Sharing the Library Experience Abroad
By Zach Newell, Humanities Librarian
I am spending the spring semester as a Fulbright Scholar teaching at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. I am living in Alexandria to satisfy my interest in the Middle East and to see the culture of Egypt resurface throughout the world. My desire to travel to a place like Egypt in the wake of the ongoing revolution here speaks to my commitment for the studying, living and learning of another culture, and for the importance of creating dialogues and making connections that are nearly impossible by any other means.
While I took advantage of Arabic classes offered through the department of foreign languages at Salem State, the language preparation was just the beginning of my immersion and initiation into Egyptian culture. The language study provided the foundation for my enthusiasm for my arrival in Egypt. However, I can’t stress enough the number of times a conversation has taken place in French or German while teaching and traveling, when Arabic was insufficient or less appropriate. My language background has also been the driving force behind civilized conversations at the coffee shop adjacent to the library, a bastion for more esoteric conversations about art, astrology and the politics and religion of Egypt.
Egypt’s political and economic infrastructure has been disrupted by the events of the January 25, 2011 revolution, which has made everyday life an interesting footnote to the larger political discussions that dictate the pace and tempo of normal interactions, for me and for the Egyptians. The dialog about the country’s political uncertainty makes my travels to Egypt in the wake of the revolution that much more intriguing and that much more important for opening up dialogue and understanding. I have been stopped on the tram (the old train service that runs through the city) a number of times during the American NGO scandal that shook Egypt in January and February. Locals wanted to get my opinion on whether or not “I” would be handing over the $1.5B to the Egyptian government as promised. After explaining in Arabic that I am German, in order to dodge the question, I would get a response of “Come on!” in English. Respectfully declining to engage in the conversation, I would begin to chart out the necessity for such alliances between Egypt and the United States. Why are these connections important?
While I am teaching at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, I am conscious of their reputation as a center for learning, tolerance, dialogue and understanding, both regionally and globally. My presence is helping to mediate these goals, for myself and, I am sure, for the Egyptians, especially as I entertain questions during and after my lectures. My discussions become welcome and frank exchanges about all things American. I recall what one friend used to always tell me: “live by example”.
As a humanities librarian, a profession that belongs in the public sphere, my interaction and love for students and their stories extends to my interest in interacting and hearing about the stories from another country. I hear many stories, some false, about the neediness of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the desperation of the Egyptian people, and about the violence that could instantly erupt while traveling around the Middle East. Nothing can replace the smells and the noises and the voices and song of another culture firsthand. Or the experience of cramming into a crowded microbus while a colleague from the US Embassy, by order of the State Department, opts for the “safer” option of an old Soviet Lada without seat belts. Every day I walk out of the library to a group of protesters: one group seeking a pay raise, another protesting the presidency of Bashar al Assad in Syria, and yet another seeking equity between Muslims and Coptic Christians. Making my way wearily through the crowds, having eaten some not so good falafels and some unwashed lettuce in a salad at Mohamed Ahmed’s restaurant the day before, I feel like I am at the center of the universe. Piling into a crowded tram or bus is trivial against the struggles and experiences of a country experiencing democracy for the first time. I feel overjoyed to be a participant in a larger conversation taking place across the world, to have taken a “chance” in connecting my life with millions of others. Every day I think that now I am really getting started with my life, that my life begins anew from here.
Travel no longer seems so exotic or distant because of the Internet and the presence of social media. Many Egyptians remind me that while Twitter was an instrumental tool in facilitating the revolution, it could not have been achieved without the actual presence of people. There is something to be said for participating in another culture firsthand; for me, a modern Egypt celebrating in the triumph of its revolution, a moment that is clearly still undefined yet remains so hopeful for the Egyptians. The everyday scene of an otherwise insignificant ride on a crowded and dirty tram with all its scents and commotion—the smell of sandalwood and sweat, primrose and fresh pita bread, and the dirt bath that is kicked up from the passing tram through the open window on a cool spring morning—creates a moment of clarity for me. I can only smile as I recall the reasons why I journeyed to Egypt to adopt its culture — its stories and troubles and hopes, with my family for six months. These are the types of moments that are almost impossible to communicate to others and they are the reason that I travel and explore and learn another culture. I am lucky to be part of shaping the future of the fabled library of Alexandria through face-to-face conversation and dialog, amidst political instability and uncertainty.