Archive for January, 2010

Egypt in the Rearview Mirror

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, 14 January 2010

So, here I am on my way home. The first leg of three flights that will hopefully have me home and in my own bed this evening. Something like 7 AM Friday, Cairo time, but eight hours earlier in Des Moines. A long day, but my last two days in Cairo were long, too.

Tuesday, I had made two appointments to try to wrap up my block print research, at least insofar as it was possible to “wrap it up” when the largest collection—at the Museum of Islamic Art—was inaccessible. My first stop was at the Dar al-Kutub, the Egyptian Center for the Book on the Corniche downtown. I had already sent them a letter and had called them before I left Alexandria to make certain that they were expecting me. When I arrived, I told the front desk who I wanted to see and, after a bit of confusion, was ushered into Abd Allah’s office. Handshakes, smiles, an invitation to sit while he did some other business. When he returned, with a copy of my letter in hand, he told me that the director who would have to give the final okay on my seeing the artifact I wanted to see had not yet arrived. Typical.

“Okay, so I’ll come back,” I say. “I have another appointment this morning and I’ll just go there first.”

“Oh,” says Abd Allah. “What time will you come back?” Like I could possibly know. This is Egypt.

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “Could be an hour, could be an hour and a half, could be two hours.”

“Ah,” says Abd Allah, looking very unhappy.

“Sorry,” I shrug. “I have very little time left and I need to get this work done. I’ll be back.”

Climb into a cab and go off to the Egyptian Geographical Society museum next to the City Council Chambers. Always a treat having to go through security there just to get to the museum, but it’s the only way in. Dr. Abu al-Izz is expecting me, so I only have to wait fifteen minutes to be shown to his office. Dr. Abu al-Izz is eighty if he’s a day, slightly bent and rather frail, but his voice and handshake are still strong. I submit to the routine interrogation about the nature of my work and its focus, suffering his frequent interruptions with questions and comments. He is very genteel and not at all arrogant so I don’t take offence. His English is very good and I sort of like talking with him. He’s interested in what I have to say.

He finally calls in his curator (whom I met on my first visit here) and, after Dr. Abu al-Izz fills him in, the curator and I head down to the museum. Of course, the curator has his own agenda and insists on showing me a display case full of writing instruments and personal stamps that were used for indicating ownership of books and other purposes. He tells me that a group of small metal stamps was made to be carried by illiterate people who would use them instead of signing their names on government documents, contracts and the like. He tells me that such things were used until the early part of the twentieth century in Egypt. That was actually interesting.

After about half an hour of looking over the dusty stuff in that cabinet, we were brought tea and moved to the case containing the block print I came to see. The curator took the strip of paper, protected by a sheet of glass, out of the case. I took my measurements and made my observations on it. The curator tried reading it and told me that there wasn’t a single real Arabic word on the paper; it was all gibberish. I looked at it and had to admit that I didn’t see any identifiable words anywhere. If this is indeed the case, then it supports the theory that many of the block prints were not meant to be read. However, this is the first one of this kind that I have encountered.

After completing my examination, I am taken upstairs to Dr. Abu al-Izz’s office once more. I thank him for his courtesies and promise to send him a copy of my book. Since he has a block print in his collection, I say, he ought to have some reference material on them. We shake hands, promise to keep in touch and I’m off. Back at the Dart al-Kutub, I find that the director has finally arrived and I am shown into his office. The guy’s in his mid-fifties, maybe, graying kinky hair worn over his ears on the sides but thinning on top. His face is remarkably wrinkle free and open. He doesn’t tell me his name and he doesn’t speak English so, after the obligatory pleasantries, he reads through the Arabic annotations on the letter I had sent and asks me what sort of books I want to see. I tell him it’s not a book I’m interested in, but a piece of paper bearing printing. Could be from the tenth or eleventh century, maybe.

I show him the accession number and he tells me there is no such system in use in the Dar al-Kutub. Where did I get the number? I explain to him what the source is, who wrote it, and when. Not even a flicker of recognition crosses his face. Trouble, I knew it. He obviously thinks I’m an idiot because he launches into a long monologue about Arabic printing, when it started, nothing printed before such and such a date, blah, blah, blah. I let him have his say and then repeat that what I am looking for is not, repeat, NOT a book, but a document.

“It’s here? In the Dar al-Kutub?” he asks.

“As far as I know,” I reply. “The last person to have seen it, to my knowledge, saw it in the 1920’s so where exactly it might be now, I don’t have a clue.”

He thinks for a minute as people flow in and out of his office asking questions and having him review letters or documents. When he has a moment, he looks up at me and calls the head of the rare books division. He comes to the office and the director explains, as best he can, what he thinks I want. He suggests to the rare books guy that he show me what he’s got. Rare book guy and I then troop down to his office, through a warren of spaces lined with compact shelving units. Once in his office, he has his guys drag out old lithographed books for me to look at.

“Is this what you’re interested in?” How about this one?”

“Nope, and nope,” I reply shaking my head.

I recite my explanation—by now almost memorized and with much better Arabic than the first time I gave it—and he listens patiently. I describe, roughly the dimensions and what I think it looks like: three strips of paper arranged one next to the other. Each strip about 40 cm. long. He shakes his head.

“Don’t have anything like that.” “Hey Ahmad (I don’t remember his real name),” he says to one of his guys. “Do you know where such a thing might be?”

Ahmad has heard the explanation and he says, maybe in the manuscript department.

“Oh,” says the chief. “That’s a different department all together. You’ll have to go and get permission from the director’s director in order to see anything there.”

Will this never end? Back upstairs to the BIG director’s office. Of course, he’s not in and I end up sitting in his outer office with varying numbers of people, some of whom seem to be working while others seem to be hanging out and socializing. I decide that I’m not leaving until I see this guy. After an hour, Dr. Abd al-Nasser Hassan Mohamed finally shows up and I have to go through my routine again. Somewhere in all the comings and goings, my letter has disappeared and now, he says, I have no authorization to see what I want to see. I look at him and tell him that the letter is here, just track it down, please. He must decide that that would take up too much of his valuable time, so he makes a note on a photocopy of the page I’ve given him showing the accession number, and he calls one of his people to show me to the manuscripts division. I thank him and go off with the assistant to the manuscript division, down more stairs and across several bleak lobbies and staircase landings.

I enter a workroom through a door bearing the legend “Manuscript Division” in Arabic and am greeted by four young men and a hijab clad woman. I learn that they are in the process of compiling a ten-volume collection of studies on papyri that Adolf Grohmann, a famous 19th-20th century scholar, had worked on in Cairo. They know Grohmann, the source for my information about the piece I want to see. Finally, maybe some progress! When I ask if they have a copy of the book in which I found the description, they say no, but they do have a record of all his accession numbers. Unfortunately, their computer records do not show mine. Just great. But in the meantime, one of the guys asks me if the thing I’m after is on papyrus. I say no, I don’t think so.

“Too bad,” he says. “We just published a catalogue of the papyri in the National Library. Here it is.”

I start leafing through it. I notice at least two items that are clearly block prints even though the catalogue identifies them as manuscripts. The woman suddenly busies herself with some papers. The catalogue is heavily illustrated and I notice that not all the pieces are on papyrus. There are paper documents as well, and, lo and behold! here is a picture of one thing that fits the description exactly. I show the image to the guys who crowd around, murmuring among themselves. Suddenly, the woman, who has been working at an adjacent table, spins around with a set of galleys from the book I’m looking at in her hand. She points excitedly. There, in the galley, is the same page I’m looking at WITH my accession number on it. The guys quickly busy themselves with their computers. A correction is obviously in order. There was apparently an omission somewhere and that number did not get into the computer system. The woman is very excited about the discovery and I congratulate her on her keen eye. She beams. A Eureka moment.

When I ask where it is, the collective answer is, “Not here.”

My elation turns into ashes. Now what? It appears that the item IS in the Dar al-Kutub, just not in THIS one. It’s in another building known as Bab al-Khalq, located near the Museum of Islamic Art. The woman has contacted the Dr. Mohamed by phone in the meantime and he is going to notify the Bab al-Khalq that I’m coming. The director is even organizing a car to take me there. Oh, but wait. No, sorry, they close soon. You’ll have to go tomorrow, but don’t worry; they know you’re coming. I thank everyone and on my way out buy a copy of the papyri catalogue in the Dar al-Kutub bookstore.

Four hours to get to this point, and I could be annoyed, but some progress has been made, so I’ll just re-adjust my schedule for Wednesday and fit in a visit to the Dar al-Khalq. I decide that I had better take care of some other business today so that I don’t run out of time tomorrow. I grab a cab and go to Dokki to close out my Egyptian bank account. That process goes quite smoothly and I end up with a little free time before a dinner engagement, so I head to Zamalek, the island in the Nile, where I grab a cappuccino and a piece of cake at Beano’s. Another last. I walk around for a while enjoying Zamalek’s village-like atmosphere, check out some jewelry shops and handicraft stores, but am not tempted by anything.

I finally decide to call Ginger da Costa, a fellow Fulbrighter  who lives nearby, to ask if I can hang out until we go to dinner. She says sure, so I traipse over to her building and spend a pleasant hour or so talking with her and her roommate Dominique. At eight, we are joined by two more Fulbrighters from upstairs and together we walk to the Trattoria, a very nice Italian restaurant where we find eight more Fulbright people waiting for us. This is a group send-off for Ginger and myself and our last chance to spend time with our friends. There is wine and good conversation. Photos are taken and hugs shared before we set off to our various abodes. Another last.

Wednesday, I was up at 6:30 and ready to go by 9. I grabbed a cab and took it to the Dar al-Kutub in Bab al-Khalq. I got there just as the place was opening. I told the guard at the entrance that I had an appointment with the director, Layla Rizk. Was she in yet? No, he tells me, not yet. May I wait? Of course. In the meantime, the guard calls the director’s office and talks with someone there. I’m guided upstairs to the office and when I explain the purpose of my visit and that the director is expecting me, he calls the director’s mobile phone and hands the receiver to me.

Dr. Rizk is on the other end. I introduce myself and tell her why I’m there. I tell her that I had been told that Dr. Mohamed at the other building had made arrangements for me to do some research here. Dr. Rizk tells me she has had no information about this. She had been at a meeting with him last night and he had mentioned nothing of this to her. I’ll have to come back. Nope, not this time. I get a little testy and tell her that I’m leaving Cairo very soon, that I’ve been trying to get access to this artifact for a month, that I am constantly given misleading or incomplete information, that I have spent more time sitting in offices and waiting than I have spent doing the research I wanted to do, etc., and I’m not happy.

“Okay,” she says. “Put my assistant on again.”

I hand the receiver to the guy who says “Hello,” and then “Yes, ma’am, yes, ma’am.”

I’m then escorted downstairs to another office where I meet an assistant director who listens to my request and, with assistance from her colleague, starts looking for my accession number. Same story as yesterday. They don’t have it. I ask if they have a library or a bookstore in the building. Yes they do. May I see it? Of course. There is a copy of the catalogue there and I get permission to take the book to the assistant director’s office where I show her what I want to see.

“Oh, that!” she says. “That’s upstairs in conservation. I’ll get someone to take you up.”

Hallelujah! I finally get to see what I came to see and am treated very nicely the entire time. I promise to send a copy of my book to the assistant director for their library and thank her for all her help.

I go out and hop another cab to the Gayer-Anderson Museum where I’m also expected. Now that I’m known there, the director greets me like a long-lost friend and within half an hour I am in the archives, searching—with the assistance of two women employees of the museum–for my missing block print. Two drawers and umpteen conservation folders later, we finally find the last of the four block prints that I had been told were here. A very nice one, small, but very clearly printed. I do my work, say thanks and goodbye to the director and his staff and take a deep breath. I’m officially done with the research part of my project. And not a minute to spare.

Later that afternoon, I head to Dokki again to say goodbye to Bruce Lohof and his staff at the Fulbright office. Bruce and I spend an hour in very pleasant and lively conversation. I tell him how much I admire his operation and thank him, again, for the opportunity to participate in his program. I head back home to change for dinner and stop in briefly at Zohair Hussain’s apartment around the corner to say goodbye to him. He has guests and insists on feeding me before I leave, despite my protestations that I’m already invited to eat. I offer my apologies for having to run off and we give each other a hug at the door. I’ll miss his intensity. My last evening in Cairo is spent at Jamie Balfour-Paul’s houseboat apartment where Ginger, Dominique and I enjoy a home cooked meal and a couple bottles of wine. Jamie is a wonderful host and the food is good and filling. Fruit salad and blue cheese and crackers top it all off. At ten, I say my final goodbyes and take a cab home. At midnight I’m in bed; in six hours, I’ll be on my way to the Cairo airport.

Ibrahim picked me up this morning and with light morning traffic, I was through security and re-packing my way-too-heavy suitcase. I had to remove a bunch of stuff and pack it in a cardboard box (which they provided) so that my heavy case wouldn’t break the conveyor in Heathrow (so I’m told). After that, things went quite smoothly. Cairo slid away from under us in the early morning sun. The Nile, Saladin’s Citadel, Muhammad Ali’s mosque and other landmarks I knew from my stay were soon out of sight. The snowy Alps passed under us a while ago and we’re now descending into Heathrow. Time to close this operation down. I’m going home.

Many Last Things

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, 11 January 2010

The last few days have been days of “lasts.” The last few workshops and meetings with Collection Development and Information Literacy librarians at the Bibliotheca; the last meeting with Dr. Wastawi, the library director; the last visits to my local grocery stores; the last sunset in Alexandria; the last sunrise in Alexandria; the last ride from Alexandria to Cairo.

The final workshops were a bit of a disappointment, in truth. I had a rather serious dispute with Nermin, the woman who is the head of collection development. She had been insisting that I grade her colleagues on their performance in preparing their individual collection development statements. I told her that I didn’t think that it was my place to pass judgment on the work of her colleagues in so formal a fashion; I had been giving them critiques of their work throughout the process of writing their collection development policies and told her that I thought everyone had done his or her best.

The statements, by and large, are nearly ready for final revisions and polishing before being included in the library’s collection development policy. I told Nermin that I felt everyone had done the work they had been asked to do, but she insisted that I grade them 0%-100%. I refused. I did not see that as my role and told her so, adding that I was not her employee, nor were the selectors my employees. Moreover, I said I would not take that sort of direction from her. Every revision had passed through her hands, together with my comments and corrections, and she had had ample opportunity, in my view, to check on her people’s progress and effort herself. So I was in her dog house. Fine. I can bark with the best of them.

In any case, this tension carried over into the final sessions in which I gave presentations on what I saw as the final details each selector needed to pay attention to in order to bring everyone’s work into line with the format of the draft document: using the same font size and typeface, for example; checking for grammatical and syntactical errors one more time; making sure that each section of each policy statement contained the same headings and numbering system, things like that. I congratulated the selectors on their efforts and told those who attended that I thought they had done very good work. I asked that they not flag when the end of their task was so near.

What is important about this project is that they now have, in writing, a set of guidelines and procedures for each of their collections. These statements will find their way to the web in electronic format as well, so librarians in other libraries and people wanting to use the Bibliotheca Alexandrina can refer to them when they need to know what, exactly the library holds or collects in a given area. Within a fairly rigid format, I tried to allow the selectors space to characterize their collections in their own words, so that the individual collections might be shown to have “personalities,” too. With any luck, the “final” version of the complete Collection Development Policy should be ready to be put together by the middle of this year. I have offered to continue serving as a “consultant” until the end of May by which time the texts for the individual subject collections should be in their final form. Then it’s up to the Bibliotheca to see to it that the policy is finalized. Even as the material now stands, it will be very useful for all the collectors to use when they attend the Cairo Book Fair later this month. That is their main opportunity for buying books and having the guidelines fresh in their minds will no doubt help them make better selection decisions there.

The Information Literacy sessions (there were two final ones) were not well attended and I was disappointed at that. The first session I designed as a planning session for thinking about alternate ways of presenting information in their classes. The primary method is lecture, with occasional assignments and I have been urging the instructors to re-think their pedagogy to include other approaches, like group work or demonstrations to which several students will need to contribute.

The concern I heard voiced continually by the instructors over my time at the library was that students were not engaged in the material. So I tried to show them alternative methods of teaching one unit—I chose Boolean searching as my example—suggesting a variety of approaches to get students to practice the techniques, think about potential applications of such searches and to share what they learned with other students in the class. The instructors, I think, saw the advantages of using many of the tactics we discussed, but they expressed concern over the amount of time such activities would take away from covering other topics.

This brought us back to the subject of re-designing the entire instruction program so that this type of teaching could be accommodated. The head of the unit expressed her concern for doing just that, but she seems uncertain about just how the unit might accomplish such a restructuring given that the instructors, like the selectors, have multiple responsibilities. The restructuring probably could be done piecemeal as long as the overall goal is kept in mind. The librarians and their unit head are capable of working out a strategy to do that and I think that a re-design of the program would improve the outcomes for the students and the satisfaction level of the instructors with regard to their teaching.

On Saturday, I decided to do one last cultural thing and visited a little out-of-the-way museum in the older part of town dedicated to Constantine Kavafy. Kavafy belonged to a rather prominent Alexandrian Greek family that seems to have moved around quite a bit during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. He spent time in Constantinople and Greece before finally settling in Alexandria. He worked for the British colonial authority as a clerk or something and lived in a modest apartment in what was then the Greek community.

The apartment was on the third floor above a brothel, a block away from the Greek hospital and just down the street from the Greek Orthodox Church. In his spare time, Kavafy wrote poetry in Greek, but his work was little noted during most of his life. After his death, however, it was revealed that, in addition to having genuine talent, he had been an important influence on Franz Kafka and other greats of the nihilist movement. He is now recognized as one of Greece’s greatest poets of the modern period. Kavafy is supposed to have said that his apartment was in the ideal location since he was near the three temples of life: the temple of the flesh for carnal needs; the temple of healing for dealing with illness, and the temple of the soul for dealing with death. I wanted to see this place if for no other reason than that it was off the beaten track.

I was the first visitor at about eleven AM but before I left, two other people had rung the doorbell and paid admission. While signing the guest register at the end of myvisit, I noted that, contrary to my expectations, there was a fairly healthy daily attendance. The museum was not terribly interesting; Kavafy’s family had apparently sold of most of his belongings after his death (he wasn’t famous yet) and when the Greek cultural authorities decided to create the museum in Alexandria, they had to use photos to try to identify the furniture that he had owned in order to buy it back and replace it in the apartment. Most of the exhibits were either photos of the Kavafy family at various stages of their lives or display cases filed with Constantine’s volumes of poetry published in various languages. Other cases contained works of scholarship on Kavafy and his writings. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours and it put me close to a good coffee house where I could sit and enjoy a cup of Arabic coffee and a piece of fruit tart afterward.

On Sunday, I cleared out my little office (which meant essentially making sure I pushed the chair in and turned out the light). I went and said goodbye and thanks to Sohair al-Wastawi and then surrendered my office key and security card. Later that afternoon, the cleaning guys came and cleaned the apartment while I did a little packing. Once they finished I had my friend Ahmad come and pick me up in his taxi for one last meal at a nice restaurant overlooking Alexandria harbor. The night was misty and the view therefore somewhat obscured, but romantic, in a way. My meal was okay, but not outstanding. I was a little disappointed but the atmosphere was pleasant and I was already focused on leaving.

Ibrahim would come from the Fulbright office and pick me up at 10 AM for the trip back to Cairo on Monday. I wanted to be sure that I had not forgotten to pack everything and called Ahmad to take me back to the apartment. I said goodnight and goodbye to him, promising to stay in touch. Last night in Alexandria. One last look over the city from my balcony and then off to bed.

Ibrahim was right on time. He caught me downstairs saying goodbye to the building manager and owner; Ibrahim’s arrival was an occasion for a cup of tea with Mr. Ramdan Radi, the owner of the building. He and I visited while Ibrahim and the manager discussed closing up the apartment. Once they finished their business, the three of us went upstairs and Ibrahim inspected the premises. He started collecting various items and putting them in a plastic bag. When I explained to him that I had intended those items to be left for the next Fulbright inhabitant, he called the office and put me on the phone with Maggie Williams, who is the local logistics coordinator (for lack of a better term). She explained that the apartment did not belong to the Fulbright Commission and therefore had to be vacated totally. I told her that I had intended for the items I had bought to be used by the next Fulbrighter in Alexandria and she assured me that they would store the items until that time came. Once that misunderstanding was cleared up, we packed everything into Ibrahim’s car and drove to Cairo.

Traffic was not bad and by mid-afternoon I was ensconced in my friend’s apartment in Garden City. In the evening, I went for a walk and had a dinner of kofta—spicy ground lamb wrapped around a metal skewer and grilled over charcoal—at a little restaurant on Talat Harb Street. I poked around a couple of shops but didn’t feel the need to buy much of anything. The next day I had two museum appointments scheduled and I wanted to get a good night’s sleep before taking on that particular challenge.

Livin’ “La Vida Bashawiyah”*

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, 9 January 2010

[*With apologies to Ricky Martin for the reference to his song “Livin’ la Vida Loca.” The term “basha” or “pasha” is used in Egypt in several ways. In the strict sense, a pasha is an eastern ruler. In current popular usage, the word is a sort of casual honorific, a form of address one uses with a stranger in order to get their attention. A driver needing directions might say, “Hey, Basha!” to the corner cop. In the way I have used it here, I mean the lifestyle of one who has an elevated social and economic position that allows him (the term is masculine, after all) to live a life of ease and luxury which is perceived to be the kind of life one might live if he were, in fact such a ruler. In brief: the sort of life I have been living since I arrived here.]

I could get used to this. Having been “in country,” as the diplomatic types put it, for four months now, it’s easy to see how generations of Europeans found Egyptian life so seductive and appealing. For those of us earning American level wages, even modest ones, the standard of living one is able to maintain is rather posh: Palatial (almost literally) apartments, cheap transportation, inexpensive food, cheap service labor, nice climate (most of the time), deference from the locals. Our presence is generally welcomed, at least from my brief experience interacting with people. The Egyptians are friendly, hospitable, generous, and eager to please. At least outwardly, they seem to be happy that we’re here.

It doesn’t hurt that President Obama elected to visit Egypt last year and make a speech that is widely viewed as a very positive one, from the Egyptian perspective. His autobiography, Dreams of My Father, has been translated into Arabic already. Taxi drivers, almost without exception, smile broadly and say, thumbs way up, “Obama good!” when you tell them you’re an American. The worst criticism I’ve heard—and this only once, so far—is that the Egyptians LIKE Americans; they just DON’T LIKE our government. We are perceived as a flawed but admirable force for good in the world, and if we could just remove our collective cranium from our collective rectum, we might actually be really good. In a country with several THOUSAND years of recorded history, we’re still viewed as naïfs on the world stage and our naïveté is being graciously excused, for the nonce. Surprisingly, when I expressed the opinion that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were huge mistakes, the reaction was, generally, “Well, maybe.” War, in general, is viewed by Egyptians as a bad thing and is not considered a viable option for solving the region’s political problems. This from taxi drivers, as well as from members of the educated class. (A point of clarification: many of the cab drivers I ride with ARE educated. They are victims of a stagnant economy that has failed to provide them with work in their chosen fields, so they turn to cab driving as a fairly reliable way to make a living. This is no doubt the main reason I can have so many thoughtful, articulate discussions with them. And a lot of those discussions are at least partially in English!)

Egypt is astounding for it stark contrasts and other travelers have long noted this: The bright green of the Nile Valley against the emptiness of the desert; the bustle and urbanity of Cairo and Alexandria versus the grittiness and poverty of small villages; the suit and skirt attired urbanites versus the galabiya and hijab of the lower classes and villagers. It is a country where a public amanuensis can still be found doing a brisk business outside a government office, completing official forms for those who can neither read nor write, but where everyone, it seems, has a cell phone and internet cafes are common.

Vendors still cry their wares in the streets, “Eggs!” “Clean water!” “Propane!” Subsidized bread is sold on the streets, one Egyptian pound for five or six pitas, so that the poorest will have something, at least, to feed their families. On the other hand, shopping malls the equal of any found in the States or Europe are everywhere, and tennagers are hanging out just like in the States. One of the dismaying aspects of modern Egyptian life is that it is creating a generation of mall rats, just like us.

Many, if not most, people rely on the dilapidated public buses and trains, or on rafts of overloaded mini-buses and scruffy taxis for transport. Many others use motorcycles, if they’re lucky, or donkeys or bicycles. But just last evening, as I walked a street near my apartment, I was passed by a late-model car containing two young Egyptian males, the stereo blasting rap music. Increasingly, I see young women doing the same thing, driving to work in their hijabs with pop music thumping and cell phones glued to their ears.

Car dealers, by the way, seem to be doing a fairly brisk business. There are two or three located in my neighborhood, wedged into Starbuck’s-sized spaces. The new arrivals are prepped for buyers on the street, the white plastic protective film stripped off in pieces, the sale negotiated on the sidewalk or in a cramped corner at the back of the shop. Most people who have cars drive civilian versions of the Lada 2107’s, the ubiquitous taxi cab model of choice, or other Asian or European makes—Peugeots, Skodas, Hondas, Hyundais, Fiats; the newly wealthy or upwardly mobile prefer Nissans or BMWs, it seems, and in Cairo, a lot of the new white taxis are compact Chevrolets.

Internationally recognized scholars and professionals were educated, live and work here, but the ability to read is limited to about two-thirds of the population. Libraries are still relatively rare, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina notwithstanding, and while booksellers stalls are not uncommon, few Egyptian homes have bookshelves. Men sitting in cafes drinking coffee and sucking on water pipes rarely seem to have their noses in newspapers or magazines as Americans or Europeans would. At the same time, the seams of the universities are bursting from the huge numbers of students attending classes and I have to assume that they are reading. The street adjacent to the University of Alexandria’s Business and Tourism campus has at least four bookstores which carry textbooks as well as more mainstream fare, and they seem to be bustling, or at least not going out of business any time soon. On any given day, the Alexandria Library, which can accommodate two thousand readers, is at least half full of people studying. But books are expensive and the poor probably have better things to do with their money.

It is the educated class to which one looks to for a better future for Egypt, but there are quite a few problems attached to that hope. High school graduates with the requisite grades are guaranteed a place at a university, so qualifying grades are wheedled and cajoled (when they aren’t earned) by those who would not otherwise be admitted. Quality of instruction has therefore fallen. The public universities are packed with students; Cairo University alone has more than 100,000 students enrolled; the University of Alexandria several tens of thousands. Private universities are beginning to sprout as well, promising a higher level of academic rigor, smaller classes and better prospects for their graduates than that provided in the overwhelmed public institutions. It seems everyone—at least every city dweller under the age of forty—has a BA and many have advanced degrees. But you have lawyers working as bank clerks, elevator operators, and sales people. The universities seem to be used as social pressure relief valves, keeping young people, who would have no work otherwise, occupied and hopeful for the future. With Egypt’s economy stagnant, however, most of these young people will get low-level skilled jobs, at best, and be stuck there for their working lives.

The public universities pay their faculty very little—2000-3000 Egyptian Pounds per month (about $500-$600)—if they’re lucky, so many professors hold two positions just to make ends meet. The most talented are recruited by the private universities, leaving the publics with a few dedicated teachers and a large pool of mediocrity. The graduates of the better schools, I’m told, like the American University in Cairo, are themselves children of privilege, coming mostly from Egypt’s upper crust, and have no plans to remain in Egypt after graduation. They see their futures in Europe or the United States. One of my Fulbright colleagues who teaches there had to explain to one of his classes the concept of “brain drain.” His students had no grasp of the consequences for Egypt’s future of their choosing to live in another country. These students’ ability to feel at home in two languages—many of them have attended a French, American, or German private school—means that they have the option to leave and find a better life for themselves elsewhere.Their less fortunate, less well-trained or less well-connected colleagues will stay.

In general, the economic division between the Egyptian elite and most of the population is growing. On the one hand, this is a country where farmers still sell their produce on street corners; bunches of parsley, carrots, mulukhiyah, and other vegetables lie wilting in the sun as the farmers, who have arisen before dawn and ridden a decrepit commuter train into town, wait for itinerant customers to buy something from them. I buy the tastiest little bananas from a guy on a corner between my apartment and the Muzak-filled San Stefano Mall, which even featured a two-story live Christmas tree in the central hub earlier this year. I prefer his fruit but, because of the concern for hygiene, I don’t buy root vegetables from him. I can find veggies wrapped in plastic in the local mall, just like in the States and those Egyptians who want to be “modern” buy theirs there, too. My banana man’s days are numbered, I’m afraid. What will happen when he loses his livelihood? More fodder for the Islamists who blame all this change on “westerners?”

Many, if not most, small farmers in Egypt still farm with draft animals, donkeys, horses, and “tuktuks,” the water buffalo one sees in fields all along the Nile. Tractors are here and there, but they are still a relative rarity, except in the larger farming villages. In the meantime, industrial farming is making inroads. I’m told that virtually all the milk consumed in Egypt comes from one dairy. Okay, so the Egyptians aren’t big milk drinkers, but even so.

The land along the Nile is very fertile. On our recent trip to the pyramids at Saqqara, I saw cauliflower being harvested. Donkey carts groaning under huge piles rolled along dirt roads toward the city. The cauliflower heads were the size of pizzas! But the farmland is under threat from urban sprawl, as it is in much of the world. One sees apartment buildings sprouting everywhere in farming communities, occupying ground that once produced food. One person told me that Egypt spends more each year on importing eggs and dairy products than it cost to build the Bibliotheca Alexandrina ($200+ million…)! The growing population demands living space, though, and many of these buildings are occupied even before construction is completed.

While in Egypt, I have occasionally expressed the view that Egypt seems to be balanced on a knife’s edge, politically and socially. Those to whom I have voiced this opinion, both Americans who are more familiar with the country than I, and Egyptians, have tended to agree with that assessment. As far as I can tell, there is no overt social or political tension among the people I speak with. Rather, the mood is one of resignation and sadness; not quite despair, but a longing and a disappointment over the state of affairs in the country. Egyptians know that they could—and SHOULD—have better lives and feel a great deal of resentment toward a government that has failed them on so many levels. Elections are widely considered a joke, but everyone participates anyway. A justifiable fear of being scooped up by the police if you publically criticize Mubarak and “disappeared” for an indeterminate period of time keeps political discourse mostly private. The relative anonymity of a conversation between a cab driver and his (obviously NOT Egyptian) passenger creates something of a safe space for open expressions of opinion, however.

One important part of my experience in Egypt has been missing, and that is the opportunity to interact with Egyptian women. While the social barriers between Muslim men and women are breaking down, specifically among young, educated people, they were still palpable to me as a foreigner. Most of the librarians I have worked with at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina are women, but there was little chance that a conversation over coffee—much less a drink at a bar—would be possible. I did manage to have some brief, but revealing, talks with a couple of librarians, but nothing as substantive as the talks I have had with Egyptian men. As I have noted, the number of women from all social classes who wear hijab is overwhelming and that physical barrier is like a big STOP sign to someone who has been taught what hijab “means,” regardless of the reason for any given Egyptian woman putting it on.

Appearances, as the old saw goes, can be deceiving but I did not feel comfortable testing my theory that in many cases, donning the hijab is a simple way of deflecting social opprobrium while preserving a degree of personal autonomy: you’re wearing the hijab, ergo, you must be a good Muslim woman. So you can wear tight jeans and high heels and make-up as long as your hair and chest are covered; you can hold hands with your boyfriend as you walk to class—as long as you wear hijab. You can even sit on a bench in a public park with your arms about each other—as long as you wear hijab. One of my informants, a young Muslim man, told me of a New Year’s Eve party he attended where men and women mixed freely; alcohol (specifically gin) was served and when inhibitions, as a consequence, were diminished, a lot of kissing ensued. Much more interesting than MY New Year’s Eve…

A woman colleague at the library, responding to a comment I made about the number of women students I saw in the reading rooms, expressed her unhappiness about the gender imbalance, saying that finding a worthy partner was a daunting prospect; women still had to marry according to a societal code and to meet certain expectations while Muslim men “could marry anyone they wanted to.” Men in Egyptian society are certainly the more privileged gender, both outwardly and in their personal lives. Rarely does one see couples sitting in the numerous coffee houses of Cairo or Alexandria; most of the patrons are male and many of them spend hours of time there, smoking and talking with their friends. Where are the women? Home taking care of the kids, cleaning, washing, cooking so the “basha” will be happy when he decides to come home. Women have their female friends, of course, and one frequently sees women walking arm in arm on the street, but their social lives, it appears, are much more circumscribed and limited than the men’s. One sees younger women in the malls, shopping and working as clerks in the stores. One also sees older women sitting on the street corners, an overturned cardboard box piled high with packets of facial tissue or pens or bottled water, attempting to make a living.

Having said all this, I have to acknowledge that these are only impressions. What the true state of affairs is is beyond my knowing and it varies, no doubt, according to social, economic and family conditions. The situation is almost certainly much more complex than I have been able to indicate. What is certain, beyond a doubt, is that the society is undergoing profound change on several levels and that these changes will result in a society that is quite different than the one that now exists. The big question is whether the forces for progressive change will win out over the reaction of religious “literalists” and other conservatives who see salvation in stricter social controls and enforced adherence to a particular moral code. Events of recent days, including the Orthodox Christmas Day murder of more than half a dozen Coptic Christians by three Muslim men in the town of Naga Hammadi (near Luxor) does not bode well for a reduction of social tensions, nor for positive future. My Egyptian friends would no doubt say that this is a problem, yes, but we have to believe that things will get better.

So, here I sit, in my grand apartment, trying to make some sense out of this experience and realizing that it will take more than five pages of prose to work through it. The sun is out after a foggy night and the city is coming to life. I’m going to take advantage of my privileged position, go downstairs, find a cab and visit a museum, one of my last cultural events in Alexandria. I’ll pay the driver mare than an Egyptian would for the same trip and he’ll be happy. Then I may take myself out to lunch with a cup of good Arabic coffee afterward. I’ll be served politely and asked where I come from and complimented on my Arabic (undeservedly, IMHO), I’ll give the waiter a generous tip when I leave, and he’ll be happy. I’ll take another cab back to the apartment. Another generous compensation for the driver’s trouble and he’ll be happy; the doorman will jump up and call the elevator for me when I climb the front steps. I’ve already given him a small sum in celebration of the New Year. He’s already happy.

“Thank you, Osman, you are too kind, really.”

He’ll smile because I always ask how he is and exchange a few pleasantries with him. Bashas are expected to do things like that and I wouldn’t want to disappoint. I like him and he has done me several favors during my stay. Besides, I have a tradition to uphold. Happy to do it.

Into the Valleys of Death

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, 28 December 2009

Most of the folks we have spent the last three days with are departing this morning for their flights back home. The Brits are all piling onto an early morning plane to Heathrow while others are headed back to Cairo or Germany or wherever they’re from. As a consequence, the foyer on the Ra II is filled with piles of luggage and people queuing up at the front desk to settle their bar bills and whatever other extraordinary expenses they’ve incurred while on board. The breakfast room is rather empty and quiet when Vibs and I sit down to eat. There are even a few new faces around.

We’ve signed on for an extra half day since our flight doesn’t leave until this evening. That means we get to tour the west bank of Luxor where the famous Valley of the Kings and the slightly less famous Valley of the Queens and the quite un-famous Valley of the Nobles lie. The Valley of the Kings holds about sixty-two pharaonic tombs from the Middle Kingdom and later. All these resting places, unlike the pyramids, are carved into the limestone of the hills and are thus completely underground. The first thing one sees at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings Park is a plexiglass diorama showing the location of each of the tombs in three dimensions. The topographical features of the valley are constructed from translucent plastic with white plastic models of each of the tombs suspended beneath them, giving you information not only about the location of the burial places, but their locations relative to one another and an idea of how far underground one has to go in order to see them. Some of them are VERY deep.

Our new guide, Omar, shepherds us through the ticket line and then tells us that our tickets afford us access to three tombs only. Those interested in seeing the tomb of King Tut are required to fork over additional one hundred Egyptian Guineas (about $20). Before we split up he provides us with an overview of the history of the valley and a quick list of recommended tombs to visit. Omar gives us his opinion about which tombs to visit. The quality of wall art in the tombs varies greatly and he warns those who have coughed up the King Tut cash that the ancients didn’t waste a lot of decorative effort on the eighteen year old. He wasn’t Pharaoh long enough to create any sort of lasting legacy, apparently. Maybe they assuaged their guilt by filling the tomb with gold instead…

The crowds here are enormous. Electric trams (little trains on rubber tires like you’d see in Disneyland or someplace like that) carry a steady stream of riders up the quarter mile incline to the entrance, and back. Lines for the more popular tombs stretch for hundreds of meters. Many of the tombs are closed because of the fragility of the art in them. The antiquities authority apparently closes each tomb periodically for varying lengths of time, because the potential for damage to the art resulting from tens of thousands of people breathing in spaces meant for one dead, unbreathing person is very high. Guards posted in each tomb constantly remind people not to touch (most of the wall art is protected by clear plastic screens) and to keep moving; too much breathing is not good for the paintings. Oh, and no pictures. At all. A 1000 LE (Egyptian Pound) fine for taking any sort of photograph. Bright light is apparently also not good for the art. So, sorry, gentle readers. No pretty pictures here.

Vibs and I choose our three tombs and head off. Our first stop is the Tomb of Thutmosis III who was kept of the throne for a long, long time by his mother-in-law, who ruled as a “king.” When she finally went off to meet Osiris, Thutmosis expended a great deal of energy in trying to erase all record of his mother-in-law’s reign. It was he who walled up her obelisk at Karnak. Such spite! His tomb was reached by climbing a long set of stairs up into a narrow defile in the face of a cliff and then descending an equal distance into the earth. At the foot of the stairs was a room about twenty feet square with a big pit in the floor. This was mean to mislead potential grave robbers into believing that the grave was in that pit—and already pilfered, no doubt. Beyond this was a second room and beyond that a third, excavated in the shape of a cartouche, where the empty red granite sarcophagus stood. The walls of the rooms showed scenes of the deceased in prayer and proceeding through the twelve gates of trial before reaching Osiris and final judgment. Textual prayers and amulets against all sorts of evil spirits guarding each of the gates were interspersed among the painted figures. The air was close, hot and damp. We did our tour and emerged gratefully into the sunlight and fresh air.

Our second stop was the tomb of Ramesses IV. His was much more easily accessible, more richly decorated—the depiction on the ceiling of the goddess of night swallowing the setting sun and giving birth to the morning sun was one of the most spectacular. Ramesses’ space was much simpler and more straightforward in construction; a long ramp into the earth with two rooms—one behind the other—at the bottom. More painted figures, invocations for protection, and prayers. When we left this tomb, we realized that the long wait in lines meant that we wouldn’t be able to see a third tomb. Omar had given us a little more than an hour to see what we wanted to see and our time was nearly up. Reluctantly, we made our way back to the meeting point.

Once our group had gathered, we re-boarded the bus and left the Valley of the Kings. On the way out, Omar pointed out the house built by Howard Carter, the excavator of King Tut’s tomb and one of the early archaeologists of pharaonic Egypt. There is a plan to turn the building into a museum, but at present it is not open. We had to satisfy ourselves with a view from a distance. Our next stop was the Valley of the Queens where we made a similar tour with similar restrictions. The most famous tomb here, that of Nefertiti, has been closed for years due to the fragility of its art. There are plans (Egypt always has plans…) to reopen it, but it seems that every time the authorities decide that they have a way to minimize the deleterious effects of thousands of visitors, another obstacle presents itself. In truth one wonders how it is possible to both preserve and make accessible historical sites such as these. Perhaps it isn’t. We may go down in history as the ones responsible for destroying in three hundred years what had lasted for four thousand. What a sad legacy that would be.

Next on the morning’s tour was our obligatory stop at a handicraft outlet. Today’s feature was an alabaster production studio where workers produced a variety of useful and decorative objects from stone using hand tools. Under a portico was the graveled entryway to the shop. Along the outside wall was a row of seated men of varying ages, each engaged in a different stoneworking process. Stone dust and chips lay everywhere. Piles of metal tools were scattered about. When our group was all assembled under the portico, the shop manager began his demonstration.

“Welcome to our alabaster studio,” he smiled. “Here we produce handcrafted stone art works from three kinds of stone.” In the background, each of the men was working on a piece of stone. “All the alabaster you see in Egypt comes from Luxor. You will see much alabaster in souqs and shops all around Egypt, but handcrafted alabaster comes only from Luxor because that is part of our tradition here.”

“Alabaster comes in three colors,” the manager continued. “The first color is…”

“White alabaster!” came the chorus from the workers.

“White alabaster is a lovely stone which we use to make such things as lampshades and bowls,” said the manager. “The second color of alabaster is…”

“Red alabaster!” came the response from the workers as they continued scraping and filing and gouging their stones.

“Red alabaster is very good for a number of things including statues, bracelets, lamps and bowls,” continued the manager. The third color of alabaster is…”

“Black alabaster!” the workers, right on cue.

“Black alabaster is used for making statues, figures of pharaohs, cats, ancient gods and goddesses,” he said holding up an example. “Black alabaster is the stone you most frequently see in Egypt because every souvenir shop will try to sell you what they say is black alabaster.” The manager held up a small black statue of Anubis. “But you think this is alabaster?”

“No! Not alabaster!” Came the response from the workers, sawing and scraping.

“No,” agreed the manager. “This may look like alabaster and people will even bang the piece against another stone to show you how hard it is.” He banged the statue against a small rock in his other hand. “It’s not stone, but wax!” He flipped open a lighter and held the flame to one of Anubis’s ears. Within seconds, the ear was flickering with a small blue flame.

“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you!” sang the workers.

“Don’t let yourselves be taken in,” urged the manager. “Here we have genuine handmade goods that are of stone, not wax or anything else. You will find real alabaster products in good stores, but they are machine made.” He picked up two bowls made of white alabaster and showed them to the group, one in each hand.

“This bowl is machine made. What is it?” he asked, weighing it in his hand.

“Very heavy!” replied the workers.

“This bowl was made here by Ahmad;”—he gestured to a man behind him who nodded—“it is…”

“Very light!”

“Yes,” said the manager. “Handmade alabaster works are light and translucent.” He held up the lighter bowl so that it covered a bare light bulb above his head. The light glowed gently through the stone. “Machine made bowls are not. So, you can see that…”

“Handmade is much better! Thank you for coming to our shop!” The workers had the last word as we filed into the store to see what they had for sale.

As theatrical and entertaining as the pitch was, and as attractive as many of the items were, we were not interested in carrying stone home in our luggage. After a polite perusal of their wares, Vibs and I retreated to the bus to wait for the rest of our group. As we waited, a second bus pulled up next to ours and disgorged its load of tourists in front of an adjacent stoneworking shop. To our amusement, the same workers’ theater was staged for that group of tourists, but in Italian! I wondered where in Luxor I would find the marketing firm that sold this promotional package to the owners of the alabaster shops, or maybe it was passed along by word of mouth, so to speak.

Our final stop was the temple at Memnon, famous for being all that remains of the largest temple complex of the ancient world, larger even than Karnak (which is the largest surviving temple complex). The two statues depict Amenhotep III, who ruled as a “god-king” about 1400 BC. The statues were heavily damaged by the 27 BC earthquake that did extensive damage to ancient Egypt. In later years, this area was subjected to frequent flooding making the temple site unusable, but the statues have remained. For 3400 years. The ravages of time on the colossi are quite evident but there is still an impression of grandeur and gravity about them. Interestingly, the stone for one of the statues was transported from a place near present-day Cairo, rather than from Aswan as the stone work for so many other ancient Egyptian temples and statues was. And because of its size—some 700 tons(!)—it was transported overland, not by river barge… Were these people nuts?

Our time on the Nile had come to an end. We returned to the ship, gathered our belongings and took a cab to the Luxor Airport to await our flight back to Cairo. Fortunately, the airport is quite modern and we were able to enjoy a good cappuccino and a meal before our one-hour flight. We reached Cairo before midnight and tucked ourselves into a bed that didn’t have water underneath it.

On the Nile Again

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, 27 December 2009

Shortly before we turned the lights out last night, the Ra II slipped its moorings at Kom Ombo and resumed its stately journey down the Nile toward Esne. We sailed along until about 3 AM when I was awakened by the sound of the gangplank being ratcheted down. I peered out between the curtains but was unable to see anything in the dark. We had stopped moving and at that hour there was nothing to do but go back to sleep.

In the morning, we emerged from our stateroom to find ourselves moored to the riverbank with no proper jetty in sight. One long green corrugated hose snaked down the bank and was connected to a fitting in the hull, either carrying something onto the ship or removing something from it. At breakfast, we learned that we had arrived at a lock on the river at Esne and that ships were awaiting their turn to traverse the lock. Shortly after breakfast, the gangplank was retrieved and we set off down the river again. About an hour later, we approached the lock system and slowed to a crawl. Entering the lock was a tricky business since there was very little leeway on either side of ship. We even bumped one side of the lock as the captain maneuvered us into place; a few feet only separated us from the closed gate at the stern and a second ship in front of us.

Once the gates of the lock closed, we were lowered about twenty feet to the river level below the dam. The entire process took less than an hour and we were soon traveling at speed again. The Nile slid past and we spent most of the morning sitting under an awning on the sun deck, reading and watching the subtle shifts in the landscape as we traveled. We encountered few boats moving in up river, but there were occasional commercial and pleasure craft.

One such was a “dahabiyah,” all white, being towed by a small, similarly painted tugboat. This was the sort of conveyance that our friend Flo Nightingale would have made her trip in—minus the tugboat. I wondered how much different an experience that must have been. It looked to be a comfortable enough boat, but she reports that in addition to her three traveling companions, there were numerous crew members responsible for sailing or rowing or towing the boat along. It must have been quite cozy and her less than affectionate references to the companionship of various rodent and insect life forms made me appreciative of the comforts of our ship.

Around noon, the landscape underwent a dramatic change; through the haze—which was surprising as much for its presence as for its heaviness—we saw a range of reddish mountains looming on the east bank. Here the Nile made a grand sweep to the west as it sought a way around this impediment to its progress. At times the mountains seemed close enough to touch, appearing right behind the narrow strip of green that bordered the river. Soon the mountains receded, however and we continued our float, taking in the landscape and relaxing. We spent a great deal of the morning topside alternately reading and taking in the view of the landscape. Everyday activities were being carried out in the small settlements we passed along the way. I had the sense that what we viewed as a bucolic environment had quite a different meaning for those who were scratching out a living and dependent on the river for their existence in a manner totally different from the cruise boat operators. Draft animals were everywhere; women did their laundry at the river’s edge, as countless generations of women before them had no doubt done. Children in hand-me-down galabiyahs herded animals or ran through the fields, some waving as we passed; others, apparently long since inured to sight of wealthy foreigners staring at them, went about their business without so much as a glance our way.

Nile River Cruise Christmas 2009 from Karl Schaefer on Vimeo.

In late afternoon, Luxor hove into view and we tied up at the Eastmar dock, some distance south of the city proper. After the ship was secured, we all trooped aboard a bus and set off for the famous Temple of Karnak. This temple stood and was active for over a thousand years. It is the largest pharaonic temple complex in Egypt. Numerous Pharaohs and their Greek and Roman successors renovated, rebuilt and expanded its precincts over time so that one sees a number of different architectural styles. The most spectacular element is the colonnaded hall of the main temple. The massive pillars are carved to resemble lotus plants, the capitals curving out gracefully at the top. The entire complex covers at least ten acres and includes a “sacred lake” where priests would ritually cleanse themselves before entering the inner sanctum. There’s an obelisk, too, one of two that originally stood here, their pyramidal tops sheathed in a mixture of gold and silver that brilliantly reflected the sun’s rays in honor of the sun god worshipped in this place. One of the obelisks was toppled and the second walled up out of spite and ironically preserved for us because of one ruler’s jealousy of a predecessor. Funny, how history works…

From Karnak, we took the bus to a small gallery where papyrus is made and used to create wall hangings. This feature of the guided tour biz is now obviously a given; each company, it seems, makes deals with local artisanal outfits to try and improve their business. There are so many “touts” on the streets of tourist venues selling cheap knockoffs and reproductions that people making the real thing must have trouble competing. Not only that, but the junk sold on the streets gives the genuine articles a bad reputation. In addition, when one visits factories or workshops to purchase perfume, papyrus, or other such things, the tour operators guarantee “no hard sells and no hassles,” a big advantage for tourists who are harangued every step of their way to and from historical sites. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t dogged while you’re in the shop; they just don’t push stuff in your face all the time.

Seeing papyrus made was very interesting and the person doing the demonstration was well informed and competent. Thin slices of the pulp are cut and then two layers of the slices are laid at right angles to one another. The resulting sheets are put in a press to remove all the water and then placed in the air to dry. It was interesting to learn that while the spongy center of the plant was used for making writing material, the tougher outside of the plant stalk was also used for making shoes and other items of wear that needed to be durable. Unfortunately, while we were told that the art work on the papyrus sheets was “original,” all of it was pseudo-ancient Egyptian featuring clichéd figures of gods and goddesses and faux cartouches. Most of it was way too gaudy for us and no amount of subtle pressure was going to persuade us to buy.

As we exited the papyrus shop, the sun was setting. Our final stop of the day was to be Luxor Temple, a building at the opposite end of town from Karnak, and linked to it by a two kilometer long avenue lined on either side with goat-headed sphinxes. Two thousand of them, they estimate, from one end of the processional way to the other. Only part of this avenue has been excavated so the number is approximate, I think.

Like the temple of Kom Ombo on the previous day, the Temple of Luxor was awash in artificial light by the time we arrived. A few other busloads of people were here as well, Navigating the uneven paving stones, climbing over thresholds and jostling other people while trying to appreciate the grandeur of the ruins was a challenge, but as with Kom Ombo, the presence of so many lent a festive air to the evening. One could almost imagine one’s self in the midst of ancient revelers celebrating the annual symbolic marriage between the god an goddess whose homes these temples were. Throughout our visit, we were watched over by four statues of our friend Ramesses II, he of the supersized ego.

A short bus ride brought us back to the Ra II, where we enjoyed a hearty dinner and a brief musical entertainment before tiptoeing off to bed. Tomorrow is our last day in Upper Egypt and we need our rest before tackling the last excursion.

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