Credibility in Cairo 2015

One of my favorite texts to teach is the massive travelogue of Ibn Battutah (d. 1377), which is available in an excellent Arabic edition as well as a complete English translation. His descriptions of flora, fauna, famous people, and unfamiliar customs boggle the mind. He describes the strange plants (e.g. the mango) and animals (e.g. the rhinoceros) he encountered as well as the harrowing incidents he survived, like shipwrecks and highway robbery in which more than a few people are actually killed. He also describes very famous incidents of alterophobia, the most famous of which is his description of three widows immolating themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres (Sati). Part of the reason Ibn Battutah is such an engaging read is because he, or his amanuensis Ibn Juzayy, writes about everything he sees with an air of credibility, which verges on naïveté, and a healthy dose of sanctimony. Alterophobia, naïveté, and sanctimony happen to be qualities that characterize official political discourse in Egypt at this moment as well (see e.g. the case of Sama El-Masry, a bellydancer who was banned from running in this month's parliamentary elections owing to her un-ladylike and morally dubious public persona).

One of the things I've struggled with most since coming to Cairo to teach in 2012 is how to teach students to think critically about Classical Arabic texts. Critical thinking is not an easy skill to learn and it's a buzzword in every school and university on every continent, I know, but the ability to think critically about texts in Classical Arabic is a separate, though related, challenge. For one, there are material circumstances that most people are not aware of having to do with manuscripts and the way in which editions (of varying quality) and their authoritative-seeming footnotes and glosses are produced. This is a story that can be told over and over again but unless you put manuscripts in students' hands and challenge them to produce a text, the lesson rarely sinks in. Language is also an issue. I'm not imputing ahistorical, magical qualities to Arabic and unthinking Orientalist spiritualism to Arab students if I say that their relationship to Classical Arabic (the literary language, 6th c. – 19th c. AD) is less immediate than their relationships to other Arabics or other languages. A fun game I like to play with my students is to see which Arabic equivalents of English terms used by their other professors in lectures will cause them to flip out (answer: homophobia, transgender, homosexuality, wa-halluma jarran as we say). It can be a lot easier to explain the idea of genre conventions and tropes to students and these are the clues they recognize most quickly. In his section on the Egyptian Delta, Ibn Battutah informs his readers about a Sufi order whose adherents all shave their faces (incl. eyebrows) and heads. He claims—actually he never claims, but reports the claims of others—that they do this because the founder of the order once found himself being pursued assiduously by an amorous older woman and the only way he could get her to leave him alone was to disfigure himself by shaving off all the hair on his face and head. The students didn't appear to find the story questionable on a first reading, but when pressed it didn't take them long to come around to the idea that the story was probably apocryphal. This type of archetypal criticism is a slippery slope though. I wonder how they would react if I asked them to compare the tale of the Chinese emperor Ai and "The Passion of the Cut Sleeve" to a well known story about you-know-who and a cat.

I think about my teaching a lot but most of it isn't fit for print. This exercise is inspired by my colleague Amina El-Bendary's new teaching blog: