Tag Archives: education

I Want to Open a Bakery in Egypt

This is almost incomprehensible. And it’s just the beginning.

We met three minutes ago and you just learned that I study Arabic. You don’t take the news well—your mind is reeling….why would she study Arabic? What is it about this language with its scribbly letters and random dots that has confused her so much that she wants to actually learn it?

You may not know this, but on the other side of the conversation I can see the thoughts swirling in your head and I know what you’re about to ask me. I can feel the question being formed in your mind as your lips, tongue, and chin prepare to pronounce the dreaded words. The sentence pours from your oral cavity in slow motion as my usual panic sets in.

“Why do you study Arabic?”

You might as well ask me why hippos seem friendlier than crocodiles despite their notorious aggression or why lotion doesn’t taste like yogurt even though it looks the same. You, my dear, blundering acquaintance have forced me to peer into the black abyss of my future post-Arabic fellowship and let me tell you this: I can see a darkness that no amount of graduate school could penetrate.

If you really must know, I’ve been studying Arabic since my senior year of high school because–and pay attention to this part—I liked it. Indeed, friend, I enjoyed the twisty letters and sounds that required new muscle growth. I didn’t even know that people wearing black suits and sunglasses would pay handsomely for my skillz.

But I smashed those sunglasses on the ground and threw white chalk on their coats. I was much too naïve for the men in black, and instead dreamed of working at an NGO in development work or something romantic like that where I could “help people.” On less romantic days, I entertained the thought of working in a think tank, of swimming in big wells of ideas and spending all my waking hours in front of a screen.

To my great relief, however, I found after only 2.5 months out of college that I have absolutely no interest in any of those careers. I won’t waste time describing the depths of my dread when I think about typing on a computer all day in a cage with people who start conversations with statements like, “So, President Obama has kind of an aggressive foreign policy.” Suffice it to say that I’m glad to be free of those business casual and business formal illusions.

But, you insist, what are you going to do with Arabic? I’ll be honest: anything I say will be a lie to myself and to you so let’s just leave the future as the black abyss it is and I’ll tell you about how I’ve always wanted to work at a bakery. If you can connect that to Arabic, be my guest and stop by for cookies, or should I say كوكيز?

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Purchasing and Eating a Sandwich

The time is 10:00 AM, EET. Class is over. I have 45 minutes before “education” begins again. I am hungry.

BOOM! This is me brushing past the security guards and striding down the street. My mind is one purpose. This is me and my stomach is growling, my sense of smell heightened at the expense of both sight and hearing. I am the closest I will ever be to being part of nature: I am the predator. I seek my prey.

The sun is merciless. Men in shirts with fake vests, middle school girls in fluffy white hijabs, middle school boys up to no good— I pass by them all, my mind interpreting their forms as big sandwiches. I come across all the usual obstacles— scalding patch of sand: crossed. Steaming pile of street trash: avoided. Slimy puddle: circumvented. Overheated puppies at the pet store: cooed at.

At last I arrive. I slide into the back of the small mob pressing against a shop no bigger than an Easy Bake Oven. I know this crowd: we sandwich mobbers all want the same thing and will do anything to get it. I edge in, my hackles and elbows raised. My ordering position seems quite poor. I languish in the back; I am in a forest of surrounding men; Arabic is not my first language; I prefer asking for things politely. All indicators point to failure.

However, these are only minor setbacks. I am still foreign, clueless, and girlish. My abject appearance incites pity amongst the lunching crowd. Other patrons ask me what I want or let me get in front of them, showing me where to stand in order to put my order in. Their pity is seasoning for my sandwich. It will salt my lunch.

Today, however, I catch Mr. Man’s eye from the back of the crowd, one lone Oklahoman in a haystack of Cairenes, and he knows exactly what I want. “One?” he says. And I nod. Seconds later his hand reaches across the sea of bobbing heads and I receive my prize: a hot Egyptian falafel sandwich. With my other hand, I submit payment. We nod politely at each other through the human undergrowth. He knows he’ll see me tomorrow.

BAM! I gobble the sandwich down, enter the university gates, and swerve to throw the trash away before heading back to class without ever easing my pace.

Eat fast. Play hard. Love bats. This is my life.

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A Date With Language

Dreaming is also an effective way to get to know a language better

Have you been studying a language for a while and still feel there’s a formidable barrier? Do you feel there are layers of difficulty in it you haven’t even scratched? No wonder you and language can’t communicate very well–you barely even know each other! Why don’t you take your language friend out on a date? Attempt to find out its favorite restaurant through a prolonged game of charades and twister, and then give up and take it to your favorite restaurant instead. Language will understand that you did your best, which was slightly less than good enough.

After ordering and waiting a quiet half hour eternity, most of the dinner will be spent immersed in either silence or endless repetition of basic questions regarding each other’s career path, family roots, favorite colors, the weather, etc. Hand gestures provide a poor yet necessary replacement for the lack of mutual understanding, and thus when eating commences and hands are occupied, the conversation will dwindle as each listens to the sound of the other chewing and then swallowing food. You become acutely aware of how bizarre the act of eating is, fascinated by the idea of ingestion.

The food consumed, you will pay the bill and leave the restaurant, both of you secretly desiring for the date to end and be put out of its misery. However, there is still a movie that must be attended, the one you agreed upon while pointing at pictures together on the computer screen. In the darkness of the theatre, you feel the gap between you and language closing a little bit, but this is only because the movie supersedes real interpersonal communication and disguises the crevasse that remains. This fact becomes painfully clear afterwards, when the conversation is limited to asking if the other liked the movie and who they thought was a good actor.

You had wanted to get language’s opinion on the movie’s social commentary and whether or not the director took a reasonable stance, but the words simply are not there. Coming off the high of the interaction-free movie to this point of disenchantment is difficult; you feel it might not work out between you two. As you walk language to the door and say goodbye, you suddenly realize that you have understood a word language said that you didn’t know before the date began.

Rainbows burst out of your skull and your heart leaps in your chest at this morsel of progress as you are once again filled with hope. You get out your phone and use rudimentary pointing and grunting skills to determine the next date time, before vigorously shaking language’s hand goodbye and calling up your friend about the great time you had together. Soon, it seems, you and language will be strolling down tree lined country roads arm in arm, talking about everything from childhood to economic theory and the relation between the two. The future is sweet indeed, you think, just as you remember that you forgot the word you learned.

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Sell Me Your Shoes, Give Us a Smile

Cars, Humans, Buildings

A few days ago, I and my friend were on our way to Fellaki Square in downtown Cairo, matters of international importance awaiting our attention.  This is an area of Cairo that I don’t love since not only is it extremely crowded and noisy, but it boasts a thriving community of sleaze-balls that feed off the steady stream of tourists frequenting these parts. The only occupation of these folks is to slink around and bother the linen clad foreigners passing through. And even though I and friend have been here since June, our appearances are hopelessly foreign and therefore we are subject to the usual tricks of the touts and harassers.

As we were walking, a man passes by us and says to my friend in English, “I like your shoes.” This was unusual. For some reason, the man chose to forgo the traditional “Welcome in/to Egypt” and cut straight to the bizarre chase: footwear. I and friend were confused but not intrigued enough to continue the conversation, so my friend said “Thank you” and we continued to walk away, our backs to him. Conversations that are already this strange when they begin are going nowhere we want to go.

Yet he had more things to say at us about the shoes, shouting after us “How much for them?” This was still bizarre. Perhaps he was just performing his usual shtick, which involves him hanging around downtown waiting for the rare well dressed foreigner in order to heckle them about their shoes. For all I know he might have  a candid camera show that he produces himself by uploading footage from his cell phone for a small but devoted audience. My friend, however, was not interested in selling his shoes, and I still harbored hopes of purchasing them myself and didn’t want to encourage anything. And so we continued on our merry way.

The heckler was not to be ignored, however, and capped off his shoe conversation with both a non sequitur and the most creative end to a drive by harassment that I’ve ever heard. “Smile!” he commanded. Clearly, here was a statement that summed up the interaction perfectly. It was an uncalled-for statement that fit well with the unwanted and purposeless transaction as a whole. Furthermore, as most people know, there’s nothing more grin-inducing than strange men demanding you bare your teeth at them. Unfortunately, the mood had been soured by the failed shoe sale, so this last statement did not compel us to return, nor did it produce the appropriate feelings that would electrify our facial muscles and pull the sides of our mouths up into smiles.

Sometimes, like right now, I wonder what would have happened if we’d stuck around for longer. Would he have pulled out any other gems, like “Your teeth are good. How much for it?” I don’t suppose I’ll ever know the answer, but then again, I don’t suppose I ever really want to talk to him again. Maybe I’ll watch his show.

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CASA Fellow Struggles with Class, Surprises No One

Danger to herself and others

Cairo (Reuters) –  Monday, September 5, 2011

Today another CASA fellow reacted poorly to the beginning of the fall semester.  Anonymous sources had suggested that this student lacked the rigorous level of personal commitment and self control that the program’s recommencement demanded. Throughout the course of the day, all of these suspicions were proved completely true.

At around 8:36 pm on Sunday, September 4th, the student was quoted as saying “I should really try to get to bed early tonight since I want to get up at 5:00 tomorrow morning,” chuckles emanating from her dinner guests, two of which were imaginary.

Later that evening at 12:03 am, September 5th, 2011, she reportedly stated “It’s already 12! I really need to get to bed soon.” As one of her roommates said in a later interview, “She made all these kinds of statements, what about getting up early and stuff, but I think when push came to shove, she didn’t really think she would have classes on Monday, September 5th, and she certainly couldn’t recognize the implications of those classes.”

Her inability to appreciate the reality of classes became especially apparent later on when a hand scrawled note was discovered in the toaster at her apartment. At first glance, the note appeared to be a schedule, which would initially indicate a modicum of order and progress in the student’s life. However, upon closer examination our experts found it to be a rudimentary journal of the student’s thoughts throughout the day. It read:

8:45 am: In class. Everything written in Arabic. Do they think we can actually read this? [Since said student had studied Arabic for 5 years prior to this statement, it can be concluded that she was already delirious.]

10:23 am: So hungry. Who am I? Where did these bats come from? [Further investigation indicates that by bats the student was referring to the black specs she saw swimming in her eyes, a common sign of both sleep deprivation and mad Arabic student disease.]

12:48 pm: Class just started. Very tired. Only 20 days until December [This, of course, is completely false, the meaningless production of a crazed mind.]

1:38 pm: So close to being free. Why is everyone staring at me? STOP STARING AT ME! [Recorded statements of students in her class indicate that these thoughts were vocalized verbally and with no sign she was aware of her own screaming.]

The rest of the note was lost, since it was found in a toaster, but scientists and eyewitnesses have pieced together a few rough details of what transpired the rest of the day. According to blind speculation on the part of her roommate, the student consumed no less than two sandwiches, belted out show tunes to herself within full earshot of passersby on the way home, wandered around aimlessly in a book store, and took a one hour nap.

Upon awaking, she commenced with her homework at once with an unhealthy amount of concentration before staying up again until 3:30 am, having learned nothing from the day before. If you have seen this student, please slap her firmly on both sides of the face and tell her to go to bed earlier. She, the program director, and the world will thank you for your service.

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