Saturday, October 27, 2012

Ustaaza, is that an ashtray on the table?

The Arabic textbook I use has a series of short video scenes designed to introduce students to basic cultural behavior in greetings, introductions, and other short conversations.  Generally, I am able to predict what cultural behaviors students will pick up on (like two male friends hugging and kissing on the cheek).  However, there are always surprises like the following:

1) In a scene focusing on a professor going into the department head's office, the following question: "Ustaaza, is that an ashtray on the table?"

2) In another scene, showing two friends in a cafe: "Ustaaza, are they smoking indoors?"

To me, these references to smoking were unremarkable, not so much because I have lived in Egypt (the scene of the videos, but where smoking spaces have also changed dramatically in recent years) but because I remember a time in which it was not unusual to smoke indoors, or have an ashtray on a table. 

Yet I do remember, my first time in Egypt, being surprised to see people smoking in elevators (this is much less common now).  I told my mother, and she was not surprised, telling me how students and professors used to smoke in class when she was in college.  I remember thinking this was unimaginable, as classrooms, like elevators, were spaces in which I could not imagine smoking.  Eleven years later, it seems that offices and cafes are just as unimaginable spaces for my students.  

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