Tuesday, March 31, 2009

At the Berlin Wall

I just got back from my week in very very cold Germany. At the beginning of my trip, it actually snowed and that was not even the worst weather. The worst was the freezing rain, which is a rough way to walk around exploring a city. Especially for someone used to the weather in Cairo, Egypt. Still a great trip. Loved Berlin. The conference in Bremen was excellent and a good time, especially hanging with friends. I was only a day in Hamburg, which wasn’t enough plus the cold made it really hard to appreciate. Here are some pictures of what remains of the Berlin Wall.

Monday, March 23, 2009

At the airport

Greetings from Cairo International Airport. It is 1:27 am and I am here awaiting my 3:10 am flight to Berlin (via Prague on Czech Airlines). It is an overnight flight; I arrive at 8:30 am. I'll be in Germany for a week--attending a conference in Bremen and visiting Berlin and Hamburg for a few days as well. It is my first ever trip to Germany, so it should be fun.

This afternoon, I called to arrange for a yellow taxi to pick me up at 12:15 am. Yellow cabs, unlike the majority of black and white cars on the street here, have meters, seat belts, and air conditioning. And they pick you up, so I call them when I can. The price for longer trips usually ends up being the same as what you would "negotiate" with a normal meterless car.

The driver called me at 11:40 pm; he wanted to make sure he had the right place. He read my address and kept saying "gamb Makdonia," which translates as near "Makdonia." I thought he meant near McDonald's, so I said no and gave him the intersection and landmarks. No, he repeated himself, "Makdonia," and I really thought he was in the wrong place. There is a McDonald's on Road 9 a couple of minutes away. I mentioned the stationary store across the road. He was talking to someone on the street who confirmed the coordinates. He was there, he told me. And quite early, though the mystery remained.

Then it hit me: "Macedonia"! Readers of the blog may recall my posting on the arrival of the Macedonian Embassy next door. Yep--that was his landmark, which he confirmed when I went downstairs a few minutes later. I told him my misunderstanding and think he got almost as much of a kick out of it as I did. So, now, I learned a new Arabic word.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Subway etiquette

Last week I was riding the subway. Oftentimes when seats become available, there will be these rather grand, friendly exchanges along the lines of, “You take the seat.” “No, you. I insist.” It is part of the culture, and happens not just to women, the elderly, or visible foreigners. People are quite sincere about it. It is nice although sometimes it includes things that would be read as aggressive in the US, like putting your hand on another man’s shoulder to firmly, but kindly, guide him to the open seat.

I got into one of these common exchanges last week. After several rounds of back and forth, I won (or perhaps lost, depending on how you keep score) and remained standing. (For me standing is often more comfortable because people are squeezed pretty tight sitting on the benches. I have a very American idea of personal space in this regard.) Soon after the guy sat down, he grabbed my black, canvas shoulder bag. I was surprised and confused. A stranger trying to grab your bag off of your shoulder on public transportation in the US would be considered pretty threatening. Then I realized, since he got the seat, he was offering to hold my bag as an expression of gratitude. He had a big smile on his face. In reality, since I was standing over him, he was in no position to steal it. Our exchange--him offering to hold my bag and me politely refusing--went a few more rounds of facial expressions and hand gestures. In the end, we were both smiling and I was left holding my bag, unwilling to let go of whatever vestige of yankee mistrust it represents.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Mona Lisa

In my humanities class, we are making the shift from literary to visual culture. I am using a new book this semester, changing from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing to Cynthia Freeland’s more contemporary But Is It Art? The first chapter discusses things like blood and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ photograph, all of which had the potential to get a bit messy in class. It didn’t as the students, once again, showed me that they know more than I give them credit for. During a very preliminary discussion about art and aesthetics, we got into the discussion, prompted by Freeland’s title, about what makes art great. One of my students brought up the Mona Lisa, and several others added to the conversation. All of a sudden, I realized that most of the students in my class (first year students who are all Egyptians and mostly 17 years old) had actually been to the Louvre and seen the painting. A quick show of hands confirmed their remarkable, collective privilege. Wow! I am twice the age of my students and have had lots of opportunities to travel, and I saw the Mona Lisa for the first and only time in 2005.

Their opinion of the painting was divided in a way that will make for productive conversations. Half of them found it terribly disappointing and the other half loved it. The former found it smaller than and anticipated and therefore somehow anticlimactic. The latter group essentially felt that it was great because it is the Mona Lisa. It seems like a good place to start our conversation about art and taste.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Lumumba downtown

At the end of this month, I am traveling to Germany for a week to attend an conference in Bremen, so I need to make up for my missed classes so the students don’t miss out on learning. For my small American literature class, I will give them some reading to do and an essay to write. Xallas. For my first year students, I am going to try to channel some of their sociability into the theater. I am putting them into groups of five students and they will write a short play which they will perform when I return on March 31. For my African literature class, I decided to schedule a Saturday film screening downtown. (Weekends are Friday-Saturday here; so a Saturday night is similar to a Sunday night in the US.)

I decided this for beaucoup reasons. It is partly an experiment and partly a protest. Mostly it is practical. My class meets for 50 minutes three times per weeks, so in order to show a film that is longer than 1h40, you need to spread it out over three classes, which is a crappy way to see a film. (I did this with Ousmane Sembène’s Faat Kiné earlier in the semester.) At the start of the semester, I decided I wanted to show Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba on a Saturday downtown at the old campus. I scheduled it late in the afternoon so students could, should they choose, spend time downtown at other activities either before or after the screening. I really would like to see programming like this as a regular part of the curriculum, so that the university maintains its presence downtown. And if I put it on the syllabus from the start of the semester, there should not be any problems with attendance.

Still I was concerned. I reserved the room far in advance, but would it be open and unoccupied? Next, would there be appropriate technology? Then, would the food that our departmental assistant ordered be there? (Any glitches would be hard, if not impossible, to fix on a Saturday evening on a half-deserted campus.) And what about the students? Would they show up, and if they did would they be in good enough spirits to appreciate the film or would they resent spending a Saturday in class?

I am pleased to report that it was a success on all counts. The room and projector and food were all there. The only technical glitches involved pulling down the movie screen (which students solved by hooking it to a desk) and a pitcher of lemonade lost under a table with a tablecloth. There were only two absentees, both of whom notified me in advance. They really liked the film (and they are not shy about sharing their true opinions—last week one student said something so harsh about a play we read that the class was silent until another student playfully asked, “Why don’t you tell us what you really think?”) They were appreciative of the food—lemonade with two trays of pastries (one savory and one sweet). After the film, we stayed for a 20-minute discussion about the film and Lumumba and then I got the train home. The students found time to be sociable; as I was leaving, I walked past a majority of the class talking among themselves.

I am glad this went as smoothly as it did and may try to arrange some other programs downtown in the future. It was a Saturday well spent.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Friday was an amazing day for me. The story begins 13 years ago, on my first visit to Egypt. During that month, I was a relatively independent traveler. Perhaps a little adventurous. And young and male which helps in these things.

I met a few people during that time, often by riding public buses. Everyone was always willing to help and extremely kind, which is very common here in Egypt. On one occasion, I struck up a conversation on the bus from Giza to downtown with a young man who paid my fare. Nady was headed to work as a cook in one of the downtown hotels, and I was leaving the pyramids. We really hit it off. He told me that he also worked the night shift at a locally well-known neighborhood restaurant in Giza Square (not so near to the pyramids), and that I should stop by some time. This was all on the fly as there were no cell phones, and land lines were a luxury. At some point during my trip, I took him up on the offer and rolled over there at 6am for some fuul, but he was not there. No trouble. He lived nearby and a coworker took me to his apartment. He wasn’t there either, but I met his flatmates. Nady was with his family in a village near Beni Suef, a city about two hours south of Cairo. His friend Gerges, who was also from the same town, suggested we ride down there.

It was a memorable day. The transportation itself—from a local train where foreigners were forbidden from riding to the back of a pickup—was an adventure. He was excited and surprised to see me. I met his mother, who graciously fed me. I met his 9-year-old sister who I gave a toy car that she recalls fondly. We walked down by the river. A bunch of little kids who were excited to learn that I was from the US asked me if I knew Van Damme. We took lots of photos.

When I returned to the US, we exchanged letters for a couple of years but then they stopped. A combination, I suspect, of unreliable postal services and correspondents. Fortunately, I saved his mother’s address, along with those of a few other friends, who I met. Soon after I arrived here, I copied some old photographs and sent them along by mail with letters telling them that I now lived in Egypt. A few weeks later, I got a text message from Hadi, a friend I met in Alexandria. He now lives in Qatar. Then I went five months without responses from anyone else so I assumed that we had permanently lost touch. Then, last week, when I was touring Amr Taz Palace in Islamic Cairo, my mobile phone rings with a number I did not recognize.

“Hello Ira. This is Nady, your friend from 13 years ago.”

Nady lives in the Emirates, working as a chef in a hotel restaurant. He was back in Egypt for 15 days to have minor surgery. We talked a few times by telephone trying to figure out when we could meet, and on Friday, the day after he got out of the hospital, I went out to visit him in his flat. (Getting there involved one taxi, two metros, a microbus, and a “tuk-tuk,” which is a converted moped that is used to navigate some narrow, unpaved backstreets.)

We caught up on the past 13 years. I saw his mom (in black) and sister (in the middle of the bottom photo). I met his wife Nadya (who has a degree in geology from Cairo University), his 7-month-old son Johnny (who are together in the bottom photo). We drank mango juice and feasted on good eats. I brought some photos to share. It was great.

He returns to the UAE this weekend. He will probably be back to visit at the end of the year, though it sounds like he is aiming to move back to Egypt in the not-too-distant future. He recently purchased the Cairo flat where I visited him. His aim by working in the UAE is to save enough money to have a nest egg, since the economy in Egypt would make it very difficult for him to afford things like buying a flat or paying private school tuition for his son.

To describe it as the highlight of my weekend is quite a claim since on Saturday I visited Tanis (where Harrison Ford found the ark in Raiders).

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


On the first day of the semester in my African literature class, I gave the students a blank map of Africa, put them in groups, and asked them to try to identify as many countries as they could. With the exception of west Africa, which has a lot of smaller countries, the class collectively did quite well. It is actually an excellent assignment for collaboration.

Try it! (You can find the "answers" here.)

The stakes are higher now. This week, I gave the students the same map, but as an examination that counts as 10% of their semester grade. This is actually the first of two chances that I will give them to take it, so those who did not do well (or chose not to study) will have another opportunity later in the term. (Only the highest grade counts.) Overall I was pleased.

There are 54 countries on the exam because I count Western Sahara (which Morocco occupies) and Morocco (which is the only country on the continent who is not a member of the African Union because it opposes the admission of Western Sahara to the AU). Here is the breakdown of grades: 8 of 16 students got above 50, which is excellent. Two got scores in the 40s, 4 in the 30s, an 18, and a 7.

Even though the majority of students did quite well, I can’t resist the temptation to try to analyze unscientifically the errors. First, I had one Egyptian student who did not know Libya, which borders Egypt on the west, and a few who did not know other north African countries like Morocco and Tunisia. Finally I had a student place Syria in east Africa, though Syria is neither considered part of Africa nor found on the map I gave them.

For many people in the US, Egypt is considered part of an undifferentiated generic Arab world. Maybe it was my own biases that led me to expect my students to know north Africa better than other regions, but that was not necessarily the case. (It seemed like most of them know southern Africa the best.) Egyptians do not necessarily see themselves as part of the Arab world (or the African for that matter). They generally see themselves as Egyptian, an identity which might have traces on these answer sheets.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Haifa Zangana

Last week, our department had the good fortune to host Haifa Zangana, a London-based Iraqi writer and activist, as a Distinguished Visiting Professor. She is a novelist (Women on a Journey among others) and recently the author of an outstanding political historical memoir which I recently read (City of Windows: An Iraqi Woman's Account of War and Resistance). She is also an important and courageous public intellectual, particularly in the Arab-speaking world, and a lovely person who it was a privilege to meet. Her three talks at the university addressed the struggles of women under the US occupation. I have to read a stack of essays about her lectures from my students, who, to their credit, came out in impressive numbers. You can read more about her and her visit in Daily News Egypt.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Student life

I have a random observation about student life and culture. The last place I taught in the US was a residential college, where so much of student life revolves around dorms and social activities (like fraternities and sororities). Here, very few of my students live in dormitories; most of them live at home with their families and commute. I also feel like extra-curricular activities play a much smaller role here, partly because the college is not residential and partly because of the isolation of the new campus. Most of my students here who commute are not working at outside jobs, so the university remains the center of their social world. So, how is their social world organized if not through dormitories? In part, through their courses and academic work. Their friends are from their classes, and their majors. In my upper level literature courses, the students know each other well and socialize outside of class. They are comfortable talking with each other, and know how to do it with honesty and respect and good humor. There is a down side. Sometimes, especially when I am teaching first-year students, they are so social that it is hard for me to get them to be attentive in class.

I must admit that I like the extent to which intellectual pursuits seem to be the basis for social networks. Of course all of this is really just speculation. Perhaps it is unique to my department? Or maybe it is my attempt to explain some chatty students.