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Background music

The adhan comes at around 5:00 AM these days. There is an earlier, whispered, optional call to prayer that creeps out from the mosque across my street an hour or so before that, slightly more hushed but still audible if your night’s been restless and you’ve had trouble sleeping. The muezzin always seems embarrassed to be giving it, as if he wished he were in bed himself — as if he didn’t have to be the one to wake the brothers up.

There is the faint rumbling of cars. No traffic lights in Alex, so cars honk through intersections to warn others that they’re coming. The call to prayer fades out, then only the rattle of the tin tram through Sporting Station. Dogs barkin the distance.

At about 7:15 AM or so, a man on a donkey cart rides beneath my balcony, shouting out, “Beyd! Beyd!” (Eggs!), and punctuating this repetition, there is the clatter of an iron bell as hooves clank by, and he is gone.

An hour later, a boy on a bicycle balancing a propane tank rides down the same Teba Street. He rattles on the tank with a wrench, announcing his presence to anyone that wants to buy.

Another iron bell. The fuul cart comes by, selling stewed fava beans for a pound, to be spread over pita with oil and salad. Give us this day our daily…

The man shouting Beyd! makes a second pass at Teba Street, going the opposite direction. I look down; he is selling eggs. Piles of them. Carts of eggs.

The horns get louder. Noise rises in the city. Cats fight in the street below. A garbage truck beeps, and cars back up down the one-lane road, occasionally beeping to remind it to hurry up.

Another donkey cart. I can see the man selling potatoes and lettuce, red onions and garlic, but his megaphone is impossible to understand. He goes riding by, repeating jibberish, his feet dangling off the back of the cart, as the donkey books his way down the narrow little avenue. He is going the wrong direction in the one-way road.

The rumble of cars becomes more regular. The tram goes by every five minutes or so; a wind-like rush and the screech of the wheels on the ungreased tracks. My shutters bang in the wind, which is ashen and dusty from a fire out on Lake Maryeotis.

Sabah al-ful, ya Iskanderiyya.

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Yesterday’s classes went swimmingly: students were engaged, laughing, and took a lot from it. I started off with the first eight minutes or so of Guy Noir from Garrison Keoller’s Prairie Home Companion– the episode is here, if you’re curious:

Guy Noir meets Mel. F. Lewis (October 18, 2003)

I was trying to hunt down episodes that had little sexual content (and weren’t too complicated). I found one, though it deals with regional stereotypes (New Yorkers coming to Minnesota)– more easily explainable to the class, as most of them come from the country and have had some personal experience in the matter.

I did have to explain dating, though, which was a riot– I felt myself falling back on Tom’s 1950’s version of the dating scene (guy asks, guy pays, both are serious about potential romantic involvement, good-night) just for the point of clarity. It’s impossible to explain the idea of “hooking up” even in English– and I suppose even I don’t understand why we do it anyway. The ’50’s dating description at least is accurate in that outlines at least what most people think most people are doing “out there”– or at least aspire to in a healthy, bourgeois relationship (can’t believe I wrote that).

We followed up Guy Noir with a round of increasingly difficult pronunciation exercises– mainly th and sh/ch/j. You never really realize how difficult English is to pronounce (at least if you’re a literary nut) until you teach enunciation; to the Egyptians, shoe, chew, and Jew all sound painfully close. Also: Egyptians tend to turn th into a z or s when it’s at the beginning or the end of a word– so path becomes pass— practice with which I think put a few of the more vocal students in their place. Drills seem more in line with their traditional university classes, though to me they seem a little ridiculous with me at the front of the class.

My “reward” for this rather boring exercise was a song– this time, mercilessly chosen by me (Celine Dion specifically excluded). To slowly (but gradually) bring them out of the atrocious-pop genre, I chose John Mayer’s rendering of “Message in a Bottle” mainly for its clarity– it’s just him and the guitar at most spots– and had made a sheet with the lyrics and missing words. Students did relatively well; at the third try they got most of the lyrics. They liked the song, too.

Melissa suggested improv skits, so I brought along an empty tea tin filled with “situations” that they had 5-7 minutes to prepare. I split them up into groups and they ran with it. It was fantastic; one of the groups did a rather dull three line exchange, but the last two tried to make it funny and made every effort to speak as much as possible– they also had funnier situations, as well. Students were supposed to have been mistaken for a celebrity, discover their boyfriend had a secret fiancee, or have been left in the middle of nowhere by a taxi.

Next couple of days off because of eid and the end of (alhamduLilah!) of Ramadan. Going to use that time to type more depressing e-mails.

Are they ready for Ella Fitzgerald yet?

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So far, I’ve been teaching about two hours a day; today was double that– new conversation class in Sidi Bishr of about five (really good, enthusiastic) students that really only need a few tweaks of pronunciation and more subject-specific vocabulary (Unlike my Libyan students, they have an excellent command of “to be”). Today was spent on contractions, which was relatively straightforward and they caught on pretty quickly, though they puzzled somewhat over my explanation of “ain’t”; I never thought I’d be teaching incorrect grammar (forgive me, Mr. Balkcom) for the sake of conversational “authenticity.” Alas.

This hour-and-a-half class was followed by a desperate taxi-dash to Rushdi (the expat district) where I was greeted by a sour-faced young receptionist who made sure I knew what I was getting into: “Medical conversation, ya Mister Mike.” Yes. I understood the first fifteen times you repeated it.

I had everything set: names of biological systems, a complete anatomy translated, a number of various diseases. From what Muhammad Adawy led me to believe, this was a group of students from the College of Pharmacy that needed diagnostic skills in English: i.e., “Where does it hurt?” or “Is it a shooting pain?”

Not so. This took about fifteen frustrating minutes, when the most vocal of the girls spoke up and said they had studied medical English for four years. Great. There goes my lesson for today (and eternity).

The rest of class time consisted of a musical education– thank GOD I brought my laptop with me (whim– and whew!). We began with the first verse of Enrique Iglesias’ “Bailamos,” followed by “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” by Celine Dion. At that point, I was really hating myself for even having those songs on my computer, so I switched up to a little Elvis: “Blue Suede Shoes,” which, (remarkably) they loved. I was pleased.

I managed to shock them, though, by imitating the King’s infamous gyrations, adding that he was the Abdel Halim Hafiz of American culture. The girls giggled. It’s odd doing those comparisons in reverse: Abdel Halim Hafiz is usually described to me as the “Elvis of Egypt.”

Biggest hit of the day was “Beauty and the Beast,” though– and I thank God for musicals; sweeping instrumentals, vocal fireworks…essentially, an Umm Kalthoum-type of music, which nearly everyone in Egypt loves. I’ve often theorized that the reason that Celine Dion is such a hit is that her style echoes classical Arabic songs– repetition of lyrics, high instrumentation, and an emphasis on showmanship. I really am developing a respect for teachers (more than I had previously); students are wicked demanding.

Front page of Al-Ahram today: 55 swine flu cases traced back to an “outbreak” (?) at the Sporting Club (I live almost next to the Sporting Club. Khalid attends the Sporting Club daily). They’re shutting it down. Actually, even university classes have been postponed a week due to swine flu.

‘Oudhu bi’Llah min as-shaytan ir-ragime.

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