Monday, September 29, 2008

Off to Istanbul. And, Great Moments in NBA History

Jenna and I leave this afternoon for a trip to Istanbul! This week is a holiday here, Eid el-Fitr, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan. I should be back up on the blog in about a week.

I just got back from the gym where I have a free three-day pass. I got on the treadmill and turned on the tv and saw the Sixers playing! What is going on here? I know it is not in season, nor have exhibitions begun. Then I see Derrick Coleman. And Jerry Stackhouse. And Clarence Weatherspoon. And they are playing the Milwaukee Bucks. Vin Baker. Andrew Lang. Ray Allen looks younger than Jesus Shuttlesworth. I am searching for Iverson.... What is going on here? Why would this of all games be on tv? In Cario? Now? There was a promotional spot; it is apparently part of “Great Moments in NBA History,” which otherwise looked like a Michael Jordan highlight reel. I understand why people would want to watch Jordan’s big games. But a Sixers-Bucks game from the 1990s. (I was trying to date the game: Johnny Davis was the Sixers coach, so that narrows it down. Then I see an advertisement on the screen for a Tyson-Holyfield fight.) I don’t recall the Sixers and Bucks ever meeting in the playoffs in the 1990s. Neither team was very good at the time. And this game was not especially close or otherwise interesting.

All of this ran through my head in less than 5 minutes, and then I got my answer. “Allen Iverson Makes His NBA Debut” appeared on screen. He must have been on the bench when I turned on the game. For the record, he lit up the Bucks for 30 points in a Sixers loss.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fathy Salama Live at the Cairo Opera House

I went to a great concert on Friday night: Fathy Salama at the Cairo Opera House. The Opera House itself is quite a site. It was built (as I know from reading Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism) for the premier of Verdi’s Aida. The original building burnt down a long time ago, but a great arts complex has been rebuilt in its name at a different site. The concert that I saw was not in the main opera house, but in a smaller “open-air” (actually fully tent -covered) amphitheater. Great space if the fans were blowing a bit loud. Tickets were 20LE (less than $4).

Salama is best known to me as the producer of Youssou N’Dour’s great album Egypt, which you can find easily in the US. Here in Egypt, he is very well known, having worked with many popular artists. He is a fascinating guy who spent some time with the Sun Ra Arkestra in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I could definitely hear some of it in his electric piano-playing, which was a treat. The first set featured Salama with his band Sharkiat, which features an electric bass, accordion, and three percussionists--one on Sufi finger cymbals! His music is very eclectic, and draws on jazz, reggae, and everything in between. The bass gave it a really soulful rhythmic sensibility. Melodically there was a definite Middle Eastern fusion and the percussion was hypnotic. It included the best and only finger cymbal solo I have ever heard.

The second set was Salama’s electronic music ensemble which featured oud (a Middle Eastern stringed instrument similar to a lute), electric bass, soprano saxophone, and Mahmoud Refat on ibook and percussion. Refat seems like someone to watch; he is experimenting with lots of different sounds and creates a really rich and multi-layered landscape. Most of the music this ensemble played was from a film soundtrack they are recording. Its ambiance was really vivid.

Unfortunately this blog entry is not as vivid as I had hoped. I brought my camera but was told repeatedly by security guards (who let me keep my camera in my bag) that there was no photography allowed. A friend I went with thought the rule was a result of the kitschy stage décor. Nonetheless this blog doesn’t have any pictures. Salama does have a myspace page you can check out though I am not sure if the recordings capture the live performance.

I did take a picture of the poster. The colorful background is a Ramadan fabric used for iftar tents around Cairo.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Big News!

We just bought a washing machine—my first ever!! I have been going to laundromats since I went away to college almost twenty years ago. The closest I have come to anything like this was a machine on the ground floor of my apartment in Harrisburg, and a machine in the alley behind my apartment in Miami Beach. Both took quarters. No more. Plus it is a front-loader. This is very exciting for me. Check out the action-shot (I was sure to photograph it in use!):

We bought it used from friends who moved in upstairs. They bought it last year and then moved into an apartment that already had one installed. So we got it for 1000LE or about $190US. We put it in the kitchen, which seems kind of strange, but that is where the hook-ups were and there is a space for it. No dryer—hanging things up takes care of that in no time at all. Desert heat is remarkable.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Arabic Lessons

One of the most amazing benefits of my job here is that Jenna and I receive free Arabic tutoring. This is one-on-one instruction with a trained linguist (who has an advanced degree and teaches in AUC’s Arabic Language Institute). How much tutoring am I allowed? As a relocated faculty member, I am entitled to up to 100 hours per month (about 5 hours per day)! If I want more than 100 hours per month I can get more as long as I have the authorization of my department chair. That is a lot of training. I just began and think I will be averaging around 20 hours per month—I have three 1.5 hour sessions per week.

My teacher is quite good. She tries to emphasize the relationship between language and culture in ways that I mostly appreciate. So during our first session, instead of having me only memorize a series of greetings (and other courtesies) she explained how they are used and why they are so important in Egyptian society. A big part of her explanation was about hierarchy in social interactions—how you are supposed to address someone in a certain situation. Greet someone with a Qu’ran more formally (but never interrupt their reading). Don’t ask for directions without an exchange of courtesies first. Understand that a student may address a fellow student differently than the professor. To a large extent, this is also about social class, which became apparent when on the second day of class, she began teaching me commands. Before questions! And although commands don’t seem to have the same impolite denotations that they do in US English, I still don’t really feel comfortable with this construction and prefer to use interrogatives.

I am doing well with my numbers, which I practice in my head on the long bus ride to campus. I stare out the window, listening to my ipod (if I remembered to charge it), reading the numerals on license plates and repeating the Arabic and English names in my head.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Why do women wear veils?; or, Nirvana in Egypt

I am not going to pretend I know the answer to this question which involves, to the best I can tell, a combination of faith, fashion, social pressure, and lots of other things I don’t presume to understand. Today, on campus, I saw a young woman wearing a veil or hijab (as, I would very roughly estimate, somewhere around one-third of the female students do). This student caught my attention because she was also wearing a Nirvana (as in Kurt Cobain!) tshirt. After a month or two here, this sort of thing—like seeing women in hijab nodding their heads at a hip hop show—does not really surprise me, though apparently I do notice things that seem incongruous with what many folks in the US think they know about women who wear hijab. People, and I vigorously include myself here, tend to think that they know something about someone by what they wear in public, or otherwise what they look like (and these judgments seem to be more often than not directed at women). Many of my most outspoken and liberal-minded students (and AUC is overall a rather liberal place) wear hijab. In our class discussions, my students here constantly remind me that you really don’t know anything meaningful about someone by what they wear (or don’t wear).

This post was inspired not only by the Nirvana fan, but also by a good article from Al-Jazeera about Egyptian women and hijab, which you can read here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Egyptian Hip Hop

So I have been anxious to find out what’s happening here culturally. I wrote about the Darwish tribute last week. On Sunday I went to a screening of a few short experimental films at the Townhouse Gallery, a cool contemporary art space. The program featured shorts by filmmakers from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Denmark and were interesting, if a bit uneven.

So you know I was jazzed to check out my first Egyptian hip hop show. It was held at El Sawy Culture Wheel (where I went last week), and I even remembered to bring my camera (though the pictures did not come out as I had hoped). The headliner was Feedo, an Egyptian DJ who, in the past as I understand it, has performed with some of the country’s best MCs. Now he is going out as something of an R&B singer. His voice sounded a bit thin to me; he may be trying to do too much. I think he is trying to do a Pharrell kind of thing, but what I have always appreciated about Pharrell is that he seems to understand his voice and, to my mind, makes it work for him. To put it differently, Pharrell knows he is not Joe. From my perspective, Feedo, who sang almost entirely in English, just wasn’t cutting it as a vocalist, which is a shame because the show otherwise showed that he has a great musical sensibility.

As a DJ, Feedo can cut it, as he did with some classic Earth, Wind, and Fire, Public Enemy, and Sugar Hill Gang tracks. And the final set was great—it featured Feedo back at the controls with three percussionists, so it was a riveting incorporation of different kinds of drumming into a hip hop set. These kinds of innovations were to me exciting and fun, more so than Feedo half singing, “My name is Feedo/If you don’t know/This is how I flow.” (Seriously—I couldn’t make this up. Oh, wait, actually I could.)

The crowd was lively. Perhaps two-thirds male, similar to the US. It was slightly older than I think would come out to something comparable in the US, mostly mid-20s to mid-30s. Folks were enjoying themselves, responding to his repeated calls to “Put your hands in the air” (which he interjected in English in the middle of an otherwise Arabic monologue).

There was a group anthem, shouting out the women of Cairo. He had some guest MCs—my favorite was a young guy from Alexandria (below on the left), who with his partner forms the Alex Sharks. (I think there is a play on words in that his name in Arabic is similar to the word for sharks, but most of this is lost on me.) He was great—he rhymed exclusively in Arabic, which as a language has a great rhythm for hip hop (it reminds me of some reggaeton or dance hall collabos), and some of the tracks looped Arabic music in ways that were very cool. I talked to his partner briefly after the show and they are putting out an EP. I’m glad this scene is here and I look forward to hearing more.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Round 1: Ira vs. the Sphinx

Guess who won?

On Saturday, AUC organized a bus trip to the Giza Pyramids. It is the first in a series of programs that the university arranges for new faculty members. It is really great because they supply transportation, subsidize the costs, and provide an expert guide (usually a member of the faculty).

It was my fourth time.

During my 1996 trip to Egypt, I visited the pyramids at Giza twice. I went there on the day I arrived. I thought I was being clever by taking the public bus (this was before the train line ran there), but got hoodwinked, of course, into overpaying for a horseback ride. I went back there and to Saqqara toward the end of my trip when my stay was extended by a few days after Tarom Romanian Air refused to allow me to board my ticketed flight (something about an illegal layover in Bucharest that required the US Embassy’s intervention to get me on the next flight later in the week).

And two weeks ago we went back for an evening laser show narrated by Omar Sharif.

Saturday’s trip was outstanding because the guide did a great job of explaining the history of the period and the excavation. I could go on about the details of everything I learned, but won’t….

A couple of comments on the experience. You can see how the top of the Khafre pyramid is different than the rest. Apparently the entire pyramid was similar to the smooth limestone, but apparently the limestone was taken from the pyramids for various constructions, including the Citadel.

The sites include a small mortuary temple, which would have been used for one of the Pharaoh’s aides, beside the pyramid. We were able to enter one of these. There is also the Solar Boat Museum, which houses a boat that was buried with the Pharaoh to take him to the afterlife. The boat was excavated in 1954.

One of the things that most surprised me in 1996—and that commonly surprises visitors—is how close to Cairo the Pyramids are. You can get there by car from where I live in 30 minutes, sometimes less, sometimes more depending on traffic. Last week on the bus ride home from campus, I could see the pyramids from the bus (it was a relatively clear day). The pyramids are in the desert, but they are increasingly being encroached upon by the massive sprawl that characterizes so much of the desert area surrounding Cairo. The increase in development in the area surrounding the pyramids is one change that I have noticed since 1996. Also, as one of the world’s best-known tourist sties, the pyramids are known for having tons of hawkers selling postcards, miniature pyramids, camel rides/photo ops. Only last month, the ministry of antiquities began a crackdown, though there are still lots of businessmen (almost all are men) in the area. It can be annoying to be hassled, but tourism is still a major industry and source of income for what remains an overwhelmingly poor country.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Mahmoud Darwish tribute

The combination of settling into our Cairo home and beginning a new academic year is more than enough to keep me busy. I haven’t, during the first month here, gotten out as much as I would have liked, but I have resolved to be a bit more active in this regard. I saw a perfect opportunity when I read in the newspaper about a concert tribute in memory of Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian poet who passed away last month. (You can read his obituary in Al-Ahram Weekly here.) The concert was being held at the Sawy Culture Wheel, an arts center in Zamalek, a downtown neighborhood situated on an island in the Nile. I was able to get a couple of friends together to attend and it was lovely.

The theater is a great spot, strangely buried underneath a bridge. The entrance almost looks like a subway station, but the space itself is peaceful. There is a small outdoor garden, a café, and a couple of theaters—Wisdom Hall, where we were, seats about 500 people. It was a bit more than half-full for the free event, which featured Ahmed Ali El Haggar (below) singing arrangements of Darwish’s poems with piano accompaniment. In between songs, there were dramatic readings of Darwish’s poems.

Now, I am a fan of Darwish’s poems, and have included some in my courses. I first encountered him in an anthology of Arabic poetry that I purchased in 1996 during my first trip to Egypt. (The book, When the Words Burn, is published AUC Press.) However as I don’t read or understand Arabic (though I have registered for classes), I did not comprehend what Haggar was singing or the others were saying and reading. Obviously a lot is lost to me, but I did like it. There is something to be said for the experience of me, a literature professor, listening to works of literature in a language that I don’t speak. I don’t want to fetishize it or minimize what gets lost, but I was able to focus on the aesthetics of the language and performance, and to hear the sounds of Darwish’s poetry in the language in which he wrote them. In literature, folks so often look for the story. Since this story was lost on me (at least until I returned home to reread some Darwish), my attentions were forced elsewhere. Of course I most look forward to being able to understand not only the sounds, but also the words being sung and recited. But for now, it was still a nice evening for me, and a deserved tribute to a great poet.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

My office extension

My office has cabinets, five chairs, and a desk. I still don’t have a computer. But I do have a telephone that works. Most incredibly, my extension is x1633, which is the address of the house I grew up in--1633 Ridgeway Road!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

First days of school; or, what are you teaching?

So…I have taught two days worth of classes. I am teaching three—Experiencing Creativity: Texts and Images (a humanities core class), Introduction to American Studies, and Literature and Human Rights. There are the expected challenges with construction on the new campus. Students and teachers are having a lot of difficulties finding classes; the classrooms don’t have technology fully installed; the air conditioning does not work well (a problem in one of my rooms that overlooks a noisy courtyard); one window hanging dangerously on a single hinge (in the same room).

The first day, Sunday (weekends are Friday-Saturday here), was mostly occupied with finding the room and general introductions. Today, we got down to business, and the students impressed. Because of their backgrounds, they are extremely sophisticated for their ages when compared to students in the US. There are lots of explanations, but for starters most are well traveled, and all are (at least) bilingual. They are enthusiastic, earnest, and always willing to speak in class. They exceeded my expectations in terms of initial participation that I happily did not complete my lesson plans in any of my sections.
  • Experiencing Creativity: I expected this to be the biggest challenge since it enrolls lots of first and second year students from business, engineering, and computer science (about a dozen in all), but they were all present, active, and thoughtful today as we read Egyptian author Radwa Ashour’s “My Experience With Writing.” A nice place to start.
  • American Studies: This is my largest class with about 25 students and the group made great observations as we read a letter by Christopher Columbus following his first voyage. The students explained why they thought he decided to name the islands after women and saw his detailed surveying of the landscape as an appeal for further imperial expansion. They offered some strong analysis on something that they only read for the first time in class today. More than half of them talked in a 50-minute class.
  • Literature and Human Rights: This is a 300-level seminar that currently only has 4 students, all literature majors. Due to the class size, I have gotten to know them more quickly than the others—an Egyptian woman, an Egyptian man, a Jordanian-Palestinian woman, a Jordanian woman (a graduate student—longtime Cairene, who is teaches English at a British school). They are all near native in their English fluency; I suspect most have lived for extended periods in Anglophone countries (and/or attended English-language schools). We began a discussion of Frederick Douglass, which I have chosen as the starting point for this course. Two of them already read ahead in Douglass’s Narrative! Wow—that is a good start.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Who are your students?

It is kind of strange that I would post on this topic tonight, the evening before I begin teaching. But it also feels apt since this kind of statistical breakdown, as fascinating as it was to learn during the orientation, will mean absolutely nothing as of 10am tomorrow when I meet my students. All the same, it provides one answer (of many) to perhaps the most common question I have gotten since I began telling folks in the US that I will be teaching here.

Here is a rough breakdown, provided by an assistant Provost during orientation:
  • 5,500 full-time enrolled students
  • 4,200 are undergraduates
  • 85% of the undergrads are Egyptian
  • 10% of the undergrads are from the region (North Africa/Middle East)
  • 5% other international students
  • 1,000 graduate students
  • 400-500 non-degree students enroll each year (mostly study abroad)
The study abroad students tend to concentrate themselves in a few departments—history, political science, Arabic and Islamic Civilizations. For Egyptian students, the most popular majors are in business and engineering.

Of the undergraduates, most of the Egyptians have some sort of international diploma from one of Cairo’s private schools. Admission to college in Egypt is by exam, with more than 95% attending public universities. The exam (much like the SATs in the US) heavily favors private school students (who are also relatively well-to-do financially). The assistant Provost who gave us these statistics pointed out that the school generally follows the national exam protocols in its admission process and claimed (unconvincingly to my mind) that it is the Egyptian testing system, not our school, that favors the elites (through the secondary school system).

The tuition here is $18,000; the median income in Cairo is $4,000. The university does provide financial assistance to those students who can’t afford the tuition. (I think the number is relatively small since most of them seem to be graduates of secondary schools whose tuition sometimes exceeds ours.) There is a new outreach program that provides scholarships to students from rural areas outside of Cairo. In terms of demographics, our graduate students differ from undergraduates. Most of them are graduates of the public university system.

My department, English and Comparative Literature, has 50 majors--30 undergraduates and 20 graduate students. I look forward to meeting them tomorrow.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The new campus

After three days of waiting for the bus at the wrong stop (they moved it three blocks away and somehow everyone knew--except me, which amazes me because the incorrect stop is still listed on the official schedule which I checked faithfully), I finally made it to campus yesterday. As for the construction, there has been a good bit of progress made since last week, though it is a long way from finished. All the same, we will begin teaching, as scheduled, on Sunday morning. I took some pictures—in these first few you can see that the design is magnificent. And you can also see some of the reflective vests and hard hats and construction materials. Below is part of the exterior of the Humanities and Social Sciences building which....

houses my office...

There is no computer or telephone yet (or internet or printers or photocopiers or classroom furniture), but there is a desk and some chairs in my office. From my window, you can see that workers are laying stone in the courtyard below. Like the rest of the campus, it is full of promise.

One of my favorite French phrases I learned in Kinshasa is on s'adapte which means that one adapts oneself to one's circumstances. (It is hard to capture its pith in translation.) It has been in my mind these past few weeks. I think I adapt pretty well and am reasonably patient, so I am not too worried.

If you are interested in the construction project, in May NPR Weekend Edition ran a very good story on it that you can read or listen to online.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Nobody does iftar like Chilli’s

Last night was the first night of Ramadan, which is a month-long Islamic holiday that includes abstaining from food, drink, cigarettes, and sex during daylight hours. It runs 28 days, until the new moon appears. Traditionally, Ramadan marks the revelation of the holy Quran to the prophet Mohammed, and is a period in which Muslims throughout the world recommit themselves to their faith. By forgoing certain indulgences, people are better able to spend the daytime focusing on religious study, repentance, and charity. The month ends with the Eid, three days of festivities and feasts, marking a grand end to the fast.

The fasting runs from approximately 6am to 7pm here, with iftar, or the breaking of the daily fast, occurring immediately after sunset. During daylight, the city slows down tremendously in ways I have only begun to see. Most businesses close in the middle of the afternoon (around 2pm) so that people can shop, prepare food, and return home to their families in time for iftar. Some reopen in the evening after 8pm. The university schedule is adjusted so that classes are shortened. The start time for most classes is moved up so people can finish their days by early- to mid-afternoon. Classes that are regularly scheduled for late afternoon or early evening are moved to start after 8pm. As a result, I have several colleagues who will be teaching until after 11pm.

The iftar eating often continues well into the night. And people wake up early to have another meal before sunrise. It ends up being a huge party, and I am told that Cairo is one of the most festive places in the world to celebrate. The city is beautifully decorated with colorful lanterns and iftar tents. I was also told that many Cairenes actually gain weight during the month, which is as much a comment on the Egyptian diet for the other eleven months of the year as it is on Ramadan partying. Jenna and I were invited to iftar this evening at the home of some friends.

All commercial establishments have gotten in on it. Even the Chilli’s in Maadi has a sign in the window advertising, “Nobody does iftar like Chilli’s.”

Monday, September 1, 2008

On cable television

A few days ago, on the day of Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention, Jenna and I woke up at 4am to watch it live here on CNN. (Excellent speech, I thought. I wish he said more about Iraq, but I was pleased to see him go after the Republicans pretty aggressively.) It was also being broadcast on a few other channels which we get, including Al-Jazeera International. Al-Jazeera is great, and has a lot more substantive commentary. So, for example, after Obama’s speech, there was an Iranian political scientist who discussed why so many liberal and progressive intellectuals in Iran support Obama. His main argument was that his willingness to meet with and talk to all leaders should not be underestimated. He sees this, even more than the outcomes those talks would yield, as representing a massive change in the political relationship between the US and the rest of the world. Fascinating commentary, and I am glad to be able to watch it here.

Let me say a little bit about our television situation here, which we got set up right before we left for Dahab. We bought a 21-inch color Samsung TV, a LG DVD player, and a cable box for a total of 2,000 LE (a little bit less than $400 US). The difference between here and the US is the cable box purchase, which was 400 LE. Our apartment comes with a satellite cable from the roof (this, along with a telephone line, is standard apartment hardware here). The electrician ran the cable into our flat and we plugged everything up (with the help of our neighbor), and we get 43 cable channels for free—among them the aforementioned Al-Jazeera and CNN. Also, EuroNews, BBC, several sports networks, Nickelodeon, MTV Arabia, and a bunch of other regional programming. Most of the regional channels show movies or US television series in English with Arabic subtitles. A sampling of recent offerings include: Lost, Friends, Law and Order: SVU, Dharma and Greg, The Daily Show, JFK (Oliver Stone), The Day After Tomorrow, and True Hollywood Stories: Who’s the Boss? There is quite a lot to choose from. For all of this, we pay nothing beyond the purchase of the cable box.

The cable box has a slot for a card the size of a credit card. This is how you subscribe to premium channels. There are two main offerings here, and then several specialty networks for sports or children’s programming. You would go to the cable office or a retail outlet and choose your plan and pay the monthly fee—around 200 LE for a premium package that includes about a dozen movie channels. They give you a card that you insert into the card reader on your cable box and voilà. There are no contracts or deposits. You pay by the month and if you don’t pay the card stops working. As long as your account is current, the card continues to work. So far, it seems to be a pretty efficient system. We have not elected a premium package yet. For now, the basic service along with the DVDs we received in our shipment is keeping us entertained.