The entry below was submitted by Area & Arabic Language Studies Spring 2013 Program participant Samual Hobert. A student of International Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, in this post Sam reflects on his invitation to hold a discussion with a student club at Al Azhar University in Cairo.
This past Monday, I had the privilege of lecturing at Al-Azhar University’s Faculty of Translation. Founded in 970 A.D., Al-Azhar is one of the world’s oldest universities and one of Egypt’s biggest. A language-learning buddy of mine, Mustafa, invited me to speak in front of the student organization “Spread Your Skills.” The organization, commonly referred to as ”SYS”, was launched by a group of Al-Azhari students to further develop and improve their English language proficiency, a skill increasingly needed in Egypt’s shrinking jobs market. Mustafa, while a member himself, leads the advanced class of students in weekly sessions. Excited as I entered the doors of the school’s building, little did I know how much of an effect this short visit would have not only on my outlook of Egypt but my understanding of education’s power as well.
As I entered the fourth-floor classroom, the greetings I received were sincere and the smiles were wide. Conversation was strictly limited to English and any Arabic was punished by a 1 Egyptian Pound fine – enforced by Mustafa – put towards funding of group outings throughout Cairo. Taking my place behind the professor’s desk in the front of the class I realized that while I had a public-speaking class under my belt, nothing could have prepared my for this moment as forty sets of eyes intently looked onto me, notebooks open, pencils in hand waiting for me to begin.
For forty-five minutes I spoke about the after-effects of 9-11 on American society, the Afghanistan and Iraq War, the Patriot Act, current domestic policy debates, the Great Recession, America’s political crisis, income disparity and the recent Presidential Elections. Why this time period? For all of us in the room, we had grown up in a world defined by September 11th. For me , 9-11 had altered my way of life from changes in airport security and civil liberties, to what I read in the news and thought of as the “bad guy.” Post 9-11 it was more likely to be a man wearing a Turban then a man wearing baggy jeans. I wanted my Egyptian counterparts to better understand the struggles and triumphs the American people have faced since that Tuesday morning, through the eyes of a relate-able college counterpart – my eyes. Following my conclusion and a brief “Q & A”, a spirited conversation on the perception of Arabs in American mass media ensued, and the importance of cross-cultural understanding in its role of promoting tolerance and defeating ignorance among cultures.
Later that evening, I spent time reflecting on my experience. First and foremost, the power behind education is greatly under-appreciated. For me, never-before had I been put in a situation where I was the sole authoritative source of information. This power is immense and I felt a moral obligation, a duty, to present accurate facts and paint an honest “bigger picture” appropriately analyzing and connecting the dots in an unbiased and objective fashion. Why is this so important? In twenty, thirty, or forty years, these students will be the world’s next generation of state-officials, industry experts and community leaders. Many will grow up to hold positions of power, and an honest, objective outlook of the world is essential to progressing as a common people. If this view is biased or inaccurate, conflicts will continue, and problems will only compound.
Second, there are many serious social and economic problems Egypt is facing today. The Egyptian Pound continues to fall, unemployment is sky-high, food and gas prices are climbing, sectarian violence is present, the infrastructure crumbling, and the politicians deadlocked. Egypt’s outlook is bleak. However, if there is one source of hope for the country, it is in its students. The enthusiasm and love Egyptian students show for learning – throughout all grades – is amazing, a source of light in the night. As demonstrated at the SYS event, students here continue to want to improve themselves whether in public speaking, language or engineering skills. This mentality, one of self improvement, coupled with a willingness to seek change, and expound effort for it is what will raise this country back from it’s knees and onto its feet.