نهاية الاسبوع (Nihayat Al-Usbuoa) means “weekend” in Arabic. In Egypt, the weekend is typically Friday to Saturday, but out work week officially ended today at 4 p.m. and starts back up again Saturday morning. one definitely could not have come soon enough.
I realize that after a week of classes, I haven’t actually written anything about what it’s like learning Arabic here. It’s hard. Classes start at 9:00 a.m. at the University of Alexandria’s TAFL (Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language) Center, which is a 20 minute walk from our hotel along the Corniche (the sea-side roadway). We have two professors, Ustaadh (professor) Alaa and Dr. Iman, who each teach us for half the day. Both are real talkers; Dr. Iman will only speak in Arabic, and routinely launches into long-winded explanations when we ask about vocabulary or a bit of grammar that sometimes wind up confusing us even more than we had been when we’d asked our original question, and Ustaadh Alaa is also quite the storyteller — on Tuesday he lectured for an hour and a half straight about the Muslim Brotherhood and the role of Islam in Egyptian politics. You would never think that mere listening could be so exhausting, but trying to decipher what Alaa and Dr. Iman are saying is probably the most difficult part of class. Every particle of my body has to be focused solely on the words coming out of the professor’s mouth, otherwise I have no hope of understanding what they’re talking about. I come out of class feeling physically exhausted from the effort.
The classes are split into three sections. We typically go over grammar in the morning with Ustaadh Alaa. Alaa is an animated and exuberant professor; he bounds around the classroom speaking rapid-fire Arabic in a booming voice, sometimes yanking a student out of a chair to act out an explanation or playing fast-paced memory games with us to test our vocabulary. At 11:00, we get a 30 minute break during which most of us buy tea or coffee from Ahmed, the man who runs the tiny kitchen at the center. I usually get a cup of Nescafe — this particular brand of instand coffee is ubiquitous in Egypt — and then shuffle back into the classroom for the next segment. After another hour of class, either taught by Alaa or Dr. Iman, we get a second 30 minute break. Most people leave the center to get lunch, but I’ve been staying at the center for the most part. The breakfast provided by the hotel is huge — I typically eat bread with cheese and tomato, plus fruit or yogurt and sometimes a small ball of falafel — and I’m rarely hungry by 12:30, so I’ve taken to bringing a snack for this second break and then eating after classes end at 3. However, everyone came back with the most delicious looking crepes today, so I’m thinking that on Saturday (the first day of our work week) I’ll have to try one. I’ve been eating a lot of ful (mashed fava beans typically served in a pita pocket), so a vegetable crepe will be a welcome change in my diet.
After classes end at 3, the group walks back to the hotel to start our homework, which typically occupies us until we finally collapse into bed around midnight, only taking a break to get dinner. If the classes at the TAFL center are difficult, the homework we’re given is exponentially harder. Almost every night we’ve gotten a 2 to 3 page nas (text) to read and answer questions about, plus grammar exercises. I feel badly that I haven’t spent more time exploring Alexandria, but it’s difficult to strike the right balance between finishing my work and enjoying the city. Thus far, I’ve opted mostly for the homework. That’s not to say I haven’t experienced any Egyptian culture. I’ve drunk my fair share of the fresh fruit juice that Egypt is so well-known for, sat in a cafe on the Corniche reviewing vocabulary while the breeze off the Mediterranean ruffled the pages of my textbook, toured the famous library of Alexandria and gotten dinner with our Egyptian conversation partners (and managed to converse with them at least partially in Arabic, no less!) Tomorrow we have a tour of Alexandria that was organized by the program and on Friday I’m going to go to the naadi (a sports/social club) with Marina, one of the language partners, so I can swim (swim!) run on a treadmill (possibly even in shorts!) and get more exercise than I’ve had in over a week. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve gone running a couple of times with Matt, one of the Georgetown students in the program, but it is HOT in Alexandria, even at 6:45 in the morning, and we usually only manage to eke out a few miles before the heat and the fumes from the cars on the Corniche get to us. A run in an air conditioned gym seems like the height of luxury, and swimming in a pool even more so.
Sorry that this post is a bit rambling — I’m so burnt out from the intensity of this week that I don’t think I’m capable of more coherent thoughts. Despite the hard work and the hot weather, I am happy and healthy and so thrilled to be here. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the stress of all the work I have, but Alexandria is an unbelievably beautiful and fascinating city. I’m excited to see more of it.