Wednesday, March 07, 2007
This is going to be a mass of generalizations, so if you can’t handle that kind of thing, best to let this entry go. Or just look at the above picture, an Arabic movie poster we found at the same store where we got the pretty green lamp that lacked a proper cord. The guy with the pegleg sealed the deal on that poster-purchase.
Tonight, as I rode the shuttle bus home, a pair of American exchange students behind me spent the entire twenty-minute ride complaining about the ineptitude of some professor. There is a particular whiny, know-it-all way that American kids complain about their teachers, and I’ve certainly been a part of this when I was a student, even through grad school. I won’t recreate the dialogue because if you’ve been in school, you can guess. What was important to me is that I realized I have never heard an Egyptian student speak that way about a teacher.
I’ve taught at two state universities in the Midwest. Unfortunately, it was not a rarity to walk into a class on the first day, not having spoken a word yet, and have a couple of students already sulking and sullen in the back as if I were forcing them to be there. It’s rough sometimes when you’re unloved from the beginning.
For the most part, my Egyptian students are eager to learn. Sure, there are lots of things that get on my nerves (“Oh, you wanted a hard copy of the paper? Really? But – I couldn’t print it. I slept at my grandmother’s last night. She doesn’t have a computer!” – the sort of excuse that is so naively transparent that even as I am firm in class I find it adorable later), and I’m not pretending I haven’t pissed off a few Egyptian students, but a lot of these kids are glad to be here, a much higher percentage than I’ve perceived in other places. Many of them have been educated so far through rote memorization and the Qu’ran. This university, where discussions happen, where students are responsible for managing their own time, is elite in this kind of place.
Last week one of my students, Ashraf, came early to class. I asked how it was going in his first year, and he said he loved it. He said he felt so free. He said other schools in Egypt were not like this.
AUC is a place where someone from the Muslim Brotherhood, a shunned party, can give a public lecture, which happened last semester. It’s kind of freaky, actually, how different AUC feels from just two blocks away from campus – remember, this is the same country that just arrested a young Egyptian blogger for critiquing its religion and its interminable president. But that’s not my point. My point is that Ashraf is exuberant about the opportunity. I will miss that when I return to America.
So I find my students to be fascinating. They are growing up with Western values that are connected to materialism and its artificial links to freedom, while, at the same time, many are growing up with a religion that, in the last few years in Egypt, has become more conservative. Their parents grew up in a different time, a time when women were taking off the headscarves. Now the veils have made a comeback. More about “taking the veil” some other time. Most of these students live in the suburbs, where there is more room, and it sometimes looks creepily like California, and there is a mall called City Stars that is bigger than the Mall of America and has a TGI Friday’s. Their drivers take them to school and pick them up. But still, they live in a developing country, a country that has not found a really satisfactory way of pushing the poor into separate corners quite like America has. The poor are squatting in the suburbs, too – that’s how many of them there are.
If you know me, you’ve heard this story. When I first moved to Minneapolis, I would walk around the Mississippi. The St. Anthony Main/Hennepin/Nicollet area is beautiful. In 2002, I saw a fair amount of the homeless sitting on the benches by the river. Over the next few years, as more condos went up, the river restaurant scene got busier, the Guthrie theatre got rebuilt to resemble an IKEA (though it was pictured in the Smithsonian for its beauty, that theatre, so don’t trust my opinion - I'm sure a couple of my MN friends are going to disagree on this one), and it was reported that more people were finally moving in from the suburbs than sprawling out -- after all of these things, the homeless vanished. Really. Where did they go? Did they find homes? The aura of the river changed in that short amount of time. The F-You graffiti was scrubbed from the Stone Arch Bridge.
I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. It’s just that, even though I have always had a deep-seated, rather inexplicable aversion to "the rich," and these students are richer than I’ll probably ever be, their lives are complex. Egyptian youth are at an intriguing crossroads. This country has to change. Doesn’t it? One would hope. If you read the NY Times article I mentioned in the last entry, then you know that most people in Cairo are poor and that most feel absolutely no connection to the government. I’m not talking about your average “I don’t care about politics” baloney. Some neighborhoods in Cairo have had to develop their own sewage systems after weeks of watching it run by in the street with no help from their government. Yeah. That kind of disconnection. Maybe this is why these kids, even the ones who never remove the Chanel sunglasses from their heads, continue to fascinate me. I don’t know if their money makes them powerful or not. I’m just interested in seeing what they do with it.