Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Learning Arabic: My New Life as a Kindergartener.

Learning Arabic: My New Life as a Kindergartener.

After I stumbled onto the notion of learning Arabic, I found myself telling people, “I already speak Spanish and I am pretty good at learning languages. Arabic can’t be that hard.” I had no idea what I was talking about, learning a new language is really hard. It is clear to me now that I had totally forgotten how much of a bummer it was to learn Spanish. It took me four years of struggling through high school, two years of feeling outclassed in college, and a year abroad in Spain to reach a level of semi-fluency. And now I am in Cairo, cramming my head full of hard to pronounce words and peculiar sentence structures. Arabic is haunting me. All too often I become aware that I have, for the last hour,  been, unconscious, muttering an eclectic blend of miscellaneous words and overheard phrases that I do not understand. This rambling affliction is persistent, but my teachers have made it clear that this is “a normal part of the learning process.” Their reassurances are unnerving and suspicious.
My efforts to learn Arabic have landed me in an interesting situation. I had imagined after the first month I would be thumbing through novels and talking politics over coffee and shisha. This is not the case. During the first two weeks of Arabic class, I was transformed from a twenty-four year old college graduate into a kindergartener. I spent my days learning the ABCs, and writing from right to left. The only difference between elementary Arabic class and kindergarten is sleep deprivation.
The Arabic alphabet has twenty-eight letters, three of which are vowels, and a glottal stop. Many of the letter sounds, especially the vowels, are essentially identical, and, depending on the accent of the speaker, virtually indistinguishable. There are also a couple of sounds that are unique to the Arabic language. Because they do not exist outside of the language, they are very hard for me to accurately reproduce. I have spent a lot of time repeatedly butchering these letter sounds.
Even though the alphabet consists of twenty-eight letters, there are only a handful of letterforms. The number and placement of its corresponding dots make each letter distinguishable. When written hastily or in short hand, all clarity is lost, disaster strikes, and frustration ensues. Thus, reading and writing in Arabic challenging. I still struggle to read out loud in English, and I can’t say it is any easier to do in Arabic. I do, however, find solace knowing that my classmates can’t do it either. At least now I am able to hide my reading deficiencies behind the guise of a foreign language.
The teachers, though very intelligent, do not have the strongest command of the English language. Consequentially, a poorly articulated explanation can plunge the class into mass confusion. This ‘lost in translation’ phenomenon goes both ways, which makes asking a question can be a pretty harrowing endeavor and reliably produces either a confusing tangent or a vaguely condescending answer.  For example, when asking for clarification on how to accurately predict a letter sound, given the multitude of possibilities, “you just have to know,” is the most common response. It appears that this response can be used to explain any of the numerous peculiarities and inconsistencies of Arabic. It is utilized with enough regularity that I just assume it some sort of panacea for complex and linguistic concepts. So even though the majority of the class is taught in English, miscommunication abounds.
Academically, I consider myself to be moderately accomplished. I have completed four years of university and have a degree to show for it. Unfortunately, this means nothing now that I am studying Arabic. Actually, it complicates the whole ordeal. I am finding that if I do not understand what is being taught I become defensive and think to myself, “this is beneath me for I have a degree… in Medieval Spanish history.” Moments later, I sheepishly return my attentions to the lesson, muster up all of my courage, and say, “Sorry…I am completely confused.” The thousand mile stares and mechanical nods of my classmates let me know that I am not the only one. I must admit, nothing reassures me more than knowing everyone else is just as perplexed as I am.

To be continued…

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Culture Quirks!: The Egyptian Week.

There are few things more exhilarating than experiencing life in a different culture. Being awe struck as the brain tries to comprehend the flood of new information is both powerful and transformative. It is the reason I travel. In order to share some aspects of Egyptian culture that have left me in awe, I have created a new segment that I am calling Culture Quirks!

Culture Quirks!: The Egyptian Week.

 In Egypt, and probably across the Muslim World, the week revolves around Friday, the holy day. Thus the week is structured to reflect Friday’s importance as a day of rest and prayer. In the past, Friday was the Egyptian week’s only day off. For sanity’s sake, the weekend was extended to include Saturday. Unfortunately, Sunday was cut from the week’s varsity team. Even though Friday is the weekend, it does not make up for the loss of Sunday.
At the best of times, waking up to start the week is less than ideal. In Egypt, the workweek starts on Sunday, which for me means the combined bummer of waking up at 5:45 am, with the crushing disappointment of not sleeping in on Sunday. I believe that this is one of those ‘valuable’ experiences that ‘build character.’ Once I am awake and coffee has transformed me back into a human being, the rest of Sunday feels just like a Monday.
Even though the Sunday is my new Monday, Monday is still a total bummer. My brain has not been able to process the Egyptian week, and as a result Monday still feels like first day of the week. As you can imagine, a week with two Mondays is worrisome.
Tuesday has become the weeks hump day. I just with that my brain could understand that.
By the time Wednesday arrives, I am thoroughly worn out from the confusion of the previous days. In my fatigued state my brain over corrects, and convinces me that at long last I have reached the end of the week and that tomorrow I can sleep in. This is no better than having two Mondays.
Thursday is mostly a blur. By this time I have accepted in Egypt the week lasts forever.
Friday in Egypt feels a lot like Sunday in America, it is a day of rest, and relaxation. It is an excellent day to spend preparing for the coming week. I clearly see the value of having a day a rest day, but having it come first totally throws off the natural rhythm of the weekend. The Egyptian weekend consists of two Sundays.
I consider Saturday to be the greatest casualty of the Egyptian week. I wish I could say that Saturday, the Apollo of the week, has remained unchanged in my mind, but I cant. Everybody knows that Saturday is superior to Sunday because when Sunday ends we are all condemned to Monday and made atone for the weekend’s hedonism. Making Saturday play this role has robbed it of its carefree curiosity, and burdened it with compulsory responsibility and consequences. Watching Saturday’s forced maturity has stirred up emotions that I have not experienced since I realized that Santa Clause and my mom had the same handwriting, and that Han Solo shot first.[1]
It is safe to say that I am frequently confused about the day of the week. I am, without fail, taken by surprise when I learn that it is only Monday morning but I have already had four classes this week. Only after I am reminded that Thursday is the new Friday am I rescued from the quickening clouds of depression that accompany “a long day.” For me, this cycle of confusion, depression, and surprise is habitual! And it is chaos! I am constantly baffled and I frequently find myself walking to a class or meeting or the bus stop only to be thunderstruck by the fact that it is Tuesday and not Wednesday as I though, and now I am late for something I didn’t realize was on my schedule. I am not mad; I am just confused, always.
It has been extraordinarily difficult for me to accommodate this shift in the week. I can state with one hundred percent confidence that nothing has caused me more confusion, and made the acclimating process more difficult than the Egyptian week. Over the past twenty-four years I have become pretty accustomed to the Western week, my body’s is conditioned to its rhythm of work and rest. I even created a saying about it, ‘all days that don’t begin with ‘S’ are, for the most part a total bummer, and those that do are pretty fantastic!’ If I can no longer hold this credo as truth… than what is? I am lost. I can only hope that in the not too distant future I will become inured to the Egyptian week, because constantly mixing up the days is exhausting.

Pro tip: adapting to Egypt's shifted week.
            I can offer no advice on this subject as it is far beyond my comprehension. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Thoughts on Protests in Cairo

Preface: In light of the current events taking place across the Muslim world, I am going to temporarily ignore one of my blogs guiding principles, limited political commentary, and take a moment to react to the anti-American protest that are taking place across the Muslim world. First and foremost, mom I assure you that I am safe. Second, although I have been devouring information about what is going on around the Middle East, I can only talk about my experience in Cairo.

With renewed energy, protesters have taken to the streets of Cairo, throwing rocks, waving flags, clashing with riot police, and generating a firestorm of news coverage around the world. At a glance this new wave of protests seem like an extensions of the wildly successful pro-democracy demonstrations of the Arab Spring that, as we all know, ousted many long-term dictators from power. However, the current demonstrations do not have the same pro-democracy elements as those of the Arab Spring. This time around the flags that are being waved are not Egyptian flags but the flags of conservative Islamist groups.
 While still politically charged,[1] the current protests are not intended to further democratize the Egyptian government or to demand greater freedoms for the people of Egypt. What makes these protests different than those of the Arab Spring is that they are religious in nature, and are not directed at internal change, but at the Western influence in the Middle East. Now the protesters, driven by conservative religious ideology, have directed their attentions at Westerners.
What we are seeing is the angry and hate-filled response to the publication of the anti-Islam film on YouTube.[2] Rather than neutralizing the film’s hate by opening a constructive discourse aimed to educate the world about what makes the film so offensive to Muslims, angry protesters responded with violence. Ironically, by turning to violence the protestors have publically reinforced the stated message of the film that they are protesting. They allowed their passion to dictate their actions and as a result fell pray to the trap set by the film’s creators. What possible result could it have intended aside from deliberately provoking a violent response? It seems obvious that the film’s creators expected its eventual audience to react as they did. It is for the benefit of their own ideology that Muslim protesters have taken to the streets, scaling embassy walls, burning flags, and clashing with police, they were counting on it.
Judging by the reactions, the film effectively conveyed its message of hate. But posting the film has also jeopardized the safety of all of the American citizens in the region, resulted in the deaths of four American diplomat and many more Muslims. It is easy to make such inflammatory material from a safe distance. Those responsible for the film are sheltered from the reprisals to your creative hatred. The dead Americans in Benghazi were not afforded this luxury. The burden for those of us that are trying to strengthen the ties between cultures has been made exponentially heavier.
Along with the much-publicized killing of American citizens in Benghazi, ten Libyans were also killed in their attempts to defend the American embassy.[3] During high stress situations like this, it is easy to become hyper focused on certain aspects and ignore the broader picture. The film was deeply insulting to Muslims and elicited a dramatic response across the Muslim world, but it is the actions of few that have dictated the terms of this current conflict. The infamous film was created and disseminated by ultra-conservatives in order to advance their own agenda, and was met with a strong response lead by ultra-conservatives with the same intent and opposite ideologies. The rest of us are caught in the crossfire and becoming either casualties or hostages. In the wake of the Benghazi killings, Libyan citizens took to the streets carrying signs that read, “Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans,” “R.I.P. Christopher Stevens,” and “Sorry people of America this is not the Pehavior of our ISLAM and Profit [sic.].”[4]  The heroic actions of the Libyans to defend the US embassy, and the peaceful protests condemning the violence demonstrate that the anti-American sentiment is not universal. Unfortunately, only the loudest voices are heard, and guns are louder than apologies.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Value of a Buck: The Emotional Highs and Lows of Budgeting for Travel.

The value of a buck:
Being the multi-thousandaire that I am, I was more than just pleasantly surprised to learn that the Egyptian Pound (L.E.) was one-sixth the value of the US dollar. Aside from the ego boost that came from looking at my available balance in L.E. for the first time, the strength of the USD against the L.E. has truly fantastic implications for someone with a budget as small as mine.
I have spent time in counties with currency values that have laughed so hard at the value of my dollars that I was forced to make a hasty exit with my tail between my legs. During those brief visits I would make an effort to spend as little as possible, attempting to keep my spending to under fifty dollars a day. Although fifty dollars a day sounds like a generous stipend and reasonably easy target budget to hit, if you factor in the cost of transit to and the transportation within the country as well as lodging, it is an extremely meager amount. I have spent countless hours wondering the aisles of European supermarkets looking for the cheapest bread, cheese, and sardines available to eat for consecutive meals. And instead of enjoying the cultural attractions the country has to offer, i.e. museums or shows or shopping or anything with a price tag for that matter, I have been force to find or create my own amusement, most often spending the day in a park reading and people watching or wandering around the city trying to find some obscure and quiet corner café/bar to have a cup of coffee/beer. 
            The feeling of helplessness and shame that often accompanies spending exorbitant   amounts of the monopoly money of Europe just to scrape by is absent from life in Cairo. For the first time I feel as if I can fully participate in the cultural attractions, and eat a hearty meal in the same week! I can, if I want, walk into almost any store and afford anything! I no longer have to weight he financial pros and cons of taking a taxi, ‘well it will probably cost me around fifteen Euros to get there, so I wont be able to spend anymore for the rest of the day, but I have enough cheese to last till tomorrow… but I will have to walk back to the hostel… how far away is it? How long will that take me? Will I regret it more if I go or if I don’t.’ I have to admit that I am proud to have a bank account filled[1] with dead presidents. I now understand the American dream as described by the millionaires of the world! If you work hard and save… and move to Egypt…you too can change your class status. Just by coming to Cairo I have truly transformed my financial situation, I am no longer a mulit-thousandaire, but a proud couple ten-thousandaire! However, as we know too well, with great buying power comes great fiscal responsibility. I have tried to be careful with my new found buying power, and not over reach my means, especially now that I am a student in a foreign country and have no way to refill depleted coffers.
When living in any foreign country it is very important for your sanity to put yourself into the monetary mindset of the host country. It will drive you crazy to continually convert the local prices into USD. Depending on where you are, repeatedly calculating the conversion rate will either cripple you with worry, or cause you to blown through all of your money while thinking you are richer than you are. It is best to understand what things should cost, what they do cost, how much money you need to spend each day (or week) to survive, how much money you can spend a day (or week), and understand what these value means in regards to your budget in both USD and the foreign currency. Once you have a basic understanding of your survival price tag, begin to tailor all of your habits to fit that amount.
By looking at my daily routines, I have concluded that I can live well on a ten-dollar a day budget. Though I have budgeted for ten dollars, my goal is to only spend about five or six, but I understand that some days of the week are more expensive than other. Additionally, I know that if I were to spend at a rate that exceeded one hundred dollars a week I would have to end my trip early.
After performing some complex math, I have concluded that one could survive on the streets of Cairo spending about two USD[2] a day, and an Egyptian could survive on half of that. Achieving this would mean eating only street Ful[3] or Falafel and buying, at most, three liter of water a day, totaling about eleven pounds. Thankfully I am not in a position where I have to survive on the streets of Cairo. I am, however, a student, and as such I have unique necessities that often carry inflated price tags, i.e. tuition, text books, registration fees, supplies, bus passes, and coffee.
In order to make my 8:30 A.M. class I am required to wake up at 5:45 A.M. every day, and I cannot function at that time without a cup of coffee. Even if I settled for the cheapest coffee option, which is nearly undrinkable and costs a whopping four pounds, it would be nearly impossible to achieve the daily budget of two dollars. However, with my ten-dollar budget I can fuel my coffee addiction and, as a kindness to both my taste buds and intestinal tract, I am frequently able to forgo the rotgut coffee for a slightly more palatable Americano, to the tune of twelve pounds, all the while knowing that in a lean week I may have to settle for Nescafe in order to afford lunch. In a similar way I have examined my daily caloric intake and calculated a price tag for those items that are absolutely necessary for my survival and those I can do without if I am feeling poor.

Pro Tip: Things aren’t always what they seem.
The Price fluidity of products in Cairo is real and a total pain in the ass. It is especially frustrating when you have fixed daily budget. In my experience it is quite common to pay completely different prices for the same item at the same establishment from the same employee in the same day. There is no rhyme or reason to the price fluctuations, other than I look foreign and can’t haggle or argue because of the language barrier. Not knowing the language makes it very hard understand the explanations of why a liter of water is now four pounds when it was one pound eight hours ago, and harder to argue with shop keepers about their dynamic pricing system. This is not to say that one cannot question the change in price, I myself have done so on various occasions! only to be silently laughed at by the dazed look that accompanies willful ignorance of English when it is convenient or means higher prices. I have come to the conclusion that the price scale is controlled by a very sophisticated and sensitive algorithm, which dictates the fluctuations of prices for common and necessary commodities in real-time for each district of Cairo. I just wish I had a broker who could help me navigate this complex market.

[1] HA! And by filled I mean an extremely modest sum.
[2] This number is only for food and water. I have not included the cost of clothing or housing.
[3] Pronounced fool. Ful is a seasoned bean paste served in pita bread and a staple of the Egyptian diet. It is both fairly tasty and nutritious a recipe can be found at midEATS. Other fantastic Middle Eastern recipes can be found at Sugar Street Review's Top 5 Middle Eastern Food Blogs.