A Brief Hiatus

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.

Wednesday, 5 October 2009

The last few days have been slow and uneventful, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to provide some more social observations on life in Egypt or at least in Alexandria. All the Fulbrighters were told that things move at a more leisurely pace here in Egypt and I suppose that’s what I’m seeing just now. I was scheduled for a last round of meetings Sunday and Monday with those departments I had not yet met, but no one materialized at the appointed times. These meetings were to be the final ones before the various directors and unit leaders met with me to discuss where we go from here.

Since I’m without an office phone and because I haven’t been issued a pass card to get into the area of the library where the librarians’ offices are, I’m sort of at their mercy when it comes to arranging face-to-face meetings. I have the sense that they are ruminating over the possibilities that my presence offers and discussing the implications among themselves first, before they present a program to me for discussion. That’s the most generous explanation for the sudden decline in interaction; the nightmare scenario is that they have concluded I’m useless and not worth any more of their time. The reality no doubt lies somewhere between those two extremes.

This being the case, I’ve had a bit of time to observe Alexandrian life (or at least the little slice of it that is accessible to me) more closely and hopefully my observations will gain in nuance as I do this more. The first thing one notices here is that the tolerance for cleanliness and hygiene is considerably more lax here than it is in the States—outside of the average slum or college dorm room let’s say. Dust, of course is everywhere; the desert is never far away and the climate is dry, so dust is to be expected. Aside from that, however, is the general impression of a place that’s a bit run down, ramshackle, unkempt, crowded, poverty-stricken, and faded.

Garbage collection, for example, doesn’t seem to be done on any sort of regular schedule, as far as I can tell. One sees dumpsters parked everywhere, and they are almost invariably overflowing with trash, food waste, and the usual assortment of nastiness. Plastic garbage bags are fairly common but they don’t stand up to being backed over by who knows how many cars, or pawed through by the very poor looking for usable scraps of food, or simply are not strong enough to hold the mass of stuff packed into them. The result is that dumpster stations are foul and one regularly (at least in my neighborhood) has to navigate around them as one goes about one’s business in town. I do see garbage trucks, but the collection of trash was recently privatized in Egypt and, as with most instances where saving money is the object, the low bidder gets the contract and that means workers who don’t care (because they’re paid a pittance) and vehicles and equipment that are second-hand and poorly maintained.

Traffic I have addressed before but a word about the nature of transport might fit in to this particular rant, too. Yes, lots of cars, from the Lada taxis (the Yugo of the Middle East), Daihatsus, Fiats, Toyotas, Suzukis, and the like, to Peugeots, Volvos, and Chevy Tahoes (these being rather rare). They all compete for space in streets not engineered for automobiles (except the main thoroughfares and inter-urban highways) and burn fuel that wouldn’t pass EPA muster anywhere in the States. The result is air laden with petroleum by-products, diesel soot and every sort of chemical nastiness one might think of. But such is life in a “developing” country. On the other hand, I have run across one natural gas re-fueling station and there was a queue of taxis waiting to tank up there. This suggests that someone, somewhere is looking at alternate fuels in Egypt.

Trains—the urban trams, at least—have the advantage of running on electricity and have an efficiency of scale, carrying many more people on less energy than any other mode of transport. Maintenance and repair are another matter, however. The tourist trains, those that ply the routes along the Nile between Cairo and Upper Egypt (Aswan and Luxor, where the monuments of ancient Egypt are the major attractions), are the equal of any European rail line: modern, clean and quiet. The train I rode between Alexandria and Cairo last week was roughly the equivalent of a heavily used commuter line in the States: shopworn, a little dingy and in need of serious cleaning, but the air conditioning worked and the seats were comfortable.

The facilities for working Egyptians, however, are decidedly several rungs below this. While I was waiting for the Cairo train in Alexandria, an early morning train pulled in carrying farmers and their produce, the farmers anxious to get to the markets before the grocery stands opened (or so they could get space on the busiest pedestrian corners before other people looking to sell). That train had few windows, doors that didn’t close and was completely caked in mud. Okay, so it was a “working train,” if you will, but what was striking was the vast difference in standards for the working poor and those for everyone else. Tourists in Egypt often encounter resentment from certain Egyptians; when one sees the money the government spends on catering to non-Egyptians, it’s not hard to understand why such resentment exists.

Schools and universities opened this week, the start of the school year having been delayed one week because of the fear of an outbreak of H1N1 (swine flu). One campus of the University of Alexandria (there are at least two, if not more, scattered through the city; one, the College of Agriculture, is just down the street from my apartment building) is situated right behind the library and the number of young people—students—has increased markedly since Sunday. The reason I mention this is that I gave an estimate in an earlier blog about the percentage of women who dress in “hijab” in Egypt. I have to say that the number of young women I now see on the plaza outside the library (a favorite gathering place for the university students before, between, or after classes) wearing some degree of veiling is much larger than I originally saw.

In a period of an hour and a half, perhaps a bit more, spent in the café observing the pedestrian traffic during lunch hour, I would say that easily more than half of all the women I saw were wearing at least a head scarf; many of those were also wearing what I think of as the next grade of concealing attire, the knee-length blouse. These garments come in all colors and patterns and there are obviously fashion statements being made in each case. It’s also relatively easy to distinguish between the “K-Mart” togs and the ones that come from hijab “boutiques,” so there is a class distinction apparent in these garments as well. The number of women in complete hijab, the black floor-length dresses with long sleeves and veil that covers everything but the eyes (and frequently gloves that cover the hands, as well!) do not predominate, but I saw several groups of three or four women all wearing such apparel in that period of time. Groups of women wearing varying degrees of concealment are also common. One group member will have only a head scarf, the next head scarf and long dress, another the whole nine yards.

At the same time, I saw many pairs, women and men, in which the woman was wearing some sort of hijab and they would be holding hands. It was clear that in public at any rate, such behavior is not seen to violate any social prohibition. The matter of male-female relations is obviously much more complex and nuanced than the veil would suggest, at least in Egypt. A posting, earlier this week, on a moderated list for scholars in Egypt talked about an instance when two young women in head scarves were denied entrance to a popular night club. They were told they could enter if they pulled their scarves back behind their necks so that only their hair was covered. The exchanges that followed this report ranged from outrage that the women would be forced to make such a compromise, to calls for scrapping the idea of hijab altogether.

During the tour of “Old Cairo” last week, I learned from one of my Fulbright colleagues that one of the biggest influences on Egyptian sensibilities about the proper public behavior and appearance of women comes from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis apparently are seeking to export their Wahhabism to other countries in the region and have the resources to publicize their message in an effective way. This was something I had not understood before and it goes a long way toward explaining some of what is happening in the social life of Egypt. One has the sense that Egypt is very much at a tipping point in terms of its social and economic life. The tensions between the “haves” and the “have nots” are subtle but strong. The difference in terms of income alone (many Egyptians earn as little as 300 Egyptian pounds a month (ca. $60) while a fortunate minority earns 5000 pounds (ca. $1000) or more. Where such pronounced disparities in income exist, economic strains are bound to exist. In such a situation, the appeal of a religion-based solution to perceived social inequities is very tempting.

I took an extended walking tour (self-directed) of part of Alexandria yesterday; I headed west in the general direction of the library, but took Abu Kir Street, a road that runs parallel to the shore, more or less, but a few blocks distant from the coastline. This is a wider street with nice wide sidewalks, for the most part, and lots of shops. There are malls along the way, too, but they are generally smaller than those in the States, confined to one building in one block. Small shops still dominate the commercial landscape here, although some groceries are chains.

What I noticed on that walk was that a considerable number of buildings from the 1920’s and 1930’s are still standing. Most, if not all, of these were built as single family residences back when the population of Alexandria was much smaller and decidedly under more European influence. These buildings are (or were) mansions. All are at least two and most are three stories high, with balconies, porticos and tall shuttered windows. One near my apartment bears a cornerstone engraved with the name of its European architect. They are invariably set back from the street, surrounded by masonry walls containing gardens, palm trees and paved walkways. They are often crowded by twelve to fifteen story buildings on either side, but these are obviously later structures and it is frequently easy to envision what the cityscape might have looked like seventy or even fifty years ago.

Many of these buildings are in rough shape, with the masonry falling off and shutters hanging askew; derelict, in other words. Others have been converted to commercial spaces, government offices, or broken up into apartments with a story or two added on top of the original structure. Some no doubt belonged to wealthy Egyptians; the Egyptian King Farouk had a seaside summer residence in Alexandria which has since been turned into a tourist attraction. Some other mansions have become museums of pre-WWII high life or of art. The museum of fine art is housed in one such place.

Together with the Islamic monuments and buildings, the Greek and Roman remains and the even rarer Egyptian antiquities, one gets an idea of the length of time there has been human settlement here, and how modes of living have changed over that time.

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