Studying Arabic in Cairo — دراسة اللغة العربية في القاهرة

Cairo is a completely magical (albeit chaotic and occasionally maddening) city, and it’s a great place to study Arabic. A friend recently asked me to recommend a good program to study Arabic in Cairo this summer, and I thought the resulting list might be a useful resource for some of you as well. What follows is a list (in no way comprehensive, in no particular order) of a number of summer and year-round Arabic programs in Cairo that friends and I recommend:

1. International Language Institute (ILI)

ILI has a reputation for being very professional and hosting great teachers. Many of my friends attended ILI and were impressed with the programs offered and the quality of instruction. They have classes in both Fusha and 3meya or a combined program with several hours of each 5 days a week. The school is $550 for a four week course with 15 classroom hours per week, but worth the cost according to those who attended their programs (I did not personally). It’s just off the far end of Ahmed Orabi street in Mohandiseen, so walkable from Zamalek and there are buses/microbuses from Zamalek and Kubri al-Dokki that will take you most of the way there.

For more information: http://www.arabicegypt.com

2. Al Diwaan Arabic Center

Al Diwaan is in Garden City, next to the Canadian Embassy, just across the bridge from Zamalek. They offer group study (if you can form a group with equal language levels) or solo classes, and you can arrange a course schedule that caters to your needs. The teachers are all certified and have degrees in education or Arabic. Classes are generally conducted in Arabic but the teachers speak functional English. You can focus on what you want to learn, and classes can be created to focus on particular topics of interest like literature or media. The management can be ditzy, but but after registration you can deal just with your teacher. Prices are high to mid-range; it’s around $900 for a one month summer intensive program with 90 classroom hours and 10 hours of activities. The facilities are nice.

For more information: http://www.aldiwancenter.com/

3. Arabic Language Institute, American University in Cairo

ALI is located about an hour from downtown Cairo in a suburb called Tegamo El Khameis on the beautiful AUC New Campus. There is a bus service provided by AUC (with air conditioning and wi-fi!) that goes out to the campus and back from all areas of Cairo. It is perhaps the most expensive and farthest away program, but also the most well-reputed internationally. The quality of teaching is impressive, and joining the ALI program gives you access to the other resources available at the university (printing, library, professional contacts, bus transportation, gym, swimming pool, etc.) AUC offers both intensive and regular classes, usually between 2 and 5 days per week for 2 to 4 hours.

For more information: http://www.aucegypt.edu/academics/ALI/Pages/default.aspx

4. Arabeya Arabic School

Arabeya is located in Mohandeseen just across the Nile from Zamalek on a side street off of Ahmed Orabi. They specialize in one-on-one classes, but they also have summer programs and small group classes. They are super flexible with scheduling; you can take classes as intensively as you’d like (up to 4 hours a day 6 days a week) anytime between 8am and 4pm. They have about 8 teachers there and if you happen to not jive with 1 teacher, you can switch to another one. One-to-one classes are about $240 for an intensive 20 classroom hour week, and prices get cheaper if you stay longer or join a small group.

For more information: http://www.arabeya.org/

5. Private Lessons

Many people who study Arabic in Cairo choose to take private lessons, since prices are so reasonable, and they give considerably more flexibility in terms of content, pacing, location, and level.

My private instructor for the last two years, Nermine Sayed, is phenomenal, and I recommend her without reservation. She has been teaching Arabic for many years and structures helpful lessons based on what you want to learn. She can teach Fusha or 3meya, and is flexible about where and when you meet. She speaks great English, but classes are conducted in Arabic unless explaining a complicated grammatical concept. Classes are casual and friendly, but she does assign homework and take your language development seriously. Generally, she charges 75 LE (roughly $10) per hour, although rates may vary depending on how often you want to meet. You can contact her at: nermine.arabic@yahoo.com or +20 (0) 1009300887.

A friend of mine has also recommended his private Arabic instructor, Wael Wafa. Wael graduated from Al-Azhar University with a degree in Arabic Language Teaching, and he has worked for the past 10 years teaching Arabic, both Fusha and 3meya. He charges 50 LE (roughly $7) per hour. You can contact him at: waelwafa2000@gmail.com or +20 (0) 1001516022.

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.

Jordanian Sunsets – عيد في الأردن

Eid mubarak, kol 3am w entum b7er! (Happy holidays!) Every year, on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah (the last month of the lunar Islamic calendar), Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Adha is a feast commemorating the willingness of Ibrahim/Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael as the ultimate submission to God’s command, before God intervened and provided Ibrahim with a ram to sacrifice in Ishmael’s place. Muslims today often celebrate the Eid by visiting family, slaughtering a goat/sheep/camel (which is then traditionally shared with the poor), and feasting extensively.

A Cairo butcher shop preparing for Eid al-Adha festivities.

A Cairo butcher shop preparing for Eid al-Adha festivities.

For me, the 4-day Eid break provided a perfect opportunity to travel. Originally, a few friends and I had planned a trip to Beirut, Lebanon. But due to the violent protests that erupted there last week in response to the [Syrian-planted?] car bomb that killed 8 people (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20006389), we had to postpone our trip to Beirut. And that is how I came to be in Amman, Jordan last weekend.

At the citadel overlooking Amman.

At the citadel overlooking Amman.

There are some people who do not think that Amman is the coolest city around. Those people are wrong. Amman is a delightful balance of historical flavor and modern convenience – the clean and traffic-free streets are a world away from the chaos and smog of Cairo. (Admittedly, however, the chaos and smog are part of Cairo’s charm.) Amman is spread out across 19 jabals (hills) that display the city’s architecture and many historical landmarks beautifully. But the city’s aesthetic appeal is nothing without mentioning the warmth and hospitality (and diversity!) of the people we encountered throughout our time in Amman. After only two nights in the city, my friend Mary and I had met multiple people who will inshallah (God willing) be lifelong friends. One of the most interesting things about the people we met – beside their being just generally wonderful human beings – was their diversity. 4 out of every 5 people we met were not native Jordanians, but rather Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian “refugees” (though they would not identify themselves this way – most introduced themselves to us as “Palestinians/Iraqis/Syrians living in Jordan”).

After two nights in Amman, we headed south to see the infamous city of Petra, considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Petra is an ancient city in the middle of the desert, believed to be founded circa 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataean empire. Petra’s buildings were literally carved out of the massive red rocks that cover the landscape. Walking out of the Siq (the natural rock corridor leading into Petra) to be confronted by Al-Khazneh (pictured below) – an image I had seen so many times before in travel magazines and history books – was a surreal experience.

The infamous Al-Khazneh (treasury) in Petra.

The infamous Al-Khazneh (treasury) in Petra.

From Petra, we made the short trip to Wadi Dana (Dana Valley) Nature Preserve– a remote slice of heaven in the southwest corner of Jordan. As an Oregonian, I crave desolate landscapes and wilderness, and Wadi Dana provided just the communion with nature that I needed to recover from the bustle of Cairo. We spent the evening drinking copious amounts of tea and watching the sunset while a friendly Australian couple regaled us with stories of expat life in Saudi Arabia. We slept on the roof under the stars, and woke up to a breathtaking view of rocky canyons and untouched wildlife. In the morning, we ventured on a hike into the valley, where we encountered an unclaimed herd of goats and a group of Bedouins on donkeys who invited us for tea.

Sunset in Wadi Dana Nature Preserve.

Sunset in Wadi Dana Nature Preserve.

These four days in Jordan were truly some of the best days of my life – a tall order since I think I have a pretty good life in general. The genuine hospitality we encountered from the moment we stepped out of the plane has stuck with me, and I hope I will have the opportunity to “pay it forward” in Cairo.

Protests & Progress – مظاهرات والتقدم

Sometime last week, I received the following message in my inbox:

“After exhausting all alternatives with the students insisting on closing the gates, the American University in Cairo is suspending operations, including all classes, because of the danger posed by the continuing closure of the campus.”

For over a week, the entire university –rumored to be the best English-language university in the Middle East– was shut down by a group of 50-300 student protesters. These students blockaded all entrances to the main campus with cars and padlocks, demanding, among other things, a reversal of this year’s 7% tuition increase. While I too wouldn’t mind paying 7% less tuition, the tactics of the protests were ill-conceived and inconsiderate of the thousands of students, faculty members, and staff whose lives were put on hold during the strike. Alhamdulillah (praise god), classes have resumed as of today, after a harrowing week of budgeting debates and dialogue between the protesters and administration. Unfortunately, however, this week off has put classes behind for the semester, and caused deep rifts within the campus community members, many of whom feel understandably put-off and unrepresented by the protesters.

Since classes were cancelled and there wasn’t much we could do about it, some friends and I took the weekend off to explore Alexandria– a beautiful and ancient city 3 hours from Cairo in the Nile Delta, along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Iskanderiya (Alexandria) was a much-needed breath of fresh air from the smog of downtown Cairo. I slept outside under the stars, and every morning I woke up to a breath-taking view of the ocean.

The view from our private terrace overlooking the Mediterranean shoreline.

Having a week off of my graduate school course-load also freed up some time for me to explore Cairo a bit. Unfortunately, when school is not being cancelled due to protests, I spend almost all of my time either at school or doing schoolwork– the life of a graduate student is not exactly glamorous. But, I digress. Cairo is massive (8 million people, by most counts), so there is always plenty to explore. And since everything is still fairly new to me, everywhere I go feels like an adventure. The process of getting a cab, convincing him not to rip you off (while simultaneously convincing him not to fall in love with you because you have blonde hair and speak sweya Arabic), finding where you are trying to go, keeping your game face on just in case you have to haggle along the way.. Needless to say, there is never a dull moment. Here are a few pictures from last weeks Cairo adventures:

Moorish architecture in Khan El-Khalili, one of Cairo's oldest marketplaces.

Post-revolutionary graffiti in Tahrir Square.

Painting ceramics at an artists' café with my friend Parsa.

In some ways, the last month has flown by, and it feels as if it was just yesterday that I stumbled off of the plane into this new life, and in other ways it feels as if I have been here for years. I have three classes, a job, a workout routine, a group of friends, and–perhaps most importantly–a gorgeous balcony to bask in the sunshine and take cat naps on. Moving to Egypt has really shown me how significant one’s conceptualization of a place is to defining their overall experience with it– when I arrived in Morocco for the first time two years ago, I had my return ticket in hand before I ever left. I always knew I would be leaving six months later to return to the City of Roses and my wonderful friends back in the States. I wanted to see everything, be everywhere, meet everyone, but I did not invest in relationships because I always felt my time in Morocco was temporary. By contrast, a month into this, and I already feel like Cairo is home. Accordingly, I do not feel the familiar study abroad impulse to whirlwind tour the country and see-everything-all-at-once. I have time here. Metaphorically, my heart is playing backgammon on the street, smoking sheesha with a greying Egyptian man. Contemplating every move. Taking my time. Moving with the alternately chaotic and slow rhythm of life in Egypt.

En Route –في الطريق إلى مصر

Merhaba from Türkiye!

As of sometime last week, I am officially on the road to Egypt. I have been planning this trip for months, but somehow my final week in the country still caught me off-guard. Really moving abroad for two years is a lot different than talking about moving abroad for two years. Given that I generally have the travel bug so badly that I can hardly sit still, I was surprised by my own reluctance to leave home. It’s not that I ever doubted whether I was making the right decision, or whether I would actually get on the plane; it’s just that I finally acknowledged the magnitude of this next step. Two years is a long time to be away from one’s family, one’s friends, one’s home state, etc.– especially when the life that is waiting for you on the other side of the world is so unknown. All of this to say that I am a lucky girl to have had such an amazing life in Oregon surrounded by such exceptional human beings, which was –admittedly– hard to leave.

Now, almost two weeks into my travels, I remember all of the reasons why I love traveling and why moving to Cairo is perhaps the craziness (and best) decision I have ever made. I think it really set in for me when I first heard the call to prayer after arriving in Turkey. Something about hearing this sound–which I had grown very accustomed to the rhythm of while living in Morocco–made me feel at home. And I realized that I am going to hear that same sound, five times a day, everyday for the next two years. There’s something really powerful about such consistency. So here I am, learning how to find the rhythm of home in these [very much foreign] daily patterns.

After a lovely weekend laying on the beach in The Bahamas, I arrived in Istanbul last week ready for my next adventure. I don’t speak any Turkish and most Turks don’t seem to speak much English and/or Arabic, so it has been a week of emphatic hand gestures and elaborate sign language story-telling. The first four days I spent CouchSurfing (www.couchsurfing.org) with an eclectic group of ex-pats and travelers from around the world. We spent a lot of time exploring the city and drinking çay (tea) and watching the boats sail by on the Sea of Marmara. Istanbul is a lively, interesting city. With a population of over 13 million and a rich history dating back thousands of years, I felt like I could have explored in Istanbul for years and still never completely gotten my head around it. As someone who studies the Middle East, I found the confluence of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and European cultures especially interesting. There were young Turkish women in mini-skirts walking side-by-side with hijabi women; and, while we heard the call to prayer five times a day, we also had no trouble getting a beer in the midday heat of Ramadan.

After four days in Istanbul, I left my new friends for the Turkish countryside, where I had arranged to work on an organic farm for a week through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwoof.org). So far, my time here has been wonderful. It’s much cooler here than in the city, and everything seems to move at a much slower pace. Not slower in a “this is so frustrating, why can’t we get anything accomplished?!” way, but rather in a very natural “things will take as long as they take, no need to rush” sort of way. Generally, I am always rushing around doing a million things at once, so it has been nice to be forced to take things slowly. It has given me time to catch up with things and go for long runs through the village and do yoga and journal (and blog!), which are things I can never find time for in my normal routine.

Jade Farm, Sakarya, Turkey

Only one more week til I will be moving into my apartment in Cairo!

Iftars & Vineyards

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is now half-over, and I have loved being immersed in the strong community that binds everyone together during this time. During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking anything (including water!) from sunrise to sunset, in order to cleanse their souls and remind themselves of how fortunate they are to have food to eat, when there are others in the world who are not so fortunate. It is also a time of being with family and giving to charity.

Amman slows down quite a bit during the day, when those who are fasting (mostly everyone) would rather stay inside and relax than go out into the Jordanian heat. Many shops and nearly all restaurants are closed during the day, when their owners are fasting and their customers are probably opting to stay in as well. The city comes alive around 7:45, when the call to prayer sounds from the mosques, meaning that it is time to break the fast. The meal held at this time, called “Iftar” usually begins with a large glug of water and dates. Restaurants are overflowing with people and the waiters move swiftly from table to table passing out dishes to the starving and impatient customers.

Last night I ate Iftar with a friend at Mat3am Hashem, a popular and inexpensive restaurant in the heart of downtown Amman. Some of the best meals I’ve had here in Amman have been the most simple–with freshly cut cucumbers and tomatoes, olives, hummus and foul, and pita bread, it’s hard to go wrong.

Hashem hummus

For many, Iftar is also a time to pull out all the stops when it comes to food. Sometimes people spend all day in the kitchen preparing Iftar. This was certainly the case with another Iftar I attended last weekend, at the home of the aunt of a student on my program. His mother was in town, and she just happens to be May Bsisu, author of The Arab Tale, a recipe narrative. They may also have the most beautiful house I’ve ever been blessed to eat dinner at. The spread was absolutely incredible; I did not have nearly enough room on my plate even to sample the entire offering.

beautiful Iftar setting

amazing Iftar

the Iftar spread

shawarma man

On a completely different note, I also went last weekend to the farm and vineyard of our program director. She is an American woman who married a Jordanian man, and they now own their own land near the city of As-Salt, where they grow their own grapes and bottle wine on a small scale. We were invited to visit the farm, pick grapes, and have a barbecue. I had never really been to a vineyard before (how is that possible? living in Portland? I have no clue), so this was an exciting experience for me.

friends cutting grapes off the vine

cutting grapes

bottling wine

We had a great time picking the grapes, bottling the wine and then partaking in the wine and delicious food for Iftar. The view from their farm was incredible, and I will never forget watching the sunset over the Jordanian hills, with Palestine not too far in the distance.

Jordanian hills

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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My first week in Amman

my view of Amman - near the Jordanian University

I arrived in Amman, Jordan about a week ago, and I have already had too many adventures to tell! The first three days here were spent doing a crash-course on orienting ourselves to Jordanian life, culture, and language. On the first day we were immersed with an orientation and a 2-hour session with Jordanian speaking partners. This session involved learning how to find our way back to our home for the next 2 months–that is, the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman. ACOR is an old institution and has played a significant role in archaeological work in the region, among other things. We learned directions such as; “turn left,” “turn right,” “turn around,” and “go straight.” We also learned the important words for bridge, tunnel, and roundabout, of which there are many. Amman is a city of “circles”–the main roundabouts labeled first through eighth.  Like in many other cities in the Middle East, streets in Amman are not based on a grid system at all and generally the streets do not have names, or at least the names are not used. I’m not even sure if the street I live on now has a name at all. Directions are given in terms of landmarks. After our first speaking session, two other students and I were pushed out of our comfy nest and had to get in a taxi (by ourselves) and direct our taxi driver in Arabic to a restaurant determined by our speaking partner. I guess you learn most quickly when you need to! Luckily, we made it to the restaurant, where we ate a delicious snack of kanafa – a Jordanian pastry dessert made with a lot of cheese, oil, butter and sugar. I have a feeling my figure may change while I’m here.

Kunafah pastry dessert

Amman street

The CLS program planned a few more adventures for us during our initial time here, including a trip a couple days ago to As-Salt, a historic city that used to be the capital of Jordan. There, we visited the Historic Old Salt Museum, located at the Abu Jaber house at the center of town. The museum was large and elaborate, with tons of information about the history of Salt. I was surprised at how extensive the museum was, as well as how nicely done the rooms and posters were put together. After the museum tour, our large group of 40 broke up into smaller groups to go off and explore the city on our own. Two others and I  decided to follow the “Salt Heritage Trail,” which was on a map given to us by the museum staff. This self-guided tour of important Salt buildings was a bit strange. The buildings on the map were not only historic, but they were also mostly occupied by residents! They are not museum buildings that you can tour inside, because they are still homes to Salti people. We quickly discovered this after knocking on a couple doors and meeting confused people wondering why we would possible want to go into their house. We walked all around the city, marveling at the beautiful sights.

a view of Salt, Jordan

After the first three days of orientation, our Arabic classes officially began. The CLS program in Amman works through the Qasid Institute, and every week day (Sunday through Thursday here) we have 2 hours of fusHa (modern standard/written Arabic), 1 hour of ‘amiyya (spoken, colloquial/dialect Arabic), and 1 hour of media Arabic. I was placed in one of the advanced sections, which is extremely difficult. At this level, we spend most of our time in fusHa and media Arabic reading news articles. This week we focused on a highly topical issue, al-intikhabat al-masriyya–the Egyptian elections (my reaction to the elections would be an entirely different post, so I won’t go into it). The teachers speak only in Arabic to us, and new vocabulary words are explained in Arabic. This was a bit shocking at first, and I’m still struggling a bit to understand the exact meaning of some words, but it is definitely an excellent way to really get the language into your head when it’s constantly in your ears. On the first day of class, we signed the infamous “Language Pledge,” which says that we will only speak in Arabic for the next two months.

Our latest adventure outside of class was a trip to wasat al-balad, or the downtown area of Amman. This area has tons of shops, restaurants, and also houses a large mosque and the old Roman theatre. The trip was required as a “language socialization” activity, which is a requirement of CLS that encourages us to go out into the city and speak to locals in Arabic about certain topics. We were given a list of possible places to visit–including the Hamoudeh DVD shop, sweets store, a bookstore, gold souq, vegetable market, and more. We only made it to a couple places, my favorite of which was the DVD/CD shop, where you can find any film on DVD that you could possible want, each for 1 Jordanian dinar (~$1.40). I bought the movie “City of Life,” made in Dubai, along with seven CDs of Arab singers, like Nancy Ajram, Amr Diab, Elissa, Tamer Hosny, etc. I can’t wait to listen to them all. The downtown area is exciting and a great place to be immersed in Arabic, because everyone around is Jordanian. I will definitely be going back, to visit the Roman threater and explore the shops and restaurants more.

Wasat al-balad - downtown Amman

Hamoudeh DVD - any film you want, you can find it here!

halwiyat - Arabic sweets