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It’s been a while, Ducks.

Rather than make apologies, though, I’ll just jump into the thick of it.

I’ve taken a summer job as the “Dorm Head” for the Middlebury College high school Arabic program, which has the lofty title of the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy (MMLA). For those of you that have been through the Nine (now ten) Language Schools—in any species—it’s the same deal, only with high school students. Arabic 24/7, no cheating or you’re out. This kind of linguistic approach has its flaws on the high school level (my opinion), but it’s worked for me and my friends, so I’m a fan. It’s also a little nice to play hero-Orientalist to a group of high-schoolers for a few weeks. I’ve packed a ton of stuff from Egypt (movie posters from the 1940’s, TONS of Ramadan cloth, and a kilo of incense to start) to deck the dorms out, Nevadomski-style (something that was lacking terribly last year), and my calligraphy has improved significantly in the past year. I’m excited.

At present, I’m waiting on the shuttle to take me to our new site at Oberlin College, which won’t arrive until 3:30, so I’m taking advantage of the free wireless and the people watching.

To be honest, friends, I’m not sure where this blog is going. Over the past month, I’ve been mining the thing from front to back for material for the novel (which, unsurprisingly, will have a blogger-character. Oscar Wilde said that every first novelist’s book portrays the author as either Faust or Christ. Deep in the thick of it, I see why). I’ve been wanting to write on Gaza, but it’s been so overwhelmingly heartbreaking that I can’t quite sum up the energy to lambast the efforts on both sides, and so I either end up looking like I support Israel (I don’t) or Gaza (I don’t either). So I’ve given up. Is anyone still reading this thing, a month later? My initial inspiration for the opinion-side of this blog—the infamous “microcelebrity” Cairene blogger known Sandmonkey—has even flagged in his own efforts.

Can an Orientalist look at his own society as an Orientalist? An Occidentalist?

Probably. There’s always Stuff White People Like, but I’m inclined to think that’s more humor than serious academic thought. Not that I’m a seriously serious academic. This is a blog named after a duck, after all.

Last summer’s experience as an RA at MMLA (same old Arabic school) was quite a rich experience to say the least, and a shocking one sometimes. It was the first time I’ve been on the opposite side of the spectrum, and now I understand why it was so difficult. Whereas in Egypt I was a teacher of a culture I represented, here, I’m little more than an enthusiast (and sometime antagonist/critic). Isolated from most things Arabic (aside from what you bring with you), it becomes more and more difficult to bring that to students who have no idea what you’re talking about half the time. Case in point: many of the kids really knocked colloquial Arabic as a language (understandable, I suppose: you say things like “over shwaya” for overdone and “meeteeng” for meeting. It has so many loanwords it’s not funny to me anymore), and so they insist on cultivating their MSA, instead of laying a legitimate foundation for a diglossy—learning the very necessary fact that someone who says they “know” Arabic should, in reality, know not just one language (the classical variety), but two: the MSA-classical mix that appears in media and reading, and the colloquial variety that is only spoken and never written. The absurdity of sticking to the MSA variant is almost as ridiculous as meeting a person who said they only spoke English with Saxon vocabulary, because all the French, Latin, and Greek loanwords weren’t “English” enough.

This is just the student-teacher stuff. Don’t even get into the residential life drama that happens on a daily basis. You know what I’m talking about.

It should be an eventful summer.

A little postscriptum: when I got off the plane about half an hour ago, the signs to the bathroom were in four languages: one of which was solid, no-joke Arabic. It made me smile.

Salaams, friends.

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Last day of all classes for me today.

I went out with the boys from Proficient 6 yesterday, and it was absolutely awesome. We met up at the Sporting Station and jumped into a mashru3a to Bahari, where we walked about twenty minutes inland to Sawareekh, which apparently has the absolute best fuul bi sugu5 (beans and sausage, which is actually better than it sounds, Westerners) in Iskanderiyya. The boys were pretty keen on feeding me mukhkh (brain) and 7alali (penis), and I have to confess that everything was simply delicious. It actually kind of reminded me of Mexican food.

We walked through Bahari until we got to Ras al-Tin and walked along the Anfushi beaches until we got to Makram, which has incredible ice cream somewhere in between genuine gelato and icees (if you can imagine that). Afterwards, it was another masru3a to Chatby and sitting in an ahwa telling dirty jokes and talking sex over tea and dominoes. It was pretty amazing. They handed me a watch at the end of the night, and Bassem and Amr and I trotted across the Corniche and talked about Zionism — or rather, I tried to dispell the idea from Amr’s mind that the Jews controlled the American media. Sigh.

Today had an altogether different character, which I’m not willing to write about yet, but I want to share the pictures.

I’ll let them do the talking until tomorrow, when I muse a little longer.

I’m going to miss everybody like crazy.

"The Boys": from left, Amr, Moustafa, (me), Marwan, and Bassem the Ladies' Man

The die-hards of Prof. 4: from left, Yasser, Ahmed Khamis, me, May, Ahmed Hassan, Rrrrradwa, Rasmiyya, May, Manar

Me and Ahmed. I am going to miss the crazy walks home with this guy a lot.

Usama the Tea Man and Me

"My girls" of Proficienit 6 in Clay Cafe, minus Yosra, who did NOT SHOW UP on the last day. From left: Shahenda, Vildan, Ingy, and Dalia

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Well, it’s daylight savings time as of yesterday (two days ago?) in Egypt. This has really messed me up. I’m terrible at changing clocks and whatnot – usually on the day itself, I never change my watch. Don’t ask me why. It must be one of those boyish idiosyncrasies left over from when I insisted on setting my watch by the Atomic Clock in DC or Greenwich Mean Time  because I thought I should get used to it (I was going to be an astronaut, after all). Apparently it’s done nothing but give me a complex over clocks and watches being correct about their second hands, and I almost never change my watch when I set it.

Result: Heba calls you at 8:26 PM and says ever so mildly, “Michael, you are late. Why?”

That’s because my body and brain and everything else in me told me it was 7:26 PM, Heba.

Ah.

I also thought I was teaching yesterday (official day off) and tomorrow (only tutoring conversation). This is what happens when tacking down the last days in a city, I suppose.

Mr. Khamis promptly called me up and asked if I could come in anyway, without class.

Below is the reason why.

The box presented to me today by my Proficient 4 class.

How I am going to get this back to the States I have absolutely no idea.

Sand art! It reads: "Best Teacher Ever: Remember us always" and has the names of my students (and a camel).

And honestly, I almost cried.

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Faten’s always been a little crazy. Tammam insists that she’s bipolar ever since she gave him the Lady-in-White incident last week where she essentially blew up at him at 1 AM in the morning after insisting that he herd her cats into the stairwell (I refer to it as the Lady-in-White incident because she scared the crap out of him as he entered the building that night looking very ghostlike). Tom and John have also had their issues with the woman and taken something of a principled dislike to her, but I’ve generally tolerated her as being a nice — albeit eccentric and occasionally quick-tempered — older woman.  Over the two years of living in her building (still the nicest in Alexandria, I think), I’ve found it easier to placate her with the occasional dish of sugared strawberries or cookies to avoid getting hassled.

Things came to a bit of a head tonight, though, and as I sit here narrating to you, gentle reader, I can’t help but agree with the boys on this one: the woman’s gone crazy.

I come home from work (where more craziness went down, but wait, I’ll get to that later), where the boys are having a pow-wow in Tom and Tammam’s room; apparently, Faten came up demanding more money for Tammam staying in the apartment, and we have to pay up in two days the full rent. Considering that I paid about LE 1800 the first year I was out here, and that the rent has increased LE 200 with each additional occupant (absolutely ridiculous, but we tolerated it), we weren’t going to give in to the 300+ she was insisting was owed on top of everything anyhow. I was not present, but words were said, exchanged, and Tammam got yelled at and called rude for (knowing Tammam) absolutely no reason.

She also wanted us to pay another month’s rent instead of leaving the security deposit for the last month (which I suspect she’s trying to find an excuse to keep).

Long story short: we’re leaving. Sooner than I expected — I was planning on joining Rumi and Andrea out in Cairo around the 4th when my classes all finished anyhow, but this is a little earlier than expected. All of us have pretty much agreed that this a matter of principle, and so we’re all left looking for beds around our friends apartments.

Good thing I started packing today.

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Some notes on music

Helwa awy!

These days, I find myself sitting for extended periods of time in the cyber down the street downloading things off iTunes or calling America desperately hoping to get some form of post-summer employment. Furthermore, I still haven’t gotten quite over my GoogleReader addiction, and my need for information seems to keep me up many a windy night. The other day as I was shuffling back from the internet cafe at 2 AM, Rami and Abo Ahmed shouted across the street, “Have you been drinking?”

No, thank you, and thank you for shouting that down the street!

Assholes. Really, they’re great guys, except when they pull some idiotic move like that. Marwan actually is a TA for the College of Arts in the Department of Philosophy, and occasionally makes a reference to al-Ghazali; once, they caught me carrying back the tafsir of Ibn Kathir to the flat and were visibly (if doubtfully) impressed (a tafsir is a line-for-line, sometimes word-for-word, exegesis of the Qur’an. The word literally means “explanation”). I confess I haven’t gotten far in it, and the latest excuse I’ve been using is that there are papers to grade.

Ugh.

With internet cafes comes some pretty atrocious music.

As with the rest of Egypt, any sense of personal space is disregarded, and this intrusion extends to the auditory. This wouldn’t be so bad if the music wasn’t too too terrible. It might even be pleasant; it might expose you to something interesting and different, after all. Not so.

There are two categories of intrusive music in Egypt:

1. Arab pop, blasted.

This is of the Amr Diab variety, which is resembles an over-bassed, highly synthesized pop music. He’s huge. What’s most irritating about this is the heavy bassline, which penetrates any kind of headphones you put on. Also, it’s usually what obnoxious shebab on the tram play on what my students have informed me are “Chinese mobiles” — cell phones with enormous speakers for the express purpose of playing them as a kind of live soundtrack to life. Walk on the Corniche on a Thursday night, you’re bound to run into at crowds of boys linked arm-in-arm, one of them playing something on his cell phone. Either that, or he’ll be gazing wistfully over the Mediterranean, the sweet, sweet strains of Roubi (please, click on that link. Fast forward to 3:07. She is an absolutely ridiculous/hilarious dancer. And the costumes will have you rolling on the floor. Such vanity, even for a singer! Some of those expressions are the ones you’re supposed to use when you’re singing in the shower, babe).

2. Western pop, played at an atmospheric level

As I sit in the cyber now, and the songs fade from one to the next on my headphones, I can hear the awfulness of Kenny G’s wafting tenor sax. He’s huge here. Maybe just in this cyber, but he’s so big that they occasionally play the Christmas album just to mix things up a bit. It’s horrifying, and I don’t think I would recognize it had I not first become familiar with it from my mother’s prolonged torture sessions that involved long car rides as a child and no album in the car except Kenny’s Breathless. I’m surprised I survived.

But to come to the ME of all places and find that here is pretty much all I can handle. It’s actually pretty amazing — almost a time warp, even (Orientalist! Orientalist! The East is stuck back in time! Traveling to the East is traveling through time!). But really: most of the stuff that’s popular from stateside is from the early nineties; Celine Dion, Backstreet Boys, Enrique Iglesias. You get asked if you like the most absurdly awful artists sometimes: case in point, Lionel Richie, who apparently has the clout of being one of the most popular singers in the Arab world. To quote Wikipedia, which quotes in turn ABC News:

Grown Iraqi men get misty-eyed by the mere mention of his name. “I love Lionel Richie,” they say. Iraqis who do not understand a word of English can sing an entire Lionel Richie song. He has performed in Morocco, Dubai, Qatar and Libya. There is obviously something up there. The more we talked, the more he theorized as to the reasons his music might be so popular here. He thinks it is because of the simple message in his music: Love.

Good Lord.

I’ve also my own personal pet theories on Arabs and music. Celine Dion’s a hit because much of her own singing style seems to vaguely represent the stylistic vocal fireworks of classical Arab singers like Umm Kalthoum and Fayrouz (don’t tell that to an Egyptian). Naturally, we all incline to what we personally like, and that’s the prevailing “like”; when I mention that Marcel Khalife is my favorite Arab singer, I get looks of unknowning, often confusion. Just a man and an oud. That’s it. That’s all I want. Maybe a ney, and that’s it. Keep your basslines and synthesizers, shebab; I’m an aguz.

I’ve also another theory. Fatima once mentioned that it was haram to listen to music that was played on stringed instruments. I wonder if the prevalence of bassline music and synthesized melodies is a reaction to pop stars’ (or their managers’) awareness of that particular religious sensibility. Interesting, considering the controversy that they seem to always cause. Granted, I could just know the wrong people and the wrong music.

Will hipsterdom ever come to the Middle East? Remarkably, I think it could be overdue. A little exclusivity is good, in my opinion, and it revitalizes the industry.

Maybe I’m just not cut out to be an Arab hipster, and am doomed to a life of Kenny G.

At least for another month.

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Dear Ducks:

Well, ladies and germs, I’m sorry for absenting myself for so long. This no-internet thing is kind of killing me, and though I’m bumming from Clay Cafe and work — among other places — for wireless, usually those times are reserved for calling peeps and mindlessly filling out job application websites. I am SO tired of writing my name and address and I think the inventor of the drop-down menu is the Devil. Really, I do. I can’t think of more mindless feature that is harder to automate yourself to doing.

My Prof. 6 class finished up the other day, and I was beaming. Honest. They’ve come so far, I was almost at the point of tears as we said good-bye. Nearly all of their presentations were unbelievably impressive, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t wearing socks, because they would have been knocked off.

In contrast to this was my Ind. 1 group, which is the lowest I’ve gone. I’ve never been so frustrated. I mean, this is what I must have been like as a language student.

As a teacher, I think it’s quite tempting to view the class in terms of power dynamics. Often, the material isn’t interesting enough on its own, and needs a little personal kick to attract students’ interest. The trouble is maintaining a balance between openness, friendliness, and a kind of intellectual equality (after all, they ARE adults), and discipline. I feel strange when I get angry in class — like it’s not my place. But it is. I am, after all, the teacher.

Languages are especially challenging to teach because they compress personality. You have to do everything you did in one language all over again. This has the effect of pressure-cooking the student’s desire to learn, meaning that the pot boils fast and hot. Everyone is really excited to learn vocab. By the end of the class, when they get to the grammar section, you can’t stop them from speaking Arabic; mainly because tehy just feel trapped by the English.

It’s easier with the advanced students to a certain extent. They’ve gone through the everyday. They know jokes. They even have favorite words, in some cases. Others make jokes about accent or — and this makes me really happy, as you can imagine — make puns. Puns! Can you believe it? But the new ones are (understandably) frustrated at sounding like they’re five or mentally disabled. It’s kind of humiliating.

And so you justify the strictness, because when you’re strict, you’re on-topic, on-language; but sometimes, the strictness just kills the class’s chi. Really. That’s what my Ind 1 was like; no chi. Mojo count: zilch. Itness — zero. It just strangled them. And by yesterday’s class, there was a mutual boredom with one another that we were both measuring mutually, simply waiting for the 2.5 hours to dwindle to five minutes so we could leave forever.

That’s quite a contrast.

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Okay, I lied.

These week, I am feeling a little down, not cheerful — although not over rejection. I’m a little upset over students. Unmotivated, terrible, don’t-answer-any-questions students.

Take P, for example. P shows up on time, P is quiet, P attends virtually every class (except for once, when he had a funeral). Unfortunately, P never participates. When I call on P to answer questions on an exercise, he stares blankly into space, and reads the previous question, and does not give an answer. Basically, he’s a black hole of a student that sort of sucks up class energy and patience, and while I’m obliged to call on him and try and help him, the other students have no patience for it, some of them even calling out the answers for him or just sit their in the agonizing silence as he fuddles the words.

I’ve tried everything. I’ve helped him personally. I’ve mixed him with stronger students. I’ve forced him to do things. I’ve let the rest of the class lag behind because of him. Nothing works. Yesterday, we had a quiz and he left his paper blank, because he said he didn’t understand. I explained twice. I asked for questions. I asked him in the middle of the exam period if he was doing okay on the test — IN ARABIC. He said he was fine.

Nothing works.

In fact, this has been the closest I’ve ever come to calling someone legitimately stupid, even though I know it’s not the case. But that’s the trouble: he’s not. He’s not stupid. The man’s got a job. He’s married. He’s forty years old, for crying out loud. It’s just very difficult to deal with someone who is older than you, independent, and obviously paying to be in your classroom, but just not seizing any recognizable effort at an opportunity.

He just keeps showing up, and it destroys the classroom dynamic.

In fact, this is a widespread problem at the Center in general; students are promoted a level on the basis of paying their 400 LE. No one wants to take a course again. But this leads to students that fail at the lower levels advancing to proficient levels where they clearly do not belong.

Another example: M. M and I used to go to the same church. He is chatty and amiable outside of class, where he insists on speaking English (no matter how much Arabic I use). He tried explaining to me in class about Easter vigil next Sunday happening in a Smouha church instead of Sacre Coeur on Port Said Street. I didn’t get it; his accent was way too thick and he dropped most verbs: “Shurstch Sunday fa da feast come night Smouha.” After class, I asked in Arabic what he was saying earlier and he looked uncomfortable. He turned to Ahmed and told him in perfectly clear Arabic what he meant, and to tell me in English, and then I said, “Oh, that’s what you meant!” and asked him “Why didn’t you just say that to me?” Again, he looked uncomfortable. Ahmed was embarrassed. He said that he felt really stupid that P did that because everyone knows at the center that I understand Arabic.

Both these students are Sudanese. I’m not attributing the bad attitude to the fact that they’re Sudanese, but Nessma pointed out that most teachers have the similar problems with Sudanese students. Quite a few of them just enroll in a course and pay 400 LE to prove that they’re doing something in the country; it has something to do with immigration laws or whatnot. As a consequence, they just don’t care. And the administration doesn’t care about the quality of the classroom experience either, as they just keep packing the students in my classes — opposed to giving me a next section — and putting the problem students in with the good ones.

When people really make up their minds to not understand, they really make up their minds.

It makes me a bad teacher, I know, but I get so relieved when these kinds of students don’t show up for class. And yet, these are the students that need the most help. They pay their money, they enlist in the class, they’re obviously there for a reason. You can’t just teach the good students — the bad ones need it more. But damn it all, how the hell do you teach someone that doesn’t want to be taught?

Sometimes I get the fear of God put into me by things like this; one day, I know I’m going to have my talents counted — “Am I using them well enough?” I ask myself sometimes.

Sometimes I just don’t know. Sometimes I don’t know how.

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