Our group has been in Egypt for almost two weeks now, which is hard to believe. Exhilarating, tiring, eye-opening, and draining are just a few things that come to mind as I begin to process my experiences here. In sitting down to finally write this reflection, I can’t shake the feeling that we are in some sort of a strange time warp. On the one hand, it seems as if we’ve been living in this city forever; my experiences at out primary NGO, Ana El-Masry, and secondary NGO, Al-Resalah, now define my day-to-day life. The constant ring of Arabic has begun to permeate my thoughts, and my comfortable (and in retrospect, rather lazy) life at home seems like a distant memory.
At the same time, it’s a bit scary how quickly time has been passing. I am trying my best to soak everything in and it’s been quite the sensory experience thus far. The sounds and smells of Cairo are unlike those in any other city I have ever visited. It’s hard to capture the essence in writing, but try to imagine some combination of smog, cigarette smoke, and mint tea, plus the constant cacophony of car horns and anxious Egyptian drivers: Cairo in a nutshell.
One of the most frustrating elements of this experience thus far has been my inability to communicate with the people around me. I have this really intense wish for the words to just flow from my mouth, but even simple conversations have proven to be difficult. The good news is that I can feel myself improving—though long and tiring after a full day’s work at our NGOs, our Arabic classes have been an amazing way for us to solidify some of what we are beginning to pick up from Egyptians when we are out and about in the city.
Our work with Ana El-Masry has made this language barrier all the more interesting. I’m constantly amazed at how our group is able to communicate with the children we are working with. Kids under the age of 10 sometimes barely make sense in my own language, so imagine over 60 energetic Egyptian children yelling and crying and loving you…all in Arabic. We do speak a bit of Arabic, but the Arabic that we learn at Duke—called Fusha—is used in official settings such as newspapers and television programs. Egyptians that I’ve encountered will usually just give me a blank stare if I attempt to string together a sentence in Fusha.
Amanda and I are teaching English at Ana El-Masry, so our language skills are constantly being tested. Initially we were a bit hesitant at how our experience in the classroom was going to turn out because we don’t have much Arabic to fall back on. However, our frustrations and successes through teaching English have turned out to be the most rewarding part of my experience in Cairo. We’ve devised an interesting routine for our day-to-day lessons and this experience has ultimately have made me more determined than ever to master the Egyptian dialect.
We begin by getting the kids’ attention using a few of the Arabic words that we know. It might be some combination of our terrible accents, rowdy 8-year-old boys, or the fact that these children are simply not expecting Arabic to come out of our mouths, but a staff member from Ana El-Masry usually has to settle the class down before we can start. During the first few days, we wanted to teach them the English alphabet, how to count to 10, and simple English expressions (such as please and thank you). Amanda and I do a short role-play in front of the class, first in Arabic and then in English. Then we have them repeat slowly after us. Even if we can only count on the kids’ attention for about 30 minutes out of an hour-long class, I’m actually amazed at how eager and excited they are to practice their English and impress us.
Our classes could hardly be described as organized, though at least on the bright side every day poses a new adventure. A few of the children have a tendency to grab white board markers out of our hands so that they can show us that they know how to write their names in English. I’ve also never heard such an excited (and loud!) recitation of the ABC’s. The smiles that light up their faces after they correctly repeat an English phrase are literally the most priceless sights I have seen.
I have learned more Arabic through the process of teaching English than I have learned in the classroom at Duke or on the streets of Cairo. Motioning to objects and acting things out has become quite the game for the kids and us (not to mention that they get a huge laugh out of seeing us struggle with their native language). It’s really incredible to see how humans have a natural propensity to communicate with each other across language barriers, especially because Amanda and I deal with the language acquisition process in a similar way to the children.
I’ve fallen in love with these kids already and can only imagine how hard it will be to say goodbye at the end of eight weeks. It has really made me question how we can reconcile our short stay in the kids’ lives, but that’s a post for another day!
Amanda, Hani (one of our students) and I at Ana El-Masry