Monday, November 22, 2010

Blood-Burning Moon

I have a new Arabic teacher. And he speaks no English, which is fantastic for me. That means all of our communication is in Arabic. When we talk on the phone to schedule classes, we must do it in Arabic. Still progressing slowly but I really like this new wrinkle. It pushes me.

Plus, he is a really literary guy. He brought in an anthology of Arabic translations of 20th Century American short stories to show me. It is fun to read the names in the table of contents, because they are all phonetic spellings so I can figure them out without being limited by my vocabulary. Always interesting for me to learn who and what is translated: Hemingway, Faulkner, Nabokov, Jen, Oates, Barthelme, Porter, Cheever, Munro. There was one African-American writer represented—Jean Toomer with “Blood-Burning Moon.” It would not have been my first guess, but pretty cool.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Losing French?

I met some other parents at the playground earlier today; they were speaking French to their 18-month-old son. I am excited for any opportunity to speak French but found myself out of practice and dropping in occasional Arabic words. It could be taken as a sign that my Arabic is really taking off, but more likely it is a sign that my French is slipping.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tommy Davidson

Short blog: We took R to see Tommy Davidson do stand up tonight. She laughed at all of the right spots, so we know she has great timing. He was excellent. It was kind of inappropriate for a toddler, but she won’t remember anything. At least not without the aid of psychotherapy.

Tommy Davidson is really brilliant. I know him from In Living Color, of course. But his performance in Bamboozled shook my world. Such an edgy movie, and his performance really challenged the line because he was performing these destructive stereotypes but figured out a way to be funny in the process. In a film that is critical of what (I recall) it calls new age minstrelsy, Spike let Davidson and Savion Glover do they damn thing. And get down. Really brilliant and unsettling and challenging. I wish I thought to tell him that when I met him.

I will try to blog here from time to time.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A bathroom conversation at Harrisburg International Airport

On Thursday morning, I was at the Harrisburg Airport, en route to Seattle, Washington. I took R into the restroom to change her diaper. She was fussing, as she has been recently when I change her. I am talking to her, trying to be calming and reassuring, “You will be alright” and such.

Sixtyish white guy walks in and hears her crying. “You are ok. It is not like you have anything to worry about.” Then out of the blue: “You weren’t born in Haiti or Africa...”

Huh? I cut him off, “Actually, she was born in Africa!”

He looked and sounded shocked and shaking his head says, “I don’t know where that came from.” I hope he was referring to his own presumptions (and much worse). I didn’t say anything else and neither did he. He seemed genuinely dumbfounded as he exited the men’s room.

I was glad I was able to disrupt whatever he had in his mind. I walked out of the men’s room laughing at the absurdity, only to find my laughter occasionally interrupted by deeper thoughts about his presumptions, where they come from, and where they may lead him.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Now that I am visiting the US, I have time to blog about Cairo. It is kind of a funny thing how living in Cairo can get in the way of blogging about Cairo.

In this case, about beer, actually.

In Cairo, you can order via telephone or internet almost anything for delivery and it is remarkably efficient. More so than anyplace I have been. If we want beer, we call a place called “Drinkie’s” (no I am not making this up or changing the names) and they deliver within 45 minutes for no extra charge. And you can request it cold. Also for no extra charge.

Other than Heineken, you have two Egyptian beer options—Stella (not the be confused with its Belgian namesake) and Saqqara. Both are lagers that I, as someone who does not drink very much, find quite satisfactory. Sometime last year, however, we found out about an Egyptian label called Luxor that has a hefeweizen, an unfiltered wheat beer, that is quite delicious.

A few months back, when I telephoned Drinkie’s for beer, I asked if they had Luxor. They said no, so I ordered Stella. Transaction done. A few minutes later, I got a telephone call.

Me: “Hello.”

Caller X: “Hello. Do you need beer?”

Me: [long pause] “No? Thank you.”

Caller X: “OK.”

End of conversation. Me left scratching my head.

My Stella order arrived shortly thereafter.

It took me a few minutes to figure out what probably happened. When I called and asked for Luxor, the dispatcher passed along my telephone number to someone else who does sell it. It is a beautiful example of the way that informal economic networks still infiltrate this highly efficient system.

More recently, the place we ordered Luxor from was closed (closed down, we later learned). We were desperately (ok—that is a dramatic overstatement) seeking Luxor, so the idea hit me. Why not call Drinkie’s again and ask for Luxor, and when they say they don’t have it, hang up and wait for the call from some mysterious beer distributor? I actually thought about doing it, but it seemed a bit too strange...though it might have made for a much better blog entry.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

New home office

As I wrote last month, we moved up two floors in our same building. Moving into a flat with a very similar floor layout is a curious experience. The furniture is different and nicer, as are all of the other accouterments and details. It was a fun opportunity to reinvent things about the flat, including my work area. Anyway, there is a section of the living room, where I have a desk and books, and where R keeps some toys.

I was able to decorate the area using some of the Kuba textiles I collected during my two trips to Democratic Republic of Congo. With book cases.

The center is one of my favorites, though I don't know the artist (as I do for the other two).

When I sit at my desk, this is directly behind me. It is huge--about 10 feet long--but fits perfectly in this space.

And my desk.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

waiting at the bank

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the new bank policy eliminating a separate and unfair queue for faculty. I have gone to the bank twice since then and have had to wait significantly longer than I did in the past. Last week, I waited at least thirty minutes. Though I did not time it precisely, it was enough time for me to go to the bank, get a number, wait, go out to get something to drink, come back to the bank, wait some more, go to my office, work for a few minutes, and come back to the bank again. Today I waited about 15 minutes, all of it spent in the bank.

I am not sure if there is a problem with the longer waits. But I do know that if it is a problem for faculty, it is surely a problem for everyone else. The best solution seems to be more tellers available for everyone, not a separate faculty line. I guess what strikes me is that if there is a need—for more tellers, for example—the new system makes a solution more likely. By adding faculty voices to those of staff and students, the position for advocating, whatever, becomes much stronger.

Of course, I am talking about a line at a bank, which is terribly unimportant and certainly not worth the time you have spent reading about it. But, I like the idea that the elimination of the separate faculty line creates a new possibility for solidarity in a space where it was much less likely before.

Monday, June 14, 2010

World Cup

I was at the neighborhood market today and everyone who worked there wanted to talk to me about the World Cup. Folks at the market know that I am from the US, so this is a natural topic of conversation. The US tied their hardest match in an otherwise easy (relatively of course) group. And since the US historically has been so pathetic in football, it is the one sphere in which I sometimes root for the imperium.

I will be leaving for the US next week and my only regret is not being able to be in a football-mad country for the rest of the tournament. Even if, as in the case of Egypt, they themselves did not qualify. I guess to be in a country that not only cared, but was also playing would be ideal.

Part of this is self-interest because, like having a baby, football is ready-made conversation piece. It provides endless opportunities to practice my Arabic. The city is the water cooler, and everyone wants to talk about whatever matches were played the day before.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The supermarket and the pharmacy

I ran some errands last night. I went to the supermarket for lettuce and bread. Two heads of romaine and a baguette for 5.60 Egyptian Pounds (exactly one dollar). Next stop: the pharmacy. I got some pain syrup medication for R and Vitamin D drops. The bill was 7.25 EGP. I was home in 10 or 15 minutes, and my pockets were slightly more than $2 US lighter.

Medicine is inexpensive because it is subsidized by the government. Bread is actually also subsidized by the government. But not baguettes. (I could have gotten much more bread for a lot less money had I wanted.)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The U in the NY Times

I am not sure if folks saw this article about the university that appeared in the New York Times last month. It is the kind of thing I would have posted on the blog back when it was published if I were keeping current with the blog. (Slacker that I am, I did post it on fb.)

Anyway...I have a lot of personal thoughts. I agree with the argument that the liberal arts are a good thing, and the university is providing a valuable service by introducing this kind of education in a place where it is unfamiliar. And I agree with the characterization of the students as generally open-minded and willing to be challenged in new ways by this style of education.

The description of it makes the university sound like a missionary institution, which is where I start to get uncomfortable. Partly because, as some of you know, I spend a lot of time researching missionaries. Partly, perhaps, because the university was founded, as the article acknowledges, by actual missionaries.

But I think my primary point of dissatisfaction with the article is its implication that Egyptian students are not bringing anything to the table other than bad habits. This, I believe, is patently false. I teach a number of M.A. students who did their undergraduate degrees at national universities, including the one named in the article, and feel that they arrive with a rich range of literacies and, as a group, adapt quite well to work in our department.

Specifically, our Egyptian students at all levels come trained in a tradition of multilingualism, which is foreign in the US. Their multilingualism includes multiple Arabics and English, and oftentimes French and German. As a teacher of literature from the US, I find these skills, which are part of my students’ educational background, to be valuable and unique. This might seem kind of obvious, but I don't think we can take it for granted.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


When I tell people that R was born in Egypt, they ask, “So does that make her an Egyptian (or dual) citizen?” The short answer is no. Citizenship in Egypt is determined by the nationality of the father; therefore, I would have to be an Egyptian citizen for her to claim Egyptian citizenship.

In the United States, however, citizenship can be either patrilineal or matrilineal for a child born abroad to a citizen parent, as is our case. For R, it was a relatively straightforward process since both of her parents are US-born citizens and there are no complicating factors like unmarried parents, one non-citizen parent, missing documents, multiple passports, long-term residence abroad, etc.

This was only an issue because hers was the birth of a US citizen abroad. When someone is born in the US, their parents’ citizenship (at least as I understand it) is less an issue because citizenship is determined by their place of birth. I have Egyptian friends and students who are US citizens because they were born, for example, while their parents were doing a medical residency in the US. (And in many of these cases, they have siblings, a few years older or younger, born elsewhere who is not a US citizen.) I don’t know the citizenship laws of many places, but this law is particularly American and is, in many instances, the source of the question I get asked. Usually, though not exclusively, it is Americans who ask about her citizenship. Based on our country’s laws, we may reasonably presume that one’s birthplace always grants citizenship.

While this is clearly not the case, why does the US do it? The answer has its roots, as do many questions of US policy, in slavery. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the US granted to citizenship “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves. A law that based citizenship on parentage would have continued to disfranchise African Americans (and instead the courts and legislatures had to find alternative ways to effectively do that). The Constitution was amended in the wake of the Civil War in order to guarantee citizenship to the descendants of slaves in perpetuity. This history makes this law sacred.

It also means that anyone born in the US is guaranteed to be a citizen of some place. This might seem obvious, but it is not. In Egypt, for example, Palestinians who were born here typically can not become Egyptian citizens (and don’t have citizenship or a passport). Imagine a population, all born in the US over the course of several generations, who are not eligible for citizenship.

Actually there were huge exceptions to the 14th amendment. Native Americans were excluded from the 14th amendment based on their tribal citizenship until at least 1924 when the parameters for citizenship were made territorial rather than juridical. And of course, there have been decades of de facto exclusion from many of the rights conferred by citizenship on African Americans, Native Americans, and others.

While there is a lot of debate in the US about immigration, I have not heard much discussion of the important constitutional reasons why the US, given its particular history, grants citizenship in the way that it does. I have been thinking about all of this in connection to the hateful immigration law in Arizona. The expansion of citizenship in the 14th amendment gave the 13th (abolition) meaning and the 15th (franchise) a foundation. I have not heard the Tea Party arguing for the repeal of the 14th amendment yet, but I think people need to recognize that this history of expanding opportunities for citizenship is worthy of celebration, and look for more opportunities to enfranchise all people who reside in the US.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bank queues (and democracy)

As of today, there is no special line for faculty at the bank branch on campus. At banks in Cairo, you take a number (like a deli counter) rather than having to wait in line. You arrive and tell them if you have a deposit/withdrawal or need to open/close an account or do some other category of business people do at banks. Up until yesterday, at the university branch, you had the additional option to go up and tell them you were faculty and end up in a separate, and presumably quicker, queue.

Last week in the faculty queue, I got stuck behind some complicated transactions and ended up waiting longer than if I would have if I were in the regular line. Getting to see folks arrive after me and leave before I was served probably serves me right. But 80% or 90% of the time the faculty line was quicker.

Nearly every time I went in the bank, I would take a “faculty” ticket even though I like to think of myself as a democratic person. On one particular occasion (when I was extremely rushed, or at least I claimed as much in an act of rationalization), I remember being embarrassed when I waited less than a minute to see a teller in a bank full of university staff members who clearly had been waiting for quite a while. It wasn’t right, but I did it anyway. Not that it counts for much, but I felt terrible, as it was happening and all day afterwards. Not that I want to make it, in and of itself, into a big deal...

I am glad that they have changed this unfair policy, even though I took advantage of it. I don’t mind waiting a bit longer at the bank. Plus I no longer have the option of doing something I don’t believe in. And I also don’t have to wonder why I knowingly did it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Moving up

Last weekend, we move apartments. Up two floors in the same building to the flat formerly inhabited by some dear friends who moved to Doha. Similar floor plan but nicer things—detailing, appliances (clothes dryer and dishwasher), furniture. A lot more natural light. Less street noise. Nice breeze. Cleaner air (maybe. relatively).

I am more inclined to take the elevator to the fourth floor than the second (actually fifth and third for American counters), which I dislike. But it has been a great decision even if I am not yet unpacked.

When we first moved to Cairo (and this building), I posted about my favorite room in the house—the large front balcony. Ditto for this place.

Check out the furniture:
the view:
and the company:

Friday, May 28, 2010

Grades and email

I submitted grades for one of my classes yesterday. Within less than five minutes (literally—the submission screen was still open on my computer), I received an email from a student complaining about their grade. This is annoying, but commonplace, and not really the subject of this blog entry.

This student’s note led me to think about how email has transformed the way that people communicate. First of all, the email was incredibly informal. It was extremely brief, written in all lower case letters, without punctuation, full of typographical errors, and without any of the courtesies that typically find their way into professional correspondence. It is hard to expect much if it was written in a couple of minutes. Certain etiquette in circumstances like this would be beneficial for students, because they would be presenting their case (to the extent that they have one) much more clearly.

What if there was no email (as when I was an undergraduate student) or if its use was limited (as when I started teaching). The student would have had to contact me either by telephone, in person, or in writing. The first two are possible but involve a level of direct confrontation that most people, especially those who, like me, rely heavily on email, find uncomfortable. I went to a residential college but I don’t recall extensive telephone conversations with my instructors beyond, perhaps, scheduling appointments. In a face-to-face, people generally need to come correct, though they don’t always do so. And a written note requires thought even if it were the written equivalent of the email I received (a note hand-written in green ink on a piece of ripped scrap paper, folded and slid under an office door).

What all of these possibilities share is a required forethought. It would take the communiqué longer to reach me. Even the time to walk to a professor’s office with a complaint takes longer than to send off an email. If the telephone caller gets through, I guess a call can be similarly impulsive, but it immediately becomes interactive. In writing a letter, there is forethought required. There is the time it takes to deliver it. What if this student waited a day or two or a week to reflect, or was somehow required to contact me through another channel. I don’t know if it would have an impact. Email has changed the way that teachers and students and other people communicate—even when they are not communicating via email. I have thought about requiring students to come see me to talk about things like this, in order to see if that would change the quality of our interaction, but I fear that it would open the door to more complaints and, frankly, I rely on email as much as they do (and for many of the same reasons).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Chance encounters; or, the Novelist and the Professor meet in Cairo

On Wednesday last week, a Novelist was visiting campus. About a month earlier, he graciously contacted me about speaking on campus, as visiting writers sometime do, and I put him in touch with a colleague who arranged everything. Unfortunately I was unable to attend his talk, but heard from my colleague afterwards that everything went well.

On Thursday, the following day, I was meeting another campus visitor, a Professor who had some meetings about international exchange programs and was also giving a lecture. I had never met him before, but arranged to meet him downtown so we could ride the bus to New Cairo together from Tahrir. (He was staying in Zamalek.) I took the metro downtown and arrived to meet him at around 9:30. As I was walking the half-block from the subway exit to the corner, I see a familiar face walk by. It was the Novelist! I had never met him, but his picture was on posters that were hanging up in the office, so I knew it was him. Incredible, since my first order of business for that morning was to send him a thank you note. However I can be shy and a bit slow, and by the time I realized it, he was gone.

So I get to the corner and the Professor sees me and asks, since we had never met, “Ira?” We shake hands and start to walk back in the direction from which I had come in order to catch the bus. Toward the end of the block, I see the Novelist again. I excuse myself from the Professor and now that I had spent the past few minutes regretting not introducing myself, I approach. I greet him by name. He then greets me by name. WTF? My picture was not on any posters. How did he know me? The Novelist explains that the Professor, who is standing beside me, saw the Novelist a few minutes before I arrived and thought he was me. Before I arrived, the Professor approached the Novelist and asked “Ira?” The Novelist said, “no,” but then went on to explain that he knew an Ira in Cairo and realized that it was probably the same Ira for whom the Professor was waiting.


The Professor and I chatted with the Novelist for a few minutes before running off to catch the bus. Encounters like this can make a city of 18 or 20 million people feel like a small village.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Space Ping Pong

Several months ago, we got R the most wonderful bathtub imaginable: "Space Ping Pong." I went to the Sun Ra art exhibit at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia this summer, and her tub would not have been out of place. It is one of the most absurd, surreal, and whimsical things I have ever seen and can't help but smile every time I see it. R likes it though my opinion does not reflect a household consensus.

There is a sci-fi trend emerging. R's favorite song is the Newcomers' "Martian Hop" (Stax) which you can listen to here (though it is much better watching R dance to it).

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

More from Menoufiya; or How do you say "Ask Your Mama" in Arabic?

Even though I posted about my visit to Menoufiya, I did not really talk much about my talk. And I guess I am not really going to do much of that sort of thing here. Briefly, however, my presentation “Langston Hughes, Patrice Lumumba, and the Black Arts Movement” considered the last decade of Hughes’s career. I tried to situate his work as a sort of prototype of the Black Arts Movement, with the figure of Lumumba being central to my understanding of the political dimensions of Hughes’s poetics. There were some challenges is trying to balance a presentation of material that is accessible to an audience of non-specialists but that still represents some my scholarship. As the second part of the program, we screened an excerpt for Eyes on the Prize called “Ain’t Gonna Shuffle No More” that covered Muhammad Ali’s conversion to Islam, the student movement at Howard University, and the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana.
My work is my work, but what made it most interesting for me at Menouifya were the comments and questions I received from colleague and students in attendance. Among the questions I was asked were several about the relationship between African American literature and other ethnic American writing, which is increasingly gaining some attention among Egyptian readers who have, justifiably, tired of the more milquetoast tradition associate with the U. S. One of my colleagues pointed out how often Egyptian scholars are drawn to African American literature, which is a great observation. I met colleagues who have written theses and dissertations on Baldwin, Baraka, Dunbar, etc., and while this is still anecdotal, it is worth contemplating.
There were some questions about shifting racial terminology (i.e. why does this poem use the term “Negro”?) which then ties into questions about hip-hop and other about a directness of the language of the Black Arts movement poetry. One question extended this to Lumumba in a way I found interesting—Lumumba’s independence day speech in front of Baudouin in Kinshasa on June 30, 1960, uses the same directness and “impoliteness” that came to be associated with the Black Arts Movement. Is Lumumba the first Black Arts Movement poet?

After the film, there were lots of questions about Islam in the US, and I tried to give the history of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz’s movement toward Sunni Islam, and offered a longer historical overview of African American Islam (which is an area of research I really need to return to). There was another thoughtful question about Obama’s election, and how that has or has not changed the racial landscape described in these poems. In other words, is his election a representative act or is it more idiosyncratic?
I spent some time talking about Hughes’s masterpiece Ask Your Mama. And I was suddenly aware of my audience. I thought, how can I translate “Ask Your Mama” into Arabic? I did my best to say something about the significance of signifying, and asked the audience. Thankfully some colleagues were able to offer if not a direct translation, then at least an equivalent. But whatever was said did elicit some uncomfortable chuckles from the crowd. I should have written it down.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Black Arts Movement in the Nile Delta

On Wednesday, I gave a lecture on the Black Arts Movement at Menoufiya University, one of Egypt’s national universities, located in the Delta region. Menoufiya is one of seven national universities in the Delta, the fertile region between Cairo and Alexandria. Menoufiya has 70,000 students, which makes it one of the smaller of these universities, which all seem to have between 70,000 and 100,000. (By contrast, some in Cairo have well over 100,000, with 250,000 at Cairo University! AUC, on the other hand, has perhaps 5,000.) This means there are more than 500,000 university students in the Delta, which I was told is home to more than 50% of Egypt’s 80 million people (which, I believe, includes Alexandria’s 4 million). So let’s say 40 million plus approximately 20 million in Cario and then perhaps 20 million elsewhere in the country.

With a university this size, there are lots of exciting things happening. The English department, for example, has more than a thousand students, and the joke that a colleague made was for them all to be able to attend the program, we would have required the university football stadium. Still, the turnout was great.

In terms of the overall situation in the Delta, last year, the Guardian had a good article on the impact of climate change in the region.
I hope to find some time to share more about the program itself, but I wanted to begin somewhere, as I try to get my blog groove back.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Last night, I got to "hood" a graduate student, who earned her M.A. in Comparative Literature. My first time doing it. Pretty cool. And well-deserved. By her. Not me. I was a reader on the committee but nothing more.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

People are Friendly

I took baby r for a walk today. A short cab ride. Pay the internet bill. Market. Bookstore. Fruit stand. Nothing exceptional. I noticed how friendly people are to me when I have a baby. Much more so than when I was babyless and empty-handed. I experience public space differently. I found it similar when I was in the US--conversations with strangers in lines at the store or in elevators or parking lots or coffee shops or post offices. There is one difference. Here, what I like is that this means many more chances to practice my Arabic. A daily Cairo outing with r looks like a great way to make progress on my Arabic...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Egypt 1, Ghana 0

This is a basic way to try to get my blog groove back on. Big match tonight with Egypt defending their African Nations Cup crown in Angola. The finals win was almost as big as their humiliation of arch-rival Algeria (who prevented Egypt from qualifying for the World Cup) a few days ago. En route to the title, Egypt beat four World Cup qualifiers: Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria, and Ghana. Now, it is after midnight, and I am enjoying cars honking in celebration.

This is a great opportunity to meditate on the meanings of nationalism and the flag, a topic which I can hopefully return to once I am *really* back.

I try to avoid making excuses, but if you feel like you need one, look at my previous posting from about three months ago.