One of my classes this semester, Hieroglyphs I, is the hardest language class I have ever taken. If you talk to anyone who has studied abroad at AUC, you’re likely to hear words like “cakewalk,” “joke,” and “did all my homework on the bus” – but in the case of hieroglyphs, the joke is on us. While drawing tons of little snakes and bunnies and chicks may not seem like work at all – as Roommate A with her political economy flow charts and media trackers is always so kind to point out, while Roommate B snickers behind her Quranic historiography textbook – actually, learning the language of the Ancient Egyptians is a legitimate academic endeavor. Dr. Haikal realizes this and unlike the former hieroglyphs professor, who eased his students into the vocabulary with word banks, decided to plow straight through phrases and phrasal constructions and the incredibly complicated pronoun system and is now finishing up non-verbal sentences, even though that means learning at least 70 new words a week. Since every word has multiple hieroglyphic signs and we are not even clear on the signs yet, that is about 66.6 new words flying over my head each week. During the Cultural Revolution in China, the 100-characters-a-day program was a big deal because it meant a man could learn to read basic communication with 10 days…I think they should have added a caveat in huge bold letters: IF you give up all other functions of daily life AND get no sleep at ALL.
Inauspiciously, today was the return of the first exam. It was an extra scary return because last Wednesday was a holiday, and lots of people took Thursday off so they could travel the whole week (our school week is Sunday-Monday-Wednesday-Thursday), which means that most people overstayed their vacation and didn’t show up today. The five of us present were abusing our swivel chairs as Dr. Haikal shuffled the tests and told us how badly everyone failed this test. Finally she gave me mine with “Okay” written on top, then told me, “But that is like saying he who has one eye is a king among the blind.” We spent the rest of class going over the “very silly and obvious” mistakes, which were all of them.
But one really cool thing about learning Ancient Egyptian in Cairo is the veritable treasure chest of linguistic connections that can be exploited. When I first encountered hieroglyphs in the States, I read that a) Ancient Egyptian is a Hamo-Semitic language whose written form completely vanished about 1500 years ago, and b) no one speaks any variant of it except in a very esoteric context in Coptic liturgies. However, because most of its grammar comes from the Semitic side, it has many similarities with Arabic – Egyptian Arabic especially, since some names like “Nile” are actually derived from the Ancient Egyptian expression. Being a native Egyptian, Dr. Haikal regularly goes into Arabic to explain things, and even with my limited comprehension, the grammar clears up quite a bit. Perhaps other people have admired this approach before, for at work the other day I came across a volume titled “de la Hommages a Fayza Haikal”!
As for being an Administrative Intern, it has actually been much more engaging than I expected. I thought I was literally the girl who brings coffee to everyone, but my first day on the job, they told me someone was going to bring us all coffee and tea. I started out doing website summaries and scanning, but now I have my own project which is cataloging all these articles on the SCA’s main hard drive. The hard drive, with whom I have acquired some intimacy, bears the Horus name DJET. Other hard drives are named after Ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses, making for the chance to curse a real live Egyptian god when your hard drive goes haywire. But you do have to watch out for Hermione, who is the only non-divine hard drive and a name any Harry Potter fan will regret cussing out.
Probably the most impressive perk that comes with the job is an Antiquities Pass, a little piece of paper that doesn’t even have lamination on it which will let me visit any SCA site in Egypt FREE! I don’t really know how it works, but apparently I just show it to them and when they see “No Exceptions” written in Arabic they have to let me through. I can’t wait to use it…I am just itching for a day off soon, since my internship takes up 3 days of the week while school takes up the other 4. Just being there in the Foreign Office undeniably has its perks though! – last week, for example, I hung around late and was unexpectedly granted an extra ticket to the premiere of Aida at the Pyramids. I was bewildered at being treated so nicely and kept trying to return the ticket for someone’s sister, but in the end, I somehow wound up going home with three tickets. Aida actually takes place in Ancient Egypt and usually has temples, pyramids, and Sphinxes in the backdrop, which was replaced by the real pyramids and Sphinx on the hill behind the actors! The performance was mind-boggling. I had never been to an opera before and didn’t realize it would be in Italian, but even if I had been able to understand what they were singing, my attention would still have been impaled on the solid, looming, triangular presences in the dark beyond the stage, which suddenly came awash with light at dramatic moments in the story. It was so grand I wanted to clap just for the pyramids.
Sometimes in Cairo, I look around and think, How did I get here??? If I haven’t said so before, the disorientation is wonderful and unnerving at once, and anyone who has the chance, I highly highly HIGHLY recommend that you study abroad. I’d push for you to come to Cairo, but I know with the USC language restriction that can be thorny. Do please go somewhere, is all.
– Tiffany T.