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Penn Libraries News

Meet Arzoo Sidiqi, the Penn Libraries’ Afghan and Perso-Arabic Metadata Fellow

We recently spoke with Sidiqi about her tumultuous journey from Afghanistan to the United States, her love of libraries, and what it has been like to make a new home in Philadelphia.

Arzoo Sidiqi stands in a brightly lit room in the library behind a table with a stack of books in front of her.

Arzoo Sidiqi fell in love with libraries—and library work—when she was an undergraduate student at Kabul University studying Islamic Law. “I started working [at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University] when I was a first-year student. I was just 17 years old, and I just loved working there,” she said in a recent interview. The ACKU, as it is often called, was the first digital library in Afghanistan and continues to provide access to the most comprehensive collection of materials related to Afghanistan in the region.  

Sidiqi went on to receive a master’s degree in international relations in 2020, and was still working for the ACKU when the Taliban took control of Kabul and overthrew the Islamic Republic in Afghanistan in August of 2021. As was the case for many people in the country, the invasion destabilized her life in numerous ways—and it also made the career she had spent a decade building untenable. “[By 2022] I was thinking, I’ve studied so hard for all these years, and now I’m not able even to work. I was working from home at the time, but there was no guarantee that I would be able to work for long.”

Later that year, she applied to become the Penn Libraries’ Afghan and Perso-Arabic Metadata Fellow, a position made possible by the University of Pennsylvania’s At-Risk Scholars Program. “It was a collective effort to bring Arzoo on board,” says Erica Lu, head of Global Studies Technical Services. Beth Camden (former head of the Information Processing Center), Michael Williams (former head of Global Studies Technical Services), and Jef Pierce (Assistant Director of the Center for Global Collections) led the charge, crafting the position and justifying why the Libraries should create such a role. Staff from across the University of Pennsylvania were also involved, including Brian Daniels, director of research and programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, whose efforts were key to bringing Sidiqi out of Afghanistan.

Sidiqi arrived at the Penn Libraries in September 2023 and has been putting her library expertise and language skills to work as part of the Information Processing Center and the Global Studies Librarians team. This group of librarians handles the acquisition, cataloging, and processing of materials in more than 20 non-Western languages and in non-Latin scripts from suppliers across the world. Sidiqi has been describing and providing intellectual access to uncatalogued materials in Perso-Arabic scripts, consulting on collection development opportunities, and helping the Penn Libraries assess and document related scholarly resources. “The recent political upheaval in Afghanistan and the influx of Afghan refugees highlight the continued need for Arzoo's language skills and cultural expertise,” notes Lu.

We recently sat down with Sidiqi to learn about her experience coming to the United States, her time spent working in libraries, and her impressions of Philadelphia.

Arzoo Sidiqi stands between two rows of stacks in the library, smiling at the camera.

How did you learn about the fellowship with the Penn Libraries, and what made you want to come here?

[In 2022], I started looking for opportunities to leave Afghanistan, and then a colleague sent me a link [to the job application] and said, ‘Are you interested in applying this position?’ And I said, ‘Of course, why wouldn’t I be interested? I’ve been doing this for a long time. I was looking at different opportunities, including an [academic] fellowship in Germany. But when I heard about this position I thought, Oh wow, I have the right experience, and this is a job, so I’ll have income as well. So I decided to put all my effort into applying for this.

I started getting prepared for the interviews and everything. That was a little bit tough. Because of the time zone differences, my interviews were at around 1:00 AM. I was also having problems with power and Internet access, and I was worried that something might happen during my interview. But everything went very well, and I got the offer letter, and then started working on the formalities and everything.

What did that involve?

I had to get approval from the Department of State, and that took eight or seven months. Once I got that, the next step was to go for an interview at an embassy. But because the U.S. embassy in Kabul was closed, I had to travel to [Islamabad, in Pakistan] for my interview.

So I started applying for the Pakistani visa, and they would not issue one to me. I applied more than 10 times, and I would get rejected, rejected, always rejected. And I was just losing time, because my U.S. visa had already started in October 2022, but I was still in Afghanistan.

And then it was challenging to go out of Afghanistan because their policy was that [women] cannot go out of Afghanistan without any men with them. So even after getting a Pakistani visa, I had to wait a month or more to find someone who could travel with me to cross the border to go to Islamabad for the interview.

The Penn Museum helped me a lot during that time. They found some families who were traveling, and they connected me with them. They had already found a place for me to stay in Islamabad so I could go and stay there until I finished my interview and everything.  

When I finally got my visa, I contacted Penn, and they managed everything, and within one week I came here.

All of that took one and half years.

What sort of work have you been doing at the Libraries?

I'm working on materials that are particularly from Central Asia and South Asia. [The Libraries] had a lot of materials that weren’t cataloged for years because no one was able to work on them because of the languages they were in.  

During these seven months, I worked on very old materials, as well as very new materials. I’ve worked on materials that Penn [recently] acquired from Iran, Pakistan, and other countries, and on materials that someone gifted, and have been here for years with no one working on them until I started working on them. So it’s lot of different things.

Are there particular materials you've come across or worked with that you have found especially interesting?

I mostly like literature and novels. I’ve made a really big list of all these materials that I’m going to read. I don’t know when, because when you’re working full time and have a lot to do, you don’t have enough time to read them all, of course.

I know how that is! You’re surrounded by all these great books, and you don’t get to read them all because you have to work.

Yeah, and I’m always saying ‘I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it.’ But your list keeps getting longer because you don’t have the time.

Is the cataloging work you've been doing at Penn, similar to what you were doing in Kabul, or is it different?

It's similar to the work that I was doing there, but the databases that we are using [at Penn] are different. So it took me one or two months to learn about the database and the systems that Penn uses because it's more up to date than what we were using [in Afghanistan].

Pulling back from the job itself, what has your experience in Philadelphia been like, and what are some things that have been interesting to you about the city?

I love this city. I love everything about it. When you're coming from another country, you’re always curious about what the people will be like. But I really found that in the United States, people are so open. They are very accepting to immigrants. They are very welcoming and very supportive. Starting from my own colleagues, to UPenn, to people in the city.  

[I’ve also been getting a lot of experience with] living alone, doing everything alone. I grew up in a very big family, and when you're living with a giant family, everyone has their own responsibilities. But when you start living alone, all the responsibilities are yours. That’s tough, especially when you’re new to a city. So I’m learning a lot about this city, about how to manage everything, and how to start living alone.  

Are there things you have really liked about living alone versus things that you have liked less?

Something that I really like about living alone is that it makes you a more mature person. You become more organized. Your mom is not there to cook for you. And when you get sick, you have to take care of yourself. So it makes you more mature.

But I don't like that when I get home from the office, no one is waiting for me. And I cannot even talk to [my family] because of the time zone differences. They're sleeping. It's 2:00 AM when I'm getting home, so I cannot even call them.

Have you been able to find some time to talk with your family despite the time zone difference?

Yeah. On Saturdays, some Sundays, half of my day is spent on group calls with my family. It's nice that we have the technology that allows us to do that when people are far away, but it's still tough. No question.