Egypt's Written Word, Increasingly In English

Families of certain social standing in Egypt often educate their children in English. Publishing houses too are getting in on the Anglo influence, publishing literary works and texts written directly in English.

A library in eastern Cairo
A library in eastern Cairo
Rowan El Shimi


CAIRO — I was born in Egypt, raised in Egypt, went to a school with a curriculum that was in both English and Arabic, and yet I consider English my first language in writing. When I publish an article in Arabic, it's usually a translation, and I post it on Facebook with pride at having achieved the impossible.

But even so, for my generation and the generation or two after mine — of a certain socio-economic background — my Arabic writing is acceptable (with a very skilled editor involved). For many others it would be even more difficult to produce the Arabic content I proudly share.

The demand for alternative education emerged because of the deterioration of Egypt’s state education system and its outdated modes of instruction in the last decades of the 20th century.

Foreign-language schools teaching French, English and German have existed in Egypt since the 19th century under Mohammad Ali Pasha's rule. Between the 1950s and 1970s their presence was more limited, partly because of a more nationalist approach during Egypt's socialist era under President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the pan-Arab movement, which rejected Western influences in the wake of colonialism. But it was also because the state curriculum then was less old-fashioned and more successful at fulfilling the needs of Egypt's students, then much smaller in number.

Egypt's changing economics and politics in the 1970s, through President Anwar Sadat's open-door, free-market policies, created the need for a different kind of education. This is when language schools, which follow the state education system but with a stronger emphasis on foreign-language study, and international schools, mostly embassy-affiliated, became a sought-after educational option for parents who could afford them.

After the Gulf War in 1991, two international schools moved their operations from Kuwait to Cairo — the American International School (AIS) and the Modern English School (MES) — according to Noha El Hennawy, a journalist and filmmaker who made an in-depth hour-long documentary film on Egypt's international schools last year.

This move opened up the market in the 1990s for schools following international curricula, such as American or British. These curricula were far more progressive in their learning techniques and content than their Egyptian counterparts but came at a much heftier price.

In the film, Hennawy interviews students and parents who speak highly of their choices of schools, where children and young people learn to debate, work on projects collaboratively, write essays, conduct research, ask provocative questions that go beyond what their textbooks cover, and read.

In contrast, the Egyptian system is based entirely on mid-year and end-of-year exams, such that students wind up spending the whole year memorizing their texts in order to pass on to the next level.

Identity and language

While these international schools cater to less than 1% of Egypt's students, according to the education ministry, they still educate hundreds of thousands of them. The schools emphasize teaching in foreign languages — predominantly English — and Arabic becomes an elective "pass or fail" course that students don't take very seriously.

Most graduates find themselves fluent in English, highly skilled and capable of innovative thinking, but with one primary disadvantage: a disconnect from their mother tongue. This extends to the culture they're exposed to. They rarely watch Arabic films, read Arabic novels or listen to Arabic music. They consume American and European culture and arts instead, through satellite television, cinemas and the Internet.

"Egyptian identity is at high risk," says a parent of an international school student says in Hennawy's film. "Their aspirations become focused abroad, not in Egypt."

Amer Fathy, an Arabic teacher in an international school, says in the film that it's not just the schools that are to blame for the lack of Arabic teaching. It's also that national curriculum and text books are repulsive to students. Hennawy agrees, adding that young people graduating from experimental and government schools also have a poor grasp of Arabic, not just their international school counterparts.

"Education of the Arabic language is in general decline," she says. "It's the way the language is taught that's the issue."

This rings true to me. In my school, I was taught arts and humanities, such as history and social sciences, in Arabic, and sciences and math in English. Yet I couldn't comprehend why there was such emphasis on memorizing texts and grammar rules when the key to truly understanding a language is to practice reading, writing your own texts and reciting them.

The rise of English publishing

Rowayat, which is one of the vendors at the upcoming Mada Marketplace event, emerged in 2013 as a quarterly literary journal in English. Founder Sherine Elbanhawy says that one of Rowayat's goals is to provide young people with English-language stories but in the context of their own culture.

"They become very disconnected from their culture," she says of Egyptian students. "Everything they're reading about is coming from other places."

Rowayat is distributed in Egypt, the United States, the UK and Canada, so Egyptians who prefer to read in English can express themselves and consume local culture. One issue specifically targeted 8- to 14-year-olds. Much of its content consisted of fairy tales rewritten to bring them into a more Egyptian context.

"We wanted to get the kids to express themselves according to their culture and identity," says Elbanhawy. "To make a character like Goha an eighth-century Arabic literary character who has been Egyptianized for example, appealing to the kids, even if in English."

Elbanhawy points out that there have always been Egyptians able to write in foreign languages. Waguih Ghali published his famous novel Beer in the Snooker Club in English almost 50 years ago, for example, and Rowayat's first issue offered a tribute to the late writer.

While admitting that English, as the predominant language for a certain segment of society, has become more widespread in the last few decades, Elbanhawy says foreign languages have always been a significant part of Egyptian culture. "We've always had some form of colonialism or foreign regime occupying Egypt," she explains. "Egypt has a culture that's strong enough to exist on its own, while always including other cultures. We forget that sometimes."

She says Egyptians tend to focus on their Arab identity, but there is much more to show. "Our hybridity is an interesting way to connect with the West, or with others in general," she says. "I believe arts and literature is a more effective way of connecting than through academia or politics. For Rowayat, it's really important to show this part of Egypt to the world."

Rowayat's journals include short stories, poetry, book reviews, interviews, excerpts and translations. But Rowayat is not the first to focus on English publishing in Egypt. Both Saray Publishing and Shabab Books have several English-language novels by Egyptian authors, although the latter is no longer in business.

The most established and well-distributed English publisher in Egypt is AUC Press, another Mada Marketplace vendor. With more than 60 years of publishing experience, and operating under the umbrella of the American University in Cairo, AUC Press has published hundreds of books in a wide range of categories, including academic books on arts, architecture, Egyptology, history, politics and economics, travel books, photo books, Arabic-language study books and Arabic literature in translation.

"Our number-one priority is the credibility of the quality of the work we publish," says Basma al-Manialawy, AUC Press marketing manager. "We have a very strong editorial program, whether in terms of literature or academic books, with a wide array of translators who are very strong in their field."

AUC Press has been Egypt's primary English-language literary publisher since 1985, as well as serving as the global agent and translator for Egypt's most celebrated author, Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. It publish translations by other established writers such as Alaa Al-Aswany and Palestinian author Mourid Barghouti, but also first and second novels by emerging authors.

Maniawly says the publishing house is expanding its literature program to target younger readers. "Publishing authors who write in English could be a good starting point to enter this market," she says. "A lot of people of a certain socio-economic class in Egypt now express themselves better in English than in Arabic. Many of our authors have been older and more traditional, and we think this shift will give our fiction program a younger, more modern feel."

Other publishers are working to help Egyptian writers find their voice. Linda Cleary, a British poet and spoken-word artist living in Egypt, has been teaching creative writing in Cairo since 2010. Her students vary in age, with her youngest 15 and oldest 85.

Cleary says she’s taught thousands of students over the years, with an average of 30 new students each month. She connects this literary blossoming to the revolution.

"The writing scene is happening," she says. "There are many writers here. For those writing in Arabic, there is a wide, strong publishing scene, but for those who want to publish in English, their options are still slim. It's a growing market."

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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]


Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.



• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.



Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.


The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️


€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.


Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️


"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.


Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

DO YOU FIND PEOPLE WHO WRITE IN ALL CAPS PARTICULARLY ANNOYING? Feel free to COMPLAIN, or otherwise let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

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