Tuesday, December 30, 2008

From the archives

I got back to the US last week and have enjoyed spending time catching up with family and friends, something I will continue to do. The final days in Cairo were, despite my limited computer capabilities, quite pleasant in part because I finished grading and spent some time at a large exhibit, Photo Cairo, attending some gallery shows and film screenings. There is a vibrant contemporary arts scene there, particularly, from what I have seen, in visual culture. I should do some blogging about a few things I saw at Photo Cairo at some point, but, here in the US, those days—a little bit more than a week ago—feel very distant.


The pleasures of reconnecting with folks aside, the official reason for my US trip is research on the American Presbyterian Congo Mission at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. The APCM was, at one time, part of the church’s southern branch, and the papers were at the PHS in Montreat, North Carolina. I spent a few productive days there one summer while working on my dissertation. A few years ago the southern branch of the PHS merged with the northern, so those papers are now, conveniently for me, in Philadelphia. So this week and next, I will be spending my time going over these documents which include correspondence, publications, church meeting minutes, diaries of missionaries, and the like. I realize this is not material that generally has broad appeal (though eventually I hope to change all that!), but it is an important part of my project on African Americans and the Congo.


Let me offer a relatively mundane taste of what I am finding. I came across a letter from the US Consul in Congo to a missionary in 1908. The APCM was requesting land concessions from the colonial government in order to establish new mission stations. The Belgians repeatedly refused the requests (claiming they were too close to Catholic stations). The APCM, correctly I believe, saw a pattern of discrimination against all Protestants, which was in violation of the Berlin Treaty (allowing open missionary access to the CongoFree State”). On this basis, missionaries asked for the American Consul to intervene on their behalf. The Consul, in exchange for his assistance, essentially asked the missionaries to stop publicly agitating, a position which was more frequently associated with activist African American missionaries. So here is the Consul’s position, stated in the letter I read in the archive:

I should be glad to receive from you at any time reports on abuses which come to your notice in your district. I can use them as the basis of reports to the Untied States Government. I wish to say, however, that in sending these to me it must be with the full understanding that they are not to be sent to other parties for publication, otherwise I cannot use them. My reason for this is, that I am [fairly] fully convinced that any reforms which may be brought about in the present system will be due to the action of the Governments interested based upon the official reports of their respective representatives, and not upon information appearing in outside publications. In urging this I do not wish to discountenance in the least the valuable work done by Mr. Morel and others in the cause of reform, but I feel, so far as my Government is concerned, that reports from me based upon information secured on the spot will have more weight than those which it receives through unofficial sources.

I will try to post more from the archives and elsewhere in the US during the next few weeks.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

How the internet works...

You see, there is this long cable at the bottom of the sea coming from Europe that... No, really...

This has been brought to my attention because I have been without internet service for the past couple of days.

I thought I would take a moment while my internet is working to explain the problem, and why I probably will not post again until I am back in the US (after Monday). Seriously, the internet here is basically connected by a long extension cord that runs under the Mediterranean. I did not know this until a ship's anchor damaged the cable, cutting off service to the entire country for an entire day. It is still quite erratic with no sense of when it will return.

Damaged cables cause internet outages for millions

Up to 70% of communications to the Middle East have been disrupted after cables connecting region to Europe were damaged

Millions of web users across the Middle East are struggling to get online after damage to undersea cables connecting Europe, Africa and Asia took down a major route for internet traffic.

As much as 70% of internet traffic and telephone communications between the continents has been affected by the outage.

It is believed to have been caused by damage to a string of cables which run on the bed of the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Egypt, connecting Europe with other parts of the world. The lines, which run hit the Egyptian coast at Alexandria and go on to connect to Asia, are responsible for carrying vast amounts of internet traffic and phone calls between different parts of the world.

It remains unclear what precisely what caused the damage, but the Egyptian communications ministry said that ships have already been dispatched to look at the problem - although repairs will take "several days".

Jonathan Wright, a director at telecoms company Interoute, said that the outage could have a devastating affect on business and communication around the world.

"The potential impact of an outage of this size cannot be underestimated – it is like severing a major artery," he said. "Global internet connectivity is reliant on sub-sea cables connecting countries."

The incident comes less than a year after a similar outage brought a halt to communications between Europe, Africa and Asia. Those problems were believed to have been caused by ships' anchors ripping through another section of the same cables, but were exacerbated by simultaneous damage in lines through the Middle East.

As many as 75 million people were affected in countries as far apart as India, Egypt and Dubai.

It is not yet clear whether today's outage is the same order of magnitude.

Despite the prevalence of wireless internet and satellite connections, global communications are still largely reliant on the vast webs of fibre optic cables which cover the planet. The lines, which take years of planning to install, move traffic backwards and forwards across continents.

The cables hit by the latest incident are among the most vital information pipelines linking Europe to the rest of the world – and are responsible for the majority of all connectivity in the Middle East and south Asia.

According to Alan Mauldin, research director of communications analysis company TeleGeography, the succession of problems in the region are only likely to be remedied by a series of new cables which are currently being planned.

"Many new cable systems are slated to enter service between Europe and Egypt in the next few years," he said.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/dec/19/undersea-cables-cut

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Palling around with terrorists

Rashid Khalidi spoke at AUC yesterday on “The Cold War in the Middle East: The War on Terror and the New Administration,” which is from his forthcoming book, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Hegemony in the Middle East. Khalidi, you may recall, was brought up by McCain and Palin in the recent presidential campaign because Obama had a relationship with Khalidi, a former University of Chicago historian now at Columbia. All of the charges were ridiculous and probably designed to scare voters by associating Obama with a Palestinian guy named Rashid. Innuendo was sufficient. Khalidi is sometimes controversial, but is quite moderate. Even yesterday, he combined his criticism of US and Israeli policy with a sharp indictment of Arab governments. Rather than scaring me off, the willingness of Obama to have relationships with people like Khalidi, arguably the foremost expert on modern Middle East history in the US, makes his presidency most promising to me.

I first saw Khalidi speak in the early 1990s at Wesleyan when I was an undergraduate. At the time he was an advisor to the Palestinian delegation at the Oslo talks. In March 2003, he visited a seminar I participated in at the GC, as I was finishing my dissertation. He gave a public presentation and visited our interdisciplinary seminar of about 10 faculty and 5 graduate students from different disciplines discussing imperialism. He was incredibly insightful and equally kind. Khalidi discussed some of his recent work on the history in anti-colonial resistance in the Middle East, including Iraq, and how US policymakers’ ignorance of this history would be devastating. (This became Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East.) Sadly the US soon invaded Iraq and proved him right.

Last night’s talk made a profound and concise argument that the Bush administration, fueled by domestic considerations, has created a ineffective war on terror based on the flawed presumption that full-fledged war is the best and only way of dealing with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (by conflating these with a range of other groups and organizations, none of which have ever targeted the US, who have unique, independent, and discrete political histories).

He observed that US policy, which is intent on destroying the Afghan and Iraqi states, can only lead to the power vacuum in which instability and violence thrive. The war on terror enables the US to achieve several aims, all of them based on domestic interests. It justifies the US defense budget which has continued to grow since the end of the cold war, at a time when every other country’s defense budget has shrunk dramatically. It enables the US to establish military bases throughout the region, and justify their permanence. (The US has bases in 24 countries in the region.) By contrast to the current war, the Cold War against communism had state actors at its center and included the existential threat of nuclear annihilation.

What are the possibilities for change? Khalidi offered several including the emergence of reform-minded Arab states. He also suggested the influence of other major powers confronting the US to assert their interests in the region by taking a more active role in regional security issues like the US-Iran conflict and Israel’s nuclear proliferation. There is also a possibility for change in how the US deals with the region, which, given the incoming administration’s need to focus on the domestic economy, is only likely to emerge in response to a crisis in the region. He sees the Middle East as a very low priority for the incoming administration.

Ultimately, Khalidi argues, it is not tenable to destroy regimes and states in order to fight shady transnational networks. Bush’s success has been in framing the war on a terror as a war that must be fought exclusively militarily. As a result, there has been a decline of US influence in the region which has created opportunities for other countries, which have huge interests in the region, to participate. One regional example he pointed to was Turkey’s role in brokering talks between Israel and Syria. I look forward to reading the new book, which I know will articulate these ideas much better than me, and hope that folks in the incoming administration do so as well.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Shoe Day

I am assuming everyone saw The Shoe. A smile has not left my face since I did. My students, who are all abuzz, were discussing a popular talk show host here who proclaimed December 14 Valentine's Day in the Arab world. Shoe day. After all, it was a farewell kiss.

Here, all of my students are talking about it, and loving it, as people are throughout the world. As am I. Muntader al-Zaidi is my hero. I am thinking that he is a real poet. I mean, if he had physically attacked Bush with an intent to injure him, it would not have been the same. The shoe is such a profound insult in Arab culture. It was really perfect. Al-Zaidi saying what he did. Throwing both shoes. Brilliant political theater.

If you haven't seen it or, like me, can't stop watching it, you can see the Al-Jazeera (English) report here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An office tour

Since I gave my final final exam this morning, it seemed like a good time to provide some of the "after" pictures of my office. The view has not changed much. The courtyard outside my window remains unfinished with cables and piles of dirt.

Inside, I have seen some nice upgrades including a trash can and a rug.

The office even looks occupied.

Ah, books! The best part of any office.

And I have a nice coat rack where I can hang things, should I so desire.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ira goes to the embassy

I went to the US embassy in Cario today for the second time in my life. At the time of my first visit there in 1996, it was the largest US embassy in the world. Today it is the second largest (after Baghdad).

In 1996, I went there thanks to the worst airline in the world. Tarom Romanian Air refused to allow me to board my departing flight because it included an “illegal” layover in Bucharest. (On my initial flight I had already expended my “legal” layover.) I have no idea how an airline can issue a ticket with an illegal layover, although the discount shop I used in New York bore some of the responsibility (and later reimbursed me some money). So my flight was scheduled to leave in the middle of the night. I called an embassy hotline when I was refused boarding. The situation could not be resolved and I was told to come to the embassy first thing the following morning. I did as I was told and arrived before the embassy opened at 8am and there was a huge line (a couple hundred people as I recall) of mostly black folks, presumably African, waiting. One of the security guards noticed me in the crowd, asked me if I was a US citizen, and brought me to the front of the line. Very uncomfortable though I did not ask any questions, let alone complain. Once inside, the arrangements for my return flight remarkably had already been made. I would need to stay around a couple more days because Tarom only had two flights out per week. They offered to loan me money (or somehow help me get some) since there were not any ATMs in Cairo then. I didn’t need any, but was impressed by the power of my passport. I did have to go to the Tarom office, where I had to pick up the ticket from the same guy who I had been arguing with at the Cairo Airport at about 2am that morning.

This morning, I went back to the US embassy because I need to get pages added to my passport. The lines were shorter, though still segregated. After being told to turn off my cellphone, I was able to enter. I had to check my phone and ipod at the security office. I walked through a metal detector, was wanded. My bag was sent through an xray machine, which buzzed to indicate a bomb. Seriously. I was able to see the screen which displayed a message indicating that this was a test, but that my bag should be searched by hand. After making sure my eyeglasses case really contained eyeglasses, I was allowed to go ahead.

The embassy’s architecture probably deserves an entire blog to itself (and preferably by an architect). I think it would only be a slight overstatement to say that anything you wanted to know about US foreign policy can be seen in the architecture of this embassy, which was built in 1994 for the US’s then-largest diplomatic mission. (A few years ago I saw a coffee table-style photo book on US embassies around the world.) It is, of course, entirely walled in and closed to the outside. The surrounding streets are, as is common, blocked off. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible for someone on the outside to see anything on the other side of the walls. Once you enter, there is a small unwelcoming paved area—nothing green, uninviting, nobody there. To the left, there is an outdoor stairwell where people can descend to a belowground tent-covered outdoor waiting area. I think this area is for non-citizen services. Those like me with US passports enter the building on the right. This building does not have many windows facing outdoors, but the lobby is four stories high with office windows that look indoors. Instead of looking outside from your office, you look at your own lobby. There are no balconies or anything, so all of the entrances are hidden from view. No natural light either.

After entering the building, for US citizen services, you need to go downstairs to the basement. I took a number and was seen right away. I filled out a form and was told to come back tomorrow. I explained that I was teaching in Kattameya and would not be able to come tomorrow and they said I could come back after 1pm, which I did and voilà. I have a fatter passport.

The wait gave me the chance to spend some time downtown, part of which I spent reading a new Egyptian novel, Alaa Al Aswany’s Chicago. One scene I read has an Egyptian couple living in Illinois. The evil opportunistic husband is trying to convince his wife that they should have a child. Part of his argument is that the child will have US citizenship, and that, “People pay tens of thousands of dollars for an American passport…” I thought, yes, the value of a US passport. After a lunch of koushary, I went back to the embassy to pick mine up.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Oral reports

Three oral reports today. All were very good. Let me share the highlights.

Student one got sick during his oral report and needed to step out of the classroom. He’s a great student so there was nothing sketchy. He returned and completed his presentation, which was very good. However, he was really embarrassed and ended up compounding the situation by talking a lot about it when he returned. Instead of a generic I-am-not-feeling-well-and-needed-a-moment, he offered the rest of the class (7 in all) a much more detailed account of his nausea. He said that he did not want things to get disgusting and felt that a mess might have ensued if he had not stepped out, and that the table would have needed to be cleaned, etc. Like I said, he was really embarrassed. The harder he tried to offer an explanation, the worse it became.

Student two wore a bright purple fur shawl. It was very cool and got the attention of the other students in the class; those who are scheduled to make presentations on Tuesday discussed the possibility of borrowing it or otherwise preparing a comparable wardrobe. Her presentation matched the accessory.

Student three has a severe phobia of presentations and last week asked to be excused from it. I kindly refused but offered to go over it with her in advance. This had been going on over email for a few days. She is an excellent student, so I explained to her that her presentation was part of her contribution to the seminar (which has been consistently good all semester). She was visibly nervous at times, but afterward she was almost grateful that I had encouraged her to do it. It went off without any hitches. One of the allowances I made was switching her from first to third, which may have helped since the strangeness of student one’s illness strangely lightened the mood.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tennis, anyone?

I played tennis twice this week for the first time since July when I was playing a few times per week in PA. (What’s up, Walter?) A colleague and I go to the Maadi House, a club that is aimed at US State Department employees, but serves others with US passports in the neighborhood. There is a swimming pool and green space and American food and a children’s playground. It seems especially popular with AUC faculty who live in the area and have kids. We are not members, but know some folks who are, one of whom has beaten me in tennis twice this week.

The courts are clay, which is a bit of an adjustment since I have only ever played on standard concrete. The ball bounces with a wicked spin off of the clay (plus the person I have been playing with is a squash player who knows how to slice the ball). Not that any of this is meant to be an excuse. I won’t print the score here lest you think me a masochist. It is a lot of fun; I’ll be out there again next week.

What else have I been doing for exercise here beyond the walking that accompanies city living? I mentioned the swimming pool in an earlier blog, which I try to use three times per week. I attend Jenna’s Ashtanga yoga class usually once per week, though ideally I would go twice (and this week I did). The other new addition to my program is a membership to the weight room at Cairo American College, the same place where I swim. I abandoned the very nice gym which has personal television monitors attached to all of the cardiovascular machines and loud techno music. The equipment there was excellent and everyone was friendly, but the decision was a financial one. I paid 450LE for one month, which is a little bit more than $80US. Had I signed up for multiple months, as I considered, that fee would have applied toward a longer-term membership where the price would have come down to perhaps $50-60.

Instead, for 100LE (less than $20US) per month, I go to the CAC weight room which is a classic high school gym with lots of weights and old rebuilt equipment all over the place in a big room. Sort of the like the YMCAs I have used in the US (before their renovations). It has pretty much everything I need to get in a little bit of exercise, and enough free weights for me to take up bodybuilding should I desire. They don’t have much in the way of cardio equipment but it is next to the pool and there is an outdoor track right outside. Since I live in Egypt, I don’t need to worry about rain or cold keeping me indoors.

One of the drawbacks is that it has limited community hours, 6:30pm-9:30pm six days per week. Because of the holiday, I have only been there a few times, but each time I was the only person in there other than the super nice guy who works there. Not a soul. It is a little bit strange, though also convenient. I can jump rope without striking anyone. Apparently the facility gets used by the athletics program during the day, but in the evening it is all mine.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Kulle Sana Wintu Tayyibiin

I have been off from work this week; the university is closed for the Eid el Adha. In terms of the academic year, it comes at a peculiar if somewhat fortuitous time this year. Next week when we return, there will be only 2 days of classes scheduled. Most of that time will be exams, preparations, oral presentations, course evaluations, and the like. Not a lot of “teaching” going on. This week gives me a chance to catch my breath, catch up on reading and grading, and catch up on blogging (I hope). It works out for the students as a sort of end-of-semester reading week, enabling them to prepare for their final exams or write their papers.

The holiday itself is three days long, so there is still some time for the students to work after all of their feasting. The Eid el Adha observes when God tested Abraham (yes, that Abraham) by asking him to sacrifice his son. Abraham agreed, but then God, once convinced of Abraham’s faith, spared his son and replaced him with a lamb. This Eid is then a day when Muslims sacrifice an animal to demonstrate their faith. It also marks the end of the Hajj pilgrimage.

It is completely ridiculous and presumptuous that I am writing about a religion that I understand so superficially, but there you have it.

I can comment with only slightly more authority on what happens here in Cairo. Last week, people started bringing animals into town for the sacrifice. Mostly sheep and goats, though there are cows in the mix too. Driving along the road, I saw impromptu sheep markets. People could hear animals in downtown neighborhoods. Since this is a ritual sacrifice, they take place publicly, often in the street or in a yard following the halal way of butchering—bleeding from the neck. The blood, then, is used to bless the home of those making the sacrifice. The meat is divided into three portions—one is kept by the family making the offering, a second is distributed to friends, neighbors, and family, and a third is distributed as charity to the poor.

In many neighborhoods throughout Cairo, the sacrifices take place on the public streets. In Maadi, where we live, that is less common. Here, many people are relatively well-to-do and may hire a butcher to come to their yard and make the sacrifice while the appropriate prayers are said. I did not see much myself. I saw a few butchers in blood-stained coats walking down the road holding some very large, bloody knives. I saw a couple of piles of bones and one carcass off to the side of the road. From a friend’s home where I was last night, I was able to watch some folks cutting up a very large piece of meat in their yard. Whenever I went out yesterday, I brought my camera but didn’t have a chance to use it.

This practice understandably freaks out lots of foreigners who are not used to seeing animals die. Though I am not particularly squeamish, I am sure such a sight would have affected me (and maybe even made me a temporary vegetarian). At the same time, I like what this celebration suggests about public spaces. I do like the visibility and openness it implies. The truth of where our food comes from can be a bit messy, but I don’t resent being confronted with it. For people celebrating the Eid, this holiday also allows them to honor, from a slightly different perspective, the source of their food—God. I eat the meat and eggs and milk of animals who, I am sure, suffer terribly, but I buy it in the supermarket where I don’t have to see the blood.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fayoum Vacation

This is my long overdue report from our trip to the Fayoum and the Western Desert, which is to the southwest of Cairo. Our first stop was Kom Oushim, an ancient city in the region and a center for agricultural production and animal husbandry.

Historically, the Fayoum has been important because it is the lowest-lying and most fertile region of the country. Since the Middle Kingdom period, perhaps 4000 years ago, it has been a center for agriculture. Then more recently, about 300BC, irrigation systems, among the world’s most sophisticated, were developed to distribute the freshwater overflow from the Nile throughout the valley region. Throughout the rest of Egypt, there was only be one crop harvest per year; in the Fayoum they were able to manage three. This picture is an old wall that we drove over which is a regulator that was built to create the artificial reservoir that provided water to the region. The wall/road, which I’d say is at least 5 miles long, is probably 13th century, but is likely on the site of previous walls that were built to serve the same purpose, which this one continues to serve.

Other highlights of the trip were a couple of Middle Kingdom pyramids: Hawara

and Lahun.
The experience is so much different than visiting the pyramids at Giza. Here, we were more or less alone with these enormous structures. A few notes about the conditions of the bricks. The outer layer of pyramids in this part of the country were built with limestone, which is a very good mortar used in construction. So, the outer layer of limestone has been taken over the years. (This explains the much better preservation of granite monuments.) I really loved these sites—it gives a good sense of the extent of monuments in ancient Egypt and I admit there is something romantic about their remoteness.

We also visited some natural sites—including a lake and park with some small waterfalls and an array of birds (one of our guides was a naturalist).
The original itinerary included a park with whale fossils, but there was a conflict with the bus company (who claimed this destination was not on the original itinerary and that the road was not in good enough condition) so this will have to wait until a future trip.

We stayed overnight at the Panorama Hotel, which I liked though it seems like the rooms ranged in quality. On the range, we hit the jackpot. Our spot had a huge balcony overlooking Lake Fayoum.

When I say we were alone at most of these sites, I should point out that we had a military escort for the entire trip. About 10 years ago, after an attack on a tour bus in Luxor, the Egyptian government required military escort for any tour groups traveling outside of the main citieis or tourist sites. So once we enter the Fayoum governate, there is a truck of soldiers that we follow around. And all of the sites have guards positioned very dramatically. Though there has been some unrest in this region, I think that a lot of it is performative (as I guess many military installations are). I was grateful if for no other reason that they made for some nice dramatic photographs.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The end is near

Coming Soon: Last weekend, we went to the Fayoum region which was great. I will write more and post some pictures this weekend. Sorry for neglecting the blog; this has been a busy week.

The Good News: After tomorrow, I will only have two days of scheduled classes. But, in American Studies, I am giving the exam in class on one of those days, so there will really be only one day (at least in terms of what I need to prepare). And in Literature and Human Rights, my students are giving oral presentations, so there will really be no days.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Literature, Human Rights, Chili, and Cornbread

My upper-level “Literature and Human Rights” class, which I have mentioned here before, meets for one hour three times per week, which makes screening films difficult, especially if they are longer than two hours. Plus the technology on campus is not yet fully functional. So I decided to have this group of students over to my flat on Saturday to share a meal and watch the film. I don’t normally do this, but I actually really like all six of the students—three are graduating this semester, one is an exchange student from Norway, one is a graduate student, and the final one is a junior literature major. I canceled a couple of our regular class meetings and set this up. Plus there is an office on campus that provides some reimbursement for student entertainment.

Everyone came and it was lovely. Jenna and I prepared some food. Jenna made delicious chili and the moistest spicy cornbread in the history of the world. I produced some rice pudding (with coconut, pistachios, and raisins). It was all a huge hit, especially Jenna’s contributions. Everyone took seconds of chill and emptied the pot. Even the Egyptian-American student who grew up in the chili capital of the world, Ohio, was loving it! They are clamoring for the recipe (Jenna?), which I said I would send by email. The students were appreciative and gracious. They brought a card, some chocolates, and a huge flower arrangement. (I didn't have the forethought to take a picture while they were here).

As nice of an event as it was, there was one damper to the festivities—my choice of film. We were watching Raoul Peck’s brilliant Sometimes in April, which stars Stringer Bell (shout out to all my Wire peoples) aka Idris Elba. The film is about the Rwandan genocide and is quite disturbing, not only in its subject but in its graphic portrayals. Through the lens of an international criminal tribunal held 10 years after the genocide, it recounts the experiences of two brothers. The film connects to a novel we are reading about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Gillian Slovo’s Red Dust. We also saw the recent film Rendition and are doing Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako next week.

This was an element of extremely poor planning on my part. Sometimes in April is not much of a party film. Fortunately we ate before the movie. I am not sure if the leftover popcorn was a result of the subject matter or if everyone was full on Jenna’s chili and cornbread. Last year at Gettysburg, I made a similar gaffe when I, inattentive to content, ordered pizza for my students to correspond with another film screening—the second half of Apocalypse Now. That may have been worse since we ate while watching the film.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Teaching Malcolm X

I have been teaching The Autobiography of Malcolm X in my Introduction to American Studies class. Leading up to it, we have read lots of “American” primary source documents---from a letter from Columbus to the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution to David Walker’s Appeal. We just finished reading a book by Ted Conover, New Jack, which is his account of a year spent working at Sing Sing Prison in upstate New York, and an article by economist Glenn Loury exploring, “Why are so Many Americans in Prison?” (which is the basis for a new book he wrote under the same title). So we are thinking a lot about prisons and Malcolm X’s autobiography presents a unique and valuable perspective on this most American of institutions.

The first day we discussed the book was terribly chaotic. There were so many different things that the students wanted to discuss, from his name to his father’s religion. I had some questions I wanted to pose, but basically the wheels fell off because there were so many different questions on the table. Fortunately we are spending about 3 weeks with the book so I have plenty of opportunities to try to put them back on. Virtually none of the students had read the book previously, though most have seen Spike Lee’s film. They are very enthusiastic and are enjoying reading the book.

I guess the thing that struck me the most was our discussion of religion. We have been talking about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (we haven’t yet reached Malcolm’s hajj and turn toward Sunni Islam, or discussed his influence on the late Warith Deen Muhammed) and I was surprised by the students’ openness. They were serious and accepting of Malcolm’s faith, which, at this point in the autobiography (mid-1950s), contains very little that would be familiar to my students, the majority of whom are Muslim. There was no skepticism or cynicism toward his religion, even one that draws so heavily on secular and political ideas rather than doctrines typically defined as religious. It made no difference. There was real earnestness that was in no ways naïve. The same attitude extends to their discussions of issues of morality. By contrast, their attitude toward government and that state does have a good bit of cynicism, similar to what one would find among young people in the US. I figure this is one byproduct of life in non-secular society; religion, regardless of what it is, is not questioned.

One strange aside: I am not sure if anyone caught reports of Zawahari’s latest al-Qaeda video, which is a criticism of Obama. Zawahari, who by the way is Egyptian, juxtaposes images of Obama with images of Malcolm X, suggesting that Obama is in the Powell-Rice tradition rather than the Malcolm tradition. He uses Malcolm’s historically flawed rhetoric on “house” and “field” slaves as the basis for the criticism. Nonetheless, al-Qaeda’s appropriation of Malcolm (he has been used in their videos before) is almost as fascinating as it is problematic. I may show some of the video to my class to get their perspective on what they consider to be Malcolm’s ongoing significance in this region and in the world.

The flawed comparison of Obama and Malcolm brings to mind one of my favorite moments of the presidential campaign when during one of the primary debates the candidates were asked, kind of bizarrely, who Martin Luther King would endorse. Obama replied clearly: “I don’t think Dr. King would endorse any of us.” He recognized that his own role in electoral politics was different than the role of movement activists like King (and Malcolm), who would, Obama went on to explain, continue to serve a vital role on the outside, holding those on the inside accountable. Obama is wise enough to know that he has not inherited, as many pundits posit, a movement mantle (though his opportunities are a result of the movement) and that the democratic sphere is not limited to electoral politics. (This is also why Hillary’s comments on LBJ and MLK were so disturbing; they represent a profound lack of appreciation for the role that non-electoral democratic movements have played in US history.)

I know it is a tangent. I guess I am like my students in that way.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

On the other side of the table

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, I was on my first graduate comprehensive examination committee. The student is an M.A. candidate who has completed her coursework and is preparing his thesis proposal. For the exam, she develops a statement and a list of texts that represent a wide array of world literature in terms of place, period, language, and genre. Her list, which I first saw a couple of months ago, is focused on gender and the idea of “wayward women.” The committee, which consists of me and two colleagues, prepared a series of questions for the written portion of the examination, which she took last week. The three of us read her exam and then met for the oral portion of the exam earlier this week. We spent close to an hour asking questions about her written responses and other texts on her list.

The written responses were full of detail but, I thought and others agreed, a bit limited analytically. During the oral exam, things initially went much the same. We would ask her something very specific about the text and she would go on to provide a detailed summary of the texts but really said little about the specific question we were asking (in my case about the narrative voice in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior). But through follow ups questions, we drew her out into what I felt were some rather sophisticated commentaries on all of the works.

She left the room and the three of us discussed her briefly. It was pretty clear that she had passed the exam, and all we need to decide is pass or fail. We raised the concerns we had and the department chair offered her explanation. This student, like most of our graduate students, is a product of the national system. She is a graduate of Cairo University, which is, with 200,000 students, I believe, one of the largest campuses in the world. (I was there for a conference a few weeks ago—fascinating place.) Cairo University is an excellent school; it shares many faculty members with AUC. But the style of education is different. There is an emphasis on rote learning, rather than the kinds of critical analysis that characterize literary study at a US-style liberal arts college. So, at least according the chair, she has been trained to produce these kinds of summaries. And she is quite good at it. She has an extraordinary memory and is able to quote extensively off the top of her head. When directed, however, she can offer more insights. She wasn’t being deliberately evasive. Rather she was discussing the texts in the manner in which she had been trained.

After about five minutes of discussion among ourselves, we invited her back into the room and offered our congratulations along with some suggestions for her future work. Everyone left smiling.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Meet the Parents

I was planning to blog about teaching The Autobiography of Malcolm X but that will have to wait because I had an impromptu meeting with one of my students’ parents! (I also sat on my first oral comprehensive examination for a Master’s candidate, which is worth a blog entry too, but that will have to wait as well. For now, mabruk! She passed.)

One of my students in my core humanities class has been failing for some obvious reasons. She has been absent 11 times and late 7 other times (so far the class has met for 28 of its 36 sessions). And she has not handed in 7 of her 9 written assignments. Early in the semester, when I spoke to her about her attendance, she blamed her bus driver, which is ridiculous since the first bus arrives on campus at 8:15 and our class starts at 10:50; she was taking the latest bus that was scheduled to arrive on campus at the time our class started. About 4 weeks ago, I posted her mid-semester grade, which was an F, and asked her to see me. No words or response. She continued to miss classes and assignments.

Finally, she came to see me on Sunday, with a medical explanation and a file of her medical records. It wasn’t the bus driver after all; it was her thyroid. The doctor’s notes were sketchy: one called her a “very nice young girl” and another indicated that this problem is ongoing extending back to September. And it was dated the previous day.

My interpretation is that she may have some sort of medical condition, but it is largely irrelevant to her failing performance in class. I took her materials and spoke to my department chair. I tried to call the advising office, but was unable to reach anyone there for two days. I wrote her an email explaining the situation and encouraging her to withdraw from the class and that I would indicate she was “passing,” in consideration of her illness. (Withdrawals appear on transcripts as WF or WP to indicate whether or not the student was passing or failing at the time of withdrawal. The grades appear on transcripts but it does not figure negatively into a student’s GPA, which is hugely important here as most of the majors accept students on that basis.)

No word for two days. This morning, her adviser finally calls me. And she tells me that her parents are on campus and want to meet with me. Ugh. There was no way out of it. They came up right away. I explained the situation to them, which included the observation that the class is a seminar and that the classroom work can not be made up. I shared with them my recommendation that she withdraw. They told me that they did not understand why I did not accept her excuse, which her other professors did. They are allowing her to make up the missed work (though I know she did not miss as many classes elsewhere since mine was the first of the day and I once even saw her on campus after she missed my class). I explained that I was terribly sorry for her illness but that I did not think it could be made up. Had she spoken to me about this when the situation began, it might have been different. She asked about the possibility of an incomplete, which is quite rare and which I discouraged.

If this illness is serious enough to be responsible for all of her missed work and is ongoing, as indicated by her and her doctor, I don’t see how she can make up a full semester’s work for 5 course in 3 weeks, especially when she told me her doctor suggested she stay home. In my email to her, I told her that I suggested that she concentrate on her health so that when she returns to school she will be healthy and strong.

Her parents were fine, though they were probably not too happy with me. No fireworks, but the entire scene felt kind of dramatic; my student's eyes were welling up with tears. Yes, I felt bad and am still wondering if I did the right thing. When they all left my office, things seemed up in the air. But about thirty minutes later she came by with the withdrawal form which I signed.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Swimming under the stars

I have finally gotten my swim on in Cairo.

In my neighborhood, there is an American madrassa, Cairo American College, which is where the children of AUC faculty go to school. (It also serves the children of US diplomats and many other folks, including many non-Americans.) Because AUC pays tuition for so many kids to attend CAC, they are given “non-affiliate passes” which enables non-affiliates like me to access their rather impressive and very American grounds, the highlight of which is the swimming pool.

Getting to the pool required many steps. First I had to go to the ID office and get an ID bill. Next I had to go to the cashier to pay for the ID ($42 US I think). The cashier gave me a validated receipt, which I returned to the ID office to actually get the ID. It was slightly complicated, but I handled it.

Next stop was the swimming pool. I needed to do the same thing there: get a bill, pay the cashier, return to the swimming pool for the pool pass (a 10-visit punch card for $30 US). However, when I was on campus for the ID, the pool office was closed. The pool office is only open during open swim hours, which vary from day-to-day, but on weekdays are only in the evenings, usually 7:30 to 8:30. So the following day I had to go back to get my bill for the pool. But I couldn’t pay the bill until at least the next day because the cashier is only open until 3:30pm. And the trip to pay the bill could not be paired with a swim since the pool is only open in the evening. So after paying, I had to go back to the pool office the following day to get the pass.

Needless to say this all took some time to get set up, but it was all worth it. The pool is glorious. It is outside and big. While I am not typically an evening swimmer and the schedule is quite limited, there is something to be said for swimming under the stars in Cairo. It is a great feeling. The pool is heated and open all year round. The night air is cool here, already much cooler than I would have expected (and it will get even colder during the coming months). But the air and the water feel great.

It feels good to be back in the pool. And today it was extra good. As I was walking across the CAC campus to the pool around sunset (weekend swim hours are earlier), there were lots of kids playing soccer and, well, mostly playing soccer. As I was getting into the pool, I heard Dead Prez’s “Hip Hop” blasting from huge speakers across campus; there must have been some sort of student activity. You know that made me smile, and I thought, here at the American school, this is what I like about America.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Front page news

The October 31, 2008, edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a front-page article about the new AUC campus.

http://chronicle.com/weekly/v55/i10/10a00103.htm

From the issue dated October 31, 2008
OFF BEAT

At American U. in Cairo, Pardon the Mess

It was sometime during the summer, when rumors spread through the city that the new campus of the American University in Cairo was infested with giant desert rats, that the sales job its administrators were trying to achieve fell off the rails.

They had already had a hard enough time persuading 6,000 faculty members and students to abandon the somewhat charming and relatively convenient campus the university had inhabited at the heart of the city for 89 years. Downtown Cairo is filthy and congested, but just about everyone at AUC was dead-set against relocating the campus to a sand-swept suburb an hour's drive from the banks of the Nile. Despite a full-bore public-relations campaign that led to many breathless news articles, nobody wanted to leave.

The naysaying might have ebbed if the rats, which were feasting on several hundred miles of newly laid fiber-optic cable, had been the only problem. But as August turned to September, desert rats were among the least of the university's woes.

The contractors hired to build the 260-acre campus — a partnership between the South Korean company Samsung and the Egyptian company Samcrete — had missed deadline after deadline. By the time everyone arrived in August, the university's $400-million showpiece ($100-million of it from the U.S. Agency for International Development) was still a dusty construction zone.

Now, in October, hard hats are still required on half of the campus. Instead of the buzz of excitement administrators had worked hard to create, the campus is noisy with the din of construction. And faculty members and students are not happy.

"We're peeved," says Joshua Middleman, who represents political-science students in the institution's recently revived Graduate Students' Association. "This has been a total disaster, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see AUC's international student body drop in half because of this campus."

Six months ago, a tour guide ushered her hard-hatted guests through a stretch of desert at the campus's edge, where she said shady palm trees would be planted to cool the hot desert breezes. The visitors passed under a massive dome, fashioned after that of the Great Mosque at Córdoba, Spain, and onto a campus laid out along a curved central walkway. Courtyards and gardens branching off the central walk would feature 27 fountains and pools of water, the guide said. The planners and architects had used elements of traditional Egyptian architecture to create an atmosphere of comfort and calm — the perfect venue for higher learning.

Today, just outside the library near the end of that central walkway, workers saw, drill, and hammer their way toward finishing the athletics center, the 400 units of students housing, and the main cafeteria. Along with the theater, the laboratories, and the swimming pool, they are closed to students and faculty until, well, until further notice.

"It's been inconvenient to people, and annoying to people, and there isn't really any doubt about that," says Lisa Anderson, the provost. "On the other hand, I honestly believe that a lot of this was unavoidable." She has had angry phone calls, e-mail messages, and visits from dozens of frustrated, dust-covered faculty members. Her message to them, she says, has been: "Let's just do it. Let's just figure it out."

It became clear in August that the semester ahead would be rocky, at best. That was just about the time Ms. Anderson left Columbia University, where she was dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, to take her new post here.

But many faculty members and students believe AUC administrators' big mistake came in May, when they accepted the contractors' word that they would finish more or less when they had planned: June 1.

"Everybody said there would be some slippage, so maybe it's the first of July or even the middle of July, and we'll be fine," Ms. Anderson says.

But as any homeowner who has ever built an addition can attest, construction work often falls behind schedule. And the American University in Cairo's faculty veterans quietly say administrators failed to take into account the chaotic way just about everything happens in Cairo, Africa's most populous city.

"We also knew that holding back on the move until the contractor had achieved 'substantial completion' of the entire campus post-September would not serve our objective of getting us into our new facilities, simply because it would not have been possible to undertake and complete the physical move of the entire university during the academic year," explains Paul Donoghue, vice president of planning and administration, in an e-mail message.

By mid-July things were obviously off course when foreign students were told they would be housed in an army officers' hotel across town rather than in campus housing, which still isn't complete today. They were also given the option to defer their stint at AUC until next spring.

"This was a hint," says Phil Zager, a visiting student from the University of Southern California. "They were trying to discourage us from coming, but in the most polite terms possible."

The "disaster," as Mr. Middleman calls it, took full form on September 7, the first day of classes.

Faculty members moved into offices that didn't have locks, phones, or Internet connections — in fact, some didn't even have electricity. The classroom furniture hadn't been assembled, so many students sat on the floor for their first few classes, sometimes enduring 110-degree heat because the air-conditioning hadn't been installed. One student reported that the air-conditioning was working fine in her classroom, but there was no glass in the windows.

Some restrooms didn't have toilets. Others had toilets, but no water hook-up. And since there were no signs to stop people from using them, the restrooms became a fetid mess, made worse by the late summer heat.

It wasn't long before the simmering discontent bubbled over, and student politicians began to rail against the administration. Some students revived the long-defunct Graduate Students' Association, while others founded the Foreign Students' Association. In late September, a group of study-abroad students wrote to their home institutions. The 11-page letter chronicled a litany of complaints, but most seriously, it said several female students had been sexually harassed at the army officers' hotel. Ms. Anderson says the administration dealt with the harassment cases "swiftly and decisively," with criminal prosecutions.

Plumbing and other basic services are now established, but other nuisances continue to hamper the newcomers. Most taxi drivers have no idea how to get to the new campus. People who do find it discover it has no maps or signs. Calling ahead is nearly impossible as there is no directory of the new telephone extensions.

And then there is the problem of the files.

In his office at the center for electronic journalism, Lawrence Pintak's blinds haven't arrived, so a piece of red cloth is roughly stapled across the window.

"Reach down and slide that file cabinet open," he says. It's empty.

"Every file drawer on campus was built to fit American letter-size file folders. But in Egypt, all that is available is A4," Mr. Pintak says. That means every single piece of paper is almost an inch too long for the file cabinets, so offices and hallways are littered with stacks of file folders that don't fit in the drawers. "It's just idiotic," says Mr. Pintak.

Ms. Anderson says she has tried to keep faculty members focused on the reason the new campus exists: the possibilities it represents.

"You have an opportunity while people are out of the standard operating procedures to have them think in new ways about what they do, why they do it, who they do it with," she says.

Meanwhile, it seems as though AUC's experience with desert wildlife isn't over. This month a desert fox ambled in from the sand dunes, evaded a dozen security guards, and ran roughshod through the School of Business, Economics, and Communication before it was cornered in one of the computer labs.

http://chronicle.com
Section: International
Volume 55, Issue 10, Page A1


Copyright © 2008 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

The thing about the filing cabinets is really annoying!

Friday, November 7, 2008

DAM

Last night, we went to Zamalek for a hip-hop show, featuring perhaps the Arab world’s greatest hip-hop groups, DAM (Da Arabian MCs-dam also means blood in Arabic).

I first heard their song “Min Irhabi?” ("Who’s a Terrorist?”) in the early 2000s, and have loved them every since. Since they are Palestinian and based in Jerusalem, I was unbelievably excited to find out that they were performing here in Cairo. They shared the bill with a few other artists—DJ Feedo (who I mentioned in an earlier post; he seems to be the local scene’s impresario), and some decent local groups Ghetto Pharoz and Arabian Knights.

DAM were amazing and the crowd was hyped. I was able to use Jenna’s camera to film a couple of minutes which I am posting here. They are performing “Da Dam” (“This is Dam”). This whole video-on-the-blog thing is a bit new to me. I realize the quality leaves a lot to be desired but I wanted to share something that shows you a little bit of the energy from River Hall last night. (And I am open to suggestions anyone has about balancing file size—for upload- and stream-ability—and quality.)

video

You can check out more from DAM on myspace.

Oh, and they brought down the house when they closed their set with “Min Irhabi?”!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Today

when people ask me where I am from (as they frequently do), I can hold my head a little bit higher than I did yesterday when I reply amriika.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Terry Eagleton Comes to Cairo

AUC has a Distinguished Visiting Professor program, which enables departments to bring distinguished visitors to Cairo for a week to give a series of lectures. Our department—English and Comparative Literature—brings two people in every year, the fall visitor delivering the Edward Said Memorial Lecture on November 1, which was Said’s birthday. So far, they have invited folks who knew Said; last year, Cornel West came to town. This week, we are hosting Terry Eagleton, one of the best known literary critics in the English-speaking world. Eagleton recently was forced into retirement (at age 65) by Manchester University. He is Irish, lives in Dublin, taught for many years at Oxford, and has published dozens of books.

Friday: Jenna and I attended a reception in Eagleton’s honor at the Dean’s home (an awesome sixth floor apartment on the Nile). Not only was this a chance to meet Eagleton—and his super-cool 10-year-old son, but there were other folks who knew Said, including a few people who grew up with him. There were two women—professors at Cairo University—who lived in the same Zamalek apartment as Said and grew up playing with him. And there was a man who attended the conservatory here and brought Said there after learning he was a pianist—they were classical music buddies. As I sat there, listening to incredible stories (including one about the burning down of the US Cultural Center here following the assassination of Lumumba), I realized how very fortunate I am to be part of such a rich cultural scene.

Saturday: Eagleton delivered the Said lecture at the old AUC campus downtown, though he did not really talk about Said. To describe the event as standing-room-only would be an understatement. The room was far too small. His talk, “Terror and Tragedy,” touched on a range of topics, including a conflict between tragedy and materialism. He presented the argument in way that, I think, illuminated some of these implications for culture, economics, religion, law, and politics. It is part of a book he recently published in England, which is, I believe, not yet available in the US--Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics. After the talk, I was able to go out to dinner with him a small group of people, which was nice. Very strange since I remember so well reading Literary Theory: An Introduction, Marxism and Literary Criticism, and Ideology: An Introduction as an undergraduate all those years ago. His writing made a lot of theory more accessible to me than it would have been otherwise. I enjoyed his books then, and have enjoyed returning to them. And I enjoyed sharing Lebanese food with him, his son, Jenna, and some colleagues here in Cairo.

Monday (today): Eagleton delivered “The Death of Criticism?” at the new campus, which was well attended by students and others even if the crowd did not rival that of Saturday night. A lot of my students came to both events—especially my first years who had a bit of trouble understanding the Saturday talk. They aren’t used to the academic discourse which, for me, is all the more reason for them to attend. This talk on the new campus was, I think, more geared toward students. (I will find out from them tomorrow what they thought.) Here he gave an overview of how the literary critic came to occupy the role of intellectual in the early 20th century, and how those roles are products of specific historical circumstances and economic forces. He discussed the role of the creative imagination as a political force, and sought to redefine the practice of literary theory (c. 1965-1985) as a practice of close reading. There was a defense of a sort of politically left formalism, but I am not sure where that leaves the rather important arguments he has been making for decades about the materiality of literature and culture. His argument is that the changing historical landscape has altered the materiality of literary critical discourse (which may sound kind of simplistic as I write it though I don't think it is).

Postscript: Anyway, the visit was a lot of fun. You can get some of Eagleton in his own words from a good Guardian interview that appeared last year amid his tiff with Martin Amis.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Lost and Found

I moved my six-student Literature and Human Rights class into my office a couple of weeks ago when I found a nice table in my office. (I will try to get pictures; I got a small rug too. And a trash can!) It is a nice group, and meeting in the office give it a nice vibe. Largely due to the class size, I have probably gotten to know this group of students better than any other.

Last week, one of the students lost her mobile phone before coming to class. I knew she was looking for it. We checked the office and the area and it was nowhere to be found. The next time I saw her, I asked about it and she told me that she found it. Il-hamdu li-ilaah.

The story of how she found it is, in part, a story of quite ingenious detective work.

Unable to find the phone, she went to security. The security guard took her mobile number and gave it to several supervisors who fanned out over campus dialing her number until they heard a phone ring. They were moving around the groups of construction workers, who are everywhere because, remember, construction is incomplete. After about an hour of this, one security officer finally heard a ring, and found a phone that matched the description given by my student in the pocket of one of the workers. In fairness, he insisted that he was going to turn it in.

After returning the phone to my grateful student, the security supervisor insured her that there would not have been a problem since the workers are searched before they leave campus! This part of story disturbed me a little bit. I don’t know what this searching involves or understand how it really could identify and uncover a contraband mobile phone. And while I am glad that my student’s phone was recovered, I do not like the idea that my employer searches some people before they leave work for the day. It would even be preferable if they “searched” everyone. To enter campus, I only have to show my ID.

Of course, it was not any kind of uniform search that uncovered the mobile. And despite whatever they are doing, there has been an ongoing rash of thefts on the new campus (lots of computers taken from offices).

There are literally thousands of extra people—mostly contractors--on campus doing different tasks, and things are still chaotic. The construction workers are paid 32LE per day (about $6US), which after transportation costs, is probably not enough to support a family. (The construction delays are partly attributable to high turnover because of the low wages.) And the system of subcontracting has created an entirely different dynamic. At the old campus, there was a service worker assigned to each department who cleaned and handled other kinds of administrative responsibilities. Most were there for decades and developed close ties to their departments. In addition to receiving a university salary, they were the beneficiaries of the crucial, if informal, Egyptian system of baksheesh, or tipping. These folks are still employed by the university, and work at the old downtown campus. But the large cleaning company that the university has hired for the new campus will not have the same stability, and AUC will have little input over the treatment of its workers. And the salaries are low, which should be embarrassing for an institution whose students are so wealthy. (I don’t know what the direct hires were or are paid.)

At the University of Miami a few years ago, a similar dynamic resulted in a massive, and ultimately successful, unionization campaign among contracted cleaners and gardeners. UM embarrassed itself by not supporting the workers in the face of protests from workers, students, and faculty. At Gettysburg College, as I understand it, the folks who cleaned the campus were employees of the college and received all of the related benefits, including tuition for their children (at Gettysburg or elsewhere).

AUC’s response to the thefts on campus has been tightening restrictions and limiting access to certain buildings. Among other issues, it means that there is no cleaning that can take place in any offices after 3pm, which means that my office can only be cleaned when I am in it. And I have to holler above floor buffers or drills while trying to teach. While these are mostly minor inconveniences, they seem like unnecessary ones.

My student insisted that her telephone never would have been found at the old campus, and for this she was understandably grateful. There is something different about the security network in place on the new campus, a place where not a lot of things work well yet. I want to understand more about why the thefts are happening, and why searches are necessary. I fear that all of this somehow speaks to the priorities of the campus, and its move to a gated community in the suburbs, all of which leaves me a bit ambivalent.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

More rain

It rained a little bit on campus today. About 90 seconds worth. I hadn't noticed until a student came to class with a wet sweatshirt.

I also learned that this weekend's rains, modest as they were, caused flooding in some neighborhoods. There is not much drainage because there typically is not much rain. However, according to my students, rainfall has been increasing dramatically in the past few years. They think it might have something to do with global warming.

Apparently, this is the first October rain Cairo has seen in 10 years.

Friday, October 24, 2008

It's raining

This afternoon I went to the sixth birthday party for the son of friends here. Pirate theme. Great fun.

We were out in the backyard of their apartment building, and all of a sudden it got very windy with the dust and sand blowing everywhere. When you looked out in the distance, the entire sky was grey. In less than a minute, everything was covered with a thin layer of soot. Apparently there is a month or so when these sorts of sand storms are very common; I believe it is typically around February.

But then, the coup de grâce, it started to rain. My first rain shower in Egypt. Before today, the closest I have come was walking under an air conditioner.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

When the Levees Broke

In my American Studies class, I have been showing Spike Lee’s excellent documentary about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke. If you have seen it, you know that it can be very difficult to watch. It is certainly tough for me, but I do think it is important for people to watch. Although I have seen it a couple times previously, there is something completely new for me about watching it with my students here. It is really hard and painful to remember the tragedy in this way because they are seeing much of it for the first time.

They all know about the flood, but the consensus was that they knew very little about its extent. If this was surprising to me, it is probably because of the expectations I have developed about how much my students here do know. They told me they were shocked to learn that 80% of the entire city of New Orleans was under water. The images in the documentary shook them. I also realized, in part, that many people who have lived most of their lives in Egypt do not really understand rain, let alone hurricanes. One student in the class spoke briefly about visiting New Orleans a few months after the hurricane. (He is Egyptian, and transferred from a university in the US where he did volunteer service project on the Gulf coast.)

I have been very impressed with the students’ responses. They asked lots of good questions about the inter-government power struggles that the film documents. They made connections to some of the debates over local versus federal power that we discussed when we read the Constitution. They talked about how many of the towns surrounding New Orleans prevented hurricane victims from entering, and saw it in terms of the restrictions historically placed on African American mobility, which were discussed in Angela Davis’s book. They wondered, along with the film, about how the allocation of government resources to fight the war in Iraq impacted the ability to respond. They asked questions about government responsibility and the seeming disinterest of many political leaders.

The students asked lots of serious questions, and I found them to be engaged and sympathetic. They were also somber in a way that struck me as remarkably mature for late teenagers/early twentysomethings.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

More Arabic lessons

My Arabic teacher, who I have described in the past, is extremely kind. She is also, as she herself will admit, a bit disorganized. She carries an oversized handbag and pulls from it pamphlets, photocopies, printed pages from the internet, and builds our lessons a bit randomly. One of the problems for me is that there are serious differences in how Arabic is written when using Latin or Roman alphabet that we use in English. In other words, when using two sources, the same words may be written in quite different ways. I study visually (by looking at vocabulary lists) so her use of eclectic sources poses some difficulties for me. I am studying the same word, written quite differently, in two different sources.
EXAMPLE: small (adjective, plural)
  • suGayyariin (or su3ayyariin), or
  • usayyarin
As a result, I need to learn multiple systems of phonetic notation, which does not seem like a good use of time. However, on the upside of things, this does push me to concentrate on learning the Arabic alphabet a bit more.

There are other ways that the lessons have been a bit haphazard. For example, I haven’t learned how to discuss the weather, which is great way to practice by making small talk with taxi drivers. Also, I don’t know how to tell time, and had the hardest time arranging for a delivery at 6:30 (not knowing how to say “half past”). But my vocabulary does include words:
  • blonde ('aS'ar)
  • brunette ('asmar)
  • plaid (karohaat)
  • fuchsia (fuSiyia): This one got me the most since I already learned pink, as well as light and dark. I don’t think I have ever used the word in any language, and embarrassingly had to be told what it was.
I let my teacher know that this material was a lower priority and she graciously began, at my request, to teach me fruits and vegetables. This material is great since I do go the fruit and vegetable stand and want to know how to ask, specifically, for the local (not imported) bananas that need to be cut from a huge tree branch. Local bananas, which are fresher, sweeter, smaller, and currently in season are moz mahrabi (literally Moroccan bananas) or moz baladi.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Sound of Music

In my Literature and Human Rights class, we are reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (great novel and widely available btw). In the novel, the film The Sound of Music figures prominently, which implicitly highlights its international popularity (something I have occasionally encountered elsewhere). So I asked my students if they knew it and all of them, except one, had seen it and loved it. Ironically the lone exception is a student who, I just learned, grew up in Vienna. She told our class about how whenever she tells someone that she is from Austria, they ask her about the film. The best example she shared was from this past summer. She was riding a taxi cab in New York City and was chatting with the female driver who asked her where she was from (perhaps trying to reconcile the German-inflected English accent with the young Arab woman in the backseat). When my student replied Austria, not only did the driver bring up The Sound of Music, but she took out her cassette of the soundtrack and put it on the taxi stereo.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Edward Said Was Here!

In my class today, I showed a documentary about Edward Said called Selves and Others, which is essentially a film of interviews shortly before he died of leukemia in 2003. It described his upbringing here in Cairo and discussed his secondary education here prior to going to boarding school in the US. He attended Victoria College which is right at the end of my street, and even showed a picture of his report card! Its wall is probably less than 100 meters from me; I can see it from my balcony.

He said all of the teachers at VC were British (none of the students were). They taught him only European history, and he didn't learn Egyptian history until later. In 1951, he was expelled for being a "troublemaker" and was sent to boarding school in the US. I read more about his experience at VC in an article I found in the London Review of Books. I need to reread his autobiography, Out of Place. VC was quite a place; his classmates included King Hussein of Jordan and Omar Sharif! Under Nasser, Victoria College became Victory College, which remains its name today.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

In the Classroom

I have been a less-than-faithful blogger this past week, which I will blame on my job. It is a busy time as we are adjusting to a post-Ramadan schedule (later and longer classes) and I am grading essays and preparing midterms. There is nothing out of the ordinary, but since my classes are occupying much of my time, I might at least tell you something about them.

Literature and Human Rights (300-level)
We recently finished reading William Gardner Smith’s 1963 novel The Stone Face, which the students loved. Smith’s book--about an African American expatriate journalist’s confrontation with the Algerian Independence movement in France--explores issues of migration and diaspora and race and politics in ways that resonate with my students. I hardly needed to talk during our class sessions because they had so much to say about topics like the expatriate’s choice to emigrate, differing forms of activism and definitions of social responsibility, and the role of fiction in representing historical events, in this case the October 1961 Paris Massacre by French police of up to 200 peaceful Algerian protestors. (It is still not as well known as it should be. The supervising police chief and many officers involved have been exposed as nazi collaborators. For a brief overview of the Massacre and links to other resources, you can start with the Wikipedia entry.)

Experiencing Creativity: Texts and Images (100-level)
These students are first years and I am beginning to sense that the shift from high school to college is a bit dramatic here, more so than in the US. I have needed to use some pretty amateur techniques to get their attention so far. When a student’s mobile phone went off earlier, I gave the entire class a pop quiz. Guess what? No more mobiles ringing. (I owe credit to a colleague for this idea.) Last Thursday, we were supposed to discuss Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use.” When we began class discussion, I was initially encouraged because one of my students told me that she read it in high school. But when I realized only 4 people (of nearly 20) had printed it and read it, I sent them home. (I have done this in the US on occasion.) They were a bit unnerved by my dismissal of class and asked if they could stay and read it there. I said no. (Not that they had it to read anyway.) Between the disruptions of the holiday and the new campus, it has been particularly hard for the new students to get themselves together but I think the exam should spark something.

Introduction to American Studies (200-level)
Immediately following my early dismissal from “Experiencing Creativity” on Thursday, I headed to my largest class (28 students), where we had a great discussion about Bessie Smith’s 1928 song, “Poor Man’s Blues” (we have been reading Angela Davis’s book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism). The students launched into a great debate about the relationship between music and protest, and the relationship of Smith’s performance to the lyrics. They were fascinated by the ways that Smith constructs a class-based discourse within a racialized cultural form and the multiple levels on which race and class interact in this song. I am not doing their analyses any sort of justice here, so I will just post Smith’s lyrics here for you to read. This could also be a good chance for me to figure out how to post audio files to my blog, but this link should get you to the song:
Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind
Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind
Give the poor man a chance, help stop these hard, hard times


While you’re livin’ in your mansion you don’t know what hard times means
While you’re livin’ in your mansion you don’t know what hard times means
Poor working man’s wife is starvin’, your wife is livin’ like a queen

Please, listen to my pleading, ‘cause I can’t stand these hard times long
Oh, listen to my pleading, can’t stand these hard times long
They’ll make a honest man do things that you know is wrong

Poor man fought all the battles, poor man would fight again today
Poor man fought all the battles, poor man would fight again today
He would do anything you ask him in the name of the U.S.A.

Now the war is over, poor man must live the same as you
Now the war is over, poor man must live the same as you
If it wasn’t for the poor man, mister rich man what would you do?