Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Teaching after January 25

Blogging has slowed down, for all sorts of reasons. There is still a lot happening here, most of which I am not especially qualified to comment on beyond the kind of off-the-cuff observations that I often bristle at from others. I do have some pictures that I hope to post—of murals and things from the neighborhood—but that feels a bit pollyannaish right now. Soon, I promise.

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference in Alexandria with colleagues from other universities here about teaching language and literature after January 25. My topic was on “Teaching American Literature and Human Rights” which was nicely complemented by some colleagues who talked about their new translation of Thomas Jefferson’s writings, as something, like much of the American example, to be considered a valuable case study, rather than a model to be emulated. Jefferson demands critical engagement as he embodies so many contradictions as a literary and prophetic figure, representing the best and worst of the US tradition. I like the temperament of this approach to the US at this moment.

For my talk, I used Malcolm X’s insistence (repeated throughout the last years of his life as Manning Marable documents in his biography, which I just finished last week) on seeing the African American struggle as demanding the attention of the United Nations. Part of Malcolm’s argument was that this movement facilitates transnational dialogue and solidarity. What a wonderful way for me to think about teaching American literature in Egypt—what if we think about it as part of a “world” tradition, rather than a national one? What are the possibilities? Specifically, I talked about texts of slavery, incarceration (also always texts of freedom, as Toni Cade Bambara frequently reminded us), and internationalism. For me it is an exciting time to be teaching here since every text, even those I have taught a half-dozen times before is “new.”

The rest of the program was quite exciting because it dealt with everything from the institutional (a campaign by colleagues at another university for direct election of the Dean and other administrators) to the curricular (“The Revolutionary Texts Initiative” and a rhetorical analysis of Mubarak’s final speech) to the pedagogical (how do we implement democratic reforms in the classroom, and the importance of new forms of student-centered learning, which is still a radical idea here).

And perhaps the most encouraging thing for me was to hear the voices of students from several universities. This, for me, was such a thrill because it is a rarity for students to be afforded a voice in this forum. And their professors are listening to them with a new seriousness and attentiveness. The movement of the youth in Egypt during the past several months forces us, as professors, that not only takes into account the material changes that have taken place around us (and which we do, by consensus, support), but to fundamentally restructure academic meeting such as this. It is no longer the teachers talking and students listening. It is, instead, a more democratic process emerging. And I believe we are only scratching the surface of what is possible in this regards.

The specific presentations included analyses of January 25th slogans by linguistics students. Their work was impressively interdisciplinary in that it looked at the interactions of text and image on many of the posters that were seen in Tahrir Square. A colleague also shared a video of a “Democracy Graffiti Art Project” that she has undertaken with her students (who are featured in the video though they could not travel from Cairo to Alexandria for the conference). The restrictions of public expression, public space, and free speech at universities here has been so engrained that this project is really revolutionary in its own way. Large white pieces of paper are hung on the walls for students to write their thoughts. It is not policed or monitored, and has by all accounts been quite successful with students finding the smallest bit of free space to use, with more and more sheets of paper being added to the walls.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Metro Station Art Gallery

Yesterday in the Tahrir Metro Station (known as Sadat), there was a public art exhibit with hundreds of drawings, painting, and photographs hanging throughout. (I did not have my camera—argh!) And there were some poster tributes to the martyrs included as well. Some of it was revolution-inspired, but not all of it. And people were stopping and looking; it was another impressive scene that seemed to be very thoughtfully organized. I found myself inspired by the diversity and breadth of the initiative in its reclamation of public space.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Kindness of Strangers

Sorry for sleeping on the blog. I do have some stories to tell, including one about an energizing conference I attended in Alexandria on the subject of teaching literature after January 25.

This evening, we were heading out during rush hour and waiting for a taxi. A car with a young couple, early twenties, pulled up beside us. I though they were asking for directions. No, they were offering us a ride. “Let us take you.” No, thank you, I replied. “Please,” they responded earnestly. I hope I was able to communicate the sincerity of my appreciation. (There was a taxi right behind them, and it looked like they were probably going in a different direction than we were.)

Something similar happened to me some 10+ years ago when I was in New Orleans. I was with two other people, waiting for a street car and a guy pulled up and offered us a ride downtown. I hesitated, and probably, left to my own devices, would have said no. But my friend eagerly and boldly accepted, and I followed him into the car and got a ride to the French Quarter.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

On the road to the beach

We went to the beach over Easter break, which was a lot of fun. It was a lovely and welcome vacation, and not much of a metaphor for what is happening in Egypt. One recent reminder of what is happening here does seem to involve a university professor’s trip to the beach. The arrest of a law professor for insulting a military officer itself is disturbing, the apparent decision to try him before a military tribunal makes it much more so.

His detention happened around a beach area, though a different one than where we were. On the road to the beach, I noticed the construction of a series of statues of military officers. They seemed very basic, and apparently were still under construction of some sort. It was clear that they were propped on bases that were in the process of being painted the colors of the flag. There were at least two variations of the statue—one a military soldier saluting and another holding a pair of binoculars, that appeared every few miles though seemingly not at regular intervals. (Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos.) They seem to me to represent the idea of the citizen-soldier (although if they were icons of particular officials I am clearly mistaken). There was a lovely and elaborate mosaic mural I also saw that told this story. It featured a soldier climbing out of a tank and being greeted by a mass of civilians waving Egyptian flags.

I have only been on this road a couple of times so I don’t have a clear sense of what preceded these statues, though there certainly were frequent icons of Mubarak (billboards and murals) that are all gone, and replaced by this new national narrative.