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The Nasr Language School

The history of the school represents a routinization of institutional charisma. Historically, and from the perspective of social planners, the school is a unique tool for the achievement of social equilibrium, political progress, and prosperity. But from the perspective of its clients, it is either an important status granting institution or an unremarkable and sometimes unavoidable staple of the life cycle. Because local ministerial oversight and the worldwide culture of schooling both limit the range of variation, the reestablishment of a tradition of private schooling has done little structurally to differentiate the public from the private school, either in Egypt or anywhere else. The differences between public and private sector institutions in Egypt lie primarily in funding level, while the differences between individual institutions depend upon the background, energy, and commitment of owners, principals, and staff. Their gatekeeping function ensures that a single accepted model of education characterizes both public and private schools. But private schools have a marginal advantage over public in preparing students for success on state examinations and in private sector hiring. In an ironic twist stemming from the fiscal and logistical problems of extending state primary education universally, private sector efforts have gained back the prestige that state schools once enjoyed over unstandardized, unlicensed kuttabs.

The Nasr Language School in the eastern suburb of Masr al-Gadida occupies a three-story 1940s-vintage villa at the intersection of two quiet, tree-lined streets, across from a tiny bookstore and a Mercedes-Benz repair shop. In 1988–89, Nasr was owned by Mme. Hala Sharif, the tall, elegant, chain-smoking wife of a senior official in the Ministry of Defense. She had inherited the property from her father but had never lived there, so when, in the mid-1970s, her husband began traveling outside of Egypt as a military attaché, she rented the villa on a long-term lease to a man she assumed was planning to live there himself. After returning to Egypt in 1986, she found that the renter had turned the building into a private primary school, and when the lease expired she faced the choice of buying the school from him, or moving him out entirely and facing the expense of reconverting the villa into a residence. Though she had never run a school, she did have some business experience, and decided to make a go of it.

Like the owner of a private company, the principal of an Egyptian private school is its absolute master, answerable only to the inspectors who visit from the Ministry of Education to check the books and year- end grade sheets. The teachers at Nasr, without degrees in education, and thus not eligible to join the national Teachers Union, were employed entirely at her discretion, a fact that was to cause a great deal of trouble some months after my first visit. Two weeks before the 1989–90 school year was to start, Mme. Hala, tired of being a school principal and contemplating a move overseas, sold the school to a pious electrical engineer, who summarily fired all of the teachers because the school was an English language school and none of the teachers had degrees in English. Though still collecting their pay—the younger teachers made between £E 70 and £E 150 ($28 to $60) a month—until new teachers could be hired, the former staff were eligible for none of the social security benefits available through membership in the Teachers Union, and feared that they would be without any employment for the coming year. The new owner himself had no previous school administration experience but was intensely interested in education and had spent the previous few years studying the subject in his spare time.

The facility he bought worked well enough. While Mme. Hala owned the school, sun porches and bedrooms had been converted into classroom space. The sitting room was now the principal's office and the wide hallway at the foot of the staircase provided display space for children's artwork. A former walled garden now served as a dusty playground and assembly yard where children began the school day with a civic ritual imported a century ago by the British: physical education in the form of military drill.[54] Each morning the age- and size-graded ranks of children marched in place while saluting the flag and singing a shrill version of the national anthem, “My Country,” followed by a pledge of allegiance and the rhythmic chanting of “Gum-huriyya—Masr al-Arabiyya! Gum-huriyya—Masr al-Arabiyya!” (A-rab Repub-lic of E—gypt!)

For most grades, religion was taught every other day, alternating with Arabic. Mme. Mona Hamdi taught the fifth, third, and second grade religion classes. In her mid-forties, she was one of the older Muslim teachers, and the only one who did not cover her hair, which she wore in a short permanent. Her small fifth grade class—thirteen girls and two boys—met in a tiny room built from a converted porch, with a green corrugated fiberglass roof. The space was separated from the large fourth grade class next door only by a row of rust-colored wooden shutters. There was room for ten low two-pupil desks arranged one behind the other on either side of an aisle only slightly more than a foot wide. Strips of wallpaper with drawings of wide-eyed children and posters made from newspaper clippings about the president shared the walls with Arabic translations of Disney comic books suspended by the crease over strings tacked into the plaster. Behind the teacher's desk a poster diagrammed the heart in red and blue magic marker; a section of wall between two sets of shutters bore a carefully hand-drawn map of Egypt in black, and some posters illustrating simple English sentences: “What is this for?” “It is for sugar.”

I first visited Nasr in Ramadan 1409 (April 1989), and the students were already familiar with the material. Some of the children had memorized their entire books in preparation for year-end examinations. Teachers spent class time going back over material that had been learned, having children read aloud, either alone or in unison, correcting their pronunciation, asking questions and expounding upon points raised in the lesson. Mme. Mona talked to the children about Ramadan. She followed the outline of the book, but added points, freestyle, as they occurred to her: Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an descended from heaven, but the Qur’an was written down only later, during the time of the Caliph ‘Uthman, although the number of daily prayers had been fixed by the Prophet Muhammad after his journey through the seven heavens.

“Who has to fast during Ramadan?” she asked suddenly. Students shot their hands up and clamored to answer. For some of them, this was the first year during which they themselves were fasting. A girl rose and replied that the sick do not need to fast, nor do travelers. Mme. Mona nodded, adding rapidly that pregnant women and the insane do not fast either, and asking the class, “What are the pillars of Islam?” After another student replied, she had the entire class repeat them again in unison. “Who can tell me about the zakat? ”Another girl stood and said that it is money paid by all Muslims for the support of the poor and the needy, the collectors of the alms themselves and for recent and potential converts to Islam, for the freeing of slaves, for aiding debtors and those who do good works for God and country, and for indigent travelers. Mme. Mona reminded students about the percentage due on different categories of property, and that the money was due before the celebration of the ‘Id al-Fitr, otherwise it is not considered zakat.

At the teacher's command, the class stood and read from the textbook Qur’anic sura 78, or “The good news,” forty beautifully rhyming verses on the structure of creation, earth, hell, and heaven; the afterlife's reward for the faithful and the horrible fate of those who do not fear God but instead argue vainly against the notion of an eventual resurrection and judgment. After the reading Mme. Mona talked about al-hisab (the accounting or reckoning of deeds) and al-jiza’ (God's recompense to humans based on their actions). Qur’an readings were performed without tajwid (rhythmic cantillation), consistent with the modern practice of “reading without the rocking, and in a very simple manner” (see p. 69). In the fourth grade class, two or three of the boys rocked slightly when reading the Qur’an, a skill acquired either at home or from extracurricular study at a mosque or kuttab.

During the next recitation, this one from the text itself, the students stood individually to read, the teacher stopping them every few words to explain a difficult vocabulary item, expound on the point being made, or recapitulate the text. Well-worn books had passages underlined and extra voweling marks added by the children themselves, although well over half the words were already at least partially voweled (written and printed Arabic consists of consonants only, with voweling diacritics above and below the letters customarily added only in Qur’anic and other texts where ambiguity cannot be allowed). Some students in the second grade class were using textbook editions from previous years, hand-me-downs from older brothers and sisters; this can make life difficult for the student who is told to turn to page 40 and read the story of Isma‘il, only to find that in his copy the story begins on page 54. (Students are not alone in recycling books; the government does the same, removing the covers for reuse—the cover of my copy of the seventh grade religious studies textbook was the inside-out cover of a 1984 vocational crafts workbook—and sending the texts themselves off for use in the Sudan.)

During readings, Mme. Mona corrected mistakes in voweling only. Although education in Egypt is supposedly conducted in fusha (Modern Standard Arabic, the formal descendant of the Qur’an's classical Arabic), there are few Egyptians, even adults, who can consistently avoid colloquial pronunciation when reading aloud. Even when reciting the Qur’an, for example, consonants retain their colloquial pronunciations when there are equivalent words in local dialect, so jism (body) is gism and dhanb (sin) is zanb. With the letter qaf in words such as Qur’an, qal (he said), iqra’ (recite) or khalaqa (he created), which are important and often repeated in the shorter suras that children learn early, pronunciation usually retains its classical value when the Qur’an is read or recited, but pronunciation is inconsistent otherwise, sometimes shifting to a glottal stop in reading from the textbook proper. Perhaps one student in ten uses the classical pronunciation most of the time when reading aloud. In general, girls are far more fluent readers than boys in the same class.

About halfway through the text, the squawk of a loudspeaker on a nearby building broke into the lesson with the noon call to prayer. The fifth grade classroom was generally quite noisy, both because of the large fourth grade class next door, muted only by the wooden shutters, and from the noise of the younger children from the kindergarten playing out in the yard on the other side. But the call to prayer disrupted work entirely, and the class sat quietly, waiting for it to end. Mme. Mona tapped her foot softly. One girl in the front row held her hands out close in front of her with palms upward just below the chin (as if cradling a small open book), in an attitude of prayer, but after a little while she looked about surreptitiously and, noticing that none of her classmates was doing likewise, put her hands back in her lap. The class endured the idhan with the same resigned patience of teachers and students waiting for the end to the principal's squawk-box announcements in an American homeroom. Mme. Mona made no attempt to encourage her students actually to heed the call to prayer, although all of them were old enough to be compelled. (She could not have led the prayers herself in any case, as, ironically, the male children in the room would have been entitled to that duty before her. At some schools, provision is made for daily prayer, with an interior courtyard doubling as a play yard—complete with basketball hoops—and as a misalla, an open place for prayer. One section of the inner wall might be lined with porcelain sinks and faucets for performing the ablution (wudu’), and used also by school custodians for water for mopping floors.)

The reading resumed shortly, and when it was done Mme. Mona instructed her class to turn to page 78 of their texts and read aloud the story of the prophet Joseph, which lasted until the end of the period. During this reading the teacher was getting tired. It was after noon during the first week of Ramadan, when people were still struggling to adjust to the new schedule. She took her seat after standing up for most of the class period, propping her left elbow on the scarred green desk and resting her cheek in the palm of her hand, looking bored. From this position she continued asking questions, instructing the readers when to switch, correcting pronunciation. By 12:15 the pupils were getting restless and impatient for the class to end. One of the girls at the desk in front of me kept checking the next page in the book to see when the story would be over.

Children in the lower grades were more boisterous, due in part to their age and to the larger size of the second, third, and fourth grade classes, and in part to the fact that some of the fifth-graders were tired from fasting for the first time. In Mme. Mona's second grade class, the children competed with each other for who could shout the Qur’an louder during collective readings, forcing a teacher from the adjoining room to come in and complain about the volume. Children jumped to their feet with their arms raised, yelling (in English), “Miss! Miss! Miss!” when she asked a question. The passing of notes earned one student a stern rebuke, “‘eeb!” (shame!); another got his ear twisted for laughing, and a third prompted the exasperated Mme. Mona to scold, “haza hissa-ddin!” (This is a religion class!) In the meantime, she quizzed them on the relatives of the Prophet Muhammad and they read the story of Isma‘il out loud.

Students are taught, in religion class as elsewhere, to memorize and to perform. As in American classrooms, the better students are keenly competitive when it comes to currying the teacher's favor and answering questions, and the poorer students try to avoid being chosen to read, recite, or answer. Ahmad, one of the brighter students in Mme. Fayza's large fourth grade class was particularly energetic; after he had shouted out the answers to three of the teacher's last four questions, she called on Hisham, the student sitting in the row behind him to answer the next one, about how many rak‘as (repetitions of the ritual cycle of body movement and recitation) occur in each of the five daily prayers. When Hisham hesitated and began stammering, Ahmad turned half-way around in his seat and crouched down with his face almost resting on Hisham's desk, whispering the answer insistently to his classmate (“the fajr has two, the dhuhr has four…”) and fidgeting in an effort to contain his frustration at not being able to continue displaying publicly his mastery of the material.

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