Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Teaching in Egypt (6): Cairo on the sea

It can be very challenging communicating with people when you only barely speak each other’s languages. At the language institute, this is common day reality with the students in the lower levels. It can lead to some pretty odd conversations.

I was doing exams with my lower level students and with one of them Babylon almost won.

“I like to run”, the student stated after I had asked him about his hobbies.  

“Ok. How often do you do that?”

“Three hours every day.”

“Excuse me?”

“Three hours every day.”

“Three HOURS? Every DAY?”

“Yes, three hours every day.”

I checked with him in Arabic whether he really meant three hours and not something a bit less insane, but yes, he did mean three hours. Every single day. He seemed to find it completely normal too. Sporty guy.

“Are your training for a marathon?”

“No. I just like running.”

I decided not to pursue the time-issue any further. Each to their own, I suppose.

“So”, I continued, “where do you run?”

“Next to the sea.”

This conversation was rapidly taking a Lynchian turn. “There is no sea in Cairo”, I replied.

“Yes there is.”

“No there isn’t. Where do you live?”, I asked, thinking that maybe he lived somewhere in between Cairo and the North coast and ran to the sea and back daily. Heck, if you run three hours every day, you might as well have a destination.

“In live in Giza”, he answered, which is a suburb in Cairo.

“There is no sea in Cairo”, I reiterated. “No sea in Giza.” This last sentence I pronounced with extended pauses in between the words and hand gestures mimicking waves.

The student looked at me as if I had suddenly become retarded.

He resorted to Arabic. “Bahr”, he said, which means ‘sea’.

Having seen the results of the abysmal Egyptian education system these past few months, I can actually imagine some Egyptian English instructor teaching his students the word sea instead of river. ‘The Nile sea.’ Makes sense.

I corrected my student, but this is where his pride kicked in. Egyptians do not like to be wrong and they certainly don’t like to be corrected.


“No no, I was taught in school ‘bahr’ means river, so ‘bahr’ means river. Bahr. River.” It’s situations like these where my lack of patience unfortunately gets the better of me.

“Listen”, I snapped, whipping out my Arabic dictionary, pointing to the definition of ‘nahr’, “Ri-ver”. I guess the fire shooting out from my eyes was his cue to give in.

“Ok”, he said, nodding his head dejectedly. 

Glad to have ended this Babylonian confusion and slightly ashamed of my patronising behaviour, I inadvertently passed the guy for his exam, despite my intention to fail him based on his overall poor abilities in English. Guess it was his lucky day.


The whole episode reminded me of a language school friend, who once held a 10-minute presentation on prostitutes, while he meant to use the Arabic word for saga.

“Prostitutes are very common in Danish culture. They are an old tradition that we are very proud of. Many people use them in their daily life.”

I’m pretty sure that when he was corrected, he accepted his mistake straight away. Us Northern Europeans have no pride.

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