Archive for December, 2009

Cruising 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, 26 December, 2009

Aboard the “Ra II,” somewhere between Kum Ombo and Esne, Upper Egypt

I haven’t written in a more than a week and it’s time to catch up—again. There are several reasons I haven’t sat down to post a blog in a while although I have been at the keyboard for other reasons. The pace of work at the library has picked up considerably now that my time there is dwindling and all of a sudden there are all these things that ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY MUST BE DONE before I return to the States. On top of that, Vibs has arrived and we are taking a long-planned vacation together. We are in the midst of that trip and that is the other reason I haven’t been posting. Until now.

Vibs arrived in Alexandria on the 19th and we spent about four days wandering around and seeing a few sights in that city. Mostly we walked the neighborhood streets and allowed her time to adjust to the time difference, a big adjustment as I well know. One morning we went out to the peninsula known as Ras al-Tin to tour the citadel of Qait Bey, the Mamluk ruler of Egypt who constructed the citadel in the 1480’s on the foundations of the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria. We went to dinner at the famous Fish Market restaurant one evening and had a memorable feast followed by the best Arabic coffee I’ve ever drunk. Another day my Arabic tutor took us to al-Muntaza, the site of King Farouk’s summer palace, where we walked part of the extensive gardens along the seacoast and returned to downtown Alexandria for yet another meal of fish.

Last Thursday, we boarded a train for Cairo, spent Christmas Eve in an airport hotel, and then took an early morning flight to Aswan, the last major city in southern Egypt before you reach the Sudanese border (still another five hundred miles farther south) and the site of the famous high dam built under Nasser. In Aswan, we boarded the cruise ship “Ra II,” and began our four day trip down the Nile (that is, North) to Luxor. This is a very touristy thing to do and, next to the obligatory visit to the pyramids at Giza, probably the most quintessential Egyptian experience for non-Egyptians.

Vibs had received a gift of Florence Nightingale’s account of her trip up the Nile in 1849-50 (Letters from Egypt: a Journey on the Nile 1849-1850) and brought it along with her so I could read it. The differences between Flo’s experience and ours are astounding and so disparate as to belong to two different universes. Hers was truly an Adventure, with a capital “A” while ours is merely part of a huge commercial operation which brings billions of foreign exchange into Egypt every year. This is not to say that the present-day cruise has any less of a romantic air about it; it’s just a lot more organized and much less dangerous than it was 160 years ago. There are 350 cruise ships plying the Nile today, with an average passenger load of 100 people. That means that at any given time, about 35,000 people (not including crews) are floating on the river. Multiply that number by the number of cruises conducted each year (an average cruise is between three and seven days in length) and you get an idea of how many people do this each year. Inside a month, all of Des Moines could be accommodated.

Most of the ships are essentially floating hotels, with restaurants, bars, night clubs, swimming pools, hot tubs and all the “mod cons” you could want, even a laundry service. The “Ra II” is a pleasant ship with nice staterooms and an airy top deck, part of which is covered with canvas awnings and part of which is open to the sun. We boarded around ten AM on Christmas Day and settled in. Our guide, Osama (no, not THAT Osama) told us what the plan was and what our options were. We were invited to join a tour of Aswan, including the open air market, but declined in favor of a walk along the Corniche and a nap in the afternoon. Dinner was very pleasant and we had a good sleep in our narrow berths. Sunday morning we began our itinerary with a coach tour. Our first stop was the Temple of Philae, part of which was constructed by one of the Ptolemies, the successors to Alexander the Great, who ruled Egypt until the Roman conquest around 40 BC (Cleopatra, Marc Anthony, Julius Caesar and all that…). The Ptolemies had a policy of currying favor with the native Egyptians by honoring the gods that they worshipped and even building temples in their honor. The Temple at Philae is one such building, dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, to whom the island of Philae was sacred.

Like Abu Simbel, the Isis Temple was taken apart and reconstructed because its original location was covered by the waters of Lake Nasser, the lake formed by the high dam. The difference between this temple and the monument of Abu Simbel is that the Temple of Isis had already been inundated due to the construction of an earlier dam by the British in 1902. It lay underwater for seventy years until Egypt asked UNESCO to rescue it (along with sixteen other historic buildings) when the high dam was being built. So a coffer dam was constructed around its island, the water pumped out and the entire structure cut into 40,000 pieces and reassembled on an adjacent island above the new water level. The water and silt stains are still visible on its sandstone blocks.

One reaches the island by small boats, either sail or motor powered. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours wandering around the site in the early morning cool, taking pictures and trying to make sense of the hieroglyphics and pictures that adorn the walls of the larger structures that make up this temple complex. The Romans followed the Greek practice of showing respect to the ancient Egyptian deities and added their own buildings to the assemblage. Thus, you have a range of architectural styles and traditions within a relatively small area and another example of the sort of syncretism that so deeply characterizes the culture of this part of the world.

A short trip back across the waters of Lake Nasser brought us to the bus, which we boarded for our next stop, the High Dam across the Nile. Construction of the High Dam ended the cycle of yearly Nile floods and corralled the famous Nile crocodiles behind it. The dam was built with United Nations support and initial assistance from the US, but when the US wanted political influence in return for its investment, Nasser said “no, thanks” and nationalized the Suez Canal to help pay for its construction. That precipitated the 1956 Sinai War and led to an invitation to the Russians to come and complete the work. They remained until Anwar Sadat “invited” them to leave in the late 1970’s, I think. The dam is an impressive structure and we enjoyed the fifteen minutes we were allowed by the security forces to look around.

Our final stop in Aswan (the name means “the elephants,” incidentally, and is taken from a rock formation on the northern end of Elephantine Island, the site of the original settlement here. The formation resembles a herd of elephants when viewed from afar) was a perfumery, or rather an essential oils factory. Now, I had already had some experience with this business and was a bit wary, but the group was treated with respect and was given no hard sell to purchase anything. We were presented with small samples of about seven of the fragrances made by the firm and were then offered a variety of “package deals” featuring different essential oils in different sizes. We actually found a few that we liked and bought three: sandalwood, myrrh, and peppermint. Aroma therapy for Winter in Des Moines.

Our final experience of the morning was a felucca trip around the northern end of Elephantine Island to an adjacent island called Gazirat al-Bustan, once the property of Lord Kitchener. On the way, we sailed past the mausoleum of the Aga Khan, the religious leader of the Isma`ili Shi`ites (also known as “seveners), who recognize the Aga Khan as their hereditary spiritual leader. To the rest of us, he is best known as Rita Hayworth’s father-in-law. The tomb lies across from Gazirat al-Bustan, the garden island, where we now disembarked. The gardens are home to variety of trees and shrubs collected and planted by Lord Kitchener. Now quite mature, the plantings create a very elegant colonial specimen garden on the northern part of the island. It was most pleasant to spend an hour or so amidst the shade of palms and tamarinds, among the colors of bougainvillea, hibiscus and other flowering plants. At the end of our visit, a motor boat took us around the southern tip of Elephantine Island and back to our ship’s berth.

We returned to the ship in time for lunch and, while we were eating, we set sail for our next stop, Kom Ombo, a temple sitting right on the east bank of the Nile about forty miles north of Aswan. The ship’s progress was sedate and watching the river slide past under the afternoon sun was a delightful, even serene, experience. The importance of the narrow strip of green running alongside the Nile through desert becomes much clearer when seen from the deck of a Nile liner. The cultivated area is limited to the narrow flood plain adjacent to the river and the proximity of the arid lands is emphasized by the high sand-covered bluffs beyond. It is somewhat of a surprise that human habitation seems to be ever present here, but when one considers that there is no place far from the river where human life can be sustained, it makes sense that everywhere the banks allow for cultivation, people will be found.

In late afternoon, we round a bend and find the Temple of Kom Ombo awaiting us on the eastern bank of the river. Our sister ship, the “Ra I” is already tied up at the shore. By the time we tie up and debark, night has fallen and we set off up the street at a dog trot in order to gain entrance before the place is closed for the night. Kom Ombo Temple was dedicated to two ancient Egyptian deities, Sobek, the crocodile god, and Horus, the “good doctor.” Egyptians of the pharaonic times (and perhaps later) came here to pray for healing and to have their maladies treated by the priest-doctors in residence. Here, as at Philae, the Greeks and Romans renovated, rebuilt, and refurbished the structures comprising the temple.

By the time we arrived at the site, the sun had set and the temple was illuminated by a lighting system that threw dramatic shadows everywhere. There were several boatloads—literally—of people there and the crowds added a festive air to the visit. The ancient building became less of a lonely relic and more of a vibrant, living space because of the presence of so many. The scale and power of these places is breathtaking; one cannot but marvel at the industry and commitment necessary to undertake construction projects of this magnitude using only hand tools and the most basic of mechanical aids—the pulley, the inclined plane, and the wheel.

After an hour or so poking around the ruins, a leisurely walk brought us back to the Ra II, where we enjoyed a cocktail in the lounge and then a tasty dinner. Coffee on the sun deck, gazing over the sleeping Nile and Kom Ombo bathed in soft light brought our first full day on the Nile to a relaxing end.

Busy, Busy, Busy, But With a Break

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, 14 December 2009

After months of waiting, I finally got to do some actual research on my block prints. Working with Gamal Husni at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, who has a great connection (his uncle is the Egyptian Minister of Culture), I was able to get an appointment to see the block prints at the Gayer Anderson Museum. I had also made arrangements to visit the French Institute in Cairo where, I had recently learned, yet another Arabic block print lay waiting for me.

I spent Saturday hanging out with Ginger and Dominique, going for a walk, and just kicking back after our excursion to the pyramids the previous day. That evening, we met up with a former teacher of Dominique’s from the University of Nebraska, and went to a Korean (yes, a Korean) restaurant for dinner. The food was good and the conversation lively. Brian, Dominique’s printmaking teacher, was a beer fan, so we all consumed our fill of Stella, the Egyptian Budweiser, as we sat and talked. During dinner, Marie Legendre of the French Institute called me and told me that I would be able to see their block print the next day. That put me in a great frame of mind at the end of the day.

Sunday morning, I hailed a cab near the apartment and set off for the institute which sits near Tahrir Square on the southern edge of downtown. The taxi driver, to my surprise, knew exactly where it was and dropped me at the front gate. Marie was there to greet me and to introduce me to Sylvie Denoix, the Director of Studies at the institute. I was ushered into her office and we spent a few minutes talking about my project. I thanked her for her gracious offer to allow me to examine the artifact and she told me that they would be able to allow me an hour and a half with it. If I needed more time, I would need official permission. I told her that that amount of time would probably suffice.

From the director’s office, I was escorted upstairs to the archive where two other people were at work. There was a chair and a bit of table space on which I could work. The box containing the paper was placed on the table. I opened it. Inside was a terribly wrinkled and fragmented document with a large decorative text and design at one end and several dozens of lines of smaller script below it. There were actually three pieces of paper and I was afraid to handle it too much lest it tear into even smaller pieces. Marie brought out another smaller box and extracted yet another piece of paper from it. That piece had been lying amongst a bunch of papyrus fragments and she explained that it “probably” belonged to the piece I was looking at, but for some reason had been placed in a separate container. After looking at the smaller piece, I offered the opinion that it was indeed part of the larger amulet, so the smaller piece was placed together with the others in the larger box.

It was nearly impossible to read any more than a word or two of the text here and there, but I took rough measurements and wrote up a prose description. The people working in the room were very helpful; when I asked how I could go about requesting an image of the block print, they directed me to the institute’s web site where I was able to fill out an electronic request form. Marie asked if I wanted to wait until the piece had been conserved and made easier to read and I said yes, but that I would like a photo of it “as is” for purposes of comparison. She told me that since I was interested in it, she would place it on the priority list for the conservators to work on. Ah, the French! Magnifique!

From the institute, I walked around the corner and got another cab and had the driver deposit me outside the Mosque of Ibn Tulun. The Gayer Anderson Museum, also known as the “House of the Cretan Woman,” lies right up against the wall of the mosque at the southeast corner. I walked to the gate and told the tourist cop there that I had an appointment with Ehab Sedrak, the museum director. He made a phone call and in a flash I was being led up the stairs to the director’s office. The director recognized me from my previous visit and invited me to sit down. He was engaged in some sort of business with three other guys and I was offered tea or coffee while I waited for him to finish with them. As is the case in an Egyptian office, people flowed in and out on a regular basis, often stealing a minute or two of the director’s time and attention from the other supplicants in his office.

Eventually, however, Mr. Sedrak finished his business with the three men and engaged me in a brief interview. What was it, again, I wanted to see? For what purpose? Did I know what I was looking for? I answered all his questions as directly as I could in my third-grade Arabic and he seemed satisfied. Then he asked me what my research was about. I told him I was interested in medieval Arabic printing history and said that I believed that it was a story that needed telling.

“So, you’re just interested in the objects as evidence of printing, is that correct?”

“Yes,” I responded. “That is the primary focus of my research.”

He pulled a sheaf of papers out of his desk and pushed it toward me. On some of the pages there were dozens of thumbnail photos of amulets made of stone and metal and bearing Arabic inscriptions.

“I’m working on amulets, too,” he said, leaning back in his swivel chair. “I am interested in them because they have to do with magic, you know.”

“Yes,” I replied. “The ones on paper also have connections with that practice.”

He was obviously concerned that my interest in the amulets was going to encroach on his “territory.” I convinced him that while I knew that the amulets contained “magical” text, that was not why I wanted to see them. I told him that European and American scholars had been studying the same field for some time and that there were several published works on the topic.

Whatever it was that I said to him, he seemed to be reassured that I was no threat to his study, so he directed his assistant and a women named Azzah, who seems to be a sort of curator and museum guide, to take me upstairs to the room where the amulets were stored. The room, on the top floor, had been Gayer Anderson’s library and a set of glass fronted bookshelves sat atop a row of wooden cabinets on one side of the room. We entered and the windows on one side of the room were immediately thrown open to admit some air. Next, the factotum was called to help open the appropriate cabinet, for not only were the cabinet doors padlocked, but each was sealed with a wire seal and wire cutters were necessary to remove that before the locks could be opened. We waited while the man located his tools; I took a seat on a diwan on the opposite side of the room and got out my description forms, a pencil, my plastic ruler and my magnifying glass. While I was doing this, we were joined by not one but two cops, one in the uniform of the Tourist Police and the other in plainclothes. I never realized that I represented such a potential threat to museum security.

Finally, after at least a quarter of an hour, during which the director’s assistant proceeded to smoke a cigarette and grind out the butt on the floor(!), the pliers were found and the padlocks opened. I gave the assistant and Ms. Azzah the list of numbers I had and they proceeded to search for the correct folders. The first examination failed to locate the folders, so they tried again. Finally, one, then two and finally three were found. The fourth one took a bit longer. The first one was a problem since it wasn’t a block print. The director had already told me that the number of one of the items did not match the description of the item entered in their inventory, so he had changed the number (rather arbitrarily it seems) to one that more closely matched the other three. I told them that what I was looking at wasn’t a block print and asked them to see the next one.

The second, third and fourth ones were indeed the pieces I was hoping to see and I worked on my descriptions and measurements with the assistant director peering over my left shoulder and Ms. Azzah peering over my right. Several times, as I was using my mechanical pencil point to help count lines, I was admonished not to touch the paper with the lead (which was, in fact, retracted). Someone in the room must have been feeling faint for, in addition to the wind blowing in through the open window, a floor fan had been turned on and the paper artifacts were flapping about in a most un-conservation-minded manner. I was afraid one of them would sail out into the courtyard.

Nothing like that happened, fortunately, and I finished my examination of the three pieces shortly after noon. We then returned to the director’s office where I was again asked to take a seat and offered another cuppa. Over my tea, the director asked that I provide him with a copy of my book, which I told him I was only too happy to do (while I was doing an internal accounting of how much this visit would cost me. Not cheap…) In truth, I thought that since they have a collection of block prints, they should, indeed, have a copy of the book so that they might provide future scholars with a bit more information about their collection. I got the director’s e-mail and the postal address of the museum and promised to send the book and any publication resulting from my visit to him. Finally, he asked me if I had taken pictures. I blinked and said no. I didn’t realize that I would be allowed to take pictures.

“You’ve got a letter from the Minister and a note from Zahi Hawwas,” he said with a dismissive wave of his cigarette. “You can do anything you want.”

Okay. Wish you had told me sooner. I promised to return when I had more time and Mr. Sedrak said that I would be allowed to photograph the pieces then. We shook hands, I thanked his staff and took my leave.

I still had some time left in the day, so I asked my cab driver to drop me off on Qasr al-Ayni Street near Garden City. The Egyptian Geographical Museum is located there, adjacent to the Majlis al-Shura, the Cairo City Council building and I had read that they also had a block print. Being in the general neighborhood, I decided to make an impromptu visit. The museum is, as I said, right next to the city council building and is subject to some serious security. I walked through the one open gate and entered a small building where several people were chatting with the guards. When my presence was acknowledged, I was asked what my business was and, when I said that I would like to visit the museum, one cop took my passport and I was handed an identity tag. My briefcase was examined and I was passed along to another guard outside the museum, He shook my hand and escorted me inside, where the gatekeeper had me leave my bag and directed me upstairs.

At the top of the stairs was another guard of sorts; he asked what I wanted to see and I told him, “A document. Here’s the accession number.”

“Which book?” he asked with a puzzled look.

“Not a book, a piece of paper. An old piece of paper.”

He was obviously stumped, so he asked me to wait and went off to find someone who might be able to help. After a short time, he returned and asked me to follow him through a set of double doors into a large open room. The ceiling was covered in inlaid wood and was magnificent. To one side was an auditorium with ranks of folding chairs climbing up several levels. On the other side of the room, the one closest to the street, was the library. Three rows of barrister’s bookcases, with glass doors to keep out the dust, extended the width of the room. There, halfway along one such row, we found a young man who asked my business. I told him what I was looking for and gave him the accession number. He invited me to sit at one of the reading tables while he went off in search of someone who might know about the thing I sought.

While I waited, I browsed the bookshelves and read the plaques mounted on the walls. Over the doors were carved inscriptions in gold leaf; some were in Arabic while others were in French. The ones in French were carved in such a way as to resemble Arabic letters. Very Victorian (the building was erected in 1875, I learned from one inscription) and very cool, actually.

My latest guide finally returned and told me that the piece was actually not in the library, but in the museum, in a display case. I was welcome to look at it, but if I wanted to examine it, I would need to send a letter to the Society’s president. I told him I would be happy to do that, but I would need his address.

“No,” he said, “He’s right downstairs, about to leave. If we hurry you can meet him.”

We raised dust as we skipped down the staircase and managed to catch Dr. Muhammad Safi al-Din Abu al-`Izz just as he was about to depart. My guide had already given the good doctor my business card and he greeted me in English.

“I understand you speak Arabic,” he said as he shook my hand. “You must come back so we can sit in my office and talk about your work. Call me and arrange a time. Unfortunately, I have an appointment just now.”

I thanked him for his offer and said that I would, indeed, be in touch. As he left, my guide showed me into the museum, a dusty room filled with cultural artifacts of all sorts and all ages. The vitrine containing the block print was up against one wall at the back of the room, dimly lit and at an angle so that reading it was nearly impossible. It was definitely a block print, though. The museum curator, who had been there, he told me, since 1976, showed me around proudly, pointing out other kinds of amulets. One case contained a couple dozen pieces of Bedouin jewelry with the tubes and boxes that would have contained amulets like the one I wanted to see. I asked him if these had been opened to see if anything was inside. He said yes, and that nothing had been found. The last piece he showed me was a long amulet on parchment, framed behind glass, which he said had been given to the museum (if I understood his Arabic correctly) by Haile Selassie, the former ruler of Ethiopia.

Having secured the museum’s postal address and the president’s phone number, I thanked my hosts and headed for home. While I hadn’t seen everything I had hoped to see, I felt that I had made significant inroads into the pike of tasks I had before me with this aspect of my project. People were generally very helpful, in some cases some helpful that they were a hindrance, but today, who was I to complain.

That evening, all the members of the Fulbright contingent were to be the guests of the Lohofs. It was their annual holiday reception and we were going to be treated to the director’s customary gracious hospitality and good food. Before we set off for their place, however, our friend Jamie from the desert campout had invited us for a beer and to see his apartment, which was in a houseboat moored on the west bank of the Nile opposite Zamalek. We had seen these houseboats sitting along the riverbanks and there were occasional ads on the Cairo Scholars e-mail list from people either looking for such accommodations or roommates to share one. We had arranged to meet Jamie at about five, so shortly before then Ginger and I set out by cab. Access to the houseboats is made through gateways along the sidewalk next to the river. The gates are numbered but the numbers are often difficult to see and we missed Jamie’s address on the first swing past in the cab. Rather than have the cab make another loop around, we hopped out and walked back along the street until we found number 75. There was no bell or knocker apparent and the gate was locked. Just then, however, Jamie appeared on the sidewalk and let us in. We had made the inexcusable faux pas of actually showing up on time and Jamie hadn’t had a chance to tidy up.

We walked down a set of stairs into a very pleasant garden and then across a gangplank to the boat. Wires and pipes hung above the water and connected the boat to utilities. Jamie’s quarters were on the upper deck and comprised the entire length of the vessel. Rooms connected end to end and windows provided views of the river and the high rises of Zamalek on the opposite bank.

The sun was just setting as we sat down on the roofed open deck at one end and clinked glasses. The three of us spent a very pleasant early evening talking and relaxing. Joelle Ellis called after about an hour and joined us. We continued our conversations as the darkness gathered and the city lights took over from the sun. Party boats, some blasting recorded music and sporting festive lights, glided by from time to time, but the overall impression and experience was one of peace and quiet right near the center of town. The only drawbacks, we learned from our host, were that the houseboats were drafty in the Winter and they had the reputation of being venues for illicit assignations. The residents thus were viewed by some as possessing questionable morals, regardless of whether they had them or not. Morals, that is, not assignations.

Shortly after seven, Joelle, Ginger and I rose and, thanking Jamie for his hospitality, set off for the Fulbright reception. When we arrived, the party was in full swing. Both students and scholars mingled and flowed among the various rooms, eating and talking. The atmosphere was relaxed and congenial and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. This was the last hurrah for 2009, since the university semesters are drawing to a close and those Fulbrighters who are teaching are preparing to travel or take some down time. The students, too, are looking forward to free time to travel and explore. Even the library is in maintenance mode these days, with librarians taking unused vacation time before the end of the year. I’m hoping that there will be one more group activity before I leave, but that seems unlikely. I really like these folks and it has been a blast getting to know them and to spend time with them. The fact that I have only four weeks left here is beginning to sink in, but it’s still a bit hard to grasp.

Pyramid Scheme

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, 11 December 2009

Another weekend in Cairo. I came down from Alexandria yesterday afternoon so I would be able to join fellow Fulbrighters on a day trip to see the pyramids. The OLD pyramids. The monsters in Giza are the most famous ones but there are many more. Today we were to visit three sites important to the history of pyramid building ancient Egypt: Saqqara, Memphis, and Dahshoura. Dr. Chahinda Karim is to be our guide again.

Dominique Ellis and Ginger da Costa have offered to host me for the weekend but before I go to their place, I have arranged to meet Mike McMullen in Sakanat Maadi for dinner. He had also offered the hospitality of his home, but after considering the matter for a while, it made more sense for me to stay closer to downtown. There were several things I wanted to do this weekend and they all involved places near the center of town, so I opted to stay in Zamalek. Mike and I met at the Metro station in Sakanat Maadi and walked a couple of blocks along Street 9, the main drag in that part of town, to Lucille’s, an up-scale burger joint that served a variety of American-style foods. At 6:30 in the evening, the place was humming, filled with groups of Egyptian teens from wealthy local families and a few ex-pats. We found a table and ordered chicken enchiladas.

While our food was being prepared, Mike and I talked about my work and his teaching sociology at AUC. The end of the semester is looming for students here, too, and students being students, there is the familiar litany of excuses and pleadings for more time and claims of extenuating circumstances that warrant grants of special consideration. We also talked about plans for the intersession; Mike is returning to the States to bring his wife and two young daughters to Egypt. They will stay with him for the remainder of his grant period. I enjoy these opportunities to learn about the other Fulbright scholars; there is so much interesting work being done and I think that each of our individual experiences is enriched by the ability to share perspectives and insights in circumstances such as these.

Our meals were acceptable and we were both hungry. Mike had come directly from AUC and, like me, was in need of refueling. We talked over our meals and lingered for a cup of tea afterward. Nearly three hours had passed by the time we paid the bill. Mike walked me back to the Metro station and we said good night. I caught a northbound train for Tahrir Square and from there took a cab across the bridge to Zamalek. Dominique and Ginger were waiting for me and we sat and talked for a couple of hours before heading off to bed.

Friday morning, Ginger and I flagged down a cab outside the Marriott Hotel near her place and took the short ride to the Fulbright office in Dokki. We had been instructed to arrive at 7 AM, but at that hour we were the first ones there and waited nearly a quarter of an hour before anyone else showed up. By quarter to eight, however, the ground floor room was densely peopled. At Hend’s signal, we grabbed the customary “breakfast boxes” and heading to the bus. As soon as we cleared central Cairo, Dr. Karim picked up the microphone at the front of the bus and began to give us a brief overview of the ancient Egyptian philosophy of life, but more importantly, of death, since the many of the monuments we would see today were the focal point of that life event.

As we rode along a two-lane road bordered by a canal on one side and rows of palm trees standing in narrow fields on the other, she spoke of the duality that the ancient Egyptians saw in existence: that humans were animated by two forces, the “Ka” and the “Ba,” the soul and something like a “motive force.” A person needed both forces in order to exist on this plane. When one dies, the Egyptians believed, the Ka departs for the sky where it is judged. If it passes judgment, then it is rewarded with eternal life; if it does not pass, it is drowned in a celestial sea and is really dead. It is this second death that the Egyptians feared more than the first. If a soul (Ka) survived the judgment of the gods, then it could be reunited with its Ba again on Earth, but in order for that to happen, the Ka had to have a “home” to return to, where it could be reunited with its Ba. That was the reason for mummification and for the elaborate measures taken by the Pharaohs to assure that their bodies would survive until the resurrection. There was much more than that to the story: the one omnipotent god Amen, two sons, one good, one evil, the myth of creation, and so forth that were clearly the antecedents of the biblical stories with which we are familiar, but this should give you an idea of the basic elements of that world view.

By the time we arrived at our first stop, we had a much better understanding of what we were looking at. Saqqara is several kilometers south along the Nile from Giza. There are a number of pyramids here, smaller by far than those at Giza, but important for the light they shed on the development of Egyptian funerary architecture. Before the pyramids, the Egyptians buried their dead—at least the important ones—in “mastabas.” A mastaba is a sort of like a house for a soul.

The one we visited here, the Tomb of Ti, was built into the ground and constructed of dressed stone. Ti was a mid-level official in the Old Kingdom (5th Dynasty) and he and his wife were buried in this structure when they died. One entered through a narrow portal into an open square bounded by a narrow colonnaded portico. In the center of the open space was a rustic stone stairway that led underground. A narrow opening on one side of the portico led to a set of rooms. The first, at the end of a short passage, was a sort of shrine where one would leave offerings of food and drink to sustain the soul in the afterlife. There was a low platform at one end of the room on which such offerings would be placed. This was in front of a false door, through which the soul might pass in order to partake of the offerings.

The most striking feature of the space, however, was the carvings of hieroglyphics and scenes of life that covered all four walls from a height of about five feet all the way to the ceiling. The carvings were arranged in horizontal bands, each about eighteen inches high. In many places the original paint was still visible. The carvings showed people from all walks of life engaging in everyday activities. Contrary to the impression many of us have of these scenes, that they are formal and rigid in their depiction of life, the scenes here were full of movement and activity. There were people catching fish from a boat, carpenters sawing wood and building boats, farmers carrying poultry to market, a cow being milked, young boys running. Interspersed among these scenes, periodically, were larger carvings of the deceased with his symbol of power, a long staff. In one such scene, Ti’s wife kneels behind him, one hand affectionately grasping his calf. His son, kneeling in front of him, grasps the lower part of the staff Ti is holding, a clue to their relationship and to the son’s role in life. In the wall opposite the entrance are three triangular piercings. Looking through these one sees a space where statues of the deceased once stood. A copy of one is all that now remains.

A short distance back down the corridor is a second smaller room where the annual offerings of food and drink would have been stored. The walls of this room, too, bear elaborate carvings. Like those of the first room, Dr, Karim tells us, the carvings here were done using stone tools. The Egyptians of this time did not yet have the metallurgical skills to make metal stone carving tools. Amazing.

Now was the time for the adventurous part of our outing. We returned to courtyard and in small groups descended the stairs to the underground burial chamber. Now, I’m not fond of tight spaces, particularly when there are a few hundred tons of rock over my head, but I knew I had to see the inside of at least one of these structures. At the bottom of the stairs was a narrow square opening leading to a tunnel perhaps ten yards long. Crouching and crabbing my way along, I scrambled along the passage, which had dim lighting at intervals, until I came to a space about ten feet square where I could stand up. The room was hewn out of solid rock and there wasn’t much headroom. There was another crawl space on the other side of this room and we had to resume our ungainly postures as we waddled through that. The second passage was a little shorter and we emerged into a second room with a ceiling about ten feet high. On a wide rock shelf stood an empty sarcophagus, the lid pushed back so that one could peer in. The corpse of the deceased had long since disappeared, but there was no way to get that great stone box out except in pieces. After a short look around, the group re-emerged under its own power, unlike the original inhabitant.

We hopped back on the bus and took a short ride to another tomb in the same park. To the West of Ti’s tomb lies an assemblage of structures known as the Complex of Pepi II (6th Dynasty—around 2200 BC). This complex contains not only Pepi’s pyramid, but those of three of his wives and the remains of some temples as well. Pepi’s pyramid is built of limestone, so much of it still stands; the smooth outer covering, though, was long ago pilfered for building materials. There was access to this pyramid as well; an opening at ground level led to a ramp some one hundred feet long that led down through the rock at a steep angle. The floor had been covered with wooden planks onto which lengths of hollow square metal bars had been bolted. These served as steps as one descended.

This passage wasn’t any bigger than the first one; in fact, Dr. Karim had told us that we would REALLY have to bend to get through it. I followed a small group of my colleagues underground. Along the ramp were several stone channels set into the passage walls. Once upon a time, these held granite slabs that blocked the ramp and supposedly kept thieves out. Obviously not as effective as the designers intended…

At the bottom of the ramp, we had to squeeze under a huge block of red granite which served as a lintel over the passageway. Its purpose was to bear the weight of the stones laid on top of it. All the stones. We were told that the granite came from Aswan, a couple thousand kilometers up the Nile. None of us was terrible reassured by the numerous cracks it showed, some of them looking as though they had been patched with chewing gum.

There were two rooms at the bottom; the one on the right was an antechamber. The walls bore hieroglyphics, carvings of the Pharaoh, and his cartouche. The ceiling, which was gabled (i.e. it had a peak), was covered with stars carved to look like sea stars, a reference to the mythical ocean out of which Earth was created as well as a representation of the night sky. The size of the blocks, like Volkswagen buses, was astounding and the fact that some of them hung lower in the room than others didn’t make me want to hang around too long.

Once everyone was back above ground, we ran the customary gauntlet of souvenir and post card vendors and re-boarded the bus. A short ride brought us to the Pyramid of Zozer (3rd Dynasty, about 2650 BC). The first real pyramid built in Egypt, it lies over an earlier mastaba. This pyramid is about 100 feet high and is currently having extensive preservation work carried out on it. No one is allowed to enter this tomb because it is considered dangerous. Even in the time of the 11th Dynasty, some fifty years after Zozer, it was beginning to collapse and pillars were added inside to stabilize it.

As with the other pyramids, there was a temple complex connected to this one. An architectural advisor to the archaeologist who worked here in the 1920’s found stones from the enclosure wall under the sands and restored part of it, together with a colonnade of forty-two pillars carved to resemble bundles of reeds. There is also a ceremonial ground with the remains of two raised platforms. It was here that the Pharaoh, after a reign of thirty years, had to perform a ritual called the “Heb Sed,” during which he had to run seven times around a circuit about an eighth of a mile in length in order to prove his fitness to continue governing. I wondered how old Teti, who is reputed to have lived to the age of 94, managed that. Maybe there was no time limit…

Leaving Saqqara, it was clear why the sandy verges of the desert were chosen for the pyramids. First, of course, there was a solid rock foundation to bear the enormous weight of these gigantic structures, but also, the fertile lands along the river were too valuable to be given up forever to dead folks. [DSCN0129] [DSCN0131] We now descended from the desert plateau to the irrigated lands along the Nile and headed to the remains of the ancient city of Memphis, the capital of the First Dynasty (ca. 3100 BC). Like most of the cities of those times, Memphis was built of mud brick, so very little remains except for the few buildings built of stone, statues and other stone monuments. Memphis stood here for three thousand years, until the time of Alexander the Great. The village of Mit Rihanah now occupies part of the site, and there is an outdoor museum that holds many of the important monumental artifacts found here.

There are a number of large stone jars, statues, stele with bearing inscriptions, and even a sphinx here, but the most spectacular object is an unfinished statue of Ramses II (19th Dynasty, 1304-1237 BC) which is more than forty feet long. Ramses II seems to have had an ego even bigger than his statues; his is one of the most common figures known. This example remained incomplete and is broken at mid-calf level. What is important about it is that it is in a very good state of preservation. It was never erected and lay covered by sand in its present location for thousands of years until it was discovered in 1820.

The skies had turned cloudy and the wind had picked up, so we were herded back to the bus once again and driven to the final stop on our pyramid tour, Dahshour. Here one sees the ultimate in conspicuous consumption as far as pyramids are concerned. Old Sneferu of the 4th Dynasty (ca. 2600-2500 BC), the immediate predecessor of Cheops (who had the pyramid at Giza constructed) built two of his three pyramids. Now, why anyone would need three pyramids, much less one, is quite beyond me, but here they were. The first, which we could view only from a distance since the road to it was unsuitable for our bus, is the so-called Bent Pyramid. From a distance, it looks like a mansard roof, with a change in the angle of its sides at about the mid-point of its elevation.

The reason for this is that an earlier pyramid built on the same model some ninety miles away collapsed while under construction. The engineers on the project concluded (wrongly, it turned out) that the reason for its collapse was the steep angle (53º) of the sides, so they altered the angle some ten degrees. Apparently unhappy with the funkiness of its design, Sneferu ordered the building of another pyramid, the one next to which we now found ourselves. [DSCN0138] It is known as the Red Pyramid because of the minerals in its stonework. It is over three hundred feet high and must have been even more impressive in its prime. Most of the finished limestone of the exterior disappeared long ago, as it did from many of the other pyramids.

The wind was carrying sprinkles of rain as we toured the grounds around the pyramid and those who had thought to bring along sweaters or jackets were commended by the rest of us for their foresight. We went to the east side where the temple complex had once stood and had a chance to perceive the monumental scale of the structure. On a plinth at the base of the pyramid stood its capstone, or “pyramidion,” which had been found, undamaged, at the base by the archaeologists who excavated here.

The interior of this pyramid was accessible to the adventurous so those wanting to see the inside climbed a crude staircase to a point about halfway up the north face and entered yet another tight fitting sloping passageway. One crabs along for about 150 feet to the first of two chambers at the base of the pyramid—if one wants to. I got about halfway down and was overwhelmed by the humidity and rather unpleasant odors wafting up from below, so I retreated. Seen one claustrophobia-inducing space, seen them all. Those intrepid souls who made it down and back emerged gasping for air and complaining of the noxious odors that greeted them in the basement. In true Egyptian fashion, there was a ventilating unit parked at an angle next to the entry, but it wasn’t connected to any electrical source and obviously hadn’t worked in some time. From our perch next to the entryway on the pyramid, we could see at least ten other pyramids dotting the landscape, all the way to Giza.

Having tempted the mummy’s curse three times in one day, we traveled back to Giza where we were rewarded for our intrepidness with another Fulbright custom: a meal at a great restaurant. Our stop today was Andrea’s, a place popular with both Egyptians and tourists. We climbed down from the bus on a street running alongside a recently dredged canal and walked into a very pleasant walled courtyard. Descending a short flight of stairs, we entered a courtyard paved with stone. Servers in white shirts, black trousers, and vests bustled about carrying trays or escorting guests to their seats. To the left of the entryway was a huge barbecue with a few dozen chickens and other poultry roasting above a bed of coals. Smoke billowed thickly, obscuring the white-coated chef who supervised the cooking. Just next to the rotisserie was a brick bread oven attended by half a dozen women baking pita. We were offered samples—for a token fee—as we approached and some people stopped to taste.

The restaurant had been awaiting our arrival and we were shown to our tables, two long rustic wooden affairs surrounded by equally rustic low chairs. The fare here was basic: three varieties of poultry (chicken, quail, or pigeon), rice, fresh bread, and the usual assortment of appetizers. We placed our orders and talked over plates of Baba Ghanoush, hoummus, pickled beets, stuffed vine leaves, and tahini salad. In short order, our meals arrived and we dug in. It was all good. For a while, it looked as though we might have to retreat to shelter since the wind and clouds built ominously, but the sky soon cleared and we finished out meals without getting wet.

Stomachs and heads full, we piled once more onto the bus and headed back to the Fulbright office. A day well spent and deserving of a relaxing evening during which we might reflect on it.

Baby Steps

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, 10 December 2009

After a week away, this week has seen a return to some sort of “normality” insofar as work is concerned. I have spent quite a bit of time “cybercommuting,” if that’s the proper term. There is a hiatus in the schedule of workshops until after the first of the year because of vacation schedules and holidays, but the selectors have been sending in a steady stream of collection development policy statements that I have had to edit and revise. That work I could do from home, and I did. Nermin Bahaa would forward the assignments to me, I would check them, make grammatical, stylistic and substantive corrections, indicate where necessary information was missing, offer suggestions for improvements and send them back to the selectors, via Nermin, for revision.

The submissions run the gamut from barely acceptable to nearly ready for publication. Some of the selectors—most in fact—got clued in during the individual sessions Nermin and I held with them and have understood the importance of writing good statements. Others seem not to have got it and need to get with the program. Fortunately, these latter are few in number; even fewer in number are those who haven’t even bothered to submit their plans. All I can do in those cases is to let their boss know they’re not doing their work.
Each statement takes from twenty to forty minutes to review, correct, comment upon and re-check.

While the English competency of the selectors is generally very good, there are the usual problems with grammar and syntax to deal with. Once those are taken care of, I try to impose a some sort of uniformity of style on the statements; that is one of the editor’s most important roles in putting together a collaborative product such as this. Do we refer to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina as the Bibliothecea Alexandrina every time we write of it, or do we use shorthand? The Library, perhaps (my choice), or the “BA” (not my favorite)? How much uniformity of structure should I try to create in the various “summary statements?” I want each one to reflect the character and aspirations of that particular discipline while at the same time holding true to the aim of the policy as a whole. Not an easy task, I’m finding.

I have also met this week with two of the people from the instructional unit who are working on special projects. One is updating the unit’s web page and wanted my input about how much and what kind of information should be included there. Essentially, the purpose of the page is to provide information about the various information literacy courses offered by the department. The current page is very text heavy and lacks visual appeal. Apparently, the people who are responsible for the overall design and appearance of the library’s web pages don’t want pictures on pages from constituent library units. I suggested to the woman working on this project that she at least lighten up the text, limit her information to important points and generally make the page more useful to potential users by standardizing the entries for each class and class level. She will go back and make some changes and then we’ll meet again.

The second project involves the creation of a brochure containing information about the instructional schedule and courses offered. This will be made available to interested library users at the reference desks. The librarian working on this, Dalia Yousri, and I worked on design and layout. Here, again, I suggested that she include an illustration on the front of the brochure that might give people an idea of what sort of activity takes place in the courses. She will go and work on this and come back in a couple of weeks.
These meetings, in addition to my twice-weekly Arabic lessons have kept me busy enough and later today I’m off to Cairo again for four days to participate in another Fulbright tour and to attend the Commission’s Holiday party at the Lohofs’ on Sunday evening. Egypt Rail is going to see a considerable drop in revenue when I leave.

Dutch Treat

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, 30 November- Friday, 4 December 2009

Spending a week in Cairo when there was so much to do at the Bibliotheca seemed, on the one hand, to be an extravagance. On the other hand, however, the efficiency of staying in town when I was attending a two-day conference on Wednesday and Thursday—just two days hence—outweighed the cost of time and energy spent traveling back and forth between Cairo and Alexandria for that event. Belle Gironda, who teaches English at the American University of Cairo, and two friends had used my apartment for a visit to Alexandria while I was in the desert and, in return, she had offered me lodging at her place for the conference.

Belle’s digs were literally around the corner from Zohair’s place so after a leisurely breakfast with Zohair, I walked around to Belle’s place. Like Zohair’s, Belle’s place was in the district of Cairo known as Garden City, an area of meandering, shady streets sandwiched between the Corniche on the West and Qasr al-Ayni Street to the East. I said goodbye and thanks to Zohair at about 10:30 and walked around to Belle’s building. Garden City is home the embassies of many of the world’s more important countries. The U.S.’s pile is here, as are the Italian and Saudi missions among many others. Consequently, it is one of the safest neighborhoods in Cairo.

My route to Belle’s building was populated with at least three “official” police positions and God knows how many plainclothes types. The cops, dressed in their black winter uniforms, either sit on aluminum folding chairs with automatic weapons in their laps, in little concrete huts on some street corners, or stand behind thick sheets of steel mounted on wheels—sort of mobile walls—with their machine guns at the ready. Their presence is at once relaxed and forbidding. They smoke cigarettes, drink tea, or chat with their colleagues, and a friendly greeting is almost always returned with a sort of salute and a smile. Still, they’ve got those nasty guns. The only place I was challenged was at the entrance to Belle’s building and then only (I think) because the local office of UNESCO is housed on the ground floor.

I took the creaky elevator, big enough for maybe two people and complete with a folding seat for those who couldn’t stand for the short ride up five floors, to Belle’s apartment. She opened her door when I rang and ushered me into the customary huge space that foreigners seem to be assigned. I plunked my bags down in the guest room and we chatted for a while. After a cup of tea, I told her I needed to run some errands and headed out. My first stop was the Fulbright office which, the guard outside told me, was closed for the week. I had thought that the Eid was over, but apparently the Commission has a different schedule.

Okay. Next task was to find out what had happened to my dollar stipend which had gone missing somewhere between Des Moines and Cairo. Long story, not worth the retelling. In any case, a half hour spent at the bank provided no solution. In the ten days since the money was to have been transferred, there was not even a record of the transaction at my bank. Not good news since my account was dwindling rapidly. With two strikes against me, I decided to return to Belle’s apartment and work on my conference presentation. I had most of my ducks in a row with that, but I have learned that it always pays to have one more look. The rest of the afternoon was spent at the computer and by the time Belle returned from the university, I was feeling pretty good about my paper.

We ate a congenial dinner together and after washing up the dishes, Belle went off to her study and I settled into bed to read for a while before turning out the light.

On Tuesday morning I got up just as Belle left for work. I made myself a light breakfast and then worked on the computer for a while. I still owed Ginger da Costa the cost of the desert trip and made arrangements to meet her around noon to effect the reimbursement. We met at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek and I used one of their cash machines to get her her money. Having taken care of business, we decided to look for a place to have lunch. Ginger suggested a place that, when we arrived, was not quite ready to open; the owner suggested that we return in half an hour but Ginger had commitments so we opted for a cup of coffee at a café nearby and then I scouted out the location of the Dutch-Belgian Institute, which was supposed to be nearby.

I asked a member of the “Tourist Police” if he knew where the building was but neither he nor the colleague he shouted to across the street knew of it. Fine. I pull out my Cairo Guide and try to figure out the location using that. It had to be close by but the streets aren’t well marked and the dot in the guide indicating the institute’s location seems to be an approximation. Finally, after wandering for a few minutes, we locate the building on a side street by asking a guard sitting on a rickety wicker chair, “Can you please tell me where the Dutch-Flemish Institute is?”

“Sure,” he responds. Jerking his thumb over one shoulder, he says, “You’re standing in front of it.”

Oh, THERE it is, complete with brass plaque identifying it. Right around the corner from Ginger’s apartment, to her surprise. We thank the guard and I head back to the apartment to put my feet up. I spend rest of the afternoon catching up on blog entries and editing the collection development policy statements which are beginning to trickle in from the selectors at the Bibliotheca. By 6:30, Belle hasn’t shown up so I decide to walk across the river and try the restaurant that Ginger and I had seen earlier in the day. I eat a middling meal of eggplant moussaka amid couples chatting over their own meals and smoking to excess.

Toward the end of my meal, young people in twos and threes begin to drift in and head upstairs to what I assume is a lounge or bar of some sort. Two young women occupy a table diagonally across from mine; one orders a beer, the other a glass of red wine. If not for the language, I could be in a bistro anywhere in Europe or the U.S. After dinner, I head back to Belle’s and find her snuggled into an easy chair working on her computer. I had purchased a couple of pastries earlier in the day and we ate those as we shared a conversation. Tomorrow is the beginning of the conference and I want to be fresh, so after a while I take myself off to bed.

Wednesday morning comes too soon. I haven’t slept well and have to drag myself up. Belle is already in the kitchen finishing her breakfast as I come in to make some tea. I had offered to treat her to dinner in gratitude for her hospitality, and we decide to meet this evening. She heads off and I start getting ready for the first day of the workshop. I had made use of the washing machine the day before and now had clothing free of desert dust, but I still needed to iron a shirt. I took care of that and then dressed and grabbed a cab for Zamalek.

The lobby of the institute is already bustling with activity as people arrive to register for the workshop. The subject of the gathering is “Seals and Sealing Practices” in the Middle East. The conference will cover the entire range of history from the late Stone Age, through the ancient Egyptians and their cylinder seals, up to the Ottomans. The workshop and the lecture which concludes it are named in honor of Dr. R.P. Cleveringa, a professor of law at Leiden University at the beginning of World War Two, who publicly denounced the Nazis for dismissing the small number of Jewish professors from that institution when they occupied Holland. For his troubles, he was himself dismissed and thrown into prison. Activities commemorating Dr. Cleveringa’s courage are held each year not only in Cairo, but also in Holland.

The participants are each handed a name tag and offered coffee, tea, and an assortment of pastries. I seem to be the only American present and those of the other attendees I know I know only by reputation. There are Dutch and Flemish scholars, of course, but also French, several Germans, a Croatian with two of her students in tow, an Austrian, a Swiss, a Spaniard, and a Turk. Women outnumber men by more than two-to-one. Finally, a familiar face: Lennart Sundelin, a colleague from Princeton and a member of one professional group I belong to. He recognizes me first and re-introduces himself. We catch up and I find out that he is now also teaching at AUC. He likes living in Cairo.

We are called to order and the presentation of papers begins. There are thirteen papers to be delivered over the next day and a half as well as the honorary lecture at the conclusion of the meeting. We proceed in chronological order and by the lunch break we are in the 5th century A.D. Lunch is finger sandwiches, soft drinks and more coffee and tea. The two afternoon sessions are devoted exclusively to ancient Egypt but by the end of the day we are talking about Coptic seals and are approaching the Islamic period.

It is brought to our attention that all the speakers have been invited to dinner that evening, so I have to call Belle to find out if we can re-schedule our dinner plans. She says that she will be unable to do that since she has a commitment for Thursday evening. I apologize for the short notice and we agree to a dinner the next time I’m in Cairo.

After the last paper, I head back to the apartment to relax for a while and then head off to the restaurant the Institute has chosen for our meal. The Greek Club is located on Talat Harb Square, near downtown and, according to my Cairo map, within walking distance of the apartment. It looks like straight shot, so about half an hour before the appointed time, I strike out. I follow one of the wandering streets through Garden City and find Qasr al-Ayni, which leads right into Tahrir Square where Talat Harb Street begins. A pleasant twenty-minute walk brings me to Tahrir, which oozes activity at this early evening hour. I turn right onto Talat Harb and enter a busy commercial district. Not half a block along, I am greeted by a gray-haired Egyptian who says, “Good evening.”

“Masa` al-Kheer,” I reply.

“Where are you from?” he asks, picking up my pace. “America?”

“Yes,” I respond. “America.”

“Welcome to Egypt!”

“Thanks.” “I’ve been to the States three times,” says the Egyptian. “My brother lives in New Jersey.”

Bad luck for him, I think, but I say, “How nice.”

“Where are you going?”

“I have an appointment,” I reply. I’ve learned not to give out too much information. “Nice to meet you.”

“Do you have time to visit my perfume factory?”

Really. Not going to fall for THAT again. “Sorry. I have to meet someone, but thanks. Maybe another time.” I hurry on as my companion slackens his pace and drops back.

“Welcome to Egypt.” One last desperate hook. I don’t look back.

Reaching Talat Harb Square, a couple of blocks further along, I spot Ulrike Dubiel, one of the presenters from earlier today. She is a bit disoriented; we had been told that the entrance to the Greek Club looked like the entryway to an apartment building; the landmark to watch for was Groppi’s, a famous café that has lost its luster of late. Together we search out the entrance and are assisted by two Egyptians, who happen to be heading to the same place. Upstairs we find several other participants already well into their first glasses of wine or beer. We find seats and join in the conversations under way. The room is large and lit with lamps that have red fabric flags attached to them. The flags are fixed in such a way that a current of air makes them dance like flames in the light of electric bulbs beneath them. Cheesy, but somehow appropriate in this obviously colonial vestige.

The food is good and plentiful. The first course, stuffed vine leaves, babaghanoush, hummous, kufta, and a salad, is served family style and everyone takes what they want. Main courses are ordered individually, according to taste and inclination. I order skewered shrimp and rice which is very good. Conversation buzzes and more wine appears. Dessert is offered, but I’m full. We continue talking and learning about each other as the dishes are cleared. A motion is made by one of our hosts to move to a nightclub and continue the liquid portion of the evening. But most people have had a full day and decline. We share a taxi back to Garden City and I get dropped near the apartment. My hostess is already in bed and I find my own pillow.

Thursday morning begins with a tour of the Coptic Museum in the southern part of Cairo. It’s a short Metro ride away so I walk to Tahrir Square, again, and catch the train there. Four stops brings me to the Coptic Museum, but I have trouble exiting the train platform. The machine won’t take my subway ticket so the turnstile won’t open. I try several different machines to no avail and finally one Egyptian woman, seeing my predicament offers her help. She must have had the magic touch, for the next time I put my ticket in the machine, it let me through.

The Coptic Museum was just outside the train station and I saw many conference people waiting outside the gate. Once we were all assembled our hosts led us in and we spent a couple of hours being conducted through the various exhibits. The museum has been refurbished in the recent past and is really quite impressive. The lighting of some of the display cases was a little too dim for me, but overall it is a very interesting place to go. At the end of our tour we were led to a small courtyard where about a dozen examples of printing blocks or stamps were brought out of the storehouse for us to examine. Fortunately, one of the speakers is an expert in Coptic and therefore was able to read and interpret many of the stamps.

After the tour, we found our way back to Tahrir Square and took taxis across the Nile to Zamalek. Nils Ritter of Freie Universitaet, Nicolas Sartori of the University of Basel and I made our way to Beano’s, a café just around the corner from the Dutch Institute, for lunch. We ate sandwiches and then headed back for the afternoon sessions which all dealt with the Islamic period. There were four speakers and I was to be the second. I made my presentation and was pleased that people responded positively. There were several questions and I was glad that I had mounted a couple of additional slides with which I could illustrate my answers. Two papers followed mine and then we were finished with that part of the program.

A brief hiatus followed to allow the stage to be set for Petra Sijpesteijn’s lecture, the star attraction of the event. Some of us returned to Beano’s for coffee and found Petra, Lennart, and another participant already there. We shared a table and chatted until it was time to return to the Institute. The room was packed for Petra’s presentation; the audience included the Dutch Ambassador to Egypt and several other dignitaries in addition to interested members of the public. Petra’s lecture, on early Islamic administrative practice as evidenced by the use of seals, was wonderful, detailed enough to be thorough yet not getting lost in minutiae. Her argument was clearly made and convincing.

When she concluded, the moderator suggested that questions be deferred to the reception and everyone filed out. In the foyer were wine, beer, and an assortment of nibbles, served by white-shirted men. I made this my dinner and after collecting a few business cards, e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers, I took my leave. I had to pack for my departure in the morning and wanted to have everything in order for an early departure. This was a fitting conclusion to my week in Cairo and it was now time to get back to library work.

So Long, Sahara

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, 29 November 2009

I stumbled out of our tent with the sun two fingers above the horizon and found the camp staff groggily moving about. The trash had been collected into large woven plastic bags and a couple of tents had already been collapsed. They were being folded and thrown atop one of the Toyotas where they were tied down for transport. I went to the water tank hoping to wash up before breakfast and found the reservoir empty. Not a good sign, but there would be running water soon enough. Jamie emerged soon after me and we were dunking tea bags in hot water when Ashari walked over and told us that we would be leaving for the highway and our ride back to Cairo in fifteen minutes. Jamie objected to the short notice and, with his superior Arabic skills, negotiated an extra quarter hour for us.

Neither Ginger nor Joelle had yet made an appearance and Zohair had just arisen, looking for some water so he could meet the day with a clean face. I roused Joelle, who immediately began packing up her bag. I called to Ginger and told her we needed to move and then set about stowing my own gear. Once I had completed that minor task, I went and had something to eat with Jamie and Zohair. When Ginger still had made no appearance, I went back to the tent and nudged her. She awoke with a start and I told her we were going to be on the move very shortly. She explained that she had had earplugs in and hadn’t heard a thing until that moment, but started gathering her stuff together.

Within half an hour, we were all packed up, bags stowed either on the Toyota’s roof rack or next to the seats in the back of the 4×4. We made one last check of the tent for wayward items and then mounted up. Ashari obviously had a schedule to keep, for we made a beeline for the road in complete disregard for established tracks. We rolled across the landscape for a short ten minutes or so and arrived at the appointed rendezvous in no time. There was the Badawiya van awaiting us with the computer projection team already ensconced in their seats and plugged into their various electronic devices. Abd Allah, the same driver who had driven us down from Cairo, waved a cheery greeting.

We packed our bags in the back and climbed in. With the four computer people, the five of us and our constant companion, Omar, (the quiet Egyptian who had accompanied us on every excursion with Ashari and was, in truth, our body guard, complete with nasty-looking automatic weapon discretely carried under his jacket), the van was full. We set off on the macadam, having expressed to Ashari our individual and collective (i.e. monetary) thanks to him. He and the Toyota disappeared across the desert in a cloud of sand. Our van climbed out of the depression that held Farafra and rolled over the desert toward the Bahriya Oasis. We passed the Crystal Mountain site and the now recognizable landscape that had captured our attention on the way out. Now, the prospect of returning to our routine lives directed my attention to other matters. I had promised Zohair that I would read his draft of an article on Egypt that he was planning to submit to the English language “al-Ahram” weekly and I worked on that for a while as we drove. The conversation among the passengers was desultory and intermittent; some people slept, others listened to their iPods or played cards.

In Bahriya, we stopped for a lunch of rice and vegetables. We dropped Omar off at the police station and thanked him for his service before resuming our journey. The trip back to Cairo seemed shorter than the trip out. We made the obligatory stop at the grungy rest area, tanked up and continued on our way. Before long, we were on the outskirts of Cairo, swinging around 6th of October City, the big new suburb of Cairo that nestles up against the pyramids. Traffic was light for a Sunday and it was not yet dark when we pulled up before the British Council building on the west bank of the Nile. The four Fulbrighters and Jamie got out and we said our goodbyes to the computer people who were driven away to their drop off. Zohair and I snagged a taxi and rode across the Nile to his apartment in Garden City.

We flipped a coin to see who would get to shower first and, in turn, we washed off the desert dust. Zohair cranked up the washing machine afterwards and washed the Sahara out of his clothes as well. I unpacked and crammed my dirty laundry into a plastic bag. My laundry would wait until Monday when I would move quarters. I called Belle Gironda, who was to be my host for the next few days, and we settled on a convenient time or me to make my appearance at her place. Dinner was a simple omelette and a cup of tea. The long drive and three nights under the desert sky had us longing for the comfort of a good mattress and clean sheets. I fell asleep to the whisper of traffic on the Corniche fourteen stories below.

Been to the Desert in a Toyota With No Name

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, 28 November 2009

Okay, I realize that’s a tortured desert metaphor with a limited recognition factor, but three days in the desert will do strange things to one’s sensibilities. Just think about the source for my title if you doubt me. The guys who wrote that song had obviously spent too much time in the sun. The night proved not to be as cold as expected and with two blankets instead of one, and my Fulbright cap on my head, I was actually quite comfortable. One hip was complaining a bit since it spent most of the night crushed against the sand, but once I got up and moving, its mood improved.

There were a few high clouds in the sky but they weren’t thick enough to block the sunlight. The camp was still relatively quiet at this early hour. The music the previous evening had gone on until almost midnight and many people were sleeping in, if they could. The chef was up and slowly getting breakfast on the table. Someone was stirring a campfire to life. The campsite was beginning to look a little shopworn; bits of litter peeked from the sand here and there; the port-a-potty was filling up; the chef’s white jacket was smudged with grease and soot. Nonetheless, there was soon hot water for tea and Nescafe and the day looked a bit brighter after a cup or two.

We had been told that today would be a day of hiking and limited activity and I was actually looking forward to relaxing a bit. Over breakfast, which was a reprise of yesterday’s, our little group talked about what we might do. The “in” joke was that Jamie’s expedition deal was to have included a camel ride, but with no camels in evidence, we ribbed him about his misfortune. The head of Badawiya had stopped by the camp on Friday and talked with us for a short while. We told him that we were very pleased with our arrangements and he expressed some concern about the lack of a firm plan for Saturday, but we had told him not to worry.

Apparently we hadn’t been convincing, however, for after breakfast Ashari came and told us that we’d be doing some more four-wheeling today. Ashari had a miserable cough and we felt guilty about making him drive us all over, but he insisted that we go, so we gathered our bags and climbed into the Toyota. The plan was that today we would head into the section of the White Desert that lay to the northwest of the desert road. As we drove across the desert in the general direction of the highway between Bahriya and Farafra (one gets one’s bearings after a while, even in this immense space), we consulted Jamie’s more or less trusty map of the Inner Oases that he had purchased in Bawiti. He told us that we had been camping at one edge of the White Desert and that, through conversations with our guides and studying the map, we had yet to see the most spectacular of the sights the White Desert had to offer. To add to the excitement, he told us that the area we would visit today was a protected area and less visited than other parts of the park.

We soon encountered the pavement and turned Northeast in the direction of Bahriya. We didn’t stay on the macadam for long, however. After a few miles we noticed a vehicle parked on one side of the road; as we got closer, we saw that it was some sort of official car with a uniformed man seated inside. Behind the car was a stone marker next to a dirt track. Ashari waved to the guy in uniform, he waved back, and we crunched onto the gravel of the desert. Our route took us over rougher terrain than we had experienced the day before and we found ourselves descending on a steep track into a depression marked by huge white boulders and sharp ridges of rock that caused the Toyota to lurch from side to side as we passed over them. We continued down the track for twenty minutes or so until we came to a broad basin surrounded by towering cliffs and lower plateaus of white rock. We drove across the bottom of this space and then assaulted a steep bank of sand spilling out of a gap between two promontories. The sand was hard packed for most of the climb, but short of the summit, Ashari, turned the wheel and pulled up. He suggested we walk to the top for a view.

We climbed out and had a look around. The view from the slope across the basin in the direction we had come was marvelous, with the escarpment in the distance glowing a dull red against the white ridges and monoliths closer to us. The sand that had blown over the ridge was deeper here and its effect on the softer white rock was clearly in evidence as we approached the summit. We reached the top and held our collective breaths. Before us stretched a broad chasm deeper than the one we had just crossed and holding a series of towering rock pillars that called forth images of Monument Valley in Utah.  Deep sand flowed around the bases of these massive towers and patches of exposed white rock appeared as snow from this distance. The gorge extended for miles, the far side of the basin just visible through the haze. We stood in awed silence. Despite the knowledge that no photo could do justice to the view, we tried to capture it.

After a time, Ashari honked and we returned to the car. Descending the slope, we turned west and drove further into the desert. There were many more of the chalk formations here but there was also a greater amount of the black iron pyrite fragments we had seen the previous day. We decided that they must have been the result of some monstrous cataclysmic volcanic eruption tens of millions of years ago. The contrast between the white chalk and the black stones was very dramatic. The black stones lay all about; some were pencil-like, broken into stubby lengths; others were round. Still others were rounded on one end and split open, shaped like parabolas with hollow interiors encrusted with small reddish crystals. There were starburst shapes and fragments of all sorts.

At each stop we competed with each other in discovering the most unusual example. Ginger returned to Cairo with a pack weighing twice what it did when she set out. There were places where the black rocks stuck up out of the white stone like mails in a piece of wood; frequently, on exposed rock faces, the black stones were visible, embedded in the chalk. This material must have rained down on the ancient sea and, cooling as it sank, stuck into the still soft sediment at the sea bottom where it was eventually covered by eons of crustaceous carcasses. Elsewhere, we found the remnants of ancient seashells embedded in the chalk as well. Some of the black stones even bore the impressions of seashells. Glad I wasn’t around for that “weather event.”

We lunched up against a cliff face in a small hollow behind a sand dune, out of the wind. A huge overhang above our heads made me a little nervous; I had convinced myself that the rock was just waiting for us to show up so it could break loose and wreak geological vengeance upon us. But we finished our meal with its judgment reserved for a while longer. We continued driving through the depression, entering a flat area with row upon row of white stone pillars which we had to slalom our way through. At times I doubted Ashari’s sense of distances as we squeezed through gaps that I feared would leave us jammed between two walls of rock, but he piloted us through without so much as a scratch on the doors. t a relatively open space, he stopped and let us out to take some photos and explore a bit. Within minutes, Jamie had disappeared and I saw how easily one could become disoriented and lost in this place. The rock formations were ever-changing; there were several in this spot that looked like nothing so much as a piece of mille feuille pastry drizzled with a sugary icing. More wondering about what sort of geological process had created such masterpieces. Every turn revealed something new and surprising.

Our penultimate stop was in a canyon surrounded by towering white cliffs. To one side was a jagged pillar of white rock easily 200 feet high; at its base was a hole that allowed us to crawl through from one side to the other. I tried to keep from my consciousness the fact that several hundreds of thousands of tons of rock sat above us. The final leg of our journey brought us up out of the basin and across the paved road to another area where white rock pillars dominated the landscape. There was again a myriad of shapes and forms stretching away, but in truth this dimmed in comparison to what we had seen earlier in the day. Still, it was an impressive way to end our tour.

A short ride across the desert brought us back to camp, which stood mostly empty now. The Egyptians, we learned, were spending the last night of their holiday in the more commodious hotel in Farafra and the other Americans, those of the projected computer animations, had arranged to spend their last night in the desert at a different campsite, one with new projection opportunities, no doubt, so we had the place to ourselves pretty much. Our dinner was taken together with members of the camp staff, which we appreciated, since it gave us a chance to interact more informally with our hosts.

But the campsite looked awfully deserted (no pun intended…) with so few of us to occupy all that space. There was only a small campfire tonight and preparations had clearly been underway in our absence to break the campsite down and move it as soon as we had departed. None of us were saddened by this; campsites had been coming and going in the desert for millennia and most traces of ours would soon disappear as well. We crawled off to bed having extorted one advantage from the departure of our camp-mates: we each got an extra mattress to put between our bodies and the hard desert floor. Perhaps that was the reason we all slept well, or maybe it was just our bodies finally making the adjustment to sleeping on the ground.

Surfing the Sahara

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, 27 November 2009 Stirred from sleep by the sound of voices and the faint clatter of dishes, I cracked open my eyelids. Through the open space around the tent flap I could see a stretch of sand glowing in the sunlight. My tent mates were still asleep, it seemed, so I heaved the heavy blanket/rug that Jamie had lent me the previous day off to one side and sat up. As quietly as possible, I laced up my hiking boots, pulled on my fleece and slipped out of the tent. The air was crisp and I sought out a patch of sun to stand in while I surveyed the campsite. Most people were apparently still asleep or at least not yet venturing out. The camp staff of about three or four men was busy in the cook tent, cleaning last night’s dinner dishes and crouching over a portable gas stove preparing what I assumed was our breakfast.

Jamie was the next to emerge from the tent, toiletry bag in hand. He mumbled a ”good morning” and stumbled off to the water tank to wash up. A few other people began to appear, stretching and blinking in the early light. Jamie returned to tell me that it must have been cold last night; the water in the big plastic tank had a skin of ice on it. He relayed the information that one of the camp people had told him it would be even colder tonight. Well, at least it was sunny now. I began to think about how I might have packed better for this little trip.

Within half an hour, the camp was bustling. One of the campfires from the previous evening, its embers still smoldering, was coaxed back to life and two or three smoke-blackened aluminum kettles filled with water were placed on the fire. Soon there was hot water for tea or instant coffee and campers huddled here and there, shoulders hunched, with steaming tin cups held up to their faces. Zohair, Joelle and Ginger made their appearances after a while and we compared our sleeps. Most people managed a few hours, it seemed, but the consensus was that our own beds were much to be preferred. Breakfast also made an appearance, a big pot of “ful mudammas,” the standard morning fare of many Egyptians, along with stacks of pita bread warmed over the fire, hard boiled eggs, fruit juices in little cardboard containers, jam, white cheese, processed cheese in little triangular foil packets, and halawa (a sweetened sesame confection). The chill air was an appetite stimulant.

The Egyptians were very friendly and most spoke some English, so we were able to share small talk and joke with them in a reserved sort of way. The kids were already split up into their own groups: the teen boys were off climbing the rock formations near the camp and throwing a ball back and forth among themselves; the three or four teen girls walked about in their huddle chatting up a storm; the younger boys ran and wrestled in the sand. Only the young girls stayed close to the adults, most tagged along at their mothers’ heels. Pretty much the arrangement you’d expect in the States except for the strict gender separation among the teens.

Slowly, the groups began to organize for their first day in the desert. The expedition people apparently considered the four Fulbrighters and Jamie one group, since we had come together from Cairo and were not Egyptian. Of course, Ginger had also made the arrangements for us so it was natural that we continue our trek together. Shortly after breakfast, we piled into the back of one of the Toyota 4x4s and set off across the sands. As we left camp, a file of about twenty camels bearing riders and led by galabiya clad guides appeared on a ridge in the distance. This was the camel safari I had almost opted for; they had been camped behind one of the white rock ridges about a mile from our camp. I was momentarily envious of them, but realized quickly that we would probably see much more of the desert by car than they would see by camel.

Our first stop was in the oasis of Farafra, where we were ostensibly filling the car’s fuel tank. The five of us were dropped at a modern hotel on the edge of the oasis while our driver and his companion went off to the gas station. It was quickly apparent that this was a calculated bit of marketing; the hotel was owned by the same company that was conducting the camping trips and they were just giving us the opportunity to see how we could be spending our four days—at 55 Euros a night… It was a very nice one-story stucco structure with a gift shop—I almost bought a wool cap but it was too small—and a kidney-shaped swimming pool. A lone European sat at poolside with a late breakfast, but no one was swimming.

Our guide returned and we mounted up again, heading back out into the desert. Jamie and I were trying to figure out which direction we were traveling in, but the map of the oases he had purchased in Bawiti wasn’t being much help. We drove on an unmarked two-lane for about ten miles and then veered off into the desert. Ashari, our driver, was remarkable in his ability to find a comfortable route between humps of sand topped with hummocks of coarse grass and the odd rock outcroppings, while at the same time avoiding patches of deep sand. As I later discovered, every vehicle carried a shovel and two perforated sheets of heavy aluminum about three feet long, called “sand sheets,” which could be placed under the drive wheels in case a car sank into really deep sand. Fortunately, Ashari was very adept at reading the sand and, while we slowed once or twice and had to creep along in low range four-wheel mode for a short distance once, we never got stuck.

About twenty minutes into our drive, we saw out the right hand windows a range of sand dunes stretching off into the distance. They must have been between forty and fifty feet high and were magnificent. So this is what sand dunes look like! Not even Texas could boast of monsters like this! We stopped on a ridge of hard sand and got out to appreciate their grandness. We were alone with this sight for about five minutes and then the other members of the camp showed up. The three expedition 4x4s had no problem reaching the base of the nearest dune, but one of the Egyptian families in their flashy American-made-for-the-street SUVs immediately got stuck and required eight Egyptian males to heave it out onto firmer ground.

From the backs of two of the expedition vehicles snowboards were produced and everyone headed up the slope of the dune for some sand skiing. The kids, of course were the most enthusiastic and adventurous. The bottoms of the boards were coated with formica, which was meant to make them slippery on the sand. They worked reasonably well, but except for the most precipitous slope near the end of the dune, no breathtaking speeds were achieved. We spent a good hour during which everyone had at least one ride down the dune. I felt like a real Americano tourist, but really, how many chances does one get to do that? Of course there was one testosterone powered idiot who had to prove his car was the most powerful machine ever built and he drove to the crest of the dune, receiving the cheers of his fellow SUV owners. The cheers quickly died however, when the car sank into the sand. He and his friends spent forty-five minutes digging and shifting a pair of sand sheets under various wheels until he finally managed to get free. Sometimes guys are SO predictable.

When the thrill of sliding down the dunes wore off, we ate a cold lunch of tuna salad, bread, tomatoes and cucumbers and bottled water. The Egyptians had packed homemade goodies and these they shared out among everyone. We tidied up after the meal, not an easy task with the wind blowing stiffly. At one point, I tried to chase down a fugitive potato chip bag but gave up after a hundred yards. The bag skipped along the surface of the sand while I had to slog through it. I finally stopped and watched it sail away in the general direction of Libya. More trash.

Once we had packed up, the convoy turned east paralleling the dune range for a while before turning a bit north. We traveled for about half an hour in this fashion, each driver choosing his own route, but never really out of sight of one another. The expedition drivers obviously had a system that allowed them to keep an eye on those who were inexperienced in desert driving. The desert isn’t all sand and we often traversed ridges of rock that emerged from the ground periodically. Some areas were quite rugged while others were ocean-like in their gently rolling appearance. There were places strewn with boulders and others where gritty bushes clung to a tenuous source of water, flourishing for months or maybe years before being blasted out of existence by a sandstorm, or outgrowing their reservoirs.

After a time, we came upon a small copse of trees with a stone marker indicating that this was a spring known as Ain Khadra, literally the Green Spring. A camel lounged next to a dry stone pool nearby. Several other Land Rovers were already parked next to this green spot in the desert. We unloaded and had a look around. I located the “spring” and found a mere trickle at the bottom of a five foot deep hole. Ashari looked at it and pronounced it “da`eef,” weak. A group of travelers was enjoying a picnic in the center of the grove, so we walked around the perimeter, wondering how such a garden spot could occur in such bleak surroundings. Now this was more like what Maria Muldaur had in mind, I think.

A short drive from here brought us to the site of an even more tenuous but tenacious grip on life in the desert, a single acacia tree atop a knoll that somehow had found a fairly reliable source of water. That source had allowed the tree to live for an estimated three hundred years. So iconic is this landmark that it is known simply by its name: al-Santa, “the Acacia” in Arabic. The tree obviously hadn’t always had an easy time of it, as evidenced by its twisted and broken trunk and its markedly prone position, but its roots were bicep thick and its leaves bright and glossy. Such determination has to be admired.

We were getting deeper into the White Desert now and the white calciferous formations which gave it that name were more and more in evidence. Much of the area we now traveled through was marked by long, low-lying hills and ridges of white stone which, from a distance glistened like snow. To add to the wintery illusion, we occasionally saw exposed stretches of the same stone at ground level that sparkled like late winter ice in the afternoon sun. In other places the sand, far from being monochromatic, looked as though it had been sprinkled with coarse salt and pepper, ground bits of the white and black stone, abraded into tiny shards by millennia of winds and driven sand. The complexity and variety of landscapes in the Sahara astounded us all.

The sun was settling toward the horizon as we reached our last stop of the day. One of the most famous areas of the White Desert contains chalk formations shaped by the winds into marvelous figures. This particular location was known as the Mushrooms and there were indeed several that looked for all the world like fungi, but the variety of shapes was endless. One was also struck by the fragility of these monuments, for everywhere one could see where huge chunks of rock had recently fallen away, splitting along fracture lines and shattering into smaller pieces as they struck the ground. I realized that what we were seeing was a snapshot of what was and what would be. Visitors to this same place in two years time—perhaps less—would see something quite different.

After a few more pictures and a few more minutes spent contemplating the view, our driver and his assistant tooted the horn and we set off on our return to the camp. Even experienced desert people know that travel after dark, particularly with newbies in tow, is not a good idea. We spent the trip back talking about what we had seen, comparing the rocks we had collected and sharing impressions of the day. Arriving at camp, we found dinner not quite ready, so I cadged another blanket from a pile near the cook tent and re-arranged my bed so that I would be warm in what we had been told would be a colder night than last. Jamie produced two cans of Heinecken from the depths of his suitcase and shared them out among the four of us who accepted his offer. We talked in the tent until the rattle of dinnerware told us it was time to eat. Dinner tonight was to include something called “fattoush,” a mixture of fried stale pita and seasonal vegetables cooked up together. We ate in the dark, with only the light of the campfire and the odd flashlight to illuminate the serving table, so I couldn’t really tell what was what. There was barbecued chicken again and a rice dish and tahina. It tasted just fine and we all ate our fill. There was another show of computer animation projected on the white rock formations and we watched those over cups of tea and coffee.

Once the dinner dishes were cleared and people had relaxed for a while, a group of men and boys, about six in number, assembled in one corner of the tent arcade and broke out drums and a flute. This was the Bedouin concert we had been promised. The drummers—two of them—started out and established a solid rhythm. A couple of young boys clapped in time. Then a third musician finished assembling a long wooden flute and started playing. The sound was complex with a bagpipe-like wail serving as foundation to a melody line produced by the musician fingering ten holes in the flute. I won’t try to describe this performance, except to say that the flute was played using a technique known as circular breathing, which allowed the musician to produce a constant flow of sound, without break. One of the young boys got up and danced in what I thought was a rather un-Bedouin manner, lots of hips and gyrations, and it occurred to me that those nineteenth century orientalist painters must have got their ideas from somewhere… I have posted a short video of their opening piece for those interested enough to want to see what I am failing to describe sufficiently here.

White Desert Concert from Karl Schaefer on Vimeo.

The group played for four hours straight, alternating between instrumental and vocal pieces. Two men alternated playing the flute and several other members of the troupe showed that they were masters of two instruments as well. It was a wonderful experience, sitting in the night in the glow of a campfire, listening to music many of us had never heard before and which none of our immediate group had ever listened to in the desert. The Egyptians had long since disappeared into their tents or were chatting at the far end of the tent arcade. As the audience dwindled, and the night’s chill took hold, the musicians moved out from under the tent and sat around the campfire to play. It was clear that they were enjoying themselves and appreciated their audience. When the flute and drums were finally put aside, we thanked the entertainers and crawled off to bed, the stars burning right above our heads.

Midnight at the Oasis

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, 26 November

The Sahara Desert is one huge piece of real estate. It constitutes a large percentage of Egypt’s one million square kilometers of territory and its power is rightly respected by anyone who has to venture across its sands. It’s one thing to zip across the space in an air conditioned vehicle at eighty kilometers per hours, and quite another to cross it on foot or astride a camel. That thought is constantly in mind as I look out across the area occupied by our encampment.

I took the train down to Cairo yesterday afternoon and stayed over with fellow Fulbrighter Zohair Husain, who is teaching at the University of Cairo. He hosted me once before and invited me to stay with him prior to leaving for the desert trip. We had a light dinner and then proceeded to prepare for three days living in a tent. For me, that meant emptying my backpack and piling everything I wouldn’t be needing on the spare bed in my bedroom. I took both a fleece and a jacket because we had been told that it would be cold at night. Other than that, just a couple changes of shirts, underwear and socks, my cap, the Blue Guide and a package of disinfectant wipes. At Ginger da Costa’s suggestion, I also took along a sheet pilfered from Zohair’s guest bed. Blankets, mattresses, food, and water were to be supplied by the expedition outfitters. Zohair was worried about toilet articles and being able to shower—he said he couldn’t sleep without a shower—but I told him that after the second day we’d all smell the same, so not to be concerned.

We awoke at six on Thursday morning, had a breakfast of eggs and fruit salad—“Eat it up,” says my host, piling another heaping mound of chopped apples, kiwi, pineapple, etc. in my bowl—“it’ll go off before we get back.” We set off for the rendezvous point with my stomach groaning from all the roughage. A short taxi ride across the Nile and north on the Corniche brings us to the building of the British Council, a three-story Empire-style stone building painted a rather un-Empire-ish yellow with white trim. Rather jolly for Cairo, actually. Ginger and Joelle are waiting for us with the news that Dominique was feeling unwell and had bailed out at the last minute. Before too long, a white eight-passenger van with “Badawiya Expeditions” painted on the side pulled up.

The driver and his assistant got out and proceeded to stow our bags in the rear. We got in and were told that we were awaiting the arrival of two more passengers. Ginger told the driver that one of the two would not be coming, so we were only one short of our full complement of riders.About ten minutes later, the final member of our troupe arrived. Jamie Balfour-Paul joined us and we learned that he had been serving as the regional director of Oxfam in Egypt for the past two years. Tall, soft-spoken, and affable, he quickly fitted in with the four of us. Just as we were about to set off, we were joined by two Egyptian women (a mother and daughter we later found out), who were friends of the owner of the expedition company and were spending the Eid with him in the Farafra Oasis. They piled in with their gear and we were off on our adventure, the driver’s assistant waving to us from the curb.

It took us an hour to clear the traffic and sprawl of Cairo and Giza, but finally we were on the road toward the Fayyoum and the desert beyond. Just north of the Fayyoum, we turned off to the west and headed out into the Sahara proper. [DSCN 0069] Greenery slowly dissipated; trees shriveled and disappeared; bushes grew increasingly emaciated and scrawny; grass, when there was any, grew in tufts and looked very coarse. Traffic dwindled to the occasional heavy truck and the rare automobile. The day was clear and not terribly hot; the two-lane macadam was relatively smooth. We traveled along a railway for quite a while, a line that served the few commercial ventures out here—mineral extraction, primarily. To the right, we saw occasional signs marking roads that led off even further into the desert. The signs read “Rig No. 49;” “Rigs No. 81 & 82.” These were oil derricks or pumping stations for wells so far off the main road that we couldn’t see them from the van.

Once every so often, we would pass a lone building standing adjacent to the road. Some were surrounded by walls with watch towers at the corners and tall metal radio towers in the center. Others were ambulance stations or police stations. People were, for the most part, not in evidence at any of these places. We had traveled for nearly three hours in this fashion when talk turned to the need for a rest stop for some of us. I asked the driver if he could stop and he replied, “Here okay?” I looked out the window and saw a level horizon. No privacy here. “No, perhaps a little further?” Up ahead there appeared a series of low hillocks along the roadside and the driver pulled over so we could scatter behind whatever cover there was to relieve ourselves.

That we chose to make a pit stop in the desert turned out to be a judicious move because after another thirty miles or so, we came to the only “rest stop” between Cairo and the Bahriya Oasis. This was the “official” break. To call it a rest stop is to call forth (for Americans, at least)images of a filling station surrounded by concrete and a convenience store stocked with high fat fast foods and providing modern toilets, maybe a pleasant treed green space where you could have a picnic or walk your dog. Forget about that. This place would have been condemned long ago in the worst American slum you might imagine. The toilets were beyond disgusting: fly-ridden, pungent, fetid, dank. Adequate adjectives fail me. The façade of the building, once a wall of metal-framed glass panes affording a view of the desert, was in danger of collapse and only prevented from caving in by a series of two-by-fours braced against a couple of interior concrete pillars. The parking lot was unpaved and strewn with all sorts of trash; of course this part of the scenery had by now become familiar to us and was, perversely, the least objectionable feature of the landscape.I bought a package of chips, just to take the edge off my hunger but avoided the tea and coffee. Jamie, who had been here longer than the rest of us, had no qualms about ordering up, though.

The filling station was in a separate building next door; of the four gasoline pumps only one seemed to be functional and even that one appeared to have been partially dismantled in an attempt to fix some internal part. We filled up and got back on the road. Our driver had told us that this was the half-way point in our journey and so we settled in for another three hours. We were now in a seriously arid region. Sand and rocks lay in every direction as far as one could see. The road bore southwest for the most part, rising and falling over hills and dry wadis. No animals or birds were to be seen. Once or twice we passed by small green patches where camels grazed and one or two people went about whatever business they had in those isolated corners of nowhere.

After about two hours, the road dropped into a major depression in the earth; we descended several hundred feet over several miles on a graded roadbed. The escarpment of the depression was visible as a series of cliffs off to the north. These depressions were where we would find the oases that provided small groups of people with a tenuous grip on life here amidst all this aridity. There is a string of such depressions across the desert here that hold what are called the “Inner Oases,” Bahriya, Farafra, Dakhla, and Siwa a bit to the north. Our first stop was Bahriya, where we had to pass through a checkpoint manned by the police. We stopped and our driver was asked how many foreigners he had with him and what our nationalities were. One of the Egyptian women translated and we relayed the requested information to the cops. Our driver, Abd Allah, was obviously known to them because there was a lengthy conversation, an exchange of news, before we resumed our travel.

The Bahriya Oasis is the “gateway” to the desert, as it were, and the road here was lined with trees that looked like poplars. Behind them were fields and groves of what looked like tropical fruit trees. Mud brick and stone houses began to appear. Within five miles, we were in the oasis proper and we had to make another stop. Here, in front of the main police station, our passports were collected and we were then transported about five hundred yards down the road and dumped off at a restaurant where several locals sat drinking tea and smoking shishas in the shade of an aluminum awning. Thankfully, the comfort facilities here were respectable and the restaurant itself clean and quiet. We ordered tea and sat at a table.

There was a little open front shop adjacent to the restaurant that sold a variety of rugs, blankets and embroidered cloth among other tourist items. Jamie bought what he thought was a rug, but turned out to be a blanket. He was a bit disappointed at the misunderstanding, but decided to keep his purchase. The Egyptian women re-appeared from somewhere and Ginger proceeded to elicit information from them about the oasis and what they knew of the area we would be visiting. Whatever image you may hold in your mind of what an oasis is—and I admit that mine was a tad romantic, involving tents and camels and pools of cool water—is immediately crushed by actually seeing one. This one, at least, was noisy and almost as trash-strewn as the highway rest stop we had visited. This was Bawiti, the capital of the oases district. There were motorcycles, trucks, cars, and tractors in addition to the odd horse or donkey drawn cart moving along a four-lane street divided by a narrow median strip of concrete and stone with forlorn flowering plants drooping over a metal fence. Only one side of the street was in use; the other side was still awaiting completion and was filled with ruts and mounds of earth. A car repair shop a short distance down the road was surrounded by a dirt parking area stained black with spilled oil. Buildings in various stages of completion and delapidation were visible on the far side of the main street. There was an air of poverty everywhere.

We had to wait some time for our driver to return, but he eventually showed up with another Egyptian man, dark, rather short and very quiet, who sat next to Abd Allah in the front seat. We drove a short way down the main road and into the center of town where a crossroads of sorts was the location for a larger assemblage of shops and stores that displayed articles for sale. There was a street-side restaurant—the oldest restaurant in Bahriya, one of the Egyptian women told us—and a multi-storied hotel, quite modern but looking rather baked and dessicated in the early afternoon sun. A natural rock fountain built into the side of the hotel was dry and dusty. We wandered around and noted that the prices of some items here were significantly lower than at the shop next to the restaurant we had visited. No big surprise there…

After about ten minutes of wandering (even that was about five minutes longer than one required to walk from one end of the area to the other), we continued on our way. Within ten minutes, we were back out in the desert and driving toward the Farafra Oasis, the next green spot on the map. Farafra is the smallest of the “inner oases,” according to my Blue Guide and the White Desert essentially surrounds it. We made a brief stop at our next point of interest, a roadside attraction known as the Crystal Mountain. Hardly more than a thirty-foot mound with a small person-sized rock arch to one side, the formation is composed of quartz crystals and probably would be quite a sight in the sun after a good rain shower to wash the dust off. We wandered around the site for a few minutes, looked for crystals in the dirt of the parking area and then climbed back into the car.

We drove for about another 100 kilometers and just short of Farafra, we spotted two four wheel Toyotas sitting on the shoulder of the road. The van pulled over and we were told that this was the final leg of our journey. The five foreigners and the quiet Egyptian man transferred to one of the Toyotas; our gear was thrown onto the roof and secured with ropes. After we arranged ourselves on the bench seats in the back, our new driver cranked up the engine and we tore off across the desert. Tracks of other four-wheel vehicles were evident but Ashari, our driver, seemed to be content to follow his own sense of direction. The sun was beginning to creep toward the horizon, but there was still plenty of light to illuminate a series of remarkable white rock formations scattered among the sands. A fifteen minute ride brought us within sight of a huddle of tents. We had arrived.

The Toyota pulled up adjacent to the tents and we unfolded ourselves from the back. A long arcade of shelters made of dark woolen or camel hair rugs stretched along the sand on one side of the site. There was a cook tent, a couple of old wooden tables standing front it and a second arcade of open shelters beyond it. At either end of the row of tents was a tall pillar of white rock, scoured by wind and blown sand into fantastic shapes. To the west, a low white ridge of the same rock glowed in the sun. Smaller bleached formations stood all around on the horizon. In between the white rocks were expanses of sand, some deep and soft, others rippled by the wind and packed hard.

We were asked whether we wanted one big tent or two small ones. The women obviously preferred to have their own shelter, so we said, “Two, please.” The camp director turned and gave some instructions to his helpers. After a brief discussion, he turned to us and said, “Too windy to put up another tent just now. Use one big one.” Ginger and Joelle assented graciously and we ducked into a large wall tent easily twenty feet square. Inside, rush mats had been placed over the sand on either side of the entry with a bare sand path down the center. The three guys plunked their gear down on one side and the two women theirs on the other. Jamie went out and asked about the promised mattresses and in short order a large canvas bag containing five foam mattresses, each about two inches thick, was delivered and we spread them out. “Blankets?” We asked. Oh yeah, Blankets. They’re coming from Farafra, we’re told. They’ll be here soon.

There was just time before the sun set to do a bit of exploring and to get our bearings, as best we could in a remote and inhospitable place. There was a port-a-potty tucked behind one of the larger rock formations at a discrete distance from the tents, as well as a port-a-shower, connected to a tank of water set on a ledge above the structure by a plastic pipe. Nearby an electrical generator sat silently on the sand. A cord, intermittently visible in the sand, ran across the desert toward the tents. All the mod-cons one could ask for.

The sun was disappearing behind the white ridge by now and the wind, blowing strongly when we first arrived, had dropped to a whisper. I pulled out my fleece and put it on; it was already getting a little cool. A couple of the expedition’s staff were busy preparing dinner and the camp began to bustle as a group of Egyptians in their private 4×4’s arrived and began to set up their own tents behind ours, or to claim one of the vacant wall tents scattered about. By nightfall, we number about thirty or thirty-five people in all, including adults, young children, and teenagers. The sun dropped below the horizon and the generator was cranked to life. Energy-saving bulbs strung on a single wire warmed up and dispensed light the shade of moonglow around the encampment.

Dinner was produced by the chef, attired for the occasion in a white chef’s coat with silver buttons. A huge pot of rice, a combination of white and yellow grains flavored with spices, chicken grilled over a campfire, as well as sliced beef in a sauce for those serious carnivores among us. There was also a salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers with tahina sauce. We found places on rugs and rush mats spread on the ground under the arcade and got busy with our meals. It was either very good or we were very hungry. Probably a bit of both. The rice dish and the salad beckoned for a second visit. A second campfire was going in front of the tent arcade and after the meal we relaxed with cups of tea or Nescafe in its warmth.

The stars were out and so numerous that I was unable to distinguish the Big Dipper, the one constellation I am always sure of finding. Orion was creeping up out of the east, so I could orient myself, but still no luck. Another group of Americans had arrived at some point and were projecting sketches of computer generated drawings on the face of one of the white rock formations. A surreal addition to the evening. We chatted for a while and listened to the silence. A camel brayed from some distance away and I realized that we were probably not as removed from other humans as we appeared to be. But the dark and the silence of this vast desert has the effect of making one feel quite small, insignificant and alone.

The promised blankets had arrived at some point, big, heavy camel hair or wool affairs with geometric patterns worked into the weft. More rug than blanket, they were scratchy and coarse. I was glad I had brought the sheet along; that would keep the roughness at bay. One by one we crawled off to our mattresses and, shedding only boots and jackets, got horizontal under the hefty blankets. It was like sleeping with someone on top of you, but it did keep out the cold. The mattress wasn’t quite thick enough to keep my hips off the ground and I could feel the lumps in the sand underneath it. Despite all that, I soon fell asleep.

A Week at Work

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.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

This title makes it sound as though a week at work is unusual and that is not the case. I have been involved this past week (and will continue to be until I leave for my Thanksgiving weekend holiday) in intense individual conferences with each of the selectors who have written the first drafts of the Summary and Format sections of their collection development policy statements. These meetings have taken place in Nermin’s “cozy” little office with Nermin present to clarify in Arabic my English evaluations of the selectors’ efforts. Sometimes, when two selectors are working in the same discipline, there are four of us and, when, in typical Egyptian fashion, two additional people are conducting other business with Nermin simultaneously, more.As I said, cozy.

In spite of the occasionally chaotic surroundings, we do manage to conduct reviews of the statements and to give direction for the next stages of the process. Some of the selectors have done reasonably good work while others have not. Nermin has asked me to be severe with the slackers, but I am more comfortable with a firm but diplomatic approach and am willing to give a certain latitude to those whose English skills are clearly not on par with the best of their colleagues. The sessions take the following form. I first provide a critique of what they have written, followed by recommendations and directions for improving their statements and prose. I also show them a “template” of what an acceptable policy statement should look like.Copies of that template are also e-mailed to each selector.

This template is a model that I made up for selecting in Latin American and Caribbean Area Studies and represents the sort of policy statement I would write if I had been given the same assignment. I tell them that they are not required (and indeed SHOULD NOT) follow what I have written slavishly, but rather to use the template as a source for ideas and forms that they can use. The selectors are then given a deadline for submission of the next draft and are encouraged to continue working on other sections of their statements so that ideally, by the end of my time here, they will have a fairly good, basic set of guidelines for doing the collection development part of their jobs. I stress that the collection development policies for their respective disciplines should do three things: the statements should serve as reminders to the selectors about what they are collecting and why; they should further serve as sources of information about the nature of their collections for their colleagues, defining their areas of responsibility and staking out their territory; finally, the policy statements should provide a basic overview of each disciplinary collection for those who will be using them.

The meetings, at least outwardly, seem to go well; the selectors leave with firm deadlines for the next step and clear guidelines for improving their statements. I try to find something positive to say about each person’s efforts and encourage them to contact me with questions or problems. I am anxious for them to keep working, especially since the big holiday, the Eid al-Adha` or Greater Bairam, is coming up and that means work in Egypt essentially stops for five days. People also tend to take their unused vacation time now, before the end of the year, so progress may be a bit slow from here out.

I also have been meeting fairly frequently with Amira Hegazy, the info. lit. unit head so that we can continue to make progress with that effort. The workshops in that arena have problems of their own but I think that we are doing better there now that the instructors and I have met a couple of times and we have a better idea of where we are going and why. There is always the issue of the discrepancy between what they tell me they want and the way I think it should be approached to deal with. A lot of that has to do with my own neophyte level of experience with this kind of work. My report to the library administration at the end of my term here will have to address this issue. It would help greatly if there were a better definition of responsibilities and a clearer statement of expectations for the next Fulbright person.

I have two Arabic lessons this week, too, and then I’m off for a week in Cairo and the desert. I am a bit worried about being away for so long, primarily because I don’t know how I’m going to pack everything I need in my backpack. Well, that’s a bridge to cross a few days from now.

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