Yani (Alexandria/Cairo Day 4)


The Mediterranean is a startling blue. Looking off my balcony, in the following order, I can see the Four Seasons' pool, the Corniche, the beach, and the Sea. I can bask in this for about ten minutes before I have to check out and return to the American center. Clearly the Embassy gets a great deal on rates, but I feel sort of bad about being in the nicest hotel I've ever been in, but using it as a cot like I would the Broadway Hollywood Budget Motel. Later that day, I'm told in no uncertain terms by my Egyptian hosts that this is nonsense, that life is to be enjoyed, and that God did not intend us to feel guilty. I Ike these people.


We return to the American Center to see the results of the impossible missions that we set the students upon. About half the students are still there in the Center's computer lab. The other half are nowhere to be found, but the report comes in that they're running a little late, as they're still uploading their projects. It's clear that no one slept that night, but spirits are high.


While everyone finishes up, I'm shown to a room where I'll be interviewed for TV, and the crew is none other than the team we had lunch with the day before. I'm no celebrity, but I'm used to crafting my statements on the fly so that they appear in sound bite format. I've been taken out of context enough times by student journalists and sloppy editors alike, so I'm careful. I compose myself, take a breath and sit down in front the lights. They explain that they'll ask a question and that they'd like me to speak for about five minutes or so. One question. Five minutes. I'm used to a barrage of short, piddling questions that are clearly framing an angle that the interviewer has already decided upon. Instead, they ask me to talk at length about the program we're on.


Finally, we're ready for the students to present their work. I'll just cut to the chase: it was staggering. Rough around the edges, sure. But let me be clear. These people showed me some really REALLY weak work last night, with nothing but a desire to make a real film. They had no equipment but cell phones and whatever camcorders they could borrow. They had no sound equipment. They had demo versions of consumer editing software running under Windows XP on six year old computers. All I did was point them in a direction and give them a crazy set of constraints to force them to break out of their assumptions of form and process, and each team of five turned around and made a tight little piece that was able to convey a sense of space and emotion and purpose, and feel like a quasi-professional piece.


Not one bit of whining. Not one excuse. Not one complaint about the lack of gear. No group infighting. But there were two things I really appreciated... First, the joy that these students had in the pursuit. And second, they trusted me. They trusted that I had the experience and brains to give them this project for a specific reason, to guide them to the place they needed to be. Some semesters I feel like I spend so much time selling a project to my students, it can get exhausting. It's like, didn't you come to college to learn to get better at things by taking classes from an experts? Do you not believe I'm an expert, that I have some perspective you may not have that could inform your growth?


Maybe I give my students too much time to work on projects, maybe i should keep them dizzy and off balance to combat the student-as-consumer syndrome. Maybe it's the grades, none of these Egyptian students were going to be evaluated by me, so there's nothing to lose. I try to devalue the meaning of grades to out more focus on the process rather than outcome, but maybe that approach doesn't work as well any more. I'm stumped.


It takes a long time to say goodbye. We've all gotten very attached to each other in a very intense short period, and sew don't want to leave. Lots of trading of email addresses, lots of Facebook friending on phones. Lots of feeling like we're about to hug, but then not, but then almost, but then not again.


And on to the Biblioteca Alexandrina. Not the original, mind you. That one was destroyed a couple thousand years ago. This is a bright, shiny new one right on the banks of the Mediterranean. We are met at the doors and whisked past a line of people waiting, around the metal detectors, and straight to an auditorium for a nine-screen video presentation for just the two of us. It becomes clear that we're on a tour of the Biblioteca that they give to heads of state and other dignitaries. A flotilla of tour guides take us through every section... the library proper, the ancient documents, museum of antiquities, art galleries. Each section of the tour we had completely to ourselves. I've never felt so famous.


We had time before catching the train to have a coffee with Samia. Sweet, sweet Samia, she maintained a Buddha-like calmness as she kept us on schedule to the minute through our can-you-believe-it less than twenty-four hours. It's a Cinnabon. But it overlooks the Sea. Fuck it, American coffee it is. They make a good approximation.


Sandra tells us a story of her own trip to the mall to get shwarma at the food court last night (after I was very much asleep). She has this ability to strike up a conversation with literally anyone and sustain it until she has smashed any barriers of formality to dust. In the span of minutes she managed to befriend a person in the food court and end up having dinner with him and his brother and mother (who didn't speak English). After a while their conversation turned to religion, and he asked Sandra is she was Christian. Guess again, she said. Buddhist. No. Hindu? Jewish. Really? Really. Just don't tell my mother.


A great story. Samia explains that Egyptians don't have any problems with Jews, that they are able to separate the religion from any policies of Israel that they may be opposed to (I'm curious about the details of this, since there are maybe a hundred Jews total in all of Egypt right now). She goes on to talk about the current tensions between the country's Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian church. There's one mouthy bishop who's been casting aspersions on Islam by pointing out what he sees are logical loopholes in the Quran and hadith. You know, because the Bible is just rock solid if you're going for pure logic. The Coptic Pope has been pretty clear that they are not in the business of playing "whose religion makes more sense?" and that the rank and file better get with the program and shut the hell up, but that hasn't assuaged a whole bunch of offended Muslims. "None of this has happened before," says Samia, "never. We've all gotten along for so long. The Quran is very clear, yani, that we have to use our minds, to think above all."


Yani. I've gotten used to the word, woven into everything. It's sort of a fill-in word that works like a cross between "you know" and "it's like" and "I mean" and "um". It's a great word, and Samia says it more than all other words put together.


She looks over her pecan bun. "But, yani, if everyone did that and got along perfectly, it would be paradise. And we can't have paradise here."


"Yani," Sandra intones, completely misusing it.


"Yaaaaaaaaneeeeeeeeeeee," Samia agrees.