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I was recently invited to make a guest appearance in a High School Social Studies & Politics class in Vermont by the teacher who follows my twitter feed and reads my blog. I was deeply humbled by the invite and by the fact that the teacher had gone beyond the call of duty to ask someone from the Middle East to answer student’s questions.

I liked the idea a lot from an educator’s perspective. What better way to build bridges and to shatter false images and misconceptions painted by the media than by exposing students to someone who is Egyptian and actually lives there?

A trip to Vermont would have been ideal but out of the question at the beginning of the academic year, so thanks to modern technology, I could be in two places at once with the help of Skype. After  a couple of test runs and agreeing on a day and time that suited both time zones, the questions which the students wanted to ask were sent to me in advance so that I could mull over how I would answer them and what I would say. As well as checking information and sources to make sure the information that I was discussing was indeed factual.

As the day approached my nerves were on edge as well as boiling over with excitement. I was nervous because I was stepping out of my comfort zone and talking to a group of young strangers thousands of miles away and I felt a bit like a diplomat representing my country. I posted the event in my group on facebook so that my readers would know. I was quite flattered by all the words of encouragement from friends and acquaintences who sent me words of encouragment and told me how proud they were of me for doing this.

The day of the interview I was invited to my sister’s in-laws for brunch. I was terrified that I would not make it home in time for 3pm, so I took my laptop and all my research with me just in case, (and it was a good thing I did too). I have to thank my brother-in-law and his family for allowing me to take up a corner of their sitting room while they session took place. I am very grateful.

Friday 28th of September at 3P.M Cairo local time the Skype video call began …                                                                                                                                          (I can’t remember all of my answers verbatim, but I will do my best to recall my responses as best I can)

The teacher that I had been communicating with was present along with another Social Studies teacher, the Principle of the school and the students        (talk about nerve-racking!!).  For 45 minutes I was asked questions and discussed Egypt and the region.

The first question I was asked was ‘Why did you agree to Skype with us?’

My answer was simple, Why not? How else are we going to build bridges and destroy misconceptions if we don’t learn from one another?

The second question was ‘Would there be any repercussions for speaking with us?”

No, not in my case, I’m not a political blogger and I don’t write anything negative about the government, the president or religion so I have not been red flagged.

What is the current political situation in Egypt?

Well, we finally have a president! Part of the parliament has been dissolved, the president tried to overrule the decision and allow them to be reinstated but he was over ruled again by the Supreme Court, so we don’t really know what’s going to happen with them.  Then there’s the writing of the new constitution.

Can women run for public office in Egypt?

Yes, they can. We had a woman named Bothaina who was in the presidential elections but, she didn’t get enough votes to carry her through. We also have other women in parliament.

 

What was it like for you during the Arab Spring?

(Never a simple answer and I couldn’t help but let out a big sigh)

Having lived in Saudi Arabia and remembering the signs of what happened during the Gulf War, I knew something was going to happen. I started to read and follow many of the revolutionaries on twitter. I prepared myself for the worst, made sure I had provisions in the house and on the 28th of January I asked a Canadian friend and colleague of mine to come and stay with me because she didn’t know what was happening and didn’t speak the language. There isn’t a word in the dictionary to describe what we experience. We had no clue what was going to happen from one minute to the other. There were riot police and then the police were dissolved. Saturday 13000 prisoners were released from prison taking the ammunition that was in the stations and that’s when chaos broke loose. Boys your age and younger were out in the streets armed with whatever they could find, planks of wood, kitchen knives, candle stick holders, Molotov cocktail bombs to defend their neighborhood and their homes from petit thieves and dangerous criminals who were heavily armed. It was a terrifying experience. Things have calmed down a lot since then, but even months afterwards you always looked over your shoulder.

How do Egyptian people view the United States? Is there a difference between how they view the government and the American People?

Egyptian’s don’t hate Americans. They don’t dislike foreigners. We need foreigners to come to Egypt for our tourism. Tourism is our source of money (I had meant to say income, but the word escaped me). We just don’t like your foreign policy.

(I am sure many will disagree with me on this point, but that is how I perceive things to be)

There were many questions that followed these but I cannot remember their chronological order or how I answered them.

While answering the questions I didn’t notice how fast the time had passed and when the bell rang I couldn’t believe a class period had flown by. I wasn’t sure what the student’s impression of the video call was. It was hard for me to see their faces and to know if they found it engaging or not. Once the student left the class I spoke with both teachers for a little while longer. I won’t know the verdict on the experience until next week, but I did get an email from the class teacher the following day. It read;
“Hi Irish!

A number of students have come to me and said they enjoyed speaking with you and wondering if they would be able to do it again. That’s a good sign. Our principal who left three quarters of the way through was very impressed with you and happy that you too took the time to speak with our students. He actually said he got chills up his spine a couple of times when you were speaking. Again that is a good sign. Thanks so much for taking the time to do what you did. It’s a great learning experience for myself and my students. Hopefully we can find some other ways we can break down some of the misconceptions of both Egyptians and Americans with our students. If there is anything you can think of or anyway we can bring students together through this source of media please let me know. “

An even further update on how the skype talk went;

” You have received many positive comments and none negative. Greg who you talked with after the class felt that you had a great persona on camera. I agree with him on that and its not easy to do on skype.

I spoke to one student’s mother who said her son came home and talked  about the class’s conversation with you. He said he really liked it.  This is from a student who usually doesn’t appear to interested in  class.
The students commented on your English and how good it was.. They wondered if it would be hard to understand you. They all said they would like to do it again.

I hope you would be willing. As I told you I think if they get more comfortable with you and you them it would be interesting to see where the conversation leads just in regards to daily life in Egypt and the United States. Perhaps the average person’s goals, dreams, hopes for the future etc, so that they see people are not really that different regardless of what country they live in.

I asked them if they felt you had answered their questions and they felt you had done a good job of that. I heard them laugh a number of times during your talk due to the expression on your face in regards to a question or answer. This indicates that they picked up on your facial expressions and body language. I believe they felt that you were much like them instead of this perception they may of you. “

Reflecting on what has happened to EGC

The news of the historic school EGC being turned in to an ‘Experimental’ school came as a shock to not only the families, students and staff working at the school but to Alexandrians. No one is clear why the Minister of Education came to make such a rash decision as such. The rumor going around the city is that the accountant(s) and the board of governors have swindled the money from the amalgamated trust fund that had been set up for three English schools of Alexandria.  The English Girls School, (E.G.C, which Queen Sophia attended) and the British Boys School, (E.B.S) and the famous institution Victoria College (where King Hussein and Egyptian actor Omar Sherif attended)
Since my last post, I have heard through the grape-vine that all the teachers who previously had worked there have been dismissed, which is just wonderful because now the rate of unemployment is going to go up. The new administration locked out the students who had been attending the school, to teach them a lesson. The lesson that they are meant to learn from being locked out in the street is not to go against the Minister’s decision and protesting will not be tolerated.
So, now you have teachers out of work and hundreds of kids out of school! If these students are not permitted to re-enter the school, a bidding war may ensue. Schools unaffected by the decree will probably enroll the exiled students to the parents who are willing to pay the highest registration fees. The families of which these students come from are not from the rich class, they are from working class/middle class families that can not afford the International School fees.

The rumor circulating at the moment is that the newly in placed ‘Experimental’ schools are charging a tuition fee as low as 1000LE (which is approx 175$ or 112 Sterling Pounds) which means any Tom, Dick or Harry can put their child in that school. If that is the correct sum of which the schools is asking for, can someone explain how the maintenance of the structure will be kept, how much are they paying the cleaning staff, newly appointed teachers and administration? The historical building will be in ruins in less than 5 years time. Let me not even think of what the quality of education will be. It was bad before the decision was made, but I don’t think there will be any words to describe the quality that is to follow.

As an educator, I can’t even begin to fathom the trauma and stress the teachers and the students are going through and just a month or two before they are to sit their mid year exams? How could anyone of them even contemplate opening a book to study or revise the subjects, when their school as been snatched right from under their feet.
Could the ‘Minister of Education’ not have waited till the end of the academic year, so that the student’s academics wouldn’t have been disrupted and it would have also given the parents and the students the opportunity to look and enroll in other schools for the following year? That is if they would have been given fair warning.

No matter what angle you look at the situation, it could definitely have been handled with more decorum and sensitivity towards the teachers and the students.
I was browsing the net, trying to find updates on the situation and I came across a blog written by an Alexandrian and former student. In her blog she mentioned that the minister had accused the students of the schools to be from ‘riche well to do’ families. I don’t know who his sources are but the students who are attending the government controlled school are middle class citizens. If they were from the crème de la crème of Egyptian Society they would probably be in private or International Schools.

http://egyptianchronicles.blogspot.com/2010/12/can-egyptian-people-be-like-egc-girls.html

Which leads me to a hovering question, could this possibly be an act towards eradicating what is left of Alexandria’s Middle working class families?

If, I was a minister of education, MY sole concern would be the welfare of the students. I can’t help but think, what will become of the students who are due to sit Aadadeya, Sanaweya Aamah (Government Exams students sit in Grades 5, 11 and 12) and IGCSEs? Will they have to lose and entire year before they can sit the exams? If that is the way it is meant to be, then it is in my humble opinion, that the actions taken are education sacrilege and irresponsible, as well as an insult to the art and institution of what education stands for, (but that is just me).

What can be done to save the school? Would declare the building a National Land mark or heritage site work (or is that only taken seriously in the western world?) Would raising funds to buy the school back from the government be another option? Have International Media Coverage to add pressure to the Ministry? Can you repeal a minister’s decision? Will there be more schools to fall victim to the same fate?

 Brief history of E.G.C

http://baheyeldin.com/places/egypt/e-g-c/e-g-c-english-girls-college-or-el-nasr-chatby-college.html

1- EGC - Yehia GABR presents the EGC, Alexandria – the finest school in the world
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4x4v9XCi2w

2- video clips about the protests
http://www.masry-now.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1115%3A-qq-q-qq&catid=51&Itemid=162

3- ‘we are not experimental’ (E.B.S – E.G.C) facebook group
 
http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=lf#!/pages/ahna-msh-tjrybyh-EBS-EGC/171491752889818?v=wall

This is just ridiculous!! I have been back a week and I still can’t get a regular sleeping pattern. Today! I woke up at 11am. Only because I didn’t get to sleep until after 3am! I did some chores around the house. Did Tai Chi (save the jokes about it being for old people, you try doing it. It’s not as easy as it looks!), practiced a few Salsa combinations (the dance, not the sauce), had something to eat and did a few other things. Here I am wide awake at 2:20am on line!!

So, before I decided to call it a night I flipped to a channel on Nile Sat, called ‘Rotana’ or ‘Fox’ and there was this series that happened to be on called ‘Odd Girl Out’. It was about a senior in High School who was being bullied by a group of girls. The worst thing was that this group of girls happened to lure her best friend since childhood. These girls took bullying to a whole new level. It used to be just with words and maybe totally ignoring the victim’s existence, but that wasn’t the case with this bunch of girls. Today’s generation takes it to a whole new level. Unbeknown to a lot of Parents and Teachers, there is a new form of bullying. It’s called ‘Cyber Bullying’, which can mean creating websites with super imposed images, animations, graphics, spreading of very nasty rumours along with the more familiar and traditional ways of torturing and tormenting a young adolescent.  The worst thing about cyber bullying is that it is forwarded from one person to another so quickly that it spreads like a wild fire. To delete or get rid of the hurtful material is not an easy feat either but it can be done.

Every school in the world has a group of girls like this who decide who is ‘Hip’ and who is ‘#hit’. They are easy to recognise. They are THE MOST POPULAR girls in school and they are usually very good looking and have every guy under their spell and what they say, goes. These girls have a  favorite past time too. They single out and prey on pretty, nice, kind, naive and smart girls. The girl is usually someone they are deeply threatened by. Their idea of fun is to torment them in any and every creative cruel and wicked way they possibly can to make the poor girl break down. The more tormented she appears to be, the more it fuels them to do more. They feed off of her misery and it makes them stronger.

Watching it brought back memories of when I first moved here  to Egypt and I had a run in with a close knit group of girls who decided that I would be their playground. I was 12 years old, new to the city and to the school and I knew absolutely no one and they were ALL in my class. EVERY class, there was no avoiding them. They didn’t like that I was getting all the attention and that I was fair skinned, spoke English better than they did, had freckles and that I was nice. I mostly ignored it and I tried to be nice to everyone, but there reaches a point where you have to stand up and say enough is enough. I did, it just got worse with every year, but  I endured it for three years until it got way out of hand. My Mum (God Bless her heart), decided enough was enough and pulled me out of the school I was in and sent me to another.

I recently bumped in to the leader of the pack this past July at a restaurant at the Four Seasons. What was Ironic is that she came up to ME and greeted ME. The ‘power’ she used to possess and the image of who or what she thought she was had long gone. I couldn’t help but inwardly smile. From what I could gather is that she completed University, married a short, chubby rich guy a few years older than herself, popped out a few kids, has a few wrinkles and is now divorced. While I still look like I’m in my early twenties, I live alone, I have 2 University degrees, I have a great future in my line of profession, have lots of hobbies, have done probably more than she has in her life and most importantly I am Happy with who I am and who I have become.

On reflection, they probably did me a HUGE favor by choosing me as their pray. If it hadn’t been for them, I probably would never have been enrolled at the school I moved to. Which is where I was privileged to have had the best educators I have ever come across in all my years of being a student, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t smooth sailing, there were lots of hickups along the way. The lesson I learned there I still remember and use to this very day. Some of the people I made friends and came to know I am still in touch with today.

It was a win, win situation for me! It just didn’t seem like it at the time.

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