About Seth

Seth Thomas is a junior at Portland State University, where he is studying the Middle East and Arabic. His interest in the region was piqued when his parents took a call as pastors at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City and moved him and his two older brothers to East Jerusalem from 1998 to 2002. He is very much looking forward to returning to Jerusalem this summer to study Arabic intensively before studying at the Arabic Language Institute in Cairo for the fall semester.

Interview with a 6th Grader in Giza

Last week I interviewed Nasr Sherif, a 12 year old living in the Haram [Pyramid] neighborhood of Giza. He is the cousin of the son of my former landlord, attends a public school and only speaks a few words of English. Most of the questions come from a 6th grade class in Portland that I have been blogging with, and I am still working on the transcript of the interview. But here is a video I made of him and his really sweet siblings/cousins. Special thanks to Ahmed Nasr, my former landlord, for introducing and translating. All mistakes and pronunciation errors are my own.

Halfway Through Cairo

I’ve now been in Egypt for two months, studying at the Arabic Language Institute at the American University in Cairo. In exactly two months I will enter back into Israel/Palestine for a week before flying out of Tel Aviv. For the first half of my time in this Northeast corner of Africa I lived in outer Cairo, technically a neighborhood of Giza called Haram (the Arabic word for pyramid). The apartment I stayed at has definitely the best view I will ever partake in, and I look forward to the nostalgia and eventual dementia that will lead me to tell my grandkids that I lived on top of the Sphinx (or Abu el-Hol, Father of Terror).

View from the apartment roof (I'm accidentally blocking the Sphinx, sorry)

The time in Giza was terrific, the culture shock I was hoping for. The basement of the apartment is literally a horse stable (as well as both the neighbors) and me and my roommates were the only foreigners around, forcing me to quickly rely on toddler-level Egyptian Arabic to navigate the necessary microbuses etc. But this week I have moved to a neighborhood closer to downtown in order to experience that aspect of Cairo life more fully. I now live in Mohandessin, still a part of Giza, but just across the Nile from downtown Cairo and Tahrir Square.

The view from my new apartment. A definite shift in the color wheel.

While I am studying here, I am participating in PSU’s Senior Capstone Project Reporting Live, a great program that connects PSU students studying abroad with different middle school classrooms all over Portland through blogging. I have been making short videos for my sixth grade class at Lane Middle School, but I thought I would share them here, too:

See the rest here. Thanks for reading and watching!


Football in Jerusalem

My Arabic intensive course has now completed week one. Originally I was signed up for the intermediate Arabic course at Hebrew University, but it was cancelled due to low enrollment so I have switched to the colloquial intensive. The Arabic spoken in Jerusalem is part of the Levantine Arabic dialect, which is spoken in Palestine/Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Specifically, we are learning an urban Jerusalem dialect and although it would be understood well in the countries mentioned above, there are even significant differences in lexicon and pronunciation in the West Bank, Gaza and up north in Galilee. The course is about ten students and is six to eight hours a day (five days a week), including breaks. It is split up between three teachers we rotate through each day and then a guest lecturer once a week about the history of the language in the region. Two of the teachers are Israeli and focus more on grammar and vocabulary, and the third teacher is Palestinian and her teaching is entirely conversational. So far the days have not seemed long at all and I think this is largely because the day is split up into three different teaching styles. It has also been fascinating to observe the (sometimes tenuous) relationship between Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial Arabic.

Because I had to switch courses so late, I had a week of unexpected free time before my course began. I took a trip to the Palestinian Christian town of Birzeit, which is outside of Ramallah in the West Bank where the 5th Rozana Heritage Festival was taking place. The small town has a beautiful old city which is exceptionally free of garbage compared to Jerusalem. Palestinians in the West Bank are so far either much more inclined to “play along” with me when I try and speak Arabic or really don’t speak any English which has been an excellent test. The free week also coincided with the end of the Euro Cup and, since I am staying near a substantial population of lively German volunteers and workers, all the games were watched outside with a projector and much cheering and booing. Also present at the games were many bottles of Taybeh beer, the only Palestinian beer. Early tomorrow morning a few of us will drive to their brewery for a tour, a small hike outside the town, and a complimentary beverage of “the Finest in the Middle East.”

Below is a little travelogue video of the past week featuring nuns, football, snakes, fire, etc.

Children’s Festival in Bethlehem

After a few days of wandering around in the Old City of Jerusalem I made my way to Bethlehem, a Palestinian city about five miles south of Jerusalem believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus. Bethlehem is also one of the Palestinian towns in the West Bank surrounded by the separation barrier being built by the Israeli government. The town itself is incredible and my friend and I happened to visit on an especially exciting day. After a taxi showed us to the various Banksy graffiti around town, we went to the Church of the Nativity (a less popular destination than the graffiti, our taxi driver claimed). Whatever I was expecting to see when we pulled up, it was not little Austrian children in traditional costumes parading around the square across from the church. It turns out we stumbled upon the inaugural Children’s Festival in Bethlehem. Below is a little video I’ve put together of the parade, music and, perhaps most surprisingly, the Palestinian Circus School.

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Next Year in Jerusalem

Next week in Jerusalem, as it turns out. On June 20th I will fly out of New York and make my way to the Mount of Olives to study Arabic for five weeks at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. From 1998 to 2002, my parents were Lutheran pastors in the Old City, and I was an 8 to 12 year-old American boy living in East Jerusalem, playing in the Israeli Juvenile Baseball League, and generally confused about my living situation. A decade later, I am hoping to improve my Arabic but I also wish to learn more about the region as well as my own past within it. I will be living next to (and volunteering in some manner at) Augusta Victoria Hospital, the second-largest hospital in East Jerusalem and one which primarily serves Palestinians. In mid-August I will travel to Cairo to continue my Arabic studies at the Arabic Language Institute for the fall semester.

The author at a Coptic monastery in Egypt around the turn of the millennium.