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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.

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