Egypt: A New Tongue to Win Hearts and Minds

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Feb 6 14:25:25 UTC 2009

February 6, 2009
Beni Suef Journal
A New Tongue to Win Hearts and Minds

BENI SUEF, Egypt — The United States spends a lot of money in Egypt.
It gives Egypt about $1.7 billion in cash aid annually, most of which
goes to purchase weapons and support the military. There is also a
huge United States Embassy in Cairo, second in size only to the new
one in Iraq, filled with diplomats, military officers, F.B.I. agents,
drug enforcement agents, C.I.A. agents and more. The United States
also spent about $2,000 over two years to teach Yousra Yousef to speak
English. She is a 15-year-old from Asyut, one of the most
conservative, tradition-bound cities in this country, once an
incubator for Islamic extremism. Officials in Washington were a bit
angry at how much it cost to teach Ms. Yousef, an official here said,
because in other countries, the same program costs about $1,000 a

But what did the United States get for its investment in this young
woman? "The most important idea I learned is to respect differences,"
said Ms. Yousef, with a big white smile. She said this in English,
expressing an idea considered rebellious in a society that prizes and
encourages conformity. Ms. Yousef picked up her new language and
thinking skills as part of Access, an after school English language
program that is a small, almost invisible corner of the United States
Department of State's multibillion-dollar budget. It is a low profile,
delayed-impact program that aims to promote change and understanding
from the bottom up. Since its inception in 2004, it has taught 32,000
students in 50 countries.

Access arrived in Egypt about two years ago and 182 teenagers from all
over the country, Christians and Muslims, young men and young women,
have graduated from the program. The only requirement is that they
come from poor families. The program was never promoted as part of the
Bush administration's drive to bring democracy to the Middle East, and
may never have been conceived in those terms. But the young people say
it has changed their lives, leading them to embrace diversity,
tolerance and compromise, the building blocks of a democratic,
pluralistic society.

"Everything in my life is different now," said Manal Adel Ahmed, a
16-year-old girl who also is from Asyut. "Before, I was afraid to deal
with anybody who was different, I thought it was bad. Now, I think
it's important to get to know other people and other cultures."

The course work emphasizes learning English, but it also aims to
impart a better understanding of American culture, which is often
quite alien to the young people here. "Thanksgiving is my favorite
American holiday," said Nourhan Ahmed, 16. "The idea of having your
whole family come around and eat once a year is great, especially
because it's not religious. It's not for one group or another. It's
for everyone."

Having completed the two-year course, these young women were
participating in a three-day alumni camp here, about an hour and a
half drive south of Cairo. It was intended as part refresher program
and part effort to keep in touch with the young people.

For all the program's apparent success, the American officials said
there was no natural follow-up in place, and not even any certainty
that the program would continue beyond the second group, which
includes 192 students now studying in cities across Egypt.

"I could get depressed if there is no more Access," said Rizk Massoud,
16, also from Asyut. "It changed my life, it changed my thinking, my
choices, my friends. It opened doors. There isn't one area it didn't
benefit me in."

The camp was held at the Mediterranean Center for Sustainable
Development, a walled oasis of calm and possibility in a poor, dry
region of Egypt, south of Cairo, where people often share their homes
with farm animals.

"You can't build democracy by saying, 'We take democracy,' " said Adly
Hassanein, who with his wife, Djodi, owns the center. "You have to
build democracy in the hearts of young people."

Graduates of the Access program were invited to participate in one of
four three-day programs held at Mr. Hassanein's center.

"We learned about equality," said Abanoud Wanees, 16, who is from the
city of Minya.

"We learned about individualism," said Fady Samir, 14, also from
Minya. Then he stood up and said: "I want to add something. They let
us learn to think."

On Monday, the students were invited to a workshop run by three
American musicians living in Cairo: Jeff Harding, Eden Unger and Nate
Bowditch. Their group, called the Fuuls, pointed to its very name for
a lesson to the students, offering a touch of self-deprecating humor
by playing on the English meaning of the word and the Arabic, which
refers to a popular bean paste eaten for breakfast.

"We are stupid beans," Ms. Unger said, drawing a laugh from the 35 students.

The Fuuls taught the students "If I had a Hammer," the 1960s
progressive anthem familiar to any middle-aged American who went to
camp. The song was chosen because the English was simple and the
symbolism — the hammer as justice — relevant.

Within a few minutes, the students were singing with enthusiasm, the
guys wrapping arms around each other, the girls reading the words

There is an obvious, and potentially controversial component of the
program, which is to build affection for the United States. But that
did not seem to bother the students, even when they were asked to wave
little American flags to greet the United States ambassador to Egypt,
Margaret Scobey, who stopped by to visit. They were eager to show off
their English skills, and to ask the question that seemed to be
troubling them most.

"Their first question to the ambassador was, 'What's next for us?' "
said Robert Lindsey, the State Department's Egypt coordinator for

The students seemed disappointed by the answer. They were told there
were no more steps to Access, that it could help them get into other
programs, but that would be up to them.

"We don't want it to be two years that just passed and then it's
over," said Sandy Morris, 15, of Minya.

"We took the first step, so we want to take the next step," said
Bishoy Wanees, 15, also of Minya.

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.

 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at


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