Summer in Cairo
by Azza Basarudin
Published: Saturday, June 19, 2004
In the Summer of 2003, with the support of a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, I studied Arabic at the Arabic Language Institute of the American University Cairo. Located in the heart of the largest urban center in the Arab world, ALI is renowned for its Arabic language programs which attract not only students but diplomats and business people from around the world.
It's obvious why ALI has earned such an excellent reputation. Classes are small, ranging from three to six people, and throughout the intensive six-week summer program my instructors were committed, patient, understanding, helpful and supportive. This made studying Arabic a rewarding and memorable experience. Class discussions, quizzes, games, group projects and daily mini-exams helped facilitate my confidence in speaking the language and improved my learning tremendously. And it's an incredible experience to find yourself immersed in the language you’re studying by simply stepping outside the classroom. The ability to practice with the locals was priceless, regardless of my imperfect pronunciation, and the instructors' willingness to take their students out into the "field" was commendable. My instructor often took us to local coffee shops and encouraged us to interact with the locals to improve our understanding of the language. This helped me feel more comfortable speaking Arabic even though it was often frustrating and challenging to communicate clearly. Classroom instruction was also supplemented by "trading" language skills with native Arabic speakers. There were many Egyptian students who were willing to trade language skills, English for Arabic, Arabic for English. So for those who needed to practice their Arabic, this was one useful way to do so.
Although classes ran from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm every day, there was still plenty of time to discover the beauty, history, culture, customs, traditions and uniqueness that Cairo has to offer. ALI organized daily trips to various sites such as the pyramids of Giza, Old Cairo, the Citadel, Memphis and Sakara, in addition to weekend trips to Sinai, Alexandria, Sharm El-Sheikh and a Nile cruise. Getting around in Cairo isn't a problem as the city is safe and subways and taxis are plentiful and inexpensive.
My fondest memory of Cairo? Khan El-Khalili, the colorful open-air bazaar where the famous El-Fishawy and Naguib Mahfouz Cafés are located. After class, my colleagues and I frequented these cafés to smoke shisha (Egyptian Colloquial for hooka or water pipe with flavored tobacco), discuss homework, practice Arabic and/or simply enjoy the hustle-bustle of the local merchants selling their wares. Many times I ended up talking with locals, because people are always interested in knowing why foreigners want to study Arabic. Egyptians are extremely friendly people and they were very patient in correcting my pronunciation!
Overall, I'm glad that I decided to undertake the study of Arabic at ALI, mainly because of the quality of its program and the faculty's dedication to students and their learning. One can make rapid progress by taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by ALI, AUC and the vibrant city of Cairo. I would never trade my experience for anything. Shisha, kilkader (hibiscus tea), `asiir 'asab (sugar cane juice), felucca rides, jasmine flowers at Khan-El Khalili and the beauty of the Nile beckon me back!
Azza Basarudin is a graduate student in UCLA's interdepartmental Women's Studies program. Her doctoral research focuses on a comparative study of Southeast Asia and the Arab world, exploring the strategies employed by two groups, the Women and Memory Forum in Egypt and Sisters In Islam in Malaysia, to reposition women in their respective communities in the contexts of religion (reinterpretation of religious texts and Islamic traditions) and Arab-Islamic history and cultural traditions (construction of alternative memory and history). Azza returned to Cairo in Summer 2004 to study Egyptian Colloquial at ALI.