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.

From the issue dated October 31, 2008

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.
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


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.)

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


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.