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Cairo Institute Director: ‘I’m keeping the ship afloat’

In March 2020, the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo suddenly had to repatriate 57 students to the Netherlands and Flanders. Director and Arabic specialist Rudolf de Jong decided to stay in Egypt. ‘A lot of the work carries on.’

NVIC Rudolf de Jong on a working visit to an excavation

When the universities in the Netherlands open again in September, as they are keen to do, it is not yet certain that the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) will be fully up and running again. ‘The level of healthcare here is different from in the Netherlands and Flanders,’ De Jong explains. ‘We have to make sure we don’t run any great risks. Luckily, our online education is working well. We do know for sure that we won’t be offering both in-person and online teaching in parallel; it will be one thing or the other. For the students, it’s of course a great disappointment if they can’t come here; this is one of the highlights of their programme.

The NVIC facilitates 'missions', as De Jong calls excavation trips, including to sites near to the pyramids of Sakkara, 30 kilometres south of Cairo. These and other excavation trips haven’t started up again yet. ‘We’re submitting applications to the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. We do that for the universities’ programmes in Archaeology and Middle Eastern Studies, and, for example, also for the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden.’   

Is the institute a kind of hothouse for students and researchers?

‘Yes, it is. The second semester is generally the busiest because that’s when most students come here. A group of Egyptology students was in Egypt in January and February. Every year a group makes a round trip through the country, visiting all kinds of important antiquities. Fortunately, the group that was here at the start of 2020 had already left before the Covid lockdown. Because we look after the applications for research, if Cairo isn’t too far off their route, most researchers come here for a few days to make the final arrangements.’

The NVIC library

You decided to stay in Cairo last March…

‘Four of the five members of the Dutch staff, including me, live permanently in Cairo and we all stayed here. The university did ask whether we would prefer to come back to the Netherlands, but I didn’t really see the need for that; nor did my colleagues. A lot of the work  just carries on. All kinds of payments have to be made, including tax payments. It is more practical to do that from here. I live close to the Institute so I don’t have far to travel. Staying here means I can keep the ship afloat. I did come back to the Netherlands for Christmas and New Year, though, to see my family.’  

Are the Covid measures very different from in the Netherlands?

‘We all worked from home a lot and communicated via Teams. At first we had coffee sessions via Teams too, but that soon fell by the wayside. We followed the guidelines from Leiden. The premises are still closed for the public, but after the absolute lock-down we applied the strict measures used in the Netherlands so that we could work in the office: disinfecting your hands when you come in, keeping a 1.5 metres distance, stickers on the floors, facemask on when moving around the building, no more than one person in each room…  Not having to work at home was a great advantage. We held meetings outside on the balcony, which is something you can do in Egypt. We were very careful, so nobody got infected in our building.’ 

Middle Eastern Studies student Antoinette Bakker returned early from Cairo in 2020 
In early 2020, Antoinette Bakker was a second-year student of Middle Eastern Studies in Leiden and had just finished her two-month stay in Cairo when the pandemic broke out. It was a real disappointment for her to have to return to the Netherlands in a rush. Bakker: When you’re studying the Middle East or Arabic, it’s difficult to imagine how things are if you’ve never been in the region. You also learn Arabic much faster if you are immersed in the language and have to speak it regularly. And besides all that, it’s an unforgettable experience to be able to spend some time living in a metropolis like Cairo.’ 

Depending on whether you specialise in Arabic or Modern Middle Eastern Studies, in Cairo you have in-depth language courses or more broad-based subjects. And you continue with Arabic. We were also able to make a trip to Port Said and Ismailia, cities along the Suez Canal, but unfortunately a visit to Alexandria was out of the question. I flew back to the Netherlands on 17 March, exactly two months after I arrived.'

Now, Bakker is overjoyed to be back in Cairo: ‘I work here twenty hours a week, which is good experience for me. I’ve also finished my bachelor’s thesis, which was helped because the supervision from the Netherlands was online. In September I’ll be starting the Safety, Security and Justice minor, and I want to graduate in January. Altogether, I’ve had a six-month delay.'

And once you’ve finished your studies? ‘The great thing about studying is that there are lots of options you can consider. I want to do something in international relations or security policy, preferably related to the Middle East. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll start my master’s next year or whether I might do it a bit later.’  

What do you remember most?

‘I think we switched to online education very quickly, while not all our lecturers are such computer wizards. That’s something I was proud of. Of the two weeks it took, one was a lecture-free week so we lost hardly any time. We had some positive responses. It was a real pity for students who had to leave so quickly. I have a lot of respect for Leo Harskamp, Leiden University’s security adviser; he and his staff put in a lot of time and effort in getting the students back to the Netherlands. Repatriation was a rather tense time. In Belgium, things were a lot more flexible than in the Netherlands and one of the Flemish universities thought that the students could stay in Cairo. That was difficult. Everyone could leave before air travel was shut down but it all had to be arranged very quickly. Our Rector, Carel Stolker, managed to convince the Flemish university in time.’   

Small-scale teaching in Cairo

What is the corona situation like in Egypt now?

‘It’s hard to say because your own observations and what you hear from the environment around you can sometimes differ from the official line. Hardly anyone wears a facemask, and there’s little or no supervision. Occasionally checks are made, like during the Festival of Sacrifice from 19 to 23 July, when anyone not wearing a facemask was fined 50 Egyptian pounds, which is about 2.5 euros; it brought in millions of pounds. But everyone also knows that at religious festivals people don’t keep their distance and they sit really close to one another. And not everyone in Egypt believes the virus is so contagious, nor do they believe in the need for vaccinations. I heard a state secretary say: “I eat garlic and onions and I have a strong constitution, so nothing will happen to me.” That kind of idea may have a lot to do with having strong religious beliefs.’  

‘The vaccination programme here, like in the Netherlands, is a bit chaotic. A lot of people have to wait a long time before getting vaccinated. When I heard that you could make an appointment, I was able to get my vaccination within five days – Astra Zeneca. And three months later – that was a month ago -  I had the second one. But I hear from other people that they still haven’t been vaccinated. I don’t know what the vaccination rate is, just that another two million Pfizer vaccinations are on their way, and even more from Sinopharm. Egypt has around 100 million inhabitants, so you’re talking about very different numbers from in the Netherlands. A couple of my colleagues have caught the virus, but luckily they’ve come through it OK. We’re continuing to be very careful at the Institute.  We have a couple of people who have underlying health conditions and there’s no way I’d want to have it on my conscience if they caught the virus here.’

Students enjoying a lavish Arabic meal

‘The Egyptian government is mainly concerned with getting tourism up and running again because that’s the biggest source of income. It’s now getting busier around the Red Sea. It’s where a lot of Russians come; they don’t seem to be at all worried. But most Westerners are still staying away from the ancient sites, which is a problem, including for individual Egyptians.’ The codes are still orange and red. It’s a case of just waiting, also for the NVIC.  

About the NVICThe Netherlands Flemish Institute in Cairo works with nine Dutch and Flemish universities. It provides courses for bachelor’s and master’s students doing a programme connected with the region, such as Archaeology, Egyptology and Middle Eastern Studies. It is also a base for researchers in different scientific disciplines. The NVIC arranges the applications to the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism for people wanting to conduct research in Egypt. The Institute has recently defined three new focus areas: Cairo: the Urban Challenge, Politics; Law and Society in Egypt; and Art & Culture. The latter also includes disseminating knowledge about Dutch and Flemish art and culture and promoting Egyptian-Dutch-Flemish cooperation and cross-fertilisation in the field of art and culture. Leiden University is responsible for the management of the NVIC, which has sixteen staff members. In addition, eight language teachers work for the institute on a freelance basis.

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Text: Corine Hendriks
Photos: NVIC
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