Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Yesterday morning as we left for school, the bawaab greeted James with a hearty handshake and sort of sideways greeted me, something I am getting used to as the lady of the family. Then the bawaab peppered off a sentence in Arabic to James, and both of us got that dumbstruck feeling that has become familiar.

But a magical thing happened! The bawaab repeated his sentence, and I recognized one word, then two, then the whole assortment of words! He was saying, “You’re going to the university now?” And I said the word for “yes” and translated for James! And rainbows and puppies and Smurfs shone and leapt and sang on Bahgat Aly!

Nah, what really happened is that Pimsleur’s Egyptian Arabic CDs had finally done something for me. As the day progressed and I polished up my newfound confidence, I found myself picking out more scraps of words from people’s conversations. For this day, at least, I did not run away from the language in embarrassment.

So anyway, we were on our way to the university because now both of us are teaching there and not just Mr. James (or Mr. Games, as they call him on his Drinkies receipts). The university is located in Tahrir Square, in downtown Cairo, very near the Egyptian Antiquities Museum where dear Tut could be found if he weren’t in Chicago right now. When we go to Tahrir Square via taxi, we are dropped off, oh, wherever there is a spot in the middle of the aggressive wedges and loops of traffic. Yesterday it was next to a gate with a barely described bit of curb. We walked on the street, weaving around two motorcycles, a bus, and several armed policemen to get to a place where we could actually cross from one curb to the next, and Hello, McDonald’s, home of the McRoyale! We shielded our eyes from the hideous ketchup and mustard colors and crossed again because two army trucks full of men forced into service were parked by the sidewalk, and no woman can escape their hissing and hooting.

Another beautiful thing occurred as we made our way to Falaki, where the Writing Program is housed. The old woman who sits against a dingy wall and sells Arabic candies and Ho-Hos caught my eye, brought her hand to her mouth, and gave me a genuine kissy sign. I felt a spring in my step after that, I tell you.

The above photograph, by the way, is of James in front of The Palace, a university building facing Tahrir Square. This building was originally built in the 1870s for a minister of education, though it is rumored that the Khedive Ismail actually built it for one of the women in his harem. The latter idea is more appealing, especially since the building is now the home of university administration. Once you enter The Palace, you traverse up the marble Presidential Staircase. Each step slants downward enough that I am waiting for the day when someone pulls a lever and all of the steps flatten out so that I slide on my belly to the bottom. Alas. A series of portraits of university presidents (very much like the portraits of priests in the basement of Corpus Christi church in Galesburg) can be found at the top of the staircase. One of the former presidents looks like Johnny Carson. If only. Anyway, that day of the photograph was the first time we came to the university, the first time we took a taxi, the first day, perhaps, that we didn’t feel waterlogged. Maybe the first day that our persistent fight against dehydration ensued.

Yesterday was my second day of teaching. I handed back a short paper my students wrote in the previous class. I had written a few comments on the papers but nothing heavy. After each of my classes yesterday afternoon, a couple of students hung back to ask me, “Was it good?” They had a sincere pleading look that I never got from my Cyclones or my Golden Gophers. “Were there any mistakes?” Coming from the school of checking content or global issues over grammatical or local issues, I tried to explain that I did not “correct” the papers, but if I noticed a consistent error I would be sure to tell them. This seemed a bit of an unsatisfactory response. (Wherever I am, though, I sometimes feel as if teaching students to be self-critical and self-aware is often dependent on my ability to be pleasantly evasive, which has an unintentional negative ring to it.)

In high school, Egyptian students are mainly asked to memorize, so the idea of “critical thinking” which is so lauded in English departments in America is new to many of them, and they are eager to learn it. They (and of course I am always generalizing but bear with this necessity) seem to believe that American students are highly critical. For now, let’s let them believe that.

I was reluctant about taking this job since I was looking forward to a teaching break, and it’s difficult to get used to the writing system at this university because they rely on so many little details and the appearance (deceiving) of less teacher autonomy. But getting away from the typical agonies of English departments everywhere and simply being in the classroom has opened my heart. Escape bureaucracy, and you have the students.

So they call me Mrs. Amanda or Dr. Amanda, and I think it would be wise to not insist that they simply call me “Amanda,” for it seems that this would make most of them uncomfortable. So far they are courteous and respectful, except for the part where they are ridiculously late to class, an acceptable trait in Egyptian culture that the professors at the American style university must be emphatic about deeming unacceptable. No problem here – I laid down the law Amanda-style. We’ll see on Thursday if that actually worked. But many of them are not used to even coming to class. It is common practice here for high school teachers to teach quite poorly so that students stop attending and hire private tutors, who are often the teachers themselves. The teachers can then make more money. So a decent percentage of students here (who come from families who can afford private tutors and the hefty tuition of the university) must train themselves to be students of the classroom again. Ah, if only the poorly paid teachers of America could devise a similar plan.

It is important to note that the tuition at this university is equal to what a middle class Egyptian family would make in a year. Most of this country is poor, so you might guess what sort of kids make up the population of American University. Scholarships and financial aid, you say? Well, from what I hear, two kids from each of the 25 Governorates in Egypt are chosen to attend this university on scholarship. These kids are presumably unable to afford to attend the university. One of the kids must be a boy, and one must be a girl.

Well, here is my entry. Not as exciting as I had hoped but lengthy. This weekend we’ll be going on a guided tour of Cairo, so there should be something more exciting to talk about than the old news of teaching.



Mom said...

Just like being there.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Dr. Amanda--
enjoyed hearing about you getting back in the classroom. And, congrats on conversing with the locals!!

Aleana said...

Very interesting Mandy. I really love the me something to read when I'm bored at work!! :O)

Michael. said...

Don't worry about being interesting Mandy - your stories naturally are. I really enjoy the legnthy description of what it's like to really be there and what your experiencing. I can emphasize with the chronic tardiness. Just wait until you start doing it too... ;)

Joe Oser said...

Amanda and James, thanks for the evolving travelogue. It sounds so ... foreign. Mandy, congrats on the job. Is the Arabic spoken in Egypt (that you are learning Mandy) similar enough that you could converse in any Arabic speaking area? Once you master the language, you could work anywhere for the CIA. Imagine! Joe

kron said...

If only puppies and rainbows appeared with all successful attempts at foreign languages, we would ALL be fluent in two or three.

mandy said...

Hi, Joe. It seems that there is an Arabic specific to Cairo, but, upon learning Cairene Arabic, someone could presumably get by well enough in other parts of the MIddle East. You've also targeted one of my secret dreams (and one of my mother's, actually) - to be a spy. Or at least a gumshoe. For now I hope I can just learn to say a few sentences to the bawaab. :)

Sari said...

Hey Dr. A--that could be your spy name! Congrats on the language break through. I fear that you will soon be fluent and with all my whinging about how hard it is to learn another language, I will just have to come over to Egypt and take care of the matter. So watch your step Spy Amanda!

moonlight ambulette said...

dr amanda, i think you are the greatest. and your writing is funnier than ever. i'd like to make kissy faces at it. in fact i am, right now.

keep it up, prof!

Aunt Tam said...

Amanda,Congrat on your new job. Wow, your stories are awesome. We all look forward to them. I'm gonna talk Brandi into buying me and Avery a ticket to come and visit when she comes.....