In troubled times, language can divide or bind us

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Outside the Box, a  column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2015

When I was in teenager, my father announced at dinner one night that we’d be moving to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know where Saudi Arabia was, but I wanted to go. After the meal, I went downstairs and pulled out an atlas and found the large desert country on the other side of the world.

I couldn’t wait to go. I wanted a change and an adventure. I parted with my beloved Ford Mustang, which I had purchased with my hard-earned fast-food and waitressing wages. We landed in Riyadh and I discovered we had moved to a country where women were banned from driving.

The dictates of the culture and laws of the land clipped my teenage wings and quashed the independence I’d enjoyed in America. I couldn’t leave the house on my own. I had to be with a male companion—my father or one of my younger brothers.

I was both frustrated and enchanted with my new home. I loved the vast desert landscape with its hidden wadis and rolling dunes, the Bedouin traditions of hospitality, the history, the bustling ancient suqs. And the language.

I left Saudi Arabia to attend college in rain-soaked Oregon. I had decided to become a foreign correspondent, so I majored in journalism and French. I studied Russian as my second language. It was a different time; Arabic wasn’t offered.

When I graduated, I went to Cairo to begin my journalism career. I have a knack for languages and I picked up the Egyptian dialect by ear—in the streets, the markets, taxis. I worked with a tutor to improve my understanding. My Arabic served me well in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Egypt; but, it was conversational at best and I dreamed of being fluent.

My second year at Allegheny, the college began its Arabic program and hired a professor of Arabic and invited a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant, both named Reem. I asked Reem Hilal, the professor, if I could sit in on classes.

Ahlan wa sahlan. You are welcome.

Both women assured me I belonged in intermediate Arabic. I wasn’t so sure. I spoke colloquial Arabic, but I could barely read or write it. Plus, we’d be studying classical Arabic, al-fusha.

My vocabulary carried me for a while. I soon learned being a student and being a student as a professor are two different things. When I was a student, I spent hours on my studies of French and Russian. I attended my language labs and conversation tables. As a professor, students come first; my own class comes last. I told Professor Hilal I needed to start over in beginning Arabic.

I love being a student. It reconnects me to what it feels like to be facing the front of the classroom rather than facing the class. As a student, I still get nervous when the professor calls on me to write on the board. I feel badly when I don’t do my homework.

I get to witness the stress of the students. After one exam, I walked into a gathering of classmates outside Ruter Hall. They were talking rapid-fire, a few smoking cigarettes. They were giddy with relief that they’d made it through the midterm. It made me remember the remarkable pressure to perform that students impose on themselves. I was once that student, minus the cigarette. Now I walk out smiling if I’m able to finish the exam.

In learning a language, I’ve found I learn about the people who speak it and their culture. I also learn about my culture and myself.

When I was a student in France, I quickly realized that I could translate my English into French and still miscommunicate by missing the nuances of the words, body language and culture. Americans are generally an exuberant, happy-ending-loving, bordering-on-hyberbolic people. We love words like amazing, awesome, fantastic. If it’s cold outside, I might say it’s freezing. Il ne fait pas chaud, it’s not hot, is the likely French rendering of the same weather.

As I was finishing this column, I ran into Salah Algabli, a Yemeni who is the current Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant at Allegheny. I asked him if he had a few minutes to talk about learning a language.

Sure, when you hear a language, you will get to know the people, the culture and, sometimes, the faith, Salah said. Learning a language helps you understand the deeper meaning of the words. You learn how to understand and express happiness, sadness, gratitude, friendship.

In Yemen, there’s an expression, taht al rasa, or al rasa, Salah said. It literally means “under the head,” however, if a stranger came to a village and said al rasa to the chief, it truly means “I am under your protection,” a cry for sanctuary that the villagers are bound to honor.

Salah noted that when he first came to America he would start his conversations with questions, as he would in his homeland. How are you? How’s your family? How are your children? He realized people would look at him strangely.

They felt like I’m a creepy person, Salah said. What might be creepy in America would be considered rude if he didn’t do it in his country. In Arab cultures, it’s expected to make such extended inquiries into the health of friends and loved ones.

Salah said he’s learned the American equivalent. “What’s up?” He now asks that one simple question.

The other day I heard a piece on National Public Radio by Michel Martin, entitled “Grief Knows No Native Tongue—but We Must Listen, Whenever It Speaks.” She wrote it in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. She noted that on the same Friday that members of the Islamic State group launched the attacks in Paris, a bomb killed people at midday prayers in Yemen and a suicide attack at a Baghdad funeral killed at least 18 people. There were two attacks in Beirut that killed more than 40 people last Thursday.

These attacks killed people indiscriminately, regardless of language, faith, nationality, gender or age.

In troubled times, language can divide or bind us.

When I think of the victims of violence, including the refugees, I remember the expression Salah taught me.

Taht al rasa. I am under your protection.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Key to success in class, and life, is to show up–even when things get tough

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Outside the Box by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

Last fall at the annual welcome bash at the president’s house, I met Allegheny’s new professor of Arabic, Reem Hilal, and her mother.

Ahlan wa sahlan, I said. Welcome.

I chatted with Hilal in my rusty Egyptian dialect and I told her I’d love to study Arabic.

Ahlan wa sahlan, she said.

I next met Reem Abou Elenain, the Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant, who hails from Alexandria, Egypt. Both Reems—Hilal and Abou Elenain—insisted my Arabic was too advanced for the beginning course and advised me to join the intermediate class. I knew better.

I have lived in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and I worked for a significant stretch of my career in the Middle East and Africa. I have no formal training in Arabic. I learned by ear—and by necessity.

I speak street. I knew enough Arabic to scream at the man who called me a sharmota, whoreas I passed near Tahrir Square when I was a young journalist in Cairo. I had enough vocabulary and moxie—yes, moxie is part of the language—to talk riot police into letting me pass through their phalanx during Gulf War protests.

Yet, I don’t know classical Arabic, the gorgeous language of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, with its lyrical script that I can barely read and a grammar I have never tackled.

I held my own in the early weeks of intermediate Arabic. As the semester passed, I attended fewer classes. As a professor, I discovered that teaching class, grading assignments and attending meetings often sidelined my attempts at being a student.

And, as a professor, I am keenly aware that I set an example whether I am in front of a class or in it. By midterm, I realized I couldn’t keep up—and worse, I wasn’t setting a good example. I was embarrassed when I didn’t have the right answers to write on the white board. The students were gracious and patient with me. I eventually beat a retreat.

This semester Reem Hilal is on maternity leave and Reem Abou Elenain is back in Egypt. I spoke with Bilal Humeidan, the professor teaching Arabic this fall, and Salah Algabli, the new Fulbright assistant.

Déjà vu.

After chatting with me, Salah insisted I take intermediate Arabic. I insisted I needed the beginning class.

Three times each week, I join a group of intrepid Allegheny students in a tiny classroom in Ruter Hall where we stumble and sparkle through our Arabic lessons. It’s fun to be a student. I join others at the board for dictation exercises. We play games to improve our vocabulary.

Last week Humeidan led an impromptu Arabic version of Pictionary, a game I’ve never played in English. The word was shebaab, people. As I stood at the board with my dry erase marker poised, I decided it would take too long to draw a crowd of faces, so I wrote the word in Arabic. I felt clever. Problem solved. My team guessed correctly—though I was disqualified. Not so clever. I learned a player can only draw images—no words allowed.

Who knew? I know I’m still competitive, just as I was as an undergrad. I still strive for an A in class.

I took the first quiz. I wasn’t sure how I’d done. I would like to have studied more. I would prefer if my memory and retention were as sharp as when I studied French and Russian years ago at Oregon State University.

When the professor returned my quiz, I didn’t dare look at it. I hesitated. Then I opened it slowly and peaked at the score. An A. A smile busted out across my face and I busted into a happy dance.

I couldn’t help myself. I posted on Facebook. “I got an A on my Arabic quiz. As a student, I’ve still got game.” My friends around the world gave me thumbs up.

I enjoy learning. I don’t mind looking silly, taking a risk in Pictionary or mispronouncing a word. I’m learning to read and write Arabic. Alhamdulillah. Thanks be to God.

I do mind falling behind. It is getting tougher to keep up now. We switched books and gears. We’ve finished learning the alphabet and we’re on to bigger things: grammar, syntax and verbs. The amount of homework and the time needed to complete it doubled overnight.

I tell students in our journalism courses that one of the keys to success in class, and in life, is to show up. That’s what I intend to do. Keep showing up.

There’s a midterm on the horizon.

I can do this. Insha’allaah. If God wills it.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/outside-the-box-key-to-success-in-class-and-life/article_ce85287a-5a23-11e4-939a-d74312c02238.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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A seat at the table

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/x493485708/Getting-a-seat-at-the-table-takes-a-strong-jaw-and-spirit

When I graduated from college, I had no job. I was told to get an unpaid internship to build my portfolio.

Even then, I balked. I didn’t like the idea of working for no money; however, I relented and found a gig at the local daily newspaper.

A calendar with a bikini-clad woman straddling a motorcycle greeted me in the darkroom.

It was the worst version of a Cinderella story. The two male staff photographers envisioned my job as a step-and-fetch, answer-the-phone, do-what-we-don’t-want-to-do internship. Instead of mentorship, they offered me their disdain and the dregs of the assignments. I poured my energy and enthusiasm into each one, assuming I had to prove myself.

One day, a presidential candidate was passing through town and everyone on staff was covering his visit and speech. I was thrilled. I had no hope of getting a plum assignment or photo position; however, I knew I’d get a shot at photographing a major news event. I’d get to go to the party. After all, I’d paid my dues.

The photo editor assigned me to the newsroom, to answer phones, file negatives and cover any other news that might come up.

What? There is no other news.

Then and there I realized the editor and his sidekick were not interested in offering me learning opportunities. I went to the managing editor. Of course you can cover it, he said.

I covered the event and left the unpaid internship.

I hopped on a plane to Cairo. I figured if I had to make no money I’d rather be where I was doing what I wanted to do.

Out of the frying pan. Into the fire.

Egypt—then and now—is not an easy place for women, especially for a single, foreign woman. Photojournalism—then and perhaps less now—is a male-dominated profession in the U.S. and Egypt.

I first landed a job at a monthly English language magazine. As an independent photojournalist, I also got regular assignments from the wire services, Reuters and the Associated Press. Later I photographed assignments in the Middle East and Africa for photo agencies in Paris and Milan.

On one occasion, I went to the presidential palace for a press conference. I arrived an hour early to get a position. There was only one other woman in the press corps that day. Just before the conference started, an Egyptian TV cameraman walked in and set up his tripod and camera directly in front of me.

Naturally, as a woman, I was invisible to him and had no place there.

I knew it was risky and ill advised to challenge him; however, I needed that camera position to do my job. There was a heated discussion among the journalists and a scene. He eventually shifted his position.

A few weeks later, I was back at the presidential palace to cover an event with a visiting delegation of United States congressmen. The press scrum had tripled and included U.S. traveling press from major TV networks and newspapers.

The same Egyptian TV cameraman set up his gear directly behind me. Each time I raised my camera to shoot, he pushed me, jarring my arm and ruining the photograph. I decided to escape his retaliation and move. As I left, I shoved him so he would give me room to shift position. He turned and punched me in the face.

I did what I learned in Egypt. I made a scene. A woman from CBS said she’d file an official complaint. A melee ensued. The congressmen looked confused as the security guards rushed them from the scene and swarmed the journalists to pull our presidential credentials.

I quickly tucked my presidential press pass inside my shirt and covered it with my hands when the guards tried to strip it from me. I pointed to the cameraman. Strip his credential. He punched me in the face. He lost his credential. I kept mine.

If I sound like I was tough, I wasn’t, truly. I took a lot of punches—literally and figuratively—in my career. I’d get the wind knocked out of me and I’d get back up.

As an Army brat, my father raised me with stern instructions not to rock the boat or talk back. And definitely not to challenge authority.

I told my father years later that it was crippling advice for a woman in a man’s world.

This semester, I’ve been mentoring a student who wants to be a sports reporter. I arrived at a basketball game one evening and discovered a row of men seated at the long bench that serves as the press table. There was no place for the young woman reporter.

I asked the men for a seat for her. Most ignored me. A few glanced in my direction. A couple shrugged and turned their backs to me. They didn’t make room for her.

I climbed up the bleachers and found the director of sports information.

At first, the men found a seat on the cement stairs next to the press table.

No. A seat at the table, I insisted.

The next game I arrived and found a large paper with the reporter’s name and publication taped to the press table. She had an official, reserved spot.

I showed her the paper and made a photograph of it. You have a seat at the table, I said. Literally and metaphorically. This is important. Remember this.

No one is going to give you anything. You have to ask for it. Then you demand it. Then you take it and own it. You have every right to have a seat at the table.

This week I am proud to announce the inaugural Allegheny College internship at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A woman and non-traditional student will be a features reporter for 10 weeks this summer. She’ll have an accomplished staff journalist as a mentor.

And she’ll be paid for her time and talent.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Recent uprising gives Egypt hope for the future

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

As a young girl, I dreamed of visiting the land of the Pyramids.

Mighty Isis was my favorite comic book heroine. On my teenage bedroom walls, posters that featured ancient Egyptian tomb paintings with Nefretari and Isis flanked my Led Zeppelin poster. I was fascinated with the art, religion, history and mythology of ancient Egypt.

In graduate school in France, I studied Egyptology with experts in the field.

After graduation, I earned an internship at an English language monthly magazine in Cairo. My childhood dreams were coming true.

I stepped off the plane in Egypt and quickly realized I knew nothing about the modern country and its culture.

On my first night in the hotel that would be my temporary home, a colleague came to welcome me. Three men burst into the room and escorted my guest to the lobby. I was a single woman and I was not allowed to have men in my room, the interlopers told me. They publicly chastised me and called me a prostitute.

Ahlan wa sahlan fi Misr. Welcome in Egypt.

I learned the men were members of the mukhabarat, the secret police. I would have many encounters with them during my three years in Egypt.

As a foreigner and journalist, I was under surveillance. My phone was tapped; my movements were monitored. I became adept at identifying the plain-clothed mukhabarat, who often followed me.

On one assignment, I accompanied a reporter from Reuters, the British news agency, to cover a press conference announced by a Muslim sheikh in a town outside of Cairo. The sheikh was rumored to be both abroad and under house arrest in Egypt. It was a good story.

We were stopped on the road outside the oasis town. The police asked for our documents and refused to answer our questions. My colleague handed over her British passport; I kept mine. Once they had her passport, they told her that she could not legally proceed.

I got out of the car and starting walking.

Where are you going? I’m walking to the press conference.

By this time, the police forced my colleague into a vehicle. I had a choice: leave her, or go with her and abandon the press conference.

I went with her; I still did not relinquish my passport. The men took us to a small building in the middle of the desert in the middle of nowhere and stuck us in a room with two metal chairs and a beat-up desk.

Am I under arrest? No.

Then I’m free to leave. No.

I want to call the American embassy. No.

I was not under arrest. I was being held against my will. I had no rights.

Ahlan wa sahlan fi Misr.

Hours later, they released us. They had successfully blocked us—and other reporters we later learned—from attending the press conference.

They told us to go back to Cairo. We didn’t. We were bound to determine if the sheikh was indeed in the country and under house arrest. We spent the night in town. A secret policeman followed our every move on his tiny motorcycle. He wore a fake leather jacket and a long, white scarf that trailed behind him. He sat in a corner of the restaurant where we ate dinner, hiding in plain sight.

The next day we went to the mosque we’d heard the sheikh attended.

As we waited, the mukhabarat gathered at a distance on all sides of the dirt road. As soon as the sheikh crossed toward the mosque, the secret police pounced. They dragged me in one direction and my colleague in another, lifting us off the ground. I resented being manhandled and resisted. Resistance is futile, as the “Star Trek” saying goes.

They roughed us up and sent us on our way again. We left. We had the story.

Twenty years later, I was in Alaska when the events began in Tahrir Square two years ago. As a journalist, I longed to return to Egypt, to witness and document the historic uprising as the people who packed the square for weeks demanded an end to the rule of Hosni Mubarak, who’d been president since 1981.

In this case, resistance was not futile. Through social media and solidarity, the crowds held against the authorities. The vice president announced that Mubarak resigned on Feb. 11, 2011.

Last semester, a young woman came to my office and asked to join our news writing class. Her name is Reem Abou Elenain and she is a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant from Alexandria, Egypt.

The class is full, I told her. She expressed her enthusiasm for learning about journalism and news writing. I could put you on a waiting list in case a spot opens, I offered.

She wouldn’t take no for an answer.

I told her she had the qualities of a journalist: passion and persistence. I added her to the class roster. She brought fresh perspectives of American news coverage of events in the Middle East. She now writes columns and works as an editor at The Campus, the student newspaper.

Reem was in Egypt when the revolution began on Jan. 25, 2011.

Before the revolution, Reem said people were terrified and without hope. They felt watched.

“I didn’t feel that Egypt was my country,” Reem said. “Other people owned it through corruption and monopoly.”

“When the revolution happened, it was the happiest moment in my life,” Reem said. “I was screaming from my heart and it was never too loud. We united as a people. It was beautiful. As women, our voices were loud and heard.”

“We removed the most powerful and corrupt person,” Reem said, referring to Mubarak

Now Reem believes there’s a future for her and her country.

“Now it’s mine. I love it. There is hope.”

This Thursday, Feb. 13, Reem is bringing the Academy Award-nominated documentary, “The Square,” to Allegheny College. I couldn’t be in Tahrir Square in February 2011; I will be in Quigley Auditorium at 7 p.m.

Ahlan wa sahlan.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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