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.

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