After reading about my trips and excursions throughout Egypt and across the Middle East, perhaps some of you are wondering if I actually have to do anything here, or if I have just been given a license to freely wonder around the Middle East for a year. So I thought that it was about time to let you know that there actually is a purpose to my extended presence in Egypt—being a Fulbright grantee is not completely just fun and games, there is a little work involved. :)
Fulbright has been around for quite sometime now. In fact, it was established in the mid-1940s by J. William Fulbright to fund the “promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” Over the years it has developed into a massive program that sends US citizens all over the world and then invites a greater number of our foreign counterparts to come to the US, usually as part of a college or graduate education.
Although there are different types of Fulbrighters (for doctoral research, teaching English, etc) I am here as a Fulbright student and spend the year first studying Arabic and then implementing a nine-month individual research project.
The Arabic portion of my grant was intense, with classes 4-5 hours a day, five days a week but the reward was well worth it. Studying in Egypt gave me my first significant chance to learn a local Arabic dialect. It was a liberating experience after having spent years in the shackles of the complex grammar and precise voweling of standard Arabic (for a better perspective on this, ready Caity’s blog post here). Now I can actually speak with people on the street, in shops and in taxis, hearing their thoughts about politics, religion and their families.
After three months, I finished my Arabic studies (for the time being anyway, Arabic is a language you study forever…) and started work on my project. After months of brainstorming and discussion the previous year, I had decided to focus on the publications of al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world and perhaps the most respected voice on Islamic learning in the Sunni world. However, as Islam has no central religious hierarchy (no Pope equivalent), when Muslims are looking for religious guidance they have many learned sheikhs at many different institutions to choose from—with even greater variety now due to increased internet access growing popularity of Islamic televangelists. I was interested to research what role al-Azhar played in the lives of Egyptians in Cairo, given the rise of these other actors and the institution’s close and at times controversial relationship with the state.
I spent the first month doing background research, reading the history of the institution and looking into a number of issues that have a strong resonance in Egyptian’s religious lives so that I could speak with them about topics that were important to them, and not just to me. I had just scheduled my first interview when the revolution began and I remember getting a phone call from Maha after the police had disappeared throughout Egypt saying that it might be a good idea to postpone the interview for the time being. She was right and I was evacuated four days later.
While in Nairobi (our chosen evacuation point), I found out that I was admitted into an MA program in Teaching Social Studies in Secondary School, starting in the fall. With a clear idea of my future plans and greatly influenced by an incredible education program I visited in Uganda, I came back to Egypt two months later with a new project idea in mind. Fulbright, perhaps realizing that the Revolution and our two months off had most of us returning with a new direction, accepted my proposed change.
More in-line with my future plans, I am now studying Islamic Education in Egypt, specifically looking at moral education. I was inspired by the incredible way that the PSA program in Uganda approached the education of our whole being, not just providing the participants with information to be digested and regurgitated on a test. The program seamlessly wove in questions and discussion about human nature, prejudice and self-reflection into lessons on math, science, agriculture and history. This is in contrast to my experience in the US education system, which, with few exceptions, has a fragmented approach to education where none of the subjects relate to each other and students are seen as empty vessels to be filled up with information that often does not relate to their lives, aspirations or the world around them.
The belief in the US that state and religion should be kept separate has also led to the removal of any classes relating to morals/ethics/values, at times replacing them instead with civics, which is more interested in teaching the functions of the government and our place in the system than developing our ability to understand how our actions, beliefs and decisions can positively or negatively affect our lives and our communities.
With these ideas in mind I chose to study Islamic education, which in theory, has a more developed sense of educating the entire person, helping them to develop character as well as knowledge, even with specific words in Arabic for each type of teaching. But as everything sounds good in theory, I want to see whether or not these ideas are being implemented in Egyptian schools today and I will spend the next few months reading text books and talking with students and teachers to find out. In the end, I hope to learn something that I can bring back to the States, something that will inform my future study and teaching so that I can help my students develop as people and not just good date-memorizers and test-takers.
And that is ultimately the purpose of Fulbright, the cultural exchange. If I had any doubts of its importance, Mahmoud cleared them up. He is the son of a very sweet plumber I met a few months ago and I have since been adopted into his family. As Mahmoud is currently unemployed (like an unfortunately large portion of Egyptian youth) he asked me if I could teach him English to help him get a good job here. During one of our classes, we were talking about differences between Egypt and the US and he said to me, “I think that it is very good that people from America come here and Egyptians go there, we learn a lot from each other.”
Thank you Mahmoud, Mr. Fulbright would be proud. :)