Posts Tagged ‘arabic’

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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Dust has settled on the White City. Today was probably the scorcher of the season; it’s October, and while I hear about snow falling in Middlebury and NYC, the Mediterranean simmers to a flat calm. When the sea goes flat, the heat sinks it: the horizon blurs and the place is covered in a gray sheen that mists over the minarets of Anfushi and Manshaya on the western side of the Corniche. The mist seems to whiten as the day goes on, until those minarets and buildings are nothing more than steely silhouettes on a white sky at midday. And the heat is unrelenting.

I’ve been mentioning every now and then that the mornings have been filled with smoke; fires on the Delta. Apparently (according to the article good old Rumi sent me on the subject) it’s from cane brush fires. Either way, it’s starting to float over Alexandria in moments of dead calm (today, tonight) and stifle the city’s otherwise refreshing coolness.

Today was a busy, if tiring day. I’ve started teaching at another center (in Azarita, across from the Law College) — private lessons to a couple that are hoping to immigrate to Canada sometime in the next year, and to that end, are taking the ILEX (TOEFL, except Canadian-Australian version). They’re the most fluent Egyptians I’ve met outside the university, and cannot imagine why they are taking lessons. It is, however, refreshing (and easy) — quite the break from having to explain the verb to be and the differences between a and the to middling level students. Incidentally, they’ve sort of appointed me the expert on Canada after I told them I’ve been to Montreal — once — and suddenly I’m being asked whether or not I think they should move to Vancouver or Toronto. Hm.

Wisdom: fans break easily. A word to the wise: don’t overwork yours. If you do, it might break on a night like tonight; when the air is itchy with sugar-cane smoke, when the heat hangs over you like the hot breath of some exhausted animal, and your sheets drip with your own sweat. Have mercy on your fans. Otherwise you’ll be ranting about the heat and dead calm of the Mediterranean at 12 at night.

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Quatrain 30

Why, my love, is there always travel between us?
And we’ve left ourselves unguarded against the sin of it;
Why, my love, are there all these seas between us?
Seas infected — no, carved — deep with things not us.

How strange, I find.

– Salah Jahin

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Norman was wondering why this hasn’t happened to him yet:

Nick George handcuffed after discovery of Arabic flashcards in his carry-on.

I wondered the same.

Presently, I wonder if this is an isolated incident, or if it happens all the time. Indeed, I wonder.

If this were me:

“Excuse me, sir, would you please step this way?”
– Sure thing. I’m just going to call the ACLU first.


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harassment It’s about time that I tackled one of the more difficult subjects that invariably every American writes about at some point: harassment. I hesitate to bring it up mainly because I’ve heard so many stories that, by this point, I would simply be laundry-listing incident after incident– each progressively (and regrettably) worse than the last. At the same time, though, I know that one has to discuss it, otherwise one risks becoming a part of (and a perpetuator of) the problem itself. My thanks in advance to Rumi for the informative Eid post, and apologies for shamelessly stealing his links.

For the last three nights, crowds of young Egyptians (shabaab) have roamed the streets, set free by their families after the evening meal to roam. And by roam, I mean overwhelmed and flooded; the streets were completely clogged with young men, teens, and tweenish boys, linked arm-in-arm (a custom of friendship here, not of homosexuality), blasting a million different songs from a million different speakerphones, hollering at each other. Scrawny kids in tight, glittery shirts in pink and purple–complete with rhinestones and senseless tiny hoods– blue jeans with a dozen zippers, acid washes, and huge, AirJordan style patent leather sneakers. Hair cut against the scalp with hair gel poured into it for the “cool” look. And everywhere, clouds of bad imitation designer perfume hung in the air.

Of course, there’s no accounting for fashion. Mahmoud tells me that girls with cropped or boyish hair are not just unattractive– they’re downright ugly. The Western media puts forth an idea of beauty that seems to revolve around figure-skaters and ballerinas; lithe, willowy types that wear clothes on the runway well. Here, such women get told that they need to fatten up or they’ll never have sons — or any children — and I think are held in something like contempt. And getting back to fashion — none of my Egyptian friends understand the recent trends of “boho chic” or grunge fashions; to them, girls get made up (almost clownishly sometimes) when they go out.

Imagine, if you will, armies of these boys wandering the streets. Literally, phalanxes of them, all astride. And as they pass you, they scream out any number of things:

– Hi! What’syourname. (It’s all strung together purposely; imagine it said really quickly with no question inflection)
– Welcome in Egypt? Hello!
– Hi! Howreyou? Howreyou?
– Fook you. Fook you! (Personal favorite)
– You…so stubid. So stubid. (Kid last night on the tram. I grabbed his ear and he ran away)

And once they’ve braved you — they’ve done the ritual tap to the foreigner — they turn back to their friends as if they’d recited the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from beginning to end, and congratulate themselves as if you didn’t exist.

The worst are the hisses.

Imagine a cat hissing. That’s the sound you make to say “Hey! Dude!” but mainly it gets used on the Corniche by idling shabaab to catcall girls; “You so beautiful, ” or “Muzza! Muzza!” (kind of like “babe”).

What continuously shocks me is that older women (who are present) do not intervene. In a culture that has such concerns for female honor, the idea of approaching a Western woman and propositioning her — of pulling out your penis and masturbating in public, of physically assaulting her or pressing against her — begs a number of contradictions that I cannot begin to get into: it makes me so angry. These incidents seem to have just gotten worse over the years, as well. In particular, I’m puzzled by an odd cultural double standard; there seems to be an acceptance of Western sexual mores when it’s convenient (i.e., when an Egyptian teenager is horny) but a rejection when someone else seizes advantage of them (i.e., an American has an American girl spend the night). Protect women, veil them — but only in certain circumstances.

At the risk of conflating religion and society, I’d like to bring up something that Michael Muhammad Knight mentioned in The Taqwacores (read it): if men are so weak as to warrant women praying behind them or secluded away on balconies (in mosques), why aren’t the men the ones that are sequestered off? Why seal the women off from the world if the men themselves are the problem?

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Yumna lives in the district of Miami– a distant point on the map beyond the last stop on the little tin tram– where it seems a great many of my friends live. Getting out there is a maze of tram and minibus trips, and rather than tackle that gargantuan task, Fadhila and the crew (Tom, Mubarak, and yours truly) hopped a cab and let Yumna do the talking to the driver via telephone.

Hadia’s cooking for our seafood-themed iftar was on par with Hana’s: but I confess the company was much less intimidating (read: one family, not ten), and that might have made the evening far more enjoyable. Table conversation was a mixture of Arabic and English; initially, we all were chatting away in Arabic until someone remembered that Mubarak (who is Bengali-British) is in his third year of fusha. Occasional switches to English, occasional translations.

Now is perhaps an appropriate time to reflect on ordinary Egyptian hospitality– which is perhaps my favorite part of the culture. It would be pure fancy to attribute it to that overarching myth of the three-day Bedouin, or the sha’abi Southerner who serves the guests extravagantly despite his poverty. Rather, the modern Egyptian is a city-dweller, or at least aspires to be– he is interested in fashion, culture, music, and society– and he aspires to be in an atmosphere that makes his guests– his friends, I should say– comfortable. If you skip a step in the complicated dance of hospitality, it’s okay; the rules are just guidelines anyhow. Didn’t bring anything? No problem– your presence is enough. Forgot to take off your shoes? Stop it, I just want you to be comfortable. He serves the best cuts of meat, the best dishes to you first, he insists on a second serving because you liked the first, on a third course, a cup of tea, something sweet– even his own bed if you care for a nap after all that food. He insists on using your own language to make you comfortable, and he discusses you: your identity, your goals, your family, your religion.

Why? A guest essentially is the greatest gift, I think. Mind you, these are my own personal reflections; I don’t claim to have interviewed anyone on the subject, but my general impression is that  guest provides something to the host that no one else provides: he makes him feel kingly. A man lives in his house and someone from outside the household enters– he has been invited, he has accepted– the host instantly understands that this, in a small way, is a kind of deference. The guest is present: he must be provided for; his sustenance is in the hands of the host. Much as with gift culture– in which a man gives a gift to a girl to display a kind of possession of her– the acceptance of an invitation is a guest’s deference to the acting host: it relinquishes control of food, of the environment. The guest may be welcome, he may be poisoned– in truth, he does not know. All he knows is that he has ventured into the unknown; he has no control of what is to come.

The host, then, acknowledges this great subconscious submission through preparing the comfort of the guest– and providing for his pleasure. Naturally, when we are honored, we wish to be honored again– and I’m sure that there’s something of the “preparation” mentality involved in all this; that is, ensuring that your guest’s hospitality will equal your own when the time comes for the roles to switch. But the role of the host here is principally to serve the guest; it’s quite likely that you won’t see the women of the house making the meal (and they may not eat with you)– the important thing is to see to the guest. And he never, never, never does the dishes. There is no “payment”; no formal acknowledgement with a thank-you note– simply, the meal, the tea, the company.

What is interesting is that our own guest culture (at least formally) has been watered down by comparison: guests are taxing– they intrude on the personal space (the home) and must be ushered out at a decent hour. The showcase is almost invariably the host: apartments are furnished for entertainment, the host is the one that is honored, rather than the guest (hence the gifts, the cards, the thank-you notes, the whole shebang). Guests talk about objects around the house, pictures, the interesting decor; in Egypt, if you comment on an interesting trinket, the host will most likely give it to you (and really insist).

Perhaps I may seem a little enamored by the idea– but perhaps Abdl Halim and his family are just that fantastic at making you comfortable at home. But it seems to be a trend.

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Uncle Abdou lives about forty-five miles to the southwest of Alexandria in the town of King Maryot, on a villa built on land that the Egyptian army is constantly trying to steal in various corrupt and prevaricating ways. Yet he remains: he and his lovely Egyptian wife are both converts to Islam (he from Catholicism, being from Sevilla–his birthname is Javier–and her from Coptic Orthodoxy Christianity), and they’ve built up an oasis in the desert with their children, Noha, Salma, Yassin, and Ali, in a little half-constructed area just shy of all the industrial complexes south of Alex– and as far as I can tell, the only occupied house in the area.

Last night, Tom and I met up with Fadhila and Yumna and made our way down to Abdou’s for an epic iftar which just about killed us outright. Egyptian food is notorious throughout the Middle East for being relatively boring by comparison– the Lebanese are supposed to be the culinary masters– but this is only because, according to guidebooks, tourists never enjoy food in Egyptians’ homes. The best food is in someone’s house, where dishes abound: frankly, I had no idea what I was eating, but it was incredible– especially what Tom later referred to as “salty pancakes” stuffed with ground beef. Fantastic. I even was brave this time and went in for the mulukhiyya, which for me will forever be associated with Umm Markous’ recipe– which was for a horrible, smelly disaster that I was forced to eat. Mulukhiyya is something of an Egyptian national dish: it is a thick, slimy soup composed mainly of diced Jew’s mallow (a green, leafy vegetable related to mint), served over rice or chicken or drunk as a soup, and its consistency puts most foreigners off– myself included. Hana’s looks so good, though: most varieties look…well, dirty. Hers was a bright green color and delicious– I even had seconds.

Deep-fried dumplings and chunks of bitter-seasoned potatoes, a thick sweet almond paste with peanuts and huge chunks of meat stewed in onions and garlic….And then came dessert: the Omm Ali. A hot mixture of diced puff pastry cooked with milk and almonds and raisins…I was singing Hana’s praises all night and wondering exactly why I stayed away so long. Needless to say, by the time tea arrived, all the men were unbuckling our belts.

Yumna’s marriage is in a few weeks (just after eid) and he kept busting out the marriage jokes. Best one:

“What do Syrians call their wives?”
– I don’t know, Abdl Halim.
“The governors. What do Egyptians call their wives?”
– Same ignorance.
“The police. What do the Saudis?”
– No idea, but here comes the punchline…

His wife, who hasn’t been listening, now interjects “Oh my husband, what did you say?”

“Nothing, darling! Absolutely nothing.”

Didn’t get back until 2: having iftar with Yumna’s parents tonight at a fish place in Miami (not Florida).

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