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?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Random Thoughts from Istanbul

Five days in Turkey! Sorry that I was away from the blog. Jenna and I had a wonderful time with lots of great sites and food. We go great advice from a Turkish friend here in Cairo. Hopefully I’ll get some pictures up soon. And while I will let the photos do most of the speaking for the trip, for now I thought I would share some random thoughts.

MY FAVORITE JUSTINIAN SITE: At the Basilica Cistern in central Istanbul, you descend underground through a small building, which looks like the entrance to a subway station. After you walk downstairs, you are in a huge cistern that is about 1,500 years old. There is still water there and lots of fish. And two Medusa statues in once corner. Apparently it was uncovered about 50 years ago when a visitor to Istanbul noticed people carrying buckets of water and fishing in central Turkey.

DEMOGRAPHIC POINT OF INFORMATION: Istanbul is a city of 16 million people, which makes it larger than any city in the US, and slightly smaller than Cairo.

A LESSON ON THE GLOBAL ECONOMY: On the first day of our trip, I took 500 new Turkish liras (YTL) out of an ATM machine. My account was charged $409.27 for rate of $1US=0.81YTL. Five days later, I took out the same amount from the same bank and was charged only $384.94 about $1US=0.77YTL. That is a 5% increase in the value of the US dollar versus the Turkish lira in less than a week. I don’t fully understand why foreign currencies (the Euro has been on a similar path) are now dropping against the dollar (which in no way makes up for the precipitous drop which the dollar has seen over the past few years). There are many possible explanations, but perhaps European markets are finally feeling more directly the impact of what is happening in the US…

Speaking of economics, MY BEST NON-EDIBLE PURCHASE OF LESS THAN $10US: For 11 YTL, I bought Yerli Plaka, an LP by Ceza, Turkey’s best-known rapper. Great stuff. If you want a copy, let me know; I will be happy to share it. I don't understand the words at all (though Turkish has some words that are Arabic in origin that I can understand) but I am told he is pretty conscious. Just for kicks, I put the song list into an online translation program and came up with the following poem (lines/tracks 6 and 7 were originally in English, so I translated them into Turkish using the same program. Of course.):
1. Belt Bee
2. Local Number plate of a car
3. Gelsin Life Familiar Similar
4. raid Possibility
5. You Playful Dilber
6. karanlık yer
7. şark caz
8. Blues Without veil
9. Haydi Us Bee
10. Difference There is
11. Day and night Wife
12. Short Absence
13. In front Yourself Bak
14. Again Get hold of Handkerchief
15. Bitter Pepper
16. Line And Regular Absence
17. Not My