Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Take an Educated Guest

A month ago I got off the plane in Egypt naïve, hungry and pale, ready to conquer the world and learn Arabic on the side. Today I type this more cynical, spilling koushary over the keyboard, and slightly less pale. I climbed the pyramids, journeyed the Nile, and dropped Arabic like a hot falafel.

But it hasn’t been all fun and games! I do occasionally go to classes, which are held here very occasionally. Now, having been to three classes of each subject, I feel comfortable summing up the Egyptian style of schooling through my experiences. That’s right; in the month I’ve been here I’ve been to 12 classes. Deal with it.

My first class is Romantic Literature. I thought it would be like reading rom com scripts, but that is far from the case. Sarah Jessica Parker is not in a single one and there are almost no montages of dates gone wrong. My professor is a character. American by birth, space cadet by nature. His unspoken goal in life is to use only 50 point Scrabble words in each sentence. Invariably, he always falls one word short, and pronounces that last ten point word with a look of utter disgust on his face, like he just swallowed one of the flies that are a constant distraction to my education. A sentence of his resembles, “Currently, interpreting Rousseau provides abundant opportunities toward introspection for the um, errr, aggghhh, reader.” I’ve never met an eccentric man as boring as he.

But hark, readers, I’ve fallen in love! Perhaps it’s the Romantic Literature course, or maybe it’s the overwhelming sense of aloneness that the desert offers, but she is all I ever think about lately. I do not yet know her name, but she works behind the falafel counter, at the restaurant Al-Omda. Al-Omda translates to “the mayor”, and she certainly governs my heart. It started when she handed me my change; I couldn’t help but to notice her skin possesses the gentle texture of floured pita bread. As I looked closer, her skin is the color of kneaded chickpeas, fried for 2-3 minutes in cooking oil at 360 degrees, which is about as hot as my face feels when speaking with her (our dialogue almost always entails “Two falafels please.”) I could not catch her scent over that of her trade, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is impossible for me to smell falafel without associating her face with the dish. And the laugh! There was a sauciness to her cackle when I tried to order koushary after 5 pm. Not the sesame seed flavored Tahini sauce which so often graces my lunch, but a richer sauce, something more akin to the garlic-chili sauce that you have to ask for, the kind only passionate Al-Omda lovers know. While the feel, sight, sound and smell of the object of my affections pleases me, what has captured my heart is the desire to learn of the fifth sense, and the more intense lust for the answer to be falafel. O! The pains and pleasures my habeeby gives me!

That actually is just an example of the kind of reading I’m subjected to in my Romantic Literature course. I wrote it in class (BAMF) instead of interpreting his interpretations. While bearable in short doses, imagine hundreds of pages of that nonsense. When half my book, Rousseau’s Confessions, fell out of the binding and blew into the Nile during the cruise, my only concern was I had added the most vile trash to an already endangered body of water. To self-project a bit, Rousseau shamelessly self-promotes and glorifies the most trivial activities. If he had engaged in a juice drinking competition, you could bet he would include it in his book.

My second and easiest class is Ethics in Media. Everyone knows ethics; it’s applying them that’s the hard part. My Egyptian professor is the communications point person for the highest UN official in Egypt is kind of a scary thought. One minute she damns Rupert Murdoch’s CNN forays in China (on the grounds that he is a communist/robber baron) and the next she insists there is no free press in America because of the Zionist lobby. She brought up the well known example of when the Zionist lobby threatened to bankrupt the New York Times should it print anything favorable to Palestine (link not found) as well as a few other indisputable pieces of militant Zionism. Here, she made eye contact with me, and perhaps thinking that there is a chance I’m Jewish, made it clear she hates Zionists, not Jewish people. I nodded understandingly, but not so understandingly to further her suspicion of my ancestry. Part of me felt I should’ve spoken up about how I perceive the press in America, which certainly isn’t favorable but I have never been a believer in the Zionist plots. But, not really caring, I didn’t. So I compromised by not yelling anything anti-Semitic. And thus adhered to my ethics.

My next class is Magazine writing. This is actually a delightful class in which the teacher is American and the focus of the course she decided will be food writing. Ever since she announced this I’ve been gorging myself in the name of research. Our professor is extremely enthusiastic, speaks overly dramatically, and always holds the end of her sentences for an inordinate amount of tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime. Additionally, she fails to pronounce “D’s” at the end of words. This style of speaking wouldn’t be that noticeable, except the author we are reading is Jonathon Gold. Hence, every time she reads his name it sounds like she’s announcing an Italian soccer game, and this happens anywhere between 50-100 times a class. I’ve started finishing her sentences for her. She thinks I’m trying to prove my intelligence, but I’m really trying to protect my sanity.

My next class is International Development, again taught by Egyptian. Just more American bashing here. Apparently we built their country wrong and that’s why nothing works. Oh so that’s why. It has NOTHING to do with everyone taking a month off in the middle of the year? Or your maybe-I’ll-show-up-today-for-my-job-as-the-only-employee-of-the-post-office attitude? To be fair to my Egyptian classmates, they often cite their nation’s work ethic as a reason for the lack of development. In fact this cause didn’t even occur to me until they said it, but once I heard it, I started to connect the dots.

Congrats to Mike Kelly for being the youngest person in my recent memory accepted to med school, and for Emily Heltzel getting a prestigious internship-to-job gig at Customs and Border Protection Agency, putting her I think 16th in the line for the Presidency. And at the rate the world is getting angry at the Zionist USA, the first fifteen might not want the job anymore. What’ve the rest of you been doing in my absence? I expect everyone to have the next ten years of their lives accounted for when I get back.


  1. This your best post yet, proving that if nothing else you have a great future as a travel blogger. You know, as great a future as travel bloggers can have. A few things that caught my imagination:

    "Rousseau shamelessly self-promotes and glorifies the most trivial activities" - sounds like he invented Facebook! Truly a man ahead of his time.

    "what has captured my heart is the desire to learn of the fifth sense, and the more intense lust for the answer to be falafel. O! The pains and pleasures my habeeby gives me!" - Really? "habeeby"? Is that you crazy guys are calling it these days? What ever happened to "Little Elvis"?

  2. When you retell your Rom-Lit troubles make sure you don't confuse Rousseau with St. Augustine. That would be embarrassing.