In order to help minimize spread of the coronavirus and protect our campus community, Cowles Library is adjusting our services, hours, and building access. Read more…

Archive for November, 2009

Not the Wasteland

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 22 November 2009

It seems that I’m in Cairo more often than Alexandria these days and that impression is not without justification. I have been here every weekend for the past three and will be down this way again next weekend. The train conductors and I are on a first-name basis, practically.

Friday afternoon, I took the train from Alexandria and arrived about 5:30 in the afternoon. I had made arrangements to stay with my Fulbright colleague Scott Hibbard, a professor of International Relations at DePaul University in Chicago, and once we arrived in Cairo, I made my way by the Metro underground to his apartment in a section of Cairo called Sakanat al-Ma`adi. Ma`adi is a rather “tony” part of town built a century ago by the British for their civil servants who were running Egypt at the time. The streets are tree-lined and shady and there are some impressive digs—single family homes—as well as nice restaurants and up scale apartments. Scott met me at the Metro station and as we walked from the train station to his apartment in the gathering dark, he gave me a quick orientation to his neighborhood. Many of the apartments and a few of the homes were the property of the American University in Cairo and are made available to their foreign faculty and administrators. Scott’s place was on the fourth floor of a modern building, big and airy. Marble tile floors, a raised dining area and a big modern kitchen. Floor to ceiling windows looked out to the east.

I dropped my bags and we headed out to eat dinner with Glen, a colleague of Scott’s at AUC. We enjoyed dining outside under a pergola of sorts; the weather is still mild enough for that sort of activity although a sweater or long-sleeve shirt is not a bad idea. The restaurant was rather busy for two reasons. Friday is the equivalent of Saturday night in the States; people kick back and take some time out wherever they are. Second, Ma`adi is a Cairo destination of sorts for relaxation.I was glad we were outside because ther were many people about smoking “shisha,” the water pipes filled with scented tobacco and kept alight with chunks of charcoal placed on top of the tobacco. The gurgling sound they made created a rather calming white noise.

There are tons of restaurants in Ma`adi, and people of middle class means have their favorite places here. There are also shops and pubs which attract both Egyptians and the sizeable expatriate population of this district. After the customary appetizers of hummus and falafel, I ordered an Egyptian specialty called “kushari,” which is a mixture of rice, thin pasta noodles, nuts, and a tomato based sauce. As with most national dishes, every household and every restaurant will claim that theirs is the most authentic. Who cares? The informal competition leads to interesting culinary developments. This restaurant’s version was quite tasty, a little on the spicy side but piquant rather than hot. We finished with a dessert called “Umm `Ali,” a sort of cream pudding with nuts, raisins, and other goodies. I had wanted to try this dish for a long time and this was worth the wait.

We drank tea while we digested a bit, talked about Egypt and what we were experiencing living and working as foreigners. Glen, who looks to be making a career out of teaching here is quite comfortable with his limited Arabic and enjoys living in Egypt. Like me, Scott is enjoying the feeling of being spoiled—the big apartment, the healthy salary, the semi-star treatment from the Fulbright folks. Makes going home hard to do…

After dinner, Glen went off to met some friends in a pub, but Scoot and I headed home and bed; we’re off early tomorrow for a trip into the desert.

Our alarms went off at ten to six and we rolled out of bed, got dressed and had a quick cup of coffee. Breakfast was unnecessary since the Fulbright office was providing breakfast boxes for us to take along on the first leg of our trip. We grabbed a cab for what turned out to be a twenty-minute ride to Dokki and the Fulbright office arriving at the rendezvous well before the appointed hour of seven AM. There were a couple of other early risers there and we chatted while the rest of the group trickled in. At about quarter to eight, we picked up our breakfast boxes and walked to the corner where eight Land Cruisers were waiting for us. Each bore a number and we were told to remember which one was ours; we couldn’t trade vehicles once we started because the number system assured that no one would be left behind. I was in vehicle #2, driven by Sharif, “one of our best drivers,” according to the expedition leader. I wondered who got the less qualified drivers.

We set off through Cairo traffic, which was beginning to build at that hour. It took us a good hour to clear Cairo and then we were on the four-lane headed south toward the Fayyoum. I had ridden this same road earlier in the month when I visited Karanis so I busied myself with breakfast and chatting with my travel mates: Virginia da Costa, Dominique Ellis, Breonna Arder, and Joe Yackley, our newest member who is pursuing dissertation research in Egypt and Turkey later on. The Toyota we were in was not the newest ride on the road and had obviously seen some rough cross country travel.  The suspension was stiff and that, combined with a short wheel base, made for a rough journey, even on the paved road. To add to our discomfort, Dominique and Breonna, who had chosen to ride in the rear seats, had to deal with gasoline fumes. For this reason as well as to give people different conversation partners, we switched seats occasionally.

Before long, we were nearing the turnoff for the Fayyoum oasis. I saw the Karanis excavation off to the left of the road and knew we were getting near.  What came next surprised me greatly. I knew that the Nile branched off near the Fayyoum and that a lake (Lake Faroun) was formed as a result; I also knew that the lake had no outlet. The waters contained in it simply evaporate or are drawn off for agriculture. What I didn’t realize was how HUGE this lake was. We drove along one side of the lake for a good forty minutes, at speed, and still didn’t reach the end. It is a good fifty kilometers (i.e. about 30 miles) long and ten to fifteen wide. Major oasis! There were numerous fishing boats out and about and fishermen mending nets along the shore. Whitecaps dotted the surface of the lake and the boats—most of which were oar powered—bobbed across the swells.

We made a brief stop so that people could take photos and then continued our journey. Our destination was an archeological excavation in a geographical feature called Wadi al-Hitan or the Valley of the Whales. Yes, in the desert, there is a place where one can see what’s left of whales. Of course they are forty-million-year-old whales but they are (or were) whales. One species in particular, the Basilosaurus, is found only here and its importance to paleontologists and those who study evolution lies in the fact that they had vestigial feet. In other words, whales were once land dwellers who decided that the ocean offered a better living and returned to the primordial soup as it were.

We took off again, eight four wheelers flying south down a two-lane blacktop road toward an area known as Wadi al-Rayan, which is a huge area and contains a number of prehistoric sites as well as ruins of ancient settlements. For nearly half an hour, we traveled along another body of water (actually two, I later found out), climbing above it before turning west and leaving the lake and pavement behind. At this point we saw a stone marker with a sign stating that we were entering a World Heritage Site. The site was established in 1989 and seeks to preserve a unique geological area covering some 600 square miles. It was within this area that an intrepid Brit set out to do some exploring in the 1920s and discovered the first fossilized skeletal remains of the ancient whales. Since that time, over one thousand skeletons of three different whale species have been unearthed here. By now, we were in the real desert. No trees, no green, just rock and sand, the road a graded but unpaved track. The Land Rovers pounded along at speed, dust billowing up behind us in thick clouds and the rough surface loosening our teeth. Conversation above the cacophony of rattles was impossible so we simply stared out the windows as the scenery whizzed past.

We arrived at the visitors’ center and alighted from the trucks. We walked about for a few minutes to work the kinks out and take in the landscape. The area reminded me of the desert southwest in the States, but without the variety of colors. Still, the rock formations were impressive, having been sculpted by the sand and the wind over untold millennia. We gathered at one of the buildings and received a brief orientation from the head paleontologist who explained the geology of the region and the importance of the site. He explained that there were there distinct geological layers found here representing a cross-section of several tens of millions of years. Whales continued to live here during all of that time until the Earth’s climate began to cool and the polar ice caps formed, pulling liquid water away from the planet’s girth. Now it looks as though we’re reversing course once again. The paleontologist also showed us some fossilized remains of the whales and explained how they came to be preserved. The remains were covered quickly by silt or sand and the soft tissues decayed quickly. That allowed the minerals in the water and earth to replace the organic material of the skeletons and fossilize them.

The paleontologist soon led us off on a tour of the area. The path through the site was marked by stones and clay pots. At various locations, examples of the skeletons were on display. Some of the exhibits were clearly staged and the scientist acknowledged this. He said that one species in particular had a tendency to curl in death—probably due to contractions in the heavy muscles—and the scientists had straightened out the display skeletons so that people could get a clearer idea of the scale and composition of the bones. The exhibits are scattered over quite a wide area and an hour’s walk didn’t bring us anywhere near the end of the trail. In addition to animal fossils, there were interesting examples of fossilized plant remains as well. Near the mouth of an ancient river, in brackish water was a mangrove swamp; some of the tree roots had been fossilized and are now preserved in stone. A little distance away we saw the petrified trunk of a tree that had fallen into the ancient river and had been colonized by some sort of worm and the hole they left were then inhabited by a pencil-shaped bi-valve and their remains were fossilized also.

After an hour or so of walking about and viewing various sites, we returned to the visitors’ center where the expedition organizers had prepared lunch for us. In a sheltered area among the rocks, they had spread huge carpets which we could rest on. A buffet lunch, including barbecued chicken, two rice dishes, various kinds of salads, and a roasted lamb, was then served buffet style. The food was generally good, except for the lamb, which was too tough to chew.

After fruit and tea, we saddled up again and left the area, driving back on the same dirt track. On the way back, we stopped at another geologically important area dominated by two round mountains rising against an artificial lake in the background. Here we stopped for a brief photo opportunity and a chance to pick up some fossils. The ground was covered by small disc-shaped stones ranging from dime to quarter size and varying in color from sand to light pink. These are the fossilized remains of a forty-million year-old single-cell animal from the order foraminifera. The locals call them “ancient coins.”

We returned to the vehicles once more and drove a short distance to a second large artificial lake. Both of these lakes had been formed by irrigation runoff from agricultural activity in the Fayyoum area. At the second lake we stopped to view a waterfall that carried water from the upper to the lower lake. No Niagara, but an attraction as the only waterfall in Egypt. The lakes began forming in 1973 and now have well-established habitats for birds and other wildlife along their shores. Fish are found in the lakes and these provide food and livelihoods for people living nearby. We took a short boat ride and watched the sun set over the lake before once more climbing into the Toyotas for the long drive back to Cairo. The sun having set, there was little to see so we chatted and played memory games to pass the time. The traffic into Cairo was wicked and it was past eight when we were dropped at the Fulbright office. We said our goodbyes and then Scott and I grabbed a cab and headed back to his place. We went out for a simple supper in a nearby coffee shop and then dragged ourselves back to the apartment for some sleep. Tomorrow, it’s back to Alexandria for me.

One Week 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.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Another weekend already. Hard to believe that seven days have passed since I last sat down to post to the blog. All week it’s been head down; not only did I start the information literacy workshops, but the revisions to the collection development policy statements that we had assigned to the selectors had been reviewed by the head of that unit and she wanted to set up individual review sessions with each selector. In addition, I still had my Arabic tutorials to prepare for and I had to find time to shop, cook, clean (well, not much of that…), and all the other little tasks that fill a day.

The information literacy sessions, which were a continuation of the one we set up two weeks ago, were not as well attended as the first one and I was disappointed about that. I realize that not everyone was able to attend because of conflicting schedules and other assignments, but I had hoped to be able to have enough people to do some demonstrations of different teaching approaches and strategies that might help to address the problem of students not engaging with the course material. After some consultation with Amira, we decided that it might be useful to take a practical approach to this problem. Amira had been wanting to offer a course on Web 2.0 but had not yet begun to formulate it. I suggested that we use the workshop sessions as a laboratory for doing just that, thinking that we could address the problem of student engagement and possibly some others as we developed the course.

While the instructors were attentive during the second session and I was able to elicit responses to direct questions and discussions of problems, there was stunning silence when I asked about specific approaches for teaching individual units in the course we were designing. It occurred to me after the second session that this was perhaps due to the fact that they all came from a very traditional educational background where lecturing was the main—if not sole—method for conveying information. With another Eid (Eid al-Adha, Greater Bairam or Feast of the Sacrifice commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac to God) approaching, we won’t be able to make much headway on this, but the break will allow me to do some more thinking about how to approach this part of the project. In the meantime, it’s back to Cairo for another Fulbright trip, which I will write about in the next posting.

Presentation for Faculty Senate

Links to Presentation Given by Bruce Gilbert, Faculty Senator

Drake Faculty Senate, 27 January 2010

  1. Here are the slides Bruce presented.
  2. Creative Commons License your own work in seconds!  Just click on the word “License.
  3. Open Internet Tools series.
  4. Link to the AARP “free elearning” site.

For All You Triskaidekaphobes Out There

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, 13 November 2009

Tempting fate by posting on Friday the 13th? Well, it is the first day of the weekend here, and the first chance I’ve had this week to even THINK about pulling my thoughts together enough to tap out a few coherent lines. Since my return from Cairo late last Sunday, I have been at the library every day, trying to make sure that my second round of workshops gets off on a better foot than the first. Whether or not I have succeeded will have to wait until next Monday, when the first of the three sessions gets underway. This past Monday I had scheduled an initial session whose purpose was to draw all of those who are involved in the educational effort here into a discussion about how to proceed. I was anxious to see how people who had more experience in their jobs would respond to the workshop format. Since I had been gone on the Sunday preceding this preliminary workshop, I hadn’t had as much prep time as I could have used, but I thought that my research, readings, and my frequent conversations with the unit’s head would provide me with a good sense of what was expected.

Most mornings lately have dawned hazy and rather damp. That Monday broke with clear skies and a clarity of air unusual for this time of year. A coolish breeze gently lifted the curtains at the sliding glass doors as I enjoyed a cup of tea on the couch, gazing across the balcony while the city began to stir. The humidity had dissipated overnight and the sun’s early rays brilliantly picked out the half dozen cargo ships sitting on the horizon in the roads off the port of Alexandria, about five miles to the northwest. My thermometer, whose reliability is somewhat questionable, showed a temperature of about 62 degrees Fahrenheit. I thought it might be little lower than that, but not by much.

After breakfast, I set off for the library in my usual fashion and arrived in plenty of time to organize my thoughts. Unfortunately, in my rush to get to my appointment on time, I had forgotten my ID and my office key. Typical Monday. So I grabbed another cab and beat it back to the apartment. Asking the driver to wait, I took the elevator up, scooped up my card and keys and was back downstairs before the cabbie had managed to turn the car around. We zipped back down the Corniche and I managed to get to the library just in time for my meeting. Of course, being on time, I was early; most of the librarians had yet to arrive so I chatted with those who were already there until we had a quorum. About twelve or fourteen of the twenty or so people in the information literacy unit eventually showed up, including the outreach librarian and Mohamed al-Gohary, the head of the continuing education unit.

I started the session off by suggesting categories of discussion topics that I had worked out with Amira Hegazy, the head of the instructional unit, in earlier meetings. There were three areas where she thought they needed guidance: planning, design, and organization. Planning we defined as the process of deciding what kinds of courses were needed by which users; design was the process of determining course content and teaching methods; organization was essentially the administrative function: who teaches what, when and how often. We also talked about her unit coordinating with the library’s continuing education unit and how such a collaboration might work.

I was quite pleased that, once I outlined what we were going to try to do that morning, nearly everyone contributed. The conversation was lively and energetic and my function was essentially to bring people back to the main topic on the rare occasions when they strayed too far afield. The main problem, based on what I was hearing, was frustration with the fact that many of those who signed up for the various courses were interested only in acquiring the certificates issued by the library that attested to the attendee’s proficiency in whatever level of information or computer literacy the course was aimed at. Student engagement and commitment, in other words, was sometimes lacking. A certain percentage of those enrolling in the courses did so only so that they could collect a certificate they could show to a prospective employer indicating that they had a certain set of qualifications—whether they actually had them or not. Sounded vaguely familiar as a theme…

One of the difficulties I have encountered repeatedly here is being seen as an authority, a role which I no doubt fill in some sense, but I am reticent to prescribe solutions for this library, and that is what I am frequently asked to do: “What should we do?” “How do you think we should solve that problem?” “What is your recommendation?” I don’t want to give answers; I would prefer to view my role as an advisor or a guide whose purpose is to help the Bibliotheca Alexandrina librarians figure out solutions and answers for themselves. There are cultural and social issues at play with which I am only lightly acquainted with and I feel Egyptian librarians are better positioned to solve them.

I ran into this issue at the end of the collection development workshops; I was asked to complete a collection development policy for one of the collections in the library (I would be able to choose which one I wanted to tackle) as a “model” for the selectors to follow as they completed their respective policies. I declined, but what I did do was to create a policy for one of the areas for which I am responsible at Cowles Library—Latin American and Caribbean Area Studies—taking certain literary liberties with sections of the policy that Cowles’ policy doesn’t have equivalents for. In other words, I made stuff up. However, I was faithful to the intent of the Bibliotheca’s policy and, I think, gave a true representation of what a real policy would look like. The head of collection development was unhappy with my document, but I told her that I thought her librarians should be doing the library’s work, not me.

In the present circumstance, things were slightly different in that the librarians had been at their jobs for a longer time and had much more experience to draw on. And they were eager to find ways to improve their programs. The one problem that kept coming up in our discussion, across all the themes we had laid out, was the matter of engaging students in the material. All the instructors concluded that it was imperative for them to somehow improve the quality of their instruction and consequently the value of the certificates they issued.

After our session, I met again with Amira and we decided that we would use the first workshop as a laboratory for working on an actual course, so we are going to begin next Monday re-tooling the unit’s course on Web 2.0, one of the courses that has the highest demand among library users and one whose certificate is prized by students. We will plan each unit, discuss why that information is being included, how best to present it, and what pedagogical methods might be employed to assure (or at least increase the likelihood) that students will engage with the material. This approach will benefit both the librarian instructors and their students, I think, and will be an opportunity for me to put my own approach to the test. Where, oh WHERE did I put my lucky rabbit’s foot?

Trudging On…

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, 11 November 2009

Hard to believe that a week has passed since I last sat down to post to the blog; time seems to be accelerating these days. I am nearly at the mid-point of my tenure here and the weeks are beginning to slip by. Not that I haven’t been sitting; I’ve been sitting in front of the computer more and more since I began the workshops, either planning sessions, evaluating feedback or working on other little projects that get thrown my way occasionally. The e-mail inbox is always full, too, and needs attention now and then. Fortunately, I have this weekend free and can look forward to a couple of days of relative ease before things pick up again next week. The information literacy workshops resume on Sunday and run for three days and then I’m back in Cairo for another Fulbright trip—back to the Fayyoum. I’m also trying to make some progress on my research, but that’s a story in itself.

This past week began with a trip to Cairo on Sunday to attend a lecture by the senior advisor to Dr. Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Cairo. He is the second highest ranking religious figure in Egypt and responsible for, among other things, keeping the religious establishment functioning. I got tickets for a morning train to Cairo and made it to the station in plenty of time. The platform was full of people, most of whom were also headed to the capital and we watched as several of the local weather beaten “baladi” trains came and went.

Shortly before the scheduled departure time, an announcement was made over the public address system (World War Two vintage, no doubt) informing the waiting passengers of a platform change. The sound quality was not the best and the announcers are apparently chosen for their loud voices and not their clarity of enunciation so they’re often very difficult to understand. However, I’ve learned to listen for words and phrases that I know—like train numbers and times—and that seems to work pretty well. I didn’t hear my train number so I continued waiting. Some of my Egyptian fellow travelers apparently thought I looked even more clueless than I am and one, who spoke some English, told me what was happening.

“Going to Cairo? There’s been a platform change, Come with us.” Nice big smile and a guiding hand.

The train pulled in after we had all safely crossed the tracks and I found what I thought was my carriage. The train was longer than the platform and I had to walk through three cars before I reached carriage number 8. I found my assigned seat and saw that someone was in it. Okay, so I took an empty seat across the aisle figuring that the conductor would straighten it out. Two young people came by and claimed the seats I was occupying. One of the men said that I should speak to the conductor and that he would find me a vacant seat. In the meantime, there being no other vacant seats, I went and stood on the platform between two cars, along with a couple of heavy smokers. I figured that at the worst, I would have to make the journey standing up. [It turns out that the train I was on was (obviously) the wrong one; mine had been delayed leaving Alexandria and was behind the one I was riding.]

The conductor soon came around and I showed him my ticket. “No good,” he says.

“Why?” I ask. “No good,” he repeats. Okay, so what do I do? We’re already underway.

“What would you have me do?” I ask him.

“You need a new ticket,” he says.

“Fine.” I say, pulling out some cash. “How much?”

“Forty-one guinea (about $8),” he replies. I hand him some money, he writes out a receipt and hands me my change. At least I’m not being put off in the middle of nowhere. The conductor disappears.

A few minutes later, a transit cop comes by and asks to see my ticket. I hand him the original and the receipt given to me by the conductor. He returns the ticket and looks over the receipt. I think, “Okay, I’ve broken some arcane Egyptian Railway rule and they’re looking for anyone acting suspiciously anyway so what’s going to happen now?” I check to see that my cell phone has enough juice for my one phone call.

The cop looks up from his examination and puts the tips of the fingers on his right hand together, bouncing them up and down briefly. This is the universal Arab hand signal for “Wait. Have patience.” He turns and walks through the car. The two smokers and another conductor who has just joined us look at me curiously. I look back at them and shrug my shoulders, turning my palms up: the universal Arab body language for, ”What are you gonna do?”

Not five minutes later, the cop is back with the first conductor in tow. The cop looks at me and then motions to the conductor, who reaches into his pocket and refunds my money. Well, this is a pleasant turn of events. I thank the cop and he walks away. Just another day riding the rails. Later in the journey, another Egyptian man joins us on the platform for a smoke. He offers me the seat he has just vacated and tells me to take a load off, I ask him if he is certain and, with customary Egyptian manners, insists that I do. So I ride in the borrowed seat for about an hour or so and then return to the platform, where I then return the favor, thanking him for his hospitality and generosity. This way we both arrive in Cairo a little happier.

I spend the morning at the Gayer-Anderson Museum abutting the southeastern wall of the mosque of Ibn Tulun in the section of Cairo where the medieval city was once located. The museum consists of two adjacent houses, one sixteenth and one seventeenth century, that were refurbished and restored by one Major R.G. (John) Gayer-Anderson, who served as a doctor in the First World War and then as a recruiter for the Egyptian Army. In 1937, he was given permission by the Egyptian government to refurbish, update, and live in the two houses. He was a talented amateur painter and a tireless collector of all sorts of things, so the houses are filled with carpets, pottery, furniture, metal objects and all sorts of bric-a-brac.

Among the collections there are also a number of block prints and seeing them was the main point of my visit. However, a sign on one of the walls of the museum told me that the paper artifacts were not available for public viewing due to their fragility and value. I asked one of the guides if it might be possible to speak with the director and was told that, yes, he was in today. I entered his office and told him of my interest and he replied that he would be very happy to show me the pieces once I had a letter from Zahi Hawwas.

Ah. The famous Dr. Zahi Hawwas. He is the General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt and controls access to virtually all artifacts and archaeological sites in the country. Without his personal stamp of approval, no museum director would dare to provide access to the museum’s collections. I had a feeling that this was going to be the case before I came out, but I thought it was worth a trip just to see if I could see the block prints before I asked for permission to examine them closely. This will obviously take more work.

I grabbed a cab back downtown and started looking for a place to eat lunch. I had a few hours to kill and wanted to wander around Cairo a little to get a sense of one part of the city, at least. I ended up in a coffee house that served sandwiches and the like and ate a rather disappointing sandwich accompanied by a slightly better than average cup of cappuccino. My table faced the street on a raised deck and I enjoyed watching the street life pass by as I ate.

The air appeared hazy and I first thought it was because of the heat, but then I remembered: November is the month of the rice harvest in Egypt and once the grain is harvested, the rice straw is burned in the fields. This means that the skies over Cairo develop a semi-permanent “black cloud” at this time of year. The evidence of this pollution was apparent when I returned home and found the worst case of “ring around the collar” I’ve seen in since I left New York City.
When I had finished my lunch, I paid and continued my excursion. The area I was in wasn’t too far from the Nile Corniche and the Fulbright office. There was a large park nearby and I thought to go there and sit in the shade, but was told at the gate that the park was closing soon, so I found a hookah joint and sat with a cup of tea. The day was warmer than I expected and the shade in the store was welcome. The doors of the shop were open so the smoke from the hookahs was bearable.

As the time for the lecture approached, I wandered out and worked my way toward the Fulbright office, where the event was to take place. On my way I encountered Susan Babaie, another Fulbright scholar, and her husband, who were enjoying cool drinks in a coffee shop. They asked me to join them, so I did and we caught up on what was going on. We finished our drinks and wandered off together toward the Fulbright office.

The room set aside for Dr. Nagm’s talk was pleasantly cool and people drifted in in groups of twos and threes. Before long, the nearly every one of the thirty or so seats was filled. The Fulbright staff was obviously quite pleased with the turnout. Our speaker was trained at al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s pre-eminent Islamic university and one of the oldest in the world, founded in 969 AD. He also studied in the U.S. and has advanced degrees from American universities. He has taught law at Harvard, and a couple other major institutions in the U.S. but left to take up his present position a couple of years ago. His topic this evening was the role of the Grand Mufti and the mufti’s various educational and outreach programs.

The mufti is a very progressive thinker and has issued rulings (fatwas) of legal opinion on a number of sensitive issues over the course of his tenure. For example, he has ruled against female circumcision (FGM) and the incidence of this practice, as a result of his ruling, has dropped significantly. More recently, he has ruled that the niqab, the style of veil that covers the entire face, is not a requirement for women and, in fact, is detrimental to good social order.

Dr. Nagm explained that the Council of senior Islamic scholars is actually responsible for issuing fatwas, and that some three to four thousand fatwas are issued every day! Most have to do with family issues, finance, and health matters. Since fatwas are only legal opinions, they don’t have the force of law and those requesting opinions are not obligated to adhere to them. The demand for rulings from individual Muslims is so great that there is a web site where people can solicit fatwas and receive the opinions electronically. An SMS service is slated to come on line soon.

The lecture was most informative and I came away with a much better understanding of the function and process of fatwa-making. Fatwas are governed by four conditions: time, place, individual, and circumstance. This helps to explain why fatwas often appear to be contradictory and conflicting. The current mufti has taken the approach that fatwas do not need to conform to earlier Islamic scholarly judgments. While tradition is important in determining how fatwas are formulated, the element of circumstance is equally important, and, in fact, the mufti is of the opinion that modern knowledge must be given great weight when formulating fatwas.

The lecture ended and I made my way to the exit. I had to catch a train back to Alexandria so that I could be ready for the first of my information literacy workshops on Sunday. The train was waiting for me in the station and this time I had no trouble finding my seat and enjoyed a comfortable ride back home in the dark.

In the Thick of It

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, 5 November 2009

This week saw the first round of workshops involving three days of relatively intense work. After weeks of negotiating with the unit heads and wrangling with my own sense of inadequacy regarding the field of collection development, it was time to get in the trenches and do it. I had arranged for a series of three meetings with the people doing collection development. There are about sixty selectors, almost all of whom also work as reference librarians. We would meet for ninety minutes each day and work on a different aspect of their selection jobs in each session. Since the collection development work is done by librarians who also do reference work, I had to offer two sections of each session, one for the daytime reference staff and another for the evening people. I had no idea how many people would show up and no CLEAR idea of whether or not I would be providing them with what they needed, despite a series of meetings with their supervisors.

As a result of several meetings with the head of collection development over the past weeks, I understood that the selectors needed to do several things. First, the library’s collection development policy had been left incomplete. The mission statement, goals, and the overall policy outlining the collection as a whole had been done, but the policies for individual disciplines and special collections had not yet been written. They wanted that addressed. Second, selectors needed guidance regarding what selection tools were available to them and how they should be using them to do their work. Third, there was an issue regarding the handling of information about the collection—particularly its gaps—that the selectors developed or discovered as reference librarians, that is, through their interactions with readers. The collection development head saw a problem with the results of this aspect of the selectors’ work.

I thought that these three topics could be handled in such a way as to show the relationship between the activities, to show that they were aspects of the same work. Consequently, having reviewed the collection development policy, I decided to begin with a session during which we would work on creating statements about the purpose of the individual collections and the formats to be collected. I considered addressing these two components, which are only parts of a much more elaborate statement about the function and nature of each individual collection, to be a way of getting the selectors to start thinking about what they wanted their collections to be and then to define their collection so they might have a better sense of how to go about building and repairing it.

In the first session, I began by showing the group the web page containing the Collection Development Policy for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and focused on a few words and phrases that they might use to get started on writing their own statements, phrases such as “well rounded scholarly collection,” with them aim of “enrich[ing] scholarly research and public knowledge…” I emphasized that their policy statements, while describing their unique collections, had to conform, at least broadly, to the library’s overall collection development statement. I distributed an assignment sheet on which they were to compose a “summary” and “format” section for their collection. I told the group that they would be expected to hand the completed assignment in by the end of the week.

The next step was to show them other tools that they might use to complete their assignments. I showed them collection development policy statements from various university, public and specialized libraries available on the web and suggested that they could use ideas (not the actual prose!) from policies that were most like theirs, or which they would most like their policy to resemble. I also suggested that they look at professional web sites, particularly ALA, which had links to sites dealing with collection development. In response to my question of whether or not the library had a resource shelf or professional collection for collection development, I was told no. I suggested they start one. There was a large number of resources, both electronic and print, available to them and I encouraged them to consult some of these and get started on a rough draft as soon as possible.

I had hoped that we might be in a training area that had enough computers for everyone to begin working and I would circulate among them and offer suggestions and direction, getting them started. Unfortunately, the training room had no such facilities, so I told them that I would make myself available for consultations with them by extending the time I was in the library each day. The session ended and I was in the process of preparing for the next group when I was approached by four of the department heads, including the head of public services, the head of collection development and the head of reference services. Omnia, the collection development person, jumped right to the point and told me that they were unhappy with what I had done; that it was inadequate and had not addressed the issues.

I was a bit taken aback, but asked them what, specifically they had found wanting. One said that the selectors needed to know HOW to write a collection development policy; they needed to know what should be included in a policy; they needed to see exactly how a policy was constructed; and so forth. The bombshell, for me, was the revelation from the head of reference that the average length of service for current selectors was less than two years. Now, I had been told that there was a problem with employee turnover in the reference department, but it had never been made clear to me that this meant that ALL of the selectors were still in the egg. I thanked them for the additional information and told them that I would take their concerns into account for the second section. I realized moreover, that I would have to rework my remaining two sessions so that they would be accessible to a much less sophisticated audience.

The second session went a bit better, but trying to re-engineer the program on the fly was not a good thing and I ended the day feeling drained and discouraged. I went home and spent the entire evening reworking my second session in light of what I had learned the first day. I had disappointed my client and went to bed depressed.

The second day, I had planned to show the selectors the various selection tools, both print and electronic, that were available to them for doing this work. There was a stack of professional journals awaiting me on the table in the classroom when I arrived (I had arranged for this before the start of the program) and I had prepared a handout listing kinds of resources (bibliographies, book reviews, publishers’ catalogues, etc.) and web-based tools that they could use. I covered the print materials first, stressing the importance of academic book reviews for academic disciplines, Choice magazine, and literary reviews for literature. I tried to give examples of a wide variety of resources so that everyone would understand that there would be tools for virtually everyone.

I moved on to electronic tools, some of which some people were already familiar with, and to collection analysis tools, like the Bowker product, which I urged the department heads to consider for licensing. I demonstrated as many of the electronic tools as I had time for and took some questions at the end. Nermin Baha came to me after the first session and expressed her approval of the way the second day’s session went. She said it was much better than the first day’s. The afternoon session also went well and I went home feeling that I had at least got one thing right. The sticky issue of how to work with information about the collections derived from interacting with the reading public engaged my attention for the rest of the day.

For Tuesday, the final day of the workshops, I had created a handout on which I had listed a series of questions. It was around these questions that I hoped to generate discussions about what worked and what didn’t work, what aspects of eliciting information from the public about the collections created frustration, what should be done differently. There are in place procedures for identifying gaps in the collections. Paper forms are completed by the reference person taking the request; these are sent to the head of collection development, who then sends the forms on to the appropriate selector. One difficulty comes when the reader, who is accustomed to dealing with one reference person, asks about the status of her/his request and is told that the reference librarian doesn’t know. If the reference librarian is not responsible for the field in question, she/he will probably not be aware of the book’s location in the acquisitions process and will be unable to give a satisfactory answer.

The selectors clearly had a different set of issues they wanted to talk about; it became clear that they were looking for some guidance about developing their collections which they could use at the Cairo Book Fair. They will all attend this event in January and use the opportunity to select materials (over-whelmingly in Arabic) for their collections. They were concerned about how they could do this given the fact that they would only be there for one day. I suggested that this was a perfect reason for them to have their policy statements ready. Their summary statements could serve as useful guides for their purchasing decisions; they would have a better idea of what they wanted their collections to look like, what they wanted them to hold, if they wrote out descriptions (summaries, in the language of the Bibliotheca’s policy) of them beforehand. With these in hand, they could then review their collections to see what they needed, identify publishers who were likely to publish the sorts of books they were interested in and overall make more productive use of their time there. If filling gaps was important, they would know what to look for; if expanding their collection was important, they would have a better idea of how to do that.

This suggestion seemed to energize them and finished both sessions on a positive note. I reminded the attendees that their assignments were due on Thursday and that I would then be setting up individual interviews with them to help them revise and improve their statements. My business cards were distributed and I gave everyone my office phone number as an additional method of contacting me. I told them also that they would be expected to continue working on the other components of their policies: geographical coverage, historical coverage, languages, and so forth, so that by the end of the year each person would have a good recension of her or his policy statement. A couple of selectors had already done some work on their summary and format statements and handed them to me at the end of the sessions. It will be very interesting to see how they do and how much work remains to be done.

I had one more obligation for this part of the project. I promised Nermin that I would write up a “model” policy to be distributed to the selectors so that they might have an idea of what a completed policy statement might look like. I promised that I would have that ready by Thursday. Nermin wanted me to write a policy statement for one of the library’s collections but I am reluctant to do that; this isn’t my library and I don’t feel comfortable taking on that responsibility. More to the point, I think that the purpose of this entire exercise is to get the selectors to do the thinking work necessary to write their own. I won’t do that work for them.

After the last session, I had a short meeting with Amira Hegazy and Ghada, a librarian from outreach to talk about the information literacy workshops, the first of which is to be held next Monday. Her team has much more experience and is much more stable than the collection development team, and the three of us came to a quick agreement about how to approach their need to re-think the information literacy program. We decided that the first session would be a problem identification exercise. From that, we would decide which problems were most acute and which ones needed attention. I’m hoping that that series of meetings goes much more smoothly and is more gratifying than the first ones. At least I won’t feel so out of my depth.

Fayyoum Frolic

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, 2 November 2009

Early Sunday morning I got up, showered, and fed myself breakfast. Katy was up soon thereafter and offered me a cup of tea. The kids and Karl were still in bed, so I thanked her and asked her to extend my thanks to the rest of the family for the wonderful hospitality I had been shown over the past two days. With my bags in hand, I descended the stairs and caught a cab. The driver knew the destination when I gave him the street address—a novelty here in Cairo—and since it was early morning and traffic was light, I reached Simon Bolivar Square in no time.

I wasn’t sure exactly where the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) building was, but just as I was about to go looking, a tour bus pulled up and parked on a side street. The driver climbed down and I asked him if he were headed to the Fayyoum today. He said yes and please, would I like to board. Grateful for the chance to get my weighty backpack off my shoulder I went up the steps and dropped said bag onto a seat, taking my place next to it. While I waited for the rest of the group, I cracked open my Blue Guide to Egypt and read up on the Fayyoum.

The Fayyoum is a geographical feature located south and slightly west of Cairo. Sort of an oasis, it is a fertile area created by an offshoot of the Nile, which flows into a low area and creates a lake, called Qarun, which has no outlet. Since ancient times, it has been the site of intensive agricultural activity; evidence of farming dates back 7000 years here. Beginning in the time of the Ptolemies, the Fayyoum was developed for large-scale agricultural production, mainly wheat and olives, using the waters of the Nile to irrigate the land. In the days of the Roman Empire, the Fayyoum provided Rome with much of the wheat it needed to feed its population. Even today, agriculture is the primary activity here, although a huge industrial park is currently under construction on land that is unfit for farming.

I was interested in this area because, according to my research on Arabic block printing, many of the examples of this craft originated in the Fayyoum. Apaprently, in the late nineteenth century, as a consequence of renewed interest in the ancient Middle East generated by Napoleon’s scientific expedition in Egypt, Europeans flocked to this part of the world. Between the end of the French military adventure in Egypt (1801) and the second decade of the twentieth century, many of the major discoveries relating to Pharaonic Egypt took place, including King Tut’s tomb. Europeans were so keen to lay hands on anything bearing even a whiff of antiquity that they created a market for such things among the population. Thus it was, apparently, that some of the block prints ended up in European libraries and museums.

At the time in the Fayyoum, ancient mud brick structures, long collapsed and fallen into disuse, were being harvested for their potential as fertilizer. Sort of Biblical: “from dust to dust,” in a way. Occasionally, mixed in with the rubble, were fragments of manuscripts, which people understood were worth money. There were these nutty Europeans in Cairo who would actually pay money for this junk! Hey, beats farming for a living!

At least that’s my imaginary reconstruction of the scenario. In any case, the sources I read say that something like this did occur in the Fayyoum and I wanted to see the locus first-hand. Karanis, the archaeological site I was visiting, had been the site of mud brick (known in Arabic as “sebakh”) removal on an industrial scale. The archaeologist working on the site was going to be our tour guide and I wanted to hear if she had run across any block printing fragments.

The rest of the group gradually appeared and boarded the bus. At 8 AM sharp, Mary Sadek, the person from ARCE who had organized the trip, announced that all were present and we set off. Our route took us through Giza, past the Pyramids rising majestically from their hilltop abode, and south along the edge of the desert. The road was a four-lane, heavy with commercial traffic, but not congested. There were a couple of traffic control stations where cops were checking for valid licenses and bills of lading, but the eighty kilometer trip took less than two hours in all. Karanis lies at the northeast extreme of the Fayyoum and so is closest to Cairo of all the sites and settlements there.

While we were underway, Mary distributed small battery powered electronic devices containing an ear piece and a receiver that clipped on a belt or backpack strap. The purpose of these units became clear when we arrived at the dig site. Dr. Willeke Wendrich, the archeologist in charge of the Karanis excavation, met us in a shady area at the foot of the tel (the hill created by layers of successive settlements being built atop one another over hundreds (in some cases thousands) of years—Tel Aviv is perhaps the most famous “tel”) and donned a similar unit which had a microphone attached. In a large group, she could thus make herself heard without having to shout. Brilliant.

Dr. Wendrich has been excavating at Karanis for three years and her work follows on work done by a team of archaeologists from the University of Michigan that worked here in the 1930’s. The “dig house” that the University of Michigan team had had built was our first stop on the tour. It was constructed using the same mud brick technology that had been employed here forever and consequently had suffered the same fate as all mud brick. Without yearly maintenance, it had crumbled and dissolved in many places; the roofs had caved in and the walls had buckled. Dr. Wendrich had begun to renovate the building with the intention of turning it into a visitors’ center, complete with an observation deck on one roof. Of course all this takes money and progress is slow.

Dr. Wendrich excused herself at this point and turned the tour over to one of her graduate students, Bethany, who led us northeast to the next point of interest, the “South Temple,” which was built of stone and has therefore withstood the ravages of time better than the mud brick dwellings of the town. She explained the structure and let us clamber around for a bit. We got to see the altar and the niche adjacent to it where, in its heyday, a mummified crocodile reposed. (One of the most important cities in ancient Fayyoum was called Crocodilopolis, and the crocodile was deified in the Fayyoum).

From there we walked to what had been the center of the ancient town. It was from here, Bethany explained, that most of the mud brick rubble had been excavated. What came as a shock was her description of the operation. I had been under the impression that the quarrying had been done by local farmers, using manual labor and donkeys to carry the material to their fields, but our guide explained that here, in Karanis, the Egyptian government had given a license to an Italian company to excavate the rubble and they had used machinery, steam shovels and the like, and had laid two railways—the sort used in mining—onto the tel to carry away the material. The University of Michigan archaeologists had to negotiate with the company to get them to stop, promising to deliver the material that the archaeologists excavated to the company.

The scale of this operation, and the effect on the site was astounding, even eighty years on. We walked to a rise and looked down into a bowl-shaped crater that easily covered several acres of ground. The mud brick and other refuse had been dug out to a depth of at least twenty or thirty feet and the unwanted chunks of masonry and stone rubble had simply been tossed aside in heaps. I asked Bethany at this point whether there were any Islamic ruins on the site and she said no; the site had apparently been abandoned before the arrival of the Arab armies in the seventh century and had not been settled after that. This was a disappointment but I was glad to have had the opportunity to see what sort of effect sebakh removal could have on an archaeological site.

 

Our tour continued with visits to another smaller temple and several granaries. Granaries were quite numerous in Karanis and excavations of them had revealed an elaborate system of storage and methods of protecting and accounting for what grain belonged to which farmer or landlord. There was a sizable Roman garrison here, at one time, to guard the grain. Part of that building still stood, but like all the other mud brick structures, it was slowly dissolving. Bethany showed us photos taken of the same area by the University of Michigan archaeologists; looking at them, it was clear that many of the structures then extant were simply gone, having decayed due to the effects of wind driven sand and rain. Bethany said that standard practice at Karanis, now, was to re-bury all the excavations performed in a season. Sterile sand is brought in to fill excavation trenches and protect any discoveries from weather damage. If any site is to be excavated further in a subsequent digging season (about four months in length, from August through November), the sterile sand has to be removed first.

Our last stop was a location on the northeast edge of the tel, where the remains of a dwelling and another granary had been uncovered. The archaeologists were very excited because evidence of decoration in the house, consisting of plaster painted with colors not previously seen here, had been found the previous day.

Our bus was waiting for us a short distance away, and we boarded it for our short trip to the new dig house. Once we arrived, we sat down to lunch in the dining room. The house was a single story of concrete, with several work rooms on the ground floor and a rooftop patio and three offices for the archaeologist and her assistants. Dr. Wendrich runs an archaeological field school here and there were several students and supervisors working at various tasks: compiling field notes, conserving artifacts, cataloguing pottery shards, and the like. After lunch, Dr. Wendrich gave a brief slide presentation on the Karanis project and answered questions. We had a brief tour of the building, a chance to speak with the archaeologists about different aspects of their work, and then prepared to depart. I spoke with Dr. Wendrich about the lack of Islamic remains and told her what I was looking for. She confirmed what Bethany had told me about the absence of Islamic evidence at Karanis, but said that there was a French excavation at another site where Islamic remains were found. I will have to find out where that is…

After thanking our hosts, we re-boarded the bus and settled back for the return trip to Cairo. That journey concluded without incident and I headed off for the train station and my return trip to Alexandria. I spent almost the entire ride catching up with my blog posts; so intent was I on that task that I nearly missed my station. However, I managed to cram everything into my backpack and alight before the departure whistle sounded. A quick taxi ride home and into bed. Tomorrow, I begin my collection development workshops and I’m a bit apprehensive about them.

Egyptian Potpourri

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 1 November 2009

Friday morning, over a breakfast of pancakes with Karl, Katy and the kids, we planned out the day; I wanted to get out of their way because it was their weekend; the kids had things going on and Kate had to prepare a lecture she was to give on Saturday morning at the university. It was now eleven o’clock and Karl and Kate had arranged for me to accompany them to an outdoor Blues concert at the pyramids that evening. It started at four and I had to be back by three in order to meet the car that would take us out there. It was going to make for a tight schedule; if I didn’t get moving, I wouldn’t have time to examine the pieces in the collection at the museum I wanted to visit.

Of the three museums I wanted to visit, one—the Islamic Museum—had been closed for renovation and had not yet re-opened, so that was out. I really wanted to see the Gayer-Anderson Museum which the guide book said was open on Friday, but closed during the noon prayer. I grabbed a cab and headed in that direction, hoping to get there before it closed. Since it was Friday, the traffic was very light and even though I had a rookie cabbie, we found the location in fairly short order. However, when we pulled up outside the Ibn Tulun Mosque, which abuts the museum, a young man came to the driver’s window and said that the museum was closed for an hour. It was apparently time for the noon prayer.

That being the case I asked the driver to take me to the Egyptian Museum, which I KNEW was open and, even though there were no block prints for me to look at there, there was plenty of other stuff to look at for a couple of hours. He dropped me at the corner across from the museum and, as I exited the cab and ran to the median of the street, it began to rain.

Suddenly, a guy appears at my shoulder and asks me where I was going.

“Al-Mat-haf,” I responded, pointing across the street. The museum.

“Oh” he says, “is closed for prayers. Doesn’t open for one hour.” The lawn in front of the building was filled with people sitting on the edges of flower beds and wandering around the grounds. It looked to be true.

I thought, “Great.” And it’s starting to rain harder.

“I’m so happy today,” says the guy still standing next to me. “My daughter is getting married tomorrow. I’m so happy. I have a gift for you. Come to my shop. It is here. Come.”

Well, I’m not keen on getting wet so I follow him, already knowing this is probably not a good idea. He guides me around knots of men praying on the sidewalk, cautioning me not to step on the mats laid down on the pavement as prayer rugs. (Many of the mosques are filled to overflowing at noon on Fridays, so men slap their prayer mats down on the sidewalks outside the mosques, or just near one, and pray “al fresco.”) We enter a darkened shop lined with glass cases containing an assortment of glass vessels, perfume bottles in all shapes and sizes. Upholstered wooden furniture, a wooden desk, a couple of chairs with spindle backs, and a settee along one wall gave the space the look of a library in an eighteenth century English country estate—Bleak House with an unmotivated staff.

“I’m so happy. My daughter is getting married tomorrow. Come, sit.” Flipping on low wattage lights he motions me to sit on the settee. I’m looking around, trying to get my bearings.

“Sit here; please sit.” So I do.

“You would like to drink something.” A question in the form of a declarative sentence. “Tea? Coffee? I have a gift for you!”

“La, shukran,” I finally say. No thanks.

“No. Please, you must drink something. Tea. Yes? Okay? Ya, Waad! Shay`!” (“Hey, boy! Tea!”) The order is placed before I can protest. “I’m so happy! Where are you from?” The tea is already at my elbow.

“Iowa.”

“Aywa?” A puzzled look. “Aywa” is the colloquial Arabic word for “yes.”

“La.” I shake my head. “No. Eye-Oh-Wah.” I enunciate each syllable as clearly as I can. “A state smack dab in the middle of the country.”

“Ah. I never hear of this.” A customer appears from another room and leaves the shop. That’s the signal for a new activity, apparently.

“Come,” says my new best bud. “I want to show you something. I’m so happy. My daughter getting married tomorrow! I have a gift for you!” I’m beginning to get an uncomfortable itchy feeling on the back of my neck. He grabs my tea glass and heads into the room his customer has just vacated.

Through a doorway, we enter a second room decorated much like the first. There behind a desk in a similarly appointed room is my friend’s, uh, accomplice.

“Ah,” says the partner, “come, sit here. Your tea is good?”

“Fine, thanks.” My friend retreats to a bench in the background.

“You know what we do here?” I look around. This room contains more wooden shelves with glass doors on them, but these cabinets are filled with larger bottles containing liquids of various colors. I feel like Harry Potter in Severus Snape’s first potions class, although I realize that this is much more innocuous. At least I hope so…

“We sell essential oils here. All these jars are oils we press from flowers. What kind of flowers do you like? Here, this is lotus.” The second guy takes a large bottle off the shelf next to him. The liquid in it is pale green. “You see the pictures of the lotus flowers on the walls? This flower grows only in Egypt. Very special. Here, you try it.” He pulls out the stopper, and I lean over to sniff it.

“No, no,” he protests. “Like this,” and he smears some on my wrist.

Okay, now I’m recalling the days when customers were assaulted by perfume spritzers as they walked through the cosmetics section of Lord & Taylor or Saks or numerous other department stores that employed young women to ambush them with clouds of mist as they passed by. The fragrance isn’t bad, actually, but what would I do with it? I apparently don’t look enthused.

“What about this one?” He grabs another bottle, uncorks it and smears another dab on my arm. I smell. Whoa! Way too heavy. Funeral home heavy. I tell him so. In Arabic. He looks hurt.

“Here,” he says, grabbing a third bottle and popping the plastic stopper. “This is jasmine. Not heavy, very ‘khafeef’ (light)” A drop smeared on the back of my other wrist and rubbed in vigorously. “You like this? Is very good. Calvin Klein, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, they all use these oil, but they mix with water, alcohol.” He wrinkles his nose and shakes his head. “Is not as good. This much better.” (Karl Lorenz later confirmed that this much was true. He was told as much by an Egyptian he knows well who makes purchases of these oils on a regular basis.)

I figure, it’s a gift so what the hey. “The lotus is nice, I guess.” With three very strong scents on my arm, it’s hard to tell what’s what by now.

”How much you want?” says desk guy. He pulls an assortment of bottles out of the cupboard next to him: a small brown one with gold stripes around it: “Two Hundred grams,” he says; a slightly larger one, clear with no decoration, “Five hundred grams;” another green one, “One thousand grams;” and finally a very large frosted white glass container, “Two thousand grams. Texas size.” A greasy smile.

“No thanks. Way too much.” The itchy feeling at the back of my neck has now spread across my shoulders and down my arms. A rash isn’t far behind. No way I’m being “given” that much stuff. “The small one is fine,” I say. “You did day this was a gift, right?” Desk guy gives no answer. Ahh. The light finally goes on.

“Okay. Small one. Two hundred grams lotus flower. Very nice.” He pops the cork on the lotus, fills the bottle, caps it with a plastic plug and seals it with a piece of cellophane tape. He then points to a sign on the wall behind him. It reads: 2 LE (Egyptian Pounds) per gram. “That will be four hundred Guinea, please.”(“Guinea” is actually the ‘official’ name of Egypt’s currency; it appears on the bills) He looks pleased with himself. Eighty bucks American!

But I’m not biting (finally). “No,” I say in Arabic, just so my meaning isn’t lost on them. “That is more oil than I or any two people could use in a lifetime. I don’t want that much.” Damned if I’m going to spend $80 on something that might go rancid before half of it is used. An awkward moment of silence follows. It’s clear now what the deal is: the accomplice has made no promise of a gift, so he’s quite justified in asking for money. My buddy is just sitting there; it’s no longer his deal.

“I’ll take half that amount and no more.” My tea is gone and it’s left a bad taste in my mouth. A third guy, somewhat younger than the other two, has joined us at some point and, when desk guy hesitates, he takes matters into his own hands, telling desk guy to empty out half the bottle and close the sale. Desk guy is a bit flummoxed and Number Three has to do it for him. The bottle is wrapped in paper and I fork over my 200 pounds. Okay, I’m a tourist and I’m probably being way overcharged but I’m sort of impressed with the scam. It’s actually pretty slick. I rise and pick up my overpriced lubricant, prepared to leave.

But my bud has other ideas. He leaps back into action. “I want to show you something else, very special. Come this way.” Down a short corridor toward the back of the shop, more lights are turned on and we’re in a room whose walls are covered with paintings on what my friend says is papyrus. “Ten pounds only,” he crows. “Which one you like?”

Now, I had been warned about this business. Every tourist who comes to Egypt knows that this is the land of papyrus and assumes that it’s readily available and cheap. But they underestimate the ingenuity of the Egyptians. Some clever ones have discovered, for example, that you can make something that LOOKS LIKE papyrus, but is made from banana palm leaves, not the papyrus plant. That stuff will curl and turn yellow before you get it home. Some of the pieces I’m being shown have a label stating that the item is “genuine,” but the art work is crappy tourist stuff, with paintings (more likely four color prints) of generic ancient Egyptian figures in profile. Definitely no.

“No, thanks. Not interested.”

“What about this one? This is very nice.”

“No. We’ve finished our business. Goodbye.”

“Oh, okay. Thank you for coming.”

I turn and head for the door. Someday I’ll learn. Someday.

It turns out that the Egyptian Museum wasn’t even closed for the noon prayer. There are too many tourists wanting to see the collections for the government to inconvenience people who want to give them money. The courtyard was full simply because there were so many people visiting that day. I go through the security gate, where I have to explain the bottle in my pocket. The cop wants to scan it but his partner asks me what it is. “Attar,” I say. “Perfume.”

The cop looks at me and smiles a knowing smile. “Ahh! Perfume. Never mind, please proceed. Have a nice visit.” I’m sure the two cops were nudging each other in the ribs behind my back. “There goes another sucker…” Snicker, snicker.

I spend about three hours in the museum, one of Egypt’s largest and most important. The building was erected between 1897 and 1903, at the height of the period of archaeological activity in Egypt that uncovered Tutakhamen and all those other spectacular finds from ancient Egypt. It is a huge Victorian warehouse, essentially, with stuff, stuff and more stuff. Imagine your crazy aunt’s attic. More sarcophagi than you can shake a stick at, statues of pharaohs all over the place, metal artifacts, wooden artifacts (including a boat meant to carry the soul of one pharaoh on his afterlife journey), pottery and who knows what else. It’s dusty, mostly unlabeled and not well organized at all. But the amount of objects and artifacts is overwhelming. Room after room of things. I didn’t even go through the “Royal Mummies” exhibit; there was an additional charge for that and I had blown my budget on lotus oil.

People wearing id badges would come up every so often and ask if I wanted a guide. I saw lots of tourist groups taking advantage of these services and I overheard a variety of languages—French, German, Italian—being spoken by them so my guess is that the guides were bona fide, probably university students, or maybe even teachers or professors, picking up a few extra bucks on the weekend. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the information they were conveying, however, and I didn’t engage anyone. The museum was packed with tourists and they continued to stream in, the space inside getting more and more crowded, as I wandered through the various rooms. I’ve heard that the Minister of Antiquities, Zahi Hawwas, is planning to build a new multi-million dollar museum out near the Pyramids to replace this pile. Anything would be an improvement over this; the building has obviously outlived its usefulness.

When I had had my fill of ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman antiquities, I wandered back outside and got a cab back to Zamalek. I didn’t want to be late for the transport out to the concert that evening. The cab ride was quick since Friday was a weekend and traffic was light. Arriving on Karl and Katy’s street with plenty of time to spare, I stopped in the Beano Café landmark and ordered a light lunch. This was the first time I had treated myself to a restaurant meal in some time and the first real coffee—a cappuccino—that I had had in several weeks. I finished my sandwich and lingered over the coffee. Just before 3 PM, I called Karl and asked if it would be convenient for me to come to the apartment now. He said it would be okay so I made my way there.

Ginger da Costa came up from her apartment shortly after I arrived and together we trooped over to the apartment building of a friend of Ginger’s, another Kathy, who had arranged for the van to carry us to the pyramids. We were joined by Belle Gironda who, like the second Kathy, is teaching at AUC. We all piled into the van and made the forty-five minute drive out to the pyramids in Giza. The area had changed dramatically since I was there thirty years ago. Residential and commercial properties had expanded so that they were really quite close to the pyramids and the Sphinx. The preserved area around the monuments was surrounded by walls and a fence, enclosing a very large area. Thirty years ago, this was the edge of the desert. We walked through the gates and onto a large paved plaza where rows of folding chairs had been set up.

The stage was erected in such a way that the pyramids provided a dramatic backdrop for the musicians. A brief light shower caught us by surprise and I thought we might be forced to retreat to a nearby shelter, but the rain quickly ended and the sun started to slip toward the horizon behind the pyramids. A few scattered clouds in the west glowed peach and pink.

Soon after we took our seats, the band was introduced and began to play. Bluzapalooza, as I later learned the group was called, included Zac Harmon, Deanne Bogart, and Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean. Steve Simon (a musician and concert promoter from St. John’s, Virgin Islands) had apparently arranged the event in consultation with the American Ambassador to Egypt, who is a blues fan herself. The group played for a little more than an hour, exciting the mostly young Egyptian crowd, many of whom stood in front of the stage or danced to the music in the aisles. There was a sizable group of adolescent women, most in some form of hijab, among the revelers and it was interesting to see that they stood to the side as the boys took to the dance floor. Obviously young women do not boogie in public here. That didn’t stop the American women in the audience.

Ginger and Belle, among others, were in the thick of the arm waving, swaying and stomping. I was struck by the cultural incongruities of African American musicians playing African inspired music in front of ancient Egyptian funerary architecture. I wondered what the pharaohs would have made of this.

The band was good. Tight and practiced. They obviously enjoyed playing together and were inspired by the venue. They performed a lot of blues standards as well as covering some crossover tunes, like Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” After about an hour, they cranked out one encore, thanked the audience and turned off the amps.

We made our way to the exit, found our van and rode back to the apartment. Karl and Katy ordered food over the internet from a service called “Otlob,” which is a transliteration of the Arabic word for “order.” We enjoyed a nice meal around the table and then crawled off to bed. Tomorrow I’m off to the Fayyoum to see an archaeological dig.

Dinner on the Nile

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 31 October 2009 A short but intense week drew to a close with quite a varied collection of activities. Thursday morning I had scheduled a meeting with Mohamed Al-Gohary and Nermin Bahaa to make sure that I had all the tools, connections and so forth I would need to get the first workshop properly launched next week. We had set a time of 10:30 AM and agreed to meet in the large meeting room adjacent to the collection development offices on the “B2” level of the library. Aided by my nifty new electronic key card, I made my way to the designated place only to find the room empty. I checked my cell phone and saw that I had missed two calls, one each from Nermin and Mohamed. Great. I called Nermin back and she whispered that she was in the middle of a meeting called at the last minute. Could I wait until 11? What choice did I have?

“Okay,” I said, “but no later. You know I’m going to Cairo early this afternoon.”

I called Mohamed, just to tell him I had received his call and he told me he was in the same meeting. He said he would call when he got out. I went back to my office and did some computer work. At 11:15, I Had still not heard from either of them and was getting a bit nervous about the time. I had left luggage at the apartment and had to go home to pick it up before heading off to the train station. Before I could work up a good head of steam about this, however, Nermin called and said we could meet, so I headed off to the meeting room. We got things squared away pretty quickly and I even had time when we finished to run down to the periodicals section and pull some journals containing book reviews off the shelves (I will need these for the second session).

I gathered my stuff from my office, got a cab and headed home. My bag was packed and I just needed to close the windows and double check that I had my tickets. I noticed that the cell phone was a little low on juice, so I plugged that in for a few minutes, too. My train was to depart at a bit past 2PM so at about 1:30, I grabbed the cell phone and headed down the elevator. There was a taxi just coming down my street and he was available so I hopped in. Noontime traffic was horrendous and we crept along for a good twenty minutes before we finally broke clear. I made my train with about ten minutes to spare. Closer than I like it, but I was on my way.

I was headed to Cairo for two reasons. First, Bruce Lohof the Egyptian Fulbright Director and his partner Annmarie had invited all the scholars for dinner at their apartment in Zamalek that evening and on Saturday I had arranged to travel with a group from the American Research Center in Cairo to the Fayyum where, reportedly, a great number of Arabic block prints had been unearthed. With a day in between these two events, I hoped to be able to visit at least one of the three museums in Cairo that I know hold examples of block printing. I figured that a trip to Cairo shouldn’t be wasted.

Zamalek is the name of a city district lying on the northern half of an island in the middle of the Nile. The island remained largely undeveloped until late in the nineteenth century. Then Muhammad Ali, Egypt’s ruler of the time decided to build a palace for himself there. Part of that structure exists today as a section of the Marriot Hotel, which is situated on one side of the island. Because of the former royal enclosure, there is still a lot of relatively open space on the island. Most of the buildings rise not more than ten stories and many are only four or five high. There are tree-lined streets and quiet residential areas; many of the capital’s foreign embassies are located here as well. I was looking forward to this event also because Karl Lorenz and his partner Kathleen Hain, a couple who had BOTH gotten Fulbrights, and whose apartment was also in Zamalek, had invited me to stay with them, rather than going to a hotel. Kathy had e-mailed me detailed directions and I had printed them out so I could direct the cab when I got to Cairo.

The trip down was pleasant and uneventful; I ran the usual gauntlet of taxi drivers outside the Cairo terminal wanting outrageous sums to go less than two miles and finally agreed to go with one who wanted more than I had been told the trip from the station to Zamalek would cost, but I wasn’t going to quibble over one dollar. Kathy had said that their street would be difficult to locate and indeed the driver overshot the turn he was supposed to make. However, when we pulled over to consult the Cairo street map I had cleverly thought to bring with me, I saw that we were actually stopped at the end of Karl and Katy’s street and I was able to see one of the landmarks they had given me, so I paid the guy and hopped out. They had said that if I got as close as the landmark—Beano’s Café—to call and they would come down and meet me. I got Karl on the phone and he told me to continue walking down the street. After thirty seconds, he said, ”Look up,” and there he was, standing on his third-floor balcony, waving.

I took the old-fashioned elevator—cage at the ground floor landing, metal door with a handle, interior door of folding wooden slats—and rode up the center of the stairwell. Karl, Katy and their triplets (Oy!) Kierin, Nick and Marie greeted me and we sat in their big double living room overlooking the street chatting and drinking a welcome cup of coffee. Kathy is a psychologist working at Ayn Shams University in Cairo, directing an Egyptian PhD dissertation and teaching graduate students and faculty in the medical school, Karl is an archaeologist who specializes in Native North American pottery and he is in Egypt attempting to apply his statistical pottery model to four Egyptian archaeological sites from the pre-dynastic period (i.e. more than 4500 years ago!). The kids, who are ninth graders, did what kids do: they plugged into their computers, put their iPod ear buds in their ears and let the adults talk. Nick, who is very engaging, actually joined in the conversation now and then and was a delight. We were joined, after a short while, by Virginia da Costa, another Fulbrighter, who lives just downstairs.

We decided to walk to the Lohof’s building together and shortly before the designated dinner hour, we set off. A fifteen minute walk brought us to a high-rise on the edge of the island. We rose in the elevator (three at a time only; it was small…) to the tenth floor and rang the doorbell. An Egyptian man in white shirt and black bow tie opened up and admitted us. We greeted Bruce and Annmarie and those other guests who had already arrived. Wine and hors d’oeuvres were served as we stood or sat around and talked. A wall of floor to ceiling windows gave out onto a spectacular view of the Nile, which lay right at our feet, and the Cairo skyline. Excursion boats with lights twinkling moved back and forth on the river; headlights streamed along the Corniche on the opposite bank; the city lights glowed in blue, white and yellow.

People were still talking in glowing terms about the Alexandria trip and asked how I was getting on with the work. I told them things were beginning to move along and I heard how their various projects and classes were proceeding. It was a wonderful way to catch up and speak to people I hadn’t really gotten to know before. In due time, we were informed that dinner was ready and we all filed into the dining room where various dishes were arranged around the table. We picked up plates and began to fill them: fish filets on a bed of steamed vegetables, roast leg of lamb cut into manageable chunks; chicken breast sliced, rolled around fresh herbs, and baked; rice; roasted squash en casserole; a spinach soufflé; a salad of tomatoes and cucumber with vinegar and oil dressing. Got to have a little of each…

I sat with Mir Hussain, who is teaching economics at Cairo University for the year and Virginia, who is working on an art project that involves photography and watercolors. She has produced some rather striking portraits of Egyptians in all their guises already. After dinner came dessert: a rich chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream, mille feuille with cream filling. We digested over more conversation; people moved from one group to another and we spent a gloriously relaxing evening. Around ten, our little group of Virginia, Karl; Katy, the triplets and I thanked our hosts and headed out into the night. We walked back to their place and Virginia brought up some of her watercolors to show us. We talked for a while and then decided to hit the hay. I had planned to take a hotel room for the following night but Karl and Kate insisted that I should do no such thing; they had room and I wasn’t in the way. Okay. Free room and board. Thanks!

Two Lessons, One in Humility…

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, 29 October 2009

I’m off to Cairo today for a Fulbright social affair and a one-day trip to the Fayyum (about which I will write in a future posting), so I wanted to get this installment uploaded while its events are still relatively fresh in my mind. This coming week will be busy with the collection development workshops—three of them over three days, each offered in two separate sections so I get the largest attendance of reference people possible. I have been busy with preparations for that and for the second set of workshops for the information literacy people, which will probably take place the week of November 9th. The collection development people are anxious to get the information I plan to convey before the Cairo Book Fair, which takes place from the 10th to the 20th of December. The selectors are hoping to use some of what they learn in the workshops when they attend the book fair and consider items to add to their collections.

In addition to these activities, I have been trying to make progress with my Arabic study and I have good days and bad days with that effort. My tutor is very patient and engaging and I find my confidence, most days, growing. However, that doesn’t happen every day as two events this past week helped me realize. Fortunately, my long engagement with language study has prepared me, I hope, to deal with these “plateaus” that one reaches every so often where progress suddenly seems to cease for no apparent reason.

Last week Dr. Wostawy had sent me a couple of invitations to cultural events that she thought might be of interest to me. In one instance, I think I was essentially attending in her stead, but not in any official way. As a high profile figure in Alexandria, she gets dozens of these invitations, no doubt, and as a matter of self preservation she has to be selective about which events to attend. There are only so many hours in the day and only so many days in a lifetime, after all. The first event I was invited to was a lecture by Prof. Bengt Knutsson of the University of Lund in Sweden. He was speaking on Monday evening at the Swedish Cultural Center located in Manshiya, the fashionable address on the peninsula. His topic was the relations between the Vikings and the Arabs in the 9th and 10th centuries and he was to deliver his lecture in Arabic. Aside from my interest in the subject of his talk, I was anxious to learn just how much of a lecture in Arabic I might be able to understand. I hoped that my training in classical Arabic (Fus’ha) would help me but I wasn’t very confident about that.

On the appointed hour, I got a cab and made my way to the Swedish Cultural Center, a four- or five-story building on the Corniche facing the harbor. The blue and yellow Swedish flag flying from one of the pillars at the entrance helped me to identify the location. There was a large foyer with a broad flight of stairs at the center of the hall, with columns on either side. I was greeted by the security person, who asked me to sign the guest register and then led me to the elevator, which I rode to the second floor with a young Alexandrian woman in a head scarf. We emerged in front of a room with French doors behind which sat a crowd of perhaps seventy-five or eighty people. Most were already seated and the Swedish director of the center was just about to make his introductory remarks. The front row of chairs on one side of the room was largely vacant and seeing no other accessible seats, I chose one of these.

The director spoke briefly in English about the purpose of the center and its interest in promoting understanding between Egyptians, the Swedes and Europeans in general. He then introduced Prof.Knutsson, a distinguished elderly gentleman, slightly stooped, wearing glasses and bushy white hair. The professor prefaced his remarks with a brief explanation of where Lund was, and the meaning of the university seal, which was embroidered on the pocket of his blue blazer: a sword and a book, one to protect the other. He also explained his name, translating each element into Arabic.

“Bengt,” he said, “is Benedictus in Latin, “mubarak’ in Arabic; meaning ‘blessed.’ Knut is the old Norse word for ‘knot’ and ‘son’ is ‘ibn’ or ‘son of’ in Arabic, so my name in Arabic is Blessed Son of Knot.”
So far I was following almost all of this (I missed the Arabic word for “knot” and had to look it up later…) and was beginning to feel a bit more relaxed. The professor then launched into the meat of his topic, explaining that the evidence for extensive interaction between the Swedish Norse and the Arabs could be found in manuscripts, linguistic clues and archaeological artifacts. The Swedes, whom the Arabs often referred to as “Rus,” that is, people from what is today Russia were named so because their route into the Islamic realms of the tenth and eleventh centuries was down the Volga River, into western Central Asia and thence into the lands of the caliphate. Some Arabic authors of the time, mostly geographers, recorded the appearance of these northern visitors and used their accounts of their voyages to fill out their descriptions of the northern part of the world, most of which was otherwise unknown to them.

One of the more important documents of this interaction is an account left by one Ibn Fadlan, who traveled with the Norse north into their territories. (A heavily romanticized and fictionalized version of his voyage forms the basis for the 1999 Antonio Banderas film “Thirteenth Warrior.” Until 1923, Ibn Fadlan’s record was known only by virtue of the fact that mention of it had been made in a marginal annotation in a geographical work of the time. Then, in 1923, a manuscript copy of Ibn Fadlan’s work was discovered in Iran.

Finally, there is the archaeological evidence, which is quite overwhelming. There are, in Swedish museums and research institutions, some 80,000 Islamic coins from that period, showing quite convincingly that routine commercial contact between the two peoples was being carried out. In addition, there is a rune stone which bears a memorial inscription in ancient Norse, part of which states that the deceased died in “Sarkland,” that is the “Sharq,” East, in Arabic. There were some accompanying slides of maps and artifacts, which the professor used to elaborate certain points and these also helped get me through some sticky linguistic moments. He spoke, of course, in classical Arabic, that being the form of Arabic generally understood by most educated Arabs. Those in the audience who were not Arabic speakers could avail themselves of headsets through which a simultaneous translation into English (maybe Swedish?) was offered.

The lecture ended with some questions from the audience and then we all adjourned to the rooftop terrace where drinks (delightfully, wine in addition to fruit juice for the Muslim guests!) and hors d’oeuvre were served. There was a most pleasant breeze and an engaging view over the harbor. I chatted for a while with a young Egyptian lawyer who works for a corporation in Alexandria and then took my leave. A very nice way to spend an evening and a heartening boost to my Arabic ability. Of course, Professor Knutsson spoke very deliberately and clearly, and used a microphone so most people could understand him. A couple of the questions put to him at the end of his talk were pretty much unintelligible to me but I attributed that to the fact that the questioners were speaking colloquial in an ambience with a lot of background noise. Well, that was my excuse anyway.

My comprehension of spoken Arabic was given quite a comeuppance the very next day, however. On Wednesday morning, Dr. al-Wostawy had invited me to attend an award ceremony in the conference center adjacent to the library. I had not yet visited that building and was interested to see what it contained. Just before the award ceremony was to begin, I made my way across the plaza to the entrance and walked in, one of a throng of attendees. Inside, we were directed upstairs to a large auditorium, which was filling rapidly as I entered. There was a large dais at the front of the hall and banks of red upholstered seat swept upward from it. A huge projection screen displayed text indicating the occasion: the 2009 Hasan Fathy Award for Architecture, and an image of the award’s namesake. I had picked up a program from a table on my way in and in reading it (it was in English). I hadn’t realized until that point that the event was a day-long conference on architecture in Egypt, and I was unprepared to spend the entire day here. I had work to do and my Arabic instructor was due at 1:30. Fortunately, there was a coffee break scheduled for about 11:30 and I planned to make my escape at that point.

The proceedings were called to order by Dr. Ismail Serag al-Din, the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina organization (Dr. al-Wostawy’s boss). He spoke briefly in English and then continued in Arabic. Before two minutes had passed, I realized I was seriously out of my depth. With luck, I was getting every tenth word; sometimes less. My pulse rate jumped. This was a whole different kettle of fish from yesterday. Last night I was getting between 60%-80% (sometimes much more) of what Professor Knutsson had said; today my comprehension rate at times plummeted to dismal single digits. Since the first part of the program was dedicated to the award ceremony, much of the rhetoric involved description of the various candidate projects which had been considered for the award. Slides of three different projects, a private residence, the “al-Alayli House” in a ritzy suburb of Alexandria, an administrative center for a wildlife preserve on the Red Sea coast, and a planned community for workers and staff at a three-hotel resort called al-Gouna. The explanation of the selection of these three projects went totally over my head; the pictures didn’t help at all.

The members of the award committee, four men, were introduced by Dr. Serag al-Din and, aside from their titles—“muhandis” or engineer—I didn’t get their qualifications AT ALL. This was unnerving. As the winners of the award were introduced (only at this point did I understand that all three of the projects displayed were winners, each in a different category), did I grasp why there were so many presentation boxes on the table on the dais. There was, of course, the winner of the “architect of the year” award, who was given a golden medallion suspended from a silk ribbon, and then the winners in each of the categories, which I gathered were private residence, public building and urban planning, or maybe something like “large project.”
Each of the recipients—or a representative of the design team in two cases where an architectural firm was the winner—were asked to say a few words after their awards were presented. Although I still wasn’t comprehending too much of what was being said, I found these short addresses by professionals interesting for the way in which they spoke. (Parenthetically, I was pleased that one of the co-winners was a woman architect and it was she who spoke in accepting the award on behalf of her firm.)

Someone posted to an earlier entry here asking whether there was an Arabic-English equivalent to “Spanglish” or “Newyorican” as it’s called in the Big Apple—“Arabish” or maybe “Engabic”—in other words (or neologisms if you prefer). In answer, I can now say more authoritatively, perhaps, that there is something like that spoken among certain professions. The architects who spoke that morning often interjected English words into their speeches. “Landscape,” for example, I heard a couple of times; “project,” “design,” “team,” even “environment” (although there’s a perfectly good Arabic word for that!). Of course other English words are already in common use, as I mentioned in my response to the earlier posting: “radio,” “telephone,” of course, “television,” “gossip” (as in celebrity talk show chatter), “computer,” “MP3,” and, last but not least, “internet.” Yet the degree of English penetration of Arabic is relatively limited at this time; there is plenty of English vocabulary, but no use (as far as I can tell) of English grammatical elements or syntax that would make it possible for one to argue that it has achieved the status of a sort of language or dialect on its own. (One exception, I learned later in the week, is the student body at AUC—the American University in Cairo, as reported to me by a fellow Fulbrighter who is fluent on both languages and is in a position to know.) As the short speeches I heard seem to indicate, certain professions make use of technical terms in English that they hold in common and which they know (or can safely assume) that their audiences will understand.

However, to return to my theme, it was the Arabic that I had failed to comprehend adequately that morning and the previous evening’s elation popped like a cheap carnival balloon. How appropriate that I should fall victim to hubris, that most Greek of sins, in Alexandria. Almost poetic in a way. I wonder how one says “hubris’ in Arabic?

Scroll to Top