I didn’t know Princeton had offices in trailers until I went to see my Arabic professor in his. Tarek Elsayed teaches ARA 107, Intermediate Arabic, a class that is not for the faint of heart.
The first time I went to Tarek’s office hours, I walked fast. I wanted to fit in all my feminine dual conjugation questions within 30 minutes before finishing a paper, grabbing dinner, making a 3-hour dance rehearsal and then working on my thesis until 3 a.m. My Arabic test was at 10 a.m. the next morning, so if Tarek helped me understand the grammar concepts well enough, I could wake up at 8 and review them for an hour or so on the treadmill.
My mental planning paused when I got to the office. I was confused as I approached a trailer behind Dillon gym, far down campus away from the Gothic spires and ivy-trailing towers that Princeton catalogues usually boast.
A metal ramp leads up to the trailer door. Inside, the ceiling lights are a garish white on blank hallways that lead to the Outdoor Action office on one side and a makeshift Arabic department on the other. A clump of dumpsters is less than ten yards away, and stray cats often yowl as they pass by Tarek’s window on their way to dig through the trash.
In the afternoons, Tarek stands outside the trailer, letting out puffs of cigarette smoke and furrowing his tanned Egyptian brow against the cold of a New Jersey winter. He cups a mug of coffee – ahwa, in Egyptian colloquial – in one hand. His wrinkles melt into a grin whenever an Arabic student passes by. “Kayf al-hal, ya taalib? How is your day goin’? Ya salaam, you doin’ OK?”
That day, my shoulders were tense as I dropped into one of Tarek’s chairs. I picked up a wooden camel figurine and tapped it restlessly on the table. “Ustaadh, I don’t understand – OK so, in exercise 10 you said that we add an alif to these words if it’s in majzoom form but then why didn’t you do that in exercise 12 part b? Also what are the cases when you drop the noon in an edaafa construction? I don’t get this chart either what exactly does jussive mean? Can you give me examples also is this going to be on the test and how much vocabulary do you think I can memorize, I’m just really swamped right now, OK but can you help me?”
Tarek looked at me and laughed. “Ya, Aiisha! Alice, relax! We take it one at a time, OK? Don’t confuse yourself, you gonna sink in the ocean like that.
Tarek is a little over fifty, slightly balding, with laugh crinkles around his eyes behind the glasses that are always falling off as he tumbles around the classroom. He doesn’t walk. He bounces, bounds, jumps from student to student with a poke here, a jab there to make sure everyone is listening. The tables are set up in a circle, and sometimes his navy sweaters don’t quite cover his protruding belly as he rolls over the table, slowed for a few moments like a large tortoise stuck on its back, legs in the air as it veers against gravity.
But the next moment he has landed. He is waving and yelling in the middle of the room, acting out vocabulary words in a hurricane of Arabic charades that leaves clouds of chalk dust in his wake. “Inqata’ah! To cut across!” Tarek barks, and leaps from one desk to another, jabbing at an imaginary enemy. “Al-harb! War! Like the Crusades, ya tolaab, my students, you know? Like Salah-i-deen! The great warrior! Ah-thayyem, the Greatest, you remember this superlative form from Chapter 14? Wake up ya Waseem, you gonna sink in the ocean.”
Arabic is an eloquent language. It prizes overwrought sentences, trains of subjects and predicates loading in back-and-forth referential order, an adjective three lines down in the paragraph modifying a metaphor introduced two breaths ago, so that you forget what the sentence was about before you even finish reading, but drag it on like the opposite of clear English writing, because it’s Arabic, it’s Eastern, it’s a wholly Other culture and in sentences here quality correlates to quantity, the longer the better, in terms of terms, complexity is good.
Without Tarek, ARA 107 students would be lost. A sense of camaraderie bonds all Arabic students on campus, even if they haven’t had a course together. “Are you in 107? Have you had Tarek?” A knowing smile passes between them when they run into each other, “I know, hamdullilah. Thanks be to God, right?”
Tarek doesn’t teach – he leads. Arabic is not a class. It’s a battle that Tarek spearheads, charging at the forefront of a motley Princetonian crew, wielding laughter as his weapon against the foe of linguistic confusion. On his turf, Arabic is a game and the prize is knowledge picked up in a fit of hilarity. “Come on, make my day,” he puffs out his chest, clapping and stomping at the front of the classroom. “Ya salaam!” he spins and shimmies when someone answers a question correctly, and throws a penny at him or her. “Go buy yourself some coffee.” On the last day of class, he buys coffee and pastries for everyone anyway.
Many who haven’t passed through Tarek’s ranks just give up on Arabic. “All we did was case endings every single day,” says Sean Webb, a sophomore who took 107 with another professor. “It was death.”
Princeton has a grade deflation policy that exacerbates the already type-A students’ proclivity for stress. Only the top 35% of students in any class are allowed to get A’s. In a language class of less than 10 students, that means a 95% perfect work record could still be a B. Combine this pressure with Arabic’s inherently grammatical demands, and you get a group of overachieving kids constantly on the verge of stress explosion.
In Tarek’s office, though, the Princeton drive slows down. On my first visit, I didn’t realize that I was out of breath until Tarek told me to breathe.
“Relax, ya Alice,” Tarek said. “You Princeton students are too serious. Don’t worry about the test, ya salaam, you know education is about learning, not about your As and Bs and Cs, ya ni? It’s not gonna be the end of the world if you get a B, you know?”
Tarek’s capacity to laugh at life comes from his own experience. Before Princeton, he was once a soccer player. Born and raised in Cairo, he spent his youth on the soccer fields with Al-Ahly, one of the two premier Egyptian clubs. “In Cairo University, I didn’t even know where the library was,” Tarek says. He was set for a professional athletic career until he injured his knee. No more soccer stardom. Tarek was sad for years.
“Sometimes you don’t know what’s going to happen to you,” he says. “Your life takes a long turn. Instead of being an actor, you’re a garbage man. Instead of a soccer player, you’re an intellectual.”
Tarek’s once-athletic physique has diminished – or rather, expanded. But his energy is the same. “Atlob al-aalm mithl al-maa. Seek knowledge like water,” he sighs. He left Cairo after his injury to study history in Germany for 3 years. Then came an M.A. in Islamic history at Rutgers University, a doctorate at St. Andrew’s in Scotland and a teaching career first there, then Oxford and now Princeton.
When I go to Egypt for research later in the semester, Tarek asks me to bring back twelve hardcover books on the history of the Crusades. My luggage is overweight, but he is so happy when I bring the books that he breaks out into song. “Yaaa habibatiiiii…”
Back in Tarek’s office on that first day, he answers my questions and reviews the exercises. Then we talk about orientalism, visiting the Middle East and all our favorite foods there. I end up staying 20 minutes longer than intended, but it doesn’t matter. I walk out with a smile.
Tarek coined his “sink in the ocean” phrase three years ago. He chose to use it in English deliberately because he knew it would sound stranger that way. “It makes you laugh,” he says. “That’s one of the ways to make students feel the comfortable, to have a sense of humor in the class. If you’re not at ease, you not gonna learn, no matter how smart you are.”
Once, Tarek mentioned feeling embarrassed about his office when friends from Egypt came to visit. “Princeton University, this prestigious college, you know, the Ivy League, it’s the top school in the world. But I only show them my office very quickly.”
No matter. Tarek is beloved and his trailer is remote, but warm. By the end of the semester, it has become my favorite place to learn.
On any given day, current and former students are in the trailer joking in aamiyah, colloquial or fusha, classical Arabic, about smoking and going to Starbucks and sinking in the ocean. Tarek goes over preposition rules, and then they talk about Egypt and he gets a faraway look in his eyes. Many of his students plan to go on Arabic summer programs, and he tells them how they’ll eat koshari and roasted pigeons and kebabs, and see the souks and mosques and beautiful Masr of his youth. They’ll love Cairo. They’ll love his people. Here’s his best friend’s phone number. They should call him and say they’re students of Tarek. They’ll be welcomed and treated like kings and queens.
I take my test the next day. It’s hard, and I don’t get an A on it. But I don’t mind. At 10:49, Tarek collects our exams and bellows, “Ayna al-wajibaat? Where is the home works?” We all laugh on their way out of the room. “Ma salaama, ya ustaadh.” Peace be with you, until we fight again tomorrow.
11:49 am • 2 April 2013 • 1 note