Middle East

Lughat ash-shabab: Fear and loathing at AUC

I’m adding my belated two cents to the discussion here, here, and here on Arabic language instruction that was triggered by this uber-whiney Joel Pollak op-ed. I’ve been taking private Arabic lessons at AUC for around a year now, and recently got a glimpse into the intrigues and fierce debates of its Arabic faculty.

A few months back I attended an in-house conference where several teachers were presenting research papers on the methodology of Arabic teaching to English speakers.

The first few presentations were on orthodox topics of Modern Standard Arabic grammar. The only example I can remember was a paper that statistically analyzed students’ use of masdar forms vs. verbal forms, e.g. why do non-native speakers tend to write the first example below, rather than the second, when both are grammatically correct:

انا اريد ان احصل على …

انا اريد الحصول على …

Most of these papers were dry but interesting. I had never paid attention to the masdar thing, but see how it would be a good way to make my Arabic writing (on the rare occasions when I need to compose something) a bit better.

Then came, as my teacher would say, el-qunbilla, “the bombshell.” It was a presentation calling for AUC to supplement its Arabic curriculum with lughat ash-shabab, “youth language,” which she defined as a set of slang words and expressions used by young Egyptians. It started with a poll of the audience – mostly other Arabic teachers – on a handful of these expressions, which they failed miserably on all but one or two.

From there, the argument developed that learning these expressions would help foreign students relate to and befriend Egyptians their own age, and are also useful for understanding film and television.

From the audience reaction, you would have thought the presenter suggested that teachers strip down to their undies to teach verb conjugation.

A vicious Q&A followed. One questioner spent several minutes ridiculously accusing the presenter of claiming lughat ash-shabab was a distinct language from Arabic. (Just as in English, the Arabic word lugha can mean “language” as in “Spanish language,” or it can refer to syntax and word choice as in “foul language” or “technical language,” which is how it was used in the presentation) Another questioner gave a long diatribe, conflating throughout lughat ash-shabab with “profanity.”

AUC, I believe, has a well-deserved reputation for outstanding Arabic teaching, but it comes with a certain high-brow attitude. Books have been written exploring all the twists and turns of high-brow low-brow, class divides, “vulgarity,” and cultural ideologies in Egyptian society, but suffice it to say that lughat ash-shabab is a flaming turd as far as many of AUC’s Arabic language faculty are concerned.

Here’s how this fits into the debate on al-Kitaab, and teaching Arabic in general. One of the reasons Arabic is so tough is its hugeness.You have religious discourse, Quranic Arabic, classical poetry and prose, literary MSA, media MSA with all its ridiculous expressions translated from English – not to mention the regional colloquial dialects, each with its own high-low spectrum.

Why are you learning Arabic? Are you an anthropologist studying Syrian youth?Elijah’s proverbial MEMRI translator?Are you a Texan convert to Islam?Do you dream of the day when the Charlie Rose Show calls your think tank to book you as a guest?If so, you will require an individualized path of study over the 5-10 years it will likely take to master the language.

Chances are, if you study at an English speaking university you will use Al-Kitaab at some point. But the time you spend with the book will probably be small in comparison to getting the specialized training on the Arabic you need to get you to where you want to go.

Middle East

R.I.P. Cairo Poker

A good deal of my social life here in Cairo has revolved around a weekly poker night started several months back by a guy named George.They were a great opportunity to dust off my texas holdem skills (by skills I mean losing $100 on the internet) without losing a ton of money. The buy-in was LE 30, a little under $6.

At first we played using a jar of 1 pound coins that George had gotten somehow from a bank but later graduated to actual poker chips after one of the players came back from a trip back to the US. We would order fast food, and after a few beers the inevitable Darkness song or two would to pop up on the playlist.

I know poker is not the most “Cairo” activity – it’s not taking oud lessons or learning Arabic calligraphy, but that didn’t really bother me.I had a great time and there’s still plenty of “Cairo” time left in my schedule.

Various people would come and go, but we could always get a lively game together until the last month when most of our regulars departed.A message to the main foreigner listserv in town yielded a few prospects, but none of them materialized at game time.So unfortunately poker is on hiatus for the moment.Maybe now I can get serious about those oud lessons.

Middle East

My new article on Egypt-Iran film controversy

There have been quite a few interesting developments in the Egypt-Iran diplomatic tiff stemming from “Execution of the Pharaoh”:

Once the film hit YouTube it was quickly discovered to be little more than a series of clips pinched from an older Al-Jazeera documentary. So in addition to being tedious, the Iranian group behind the film, the Committee for Commemoration of Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement, are also plagiarists. It seems they just changed the name and slapped on a dedication to Eslamboli.

Secondly, the group behind the film is now announcing that their site has been banned inside Iran. I think this shows how embarrassing the episode for Iran has been. Also last week, Iranian diplomats at the interest section in Cairo have revealed and offer they made to open a branch of Al-Azhar University in Tehran in an effort to improve Sunni-Shia understanding. It seems like what the Iranians thought to be a charm offensive backfired, and ended up upsetting the Egyptians even more.

I’d been following all these developments but not posting on them because I was doing a freelance article on the subject – cant give away all my golden analysis for free. The piece for ISN Security Watch is now online here. I’d love to hear what you think.

In other news, my family has just purchased a Nintendo Wii. Needless to say posting will be light.

UPDATE: article link was broken due to a site re-design over at ISN.  The new link is now up.

Middle East

Smoking in the pool

she kind of looked like this (in her imagination)
she kind of looked like this (in her imagination)

In Egypt you can get pretty much anything delivered.   I’ve had a 10 LE bottle of vegetable oil delivered to my apartment, and know people who will routinely call out for a single pack of cigarettes or a coke.  But what I saw today was on a different level.

I was about to get in the pool at my gym when I notice an attendant scurry over to a woman standing in the water.  He takes a cigarette from her and carefully carries it over to her friend who is lounging on the pool deck, waits while she takes a single drag,  and then delivers it back to the one in the water.

The amazing thing was how casual and routine the whole operation seemed.   It was only when I was swimming and turning it over in my mind that I grasped the full absurdity of the situation.

The only mitigating factor I could possibly think of would be that it was her last cigarette.  But this clearly wasnt the case because I could smell her chain smoking for the remainder of my swim.

Also, it’s still Ramadan and this was about 30 minutes before Iftar (when people who are fasting can start smoking again).  I just hope the pool guy wasn’t a smoker.  In any case, he needs to start reading some more of this guy.


First day at AUC new campus

I’m back in Egypt and have a ton of work in front of me, which means Friday in Cairo is back in action!

Yesterday was my first trip out to AUC’s new campus in New Cairo, from Tahrir, a 51 minute shot straight out into the desert. The new campus looks very good, especially compared to the hideous new developments you pass on the drive out. Yes I’m talking about you Gamayyat el-Mustaqbal (pictured below)

I didn’t take any of the staff tours during the construction phase, so was among the slackjaws wandering around trying to make sense of the place and figure out where to go. The buildings are not well marked, so you have to navigate by food franchises: cilantro coffee shops on the north and south poles and cinnabon somewhere near the equator.

Another gripe: There is virtually no shade on campus. Gone is the friendly layer of pollution that protects my fair skin in central Cairo. Parasols seem to be making a comeback, but styles change fast, so AUC should take a cue from the Chinese and consider cloud seeding.

The main hassle is transportation. They have a labyrinth of bus routes all around the city, and expect everyone who uses the system to fill out a schedule of when they plan to ride the bus each day. They must not have enough spare capacity to have extra seats at peak times, but on both of my rides yesterday the busses were about half full.

I was heartened to see the 300 yard-long parking lot that drivers had improvised on the road leading to campus to avoid coughing up the 3000 LE that AUC charges for a parking permit.

Many people have expressed concern that the move would eliminate service jobs that had sprung up to accommodate students. I saw two things yesterday that made me doubt this:

First, day one of classes, informal parking attendants were already manning the improvised lot outside. Secondly, there were also rumblings yesterday on the Cairo Scholars listserv about employing a private, more flexible, minibus system as an alternative to AUC’s lumbering behemoth.