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.