Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

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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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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A recap of recent fires in Alexandria, Egypt over the course of the past year:

1. Fire in Tom’s room. Extinguished by yours truly. Condition of room: livable.

2. Fire in Tammam and Paul’s apartment. Extinguished by Egyptian firefighters, said occupants forced to retire to Tom’s couch and the men’s dorms (respectively). According to local ba5aal lore (shopowner’s wisdom), it’s at least in part a result of faulty Corniche apartment wiring, which is notorious for being corroded by the salt air. Sparks and infernos happen all the time, they say. Said Tammam and Paul now living in a cozy Sidi Bishr place on the edge of the world.

3. Fire at the College of Education (today). Explosion of gas canisters in the cafeteria that left four people injured, two badly burned, and the whole faculty in a literal cloud of ignorance. Katie present teaching class next door. Chaos, no fire extinguishers, late-arriving firefighters. No one informed and class proceeded as usual. Apparently it was quite difficult to get out, but few people were hurt beyond that.

This country is a death trap some days. You hear enough about terrorism in the Western media. What about building collapses, fires, and being trampled? Car and tram accidents. I suppose we forget that Egypt is a third-world country and doesn’t quite have building codes; ones that would require salt-resistant wiring on seaside buildings, prevent buildings on the verge of collapse from being lived in, and require sprinklers and fire extinguishers (and fire alarms!) to be installed in buildings.

These things, I suppose, are just a little too mundane to make the evening news back home.

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In my advanced class the other day, the following exchange was had:

Me: Who knows what the Big Bang is?

Mahmoud: You mean the clock?

Me: The what?!

Mahmoud: You know. The clock. In London. It’s big. (Thinks for a moment) And it bangs.

Uproarious laughter.

Point of clarification: we actually did end up talking about Big Bang theory as incidental to the grammar exercises we were going over, which in my all-boys’ class has been a veritable gold mine of debate and controversy. The other day we talked about genetic modification — seriously. It actually helps that three of the students are medically qualified and are constantly telling them to lay off the giant thermos of coffee they see me touting around the center like a wino’s brown-bagged bottle of Tokay.

Initially, I thought that teaching boys would be a giant headache — all that testosterone floating around and everyone trying to assert themselves. But actually, it’s pretty awesome; it’s kind of like I’m the cool kid that knows what we’re doing and is directing the flow of things. But it does mean I can joke around about generally haram things that I’ve seen my girls blanche at.

For instance, when Mahmoud (a skinny, but altogether charismatic young man with a bit of an eye for trouble) started elucidating us on the differences between bango (common marijuana) and hashish (just what it sounds like), my eyebrows went up. When one of the Muhammads asked, “Does it feel like being drunk, or is it different?” I nearly burst out laughing. I had to fight myself from saying “Keep talking! Keep going!” which is the little devil in me just aching for conversations on the forbidden in a society that is big on forbidding.

When Mahmoud complained that one of the exercises was boring (it was), he asked

Mah: Why do we have to do this?

Me: Because I’m evil. Like you. Because you smoke hashish on the weekends. And Mohammad gets drunk with you. And Osama chases women. (Osama is one of my best male students with a keen ear for slang, but rather meek and clean-cut looking.)

Muhammad 2 : (interjecting) And me?

Me: You probably get drunk, too. (I turn to Amr, who has a Muslim Brotherhood-beard)

Amr: Don’t look at me. I worked double shifts this weekend. No break. I hate it.

It’s nice to joke around about these things. I turned off the music this class, and discussion raged. It was great.

My Proficient 5 class is wrapping up today with the final day of presentations. Over the last few classes there’s been a distinct us-versus-them between the five men who are vocally chauvinistic against their ten female counterparts, who are equally resistant. In a stunning display of mild-mannered, but effective, assertiveness, one of the girls even used the occasion of her conclusion in the final presentation to shut down a few of the boys, asking:

D (girl): Did you like my presentation?

M (boy): Yeah, it was brilliant.

D: Do you think you could have done a better job?

M: No. You were great.

D: Than isn’t this an instance of how women can do just as good a job as men can?

(Oo’s and aah’s from the class)

Totally unexpected. But wonderful.

One of the more absurd suggestions I’ve heard from the men in the mixed-gender class was the idea that women should not be in the workforce because they are preventing men from taking their jobs; that if women left their work, men would be able to take over, and thus be able to afford apartments, cars, marriage, etc. I obviously don’t agree, but considering how frighteningly long it takes for men to get married — just because they have to save up so much — it’s scary to see the logic behind the chauvinism.

I should get back to those papers.

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Ash Wednesday

Nothing much to report in recent days; I’ve been a bit of an old man for the past week and have holed myself up in my tower and tried to write. At the very least I’ve ended up grading papers, though I’m sure, ladies and gentlemen, you’re quite bored with hearing about that.

Teaching for the past few days has proved pretty challenging; despite the thrill of teaching a much larger group, I confess I miss last month, when I was teaching my six (very studious, attentive) students and could discuss things better at length. To that effect, a few have actually inquired about private lessons, which I would actually love to do for once (such things often end disastrously, but these really are wonderful girls).

I’ve turned up the volume on my headphones to drown out the maghreb.

The weather has been unusually mild, and these days I find myself setting up the day’s camp in shirt sleeves on the balcony to feel the warm air while working. I’ve developed that steady rhythm of grading papers and writing and reading, though I confess my French lessons with Imogen have been put on standby as a result.

Lent begins today. I had to explain the idea of “fasting and abstinence” to a pretty much all-Muslims crowd yesterday; when you break down the basics of it, most roll their eyes and declare victoriously, “That’s not fasting! That’s so easy!” (For those of you that are not Catholic, “fasting” means a reduction of one’s intake to one full meal and a “collation,” or meal equal to less than half a full meal, and no food in between meals. Drink, however, is permitted in moderation. Abstinence refers to the absence of meat from one’s diet on Fridays and Ash Wednesday). Thinking about it, however, it’s actually a little bit more difficult, I think: a Muslim fast doesn’t continue through the night — it’s all good after sunset. For Catholics, there is no time constraint — it’s actual quantity — and the dictates of the fast are usually prearranged with one’s confessor.


Try explaining that to a class of 14 Muslims.

And 1 Copt. Copts are hardcore fasters, with more than 200 fast days on their liturgical calendar. The fact that Catholics only fast for Lent is laughable to them, and probably one of the things that makes the more strenuous Orthodox call Catholics “schismatics.”

I have succeeded in saying very little today. I leave you with one of my favorite passages from Eliot.

Please read aloud:

From “Ash Wednesday,” pt. 1

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

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The wind is tearing through the streets today like an angry dog, and if you’re unlucky enough to have your scarf come loose, you’ll soon be chasing it down dusty avenues that only reluctantly seem to turn to mud in the occasional drizzle. The weather can’t seem to make up its mind. Every now and then the sunlight pierces through and cuts away a patch of clouds, only to have the hole engulfed on itself, and the effect is like watching something large heaved into the water: for a moment, there is a hole in the water, and then it is gone without any evidence of there having been one.

End of yet another term, and soon I’ll be on hiatus again (a proper weekend every month, it seems). The next month has the promise of being rather empty, considering that I’ve only got two courses that seem to have assembled for the purpose (and I’ve crossed my fingers for the Prof. 5 course being the one I just taught — all of whom are great students).

Some interesting observations in the past few days, which were the last, and I’ve been irked like no one’s business.

The last week has seen not only the Algeria showdown with Egypt in the footballers’ arena, but also the Africa Cup Finals against Ghana. While I have been mentioning presentations until I’ve been blue in the face for the past two weeks, my students all proffered “the match” as an excuse for not preparing anything. I mean, nothing. In one class, I had least a half-dozen students that spoke poorly for about a minute and then sat down. It was immensely depressing, mainly because there was nothing to be done about it; they had total warning about it coming up, and there was nothing to do but give them low grades.

The exception to this was the immense pride and satisfaction felt at my Prof. 4 course — all of whom gave fantastic talks. Most of them also misunderstood one of the requirements, too, but it ended up being a great conversation-starter: I said they had to as two questions throughout the presentation process, meaning “ask two questions whenever, of anyone.” This was turned around into “ask two questions of the class,” after which everyone just started up relatively heated discussions. I was very impressed and felt a little glow inside.

One of the most interesting phenomena was that, although most of the girls were decidedly against the idea of dating, one of its most vehement critics gave a presentation on “dating advice,” which confused the hell out of me. Then, there was a prolonged discussion on whether or not dating was haram because it was not useful, and Bassem (the only boy) valiantly defended the usefulness of getting to know a girl in a public setting. He  also brought up the idea of the salon marriage (which he put in opposition to the “love story” marriage), as a way to make his point. Most girls I’ve spoken to (outside of this class) hate the idea, but it seems the only alternative to conventional ideas of “dating”: boy comes over to house and meets girl and from the first moment, marriage is the subject on the table, and an engagement is probably agreed to within the first few meetings. Kind of like courting, I suppose.

An interesting thing, as well, was a critique of my own culture. Yosra asked, “Why have female friends?” to which I responded, rather matter-of-factly, “To understand women better.” She parried this rather well, too, saying, “If you can get to know the women in your life, your mother, your cousins, your sister, your wife, what need do you have to understand other women? You understand them from knowing them and having them in your life.” There was no real answer I could give that would not make me sound like a seducer of women, and so I stood corrected.

There is a genuine tension about gender lines that I don’t think will ever be crossed by anyone in that class, which is only a shame because that means none of them are going to be my friends after the class is over (I know that this is not usual for a teacher, but I feel like they would make good friends). Even when I talk to them outside of the classroom (and all the women are huddled around themselves), I feel like I’m intruding. Silence falls on the group. It’s akin to being re-introduced to the group time after time; I am a permanent stranger that interrupts.

Ah, well.

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Recently, I assigned my lower mid-level students a paper — a narrative essay on a fairytale. This was one of them:

Once upon a time, The sParrow love white rose and next decided to tell her he Love her. She said that, “I’m don’t Love you.” He siteling [no idea what that means] said that “I love you” in finally she said that “When become my colour is red, I’ll love you.” After some days, He comed and cut his wings and the blood down on the white rose, later The white rose become your color red. She knowed this time the sParrow love her somuch but the time is over and don the sParrow is die. In the end.

Fairytales are dark. Fairytales are scary. I mean, Bros. Grimm have the Little Mermaid walking on glass shards while she’s lost her voice, and eventually, she loses her soul in the sea foam. The real Sleeping Beauty wakes up not to a prince’s true love kiss, but her infant twins suckling at her breasts. And for crying out loud, Hansel and Gretel push the evil witch into an oven. This fairytale (which is pretty common, actually, in Islamic poetry) is relatively tame by comparison.


Arabic poetry has claimed it, like the Arabian Nights, via Persian origins, in which the love of the nightingale (I suspect that this particular student mistranslated) for the rose is a pretty common them. Sufi-themed poets (most prominently Khayyam and Hafiz) use the trope as exemplary of love for the divine: God being the ultimate Beauty that the nightingale sacrifices himself for — he pierces himself on the thorns, and the dying song is the poet’s kasida. Since I know no Persian, I’ll quote you La Galliene’s rather imaginative translation of a  familiar quatrain from Omar Khayyam:

If only one dare tell the lovely things
The nightingale unto the red rose sings!
‘See! I am Yusuf’s flower,’ the red rose cries,
And wide and warm her sanguine bodice flings.

There are, admittedly, naughtier things in Persian and Arabic poetry, which is filled with images of passionate consummation and drunkenness in the Divine, but always with the understanding that poetry is….just poetry, right?

Prior to receiving this essay (and give the kid some credit, he’s only had a few months of English), I had never heard the “White Rose” variant, and rather than asking anyone to answer for it, I’ll

I’m not asking anyone to answer for this. My googling has turned this story up as a relatively popular variant of the story, a la the following blogs:

Death Ends Fun: Blood on the White Rose

Most interestingly, in the “Death Ends Fun” story, the rose is, in fact, masculine, and the sparrow (who first proposes) is the female.

More conventionally, here is a pretty bad poem that gives a little more detail:

The Sparrow and the White Rose

You get the idea.

It’s the stuff that hallmark camp is made out of and that Egyptians eat up. I cannot bring up the subject of love without someone saying something that would send the Emo boys of America packing their guitars and putting smiles on their faces. Hell, they’d probably stitch up their wrists themselves if they met someone like this:

That's my bleeding heart...and dignity...

That’s a pretty ouch picture right there. But pretty darn common.

When I first met Marym back in ancient history and beyond, she was pretty convinced that moving to Sporting from Miami was “leaving her family and friends behind forever.” There was a forever in there. THAT was what shocked me. Markous looked out the window longingly while listening to Celine Dion. My girls refer to their future spouses who they will be on intimate terms with as their “lovers.”

Love — when there is love — is about extremes. You love someone or you don’t. There’s a certain beauty to the simplicity, but it leaves no middle ground for what I think are the million little complexities. A girl, say my ladies, should not be friends with a man beyond work or studies; she can easily fall in love with him.

What if she’s already in love with someone else?

Then there is no danger, but her lover would not like that.

But if there’s no danger…?

Still. Just in case. And it’s our religion.

Oh, that’s the reason. “It’s our religion” is starting to sound to me like the “just because” of this country. I know Islam. I know Muslims. It’s your own interpretation, sure, but as soon as one girl in the class says that, the rest shut up tighter than Maine coldwater clams. I’ve heard arguments between women as to each others’ religiosity — it isn’t pretty what gets said — and I imagine that the silence is a way of avoiding a conflict. Students come up to me later on and say, “It’s not our religion, but people talk.”

Actual student. Not an actual poster. Women are not actually adoring his image and likeness.

There are interesting outlets for the obvious sexual tension that goes on. My last post mentioned something about the Madonna-whore complex perpetuated by male objectification of women — and the inherent paradox (hence picture), but this is something which is, unfortunately, also perpetuated by the women themselves.

For instance, Facebook.

I have a no-Facebook policy with current students: after they finish their last course at the center (i.e., graduate from the most advanced one), I approve the friend requests of the ones I like and am interested in — after all, my own teachers back home friended me. I also wait to be friended because it is damn near impossible to find someone on Facebook in Egypt. Not only are there millions on millions of Muhammads, there are tons of Mohameds and Mohammads and Mohamads. Spelling Arabic names is complete guesswork. Furthermore, many people (in particular, the girls) don’t even use their real names: they do cutesy variations on them like CuteHoba.

Even more baffling are the photographs. Most female students have no photographs of themselves — or if they do, they are absolutely lost among the photographs of other people. And by other people, I do not mean friends or family: I mean that they have pictures of Angelina Jolie and still shots from movies posted up in place of their own photos — often in pretty risque situations that the girls would not be caught dead in.

Steamy love.

Who IS this woman? She wasn't a student of mine.

I can understand not putting your photo up on Facebook for the world to see. People are creeps. The fact that I’m posting these here should say something, I suppose — except, wait: these PHOTOS ARE NOT OF ANYONE I KNOW. I mean, who are these people? Does this say anything about you as a person except the image you want to project, you own desire for love in the future?

In my confusion, I asked one particularly pious girl why people did this.

“It’s our religion.”

Aha. Yes. Your religion.

Here, I will refer back to Islam Q&A, which is pretty handy for fatwas in a pinch on particular subjects. One ruling on photography was of particular note, which states that the intent makes a thing haraam (forbidden) or not: pictures thus for the purpose of identification are permissible — those for the sake of “enjoying them” are not.

Granted, there are a lot of schools of Islamic jurisprudence on the subject. At Ask-Imam.com, Mufti Ebrahim Desai (though I want to see his certificates) says that it is only impermissible to take pictures of one’s self according the Shafi’i school of thought — the prevalent one in Egypt.

So, if images for “pleasure” (?) are not permissible…why are they using other peoples’ images?

It’s okay to objectify others, I suppose; just not yourself. Pictures of other women exhibiting sexual behavior forbidden in your society is not as bad as doing it yourself.

Religiously, isn’t it the same thing? If you’re so convinced of the correctness of the hijab and the niqab and the modest behavior of the genders prior to marriage, what on earth are you doing with pictures of Kirsten Dunst making out with Orlando Bloom on your profile pic?

Let's do this in public. On the Corniche. Let's see how much everyone says we're cute then.

I’m reminded of that time when a porno video was being passed around on a cell phone at a family party, and everyone laughed. Oh, isn’t that funny! Look at the woman objectify herself!

What I find interesting as a theoretician is that the cycle perpetuates itself in its avoidance; that women, seeking a way around it, are still casting themselves as sexpots — perhaps even more so than a simple photograph would. Could it be, that by avoiding the projection of a woman’s own image, she is actually provoking men to view her in a sexual manner?

Mansur once told me (in a similar Port Said conversation two years ago) that niqabiyya women were the worst sluts of them all (his words); that is, women hide their own infidelities behind the veil. Further, he added, you want to flirt with the niqabiyyas because they’re the ones with something to hide.

Clearly, I scoffed. You’re crazy, Mansur.

I’m reminded, fifteen hundred words later, of Sheikh Tantawi’s October controversy over the niqab: after telling a niqabiyya girl to remove her veil (and her refusing repeatedly, until at last giving in), the Sheikh was reported to have said, once he saw her (from Muslimmatters.org):

“Outdoing his crude expression of a few moments ago by a number of exponential notches, he said, “Ama law kunti hilwa shuwaya la-amilti eh?

A rough translation – albeit without the vulgar connotations of the Arabic (and my apologies to our English readers for the loss of the coarseness) – would be, “So if you were even a little beautiful, what would you have done then?” The implication, of course, was that the egotistical girl was presuming herself to be worthy of participating in a beauty pageant, hence covering her face out of fear of tempting others. Little did she realize that she was not even qualified to use the adjective ‘beautiful’ in the same sentence as her name!”

I don’t think we need to regard the veil as a symbol of women’s oppression. It’s already being used in quite the opposite direction, I think. Perhaps women aren’t flagging men down with short skirts, but they’re still getting men’s attention regardless.

A different culture?

Perhaps. Maybe men are just men everywhere.

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