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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.

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