Sophie Frankford (2014, Middle Eastern Studies) takes violin lessons in Egypt with musical legend, Abdo Dagher.
Thanks to the generous support of the Vicky Philo Travel Grant, I was able to spend three months this summer in Cairo taking violin lessons in the Egyptian style of playing. I have played the violin for 13 years, but over the past three years have become increasingly interested in Egyptian music – both vocationally and academically – which led me from an undergraduate degree in music to an MPhil in Middle Eastern Studies here at Wadham. This grant provided a unique opportunity to embed myself in Cairo’s music scene, as well as improve my Arabic language skills.
As I prepared for my trip and asked around for recommendations of teachers, a musician in Oxford put me in contact with Abdo Dagher, a violinist and teacher based in Cairo.
I was told that he was an astonishing player, but a ‘simple man’ now in his 80s who speaks no English, and is illiterate in both Arabic and notated music.
When I arrived in Cairo, I enlisted the help of an Egyptian friend to call Dagher and organise my first lesson. I have studied Arabic for one year, but the classical style we learn is effectively an entirely different language from the Egyptian dialect used in everyday conversation. So, it was arranged: I would go to his house at 8pm the following day. As I casually mentioned to friends in Cairo that I would be taking lessons with Dagher, it became apparent that I was to be taking lessons with someone widely considered a musical legend. He is the last surviving musician from the ‘golden era’ of Egyptian music, and in his heyday played with the musical giants of the second half of the twentieth century, including Umm Kulthoum and Mohammad Abd al Wahhab. I was suddenly very nervous…
I set off for my first lesson, Dagher’s address in hand. I’d been instructed to take to the metro to Kobri al Qobba, a 30 minute journey from my apartment in Cairo which cost the equivalent of just 10p, and from there to ask people directions the rest of the way. I eventually found the correct street, and wandered up and down failing to find his house. I passed a row of men sipping tea and smoking shisha, one of whom must have clocked my violin, and enquired ‘Abdo Dagher?’, before pointing me in the right direction. I arrived, and Dagher welcomed me to his house. As we sat down and got our violins out, conversing in stilted colloquial Arabic, he pointed out the various decorations on his walls – photos of him in his younger days playing concerts around the world, and framed articles about him in Arabic, English and German.
The lessons were all done by ear – he would play a passage, I would repeat; if my tuning of a particular note wasn’t perfect, he would utter a dissatisfied grumble and make me repeat the passage until it was correct. Getting accustomed to the micro tones that are so integral to Arabic music was a steep learning curve: the maqamat, or ‘modes’, of Arabic music utilise intervals much smaller than the tone or semitone used in western music, requiring immense precision and accuracy when tuning a note. Playing this style also required me to adjust my technique, meaning that a different style of vibrato was necessary, as well as thinking differently about ornamentation and glissando between notes. These things were not explained verbally, but through listening and watching. As I returned week on week, I came to feel like I was finally beginning to get to grips with the style, and I was able to put what I learned into practice by jamming with other musicians I met in Cairo, which was an amazing experience in itself. I also took the opportunity to attend as many concerts as I could, at the Cairo Opera House and various other venues that seem to be opening up post-revolution.
As my language skills improved, I was able to understand more of the endless stories Dagher told – about how his father hadn’t wanted him to be a musician so he’d beaten him (leaving welts over his body which he was keen to show off); about his founding of the famous national Arabic Music Ensemble; about his belief that president Hosni Mubarak’s rule signalled the death knell of music in Egypt; about his tours across Europe… These conversations were as much of an education as the violin playing itself. Music is such a unique and valuable way through which to be introduced to and to explore a culture, and I would like to thank Wadham for enabling this opportunity.
If my tuning of a particular note wasn’t perfect, he would utter a dissatisfied grumble and make me repeat the passage until it was correct
James Cochrane (2014, Engineering) teaches English in South Korea
I was fortunate enough to travel to Jinju, a small city in South Korea, to teach English to students studying at a vocational university. Although I was a dilettante not only to Korean, but to North Asian culture, I was keen to spend an extended length of time in one place to truly appreciate the differences and learn about this part of the globe.
The first thing that struck me was the vastly different diet. The food on the whole was incredibly healthy and during my time there the only thing I found that was deep fried was aubergine and broccoli. Variety was the spice of life at the college and meals generally contained five or six different types of food. Vegetarianism is virtually unheard of in South Korea and popular bar snacks I tried included chicken feet and pig’s intestine, but this was exactly what I had signed up for.
The university accommodation was extremely 70s on the outside and reminded me somewhat of military barracks I might perhaps encounter north of the border; however it held a pristine and comfortable interior.
The students, although older than myself, were at first exceptionally withdrawn and reluctant to contribute and even to so much as reveal their names. On day one the dichotomy of gender was immediately apparent and very unlike what I have experienced in the UK. Male and females were treated differently even at an informal, student level. Although the head professor was a harridan woman, it did appear that the true manager was someone who was in fact her subordinate but male. It was discouraging to have the hierarchal nature of Eastern culture illustrated so quickly and repetitively. An even larger division separated student and professor. The relationship lay somewhere between respect and fear and, unfortunately, I believe it was closer to the latter.
It took a long time for me to coax my students to a point of conversation, particularly during educational activities. I approached them with a style of teaching that was entirely foreign and their unfamiliarity with independent and creative thinking was testament to this. Their current professors advised me that the students responded best to repetitive and even thoughtless actions, but, eventually, the lack of energy in the class became arduous for me. This, combined with a teaching schedule of 9am to 6pm, was enough to exhaust me after one week, especially coming from exam term at Oxford. Consequently, I rapidly overcame jetlag and, after often planning lessons for the following day until 1am, fell unconscious until the day began again at 7:45.
After the first week however, the next four flew by and it was incredibly heart-warming to see students progress to not only a conversational level, but also to understand basic humour and idioms in a non-native tongue. Fortunately, having just ten students allowed me to develop a personal relationship with each of them, which undoubtedly encouraged them to become increasingly more engaged during lessons. Wednesday afternoons were free to explore the city of Jinju with the students and during the weekends we were able to venture further afield, journeying to places such as Gyeongju; the ancient capital of Korea.
South Korea is a fantastically beautiful country and although the educational system came across as backwards I cannot fault the people on their fantastic hospitality, patriotism, or their proclivity towards unprejudiced generosity. As a foreigner, I was welcomed with open arms and not only do I long to return but I strongly advise others to visit. It has a rich history juxtaposed with a vivid present and I cannot thank Wadham enough for giving me the opportunity to immerse myself in this.
An even larger division separated student and professor. The relationship lay somewhere between respect and fear.
Laura Chapman (2014, English) and Justine Ryan (2014, History) travel 8,988 km by train through Russia, Mongolia and China, as Justine reports.
A rough estimate of the distance we travelled is 8,988 km. In a plane it would have taken us seven and a half hours; we took three weeks.
We started in St. Petersburg and spent a few days wandering the canals, cathedrals and palaces. From St. Petersburg we took the overnight train to Moscow and made friends with the two ladies in our compartment despite the language barrier. We ate complimentary paté at midnight, as we steamed towards Moscow and reflected on how surreal it was. Moscow was totally different from St. Petersburg; concrete in comparison to pastels, there was a rougher edge, a chip on a shoulder. Moscow prided herself on being Asian, the real Russia whilst St. Petersburg pandered to Europe and modernity. If communism didn’t necessarily work as a sustainable state policy, it did succeed with Gorky Park. There were giant beanbags, classical music from the fountains, cotton candy and surprisingly nice public loos. A classic Moscow Mule cocktail overlooking the Moskva and the golden Church of our Saviour at sunset was the perfect way to round off our brief stop in Moscow.
We then had to get to Irkutsk which was 5,139 km away, having decided months ago in England to just do the whole journey in one shot the reality of 85 hours in a small train compartment about 1.5 metres wide with two Russian strangers suddenly seemed a lot more daunting. We needn’t have worried; we had a lovely mix of train companions, first a sweet old lady who was very welcoming to our two young visitors who came from the neighbouring compartment to laugh at our dreadful Russian. Thank you (спасибо) was all we managed to commit to memory… The extent of the language barrier was something neither of us had been expecting, and it really hit home how far from home we were. Luckily I have some Greek knowledge so managed to read the Cyrillic signs, a necessity on the Moscow metro station. This was a Russia that would not pander to western English. Our next train companions were a babushka and her little granddaughter. The thought of the next three days cooped in a tiny compartment with a child was a terrifying thought but she turned out to be so well behaved and we became fast friends practising braiding each other’s hair over the many hours. Four days on a train turned out to be really pleasant experience, lying in the dark watching the Russian countryside stream by. Time became slightly irrelevant, all the train clocks were on Moscow time but we crossed 5 hours of time zones so the clocks would read 2 pm as the sun was setting. The day was regulated only by the visit of the provodonista bearing slightly rogue salty chicken noodle soup day in day out. The most exciting thing that happened was almost missing the train in Omsk when we stepped off for a perambulation along the platform to get some ice cream. The sound of train doors clanging shut along the platform haunts me still.
But we made it to Irkutsk in one piece; it was surprisingly nice despite my previous assumptions that it was just a backwater town in the middle of Siberia. The influence of the Decembrist exiles meant a multitude of museums and ornate wooden architecture. Leaving Irkutsk to go Lake Baikal was the highlight of our visit to the capital of Siberia. It's the deepest lake in the world yet freezes over in the winter, but we still went swimming (otherwise known as panicked splashing)! It was the hottest day we’d had so far so it was the perfect time to visit this Russian holiday town and get sunburnt in preparation for another long train journey. Leaving Russia we were on green Mongolian trains emblazoned with the Mongolian flying horses rather than the more austere, slightly brown soviet trains. The Mongolian trains also had rickety wooden windows that you could open half way, perfect for not only the sweltering heat but also for leaning out the window to watch Russia change to Mongolia. Our train companions for this leg of the journey were a very sweet Hong Kong/Thai couple; it was odd to have train companions who spoke the same language again. We arrived at Ulanbatoor at 6 am in drizzle and the city did not really improve - its quick build concrete and sky scrapers dwarfed by the mountains surrounding. Despite a visit to the Genghis Khan statue my opinion of Ulanbatoor did not improve when my phone got stolen. Cue a very odd, linguistically impossible trip to the police station to file a report. Recovery was impossible but I made friends with the police commandant whose daughter was a gymnast, we’re now friends on Facebook. The worst bit about losing my phone was that I had been in charge of taking photos, so we lost all the documentation of the beginning of our trip.
Leaving Mongolia behind with some relief we embarked on our last train journey towards China. Our first experience of the crowds we would face for the next week came as we stepped off the train and entered a tunnel of sweaty heaving people with no idea of where we were supposed to go. But there was no time to rest: our first stop was obviously for the famous Peking duck. Food was definitely a highlight of our travels and Beijing was probably the highpoint, from pork dumplings in tiny greasy cafes to elaborate Sichuan mixed dishes in a tiny hutong restaurant. The obligatory sites were ticked off, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Summer Palace. We managed to avoid most of the crowds, instead doing a 7km hike along unrestored sections. The blatant imperial statement of power was incredible. Our dinner that night at a Muslim Chinese restaurant with pomegranate wine was well deserved.
It was the trip of a lifetime, and going by train gave me not only an appreciation of how huge Asia is but also how varied and beautiful it is. Travelling by train meant we weren’t detached from the landscape and the people.
Four days on a train turned out to be really pleasant experience - lying in the dark watching the Russian countryside stream by. Time became slightly irrelevant...
Oliver Sale, (2014, Physics) studies the way we study when teaching English in China
China is certainly a country in transition. It is a country with a high-speed rail network of more than 16,000km – more than half of the world’s total – which it has built in the last 10 years. Its cavernous stations, with polished marble floors and spotless glass walls, more closely resemble Europe’s modern airports than the train stations we know. Yet in one of them, I watch a man peel an apple onto the floor, eat it and walk off. It is a country where it is estimated more than 70 million iPhones will be sold in 2015 – enough to give each member of the United Kingdom one each, with many to spare. Yet inside a Shanghai shopping centre I watch a man spit on the floor as he walks past reading his emails. It is this combination – where western influence meets traditional Chinese culture – that makes China so fascinating, and it is something that is apparent in its education system too.
I spent the summer teaching English at the Omeida Language College in the small town of Yangshuo, Guanxi province, Southern China. It has three large modern buildings filled with classrooms and every summer it attracts 150 upper and middle class children from all over China with the prospect of learning English. A short girl with jet-black hair called Ina cheerfully greets me on day one. She is in her early twenties, half-way through a degree in English education, and will be acting as my language assistant all summer. I am led into my classroom where the air conditioning is on maximum and provides a welcome relief from the scorching 40 degree heat. The room is large, tidy and well-furnished, with brand new desks and chairs and my students are sitting there in matching uniform with matching books looking up at me in anticipation. This could be in England. After a quick warm-up game, I write the alphabet on the board and read out loud, “a, b, c.” Without asking, the students copy me in unison then monotonously recite the rest of the alphabet with beaming smiles. Very good. I then quiz them individually and each can recite it confidently on their own but what happens next surprises me. I point at the letter “K” and ask the students to pronounce it, but I am met with no reply and clueless faces. Nobody can. (Ina can translate my instructions into Chinese when necessary so the problem is not in understanding the question). After a long pause, I see a student in the corner of the room nodding as she recites the alphabet in her head up to “K” before telling me the correct answer. I realise that these students have only ever learnt English through repetition, through rote learning; and this has left some fundamental holes in their knowledge.
Through the next few weeks of teaching I began to understand the magnitude of the difference between English and Chinese schooling. As you may well know, an important theme in Chinese culture is keeping face. From my own experiences I discovered that if you ask a local for directions on the street and they do not know the answer, they will more likely point you in a random direction than admit they do not know. This trait is reflected by the children in Omeida. With my older, more advanced class after setting a writing task I walk around checking my students’ progress to ensure they are on the right track. Yet almost every single pupil covers up their answers as I pass and I have to ask to see their work even though it turns out that everyone understands the concepts. This is a far stretch from England, where most students would be keen to have their answers checked to give them the confidence to move on. I ask Ina why this is and she simply replies, “they are worried their answers are wrong.”
The extent to which this idea stretches is staggering. I ask a student a question but rather than admitting that he doesn’t know the answer he just sits there in silence, until a friend comes to his rescue, whispering in his ear. On another occasion, I hear a reply that sounds like the correct response but I am not sure about the pronunciation. To double check, I ask again but the student sinks back into her seat and refuses to repeat. I ask Ina to find out what is wrong and after speaking to the student she replies, “she is afraid she is incorrect.”
A few weeks later I play the game 20 Questions (where I think of an object, say, an apple, and the class has 20 yes-no questions to ask in order to find out what the object is; for example “is it a fruit?”, “is it green?”) which turns out to be something of a disaster. We had covered a wide variety of topics in the previous weeks – foods, animals, clothes, classroom objects, colours, adjectives, questions – certainly enough to play the game which Ina had explained thoroughly to them. But after starting, I am met with utter silence. I give them the opportunity to ask in Chinese, but still I get no response – simply, these students have been taught not to ask questions in class. Here it becomes clear to me just how different education is in China.
However it’s not just in the classroom where things are different. The school canteen is a dark, underground room holding 15 large round tables each with six dishes for about eight to share. Yet despite this social set-up, when I sit down for lunch with my students to my surprise nobody is talking. This is not because of my presence, but rather because they are all eating non-stop; and after eating as quickly as possible they leave. They don’t take the chance to catch up with friends whom they haven’t seen all morning – something I relished doing at school – but rather they are in and out in no more than 10 minutes. Food is fuel. To my horror even, one day a student I am talking to gets up and leaves mid-conversation, simply saying “I go now”. I thought we were having a rather pleasant chat.
Sport plays almost no role in day-to-day life at school. Omeida has its own playground with some rusty basketball hoops and a faded volleyball court and although some students use these, there is almost no input from the school to organise any coaching or games. School is a purely academic place. Students come to study and study only. To highlight the extent of this, on one of the rare occasions at lunch when Ina raises her head from her rice bowl, she tells me that her school day had 10 hours of lessons. At Omeida – a summer school – the students have six hours of formal teaching a day, minimum.
However for all these differences, many similarities can also be seen. On a particularly hot Monday morning I cheerfully walk into a rather sombre classroom and after asking my students to turn to a specific page in their textbooks I am met with a sigh and a groan all too familiar to me from just a few years ago. Similarly, when practising word pronunciation my younger class respond gleefully to songs and games as a welcome change from the usual rote learning. My older class relish the chance to write a dialogue if they can then act it out afterwards. These students show the same characteristics as my peers at home but they are not encouraged to ask questions, to think independently, to speak out.
As a final thought, I left Omeida and travelled through China for a month ending up in Beijing at the time of the celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. You may have seen 12,000 goose-stepping soldiers and countless state-of-the-art intercontinental ballistic missiles paraded through Tiananmen Square to show off the Middle Kingdom’s military might. However you may not know that for three weeks leading up to the parade, factories were shut down as far from the capital as Inner Mongolia and the clouds were seeded to remove the capital’s constant smoggy haze. For the preceding days, the city itself was on lockdown. Armed police were stationed on the streets. Airport-style security marked the entrance to shopping centres. On the day itself, the subway and airport were shut down and nobody within a five mile radius of the square itself was allowed to leave their building, go near windows or use a stove lest they produce smoke.
This sense of government control is deeply engrained in Chinese culture and it stretches throughout the education system. The bottom line is that as long as China’s people cannot test the boundaries nor ask questions neither will its students.
This sense of government control is deeply engrained in Chinese culture and it stretches throughout the education system.
Anita Paz (2014, Fine Art) visited the Venice Biennale art exhibition
In September 2015, generously supported by the Vicky Philo Travel Grant, I spent six, fantastic days in Venice. The purpose of my trip was to visit the Venice Biennale – a world renowned international and intercultural art exhibition that happens once every two years.
The exhibition consists of three major parts. Located in the Giardini (gardens) are 30 permanent national pavilions, where each country commissions a contemporary artist or curator to create or curate works especially for the exhibition. In a central pavilion the appointed Biennale director curates the title exhibition. Then there are other national pavilions and special participants with sites scattered across Venice and the islands.
On the first day of my trip I visited the Giardini. Although I found many of the exhibits at the permanent national pavilions critically unchallenging, aesthetically unimaginative and theoretically conventional, I was impressed with the Nordic pavilion, where the Oslo-based artist Camille Norment created Rupture, a site-specific, multi-sensory, sculptural and sonic installation, which combined large window panels shattered in pieces, large ceiling speakers and a performance on a glass harmonica, all immersed in the imposing white cement, white sand and crushed marble casted structure. Other works I found visually stimulating were Chiharu Shiota’s installation The Key in the Hand at the Japanese Pavilion, Hito Steyrel’s video Factory of the Sun at the German Pavilion, Danh Vo’s exhibition mothertongue at the Danish Pavilion, and IC-98’s installation Hours, Years, Aeons at the Alvar Aalto Pavilion of Finland.
The second day of the trip was dedicated to the title exhibit of the biennale, All the World’s Futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor, this year’s director. Taking a clear socio-political stand, and inspired by Walter Benjamin’s reading of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus as the angel of history propelled into the future by the winds of progress and destruction, while facing the debris that every wind leaves piling behind it, Enwezor’s exhibition wishes to re-appraise the relation of art and artists to the current global landscape, its ruptures and catastrophes. I found some parts of the exhibition more interesting than others, and enjoyed contemplating Adrian Piper’s The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3 (winner of the Golden Lion for Best Artist), and especially my own inability to commit to any of the proposed statements, and the value I assign to signing my name on a contract that is legally void.
The next few days I spent all over Venice and the Islands visiting as many of the spread sites as I could. I particularly enjoyed Portugal’s Pavilion located inside Palazzo Loredan in Campo Santo Stefano; New Zealand’s Pavilion at the monumental rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (Piazza San Marco) and the Arrivals Lounge in Marco Polo Airport (this was actually the first Biennale exhibit I saw coming into Venice); and Tsang Kin-Wah’s The Infinite Nothing, Hong Kong in Venice in the Castello area.
Inspirational and enjoyable, these were six days full of learning and discoveries, and I am grateful to Wadham and the Vicky Philo fund for making it possible.
Inspirational and enjoyable, these were six days full of learning and discoveries