Friday, October 13, 2006

The Class

Below this post, I've put up another one with a few little updates from my life here. I just posted it yesterday. Please check it out if you have a chance.

For the past couple of months in Cairo, I've been engaged in a truly eye-opening project. I've been teaching English classes to and assisting with research on Sudanese refugees in Cairo. I came by this project through a girl I met this summer named Sarah who studies at Barnard in New York. She was working on her Arabic in Cairo this summer before heading to Amman, Jordan for her semester abroad. She introduced me Jacob, a Norwegian, who had accompanied his wife to Cairo for her new job, and he had since become deeply involved in researching the plight of the Sudanese in Cairo. The American University had given him grant money, and he has been working under the auspices of the Forced Migration Department there. He was looking specifically at, and this is what I started looking at too, the recent proliferation of Sudanese youth gangs in the city.

Before I really jump in and begin telling you about the classes I taught and about Sudanese refugees in general, let me give you a little anecdote that is really representative of the place that Sudanese refugees hold in Egyptian culture. I got in a taxi one day and began an Arabic conversation with my taxi driver. The conversation began as it always did, by the driver asking me where I'm from. I told him that I was American and he gave me a broad smile and a thumbs-up. We started talking about various world figures, and I asked him his opinion on each. He told me how much he respected Nasser and Sadat, which was pretty much a given. He told me that he supported Mubarak as well. The conversation turned to America and the driver first professed his admiration for Jimmy Carter (widely loved in Egypt because of his efforts for peace), then he began naming others like Reagan and Clinton and telling me why he liked them. Next, I brought up Bush and was astonished to hear the driver tell me of his deep respect for the current President. Figuring I had to find out what bothered this guy, I brought up my sure-fire bet: Israel. Again to my surprise, he told me that he could not harbor any ill-feelings towards Israel because the history was far too long and complicated to assign blame to just one side. Surprised, I allowed the conversation to lapse into silence. As I neared my destination, the driver asked me where I was going. I told him that I was going to teach an English class to a group of Sudanese. He only laughed. When I asked him if he liked the Sudanese, he simply shook his head and said to me "Humma ghabi awwi." "They're so stupid."

So it was in this kind of atmosphere that I began my classes.

Now a quick word about the Sudanese. Coming from the States, it's hard to imagine that Cairo would be an aspiration for anybody, but for those caught in the crossfire of Sudan's north-south civil war, this city is just that: salvation. The civil war, which ended only last year, was an ethnic struggle between the northern Arab populations and the blacks in the south. Please note, this is not the same as the conflict in Darfur which, due to the power imbalance, is not a war but a genocide. Many from Sudan's black population in the south have managed to escape to Cairo and have overwhelmed a city that is already poor and lacking in jobs. As a result, the government of Egypt has done a mediocre job, at best, at handling the influx of Sudanese. All the refugees fall into one of three legal categories. If they are blue-card holders, then they are legal permanent refugees. Yellow-card holders have been granted temporary refugee status, a legal limbo. The majority of the refugees, however, are unregistered.

While the older Sudanese associate with their tribes, many from the younger population have shed those old affiliations in Cairo. Instead, the last year or year and a half have seen the formation and expansion of gangs which provide a sense of safety through communal identity and a social network that insures nobody goes hungry or homeless. Jacob, the man through whom I was teaching a researching, was looking specifically at two rival gangs, the Outlaws and the Lost Boys, in the hopes that through a better understanding of these gangs, there might be an opportunity to replace these gangs with other frameworks that would provide the same support for these kids that the gangs currently do. What is so alarming about these gangs, Jacob told me, was how when they first formed, they used to fight with kicks and punches. He said that the fighting had progressed and that the gangs had started using sticks with which to beat each other. Just in the last couple of months, though, the gangs had begun to get their hands on swords and this had resulted in serious injuries among various members.

Let me explain the role that the English classes play. They serve, essentially, two purposes. First, by bringing the gangs into the controlled environment of the classroom, they make for good research topics. Through conversations before and after class and through various writing and speaking exercises in class, it is possible to get a pretty good read on them. The second reason for the classes shows how this is a perfect example of service-learning, a concept that I was deeply involved with at Middlebury. The researchers, headed by Jacob, ask for a lot from the refugees. Even though the project seeks to improve the conditions of these displaced people, it asks from them a lot, it asks for them to open up and trust these outsiders with their inner-most workings. In a country of tremendous hostility, that sacrifice is more excruciating than one might imagine. In return, we offer these English classes as a hope for a better future. The bottom line is that the English classes provide a portal through which to do research, but they also provide a serious service to the refugees.

There's one more important point to make. Because of the influx of refugees, the Egyptian government has a near zero-tolerance policy towards them. This means that if the refugees are arrested for any reason, including inter-gang violence, they are sent back to the Sudan. Here's the catch, though. These southern Sudanese are sent to Sudan's capital, Khartoum, which is in the north-central part of the country. Essentially, these southerners are sent to the northern capital, the enemy capital from the civil war. There they are treated as hostiles and taken into custody, where they are likely tortured and killed. It would be as if we arrested a Sunni Iraqi and handed him over to local militia authorities in a Shiite region of Iraq. What's more, it doesn't take a lot here for the authorities to arrest Sudanese. They'll look for any reason to scoop them up and get them out of the country. The point is, keeping your nose clean as a refugee is no guarantee of safety. But if these refugees can learn English to a level of decent proficiency, then they stand a good chance of being selected in the government's relocation project, through which they will have the opportunity to start a new life in a more free English-speaking country like the U.S. or Australia.

It was with these stakes, with these people straddling the line between a painful demise in a dirty Khartoum prison and a new life in America, that I entered that classroom for the first time.

I was teaching to members of the Dinka tribe, one of southern Sudan's largest, at the their tribal house, the Twic (pronounced Tweech) House in the lower-middle class neighborhood of Abasiyya. Not everyone in the class was a gang member. Some were older, maybe late twenties or thirty, and worked menial jobs around Cairo. Many in the class, though, belonged to the Lost Boys gang, and they were easily identifiable by their Tupac shirts, football jerseys, sideways hats, and occasional smell of beer. Jacob had decided to include some non-gang members to act as leaders in the class. Either way, either by blood or by affiliation, they all belonged to the Dinka tribe. Going to the Twic House is really the one place I've been in Cairo where I really turn heads. I'd always take a taxi as close as I could and would end up walking the last few blocks down a tiny road with closed down store fronts, a few shisha cafes, and a handful of auto-shops. Walking down this street, I'd see every eye lift because they were just that un-used to seeing white people in that part of town. The Twic House is a massively rundown apartment on the second floor of a crumbling townhouse. I would always walk in, at first with a co-teacher and later by myself, to a front room packed with people watching whatever junk television they could find. I'd then be ushered into the office where I'd sit with the directors of the house, chatting and drinking tea for a few minutes before heading into the classroom.

I'd always teach in one of three classrooms, all about the same size, while the other two were always filled with dozens of Sudanese huddled around a game of backgammon or poker. When I began my first class, the director followed me in and gave a prayer of thanks for my presence in the class and then left. And for the first time, I was alone, facing a class of expectant students. I also noticed that they were all standing, and they didn't sit even when I started teaching. I had to implore them several times to take a seat so that I could proceed. I would come to learn that this was a sign of respect that they would afford me every time I walked into the classroom. Also, they all called me "teacher" because after weeks of trying to say "Theo," they resigned themselves and never tried again.

The class was about twenty-five students and met twice a week from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. The range of English ability was pretty substantial, so it was a challenge to meet everybody's needs. I taught from two text-books and I would plan lessons meticulously beforehand. One of the most popular exercises was doing error sentences, in which I'd write something on the board like, "The students is doing his homework," and I'd ask them to find the error. The first few classes proved to be the most difficult because people weren't comfortable participating, but after a couple weeks, a sentence like the one above would cause an eruption of debate and conversation as several theories would swirl around the class. It was typical that after a minute or two's discussion, two possibilities would be posed to me. Usually, one would be the correct answer (remove the s from "students") and the other would be some far-flung idea, like re-ordering the sentence strangely. It's amazing to me how predictably lessons like this would play out. It was always easier for me to explain why the one answer was right rather than making them understand why their other ideas didn't work. But I made do.

Other lessons included simple reading comprehension, two-man conversations in which they had to use new vocabulary, listening to songs and understanding the lyrics, and dictation to work on their spelling. In the first class I taught, I brought in a Beatles song with the lyrics printed up. They loved so much listening to the song and figuring out its lyrics that from then on various members of the class would come up to me an beg, "Teacher, teacher, can we please listen to more Boogies songs?" After explaining for the hundredth time that the group was actually the Beatles, I gave up with amused frustration.

The first few classes were especially nice because I got to teach with my friend Sarah before she left for Amman. She was great because she spoke much clearer than I did. I'd ask her to do the difficult grammatical concepts because she was more measured and more comprehensible. Once she left, understanding that I spoke too quickly, I asked the students to just raise their hands if they couldn't understand me. Always, when I'd be discussing grammar, there would come a point when I realized that they were close to understanding. Predictably, I'd get excited and start speeding up and speaking louder, words would tumble out on top of one another, and then I'd see that first modest hand start to rise, followed by about a half dozen more. I'd have to stop, apologize, regroup, and try again.

These students were some of the most devout Christians I've ever met. When asked to form sentences, they would typically include prayer or church in their writing. After a lesson about direction, I asked them for homework to write out directions from one place to another. Only a small handful had something other than the church as their destination. One of the most amazing things about teaching is that periodically, probably five or six times in total, a different member of the class would raise his hand at the beginning, stand up, and talk about how my presence in the classroom was a gift from God, and that it was a sign of peace and of brighter days ahead for them. Imagine all of that coming from a guy who has Tupac on his shirt, a hat pulled down so low, you can't even see his eyes, and is a member of a violent gang. In the States, he's known as a dangerous punk, but add religion and he becomes a Christian struggling for survival and to stay on God's path.

Aside from various details of gang life, all of which I've passed along to Jacob for his consideration and inclusion into his reports, I got to understand the struggle that these gang members face between God and survival, two elements which are often contradictory in this city. The right path versus the necessary path. Conversations with the gang members reveal that this struggle is constantly simmering just below the surface.

To conclude, I want to tell you about one of my days teaching. This experience was one of those hauntingly inspiring events that I know will stick with me for a long time. I began my usual Thursday class at 7:00pm, going through all the usual types of lessons. We had begun a lesson on movie vocabulary (comedy, thriller, tragedy, laugh cry, exciting, etc.). I knew that movie vocabulary wasn't the most important thing to them, so I tried to steer away from that and teach them how each word was relevant in other ways, independent of film.

Because of the intense heat, I always began my classes with the lights off. By about 7:30 that night, it was getting dark, so as usual I walked over to the switch and flipped it. No lights. I tried again and again without success. I told my class I'd be right back and left to find the director. After asking him about the lights, he explained to me that they hadn't been able to pay their bill quite yet and that while I'd have lights by the next time I returned, tonight I was out of luck. I went back into the classroom and explained this to my class. The problem, too, was that because we were on a very dark street, we wouldn't be helped at all by light from there. And so I suggested to the class the next logical step. I said to them that we should leave it here for the night and pick up where we left off next week. I started gathering my things to leave while all the students huddled in intense discussion. Then, one of the better English speakers stood up and said to me, "Teacher. We need you here tonight to teach us. We need to learn English and we need you here by the grace of God." I considered this for a moment and saw that it had to be done. The desperation with which these people needed to learn English was too much to turn my back on. And so I closed the notebook on my meticulously planned lesson, put the chalk away since they would not be able to see the board, and began to teach to them as they faded into total darkness. Their skin was so dark that I literally could not see them, but for a couple who, by virtue of sitting next to the window, were illuminated in profile. And so that night, I taught for an hour and a half to a classroom of ghosts, people I could not see, but whose energy I could certainly feel. I made them act movie parts, discuss the meaning of science-fiction, listen to my sentences and find the errors in my grammar. They rose to the challenge, participating eagerly, while always deferring to the other invisible figures.

As the class came to a close, one of the voices from the left side of the classroom rose with a question. "Teacher, what is tragedy?" He had remembered it from our vocabulary list from before it got too dark. I had purposely omitted any of the heavier words from our discussion because I had figured that levity was the best way to make it through a class without lights. I began to explain to the class what it meant, but it then occurred to me that displaced from their homeland, sitting in a falling-down building in a dirt poor neighborhood, learning English out of the sheer desperation that stemming from the need for survival, these kids were living a tragedy. I didn't tell them that, though. When I finished describing tragedy, I suppose I hadn't done a very good job because one of them asked me about the difference between a tragedy and a drama, one of our earlier vocabulary words. Realizing I didn't really know the difference, I told them that a tragedy is a drama in which everyone dies. Then I understood that I was standing there in front of these students in the modest hope that I could play some small role in insuring that when all was said and done their story could be recorded in the books of history as a drama, not a tragedy.


Anonymous said...

let me be first to wellcome you back. i've missed your blogs, though i suspect their absence of late has as much to do with your move to "hip" zamalek as with faulty the way, can we have a blog sometime describing cairo night life? could be an interesting counter-point to your latest missive. a couple of questions about the sudanese: how many of these kids in cairo? ages? all boys or girls too? what of the girls? do they receive any social services, or is this a naive question? i am surprised by their desire to learn...doesn't sound like our street gangs, interesting. by the way, your journalistic objectivity slipped a bit is this article, when, "you were astonished to hear" the cab driver praise Bush. you should consider a career at the NYT where being open minded is not in the job description. on the other hand, you write well enough and have wonderful insights.

Peggy said...


Probably your most insightful and interesting post yet. So glad you are doing this.


Anonymous said...


Oh how I've missed your blogs! But seriously, very interesting stuff - I also had a brief encounter teaching English here but I'm afraid it was not nearly as moving or interesting as your story. Can't wait to read more and hopefully I'll catch you on skype one of these days. I'm wondering/hoping if you'll be in the States at all this winter break or J-term so let me know pleaseeeee!!!

miss you!

PS - I guess I should tell you that I finally saw an episode of Lost... haha - I'm sure you're in withdrawl right now... alright talk soon! bye

Anonymous said...

are we getting another blog before thanksgiving?
your blogs are like episodes of the sopranos....never know when the next one's coming.

Tiffany said...


Sorry I haven't been able to read this sooner. Really enjoyed this entry, as you well imagined I would. Will email you about some work we are doing with Sudanese who are mobilizing around the world to help rebuild their homeland through the construction of schools, major fund raising, etc.

This is important work, Theo. Glad you are being challenged in these ways, and glad you have so much to offer, as well. I like your creative use of music, film, and so on to add new dimensions and relevance to your work. Your description of teaching in the dark was really something!

Do keep safe. As always, I worry...

Will send along that other information.

All best,

Tiffany :)

Jen Wallace said...

I just caught up on your blog, Theo, and this is your most powerful and poignant post yet. I am impressed and motivated by the work you are doing there. I finally put on Groton's email news that you have a blog, so you may get some new readers soon. After they read this post they are going to be hooked, so you have better write some more (in all your free time, right?)! said...

Theo, I enjoyed reading your blog. It sounds like you're learning alot about teaching as well as the Sudanese. I'll keep reading with interest.

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