Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Geography, Part 2

You may recall that earlier in the semester I gave the students in my African Literature class a map quiz, which expected them to identify all 54 countries in Africa. They had a second chance to take the quiz on Sunday and here are the results.

For this version, there were only 53 countries rather than 54 (because the Cape Verde Islands were cut off from the map I used). Eight students took the quiz. One took it for the first time and did well. Four, who scored in the 30s the first time around, retook it and scored between 48 and 53. Three, who did well on the first quiz, took it again just for fun. Seriously. Of those, one improved from 52/54 to a perfect score. Another improved by two points and another got one point less. (I only counted their highest score so there was no harm in taking it again.) So I am pleased to say that in the final results, everyone in the class got a score in the mid-40s to mid-50s, mostly on the high end. For a literature professor, this is a unique instance of being able to quantify learning. Yay, geography.

On reflection, I should have required all of the students to retake the quiz, even those who performed well back in February. It would have been fascinating to track students’ retention. I was chatting with a couple of students who scored perfectly the first time around and they estimated they would have scored about ten points lower now without practicing, which is still, they said, significantly better than they did at the beginning of the term before practicing. For studying, most have been using different kinds of websites where they could practice and be tested in a similar exercise.

Monday, April 27, 2009

More Arabic lessons

I haven’t blogged about my Arabic studies in a while probably, as I reflect, because they are going relatively well. It is still very very slow—I don’t seem to have much capacity for vocabulary memorization despite putting in a reasonable amount of time and effort. My conversation skills remain pretty weak. There have been some nice developments, mainly in my ability to read and write.

My teacher from last semester is not available this term, so I had to switch it up, which I think has been fortuitous. My new tutor is much better organized and more focused. We work from a book and she wisely does not allow my millions of questions take her off track. The main change has been one that I was considering for a while—I am learning to read and have stopped working with Latin-script transliterations. I am focused on reading and writing in Arabic (3ammiyya, or Egyptian colloquial), which makes everything quite a bit different. I feel like I am making progress and am able to better understand things like verb conjugation, possession, and gender, which is really hard to do when working phonetically.

Overall I am thrilled to be doing this. It has created an obsession—whenever I see a street sign or advertisement or tshirt, I stop to read it. I am pretty fluent at this task. I can, for example, sound out the name of a street sign I have never seen before well enough to find my way. Of course, most of Cairo doesn't have street signs, but you get the picture. Vowels, which are frequently implied or understood, and therefore not written consistently, remain tough. Still, as well as I may be able to sound something out, I rarely have any idea what it means. There are some exceptions resulting from the increasing popularity of English here. Businesses and their signs often use English-to-Arabic transcriptions. For example, “Honest Brokerage Corporation,” which appears on a sign I pass on my walk to the bus stop, is translated phonetically into Arabic script. (I need to learn how to type in Arabic and I can share some more of this.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The View from Greece

We just got back from a spring break trip to Greece. Believe it or not, Athens is less than 2 hours from Cairo by airplane. We spent two days in Athens, checking out the Acropolis, a lot of classical architecture and other sites.

From there we headed out to Hydra, one of the Saronic Islands for a week. There are no cars, motorcycles, or even bicycles permitted on the island. You travel around by climbing steps so there is little use for wheels. We hired a donkey to carry our bags from the ferry to where we stayed. I have never thought of myself as particularly sentimental (not sure what blog-readers who know me think) but Hydra definitely struck a chord. There is an irony in much of it. The same qualities that are oftentimes a source of complaint in our lives—products are scarce, shopping is limited and can be expensive, transportation is inconvenient—become romantic when placed in a context outside of our day-to-day lives. Many of the inconveniences actually comprise the romance.

This was the street where we stayed:

Hydra is really peaceful, which may be a bit ironic given its prided in its role in the 1820’s war for Greek independence. The Hydra History Museum even displays the embalmed heart of an admiral; it is in this metal urn (though it is not visible).

There were some nice walks and hikes, including one to a mountaintop monastery. Lots of strolls along the Aegean Sea. By the end of the week, either it was warm enough or we were brave enough to go swimming from a rock beach near the small studio apartment we rented. (On the 5 minute walk from our place to the waterfront we passed by some ostriches!)

The water was cold, but we became the crazy people going out there. I brought my snorkel gear and went out for 20-30 minutes each day; once I got warmed up, the cold was not as devastating as it felt at first. The reefs and fish were basic but the water is so clear that I really enjoyed all of the views and even the basic formations.

The other remarkable part was that we visited during Holy Week, the week of Eastern Easter, so we were witness to all of the local Greek Orthodox traditions. On Thursday, the churches decorate the bier which they take into the water at Kamini Harbor in a Good Friday ceremony that attracts the entire population of the island (a couple of thousand people). There a parade of candle-holding parishioners lead the bier, held by a posse of teenage boys, into the harbor for a ceremony called the epitaphio.

Pretty amazing. Then on Saturday night at midnight, they begin the festivities of Easter beginning with mass, another candlelight procession, lamb soup, and lots of “bombs”—firecrackers wrapped in newspaper which make loud noises throughout the night, and really the entire weekend. Sadly, we had to leave on Sunday in order to get our flight back home so we missed a day spent roasting lambs (though we got to smell it in the morning).

Fortunately, on the other hand, we did leave in advance of Tuesday’s main event--the lynching of Judas. We did not escape untouched. When we went to the main harbor to wait for our ferry on Sunday morning, he was already strung up. Our farewell to a week on Hydra was a frightening effigy of this disturbingly swarthy Judas awaiting his punishment. I’m sorry to say I don’t know anything more about this tradition, and I am uncomfortable even posting such a disturbing image on my blog.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It's a Family Affair

Slacker blogger here, full of apologies. I have lots of stories to tell, just not enough time to tell them. I don’t mean this as an excuse or a tease, but perhaps a warning. We are headed to Greece for spring break in a couple of days and I don’t know if I will be able to post again until I return as I am angling for a lo-tech vacation.

Last night, I visited the home of my friend Nagy in Imbaba, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, about an hour from downtown. Nagy is the older brother of Nady, who I posted about a couple of weeks ago. I also met Nagy in 1996 during my first visit to Egypt. One of my fondest memories of that time is a river taxi trip he and I took to Qanater, a park north of Cairo. I remember that Nile boat ride though because it turned into an Amr Diab dance party.

Whereas Nady has been doing pretty well by working in the UAE, his brother has had a much harder go of things. He has a college degree in law, which, though it does not have the same status as in the US, is quite respectable and qualifies one for an office job. He has had a lot of trouble finding work in his field, so he has been employed in a clothing factory in Shubra, a neighborhood north of downtown. It has its benefits because he likes fashion. A few years ago, he had an opportunity to travel to Italy to work but he wasn’t able to do so. He already had a wife and son, and responsibility kept him at home. As a result, his life is much different from his brother’s. Nady was able to save money and buy a flat that will completely transform his quality of life. Plus there are all sorts of harder-to-quantify benefits that come with living abroad—a certain worldliness, facility with English (a commodity), and perspective. Now Nady is trying to save more money to buy (essentially build, since the building, like many here, is incomplete) a second flat in his building where his brother can live with his family. Nagy is helping out though I can’t figure out how much—I suspect both brothers are overstating their contributions.

These kinds of situations are not uncommon. One member of a family has the opportunity to travel abroad and earn the money that comes with it, thereby accepting a role as provider for their family. He pays his sister’s college tuition and helps his brother with a flat. The family is tight but the constant refrain I heard from Nady and their mother was the Nagy is not doing well. As I got to spend some time with him, it was clear that he is having a tough time—life for the vast majority of Egyptians is really hard. He talks about money a lot. But he does see himself as a contributor to the family, which in the end is a collaborative undertaking. For example, when their father passed a way a couple of years ago, it fell on Nagy to handle most of the responsibilities while his brother was away (something Nady himself regrets).

It was really nice to spend time with Nagy after so many years. It was awesome to be in his home, and to meet his wife Mazrit and children Meena and Sara (aka Lala). When we get back from Greece, we will have them over to our flat for dinner. For now I will leave you with these photos.