The 2021 graduating class of the National Evangelical School in Nabatieh (NESN) is entirely Shiite Muslim.
While certainly not the image of a typical Christian school in the United States, it is hardly an outlier in Lebanon, where 35 evangelical schools average student bodies that are two-thirds Muslim.
Located 35 miles south of Beirut, Nabatieh originally had a 10 percent Christian population when American Presbyterian missionary Lewis Loe founded the school in 1925. Based in the city’s Christian quarter, NESN drew students from all sects until the civil war drove the once integrated communities apart. From 1978 to 1982, Israeli occupation forced the school to close altogether.
When the city was attacked again during the 2006 war, the school’s bomb shelter gave refuge to frightened children. Relative peace since then has allowed the shelter to become a storage room, but less than 40 Christian families remain in the city. Even so, NESN draws from surrounding villages to maintain a Christian share of 10 percent among its 100-some faculty.
But the new crisis facing Lebanon is financial. Year-end inflation for 2020 was 145 percent, as food prices surged over 400 percent. The World Bank judged the economic collapse to be one of the world’s three worst in the last 150 years.
Teacher salaries have lost nearly 90 percent of their value.
Three years ago, NESN’s 100-foot Christmas tree was Lebanon’s largest. This year—as debt equaled the entire operational budget minus teacher salary—the school could not afford even the Charlie Brown version.
A highlight of the school calendar, Christian elements are welcomed by the local Shiite population—including its substantial number of Hezbollah-affiliated families, said principal Shadi El-Hajjar.
Since he assumed leadership in 2013, the student body of 1,400 has more than doubled.
“We teach compassion, forgiveness, and love of enemies,” Hajjar said, “but as culture and practice, not religion.
“This makes us unique, and draws people to the school.”
It was not always this way.
Decades of appreciative tolerance…
This article was originally published on June 16, 2021, at Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.
There is a general understanding that Egypt’s Christians are marginalized in the educational curriculum.
An additional idea is that this came during an Islamization period in the 1970s, or perhaps during Nasser’s presidency.
A researcher examined this question and described them on Mada Masr. Here is his evaluation:
Based on an analysis of Egyptian history textbooks from 1890 until the academic year 2016/2017, it is clear that Egyptian history is narrated from a perspective that values an Arab Muslim identity over other perspectives and voices.
While the tone generally revers and paints Christianity in a positive light, the narrative as a whole is exclusionary in both explicit and subtle ways.
The article as a whole is insightful, and here is an example — of how textbooks changed:
Current history textbooks do not include explicit derogatory references to Christianity or Christians — as some of the earlier textbooks did. In fact, they include extremely positive mentions, albeit concise.
For instance, in explaining why ancient Egyptians embraced Christianity, a 2016 textbook explains that they were attracted by its values of justice, equality, mercy, empathy, tolerance, renouncement of worldly pleasures, and valuing of the afterlife.
However, we need to also be cognizant of more subtle ways that might give value to one identity while diminishing or silencing others. In addition to continuing to use explicit and extensive Muslim referents as highlighted above, more subtle exclusions can also be found in current textbooks.
For instance, they use the word “Arab” to characterize countries such as Egypt and Lebanon even before they had been taken over by Arab Muslim armies. Such references give the historically inaccurate and false impression that these countries have always embraced an Arab identity, eclipsing the richness of their pre-existing civilizations and cultures.
Additionally, several of these history textbooks have continued to address students as if they are all Muslim. For instance, an 1893 history textbook explains that the religious story of David and his son Solomon “must be learned by all Muslims.”
Similarly, a 1988 history textbook encourages students to learn about the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca by asking their relatives who might have performed it.
In discussing civic engagement, current textbooks encourage students to be proud of our Islamic principles and values that encourage us to volunteer in the community and peacefully co-exist with others different from ourselves.
In Egypt it is sometimes necessary to ask the religion of the researcher, often indicated by name. Ehaab Abdou — I believe these names are shared by Muslims and Christians alike.
What is important, however, is quality. The article is too brief to fully evaluate, but he claims a comprehensive scope of research. I don’t have the background in the subject to know if he left out damning specifics; other Egyptians, please weigh in.
The one thing I noticed is that he did not specifically state he evaluated textbooks in the Azhar educational curriculum. Copts sometimes claim this is a source of bias against them.
But on the whole, the article appears to be an evenhanded treatment of a controversial subject.
Few things are as important as the education of our children — and ourselves.
Small scale protests have erupted again, this time over education. Students are angry over the leaking of answers to the national high school exam, as well as the threatened postponement until tests can be reformulated.
Both alleged leakers and demonstrators have been arrested, as several call for the resignation of the education minister. The president has vowed this oft-repeated scenario will not happen again.
God, to cheat is all too human. But good administration curbs bad morality. Help the government and schools design systems to ensure honest assessment. Hold responsible those who fail their charge along who those who deliberately thwart it.
And bless also the many students who conscientiously study.
All international indicators rank Egyptian education low, God. Reform is necessary in many sectors. Prepare for the nation a new generation of creative thinkers. Equip them through a new generation of creative educators.
Buoy them all in a new generation of upright citizens. There is a greater test awaiting them, God. May Egypt find your favor, and mercy.
Cairoscene recently published a list of the seven most expensive schools in Egypt, with a picture of each. Here is the summary, with all figures in American dollars, per year:
Cairo American College – $22,900
American International School in Egypt – $10,300
British International School in Cairo – $9,285
Modern English School – $8,855
El Alsson – $7,900
The International Schools of Choueifat – $7,450
Canadian International School – $6,990
One of Egypt’s deepest problems is its education system. Schools are overcrowded; teachers are underpaid. Many parents will spend much of their income on tutors to make up for the deficiency and ensure their children can pass exams.
But wealthier Egyptians can sidestep the system entirely, opting for high priced foreign curriculum. Many of these schools also employ international teachers, and pay them accordingly. Expat families also populate these schools, and Egyptian parents are thankful for the all-English education and interaction with foreign speakers.
To avoid government education there are also less expensive options for Egyptians. There is a system of ‘languages’ schools, private institutions that use a government curriculum in Arabic for the humanities and English for the sciences. They can cost several hundred to a couple thousand dollars per year, and are generally all-Egyptian.
There is also a system of religious schools, mostly Catholic, open to all Egyptians and also using the national curriculum. They tend to have a strong reputation for education and discipline, teach French or English alongside Arabic, and can cost significantly less.
The new constitution mandates a percentage increase in overall budget expenditure for education. Hopefully in time it has an effect and gives a solid foundation to all Egyptians, not just those who can pay for it.
Egyptian schools are known for large class sizes and a not-so-great student-teacher ratio. But our third-grade daughter, in one class at least, has a private lesson.
Despite being in a class of 31 students, Emma studies religion one-on-one with the teacher. The Egyptian system separates Muslims and Christians for religious education, and Emma is the only one of the latter.
Christians make up about 10 percent of the population, so it is not unusual to be outnumbered. Still, Emma’s case is a bit odd.
When she started in the Egyptian school system in kindergarten, Emma was one of the seven Christian students in her class of 30. If this percentage seems large, consider that the school placed all Christians in the same class. The entire kindergarten consisted of around 150 students.
Placing all Christians together makes scheduling classes much easier. Traditionally, the less numerous Christian students leave the classroom for the religion subject, and a specialized Muslim teacher comes to instruct in Islam. The specialized Christian teacher often has to jostle for a classroom, but at least all students come to her at once.
As Emma moved on to first grade a few kids transferred to other schools, leaving only five Christians in her class. By second grade, there were three Christians, and now in third grade, she is alone.
Her singleness resulted from an administrative error, of sorts. This year the school introduced ‘smart boards’ in all class subjects for those parents willing to pay slightly higher tuition. The technology was not so important to us, but since kindergarten Emma’s class had been kept together, and most parents were opting for the smart boards.
But for some reason, in the two smart board classes that emerged, Emma was separated from the two other Christian students. We did not discover this until a bit into the new school year, and rearranging would have been difficult. But as a result she has religion by herself.
Fortunately, Emma’s best Muslim friends are in her class, and she was happy to stay.
Fortunately also, she has had the same Christian teacher since kindergarten. The standard curriculum consists of Bible stories familiar to Sunday school students the world over, in addition to Coptic prayers and the lives of the saints.
Egyptian education has been criticized for focusing too much on memorization, but in this case Emma puts us to shame. Last year she memorized the I Corinthians 13 passage about love. This semester she is working on Psalm 23. In Arabic, of course.
The government curriculum for Christianity is based on the Orthodox tradition, since that represents the vast majority of Christians in Egypt. Emma’s teacher, however, is Catholic. And thus, the lone Christian in class is our Protestant American daughter, being taught Coptic Orthodoxy, by an Egyptian Catholic.
Egypt is a place of many oddities, but we hope through it all that Emma will love God, love others, and hide God’s Word in her heart. So far we are encouraged.
Dr. Rasmy Abdel Malak is the head of the educational committee of the Egyptian Family House, an independent institution created by government decree. It is run by the grand sheikh of the Azhar in partnership with the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, involving Egypt’s other Christian denominations as well.
The Family House is authorized to create branches in the governorates, so that the effort to protect and reinforce national unity between Muslims and Christians will be felt at the grassroots. But it is also authorized to interact directly with government ministers, so that their suggestions will be taken into serious consideration in the framework of national policy.
It is in this second capacity Arab West Report met with Dr. Rasmy Abdel Malak Rostom, who describes the work of the educational committee of the Family House in formulating recommendations to the minister of education. The interview was conducted on November 10, 2014, by Jayson Casper and Adel Rizkallah, board member of the Center for Arab-West Understanding.
Please describe the basics of your educational work in the Family House.
The Egyptian Family House was established by a decision by the prime minister in 2012. There are a number of committees, approximately eight or nine, including one for education which I am honored to lead.
It is well known in Egypt, like in any nation of the world, that education forms the person. We have noticed instances of extremism and fanaticism among the students that come from the religious discourse in the mosques. But there are no question marks concerning the churches, it would be very rare to see similar problems.
We have begun to think how we can build up a person from youth. It is very important, from nursery and preschool certain things influence Muslims and Copts to be against each other.
The idea of the Family House is that we are a family, all together. But how can we live together when each one is raised in an incorrect way? We have witnessed this, and in the education committee we are trying to do something about it.
Please click here to read the full text of the interview at Arab West Report.
Egypt has a youth problem. According to official statistics, 31 percent of the population is under the age of 14, and 24 percent of the population is between 18 and 29. Integrating them into the social and political fabric of society is expected to be challenging, especially given the raised expectations of the revolution.
Egypt also has an education problem. According to official statistics, 25 percent of the population over 10 years old is illiterate. According to UNICEF, student participation is generally not encouraged by teachers, and less than ten percent of schools meet national standards for quality education.
Egypt, of course, is well aware of these problems. Twenty-eight year old Joyce Rafla is part of the government’s answer for both. Last May, presidential media advisor Ahmed al-Muslimani handed the ‘White Book’ to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It represented the completion of a project started under interim president Adly Mansour, tajdid al-nukhba, seeking to find new talent to eventually replace the old guard.
The White Book contained the names of 152 Egyptian graduates of top notch universities worldwide. Joyce Rafla was included among ten from Columbia University, alongside Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Moscow, Tokyo, and the Sorbonne, among others.
A year earlier as the government was conducting its search, Rafla was invited with around twenty other graduates from the education field to produce a practical vision for the nation’s education system by 2030. The two month effort was part of an objective to design strategies to place Egypt within the top ten nations by 2050.
Rafla’s work in the committee must have caught the attention of important people. In August 2014 she received a phone call from the president’s office, asking her to be an advisor to Sisi. Three specialized councils have since been formed, all by presidential appointment, seeking balanced age and gender composition. Rafla is one of six females on the Education and Scientific Research Council, and lowers the average age of the eleven members to 40.
Rafla is a pedagogy and assessment officer at the American University in Cairo (AUC), and also a consultant for the Education Support Program funded by USAID. Her international connections may have been a factor in her selection, as with other AUC professors on the council. Tarek Shawki, the council head, has long experience with UNESCO. Malak Zaalouk is associated with UNICEF. And Amal Essawi worked as a researcher in the UK for ten years.
Other council members come from the universities of Cairo, Alexandria, and Ain Shams. Represented also are experts from the National Research Center and the ministries of Education, Higher Education, and Communications. All members on the council are volunteers. Twice weekly meetings and preparation requires nearly two extra days of work on top of their normal responsibilities.
The overall diversity of membership represents a new advisory approach in the Sisi administration. Rafla explained that traditionally the Egyptian president had one advisor in each specialized field, but by contrast, Sisi desires a multiplicity of perspectives coming to consensus. The council stands outside the cabinet ministries, but must seek buy-in from these and other relevant institutions before they present ideas to the president.
And within this body of advice, Rafla speaks for the youth. “I am there to disrupt the normal order of things,” she told EgyptSource, adding that she has never felt overlooked due to her age. “Sometimes there are suggestions that won’t resonate well with a young person, that’s when I jump in.”
But quickly the council faced the accumulated frustrations of previous educational reform efforts. AUC held a panel discussion in November with five members of the council, four of which, including Rafla, are among its staff. The poorly chosen title, ‘Three Immediate Solutions to Egypt’s Education Crisis’ attracted a large crowd, but then their ire.
“I went to an event about education in Cairo this week hoping to hear about solutions,” wrote Amal Abou-Setta in al-Fanar Media. “Instead I felt like, yet again, I only listened to an elaborate description of the problems.”
Rafla admitted the divergence between presentation and title, but clarified the three initiatives. Better investment in teacher training, a licensing system with ongoing testing for university graduates, and merit-based university education providing full scholarship primarily to students who continue to meet minimum benchmarks of success.
These are among 31 short, medium, and long-term projects the council submitted to Sisi on December 2. The meeting lasted two hours, during which the president gave extensive feedback and demonstrated genuine concern, Rafla said. It was their second meeting with Sisi, and they are scheduled to meet with him once every one to two months.
Rafla’s current role is to make an overview of all previous international education projects in Egypt, to recognize patterns of success and failure. She is also conducting field visits outside of Cairo and with relevant civil society organizations to strengthen the necessary cooperative environment.
But will it work? Rafla is optimistic, though fully aware of the challenges. The president has insisted that reform is needed urgently. But amid the criticism of some in her own generation, she sees one of her main tasks as encouragement. She can do so as long as she herself believes.
“If we have a good project, the president has the political will to reform education,” Rafla said. “The minute I feel it is not so, I will lose hope.”
Education in Egypt has long been criticized, a fact recognized by the authors of the new constitution. Articles 19, 21, and 23 oblige the government to spend four percent of its gross national product on public education, two percent on higher education, and one percent on scientific research. These targets must be met, according to Article 228, by the school budget of 2016 and gradually increase thereafter until meeting international norms.
The constitutional referendum was approved on January 15, as high school students were readying to complete their exams before winter break. Their return to school was scheduled for February 9 but has now been postponed twice. The official reason is due to the 38 deaths from the H1N1 virus, though some suspect political instability plays a role. Regardless, students are now due to return on March 9, creating a near month-and-a-half long vacation. Elementary students, meanwhile, have been out of school since early January.
Constitutional solutions, if implemented, will take time to fix the system. But to see the extent to which Egyptian education is broken requires a first-hand profile. Ibrahim Awad is a 22-year-old resident of Helwan, though he prefers not to use his real name. He illustrates the degree to which a culture of education is lacking both in many schools and many citizens.
Ibrahim is delightful, though depressing. One small illustrative excerpt:
“I would go to school, but do nothing. Students smoked in class, and the teacher wouldn’t even show up,” Ibrahim said. He was similarly truant, and no one held him accountable. “Teachers considered that we were failing students and not worth their effort.”
The only reason he graduated was the culture of bribing the teacher with Pepsi and cigarettes. More than eager to shuffle the students through, the teacher looked the other way when Ibrahim helped his illiterate colleague by writing answers on both their tests.
Please click here to read the full article at Egypt Source.
From EgyptSource, a personal testimony of growing up in the Muslim Brotherhood:
The Guidance and Light School, in which I spent my third year of preparatory school after our return from Kuwait, was a Brotherhood school which my father helped establish. Since the 1980s, schooling and educational services had become a key aspect of Brotherhood activities and a means of proselytizing. We followed the same curriculum as the public schools, except that we took two additional courses twice per week; one was entitled ‘The Holy Quran’ and the other was a mixture of Islamic stories and proverbs. The only other change was that Music class was replaced with another class titled ‘Hymns.’
Except for drums and tambourines, musical instruments were banned and discouraged. Flyers and posters hung on the school’s walls warning about the dangers of listening to stringed instruments. The hymns which we were forced to memorize consisted of the most widely known nationalist melodies and songs except any mentions of ‘Egypt’ were replaced with ‘Islam.’ The school was of course populated with the children of local Muslim Brotherhood leaders in addition to other Muslim students of diverse backgrounds.
Only now do I realize that until the age of fourteen, I had never once met a Christian. I was in an exclusive world with its own moral values, worldviews, and perspectives on what it meant to be a good person.
There are many similarities to traditional Christian upbringing in the United States. I never found it to be as insular as described here, but there are parallels. It is important to remember that there is a good and proper place for the inculcation of values, which should happen early before being balanced by a broad and diverse education. Of course, it matters what values are being inculcated.
Here is an example of what the author learned, and why he finally broke from the group:
A Brother brought several copies of the newspaper Elshaab and placed them beside him. Like any other meeting, that day’s session began with one Brother reciting from the Holy Quran, followed by a second interpreting a hadith, and a third explaining an aspect of Islamic jurisprudence. Then the Brother opened the newspaper and read it aloud to the group.
He read that the Egyptian Ministry of Culture had published a novel by the Syrian writer Haidar Haidar. Aside from sexual references, the novel contained heretical insults directed at God and the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). In response, preparations for public rallies were made which would protest the publication of the novel and demand it be burned.
Word for word, this is what the Brother demanded, and I instantly objected. At that time I was the group’s writer, and I refused to write any chants which called for the burning of this book or any other book for that matter.
To this day, I do not know what compelled me to take this firm stance.
I showed one of them some excerpts from Haidar Haidar’s novel which were published in Elshaab. From what I read, I found his writings ridiculous, but I insisted that this in no way justified it being burned. I entered into a long discussion with the Brothers which developed into shouting. The argument between me and the group’s leader grew increasingly sharp, and in an angry outburst he forbade me from taking such a stance. The argument grew even more hostile, and he told me, “Either give up these books you read and your stance on them, or do not meet with us!”
I left the room, and never went back.
I remember growing up in a culture where the ‘secular humanists’ were out to destroy religion, where popular music was a tool of the devil, and I felt like a rebel because I did a report on Jean-Paul Sarte in high school.
Looking back, I am very thankful for my upbringing, which was full of love and nurture. I went to youth group, memorized Bible verses, attended Christian summer camps, and idealized Ronald Reagan. I recognize in my adult worldview many shades of agreement with the pronouncements of danger I received growing up. I can only imagine many of the Muslim Brothers have similar experiences and warm memories. I’m sure this author does.
There are many points to compare and contrast, and I hope to do so later on in a full essay. But I’m glad to read this very human picture of what it is like to grow up in the Brotherhood. Please do read the whole article.
From the Monitor, exposing a oft-unquestioned assumption that Palestinian students are educated with hatred toward Jews:
Three years in the making at a cost of $500,000, the U.S. State Department–funded report explores textbooks issued by the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and religious bodies. The research, overseen by Sami Adwan from Bethlehem University and Daniel Bar-Tal from Tel Aviv University and designed by Yale psychiatry professor Bruce Wexler, examined 94 Palestinian and 74 Israeli schoolbooks published between 2009 and 2011.
The study was carried out under the auspices of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, a Jerusalem-based body representing Christian, Jewish and Islamic leaders. A team of Palestinians and Israelis trained by Adwan and Bar-Tal conducted the research, which involved going through books used in West Bank and Gaza Strip schools run by the PA, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) and religious bodies. On the Israeli side, the research examined books used in secular and religious schools run by the state and others catering to the needs of ultra-Orthodox students.
First, the objection:
Despite the report’s evenhandedness, it was boycotted by Israel’s Ministry of Education, which slammed it as “biased, unprofessional, and significantly lacking in objectivity.” The ministry issued a statement that said, in part, “The clear impression formed is that it is a ‘study’ with findings that were predetermined even before it was carried out professionally, and it certainly does not reliably reflect reality.”
Speaking at the Jerusalem press conference where the study was released, Professor Wexler described the ministry’s statement as “false at every level,” adding, “The Israeli government would rather hold on to a propaganda claim [it] know[s] to be false than to get change in Palestinian books.”
Negative portrayals of the other do exist, but exist on both sides:
The report rebutted claims that Palestinian schoolbooks used highly negative depictions, noting that these were extremely rare. For example, the researchers flatly denied allegations that Palestinian books contained “calls to go murder Jews” or “praise of those who murder Jews.” In fact, the study only found six examples in the textbooks “that were rated as portraying the other in extreme negative ways other than as the enemy, and none of these six were general dehumanizing characterizations of personal traits of Jews or Israelis.” Twenty extremely negative depictions were found in the Israeli state books and 7 in the ultra-Orthodox books.
Here is their conclusion about the problem:
The research concluded that both sides’ books were “guilty” of using a selective narrative that undermined the story of the other, which the researchers said is not unusual in conflict areas.
There lies the rub. Neither side will acknowledge the legitimacy of the other frame of reference, which is generally proper, as they are contradictory. Achieving peace will ask both sides to lessen their grip on the ‘rightness’ of their cause, but will certainly ask them both to give up demonizing the other.
If this report is to be trusted, Palestinian schools have largely done so; Israeli propaganda has not.
The picture of a women’s rights pioneer was deleted from a high school textbook because she was not wearing a hijab, prompting fierce condemnation from political parties, human rights organizations, feminist groups and a number of public figures.
Doriya Shafiq is one of the pioneers of the women’s liberation movement in Egypt from the first half of the 20th century. She campaigned for the rights of Egyptian women to vote and stand as candidates to be included in the 1956 Constitution.
Aside from campaigning against the British presence in Egypt, Shafiq also was a researcher and founded literary journals. She was granted a PhD in philosophy from the Sorbonne in France in 1940, after writing a thesis titled “Women in Islam, which claimed that women have twice the rights under Islam than they do under any other legislation.
Little snippets of news like this do not tell the whole story, of course. Is the curriculum changed frequently? Had this woman been included forever or only added recently? How are other women leaders treated? Was this the only unveiled women or are there several others still featured?
All the same, it is very important to follow changes to the educational curriculum. Despite the rancor it sometimes causes, I am glad American education is determined at the state level. But if this was the system here, what would the result be in traditional governorates? What authority should the central government have to shape the minds of young people?
The education minister has repeated remarks that Bahais cannot enroll in public schools, saying it violates the Constitution.
“The Constitution only recognizes the three Abrahamic religions,” Ibrahim Ghoneim told Akbar Al-Youm newspaper Saturday. “And as religion is a subject taught in schools, they do not meet the requirements for enrollment.”
Ghoneim had told Al-Sabah newspaper the same statement in November, when he was asked, “What is the position of the ministry concerning the children of Bahais? Do they have the right to enroll in a [ministry-affiliated] school?”
The minister responded by saying, “The state only recognizes three religions, and the Bahai faith is not among them. Thus their children do not have the right to register in government schools.”
It is noteworthy the minister makes reference to the new constitution to justify his position. But it is also noteworthy this was his position before the constitution was approved. The ministry of education is not one of the institutions which has been headed by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, indicating anti-Baha’i sentiment predates their takeover of government.
In a statement issued on Sunday, the syndicate added that around 22 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were promoted to senior positions in the minsitry following the election of President Mohamed Morsy in June.
This week, the ministry denied news that it was “Brotherhoodizing” the ministry or curricula and dismissed as false claims that it had removed pictures of protesters killed during the 25 January revolution and those of unveiled feminist leaders in Egypt and inserted verses from the Quran in the national education book to advocate loyalty to the ruler.
In the statement, the syndicate mentioned the names of Brotherhood members who were promoted, saying that under the mandate of Education Minister Ibrahim Ghoneim, the ministry started implementing a plan to “Brotherhoodize” education, the first step of which was to control decision-making centers through the gradual replacement of ministry leaderships with members from the Brotherhood.
Things are very murky in Egypt, and much struggle is going on behind the scenes. These are not the battles that can demand demonstrations, but they may very well signal the direction Egypt is headed, without much media coverage.
The middle of July is an odd time to be writing about too much homework, but our oldest, Emma, has just begun summer school and is having her first experience with homework.
This all started because we missed getting Emma into the school we had chosen for her last year. In Egypt, the schools follow a British system where the children attend two years of kindergarten, KG1 and then KG2. At many schools, children can begin as early as 3½, although the average age is probably 4. At the school we preferred, however, they would not accept Emma last year even though she was 4 in September. Due to the high demand for that school, they accept only older children, only going as low as 4½ for KG1. We didn’t mind this since our American system starts kids at age 5, we preferred waiting. The problem came this spring when I went to register her at our chosen school.
We had left Egypt for a few months due to the revolution and shortly after we came back, I went to the school to confirm which papers I would need when I came to register her in the month of June. It is well-known that the kindergarten registration in schools here is in June, so I figured going in May was getting a good jump on things. However, when I went to the school, the secretary told me that the registration was done and closed; there were no more places. I was so surprised and told them I thought registration was in June! They seemed to confirm that that was the norm, but this year they did it in March. They told me I could try calling them sometime in June, and if someone has withdrawn their registration, maybe Emma would have a chance. I left the school wondering what we would do now!
I talked with many Egyptians in the next few weeks, all of whom confirmed that registration should be in the month of June. Many questioned whether I understood the secretary correctly and encouraged me to return to the school. Others asked if I knew anyone important who might help us get in even though they said classes are full. The only people we knew were other parents at the school, but this was not good enough. I went there three times and each time was told the same story. The last time I went, the secretary told me to bring our next daughter in March if I wanted to register her for the following year. It looked like we had to give up on that possibility, at least for this year.
In the meantime, we continued to look for other possibilities, but quickly learned that we had a problem. Since we had “held Emma back” from starting due to the requirements of the one preferred school, she was now a whole year older than her potential classmates at most other schools we would choose. I was told it would be best if she could skip KG1 and enter the second year of kindergarten in the fall.
Being a foreigner and having no experience with what KG1 entails, I had no idea if Emma could really skip a grade. Our main concern was the Arabic that she would already be behind in. The schools we were looking at were called “languages” schools and basically taught most of the subjects in English, while reserving the Arabic language for the subjects of Arabic, religion and social studies. At the same time, we were trying to choose schools where the language of the kids would be Arabic. This way Emma would be immersed in Arabic during recess and in the lunchroom with the goal of her being comfortably fluent in Arabic, as well as making Egyptian friends. So she had a great advantage over most children as she would excel in the English-language subjects due to that being her native tongue; but we didn’t want her to immediately fall behind in Arabic.
One of the schools we found, and the one we are planning on her attending this fall, is called Degla Valley Language School. One of the great benefits of this school is that it is one block from our house. Not only does this make it easy to drop her off and pick her up, but it will hopefully make it easier for me to be involved in her school in some way. I am not looking to teach anything, although being a native English speaker I could easily get a job. I want to be able to interact with her teachers and really be on top of what is going on in her school. Of course location is only one factor to consider. We visited the school and felt the facilities were not as good as the preferred school, but were decent. We liked that the kindergarten section of the school is separate from the older grades which will help with kid-traffic as well as be less intimidating for the little ones. The program and curriculum looked modern and thorough, and the staff was friendly.
Another benefit of this school was the built-in possibility for Emma to skip KG1 by doing one or two months of a summer course. For some reason, this school offers the option to parents to enroll their children in the summer course in lieu of KG1. I haven’t had a chance to ask the other parents why they would choose this route; we are only doing it because of extenuating circumstances. But Emma has about 10-15 kids in class with her, all seemingly looking to skip their first year. And this is where the homework comes in.
It seems that the children learn the Arabic and English alphabets as well as their numbers, colors and shapes, during KG1. Learning the letters means writing the letters, and that is most of the homework that Emma has brought home. She is not so overwhelmed by writing the English letters, but every day that she has Arabic class, she has to write a new letter along with the three vowels of Arabic, and it turns out to be a bit much. I am trying to learn what motivates her to help her push through and finish her homework each day. It has been an adjustment going from the carefree life of preschool to five days a week “real” school with homework. And it may not help that the weather is usually in the 80s or 90s by the time we are finished lunch and ready to begin the homework.
All in all it’s been a positive experience, but I’m sure we have just as much to learn as Emma does. She will be learning her ABCs and 123s while we learn how exactly this Egyptian school system works. For example, I was impressed when I saw the school assignment book that Emma brought home the first day, but a bit amused by the way they wrote her name on the front.
In Egypt, everyone, girls included, uses their father’s name as their second name. Therefore, Emma is known as Emma Jayson in her school. Both names are foreign to them, but now they have seen them written by me, and at least spell Emma right on her crafts.
Emma’s daily schedule was posted in her book and it let me know which subjects and which “specials” she would have each day. She has English, math and Arabic three times a week as her subjects, and then other things like swimming, cooking, music and art. However, I’ve learned that cooking and art don’t mean the kids do anything in those areas. Rather, on Art day, Emma brought home a really cute Elephant bag which the teacher gave her at the end of the day. She didn’t even watch them make it. And when Emma complained that they didn’t do any cooking on the designated day, I asked the teacher the morning of the next cooking day what was in store. She said they would be making pizza that day. I asked if the kids help make it or if they just eat it, and she confirmed my guess that they just eat it. So really it should be called “special snack” day, rather than “cooking.”
So we are only beginning our journey here, and I am sure there will be more blog posts on the subject of school as we go down this road. For now, we are working on the alphabets and trying to keep cool as Emma completes her first year of school in two months. Guess that justifies all the homework!
On my walk to work these days I pass a local school, whose walls are covered with brief slogans promoting morality, health, and other social virtues. This seems to be quite common, actually, and it is interesting to read the messages promoted by the administration. Here are a few pictures highlighting each phrase, with a fairly literal translation underneath.
This is the entrance to the school, and the elaborate calligraphy to the right of the door reads: In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate. This is a common Islamic invocation, used often to begin a speech or introduce a text. As best I can tell, though, this school is a government school, and therefore consists of both Muslim and Christian students. Government education has mandatory religious classes, which are divided according to religion. So while there is nothing in the invocation on the wall that would offend Christian sensibility, it is recognized as a distinctive Muslim formulation.
In a similar vein, the school near our old apartment was also public in nature, but each day the students were led in opening exercises which included the choral shouting of Allahu Akbar – God is great. Again, while every Christian student would agree, this phrase is recognized as distinctively Islamic. Many Christians, if they can afford it, will pay to put their children in private schools. In addition to being regarded as providing superior education, many of these parents will also complain about a perceived bias towards Islam in the school system. Are their worries legitimate? We have much to learn.
Teach your children swimming, archery, and how to ride horses.
This is a phrase believed to have originated with Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph of the Islamic state following the death of Muhammad. Omar was among the leaders most successful for spreading Arab governance throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The military implications of his saying are obvious enough. Equally obvious is that no swimming, archery, or equestrian activity whatsoever takes place within the walls of this school.
Today by all appearances the phrase is utilized to demonstrate the early importance of education in the Arab world. The military applications, common to early education practices of many empires throughout history, have given way to the more general invocation to care for the development of children. This will be seen further in the generic phrases given below.
Education: The development of nations is measured by the knowledge of their children.
Fair enough. I imagine there would be a good correlation between test scores in essential subjects and rankings on the world GDP index.
Exercising builds the body and refines one’s morals, so do it!
Despite the appearances, this is not a take on the Nike slogan. Such scholastic marketing would probably be more akin to the American system.
Put a tissue on your nose when you sneeze so you don’t infect your colleagues.
And also this one below:
Fight sickness with personal cleanliness.
The swine flu virus terrified Egypt. I do not know if this slogan predates its onset or not, but there were extensive public education campaigns on how to avoid contagion. Many schools were shut down if certain children tested positive. Upon arrival, airline travelers were asked to submit to a special medical card, and those with fever were pulled aside for further testing. Less effectively, they also killed all the pigs in the garbage district, complicating natural recycling methods. These slogans were meant to promote good hygiene among the students.
Concerning all of these slogans, a colleague of mine remarked that schools are notorious for putting forward a public image that serves to mask the deficiencies – often in the very slogans – of what goes on inside the walls. The hope is that this does not prove true for the final picture:
Be an agent for good and not a reason for evil.
With these children, and all else in Egypt, may it be so.