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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.

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