has a web page for its “think tank.” There are a number of major electronic archival projects underway, including several launched by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina: the Nasser Digital Archive, the digitized volumes of the Description d’Egypt—the massive record of French research conducted during Napoleon’s occupation of the country at the beginning of the nineteenth century—and a digital archive of the history of the Suez Canal, among others.

Many Egyptian libraries, library organizations and library services may be found on the web, although many of these are available in Arabic only. Still there are those that have English pages as well. Scientific, technical and mathematical resources are viewed as crucial to Egypt’s future, so there is something called the Egyptian National Scientific and Technological Information Network (ENSTINET) that provides an electronic gateway to those kinds of resources.

All Egyptian public universities are members of a consortium (EULC- the Egyptian Universities’ Libraries Consortium) which pursues savings through economy of scale purchases of electronic information and the elimination of duplication of services. They have also a union catalogue for the holdings of all the universities in Egypt. Theses and dissertations are viewed as very important sources of information for all university students here so there is a major effort to digitize these materials.Given Egypt’s long history, there are a number of projects focusing on culture and national heritage, ranging from history to nature and folklore. Many museums and research centers have web sites through which interested people may obtain useful information.

Dr. Shaheen entertained a few questions at the end of his presentation and the group then set out on a tour of the library. One of our first stops was an amphitheatre where we were treated to a very impressive display of technology, an interactive audio-visual presentation on the centenary celebration of Cairo University (2009). There were nine projection screens arranged in an arc across the front of the room and the presenter was able to use a pointer to activate an image on any of the screens to bring forward more information about that particular item. For example, a timeline was projected onto the screens and the presenter could point to any date along the timeline and major events in that year concerning the university were then displayed. Clips of moving images and music were also accessed in this way. Quite impressive.

We resumed our tour with stops in the periodical collection, the special library for the visually impaired, and the computer commons. The circulation system is not operational yet, so students are unable to check books out, but they will be able to eventually… Everywhere one turns in the library one finds young men in brown polyester Richard Nixon suits observing activity. I assume that they’re there to guard against theft or the defacement of materials, but they obviously are meant to make sure users adhere to a set of behavioral guidelines. While we were getting an orientation to the computer lab, one student was admonished for having his briefcase on the computer table. Personally, I’d find working under those conditions a bit annoying, but then I’m not Egyptian…

We had a quick stop in the library museum, where many items from the university’s archives are on display. A final halt on the front steps for a group picture and an introduction to the architect of the library (who was a Fulbright Fellow at Columbia and Michigan in the early 50’s!), then ten of us took off for a late lunch. We were all famished and so hopped the subway to Dokki, where Kristine knew of a Yemeni restaurant. We found the place and plenty of room for us. We sat down around two tables pushed together; a waiter came and spread large sheets of paper over the table surfaces and Kristine guided us through the menu. We decided to order in pairs and chose an assortment of vegetarian and meat dishes.

There was a clear chicken broth to start and then our meals were brought straight from the oven in deep bowls like soup plates. Stacks of pizza-size, freshly baked Arabic pita bread were tossed on the table and we fell to. The manner of eating was to simply tear off a chunk of bread and use it as a scoop to lift out the food from whatever bowl one decided to attack first. There was a spicy bean dish, baked chicken with rice, a shredded beef dish (the Yemeni national dish, we were told), a dish of stewed vegetables and salad. There is no better way to build group cohesion and bonhomie than competition among one’s lunch companions with pieces of bread for a bite of tasty food from a common dish. We ate and talked our way through a good hour and when we finished, walked to the rear of the restaurant where sinks and soap were available for washing one’s hands.

I had to head back to the railway station and a few others were headed in that direction, so we jumped back on the subway. I bid farewell to my companions a couple of stops before mine and said that I hoped to see them in a couple of weeks in Alexandria, when there is a tour of that city planned. I got to the train station in plenty of time and then waited two hours longer because there was a major delay on the line to Alexandria. The station announcements over the loudspeaker were incomprehensible and the clerk at the information booth was not very forthcoming with information. However, there were several Egyptians about who realized that the “Agnabie” (foreigner) was a little slow on the uptake and offered explanations and reassurance that we’d get home. The train did finally show up (a really nice car by the way) and we were off. Home late, but home and into bed.

For Librarians Only (Well, at Least Mostly…)

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, 8 October 2009

On Wednesday, after a week of silence from my new colleagues at BibAlex, I e-mailed those with whom I thought I should be dealing primarily and asked them when they wanted to take the “next step” and what they thought that step should be. The response was not long in coming. Omnia Fathallah replied in short order and suggested that we meet Thursday (today) at 2 PM. The heads of reference, electronic resources, collection development for the library, continuing education, and art and multimedia were expected to attend. I also received an explanation—in a roundabout way—for the lack of communication from the staff over the past week. It seems that there is a major “corporate communications” workshop being conducted by Prof. Caroline Stern of Ferris State University which extends over this week and next. Thus, my project is on hold until this activity has concluded. This week, a group of librarians from Bahrain is also participating in some of the training, so the professional staff is up to its metaphorical nostrils in work.

A group of us did meet this afternoon; there were five in attendance in addition to your reporter and, with a smaller group, we actually managed to agree on an outline of how we would like to proceed and the approach we agreed upon is an odd one, perhaps, but it gives us an entreé to the process of getting off square one. One of the topics that keeps emerging from the talks I’ve had with the librarians here is the library’s collection development policy. The first professional task I undertook when I arrived was to read the document carefully and completely. It is very much a “work in progress,” but my first impression was that it is a very thorough, well thought out, and well designed document. It is rudimentary in the sense that many of the units have not yet submitted their finalized contributions, but the overall structure is there.

This matter is weighing most heavily on their minds; they see the completion of the document as having a vital impact on both their collection development efforts and their information literacy program. Such being the case, we decided that we should begin work on fleshing out the document. A more complete collection development policy will hopefully provide the BibAlex librarians with a road map for addressing the many collection development issues they face and provide a way of directing the future of the information literacy program. How this latter component actually fits into the scheme is not really clear yet, but the idea had strong support from Mohamed el-Gohary, the continuing ed person. I can see ways of employing that effort in ongoing review and revision work on the document and in providing direction for the continuing education program, at least in part.

The overall outcome of the meeting was that we have a starting point and an outline of how to accomplish some of the work the BibAlex librarians think is important for advancing their mission or, more correctly put, their missions (plural), since the several specialized units have particular needs and requirements that are not always congruent with the aims of the main library. Finding ways to address that problem may be an added benefit to the exercise we are about to undertake.

The one glitch in the affair is that they would like to cram all of my work into a thirty-day period between the 20th of October (which marks the end of their corporate communications/Bahraini librarian training program) and the 20th of November, which apparently marks the beginning of yet another period during which many Egyptians (I’m imagining mostly Copts, but who knows?) take yet another “holiday.” I had not anticipated a period of such intense work on my part.

I understand from what some of my interlocutors said during our meeting that one reason they thought this would work best was that the director had led them to believe that the “research” part of my project was to receive highest priority. I have to disabuse them of that notion in a hurry so that I can work with them over a longer period of time. Whether this will work out or not remains to be seen.

A Brief Hiatus

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, 5 October 2009

The last few days have been slow and uneventful, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to provide some more social observations on life in Egypt or at least in Alexandria. All the Fulbrighters were told that things move at a more leisurely pace here in Egypt and I suppose that’s what I’m seeing just now. I was scheduled for a last round of meetings Sunday and Monday with those departments I had not yet met, but no one materialized at the appointed times. These meetings were to be the final ones before the various directors and unit leaders met with me to discuss where we go from here.

Since I’m without an office phone and because I haven’t been issued a pass card to get into the area of the library where the librarians’ offices are, I’m sort of at their mercy when it comes to arranging face-to-face meetings. I have the sense that they are ruminating over the possibilities that my presence offers and discussing the implications among themselves first, before they present a program to me for discussion. That’s the most generous explanation for the sudden decline in interaction; the nightmare scenario is that they have concluded I’m useless and not worth any more of their time. The reality no doubt lies somewhere between those two extremes.

This being the case, I’ve had a bit of time to observe Alexandrian life (or at least the little slice of it that is accessible to me) more closely and hopefully my observations will gain in nuance as I do this more. The first thing one notices here is that the tolerance for cleanliness and hygiene is considerably more lax here than it is in the States—outside of the average slum or college dorm room let’s say. Dust, of course is everywhere; the desert is never far away and the climate is dry, so dust is to be expected. Aside from that, however, is the general impression of a place that’s a bit run down, ramshackle, unkempt, crowded, poverty-stricken, and faded.

Garbage collection, for example, doesn’t seem to be done on any sort of regular schedule, as far as I can tell. One sees dumpsters parked everywhere, and they are almost invariably overflowing with trash, food waste, and the usual assortment of nastiness. Plastic garbage bags are fairly common but they don’t stand up to being backed over by who knows how many cars, or pawed through by the very poor looking for usable scraps of food, or simply are not strong enough to hold the mass of stuff packed into them. The result is that dumpster stations are foul and one regularly (at least in my neighborhood) has to navigate around them as one goes about one’s business in town. I do see garbage trucks, but the collection of trash was recently privatized in Egypt and, as with most instances where saving money is the object, the low bidder gets the contract and that means workers who don’t care (because they’re paid a pittance) and vehicles and equipment that are second-hand and poorly maintained.

Traffic I have addressed before but a word about the nature of transport might fit in to this particular rant, too. Yes, lots of cars, from the Lada taxis (the Yugo of the Middle East), Daihatsus, Fiats, Toyotas, Suzukis, and the like, to Peugeots, Volvos, and Chevy Tahoes (these being rather rare). They all compete for space in streets not engineered for automobiles (except the main thoroughfares and inter-urban highways) and burn fuel that wouldn’t pass EPA muster anywhere in the States. The result is air laden with petroleum by-products, diesel soot and every sort of chemical nastiness one might think of. But such is life in a “developing” country. On the other hand, I have run across one natural gas re-fueling station and there was a queue of taxis waiting to tank up there. This suggests that someone, somewhere is looking at alternate fuels in Egypt.

Trains—the urban trams, at least—have the advantage of running on electricity and have an efficiency of scale, carrying many more people on less energy than any other mode of transport. Maintenance and repair are another matter, however. The tourist trains, those that ply the routes along the Nile between Cairo and Upper Egypt (Aswan and Luxor, where the monuments of ancient Egypt are the major attractions), are the equal of any European rail line: modern, clean and quiet. The train I rode between Alexandria and Cairo last week was roughly the equivalent of a heavily used commuter line in the States: shopworn, a little dingy and in need of serious cleaning, but the air conditioning worked and the seats were comfortable.

The facilities for working Egyptians, however, are decidedly several rungs below this. While I was waiting for the Cairo train in Alexandria, an early morning train pulled in carrying farmers and their produce, the farmers anxious to get to the markets before the grocery stands opened (or so they could get space on the busiest pedestrian corners before other people looking to sell). That train had few windows, doors that didn’t close and was completely caked in mud. Okay, so it was a “working train,” if you will, but what was striking was the vast difference in standards for the working poor and those for everyone else. Tourists in Egypt often encounter resentment from certain Egyptians; when one sees the money the government spends on catering to non-Egyptians, it’s not hard to understand why such resentment exists.

Schools and universities opened this week, the start of the school year having been delayed one week because of the fear of an outbreak of H1N1 (swine flu). One campus of the University of Alexandria (there are at least two, if not more, scattered through the city; one, the College of Agriculture, is just down the street from my apartment building) is situated right behind the library and the number of young people—students—has increased markedly since Sunday. The reason I mention this is that I gave an estimate in an earlier blog about the percentage of women who dress in “hijab” in Egypt. I have to say that the number of young women I now see on the plaza outside the library (a favorite gathering place for the university students before, between, or after classes) wearing some degree of veiling is much larger than I originally saw.

In a period of an hour and a half, perhaps a bit more, spent in the café observing the pedestrian traffic during lunch hour, I would say that easily more than half of all the women I saw were wearing at least a head scarf; many of those were also wearing what I think of as the next grade of concealing attire, the knee-length blouse. These garments come in all colors and patterns and there are obviously fashion statements being made in each case. It’s also relatively easy to distinguish between the “K-Mart” togs and the ones that come from hijab “boutiques,” so there is a class distinction apparent in these garments as well. The number of women in complete hijab, the black floor-length dresses with long sleeves and veil that covers everything but the eyes (and frequently gloves that cover the hands, as well!) do not predominate, but I saw several groups of three or four women all wearing such apparel in that period of time. Groups of women wearing varying degrees of concealment are also common. One group member will have only a head scarf, the next head scarf and long dress, another the whole nine yards.

At the same time, I saw many pairs, women and men, in which the woman was wearing some sort of hijab and they would be holding hands. It was clear that in public at any rate, such behavior is not seen to violate any social prohibition. The matter of male-female relations is obviously much more complex and nuanced than the veil would suggest, at least in Egypt. A posting, earlier this week, on a moderated list for scholars in Egypt talked about an instance when two young women in head scarves were denied entrance to a popular night club. They were told they could enter if they pulled their scarves back behind their necks so that only their hair was covered. The exchanges that followed this report ranged from outrage that the women would be forced to make such a compromise, to calls for scrapping the idea of hijab altogether.

During the tour of “Old Cairo” last week, I learned from one of my Fulbright colleagues that one of the biggest influences on Egyptian sensibilities about the proper public behavior and appearance of women comes from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis apparently are seeking to export their Wahhabism to other countries in the region and have the resources to publicize their message in an effective way. This was something I had not understood before and it goes a long way toward explaining some of what is happening in the social life of Egypt. One has the sense that Egypt is very much at a tipping point in terms of its social and economic life. The tensions between the “haves” and the “have nots” are subtle but strong. The difference in terms of income alone (many Egyptians earn as little as 300 Egyptian pounds a month (ca. $60) while a fortunate minority earns 5000 pounds (ca. $1000) or more. Where such pronounced disparities in income exist, economic strains are bound to exist. In such a situation, the appeal of a religion-based solution to perceived social inequities is very tempting.

I took an extended walking tour (self-directed) of part of Alexandria yesterday; I headed west in the general direction of the library, but took Abu Kir Street, a road that runs parallel to the shore, more or less, but a few blocks distant from the coastline. This is a wider street with nice wide sidewalks, for the most part, and lots of shops. There are malls along the way, too, but they are generally smaller than those in the States, confined to one building in one block. Small shops still dominate the commercial landscape here, although some groceries are chains.

What I noticed on that walk was that a considerable number of buildings from the 1920’s and 1930’s are still standing. Most, if not all, of these were built as single family residences back when the population of Alexandria was much smaller and decidedly under more European influence. These buildings are (or were) mansions. All are at least two and most are three stories high, with balconies, porticos and tall shuttered windows. One near my apartment bears a cornerstone engraved with the name of its European architect. They are invariably set back from the street, surrounded by masonry walls containing gardens, palm trees and paved walkways. They are often crowded by twelve to fifteen story buildings on either side, but these are obviously later structures and it is frequently easy to envision what the cityscape might have looked like seventy or even fifty years ago.

Many of these buildings are in rough shape, with the masonry falling off and shutters hanging askew; derelict, in other words. Others have been converted to commercial spaces, government offices, or broken up into apartments with a story or two added on top of the original structure. Some no doubt belonged to wealthy Egyptians; the Egyptian King Farouk had a seaside summer residence in Alexandria which has since been turned into a tourist attraction. Some other mansions have become museums of pre-WWII high life or of art. The museum of fine art is housed in one such place.

Together with the Islamic monuments and buildings, the Greek and Roman remains and the even rarer Egyptian antiquities, one gets an idea of the length of time there has been human settlement here, and how modes of living have changed over that time.

Uncle Sam Shows Up

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 1 October 2009

There were supposed to be more meetings for me this morning with the directors and unit leaders to discuss my work program for the next four months, but as I was leaving the apartment, Hend, Sohair’s assistant, called and said that they would have to postpone those meetings. I wasn’t given a reason and it wasn’t really necessary to have one, I suppose. I headed off to the library anyway and settled into my cubicle to do some computer work. I caught up on some blog entries and checked my e-mail.

Around noon I set off for the café next to the library for some lunch. Unfortunately, there was some special event there involving USAID, so the main part of the café was closed off. All the tables on the veranda were also occupied; guy at the door said sorry, no more room. So, another day without lunch. For a big city there are remarkably few restaurants around—other than the ubiquitous fast food joints that one finds everywhere these days—and surprisingly none anywhere near this huge institution. I will either have to lower my standards or go a little farther afield when I go looking for an eatery.

Back to my office, then, and tried to keep busy for twenty minutes or so, until the main event of the day, a lecture and presentation by some people from the US Embassy in Cairo. According to my schedule, they were supposed to be talking about a new program, the “ALA Sister Libraries Program” and giving a presentation entitled “Libraries and the New Media Technologies.” I had run into Mohamed El-Gohary earlier in the day and had asked him where the auditorium was. I hadn’t seen any signs for it, nor had its location been revealed to me in any of my tours. He told me where to find it and at the appointed time, I went and found a seat.

Mohamed and Bassma El-Shazly had apparently organized this event and Bassma introduced the three embassy people: Henry Mendelsohn and Barbara Conaty from the Information Resource Office at the embassy in Cairo and Matt Whatley, an information technology consultant who helped set up twitter feeds for President Obama’s Cairo speech earlier this year. A fourth guy, who was introduced as a former librarian, tiptoed around taking pictures of the audience and speakers.

Mr. Mendelsohn opened the session with a presentation about a new program launched by ALA that seeks to establish formal relationships between libraries in the US and libraries abroad. Partner libraries may then share resources—lending or borrowing materials in foreign languages for example—or arranging exchanges of personnel. There were some questions at the end about the exact nature of the program: how to identify a suitable partner library, how to apply for the program, and so forth. There seemed to be a fair amount of interest in the program from the fifty or so librarians in attendance.

The next part of the program focused on electronic information sharing, specifically social networking sites and how librarians might exploit those kinds of tools in their work. “Second Life” was also introduced to the group as a potential way of drawing attention to one’s library, conducting virtual conferences and such things. There were some questions posed about these web sites and software, but the most substantive query came from the librarian for the Taha Hussein Library; she wanted to know what resources were available for the visually impaired. Well, the embassy folks didn’t have a direct answer for her but talked more generally about resources for “disabled” people in general. I felt that this was an unsatisfactory response. Although well-intentioned, it was not the appropriate reply.

The presentation concluded after about ninety minutes and people dispersed to their workplaces again. I went back to my little corner, collected my things and headed for home. Not having eaten since breakfast, I was in need of tucking into some groceries, which is what I proceeded to do.

A Tour of Old Cairo

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.

30 September 2009

Okay. So I’m up at 5 AM, before the alarm and long before the sun. I step out on the balcony and realize that it has rained overnight. Not a lot, but the balustrade is wet and I can see the streets shining and slick under the streetlight on the corner below. There are still clouds in the sky and I wonder if maybe I should take a rain jacket. I decide no, Cairo is a couple hundred miles south and I seriously doubt that they will have had the same weather.


I eat breakfast and about half an hour before train time I head downstairs and look for a cab. At this time of day, there aren’t many of them, but yesterday I asked the cabbie who drove me home what time the cabs start rolling in the morning and he said they’re always around. I took him at his word, hoping I wouldn’t have to walk (or run) to the train station. It’s a bit too far to do that. I had a short wait and a yellow and black came into view. Most cabs in Alexandria, and in Egypt in general, are painted black with yellow doors, hoods and trunk lids. Virtually all of them are Ladas, Russian POS’s that have the advantage of being cheap, maneuverable, and able to take a serious beating and keep on rolling. They’re also dirty, loud, cramped and often smelly. But we don’t sweat the small stuff. They get you from A to B.

I get dropped at the station in good time and am directed by friendly early risers to the right platform. The train rolls up right on time and I head for my second class coach. I find my seat, surprised to learn that the car is air conditioned, and settle down. It’s not crowded and it’s fairly comfortable. The air conditioning has the car a bit too cool for my taste, but not too bad.

We set off, rumbling through the outskirts of Alexandria and then farm land. I’m seated next to a guy of about fifty-five or so, who reads the Koran for the whole journey. His recitation is barely audible over the sound of the wheels on the tracks and it’s easy to ignore after a while. I take out my Blue Guide to Egypt and start reading about the Islamic city, which is the main focus of the Fulbright tour today. The guide book has easily fifty pages on Islamic Cairo and I wonder how much of that we’re actually going to see in a six-hour walking tour.

The two and a half hour trip is over before I know it. We pull into Cairo on time and I try to find a cab. I intend to avoid the customary vultures who lurk near the station’s exit. They prey on the ignorant: “Taxi, Mister? Where you go?”

“Mat’haf al-Qibti (the Coptic Museum). How much?”

“How about fifty pounds?” In a pig’s eye.

"La, Shukran (No thanks)." I paid only 85 pounds for a 200 mile train ride. Get real. I walk away.

Outside the price drops to 30 pounds and I wonder if that’s the best I’ll be able to do. I don’t know Cairo and I don’t know the distance between the train station and the Coptic Museum. The train station is on Ramses (yeah, the ancient Pharaoh) Square. The square is actually a roundabout with a viaduct running overhead for part of its circumference. With the arrival of the train from Alexandria, the competition for cabs has gotten fierce and I wait for ten minutes or so before an empty one comes along. I hop in and tell the driver where I want to go. He doesn’t understand my Arabic the first time around and when I repeat myself, adding a few details, like “Old Cairo (al-Qahira al-‘adeema),” he nods hesitantly. Fortunately, Hend Rasmy, the Fulbright person who is leading the tour, had told me to expect this sort of thing and has instructed me to call her cell phone if the driver were uncertain. I do this and hand the phone to the driver. He and Hend converse for a minute and then we're on the right track.

It’s quite a long ride and during the time the driver and I are together, I learn that the he is an Orthodox Christian. He shows me a small tattoo of a cross on the inside of his right wrist. He wants to know if America is a Catholic country. No, I reply; mostly Protestant.

“Oh, Protestants,” he nods. “My wife is a Protestant.” Religion is a testy subject in Egypt. The country considers itself Muslim, but there is a sizable Egyptian Christian (Coptic) community, some Catholics, and some Eastern Orthodox Christians, as well as a miniscule and dwindling Jewish presence. The Copts have long been discriminated against, not officially, but as a matter of practice in certain segments of the population. They are true second-class citizens, although one brave Coptic soul is currently running for president. His pitch is (I saw his statement in a Cairo newspaper before I left for Alexandria), “I’m an Egyptian, so why shouldn’t I be a candidate?” Lots of luck. A snowball would have a better chance of surviving Summer here.

We reach the Coptic Museum and I pay the fare. Thirty pounds. Probably way too much but what the hey; I’m here. Now I have to find Hend and the group. I call her again and she tells me they’re in the Hanging Church (no one was hanged there; it’s built in a manner that makes it appear to be hanging from a wall, I think. I’m too late for the guide’s explanation). I don’t see her so I walk back toward the museum entrance. Not there either. I call again and she says “Turn around.” There she is, waving. Okay. I’m connected.

I enter the church and meet the other folks. There are seventeen of us, about half students and half “scholars.” Our guide is Dr. Chahinda Karim, an art historian. We’re just finishing the “Coptic” part of the tour and walk out of the Hanging Church to a small structure known as the Church of the Holy Family. Copts believe that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were buried here in a crypt beneath the church. This part of Cairo existed before the city of Cairo itself. The Arabs founded a settlement in this area when they invaded Egypt in 641 AD. Fustat, as it was called, was almost completely destroyed by two separate fires, the second one about the time of the Crusades (1168 actually), and it was never rebuilt. Modern Cairo recovered the area over time so that now it’s part of the city.

The historic sites we are visiting are at least ten feet below the present ground level so we have to go down stairways to reach the ancient street level. There has been some reconstruction here which is intended to give one a sense of what the city was like 1500 years ago. The one restored street is narrow and rather winding with the usual tourist shops on either side. At the far end of this street we enter a very old building. It is a synagogue which is reputed to have been built on the site where Moses was retrieved from the bull rushes along the Nile. The person who supposedly recognized this site was a Rabbi who came from Palestine in the time before the Muslims. His name was Ben Ezra and the synagogue bears his name.

The importance of this building, aside from its historical value, lies in the fact that in the late 1800’s a Cambridge Hebrew scholar named Solomon Schechter came to this building and was shown a depository where centuries of discarded paper had been stored. Jews of that day believed that anything bearing Hebrew text (the sacred Jewish language) could not simply be discarded. It had to be ritually buried, just in case any of the writings included the name of God. Schechter retrieved crates and crates of documents from the room and spent the rest of his life researching them. They form the basis for our understanding of life in Fustat-Cairo for the medieval period. It was such a treat to stand in that building knowing that Schechter had been there as well.

Our final stop in this part of town is the Church of St. George, he of dragon-slaying fame. He was martyred and his relics are located here. There is a small shrine to which one gains access via yet another flight of stairs. Coptic nuns still live in the cloister attached to this church.

From the church we returned to the parking area outside the Coptic Museum and boarded a bus waiting there for us. Our guide pointed out the first mosque to be built in Cairo as we pulled away and then we were headed to the old city of Cairo proper. Fifteen minutes later we were outside the Mosque of Husayn in classical Islamic Cairo. The Fatimids (a Tunisian Shi`ite dynasty of the tenth century) founded Cairo and built the first city wall and other structures. The Mosque of Husayn is one of the earliest of their buildings. We don’t go in here, though; it’s already nearly lunch time and we have reservations at the Naguib Mahfouz Coffee Shop. A short walk into the Khan al-Khalili, Cairo’s famous (and now tarted up) traditional market area, brings us to the eatery where Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s most famous novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, used to take his daily coffee break. We go in and are led to a long table in the back where we sit down to eat.

Lunch includes all the foods I have been wanting to eat since I arrived in Egypt, but have been unable to find in Alexandria. We are served by fez-wearing waiters, who bring puffy freshly baked pita bread, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, Baba Ghanoush, puff pastries filled with spinach, and kibbe (ground lamb and spices formed into little cones and deep fried. Mmm!). I order a glass of mango juice; when it comes, it is thick with pulp and tastes very healthy indeed. Lunch itself is a carnivore’s delight: lamb chop, kebabs, roasted pigeon, skewered chicken and rice with pine nuts. We eat and talk for most of an hour.

Up from the table (some people moan about taking a nap) and back outside. We turn right and walk to one of the main thoroughfares of Islamic Cairo. It has been restored and cleaned up considerably. The intent is to give an impression of what Cairo looked like in the 13th and 14th centuries. There is a small mosque called the Mosque of al-Salih Ayyub, which we enter and, in the shade of one of its arcades, our guide gives us an explanation of this simple style of mosque: a square building with arcades around the walls and an open space in the center. We spend a delightful half hour or so talking about the place, and members of the group begin to ask Dr. Karim about being a Muslim woman. She expresses unreserved dislike for the whole veil thing; she considers herself a “good Muslim woman,” but she’ll be darned if she’ll were a hot old head covering.

She says that she wears what she considers modest attire: a long blouse over trousers that are not tight fitting (“I’m a grandmother,” she says, by way of explanation.). Her hair is uncovered. She tells of being confronted, on a trip to Saudi Arabia, by one of the religious enforcers who make sure Muslim women (and men) are obeying the dress code. He's carrying a stick with which he punishes transgressors on the spot. She had her head and hair covered, since that’s the law, but the guy with the beard and the stick wanted her to cover her face. In short she told him to buzz off or she would put his stick where the sun don’t shine. He left. In a hurry.

We got up after a while and wandered back out to the street. Waiting there for us was our unofficial body guard. A guy in his twenties, wearing a brown polyester suit, complete with tie. One unusual accessory was the machine pistol he carried under his jacket. Not very unobtrusive but rather business-like. He wasn’t attached to our little group, but he was just keeping an eye on us, making sure the riff-raff didn’t give us any trouble.

Dr. Karim pointed out several more of the Mamluke buildings along the street (the Mamlukes ruled Egypt from the beginning of the 14th century until the Ottoman Turks came along in 1516). They left an incredible architectural legacy and their buildings are more numerous than those of any other Egyptian Muslim dynasty. At the end of the street, we passed through one of the gates in the ancient city wall and found our bus waiting for us. We didn’t see our security detail after that.

A bus ride of about twenty minutes brought us to another part of Cairo that was more familiar. We were now in the shadow of the citadel where we had enjoyed dinner after our orientation session two weeks ago. We descended the bus steps and found ourselves in between two massive buildings. One was yet another Mamluke structure, the Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hasan, built in 1356, the second an Ottoman Turkish building dating to 1906.

The Sultan Hasan mosque was the first structure of its kind. Instead of being simply a place of prayer, this mosque had a school (madrasa) attached to it. The madrasa had room for about 400 students, two or three to a room, who would study under sheikhs at the mosque and pray their daily prayers without having to go outside. The foundation document for the building states that, in addition to the Koran and Muslim law, astronomy and mathematics were to be taught here as well. In addition, there was a small medical clinic appended to the building so that students could study medicine. We had a look around this massive place and then walked across the plaza to the second building. This is called the Rifa`i Mosque and was built at the beginning of the 20th century by the Ottoman Turks. The Turks didn’t build many large mosques in Cairo because it was only a provincial city to them; their capital was Istanbul. However, this building is interesting because it resembles a Christian church in its form. The first Turkish mosque in Istanbul was a converted church (St. Sophia) and Turkish architects used that as their architectural model when they built mosques elsewhere. There are also tombs in this building. Two Egyptian kings, Fuad and his son Farouq (the last king of Egypt) are buried here as is the Shah of Iran. I had always wondered where he had been planted, and here he was. Apparently, the decision to bury him here was made because his first wife was Farouq’s sister, so he was sort of family.

So, enough of mosques and minarets and all that. We re-boarded the bus and were dropped in the Dokki District just next to the Fulbright office. I thought the area looked familiar. I asked a couple of people what they thought was the best way for me to get back to the train station: cab or subway. I opted for subway just for the experience and four of us bought tickets and jumped on. My companions were heading in a slightly different direction so they got off after a couple of stops to make their connection. I stayed on until the Mubarak Station and then got off. The station was huge and the passageways maze-like, but by asking for directions a couple of times, I found myself back above ground and standing in front of the Cairo train station. Inside, I went to the information kiosk and asked for the platform for the Alexandria train. “Thamani,” the man said. Number eight. I found it and the train was waiting.

First class for the ride home in the evening light. Air conditioning up too high again, and no decent light to read by. I napped briefly and watched night slide past the windows. We flew down the tracks until we were just outside of Alexandria and then we came to a halt. For the next half hour we crept along and pulled in about a half an hour late. Everyone needed cabs so there was a bit of a wait again, but I managed to snag one after about five minutes. In another ten I was home and crawling into bed.

Scroll to Top