Teach or beach? Both!

24 October, 2009

Finally, some time to breathe and blog!

The past week, Kenny and I have been going through the teaching practice portion of our program. This meant that every day we were given a different class and we would have to come up with a lesson plan according to their level (young learners, beginner, intermediate, conversation). For the beginner and intermediate classes, we were given grammar points or reading assignments to use in the class so it was fairly easy to come up with 50 minutes of chicanery, but towards the end of the week it became a challenge to come up with topics for the young learners and conversation classes. I spent a night and a substantial part of my morning preparing for a conversation class on environmental issues ranging from sustainability issues, eco-terrorism and the Kyoto Protocol only to have it vetoed by my instructor 4 hours before the class because someone did a class on “environment and rubbish removal” the day before. I ended up doing a conversation class on movies, which went really well (Kenny was there observing me!), but I was still annoyed. What a load of rubbish. Hmph.

Here are some highlights and observations from the week of teaching practice

1. Everyone in Egypt loves Titanic and Celine Dion. There was a large older man in my conversation class named Mohammed who proclaimed that his favorite movie of all time is Titanic and his favorite actor is Nicholas Cage. I tried to imagine a remake of titanic in which Nicholas Cage tries to save the sinking ship, and fails. I think it would make for a real good Keyboard Cat video.

2. Most of the students in the classes were probably smarter than all the teachers combined. Our students in our teaching practice were volunteers brought in from all different parts of Alex, but we had students ranging from engineers, chemists, faculty members of universities, budding translators (my old 1 on 1 student!) and other distinguished and employed folk putting my resume and my career to shame. I had a conversation class on health issues and for the last activity in the class, I had them come up with a 5 minute presentation for the Minister on Health and Population on why their assigned issue (smoking or noise and air pollution) was the most important and needed to be addressed by the president immediately. It turned out that two out of the four students in my class work at some firm where they’re in charge of air and noise pollution regulations in Egypt. Both campaign speeches ended up being really good and even spawned a lively debate, making my class go ten minutes over time. oops.

3. I like making my students come up with skits and dialogues, they end up being pretty comical.

4. Children love playing charades.

5. Children love all things Sponge Bob, even the bad ones will shut up when they see the dewy eyes of their favorite porous marine animal.

6. Pictionary is a good way to use up extra time.

7. Making everyone survey each other is a good way to get students talking, and to take a sit down / cool off break. The AC in one of the classrooms was absolutely retarded and would freeze the back of the classroom but leave the front swelteringly hot so I’d be melting into a puddle while trying to explain how to express things that’ll happen in the future. I’m sure my students thought I was maniacal, but I’m now friends with them on facebook, so I guess I was maniacal in a good way.

8. I gesticulate a lot. I had to watch a video of myself teaching and I noticed that I tended to move around a lot, I guess that’s a good thing.

9. The power went out during one of my classes. It got kind of scary for a second, and I definitely got kind of spooked by the idea of being in an unfamiliar area (we were taken to another school building to teach that day) and not being able to see anything. Luckily my students had cellphones with flashlights so we were able to continue the class as though nothing had happened. The lights came on 5 minutes later. My roommate later told me that she would have stopped the class right then and there, but I think that’s because she hates teaching. Oh, and this was the class that was videotaped. Haha. Huray for technology allowing me to relive awesome moments in my life.

All in all the teaching practice week was great. Kenny and I are now officially certified to teach English anywhere in the world. Yousef, the Libyan Scotsman in our group taught a letter writing class for his young learners for the last day and he had them write a letter to their favorite teacher. I was pleasantly surprised when one of the girls in the class handed me an envelope when I was still scrambling together my lesson plan for later that evening. I thanked her and I looked at the envelope to see that the letter was initially addressed to Amanda, the Korean – American – Oklahomeyan in our group, but then her name was crossed out and my name was written next to it. Inside, the letter was addressed to Amanda, but that was next to a scribbled out mess which distinctively said “Andrea” underneath. Andrea is the Chinese Canadian in our group. I’m still not quite sure if she gave the letter to the right Asian, so I told Amanda and Andrea that we can have shared custody of the letter.

Tomorrow, orientation for our teaching internship. The day after marks the beginning of Arabic lessons. I can’t wait to learn enough Arabic to tell someone off…err… I mean… hold an intelligent conversation about future goals.

UPDATE: Kenny hates Koshari. Pizza is delicious wherever you go. Wrigley’s Extra gum is far superior to Saudi Arabian gum. I’m sick of the falafel in Egypt and the falafel in the U.S. is more tasty than the falafel here. GASP! i think MAOZ ruined me for life.


Man the Ramparts

22 October, 2009

Sorry for the lack of updates lately. After a whirlwind (some might say frenzy) of activity, things are winding down with our certificate program. We spent the entire last week doing teaching practice sessions, in which we were tasked with developing the content and materials for a series of hour-long lessons. Generally, we would start work around 9 am, prep our lessons until around 3, then teach, observe and head home around 9pm. Without boring everyone with a lot of mundane details, I’ll just summarize some more of the interesting points:

1. During an advanced conversation class, I had some students present on what they thought were issues of global importance. One group picked drug policy, and had to articulate the problem and present a solution. During the Q&A period, one member of the other group basically started a drug legalization debate. I never expected that from a group of fairly devout Muslim students, but I must say it made for a rather excellent debate.

2. I thought I was going to have to break up a fistfight between two of my students over a game in which students raced to the board to write down words.

3. I taught a kid named Flopatere.

4. Again, I taught a kid named Flopatere.

Set will undoubtedly chime in with her own observations at some point soon, but I think we’re both glad to put the certificate course behind us and work on finding jobs and really starting our Arabic training in earnest.

Despite the teaching, we’ve had time to explore Alexandria a bit more. Last weekend, we visited the famed Library of Alexandria and spent the day wandering about the city. There are few words that can describe how enormous and awesome this place is- I’ve long held that libraries are humanity’s single greatest accomplishment (just think of all those ideas and knowledge available, free for anyone), but this was something else. I had a hard time controlling my drool flow when the guide told us about the open reading area that could accomodate up to 2,000 people, the specially designed noiseproof windows, or the space for 8 million books available on the library’s many floors.

Especially cool were the various exhibits sprinkled throughout the building. I especially enjoyed the one about Alexandria’s history- there’s a painting that depicts Napoleon invading the city, replete with the general standing calmly amidst artillery explosions and dozens of dying men. However, a caption next to the painting explained that the actual conquest of Alexandria involved the death of less than 50 people, and, as far as urban combat goes, the entire campaign seems to have been a rather sundry affair.

On the lower level next to the Planetarium is an entire exhibit dedicated to Nasser. This was really interesting- they had all kinds of his personal effects (including philosophical musings that he thoughtfully transcribed into English as well as Arabic) and documents he signed as Egypt’s president. The exhibit closes on a somber note- the last thing you see is a display case with the uniform he wore the day he was shot, torn and stained with his blood.

As if the Nasser memorial wasn’t a somber enough reminder of life’s precarious nature, we got stuck in traffic for a half hour because someone got killed while trying to cross the Corniche. Again. This marks the fifth dead person myself and my classmates have encountered in the 4 weeks we’ve been here. The worst part about this one was that they died less than 200 feet from a safe, underground crosswalk. I can’t speculate as to why someone would choose to dart across 8 lanes of free flowing, frenetic traffic, but were it me, I’d take inconvenienced over dead any day of the week, thanks.

Anyhow, back to happier things.

After our trip to the library, we went to Quatbay- an enormous castle/fortress perched on a narrow isthmus that extends out into the sea. There was a big international festival going on, so we stopped by and spent a few hours scampering about the ramparts and finding shade as we watched traditional Arab dancers. It was a pretty cool experience, and the enormity and picturesque setting of the fortress made it that much more… authentic, for lack of a better word. All I could think of was that if I was 4 years old, I’d be swordfighting against invisible pirates/skeletons/other assorted villains with a souvenir plastic scimitar my folks would have bought to keep me occupied- it was that cool and picturesque.

Tomorrow, we start our full-on Arabic training. I’m very excited to start it, but I wish some of our newly certified friends who left yesterday were still around. Hope you guys are doing well, wherever you may be!

Ps bonus points to whoever gets the title of this entry.

It’s a Hard Rock life

12 October, 2009

If you’ve ever wondered what life is really like in Egypt, I’m sure it won’t take a genius to realize that it’s not all about pyramids, falafel and walking with angular elbows.  Tonight I got a glimpse into what our friend Megan refers to as the “real Egypt.” Kenny, Amanda, Megan and I were taken to a market in Agami where we were promptly escorted through the penetrating stares of the crowd, up some narrow and lumpy stairs into the various rooms that made up our friend Said’s family’s humble abode. I suppose I should backtrack so I can give you a little context on how I ended up in a room with 5 women and 2 men who spoke no English aside from “welcome” and “what’s your name”.

A few nights ago, Kenny, his roommate Lachlan and I went out for dinner at a neighborhood restaurant called “Grouchos.” Hungry and in search of some foodstuffs we opted for a place where we could actually read the sign. Have I mentioned that I’m getting a little sick of being illiterate? Hopefully that’ll be remedied soon enough. Anyways, the place looked abandoned when we walked in, but there were a few guys hanging out smoking cigarettes in the front by the bushes. One of them motioned us to go in and rang a doorbell and he motioned us to go up some stairs so we could turn right at the top and go back down the stairs into a huge open air backyard area. On the way to the back I saw some posters of some ladies scantily clad in anti-conservative bikini wear, so a little part of me thought that I had stumbled upon the only strip club in Agami. Alas, my friends it was not a strip club but a chilled out café which sold beer (huray!), pizza (nom) and gave us the saltiest peanuts in the world (bleh).  Staring at the giant framed picture of Celine Dion and enjoying mushroom pizza under the partly cloudy light pollution was great and all, but we decided to saunter back to the TEFL compounds so we could hang with the security guard with the off color sense of humor and get some rest before our big trip to Cairo!

While we were walking back on al Bitash (the main street in Agami), we found our friend Megan hanging out at Hard Rock, the local jewelry and doodad boutique. I’ve walked past this store plenty of times before but I always wondered if the store was a front for some shady business as they seem to be replete with scrunchies, fairly tacky and cheap  jewelry from China, Winnie the Pooh picture frames and other things that looked like they’ve lost their market value. It was also right across from the Koshari place so Kenny and I have remarked on how funny it was that there was a place called Hard Rock. Megan had befriended Said (Sa-yeed), one of the employees there and was teaching him words in English. Megan, a native of Minnesota, has studied Arabic for quite some time and has a habibi (aka boyfriend) in Luxor (a city in Southern Egypt) so she’s fluent enough to be able to communicate and joke around in Arabic. We stood around the store and traded English words for Arabic ones and would cheer every time Said remembered something.  He often had difficulty differentiating Ps and Bs which I had learned in my phonetics class as a common mistake amongst native Arabic speakers. Our friend Deborah has an Egyptian friend that calls her “Deporah” and Said kept saying “Burse” instead of “purse.” After a while Kenny got sleepy and departed, but I decided to stay as I was really enjoying being surrounded by Arabic speakers and picking out random words that I understood. As the next day we were going to Cairo at 7 in the morning, Lachlan Megan and I decided to retire around midnight but we were super excited about meeting Said, using a bit of Arabic and hanging out in the Hard Rock knick knack boutique.

Insert intermission montage here of: driving 3 hours to Cairo, gawking at the pyramids, punching the sphinx, eating at the Hard Rock Café Cairo, getting charged 24 pounds for a soda, making papyrus, running around the national museum, smelling essence of lotus flowers, running away from hustler shop owners at the Khan al Khalili market, 3 hour drive back to Agami, sleep, waking up to my ceiling being pounded in by construction workers, going to the beach, swimming in silt, eating rice pudding, sleep, waking up to my ceiling being pounded in by construction workers, van ride to school, learning about learning, coming back to Agami and Kenny and I walking to the Vodafone shop so I could activate my Egyptian phone line.

“AH DANGIT , it’s closed!”

Starting up my Egyptian phone number is apparently going to be a 3 day process. I kind of felt bad dragging Kenny all the way to the Vodafone shop, a whole 5 minute walk away from the compound, since he seemed pretty keen on finishing up his Cairo blog, but I just generally have a better time walking around with someone rather than alone, as I’m not the biggest fan of being stared at wherever I walk.  Being engaged in conversation with someone helps me ignore the fact that people are probably yelling things at me in Arabic that would generally make me throw punches in English. Thanks Kenny, you’re far too patient with me.

As we were turning around to head back, Megan and Amanda spotted us from across the street where they were hanging out at Le Hard Rock boutique of earthly delights. They were hanging out with Said and a couple of his friends, one who spoke a little bit of English, and the other with a really prominent unibrow. Megan asked me if I was interested in seeing an interesting market in Agami, to which I replied “of course, when do you want to go?”

“Right now!”

“Woah, what?”

According to Megan, the market was merely a five minute ride away and since we were with locals we would take the public transportation system. I have been wanting to take the public transportation for a while now, since it’s merely one pound per ride as opposed to 10 – 25 pounds if you take a taxi.  From my understanding there are two forms of public transportation in Agami, the bus and the mashrouas. The mashrouas are nondescript minivans supposedly marked with some sign indicating where they are going.  I personally can’t tell the difference between the minibuses and regular ol’ football mom vans, but Said et al seemed to know their way around and eventually stopped a shabby little navy van that perfectly fit our entire group.  What we thought was going to be a 5 minute ride turned into more of a 15 – 20 minute ride which followed the exact path we take to get to school.  Amanda and I got a little worried that we were actually tricked into going to school so we could spend some precious nocturnal hours learning about learning. Lucky for us, we were wrong. The van stopped and we climbed out into an area with lumpy sidewalks and tan square buildings hovering over the narrow streets, laundry draped out the window and tinsel crisscrossing over our heads.  We started walking through the main drag of the market, on either side of us there were pastry shops, produce stands, phone accessory stores and crowds of people all staring at us and yelling one thing or another in a tone of extreme excitement.  I kept hearing Said’s name being shouted all around us which made me believe that either he was a local celebrity, or everyone in the neighborhood just knows each other. We walked down for about five minutes and turned into one dimly lit alleyway after another.  Every time we turned or went in front of a store people kept rubbernecking towards us like we were either a horrid car accident or a celebrity entourage. We even had a throng of children chasing us, yelling “What’s your name,” “hello,” “welcome.” Though I felt a little uncomfortable to do so, Kenny took out his camera and was taking pictures of the street and sometimes the children would run up to him yelling “picture, picture” and giving their cutest smile before running back to the gaggle of accumulated followers. I initially thought we were going to just wander around the area so I became a little curious when I realized that we seemed to be purposefully walking through these alleyways. I asked Megan what the plan was and she told us that Said’s family lived close by and wanted to meet us! The gaggle of curious kids pretty much followed us to his doorway until they got the hint and ran back to whatever they were doing before.

There were some women standing by the doorway smiling brightly at us as we walked by. I assumed these were some of Said’s relatives so I smiled and greeted several of them with a smile and a “salam malekum” and shook some of their hands but Said and Megan kept motioning for us to go up the narrow stairwell until we were on the fourth floor and we got escorted into a small room, half the size of my room now, but double the size of my room in Brooklyn.  Somehow we were able to fit all of us and his family members into the room and we all sat around looking at each other with fondness and curiosity. After a few minutes Said made us all stand up and get out of the room so we could go upstairs into a bigger room. When we sat down there, some of the relatives followed us but most of them just kind of hovered by the door. Said, who is apparently either really antsy or excited about showing us rooms made us get back up again and move into the backroom where we were left with the company with which we came. Said’s sister kept glancing in the room and he kept yelling at her to leave and slammed the door. Sibling relations has always been something slightly beyond me (as I’m an only child), but it was kind of funny to see that antagonistic behavior towards the prying eyes of siblings was a cross cultural phenomenon. Said’s sister later entered the room with a tray full of Pepsi (bebsi), donning a veil now as there were men aside from her brother in the room. She seemed really sweet, I would have loved to talk to her.

Amanda and I decided it would be fun / funny to regurgitate all of the words we have retained in our 3 days of intensive Arabic and our 2 weeks living in Egypt. Here are some example words and phrases.

  • Flip flop – ship ship
  • Pepper – fil fil
  • Bag – Shanta
  • Cup – Kubaiya
  • I don’t know – Mish Fahim
  • Chicken – Frekh
  • And more!

Kenny later jokingly (I think) accused me of being culturally insensitive for basically sounding like a schizophrenic to the Arabic speakers but I think they got a kick out of it. Also their jaws apparently dropped when Amanda and I busted out our Swahili which we learned in a dialogue development class a week or so ago. Culturally insensitive? Nah. I’d like to think that we’re just embracing the world with our ability to flaunt our language retention skills.

We drank our soda and bantered about, speaking to each other in broken Arabic and intermediate English. We left soon after, making the journey back down the dark and cavernous stairs, everyone on the way down opening their doors when we passed so they could either get a glimpse of us or invite us in for some tea.

Trying to avoid causing a community wide commotion once again, Said decided to take us back towards the main street through the back alleys. Some areas were definitely a little dodgy, but being with Said we knew that no one would harm us, unless it was in the form of verbal harassment. When we walked past what could have been a barbershop, 3 or 4 men that were sitting around jumped up at the sight of us and started yelling something in the same tone that everyone else had been using, but this time they said something that was extremely unfavorable to Megan and she became instantly furious and started yelling at the guys and telling Said to say something back to them.  I later found out that what they yelled was something that men would only say to prostitutes in the streets, which would most likely warrant an automatic beat down in some places, but is considered somewhat normal behavior from Egyptian men, so it was best to let it slide.

I had thought that Egyptians were more mild mannered than men in some other countries in the sense that they weren’t outright yelling country names or “ni hao” whenever they caught sight of me, but I’m starting to realize that they may be saying all that kind of stuff at me, but I just haven’t learned the racist jargon in Arabic yet.  It’ll be interesting to see whether my opinion on Egypt and Egyptians (the men specifically) will go up or down depending on my increasing level of language competency.

The other girls in the program and I have often found ourselves a bit perplexed as to how some of these grown men decide that it’s okay to blatantly stare, cat call and proposition women that are obviously from another country. Do they grow up in a household where their parents tell them that all foreign women are lascivious lushes looking for a quick romp in the Egyptian boudoir?  Sometimes the childish behavior of men like this absolutely astounds me to a point where I sometimes want to shake them and tell them “YOUR METHOD SUCKS, FIND A NEW ONE THAT DOESN’T MAKE YOU SEEM LIKE SUCH A MYSOGINIST BREEDER.” Is it just a cultural misunderstanding? Should I not be offended when some random strange man comes up to me and asks “How much?” or says “Ni Hao?” Is it poor parenting skills? Is it the lack of community support systems able to teach kids that following people for miles is not only awkward and creepy but rude? When we left Said’s place despite taking the back streets of the marketplace, we were still trailed by 3 or 4 kids who were staring at Amanda and Megan like a groper fish on a high dose of tranquilizers. They stuck by our side until we got on the bus about 30 minutes later and even then I felt as though their prying eyes were still on me, maturing slowly into the piercing eyes of the older men who would later be standing on street corners ogling at women going about their business as if they were an animal in the zoo. My interim conclusion on this matter is that someone wrought with ennui will find ways to kill the mood for others.  Get a hobby before you get creepy.

Upon our return to Agami, we found a wedding reception going on in the alley next to our favorite juice bar. Kenny had his fancy camera out and ready when a man grabbed him by the arm and said “PICTURE PICTURE PICTURE PICTURE!” and pushed Kenny into the center of the matrimonial hoopla so he could take pictures of the men singing at the newlyweds in the doorway. We ended up hanging around the juice bar for a bit, sipping on mango juice and taking pictures of little kids fascinated by Kenny’s camera.

Good end to a fun night I suppose. 🙂


I have an Egyptian phoneline! I didn’t wake up to soul pounding construction today! I’m co-teaching a group of children with a Brazilian tomorrow! The new Converge album is amazing!  So are these egyptian sweets! yum yum!

Zalabia: Fried dough balls marinated in honey! So good!

Zalabia: Fried dough balls marinated in honey! So good!

Wherein We Take Cairo

10 October, 2009

I got rousted from my semi-fitful sleep on the tour bus as we hit a huge pothole coming into the parking lot, and suddenly found myself staring at the base of one of the Giza pyramids. “Well, that was quick,” I thought, then looked at my watch. 10:00am. I’d been sleeping on the bus for the past three hours.

Yesterday, 11 of my classmates and myself embarked upon a tour of Cairo. We left El Agamy at around 7:00 am, and didn’t get back until around midnight last night. The day marked the bulk of our tourist-y activities, and while I usually detest anything associated with the word “tourism” (my family can attest to this) I must say I really had a great time.

For whatever faults the TEFL program has in terms of its curriculum, one area where they came through in spades was the excursion to Cairo. We rolled up in a fully air conditioned tour bus that basically saw one to two people in each row, therefore allowing ample room for us to spread out. We got off the bus and met our guide, Amr, and entered got a brief rundown on the history of the Giza pyramids.

Each one was built over the course of 20 years, involving nearly 100,000 people. The tallest one is over 145 meters tall, and accommodates the tomb of one person. The Great Pyramid was constructed of about 2.3 million limestone blocks, each one weighing 1.5-2.5 metric tons. These stones were brought up from Aswan, 900 kilometers down the Nile, during flood season, and borne on the backs of skilled laborers and artisan stonecrafters. (Apparently, the historical thought about them being built by Jewish slaves is something that modern archaeology has been backing away from for years.) The pyramids at one point had a coating of smooth limestone, but those have eroded over the past 5,000 years and are now only visible on the 2nd pyramid (The Queen’s Pyramid) and at some areas around the base of the Great Pyramid.

There’s a misconception that the Giza Pyramids are in the middle of some far-flung desert, far away from civilization with only swarthy Bedouins in the area. Nothing could be further from the truth- if you were to squint your eyes through the haze and smog, you could make out the Cairo skyline, where nearly 25% of Egypt’s 80 million people live. There are paved roads leading up to and around the site, and there are hawkers and their vendors everywhere. As we left to explore the site, Amr said, “Santa Claus doesn’t come in October for Egyptians. If someone tells you something’s free, it isn’t.” Apparently, a favored trick of the camel ride salesmen is to let you on the camel for free- then make you pay them to get off.

You can go inside the Pyramids for a price ($30 LE for the small one, or $100 LE for the Great Pyramid, which equals about $6 and $20 respectively in USD), but there’s no hieroglyphics or mummies or secret rooms full of gold that you can go through. Apparently, it’s just a series of cramped passageways that end in nowhere, and you can’t take a camera inside. Nevertheless, my roommate, the intrepid Lachlan, wasn’t deterred and crawled inside the smaller Pyramid. His conclusion: not worth it, but hey, he can now say he’s been inside a pyramid!

I had a personal milestone of my own: I rode a camel! After much hand-wringing over whether or not I dare do something so touristy, I plunked down my 30 LE and swung my legs over my Dromedarian companion. Several of my companions also elected to join in, including Set and Lachlan.

As my ten-year old guide bellowed, my camel suddenly grew 4x in height and I was nearly deposited unceremoniously onto the fine sands of the Sahara. After righting myself, our guide led us on a five minute stroll throughout the desert. At the end, my guide mumbled for me to hold on tight, and suddenly, my camel was back in its preferred, prone position. Despite their lumbering gait and comedic appearance, camels move fast. I was nearly emasculated by the saddle when my camel laid down. I’ll just leave it at that camel saddles are a lot harder than horse saddles.

After our camel cruise, we headed over to the Sphinx. I did my best to shut my eyes and pretend the hawkers urchin kids and scantily clad European tourists weren’t there, and tried to imagine what it was like before a modern city rose up around it. A historical anecdote suggests that Napoleon blew off the Sphinx’s nose after instructing his troops to use it as target practice for their cannons, but actually, it’s nose and beard were chipped off by a Muslim fanatic named Muhammed Said al-Dahr. Mr. Dahr was infuriated by what he thought was idolatry, so in the 14th century he set about destroying the statue. Egyptians, being somewhat picky about unsolicited redecorating, thanked him for his efforts by promptly hanging him.

Also, the Sphinx is known as Abu al-Hul in Arabic. That translates to “The Father of Terror” in English. Someone get Slayer on the line, I’ve found them their next album title!

After our sojourn to the Sphinx was through, Amr hustled us onto the bus. Apparently, it was time for prayer so we were dropped off at a papyrus factory while they sprinted into the Mosque across the street. Set will have to fill you on on the elaborate process of papyrus construction because I snuck out to take pictures of the Mosque where our drivers and guide disappeared to. Upon my return, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the hand-made scrolls of ornate papyrus- especially the portrait of Sir Anthony Hopkins, nestled in between classic hieroglyphics and portraits of long-dead pharaohs.

After that, we crossed from the Giza area into Cairo proper and headed to our lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. We had a free buffet, but were told we had to pay for our own drinks. Thinking they meant beer, I ordered a coke and nearly choked on my salad when presented with a bill for 25 LE. I could have bought an authentic Rolex at the Sphinx for that!

Another hilight of lunch was when the wait staff serenaded us with an extremely awkward rendition of the Village People’s “YMCA.” I cringed when they dramatically belted out the chorus as “WHHYYYYYAAAAA EMMMA CEEE AYYYYYYE” but had to otherwise laud them for their enthusiasm. Karaoke, as in any other language, will always be awkward.

After lunch, we headed to the Egyptian Museum. Home to over 140,000 pieces, this place has some of the most amazing artifacts imaginable. I saw King Tutankhamun’s golden sarcophagus and death mask, his 4-room burial chamber (specifically constructed so the Egyptian Book of Life could be etched into his tomb, as custom dictates) and learned that statues of living kings were always done with their left foot forward. This was done to show how they kind they were, or that they led from the heart. A statue with both feet together means that the person depicted is dead.

It costs 100 LE to see the “Mummy Room” so Set and I elected to busy ourselves with the rest of the museum. Ancient Egyptians also mummified some animals too- I saw a few cat mummies and thought “It’s a good start.” Slightly creepy were the snake mummies (with resin stuffed in their mouths to prevent them from attacking after death) and gigantic crocodile mummies. The zombie movie aficionado in me couldn’t help but imagine those things coming back to life and wreaking all kinds of havoc throughout the museum.

After the Museum, we headed over to a large, outdoor market. I’ve long maintained that Egyptians are friendly people, and boy, did they ever demonstrate it! I couldn’t stop hearing about how lucky I was to have Set at my side (followed quickly by “Rolex! Rolex!”) and she was buried up to her neck in compliments about her dusty boots (again followed by “New shoes over here!”) We tried to gain access to one of Egypt’s largest mosques to take photos, only to find out that they were closed for the night and we’d have to come back later.

Shortly thereafter, we boarded our bus back to El Agamy. Drained, I fell back asleep for a few hours, and awoke to one of the driver’s incredibly loud ringtone going off repeatedly. Perhaps vibrate mode hasn’t crossed the pond just yet, or maybe people like showing off their phones, but it seems like a prerequisite to have one’s phone on the absolute loudest setting at all times. Unable to fall back asleep, I tried to catch up on a few of my long-dormant podcasts, but was distracted by none other than Kenny G’s Christmas album. In Egypt. In October. Surreal.

We pulled up around midnight, and racked out shortly thereafter.  The next day was spent catching up on work, laundry, and of course, spending some quality time in the Mediterranean- now colored yellow as silt from the Nile made its way out of the Delta. I’m attaching several photos from the trip to this entry, and stand by for a great entry regarding our foray into a “real” Egyptian market from Set!

Let’s Get Political

8 October, 2009

In an earlier message, I spent some time talking about the varying styles of dress I observed in Egypt, paying particular attention to the varying vays in vich vomen vere veiled (sorry, couldn’t resist).  So you can imagine how interesting it was for me to read that  earlier this week, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, the dean of Al Azhar University (where Obama gave his speech in June) and Egypt’s top Muslim cleric, announced he would issue a fatwa banning the wearing of the niqab (the aforementioned gown that leaves only the eyes exposed) at all of Egypt’s universities and public schools.

I’ve long been fascinated by the way in which the US media and policymakers  treat Islamic issues. Without making this blog extremely dense or preachy, I feel like elements within the US media and more than a few of our elected officials (on both sides of the aisle) treat Islam as a monolithic entity, in which all Muslims are equal in their devotion to and perceptions of Islam, and customs in Kandahar, Afghanistan are readily transferable to Beirut, Lebanon, Ankara, Turkey, or Cairo. The truth is, Islam as some indivisible hive-mind doesn’t exist, just like how Christianity or Judaism doesn’t exist in a similar fashion. And you can really appreciate that by walking down Al Bitash in El Agamy, or sitting in a cafe in Alexandria and just taking note of how people interact with each other, and with themselves.

My classmate, Hebah, is an American of Egyptian descent. She used to live in Boston, speaks Arabic fluently, and has spent the past few years living and working in Egypt. Her take on these issues is really interesting: while she considers herself a Muslim, she sees nothing in the Koran that orders that women cover themselves or debase themselves before men, and such attitudes are cultural remnants of tribal culture that predated Islam by centuries.

Sheikh Tantawi’s comments apparently echo this theme. Reportedly, the incident that brought on this entire controversy came when he visited a girl’s school, and saw a girl wearing the niqab. He ordered her to take it off, reportedly bellowing something to the effect of “There’s nothing in the Koran that says you have to be covered” and “I know Islamic law better than your parents!” (Though, ironically, the girl had worn the niqab to honor Tantawi’s presence…awkward…)

Interacting with the trainers and students at the school are especially interesting. Most of the female students wear the hijab (the hair covering) but it seems like most wear it as a fashion accessory rather than a faith-based one. My student was uncovered and looked like someone you might see walking around LES (that’s the Lower East Side of Manhattan for those of who you don’t speak hipster.) While I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to ask my student about the imminent niqab ban, I found an interesting piece on the BBC that sampled four Egyptians’ opinions on the matter. I’m excerpting the most interesting bits here, though I think it’s a worthy enough article to read in full.

Some female voices:

“I am a religious person and have worn a headscarf since my university years. But I do not believe there is anything in the Koran telling women to cover their faces.”

“I believe God gave us many options – we can be religious and still live in the modern world. I pray and fast during Ramadan, but I also watch television and sometimes wear jeans.”

“I have worn the niqab for about five years. I do so because I feel more comfortable wearing it. It means people judge you for your personality, not the way you look.”

“Unfortunately some men think women like me who wear the niqab are making a judgement about them. Many are surprised that I am an educated woman and a journalist.

I think more women are wearing the headscarf and niqab today – but this does not mean Egypt is becoming more religious. People should not be scared about women wearing such garments, it does not mean the country is becoming more radical.”

From men:

“Women have the choice in Egypt about whether to wear the niqab. But I would prefer to marry a woman who wears this garment. I find such women who wear this more polite and faithful.”

“More women wear the niqab in Egypt than 10 years ago, because religion is becoming more important in people’s lives. I think this is a good thing because it means people want to be closer to God.”

“The niqab has absolutely nothing to do with piety or Islam, in fact it is demeaning and inhuman.”

“I notice more women wearing the headscarf. But this may be about fashion as much as religion. A headscarf-wearing woman may not be more pious than one who does not cover her hair.”

Religious interpretation is as intolerant or tolerant as the individual who interprets it. I won’t defend misogyny or murder if someone holds a holy book in front of them, and at the same time, I also won’t get behind those who paint an entire religion with a tarred brush.

Semakit El Kersh!

7 October, 2009

(The title is Arabic for Shark!!!)

Today I had my first teaching session with an Egyptian ESL student. As it was meant to be an assessment, as opposed to a teaching session, I created a lesson plan which included various springboards for conversation. Jesse, a girl who has already been through the certificate course warned me that I will most likely be paired with an extremely advanced English speaker who will speak better English than I do.  Become of this, I framed my session so that I could easily be able to hold a conversation about various topics while leaving some flexibility so I could switch to simple yes / no questions and some point, nod and toss some word salad time if needed.  I included a world map, a map of Egypt and a map of the United States so she could tell me where she grew up, where she traveled to and I could tell her my life story based on where I’ve lived in and out of the states.  Sure enough, I got paired with a twenty year old practicing to become a translator who has a strong interest in all things politics, economics and science related. As soon as I entered the room we started bantering about, until a few minutes later when I realized that I should probably use some of the lesson plan that I had been constructing all morning.

We talked about traveling, future plans, family members, music, hobbies and favorite books. I was pleasantly surprised by how articulate and well read she was and we even shared book recommendations to each other. I incorporated the song “Pachuca Sunrise” by Minus the Bear with my listening activity and made up a worksheet where she could fill in the blanks with lyrics. The first blank spot was “Mediterranean,” which seemed appropriate given how we were a stone’s throw away from the sea.  She enjoyed the song, which made me happy, if I had some blank cds I’d love to make her a mix.  Alas, this is just a two day teaching practice and so I won’t have any time to make her any cds.  Perhaps I’ll just make a list of recommended bands, songs and books that Egyptians probably don’t hear about.  I told her about some of my favorite modern writers (Klosterman, Sedaris and Eggers, oh my!), which she said she would look up at her local library but I felt a little bit guilty of being culturally insensitive when I realized that one of the authors was most famous for a book entitled “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs.” Well, that’s the nature of American sardonica and pop culture these days right?  She told me that her favorite book of all time was Mein Kampf, which she appreciates for the historical significance and the interesting social commentary rather than how it was written by Mr. H, the nazinator. She’s also into Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe and Anne Rice. Her grammar was perfect, her pronunciation fairly good but she would talk really fast and mush together words sometimes so I told her that for our second (and final) session, I’d give her a lesson in phonology and pronunciation. She is currently in the process of applying to work at a call center for a business so I told her that increasing her articulation would help her immensely. I hope I can help her in any way possible in the 50 minutes that I will be with her tomorrow, if not I hope she at least enjoys the Michael Jackson listening activity that I’m planning for her.

So I’m not sure if Kenny mentioned this in an earlier blog, but Egyptian Thursdays are the equivalent of everywhere else Fridays and Egyptian Sundays are the equivalent of Americastani Mondays. Therefore, tomorrow is my Friday, which I will celebrate with a nice seafood dinner. Yum!

Today was our interaction with ESL learners. It proved to be an interesting experience on a number of levels, nearly all of them comedic.

For the past two weeks, we’ve mostly been focusing on teaching younger learners, especially those with extremely limited levels of English proficiency. We spent a lot of time utilizing flashcards, developing games and other “warmers” for younger students that could readily be adapted to adult learners as well, and underwent two videotaped sessions where we “taught” a lesson to our trainees and critiqued ourselves later. So consequently, when the teacher/student assignments were posted at the end of yesterday afternoon, the general conception was that we should gear our lessons towards younger learners in pursuit of determining their language skills.

The first part of today can only be described as a flurry of activity as the 16 of us flitted about the office, downloading flashcards, writing dialogues, filling out our lesson plan forms, and trying to download everything we’d been taught into an hour-long session.  The approaches the individual trainers took towards the lesson planning was diverse- some opted for interactive games, some prepared flashcards, and others incorporated music and video into theirs as well. Since we weren’t doing any actual teaching today, but instead trying to figure out the student’s language needs, I decided I’d simply try to have a conversation. I prepared a bunch of questions regarding their background, typed them up for them to read back to me, and if they couldn’t, I prepared a bunch of flashcards for them to point at to indicate words their vocabulary may not yet have.

A word about flashcards: There exists a preponderance of flashcards of varying quality all over the Internet, encompassing nearly every subject you could possibly expect. Some you have to pay for, others are completely free. However, one thing they all have in common is that they appear to be designed for young kids. I spent an hour on an extremely slow internet connection (7.2 kb/s on average, baby) trying to find flashcards that depicted hobbies that didn’t have small children with enormously lopsided heads leering back at me as they built model rockets/played with dolls, etc.  All my efforts were in vain, and I ended up picking a set that didn’t quite so resemble the Hello Kitty catalog from 1989.

The only thing I knew about my trainee was that she was an adult and her name was Sara. I didn’t know what her language proficiency was, what her background was, or even how comfortable she would be talking to me. I ran through all the cultural stuff I knew: Don’t point with your finger, use a flat palm gesture instead. Don’t cross your legs with your foot pointing towards someone, it’s considered a grave insult. Don’t shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand first. I had images of unwittingly offending an intensely devout Muslim woman, and having her flee the classroom screaming as I blankly gaped at her.

So, you can imagine my surprise when a young, unveiled woman in Western clothes bounded up to me, extended a hand, and said , “Hi, I’m Sara!” in English slightly tinged with an Arabic accent.

I achieved my lesson objectives almost immediately, in terms that I was accurately able to assess how much training my student would need in speaking English. The answer was, of course, none. During our entire hour-long conversation, she only had trouble with two words.

My basic plan was to cut up a bunch of questions, put them in a coffee cup, and have her draw and read them so our dialogue didn’t feel so forced. Slight alarm bells started to go off when she mentioned that she was getting a Master’s in comparative literature- English literature. Or that her favorite author was Jane Austen. The apex moment finally came when she pulled the “Do you work? If so, what do you do?” card out of the cup.

She gazed at the card for a second, and nervously ground her feet into the tiled floor.

“Well, I, um…I teach English to Egyptians.”

At that point, the TEFL train went off the tracks. Over the next half-hour, I came to find out that Sara had been studying English since she was 6 years old (she came from a well-educated family), and that she had gone to a prestigious university in Alexandria that conducts their classes in English and French. She had also taken part in a trip to Washington, D.C. and did a brief, 5-day internship with a US Congressman (she didn’t mention who.) We ended up spending the rest of the lesson talking about Ph.D programs we were applying to, and international diplomacy.

Essentially, Sara is well on her way to having a great career as a ESL teacher herself, and is probably better qualified to assess MY English speaking skills than I am.

A few questions arise, namely- who told this girl she needed ANY instruction in English at all!?

The other student practice sessions varied. Some went quasi-disastrously, others went well. Set’s experiment with music and video worked out well, and I think she can’t be lauded enough for introducing Minus the Bear to Egypt. The erstwhile Britte (cleobritte.wordpress.com) made a lovely impression on her student and kind of got asked out on a lunch date.

Tomorrow, I’ll be bringing in Obama’s speech in Cairo and having my “student” write on that. Or, if she’s not comfortable with that, I’ll dig up a few poems and hope she hasn’t read them.

As an addendum, Shaimaa (our course administrator) made the entire program a delicious feast tonight! We had stuffed peppers, rice with a green sauce of indeterminate vegetable origin, and an incredible desert that can only be described as honey and sugar-glazed cornbread.

Set’s posting her blog right now. I’ll be back tomorrow with more.

Ana Mabsoota!

6 October, 2009

(the title is Arabic for “I am happy.”  This is in the feminine form. If you are a male, you would say “ana mabsoot.”)

Tonight a bunch of us from the program decided to go to the FIFA Youth World Cup tournament game between Hungary and the Czech Republic. My first football game ever! I definitely enjoyed it. Probably not as much as I would have had Egypt played, but us impartial spectators found ways to find joy out of cheering and jeering at both teams throughout the match. During the planning stages of tonight’s adventure, people were discussing which team we should support and to my knowledge we decided to ‘support’ the Czech team as Britte (pronounced Bri-ta) was wearing red and blue (Hungarian colors are red, white and green, resulting in a team of boys resembling Christmas elves). When we got to the stadium, however, we were seated in the Hungarian section of the crowd… so we more or less went along with the program and cheered when they cheered, yelled  a lot and shook our fists at the lack of hustle we saw from some of the players. Kenny live blogged throughout the game so I won’t pester you with too many details, but here are a few of my own observations from tonight:

  1. When the Hungarian fans were cheering, they would yell “Ria, Ria, Hungaria,” but sometimes it sounded like they were yelling “Kill, Kill Hungaria!”
  2. There were signs embedded with the adverts that said “My Game is Fair Play” and “Say No to Racism”. The infamous photograph of the Spanish Olympic soccer team was the first thing that came to my mind when I read the latter.
  3. There was a sizable portrait of Papa Mubarak looking over the field.
  4. Watching the game made me miss playing kickball in Brooklyn.
  5. If you were wondering, Hungary won the game during overtime. Hurrah!

For the past few days in school, we’ve been going over the various steps in creating a curriculum for an ESL class. The coursework is definitely silly at times but my classmates are great, the teachers are engaging and sometimes I feel like I’m more or less just hanging out than really learning anything. This being said, I’ve come to have a better grasp of how to organize a class, conjugate verbs till I bleed out of my ears and make up dialogues and activities for students to keep themselves busy, use their creativity and learn a thing or two. Tomorrow I have my first interaction with a student, a one on one assessment session with an adult English learner. I’ve been warned that all of the adult learners are fairly advanced and so I’m not quite sure what it will be like, but I’m sure it will definitely be memorable. I essentially have to hang out with the Egyptian ESL student for an hour and come up with a personal profile and a linguistic profile as if I were going to base my curriculum on this assessment. Should be fun!

More soon my lovelies!

Got Y’all In Czech

6 October, 2009

Currently sitting in the Alexandria Stadium, watching Hungary play the Czech Republic in a FIFA U-20 match. I’ll be liveblogging (thanks FIFA for letting me leech off your wireless!) and updating this post with tidbits and random musing.

We are almost halfway into the game. Both teams have one point. Most Egyptian kids appear to be rooting for Hungary, and it’s not hard to figure out why: #15 is named Mate Kiss. The fans aren’t much younger than the Darth Vader-esqe riot cops who are standing at the entrances.

Post 2: Hearing the “Ole ole ole” chant tinged with an Arabic accent is kind of funny yet very endearing. That, and they pronounce “Czech” as “Chic.”

Post 3: This is the third time the announcers have played “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.” Now it’s the Ting Tings?! Set and Britte are probably the
only two people in this stadium who are singing along. Half-time!

#4: Game on! In the first minute, someone fell to the ground after they blew a kick, writhing around like they were in mortal agony. Draaaaaama.

#5: The salesman hawking izayza maya (bottled water) and chips makes me yearn for a cold and overpriced beer.

#6: On the Hungarian side, Zambo just hurt his leg and has now been replaced.

#7: I wonder how many compression fractures the average pro soccer player sustains to the neck over a career due to all the heading.

#8: Britte and Set are chanting “Eastern Europe! Eastern Europe!” Way to stay neutral, guys!

#9: After an exciting first 25 minutes, nothing has happened and it’s now 72 minutes in.

#10: Apparently there’s 7000 people here tonight? Wow.

#11: Hungary just BLEW a penalty kick by sending it 20 feet above the Czech goalie’s head.

#12: Four players have been taken off on stretchers in the past ten minutes. Things are getting heated as we head into OT. Still 1-1.

#13: Overtime, and our ride will be here shortly. Looks like I’ll have to update with the thrilling conclusion later!

#14: Czechs got a goal right as we are leaving. I’m gonna call it for them

In Egypt, most people work Sunday-Thursday, and our school is no exception. Most of us spent our two days of rest doing that- catching up on some much needed sleep. I don’t know what happened, but I think I caught a delayed case of jet lag. After a few days of good rest at night, my body clock abruptly decided to revert to PST: I was lucky to catch three hours of fitful sleep a night from Tuesday on. I managed to string myself together with heroic doses of coffee and strong tea.

Thursday night, Set and I had a “Thursdate” whereupon we went looking for the local expat restaurant Christina’s. We spent at least a half hour looking for it, and finally found it on a small street that we later found out was called the Champs Elysee. Once inside, we found out that they wouldn’t give us a table in an empty restaurant because we didn’t make a reservation (we didn’t have the number), so we ended up eating at the bar. That was perfectly fine by us, and we had a good square meal of Greek salads, crepes and toast with tomato, basil and mozarella. It felt good to just sit back and chill out without dealing with the hecticness of Al Bitash or Alexandria.

Upon returning home, I promptly slept for 14 hours straight.

The next day was subdued. We spent most of the day studying Arabic and organizing our flats, and tried to go to the beach around 4. I say tried because we were ambushed by one of the neighborhood kids, Amma, who insisted on shadowing us.

As we walked, he pointed at the earphones on my neck. “What’s that?” he asked. “Michael Jackson?” I shook my head, told hom it was my music player and let him listen to a song off the new Pelican EP (ps if any of the band members read this, can I get credit for introducing Pelican to Egypt?) After that, he became obsessed with it- to the point of sitting next to my backpack while I was in the water. I had visions of my iPod and camera becoming Amma’s newest toys, so I kind of had to keep one eye out for him. When I came back out, he immediately signalled for the Ipod, and I had to make up a quick story about low battery power. A perfectly nice kid, but later I found out he managed to con one of our program friends into buying him dinner- and then promptly asked for money immediately thereafter. Perhaps grifting is something all suspiciously cute kids are born with- after having worked in public schools in California and New York, I can tell you this is definitely an international phenomenon.

The rest of the evening was spent hanging out and talking about all kinds of things with our classmates. I’m impressed by the level of depth and intelligence that they use to speak about things, be the subject teaching or politics. The diversity of our respective life experiences and cultural backgrounds provided a level of depth en par with any seminar or class I’ve attended in the States.

Today was spent prepping for the next week. We’ll be finishing up the grammar and teaching instruction and moving on to the teaching practice segment. Also, this weekend marks our excursion to Cairo to see the pyramids and Sphinx- I’m not usually one for the touristy stuff, but if I get the chance to go on a camel ride, you can damn sure bet I’m going to do it and take all kinds of photos of myself, Lawrence of Arabia style.

More updates and photos to come!