Thursday, March 25, 2010

Time for a Break

Again, I've been scant on the updates lately, but I have excellent, school-related reasons--I swear!

Somehow my schedule has worked out that I have had one midterm each week for the last month, which is kind of a mixed blessing.  On the plus side, they're spaced out enough I can study for them properly and get everything done, but on the down side I've been constantly busy working on midterm stuff.

Arabic is (still) Hilarious and Difficult
This week was the week of my Arabic midterm, in which we were asked to make a video using the vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structures we learned over six chapters of material.  As my schedule with work and everything is so crazy I opted to not work with the group and just grab a couple of Egyptian friends to Egyptian have conversations with me in Arabic in my video.  Over dinner we came up with a story line bizarre enough to encompass all of the chapters, the vocabulary (never mind all the grammar) topics of which were:
  • Around the house
  • Items for the house
  • Items from Khan al Khalili
  • At the Doctor or the Pharmacy
  • On the street, finding directions
  • Daily routine
We rejected (sadly) a story line involving plays to get guys from a female version of the "men's playbook" concept, which personally I thought would have been hysterical but the guys thought might not be appropriate for class because of excessive, suggestive, Sarah-Palin-Style winking.  The story line we did agree on is as follows:  I  am some normal girl out shopping for household stuff, pondering over what I should buy.  I remember I want to buy a blanket and ram into some guy standing behind me.  He starts flirting with me, and follows me out of the store where another guy comes up and tries to defend me, when the first guy punches him in the face and runs away.  The second guy wakes up, and we take a taxi to his house, where I make tea and we discuss his flat a bit.  I then leave and hold a conversation with myself in my head about how cute the guy is and how I should cook him something while waiting for the elevator before heading to the Pharmacy to get something for his eye.  I talk to the Pharmacist and then leave to go to a grocery store to get food.  I go to the grocery, buy the food, head back and cook while talking to him about another flat he has in the building he wants to rent.  Then I sit down and begin to apply the medicine when the door bangs open and his fiancĂ©e shows up!

The funny part is that all the guys, except the main guy who was played by Jimmy, are played by one person.  My friend Sherif agreed to being a pharmacist, a taxi driver, some flirty jerk, and a grocer all in one day, and all the women are played by me. Yes, that means I not only talk to myself in my head, but also when the fiance and the main girl are yelling at each other.  It's pretty hilarious to watch the final product, especially since Sherif doesn't even change his outfit in between being the guy that beat up Jimmy and the taxi driver.

The exam was not so funny, being over 7 pages of questions and exercises and took over an hour and a half!  We all survived somehow and everyone is now heading out tomorrow for Spring Break!

Spring Break
The funny thing is that with all our midterms going on, no one really had time to do good planning for Spring Break besides roughly sketching out where to go.  People walked around for weeks going, "yeah I'm going to Syria and Lebanon" or "definitely the Dahab and Sharm!" but we had been putting off doing hotel and flight bookings forever out of laziness and the feeling that Spring Break would never come.  At the last minute yesterday my room mate changed her plans and is now heading home to New York for the break, while our other friend was intending to do the Jordan, Syria, Lebanon jaunt and is now heading to Hurghada instead.  I don't know how I feel about the student-life style of travel, because it's supposed to be less stressful and less trouble but half the time ends up being twice as much so.  Trying to get hotel reservations at the last minute when there's only one decent, cheap place to stay in town is a bit frustrating!

My own plan finally came together just this last week, so tomorrow night I'm off on an overnight train to Luxor!  I'll stay there a couple days, head to Aswan for a couple days, and cap it all off with a night in Abu Simbel before heading home to Cairo!  I will hopefully be able to update mid-trip as my hotel in Aswan is supposed to have wi-fi, so expect pictures at least when I return to Cairo, if not halfway through my travels.

Cairo Sights
This seems to be turning into my "touristy" part of my stay in Egypt, as I finally did get around to visiting The Egyptian Museum last weekend with a friend of my father's who is in town with a sizable tour group.  It was amazing!  It's not frilly or anything particularly well-explained or documented, so it's very valuable to go with a good guide.  The treasures inside are amazing though, particularly the King Tut exhibits which show the magnitude of prestige Pharaohs had in ancient Egypt, even in death. An amazing amount of items are on display there from his tomb, but I found the two first golden sarcophagi and the solid gold burial mask to be the most striking.

Everything in the museum is special and amazing though, and riveting in different ways.  The royal mummies were an eerie sight, so well-preserved they still have eyelashes and hair that was last combed or styled thousands of years ago.  They aren't describable in words I feel, you would have to go see them yourself which the extra ticket price (60LE for students, 100LE for adults, something less for kids) is well worth at least once.

The ground floor of the museum is like a huge warehouse of towering ancient statues, thick stone outer sarcophagi, and various other boats, pottery, etc.  We didn't have enough time to spend in there, but I think I could have spent ages wandering through staring at every little hieroglyphic on every surface.  It's fascinating to see these amazing things produced by such an ancient culture.  One interesting thing to definitely take a look at on the ground floor is the copy of the Rosetta Stone gifted to Egypt by Britain which is just inside the main entrance.

Clearly I should be trying to play the tourist a bit more often, although it was pretty cute that the security guards were shocked to see me speak Arabic!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Khan Al Khalili Pictures

Sorry to be MIA again, everyone!  It's midterm time and I've been writing on various subjects, as well as my other blog, and Gilded Serpent, so I haven't had much time to update here.  To tide you over, here's some pictures from Khan Al Khalili a couple weeks back that I've been meaning to post:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Classroom Dynamics

I just finished another round of my bi-weekly accounting class, and as usual I'm finding my blood pressure up and my shoulders tense.  Why?  The dynamics of this classroom infuriate me--it's not the subject material, the professor, or even the workload, it's my fellow students.

Even though it's a Managerial Accounting class I feel that the ratio of younger students (freshmen or sophomores) is much higher in the class, so initially I wasn't surprised by a bit more giggling and carrying on.  However, it got worse.  Students speak over the doctor, raise their voices instead of their hands, hold side conversations, ask each other questions that the professor is currently answering because someone else just asked it....the list goes on.  For a college professor, I imagine this is what they wanted to avoid when they decided to teach at the university level!  Yelling over students, tapping pens on tables to be heard and to get the students to settle--is this really what should go on in a college classroom?

In my syllabi in my US college there were usually small sections on "air time" or respecting others when talking, etc.  This is perhaps the only class I have been in at college where this section was necessary, because I always sort of tuned out when we went over that part on the first day of whatever course.  It's one of those "well DUH" things where we are trained in the US to respect the professor absolutely as well as others when speaking.

Being the lone American in this class is a bit strange, because I feel like I'm out of the dynamics in many ways because of these habits we're taught.  This class is all Egyptians, and predominantly they are loud or at least do not properly listen to the professor and then waste class time asking questions that have already been answered.  Here's the strange thing: they seem so rude when class is in session but then they are perfectly polite on an individual basis and when approaching the professor after class--a huge difference in behavior.

I think this all goes back to something about the training we give American students versus Egyptians.
Americans have the discipline and are taught to focus on themselves.  Instead of holding a side conversation with a friend for clarification on some point, we are taught to analyze within our personal level, decide what we personally do or do not understand, and then speak up to ask a question at the appropriate time.  We focus on our individual understanding, tuning out other students unless they ask a question we may need to know the answer to.  Here, Egyptian students seem to be taught (until the American-style system untrains them, which looks like it happens around the Junior year here but probably depends on how harsh a professor is) a hierarchical system in which they should rely on their peers for answers rather than the professor.  Asking a professor violates this hierarchy of co-dependence, and ends up (I would argue) coming across as individualistic. You think your understanding is important enough to ask the professor directly rather than a peer.  I also suspect the idea here is to not disrupt the professor, which actually has the opposite effect: the classroom is overwhelmed by side conversations.

This is a dilemma IR people are pretty familiar with too, as a side note: disaster of the commons.  Ignoring the disaster of the commons is something I've seen a lot here in Egypt, interestingly.   The good of all in the long run is ignored by the immediate needs/desires of the individual.  It's the same thing that makes people think throwing one piece of garbage on the street is not going to contribute at all substantially to environmental degradation.  There are millions of individuals in Cairo, and millions of pieces of trash on the street. Let's face it, as much as I love Cairo it is not a "clean" city.  I'm not sure if this is just a focus on convenience, an ignorance of long-term ramifications, or blind uncaring, but it's the same dynamic that leads to students thinking "oh if I just whisper this question to my friend it won't disturb the class" when in fact 40 people thinking that does cause a significant problem.

This is all just food for thought and observations of course.  I was bored in the 5 minutes during which the professor was forced to explain 3 different times why he combined two line items on an income statement so I had some free time to ponder.