conferences

Class distinctions at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina?

If there’s one thing I do a lot of these days, it’s attending conferences. So if there’s one thing I know well these days, it is conferences.

Some of what I see at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina-organized conferences disturbs me.

The whole point to organizing a conference is getting people who are interested in the same topic under one roof to meet, discuss and network.

The best conversations and networking are done during the coffee breaks, lunches, dinners, and social events.

In so many conferences I’ve been able to walk up to people I wouldn’t normally ever have access to under other circumstances. I’ve sat next to ministers during dinner, chatted casually with Nobel Prize winners at coffee breaks, and asked scientific experts not only about their science but also about their personal lives at lunches.

This isn’t what I see happening at the Bibliotheca. At every conference I’ve been to, participants have been categorized and thus separated into different eating areas.

In my first two conferences at the Bibliotheca, the media, for example, were placed in the common man’s category (my label). This meant that we were given lunch boxes and were left to find any corner to eat our food in. During this last conference that I attended, I was to discover where those who were not commoners went. Turns out there are two more categories.

Again, the first category is for the commoners. In this last conference the commoners were university students who came from Cairo and Alexandria to learn about evolutionism from some of the most esteemed scientists in the field. They got lunch boxes and no dinner.

The second category was for the academics attending the conference. Media were luckily included in this category this time. These participants got their food at an open buffet and had tables to sit at.

And then there’s a third category. The VIPs. These are mainly the Bibliotheca people organizing the event plus some of their special guests. These guys have a closed dining room and some of them get served.

Now I completely understand the need sometimes for a separate eating hall for some of the more important guests who might not ever get to eat if they do so in the midst of many starry-eyed admirers. Sometimes, I say. For some people. As I said, I’ve been to conferences where ministers and Nobel Laureates were eating at the same tables as everyone else.

But I do not understand the need for the two other categories.

Because of the way the Bibliotheca organized coffee breaks and meals, the young university students who came to learn about evolution never got a chance to properly rub shoulders in a normal setting with international scientists. Of course, they could always run up to the stage after each session to catch a few words with the panelists, but that was it.

I’m befuddled.

Please note that I write this with no jealousy at all on my part. I was personally treated very well at this last conference by all Bibliotheca staff and I even got to eat one of my meals in the VIP dining hall.

But I still think this separation of conference participants during meals completely defeats one of the most important purposes of organizing a conference to begin with: allowing people to learn from each other as they mingle and eat, as we say in Egypt, “bread and salt” together. And in Egypt, once you’ve had bread and salt with someone, you’re practically family.  

Bibliotheca Alexandrina: please reconsider this approach.