Friday, May 29, 2009

Obama in Cairo

Barack Obama is coming to Cairo. Soon after his election, and well before his inauguration, there were news reports that he planned to deliver a major address in the Muslim world during his first 100 days. Though his first 100 days have passed, the address is scheduled to happen here on Thursday.

Officially the location is undecided, which is a bit of a joke. It will be held at Cairo University (which I blogged about at the beginning of the month). There was a good article in the NY Times about the “ill-kept secret.” I have talked to people about it and most people are focused on the disruptions it will cause. The university has been forced to shut down for a week during final examinations. Faculty and students are not pleased. Many students had planned to return home for the summer (to other parts of Egypt or the region), but suddenly are forced to stay for another week. Few, if any, will be able to attend the speech. The campus is in disarray. And the traffic nightmare will be incredible. There is a program scheduled for the Pyramids, which means that the entire area of Giza will be blocked off. This is, like most of Cairo, an already congested area. The logistics are unfortunately alienating many of the people to whom he is reaching out.

As for the content of his address, there is hope that he will make some major statement on Palestinian self-determination, but that seems highly unlikely. More probable, his simple presence here will symbolically begin the long process of making amends for the damage that the US has done in the region and to its own reputation during the past eight years.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Diana, Princess of Whales

Final examination time. For one of my classes, my examination consists of 10 quotations or images from class material that the students need to identity (author/artist and title) and analyze in a short paragraph. In class, we viewed an excerpt from the PBS Art 21 series about the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who has an amazing series in which he photographs wax figures. (You can see more of his work here.) These photos are a great point of entry into a discussion about how photography can create an illusion and obscure reality by presenting a representation that seems more real than its subject. (Who has ever mistaken a wax figure for a real person?)
The title of this work is quite straightforward: "Diana, Princess of Wales." Two of my students on their exams called it "Diana, Princess of Whales," which I think is fantastic.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A picture is worth a million words

Yesterday was the last day of class for the semester. I have been working today grading student essays. For my “Experiencing Creativity” class, I am reading essays from students about family photographs. We had read some Susan Sontag, and discussed memory, and they are supposed to be composing analyses of personal pictures. Overall the work is pretty good. Three of the first four essays I read noted: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” After those, I started expecting it (and began imagining this blog post). In the end, though, the total was 4 out of 13 with two of those going the extra mile and using it as their title. Also one wrote, “A picture is worth a million words,” and then in pen crossed out million and handwrote thousand. I guess she couldn’t come up with that many words and had to downgrade.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The hottest day of the year

so far.

Yesterday in Cairo it was 42 degrees Celsius, which is 107 Fahrenheit. The poor air quality makes it feel even hotter. But there are warmer places. It gets hotter in upper Egypt (where some friends who are visiting from the US are traveling right now). It gets hotter in the desert where the campus is located. The air conditioning in my office doesn't work either. Something about the electricity. The repairman just left. My classrooms are cool, though.

I generally like the heat, but this is extreme, though it does have some advantages. I made the most of yesterday by doing two loads of laundry which I hang off a balcony clothesline to dry. I did the first load in the morning and it dried so quickly that I was able to wash and dry another load before the sun set. Lots of heavy cottons too and it was all bone dry by the time I brought it inside.

Monday, May 11, 2009

"Now why should that man have fainted?": or, how the classroom mirrors fiction.

On Thursday, one of the students in my American literature class arrived ill, with a pain in his side. (I waited until today to blog because I wanted to make sure he was fine which he is.) He sat in a seat near the door, and about halfway through the class, asked to leave with the assistance of his best friend who is also in the class. It took me a moment to realize how serious things were, in part perhaps, because the student in question has a generally jocular demeanor. He stood up to leave and was clearly in a lot of pain so I asked another student to help him down the stairs. As soon as he stepped out of the classroom, he fainted.

The class (6 in all) transforms into the Super Friends. One starts trying to call medical services. Another student goes over to get one of the campus’s mini golf-cart ambulances. One gets water. Another calls his brother who is on campus with a car thankfully. I ran off to get a security guard (one who I knew because he did me a solid last week). Another gathered up everyone’s belongings from the classroom and took them to my office. People came out into the hall from a nearby classroom.

Through no fault of the student superheroes, this all took far longer than it should, but eventually a doctor showed up who could not do much beyond suggesting he go to the hospital. He tried to stand up but was unable to do so and he was shaking a lot (almost spasms). Plus he is a relatively big dude. With the help of the security guard we put him on an improvised wheelchair (two classroom chairs with wheels) and took him to the nearest elevator (which is ridiculously far away). Once we got him downstairs we had to bring the ambulance over because we lost each other due to the unfamiliar labyrinthine architecture of the new campus. He was helped onto the cart and taken to his brother’s car, which was waiting at the gate to take him to the hospital.

No real ambulance was involved. They are not very effective in Cairo. Due to traffic, they take so long to come that most people in emergencies will take taxis or alternative means of transportation if they are an option.

This was the official end to my week. Over the weekend I was texting and emailing the students in the class to find out what was happening. He had some hospital tests. Nothing conclusive. They think it is related to his colon and stress so he was prescribed some medication. He was back in class yesterday—moving around slowly but steadily, and bearing a box of chocolates as gratitude for our class’s help.

On the day he fainted, we were discussing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Due to the disruption we did not get to discuss the end of the story as scheduled. But the class ended, strangely enough, in the same way as the story—with a fainting. In the case of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it is the narrator’s physician husband who passes out. The story’s concludes: “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Electronic Music

There was a very hot electronic music festival in Cairo this weekend organized by a small local record label, 100 Copies. I have a couple of their LPs, which I dig, and their releases ranges from minimalist ambient to dub. The Thursday night program I saw featured three musicians and one visual artist. The first, Omar Raafat, was my favorite because he works with breakbeats and has strong hip-hop sensibility. He works with an old Casio mini-keyboard. His set began and ended with a very cool, somewhat minimalist backbeat that would have sounded at home on any 1980s hip-hop album. He is experimenting with a lot of the same kinds of sounds that Kanye was using on his last LP (minus the vocals). In between the start and finish, Raafat broke down what he was doing but still stayed focused on his breaks. It was a def deft balance. He was accompanied by a live video installation from Kareem Lotfy which was beautiful. Lot of close-up images of paintbrush on canvas—with some amazing details of liquid textures. Also some pixilations which also bring to mind the 1980s. Hard to describe, but great to watch.
The second musician was Pole, which was the most straightforward part of the evening. He mixes some nice dub stuff that would not sound out of place in a club. Since it wasn’t a club, I thought his hour-long set, though solid all the way through, was a bit long. Third was Maurice Louca who is also part of the band Bikya. He really built up a lot of momentum during the course of his set, which kept me interested throughout. Loud, electronic music, and by far the most eclectic of the evening.

Sadly I wasn’t able to catch the program on Friday or Saturday.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


For Christmas, I bought Jenna a lamp with a very cool heavy glass globe. The base of the lamp—the electric part—was very basic. It looked like something I made in high school electric shop. Plus there was no switch so in order to turn it on or off you needed to plug or unplug it from the wall. Earlier this year, the electric part of it broke, which was not a big deal. I just needed to take it to an electrician for repair, plus I could get a switch put on. It is the kind of thing that in the US people might throw away and just purchase a new one. Here, thankfully, much less of that takes place. People are incredibly skilled at fixing things.

So I took it to an electrician who has a really small shop in a basement on my street about 3 blocks away. I chose the heavy cable and asked him to put on a switch too. I asked how much it cost and he told me 10LE (less than $2), which is very reasonable.

Asking how much something costs is very un-Egyptian. For many transactions of this sort, you pay what you will when it is done. It works this way with taxis, tailors, barbers, etc. It is a bit uncomfortable for someone coming from the US, but once you figure out the implicit rules governing such transactions, you can confidently hand over the correct amount of money (it fadal) and walk away. Still, as much as I have done it, I always hesitate. But there is almost never a problem. I have ridden taxis over 100 times since I have been here and can count on one hand the number of times there has been anything resembling a dispute.

Though I have figured out taxis, I still have a problem with completely unfamiliar transactions. I have never had a lamp rewired so I spent a whole lot of time guessing at how much I should pay. Since I wasn’t sure, I asked up front so that any negotiations could take place before the work was done. Since 10LE was an obviously fair price for the materials and the labor, I left quite satisfied (and embarrassed that I expected someone to try to overcharge me).

I returned the next day to pick it up, and the teenager who quoted me the price was not there. There were three older men, one of whom was probably the father of the teenager. They had begun working on the lamp and needed to finish a few things. They were really nice and helpful. I waited for 15 minutes. He plugged it in and it didn’t work. He took everything apart. Another 15 minutes. He plugged it in again and it blew out the bulb. He told me to come back in an hour.

Still I was wondering if the 10LE price quote would hold up, especially since the person who quoted the price wasn’t there and this involved an hour of extra work. I left and decided that I would gladly pay 15LE for their extra time (like you give a taxi driver a little bit extra if there is a jam).

I returned to the shop. He plugged it in. It worked. “The price,” he begins to tell me, and pauses. I realize this transaction may not go down as I had rehearsed it in my head. He begins adding numbers with his colleagues in Arabic though I can follow it pretty easily because I know numbers. He comes back to me: “10 LE.” I paid and left feeling a little bit guilty and a lot grateful.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Finding my way at Cairo University

On Wednesday night, I went to a play performance at the theater at Cairo University. CU is, I believe, the largest university in Egypt and one of the largest in the world with 250,000 students. Plus it is a city campus, or more like a city in a city. I know that certain divisions, like the medical school, are away from the main campus, but it mostly centralized. Keep in mind that this is a city campus, not something in the middle of central Pennsylvania. It is huge.

I have been out there a couple of times previously. The campus is enormous. The English department, where I attended a conference in the fall, is a full 30-minute walk on campus from the Metro stop. That is assuming you know where you are going, which I rarely do. Thankfully, there are always tons of people around who are very willing to help you get where you need to go (even if they themselves are not certain). This is a very common feature of Cairo. Drivers are always asking people for directions; pedestrians often function like human street signs (in the absence of actual street signs). It can be hard to find your way if you are not willing to ask for help. If you do ask, it can be easy. I have had multiple instances where people walked with me for about 10 or 15 minutes to help me get where I needed to go (including to the English department at CU) or to make sure I got on the right bus.

A colleague invited me to a performance by students from the CU English department cultural association. And I got very lost. The event was in a theater located in the University Hostel (dormitory) which is actually across the street from the main campus. Once I finally spotted it, all of the nearby gates were locked and I had to walk a long way out of my way simply to access the street. Through lots of questions of very gracious people (and a useful bilingual event announcement in hand), I was able to get where I was going, albeit too late to get a good seat.

There were three short plays (two in English)—interrelated stories about the internal lives of women. The first was about a woman whose quiet obsession with singing is diagnosed as mental illness and the second was about a working-class woman who develops an imaginary relationship with the President of the Republic. They addressed serious themes but also incorporated elements slapstick humor and musical theater, which are enormously popular in Egypt.

Most encouragingly the theater was packed, standing room only in a space that seats well over 500. It may have been closer to 1,000. The audience, mostly students, were super enthusiastic, and there was a ton of energy in the room, which I found exciting. I spoke to a colleague and the department needs to pay a good bit of money for the space (including rehearsal time), which prohibits them from running the shows for more than one night. I am glad I caught it, and will be able to find my way much more easily next time.