Sunday, June 27, 2010

Getting Around, Speaking Arabic, Kids and Cairo

As academic life heats up in Cairo, my time/desire/energy to blog effectively has declined. But I've had quite a few experiences in the past few days and I'd feel guilty if I didn't at least mention them here.

The first is actually more of an observation than an event. I noticed a difference between Cairo and other cities, but it took me several days to realize what it was; the presence of children. Kids are much more present in Cairo than in other cities I have visited. Maybe this is because I've come here during the summer when school is out, but even so, I find I surprising number of children aged nine to thirteen on the streets and in the businesses of Cairo. Children work here -two days ago I cam across a tea seller, one of the people who carry large heavy containers of tea shoved into their belts, who was probably no older than twelve and standing in what was (at least to this pampered foreigner) excruciatingly hot weather. Children deliver the weekly box of water bottles to my apartment, and they run errands or performing simple tasks for their family businesses. It's not only at work that children are visible - read back on my last post for a description of how I ended up dancing with children as late as 12 o'clock on a week night. What a difference from my own childhood summers, spent mainly playing at summer camps in western Massachusetts.

Another thing I wanted to touch upon was transportation. I am starting to master the taxi system; the trick is knowing a fair price for getting to one's destination. This is essential when one is travelling in the black taxis because their is no fare counter in the cab - one negotiates with taxi driver on the road. On my first trip to Nasr City, about a 20 minute cab ride, I ended up paying 50 LE for the journey. This was grossly overpriced. My cab driver chuckled gleefully as I handed over the money, saying "Shukran, habibi, shukran" (Thank you my love, thank you.) To put it in perspective, I repeated the journey again by a white cab, with a fare counter, and ended up paying only 16 LE. The rip-offs recede, though, once you know what you are doing. Upon a taxi driver demanding 25 LE for a 10 LE cab ride, I jumped out of the cab before we had moved a block and jumped immediately into the seat of one of his competitor's.

The buses are less easy to understand, however, and that's a shame because they are so much cheaper. The 16 LE bus ride from Nasr city is a pound fifty on a bus, a mere thirty cents US. The issue is that the buses are often packed unless you jump on at their points of departure... these locations are shrouded in mystery and lost to the realm of dim rumor, because as far as I can tell there is no official bus map. The drivers have an assistant that shouts out the place the bus is going. Because the bus is often so packed by the time it makes it to Midan Ramses, I often share a cab with my friend Oscar. My way of getting back from Nasr City is going to one of those mythical starting locations and shouting "Midan Ramses?" until someone points me over to a boarding bus. I end up spending about 10 LE per day on transport - not too shabby.

I've also had the opportunity to branch out since I came here. My list of acquaintances has expanded from my two room mates, Ana and Alison, to a collection of Fajr center students, American University in Cairo students, and the constantly growing community of friends of friends of friends of friends. I feel sympathetic for the AUC crowd - their campus lies on a beautiful patch of land about an hour north of the city, but as a result they are sheltered from the helter-skelter of downtown Cairo life. Even the folks at the AUC dorms in Zamalek report feeling isolated from "Real Cairo". At the same time it is these friends who are introducing me to new parts of Cairo life - a few dates with a Canadian AUC girl that have taken me to a modern art museums and a back-alley shisha bar for watching the (last) American game of the World Cup. These past few days have been exhausting but very worth while.;

But the experience of learning and speaking Arabic is what consumes the most of my time and mental energy. Fajr center holds classes five hours a day, five days a week, and taxes my knowledge of the material to the breaking point. For one thing, the professors don't speak much English at all, so new Arabic words are defined with a mixture of other Arabic words and pantomime. The book we are using is likewise entirely Arabic, and also very Islamic. As I flipped through the pages I found not one picture of a woman's face. Depicted females all wear hijab and face away from the camera. The book is also interspersed with excerpts from the Quran, and the reader is expected to know some Islamic details. For example, in the section when learning about families, the reader is expected to know the Prophet's mother, wife, and extended family. From all this and from the background of some of the people in my class, I assume the textbook is marketed from those Muslims who are born into non Arabic speaking countries who want to read the Quran in it's original language, which is an important accomplishment for followers of Islam.

In my class, level one, I am the only American. The level of diversity very impressive; we have an man from England (originally Cyprus), a South Korean, a Nigerian, a Pakistani, a man from Ghana, and two others whose nationalities I at this point forget. I've been giving the professors a headache recently - yesterday I insisted on moving up a level in Arabic because much of the material we are now covering was very much review. When I got to the new class, however, I discovered it was too much of a challenge and had to shamefacedly request moving back to my original setting. "Patience," said the 50-year old Nigerian man across from me. "You must have patience." And he is right. I'm straining against the barrier of my own ignorance, and throwing myself into an incomprehensibly challenging class and setting will not make me a better student. I exist in the unhappy medium between courses, and I've come to accept the likelihood that I will not be leaving the Fajr center with the fluency I need to pass a GW language exam.

This opens up a new, non-Egypt related can of worms. I have been living in the hope that I could graduate from GW after only two years of study - this now seems very unlikely, especially considering that any remedial Arabic courses I could take in Washington would compete directly with my already full course load and my new job working as my professor's assistant. "Arabic is not a two-year language," says Alison, who has been studying it for the better part of 4 years already. I see now that she is right too. I'm going to have to figure out how to study it for longer and graduate later. This means more time spent in Washington, and a delay on my goal of joining the Foreign Service...

Perhaps it's time to resume my Peace Corps application... see if I can finish my GW courses and then study abroad in a foreign country such as Jordan. That certainly would be a challenge, but its hard to see how two years of life in a foreign country could leave me without the knowledge necessary to graduate. The idea... merits further exploration.

A lot of typing done today, and not much Arabic homework done. Time for an anti-climactic and sudden stop.

1 comment:

  1. aw derek! you sounded so sad when you ended this post. hang in there! the language will come all of the sudden- that's how it was for me when i was learning hebrew. it's really hard, but if you push through it there's like this moment when it all becomes much clearer. i hope you find that moment soon :) miss you!