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.

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