Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Teaching English, The Iftar, Graphic Design at the Synod

Last Friday was the first time I taught English at the Coptic Cathedral. I teach children ages seven to eight for an hour and a half. The kids really blew me away during this first class. I had no idea what their level of English was, so I went in and started with the basics. I began with the alphabet, which they all knew very well. I then read them a story called “The Napping House.” The story of The Napping House starts off with a Granny in a bed. A child snuggles up on top of her. Then a dog lies down on the child, a cat lies on the dog, and a mouse lies on the cat. A flea bites the mouse, who scares the cat, who claws the dog, who startles the child, who wakes the granny, who breaks the bed. They all go outside and nobody is sleeping anymore. That’s the entire story. The pages are beautifully illustrated though. Each page after the flea bites the mouse, as there is more and more chaos, you can see each animal… even the flea, though you have to search for it. I thought that was really neat, so I had the kids search for each animal on each page. Unfortunately one of the kids had read the book before and quickly pointed out the location of the flea on each page. Suddenly I realized what I thought was going to take quite some time didn’t take very much time at all, and there was still a lot of time left. I had them draw pictures, which were heavily influenced by “The Napping House.” A sun here, a cloud there… oh, and a house here! I had them each describe what they had drawn; in English of course… that’s the point. I drew a bunch of animals on the board and asked them to name them. Then I asked them what noises each one makes. This prepped them for the final lesson of the day: a rousing chorus of old MacDonald… which they all knew, and didn’t take anytime at all to sing. I ended up finishing the class 15 minutes early. When I opened the door, one of the fathers was already standing there. I barely got “Hello” out of my mouth before he asked me how his daughter’s English was and whether she had much of an accent. Whoa Nelly! Eager much?!? Anyway, this coming Friday will have to be a bit more challenging for the kids.

Each night, Muslims all across the Middle East await the setting of the sun so they can break the daylong fast at the Iftar. This is done all through the month of Ramadan. Mohammad started the discipline after receiving the Koran from Allah, but when he broke the fast and had his Iftar, he ate a simple meal. Nowadays, Iftars are extravagant meals that are held nightly, making the month of Ramadan one big festival, block party, and cookout all rolled into one. We Christians joke thinking that the point has totally been missed. Mohammad meant the fast to be about discipline but breaking the fast has practically become a college kegger (without the keg since Muslims can’t drink alcoholic beverages). But who are we to poke fun? Don’t we have Christmas… the most obnoxiously overdone religious holiday ever?

Lynn, our oncoming site coordinator, recently got us invited to an Iftar. During the four years she has been here, she befriended a Muslim family that gladly welcomed us and showed us what it is like to experience an Iftar. We went to the Iftar by taxi, and as we drove along we saw smoke billowing out of buildings, one every block. It turned out the smoke was coming from gigantic grills just outside the buildings. The grills were big enough to feed everyone in the neighborhood at the time of the Iftar.

Our experience was intimate as Iftars go. There were ten or eleven of us crowded around a small table that sat a few feet off the ground. The table was JAM-PACKED with food. I took a picture of the table just as we arrived (you can see it on my photos page) but even more food was added after the photo was taken. Plates were stacked upon plates. Traditionally the breaking of the fast was announced with a canon blast so everyone could start eating at the same time. Nowadays people just watch the clock and begin eating at the appropriate time. The patriarch of the family we were eating with, named Yaya (my best approximation of the spelling) began our Iftar by saying, “Okay, eat, eat!!!” For the next ten minutes we did nothing but eat. Fried chicken, roast beef, pita bread with hummus dip, chips, lettuce and tomatoes were all devoured. When we all became too full to eat, it looked like we had barely made a dent in the food. Lynn assured me that none of it would go to waste. Yaya’s wife brought out tea and for the next several hours we sat and talked with the family as best we could. I listened to Jay, one of my fellow YAV’s, chat away in Arabic to Yaya. Jay works with a group of women who speak nothing but Arabic, so by necessity he has learned a lot very quickly. I was able to follow along with the conversations very well because I could recognize a good many words, but there’s no way I could join in on the conversation. Yaya also tried to teach a few words to us less gifted Arabic-speakers.

Yaya’s son and daughter-in-law were also there with their baby son. The little boy was a beautiful child with large bright eyes. His mother gladly passed him around the table so we could all get a good look. The mother had no head wrap or veil on, which felt very strange since every Muslim woman I have seen here has had her hair neatly tucked away where nobody can see it. The difference was we were in the woman’s home. The rules are different in the home. Women can literally let their hair down.

My job at the Synod of the Nile has fallen into a routine of sorts. The 150th Anniversary Celebration is rapidly approaching and I have been diligently scanning photo after photo for a pamphlet I am designing for the celebration. I feel crunch-time coming, as there is still a lot to do before then. The secretary in the office next to me continues to find amusement in teaching me Arabic. I hope she continues to be amused by it for some time. She has taught me a list of nouns such as sunglasses, belt, shirt, ear, nose, mouth, filing cabinet, key, key ring, key chain, and many of the colors. We learned the colors in Arabic lessons but they never sank in. Verbs still confound me, which makes communication very difficult. For instance, when I ask someone if I can take his or her picture the question comes out literally as “I… picture?” As my old Arabic professor would say, zis iz not zee way.

On Sunday we took a cab to church and I was finally able to connect points A, B, and C on the surface streets. I realized the geographical relationship between Dawson Hall, where I live, and my office and the church. I also noticed that they really aren’t that far apart. Since it is becoming much cooler with each passing day, I have decided I will walk home from work in the evenings. Since I am moving a little slower on the streets this gives me a better opportunity to take photographs and look at shops and people. It’s a bit of a hike, but I need the exercise. Oddly, it takes only a few minutes more to walk the route than to take the Metro, which has been a source of high anxiety for me.


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