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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!

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