I’ve officially made it through my first week of class at AUC! Technically, I haven’t been to one of my classes yet and it was a sort of mini-week, but I’ll take what I can get. It’s been a strange few days, for multiple reasons.
First off, the university system here is completely different from what I’m used to in Santa Barbara, regardless of the cultural differences. UCSB is a big school with about 22,000 students, and a quarter system calendar. It also has pretty large class sizes- I’m used to lectures of anywhere from 100-800 students. My smallest class was always Arabic, and even that had around 20 students. My classes here seem tiny in comparison. Every single one has between 7 and 20 other students, and a few of my professors have even complained about how overcrowded that is. I’m not sure how I’ll like it yet. I usually actually prefer huge classes, because it forces the professor to be organized and sure of their material, since they have to please so many people. In my experience, a smaller class means more uncertainty and less structure. But hey- this is a completely different university, so we’ll see how it goes.
The students here are entertaining, to say the least. It’s a strange dynamic between the international and Egyptian students. The locals tend to be fashionably dressed, with girls wearing strappy sandals and designer-label hijabs, and guys in nice jeans and flashy sunglasses. At their worst, they have a reputation for being wealthy, label-obsessed Egyptians who are here to enjoy time away from home. At best, they are mostly engineering and architecture students on scholarship. During one of my first days here, a returning student told me about how you can always spot the international students, and especially the Americans, because of how we dress. It’s pretty true- compared to the Egyptians, we’re all underdressed and carry big, bulky backpacks. A lot of the locals don’t even carry bags, and rarely take notes in class, but somehow seem to have a firm grasp on the material. I have a lot to learn!
My classes all seem pretty promising. A good amount of the study abroad students here have already blown off their courses, because the grades that they receive here won’t transfer back to their home university, but that’s not my case. These classes will apply to my major at UCSB and affect my GPA, so I’m actually a little nervous about them. I seem to be one of the few students here who has never taken a class solely focused on the Middle East, Islam, or Egypt, which means that I’m already a little behind when it comes to “review” lectures during the first week of classes. Hopefully it won’t be too hard to play catch up- so far, I’ve been scribbling notes furiously in class while my classmates’ eyes glaze over at the material they’ve apparently heard millions of times already. Where was I when everyone learned this?
In Arabic class, I seem to fit in a little better. My professor is a sweet, tiny woman named Hala who has been teaching for 20 years (or at least that’s what I think she said- she speaks almost entirely in Arabic). There are only six other students in the class, which is pretty good motivation to get my butt out of bed at 8 AM every morning. She normally starts off the class asking us to tell her what we did the previous day, and seeing if we have any questions about the cultural oddities here- on our second day of class, she spent most of the time explaining Ramadan, Eid, and her background to us (she’s been to Mecca twice!). I really like the class so far, and I can’t emphasize enough how much easier it is to learn Arabic when you’re surrounded by it every day. My reading has gotten faster, and my accent is even a little less embarrassing already!
Muslim Political Thought will probably be my most challenging class. The material is dense on its own, not to mention the fact that I’m completely behind in background knowledge. I tend to just sit and write down as much as possible. The good thing is that I’m really excited to start learning about these topics- I’m sure anyone would rather spend extra time studying when the material actually interests them. This week, we discussed how Mohammad (the prophet of Islam) gained and maintained so much influence in an Arabian environment characterized by nomads and kings, and analyzed types of authority. It’s also really refreshing to have professors who have a background in Arabic, because it provides a much richer context for these subjects. Most of my UCSB professors would mispronounce or misuse basic words, and rarely explain the meaning behind them.
Cultural Geography of Ancient Egypt is exactly the type of class that I wanted to take while in Egypt. We will be going on 3-4 different field trips over the course of the semester, mostly to places that we would not be able to visit as general tourists. The professor really enjoys comparing the reality of Egyptian history with movies like Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and The Mummy, which makes for an interesting class. So far, we’ve been distinguishing the difference between “Ancient” Egypt (what the majority of the population actually consisted of) and “Pharaonic” Egypt (what sightseeing is mostly composed of today- big temples, rulers, and riches). There’s also a fair amount of discussion about major misconceptions about Ancient Egypt, including how much they actually respected the dead, comparisons between ancient and modern Egyptians, and how much Egypt actually influenced its surrounding areas.
I haven’t really gotten a good sense of my other two classes yet because of the crazy Ramadan and Eid schedules. One is called Select Topics in Modern Middle Eastern History, and we’ve only met once. It’s focused on Jordan and Palestine, but so far we’ve only really gone over the physical geography of Jordan. I’ll have to wait until we meet again tomorrow to figure out how I feel about the class. The other class is Architecture: Art or Engineering?, and we haven’t met at all yet! So, it looks like I’ll have to update on that later. I’m hoping that it’ll have more Egyptians enrolled in it, since all of my other classes are all international students, with maybe one or two locals. Almost all of the study abroad kids are Global Studies/Political Science/International Relations/Middle Eastern Studies majors, so it makes sense that we’re all taking similar classes. Conversely, almost all Egyptian students are either Architecture or Engineering majors (there’s a huge stigma about those being the only two respectable areas of study), so hopefully my Architecture class will be a nice change of pace. Fingers crossed!