A cross-cultural experience I didn’t expect

I just recently acquired some vocabulary in Arabic that I know no English equivalent for. Now I'm not talking about the names of dishes or idioms here in Cairo, but words for things that are common and regularly sold in the US; things like art supplies. How did I learn these words?

I went out and bought art supplies.

Now this may not sound like a big deal to many of you, but I have spent my entire life avoiding anything that seemed remotely similar to an art class, particularly those dealing with drawing.

How did I end up in this situation? Well registration here is a bit ... convoluted. There were no consistent directions for how or when to register, and the directions that did exist were sent to maybe half of the study abroad students. So when I came to Cairo, I hadn't registered for classes didn't know how to register, and, by the time I did figure out how to register (after many hours sitting in the international programs office) most of the 200 level anthro, polisci, and history classes were filled. So while I was sitting in the international programs office, I thankfully flipped through a schedule of classes book and picked out a few more classes by the "interesting title and does-it-give-me-a-three-day-weekend" rule. This is how I came to register for "Architecture: Art or Engineering". A bunch of the other classes I wanted were full, so when this one fit in my schedule and seemed interesting, I decided to take it.

When I signed up for the course, I thought the class would be slides, lecture, essays - a fluff engineering course. The listing I saw was colored under "architectural engineering," so I thought the course might also involve doing a few easy engineering problems. Boy was I wrong. My first clue was the classroom - it's an art studio. No hiding it. The next tip off was the design (and I mean graphic design) professor from the art department who was leading the class. In the first class, he did the traditional "who you are, why are you here" routine that is very common here; it turns out that the class is primarliy business and art majors, with myself and two architecture majors being the only other majors. Little did I know that the course was cross listed in the art department when I was signing up for it.

Things got tricky for me in our first assignment: to draw our dream house. In pencil. I can't even draw a remotely straight line and at the end of class, my picture was hung up next to an art major's. It looked even worse because I only had a pen with me and had to ask the TA where to get a pencil. Thankfully there's an engineering prof co-teaching this class who wasn't at the first class, so in the next class I won't be the only engineer in a class that has engineering in its title. Still, even on the first day of class I was already being called on to represent all of America in our discussions.

Basically, this class is another cultural immersion for me on top of the whole "being in Egypt" thing. I didn't recognize half of the things on my supply list for the class, and it was written in English. The TA then was kind enough, because I'm the only foreign student in the class, to draw a map of where I could find art supply stores near campus and then translate my supply list into Arabic so the storekeepers would have a clue of what I was looking for. Even then it took, in addition to my weak grasp of colloquial Arabic and the translated list, gestures, pointing, and drawing to convey what the heck I was looking for. Fortunately, most Egyptian shopkeepers find my lack of arabic cute and most exchanges involve jokes and laughter rather than frustration. In the end I got the supplies I need for my next class on Thursday and spent about 100LE on art supplies. At the time, this felt like a lot, since lunch here is about 3LE, but really, my 100LE of art supplies cost me about $18, which I would certainly consider a bargain in the states. It's strange how quickly my sense of price transitioned away from the dollar.

But back to the words I learned. The first of these was stambet fash and it's a plastic sheet where you can trace out details for blueprints and floor plans like sinks or bathtubs. The second was shiffef which is a smooth thin sheet of yellow-ish tracing paper. Finally there is another type of paper called kelp which is used for similar things as shiffef but isn't as nice. Now I just need to learn what these things are called in English.

Pictures from class coming soon - as long as they're not too embarrassing


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