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.