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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?

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