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The nurseries: a dutiful father goes AWOL for Arabic

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer

Dr. H.A. Hellyer

When my wife and I were choosing nurseries in Cairo, we wanted, naturally, the best education for our child that we could afford. Of course, our choices were not the same as most Cairenes; we were, admittedly, looking at the same nurseries which are the choices of the economic elite of Egypt. Therein, I came to realise, lay part, actually most, of the problem.

Here is the thing. I have this weird, wacky, wonderful, wild, way out (you get the idea) notion that in a country whose national language is (wait for it) Arabic, it should not be particularly difficult to find a decent nursery that uses the language. My unscientific surveys of friends and colleagues in Egypt indicate that many have the same idea. Even those who were born and raised in Egypt shared this notion: a notion we all later realised, alas, was incredibly romantic.

As I suffer from this type of romantic delusion (I call it “sanity”), I saw fit to question the nurseries I happened to visit, as to why Arabic is not taught in the best nurseries of this “Arab Republic.”

I received a wonderful array of answers to this query. “We do not think that children can learn two languages at this age; so, we prioritise English,” was a common one. I thought that was stupendous, particularly when it was expressed in such obviously non-native (read: bad) English. I’m not sure if any of those nurseries realised that around the world, children learn, incredibly easily, more than one language with complete fluency, particularly at younger ages. But clearly, Egyptian children are, it seems, somewhat deficient in that basic intelligence (Nasserites and Arab nationalists: please note the sarcasm).

One of my favourite responses, I have to say, was the insistence that children, “learn Arabic in Egypt on the street anyway, so why should we teach them in the nursery?” Of course. How utterly dense of me to assume using Arabic in nursery could be useful in an Arabic-speaking country.

Never mind that most nurseries and schools in Egypt do precisely that, which just betrays the classist bias that these nurseries have. Never mind that it is not “Arabic” that children learn on the street, but a dialect of it, which will never provide them access to the great tomes of Arabic literature. Never mind that this approach has already led to several generations of many ‘upper class’ (a misnomer if ever there was one) Egyptians to be essentially illiterate in their mother tongue. Never mind that as far as many young Egyptians are concerned, Arabic is an uncivilised language to be used only with maids and porters. How silly of me to have even brought this up.

The irony of all this was that as a native English speaker, from England, I was having these discussions in English and in Arabic, demanding to know why my daughter would be kept from her right to know the language of Egypt, with Egyptians who certainly did not know English as a mother tongue, and never would.

One response to my bizarre mental condition (remember: I call it, “sanity”), was the suggestion of a cure. “Umm, perhaps you would prefer, then, an Islamic nursery?” I call that as a “cure,” as the impression I was given was that any person fluent in a European language (Egyptian or not) had a university degree & the resources to pay for a nursery such as the one I visited, and wanted their child to learn Arabic seriously could only be… well, sick in some way.

The “sickness” could only be one thing – I’d have to be a Muslim religious fundamentalist of some kind (as the Qur’an is in the Arabic language), and would thus only be satisfied in an “Islamic” nursery. (I’m not entirely sure what an “Islamic nursery” is, incidentally – is there a bismillah on the front door as you walk in?)

Needless to say, there was not much evidence to support that diagnosis. Conversely, I am also not quite sure that anyone would assume it would be abnormal to learn * Arabic * in, gasp, anArabcountrythatisresponsibleformoreArabicculturalexpressionthananyothercountryintheworld …

Finally, we found one nursery where, if they did not offer Arabic as much as they did English, they were at least honest. It did not do much to increase my faith in Egypt’s overall educational structure, though.

My hope is that my child, like any parent, will have the choice to go to any university she pleases in the future. In order for her to have a better chance to do so, I could not risk a national school, although I wouldn’t think twice in other countries. How could I, where the amount of investment into national education in Egypt is so meager and the government’s interest in improving education has been so lackluster? One hopes that the new Islamist government might take a few steps in that regard.

After all, I’m fairly sure that the first revelation in Islam was related to, umm, “reading,” and that the Prophet said something that seeking knowledge was a duty on every Muslim. So, one hopes… but one also does not want to suffocate from holding one’s breath (a virtual certainty in this case).

So, in Egypt, either a parent chooses home schooling (hardly viable in Egypt), or international schools. Herein lies the proverbial rump, which this last nursery let me in on: those schools have entrance exams. Those exams are in English, or French, or German… but never, ever, in Arabic. That’s not a condition of entry, not from the Ministry of Education, nor out of a sense of educational responsibility. Thus begins the cycle: the nurseries feel they have to drill one of those languages in for the exams.

This is the reality in modern Egypt. The country’s economic elite has developed an incredible cultural inferiority complex, and the Ministry of Education is perfectly content to leave it as such. As a result, entire generations of Egypt’s economic elite have been, and will continue to be robbed of a connection to their own cultural legacy. That economic elite, incidentally, disproportionately figures in all realms of influence in this country.

It is, of course, beyond the realm of imagination to consider a paradigm where Arabic is honoured as a language for cultural reasons, and where a European language is honoured so that Egyptians might participate more effectively on the world stage. Such creativity is beyond the pale, it seems.

I hasten to remind you, this is about the nursery. When I get round to choosing schools… well, the first nurseries I went to were glad to see the back of me, which embarrassed my wife to no end. When it’s time for schools, I have a feeling she’s going to save herself the trouble, and keep me at home. I reckon the schools will be eternally grateful, and might admit my daughter on that basis alone.

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. A fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.”

About the author

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .

  • Susie

    I wholeheartedly agree with your above analysis. I am half-Egyptian and half-American myself and have chosen to speak English to my sons as I happen to feel more fluent in English than in Arabic although I can read and write it. My husband is left with the speaking of Arabic. When it came time for nurseries I mentioned to many that I would love to find an Arabic nursery that is good quality. Unfortunately, just as you state, the better quality ones always are in another language and the Arabic ones are quite poor in quality. I even thought of starting an Arabic nursery that uses more western education techniques but in Arabic. It is frustrating for sure. But, I can also see the other perspective: an Egyptian parent who wants their child to be accepted at an International school, needs the ‘other’ language.


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