Friday, October 07, 2005

In search of......

Today I went out in search of …..pork. Now, given that this is a Muslim country and that Muslims have about as much desire to eat pork as Jews do, this was quite a challenge. When we lived in Cairo in the early ‘90s I frequented a little shop run by an old Coptic (Christian) man. He primarily dealt with pork products but he sold homemade wine and spirits as a side line. And, of course the only people who stepped foot in that shop were non-Muslims. (Given that there were only a handful of Jews in Egypt in those days the likelihood of one of them even being on the same street as that shop was pretty slim to none.)

I used to enjoy the smoked bacon from that little shop in Cairo. Some of the best I’ve ever had anywhere. And, I could get pork chops and pork tenderloin to satisfy that American craving for “the other white meat.”

So, after asking some of my Coptic acquaintances here in Khartoum, I found out that there were some butcher shops run by Copts where one could actually get pork. I understand that there is a large farm outside of Khartoum where a Coptic family raises pigs, along with ducks and the occasional turkey. “Go downtown,” one of my friends said. “Many of the merchants there are Copts.”

So, it was downtown that I went today. It’s easy to tell the shops owned by Copts. The place on the wall where, in a Muslim shop, would be some huge framed quote from the Koran (in garish Arabic calligraphy) there is, in a Coptic shop, a huge picture of Jesus or Mary, or both. None of this sentimental Soloman’s Head of Christ with its blonde, blue-eyed Jesus! No, siree. These are the Middle Eastern Jesus pictures with a stern, dark-skinned Jesus who looks like he has had to put up with lots of the same kind of craziness in his day that we have to endure today. He’s a Man to be reckoned with in those pictures!

This was the first time I had ventured into this particular shop and I was immediately struck by how immaculately clean it was. Glistening clean! White tiles scrubbed and sanitized. Inside the shop there were two big freezer containers with packages of chicken and beef cut ready to purchase. In front of a large, high butcher counter was a desk with a very pleasant Coptic woman who greeted me with a smile. It was easy to tell she was Coptic…..none of this head-covering that good Muslim women observe. None of the deferential, subservient womanly attitude. This lady was straight-forward and in charge!

Behind the butcher counter were two very dark men, cutting up a side of beef. Southerners both of them, I assumed. And Christian or, at the very least, NOT Muslim.

There was also a customer at the counter waiting for his order to be prepared.

I greeted the mistress of the shop and asked (in Arabic) if it were possible to purchase some pork.

“It is illegal to sell han-zir (pork) in Sudan,” was her firm, but polite reply. She stared straight into my eyes.

“Oh,” I replied. “I see.” Our eyes were locked and I detected the slightest nod of her head in the direction of the seemingly oblivious customer. I played along…… “Perhaps I’ll just wait and look around,” I said quietly.

The proprietor smiled.

Soon, the customer had retrieved his meat and headed out the door. I turned back to the lady. “Do you speak English?” I asked. “Of course,” she replied in English laced with a soft, British accent.

“Perhaps now you are able to tell me where I might find pork for sale,” I said.

Her smile widened, “Here, of course, but we must be careful. No one must see us selling it because it is illegal.”

She called quietly to one of the butchers to go fetch a side of pork for me to see. While he disappeared into the back room, the other butcher went to the front door of the shop to stand guard. What, I thought, would happen to me if caught in this transaction? Is there a special prison for non-believing Westerners who need to satisfy their craving for pork?

The butcher reappeared with a large piece of pork ribs and began to show it to me. Just then, there was someone at the front door and the lady looked frightened. She waved the butcher back into the back room while two very Arabic-looking men came in. We all waited nervously as they bought some chicken and then left the shop.

Once again in the clear, we quickly finished our transaction. As I stood paying the lady, I asked her (in English) if it were really such a crime to sell pork. “Oh, yes,” she replied. “But,” I asked, “shouldn’t it be a crime to eat the pork, not to buy the pork?”

“With shar’ia (the Islamic code of law which rules this country), both are illegal! We must be very careful…….It’s crazy, no?” I had to agree. She looked over to where the fellows were once again cutting up beef carcasses after having cut up some pork for me. “If they were to ever see…..!!!!” She didn’t finish her sentence. She didn’t have to. No self-respecting Muslim would ever be able to eat a piece of beef that had been cut in the same shop as a piece of forbidden pork!

There was a little touch of wickedness in the wry smile that she had as I winked and walked away.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Random thoughts from the Superintendent

I feel some days like I'm swimming upstream.....tons of work, very little time, more frustrations than successes, etc. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy what I'm doing but there are moments when.....well, you probably know what I mean. The other day, I was in a meeting at the US Embassy here in town. Because of "security concerns" the State Department has decreed that this Embassy is an "unaccompanied post" (i.e., there are no spouses or dependents here in country -- a lonely existence for our US diplomats, to be sure!). That means, of course, that we have no Embassy children in the school. One result is that the school has a very low priority on the "to do" list of the US Embassy in Khartoum. As the school's superintendent, it falls to me to keep the Embassy from forgetting us altogether. At the meeting the other day, I guess I got a little "passionate" about our little school. No ever accused me of lacking in passion, that's for sure! It probably was most un-diplomatic of me but it was, well......me.

The next day, I faced a blank computer screen, knowing that I needed to send out my weekly letter to the parents. Here's what came out, some of the foundation stones of the passion that I feel for my work, my vocation, if you will..........

September 29, 2005

Dear Parents:

This week has flown by! Where does the time go? That ancient, Latin-dictum – Tempus fugit (“time flees or escapes”) – rings ever more true the older I get. In the rush of “escaping time” I have not had a minute to pull myself together, let alone pull together my thoughts. Instead, I’m carrying with me some strong impressions based on the events of this past week. May I be so bold as to share some of these impressions with you?

It’s more than just words…..Last evening, the ESL (English as Second Language) teachers organized a wonderful program for the parents of our ESL students. Here at KAS, we’re proud that our school offers the very best program of this type to international students in Khartoum and at last night’s program, our ESL teachers had an opportunity to present the program to the parents. Part of the program involved two of our ESL students – Negar Khojasteh (Grade 2) and Jin Shen Zhao (Grade 8) – giving excellent, short presentations both in their native languages (Farsi and Chinese) and in English. We all saw the incredible success these two students have had in only one short year of study. But, in those presentations, I was struck by another very important part of language learning: it’s not just about words and phrases! Indeed, there are powerful cultural values that are carried with and by our language. Learning something other than our mother-tongue opens us up to an entirely new world of thoughts, values, and expression. For me, this is at the very heart of education.

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Do you know the root of the word education? It comes directly from the Latin word, educere, “ex-“ (out of) + “ducere” (to lead). So, as educators, we should be seeking to “lead out” – bring out – of the student rather than to “pour into” the student in this teaching/learning process we call “education.” Looking at education from this perspective should give us all reason to pause. How often have we as teacher, or as parents, or as a society, sought to pour into, or pile onto our students more work, more lessons, more assignments, more projects, more, more, more….. thinking that we were better educating our children or our students? In a very real sense, education isn’t about piling on more work. It is, however, about calling forth that part of a student that wants and needs to make sense of life in this world.

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The answer you get depends on the question you ask. It seems logical and obvious but it’s something we often ignore in the educational process when we get too caught up in finding the RIGHT ANSWER. I think it’s fair to say that the goal and purpose of much schooling over the past century has been to learn the correct answers and then to be able to recall those right answers for tests of various sorts. In today’s world, facing the problems and issues that surround us, merely knowing a set of answers is not enough. We need, instead, to know the RIGHT QUESTIONS. Indeed, the people who are the most adept at asking the questions will be the ones who have the greatest power to determine the answers. Think about it! If you start from the premise of the questions being more important than the answers, you have a whole new way of looking at education. Whatever you call it, you won’t say it’s “traditional.” Here at KAS, I am pushing the faculty to examine their practices from this perspective and it probably will not be “business as usual” as we get further into our work together.

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One of the best books on education that I’ve read in the past few years is entitled, "The Schools our Children Deserve," by Alfie Kohn. Kohn is a prolific commentator on the state of American education and in this particular book he clearly outlines a vision for truly excellent schools, the kinds of schools our sons and daughters deserve.

In the book, Kohn has a great chart listing “What to Look for in a Classroom.” Among the things he looks for in the classrooms our children deserve are: evidence of student collaboration, the “frequent hum (sound) of activity and ideas being exchanged, different activities taking place simultaneously, the respectful/genuine/warm tone in a teacher’s voice, emphasis on thoughtful exploration of complicated issues, and students asking questions at least as often as the teacher does.

Quite frankly, Kohn’s list is my list. There, I’ve admitted it! I’m seeking to call out ("educere")of this school all the very best that it has and I think we will have succeeded when we see, hear, and sense the buzz of ideas, the fruits of collaboration, the “thoughtful exploration of complicated issues,” and the presence of a mindset that knows that the right questions are worth at least as much as, if not a whole lot more than, the right answers.