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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!

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