Fellows' Reflections: Laura Humes

Essential Arabic Phrases from Om El Donia (Alexandria)

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Arabic is one of the top five most common languages, with many dialects spoken throughout the globe. Among these, Egyptian Arabic is the unofficial lingua franca of the Arab world.

Despite walking into my year as a MENAR Fellow in Egypt with what could be described as a nearly impenetrable language barrier, I dedicated myself to absorbing as much as I could of Egyptian Arabic.

As I picked up new techniques in teaching language fluency and literacy in my role as a classroom teacher, I also saw myself undergoing a parallel journey of language acquisition.

Learning Arabic has been one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve made this year. I owe what I know in large part to my sharp-witted tutor, and also to friends and colleagues, as well as a multitude of endlessly patient and good-humored neighbors, shopkeepers, street vendors, and passersby who all played the role of circumstantial conversation partners.

Throughout this journey, I’ve found a new appreciation for the great meaning carried by minute details. I’ve found myself listening more closely and growing closer to people around me in the process.

Often the smallest details convey the most significant meaning. I recently made the mistake of telling someone, “Ana bakelem araby micaserat,” instead of “Ana bakelem araby micasr,” and just that one single mistakenly added syllable changed the meaning from, “I speak broken Arabic” to “I speak Arabic nuts.”

While I do sound admittedly nuts speaking Arabic, I’ve learned that letting go of perfection and my inhibitions has been as essential to learning the language as it has been to embracing life here in Egypt.

Communication promotes understanding. A little has gone a long way towards genuine moments of human connection. I’ve come to believe more than ever that intentional communication is one of the most sincere forms of care. It demonstrates a willingness to enter into new situations with curiosity, humility, and commitment to meet people on their level. Learning Arabic has opened many doors—sometimes literal ones—I’ve been invited into more people’s homes than I ever could have imagined.

Language plays a significant role in shaping people’s lived realities, and can say so much about a culture. After nearly a year of trials, tribulations, and triumphs with the Arabic language, I wrote this post to give some insight into a few of my favorite Egyptian Arabic phrases that I feel give unique insight into Egyptian culture.

Tae’shab shay!
Come, drink tea!

You might hear this condensed version of the phrase “ta3ala eshrab shay” from a number of different people. [Note: "3" is often used in writing to denote the Arabic letter "ain," which does not have an equivalent in English.] The bawab on your street. The neighbor you pass in the stairwell. The person you just asked for directions. Regardless of whether they actually have any tea or not, the important part is that they thought to invite you.

That’s a pity

There’s no direct translation in English for ma3lesh, but the meaning becomes clear when you hear it in use. You spilled coffee on your shirt? Ma3lesh. Car broke down in traffic? Ma3lesh. Don’t have any change? Ma3lesh. It’s an incredibly versatile phrase that acts as the verbal band-aid on all sorts of day-to-day wounds.


A story goes that generations ago when farmers wanted to sell their produce, they had to wait in long lines under the sweltering sun to have it weighed by distributors. Farmers who grew kousa, or zucchini, were allowed to cut to the front of the line because zucchini withers quickly in the sun. Today, somebody with kousa is the kind of person who is always at the front of the line, a person with a lot of influence.

Keep it

It would not be uncommon for a street vendor to make your foul [fava bean] sandwich and then refuse to take any money, replying “khally,” which comes from the word for “keep” but means something more like, “no need to pay.” It is a gesture of goodwill that essentially means, “this one’s on the house.” When someone says this (after paying the right amount, of course) the appropriate reply is, “robena ykhaleek,” or “may God keep you.”

Sabah al kher
Good morning
When you say good morning in Egypt, it is always more than just good morning. It is the "morning of blessings." Alternatively, if whoever you are talking to is really going above and beyond, it could also be the morning of any number of flowers (sabah al fol… sabah al yasmine… sabah al ward…) Sometimes the exchange goes long enough until you’ve named the whole garden. Mornings in Egypt give new meaning to the phrase, “Wake up and smell the roses.”


Somebody who is sousa is a bit too clever for their own good, and uses it to cause all kinds of trouble. If you are also a primary teacher, like me, you definitely know exactly what I’m talking about.


The key to many of Egypt’s most delicious desserts is cream, or eshta. It makes sense, then, that if we agree that something is cool we’d also say it’s eshta.

You light up the world

Egyptians aren’t afraid to let you know that you brighten their day. More than that, you’ve just brightened up the whole world if you hear someone tell you minowar. It’s no wonder that Egypt has among the highest number of sunny days in the world.

Fellows' Reflections: Tonia Bartlett

Confessions of a Reformed Skeptic

I think as humans, we’re very compelled by the idea of martyrdom. We love characters like Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins -- the ones willing to carry a great burden and responsibility for the good of all. Now I don’t always mean martyrdom in the fullest, most complete sense of the word -- we generally aren’t keen on seeing our heroes fall, so don’t misunderstand me. But we are all, in our core, drawn to the idea of an individual willing to make sacrifices for the preservation of ideals like goodness and justice. I mean it’s why Avengers Infinity War just broke so many box office records, right? 

Probably, like you, I have many family members and dear friends who chose teaching as a career path. And probably, like you, I didn’t really get it. I felt like teachers were and are the forgotten martyrs of American culture. Sure, we have a teacher appreciation week and every once in awhile I wrote a thank you note growing up. But really it seemed like somewhere along the way, the educator’s impossible task -- to teach, mentor, coach, parent, model, and everything else in between -- had become normalized as reasonable for what is often an underpaid and under-resourced position. I looked at my friends and family who became teachers and sort of shook my head, impressed by their nobility, but very skeptical of their decision. 

And then I entered the classroom. 

And this is where I want to shake my head at myself. After all those years of swearing to myself I would never be a teacher! Here I am, actually enjoying the job. Sigh.

Moving to Egypt has been full of unexpected discoveries. Of course in many ways, moving abroad, we come expecting the unexpected. But learning to love education this year has been among my biggest surprises. If I had never entered the classroom on this fellowship year, I might never have discovered the satisfaction I find in a fast-paced and reactive day-to-day work environment. I might never have fully realized how much I enjoy being surrounded by kids on a daily basis. And I definitely never would have opened up to teaching as a reasonable and fulfilling career path. 

I never wanted to be a martyr for the classroom, and I still don’t want to be. The American and many international education systems need reform, and I hope my generation will pick up that torch. But in the meantime, reflecting on this year, I’m genuinely and joyfully surprised by the direction I’ve found looking toward a future in education. And if that makes you want to shake your head and sigh . . . I get it. 

But then again, maybe you should give the classroom a chance. 


Here’s a video of one of the many moments I’ve loved this year with my students, from our STEAM Week and Future City projects. Check it out! 

Fellows' Reflections: Tonia Bartlett

My Grandpa is the Coolest Guy I Know

Right before I left for Egypt, my 91-year old grandfather and I sat down and looked at pictures from his earliest explorations of the world, some of which dated back to the late 1930’s. Pictures from when he taught in Istanbul with my grandmother in their earliest years of marriage, his traipse through Central America back when a Jeep was not a stylish accessory but the only practical means of crossing the terrain, meeting my grandmother in a coffee shop in France, and time spent in Egypt on sabbatical. My grandfather is one seriously adventurous guy, and was always years ahead of his era when it came to photography. His lifelong passion for documenting his experiences has been a brilliant blessing in my family, because it has helped give us a sense of our history and the legacy he and my grandmother have left for us.

I vividly remember leaving that day thinking to myself that my grandpa might be one of the most adventurous people I’ve ever met. How many people can say that? But I was beginning my life of adventure in a very different era than my grandfather. His travels across the Atlantic involved a multi-week boat ride -- mine would be a less-than-24-hour plane commute. To communicate with his family, he would use an international telegraph, write letters, and perhaps in the most necessary circumstances might access an intercontinental phone call. On the other hand, I can Skype my family less than 15 seconds after the idea crosses my mind.

In a world of digital noise and with his legacy in mind, I was left wondering: How am I going to document my experiences in a way that, 70 years from now, will be meaningful for my potential grandchildren?

Like my grandfather, I have always loved the craft of storytelling, but have never felt the same pull toward photography that he has. In an internship after my sophomore year of college, I was introduced to the world of videography, and have been captivated ever since. I love the way it challenges me to take the setting I’m in and figure out the story it’s trying to tell, rather than the other way around. Much like photography, it requires a creativity of its own -- authentic storytelling requires a willingness to look at our daily moments through a new angle and lens. I’ve found videography helps me to make sense of my experiences, and offers insights I didn’t notice in real time. It’s my way of reflecting on where I’ve been and what it meant to me.

In my October blog post, I talked about how strongly I wished I could capture the sights and sounds of Egypt to share the brilliance of daily life here. There really is no way of capturing what life anywhere looks like through a medium beyond memories and the human experience. But living and working in Egypt over the past 6 months has given weight to my videography endeavors. Shooting footage and creating features isn’t only a way to reflect on my memories anymore; it creates pathways for sharing and documenting the world we know in a way that did not exist 70 years ago. What started as a desire to document my life in Egypt for something to show the grandkids has become much more. Now I see video as a way to build bridges and take down walls between the East and West, through adding to the narrative. And frankly, I think that’s an adventure my grandfather will be quite proud of.

Here’s a video I recently made from my trip to Fowa, Egypt, a small village in the Nile Delta with a rich history of artisans, trade, and agriculture, and a brilliant passion for sharing their city with visitors.

Fellows' Reflections: Laura Humes

Compared to where I was just one year ago, I’ve come to realize that my life these days is reflected in a near perfect mirror image across the other side of the Mediterranean.

A year ago, in Thessaloniki, Greece, I would wake up each morning to the smell of the sea and wander sleepily down apartment-lined streets to catch a city bus to the outskirts of the city. I would disembark at an abandoned cement factory, the inside converted into a refuge for families displaced from Syria and Iraq. I would enter the building, ascend the stairs to a room overlooking the former factory floor, and greet a room full of youth who were part of the first ever education program in the camp. For some, it was their very first experience in a classroom, even a makeshift one. For me, it was my first experience as a teacher.

The beginning of this month marked the start of my second term as a class teacher at Elm International School in Alexandria, Egypt. These days, I wake up each morning to the smell of a different sea. I wander a short ways down a tree-lined street to reach the gates of a historic villa converted into a school. Once inside, I walk up the stairs to a sunlit classroom, its green-shuttered windows looking out onto a canopy of fluttering leaves.

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Reflecting on where I was a year ago has allowed me to trace an unexpected connectedness within my own life, as I look across my journey in international education. I’ve seen that learning can occur in the least expected places, from former factories to converted villas. Along the way, I’ve picked up skills, practices, and frameworks that I can adapt to any new environment.

Teaching is the first job I’ve had that can be described in a single word. This role has enabled me to tap into a more creative side of myself, to extend my patience beyond what I imagined myself capable of, to appreciate spontaneity and allow myself to be surprised, to expand my capacity to care, to be dynamic. Thinking of the ways that I’ve already grown within the space of a single year, I feel more focused, capable, and excited about my path forward.

My experience in Greece taught me that learners with different needs, aspirations, and life experiences—those who don’t look like traditional students—are typically relegated to realms of the education system that offer limited pathways forward. My experience in Egypt has shown me that a student-centered model can effectively provide meaningful pathways to advance education, while also valuing each learners’ unique next steps.

One year ago, I was working against severe resource constraints, policy barriers, and lack of political will to design meaningful learning opportunities for displaced youth. Now, I teach at an international school that draws learners from a wide variety of backgrounds and life experiences. While the education model I’m currently working with isn’t without its own unique challenges, teaching at Elm International School has certainly expanded my perspective. It has allowed me to see that challenges can push educators to think more creatively about what education means in the most fundamental sense.

My journey over the past year has reaffirmed my commitment to expand the opportunities students can have, regardless of their circumstances. For a generation of youth eager to learn, grow, and make change for a better world, this could be my greatest impact.

Fellows' Reflections: Tonia Bartlett

I wish I could capture the dynamic energy this city holds, all of its complex simplicity. I’ve never felt a city so alive as Alexandria, in its constant hurried ease. So often this city feels like a living and breathing contradiction: full of strangers who already consider you family; forever moving at the pace of a relaxed rush; a concrete jungle nurtured by the sea beside it. 

Sometimes I also feel like a contradiction here. I call a city that does not belong to me my home; using my broken Arabic to navigate streets, requiring patience from everyone I meet. As I slip into my life in Alexandria, it feels like everyday I’m humming along to a melody that I’ve never heard. There are just no quiet moments - in my head, or on Alex’s streets. 

The contradictions in Alex remind me how beautiful it is to be alive and full of imperfections, just like the urban giant around me. It reminds me that I can have a place here too - working in this region, living on this Earth. It reminds me of how much grace there is in allowing yourself to be in a foreign space while trying to make sense of what “home” means. I guess most of all, it reminds me that the world, and we as people, are so much softer and simpler than we make ourselves out to be. That in the midst of contradiction, we too are doing all we can to welcome the strangers we collect along the way. 

Fellows' Reflections: Laura Humes

Just shy of a month’s time into my experience in Egypt, I found myself standing among the ruins of an ancient lecture hall and amphitheater in the heart of Alexandria. This place once hosted world-renowned philosophers—the ones we typically encounter as two-dimensional figures in history books but tend to forget were once living breathing people.

Living in the midst Alexandria’s urban metropolis, I sometimes forget that this city sits on thousands of years of rich history, embodying the meaning of cosmopolitan since the invention of the word itself.

The woman who showed me this place, a history expert who has spent her whole life in Alexandria, explained that the site was discovered purely by accident by a team of archeologists searching for the tomb of Alexander the Great.

“Here in Alexandria,” she told me, “When we go looking for something, we always find something else."

I can't help think how aptly this phrase describes my own experience here. I came to Alexandria looking for something—an opportunity to deepen my regional experience, to gain insight into international education, to build community.

Instead, my most meaningful experiences are the ones I never could have predicted. An attempt to try out my limited Arabic with the watchmen on my block has led to a daily ritual of 'hellos' and 'how are yous' that make this small street feel infinitely welcoming. A broken washing machine led to the discovery of an incredibly generous neighbor, who has since become a valued mentor and friend. Asking for directions on the tram led to a family essentially adopting me for a night. A chance encounter outside the Alexandria Opera House led to complimentary tickets to that night’s show.

The things I love most about Alexandria are the things I never expected to find. I love the verticality of the city, its narrow streets and long shadows, how its buildings hug the seaside, the way everybody seems to be constantly finding space. I love the way some streets have deep parallel impressions from the era of horse-drawn carriages. I love the Ladas, distinctly Alexandrian black and yellow taxis introduced in the 1960s by the Russians, which have somehow become as permanent a feature of the city as the streets themselves. I love the way the streets come alive at night, with vendors selling fresca, cotton candy, fruit, tea, and beans with lemon. I love the generosity of strangers, and the way the warmth of the people makes this city feel like an offering.

I’ve heard Alexandria described as the “Athens of Africa.” The city's history is often defined with respect to those who influenced it from the outside in, whether it be pharaohs, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, the French, Italians, Russians, or British. But characterizing the city ‘in relation to’ masks how the city's identity is uniquely rich in its own right. In the midst of various eras and influences, Alexandria has developed its own unique identity, one that cannot be so neatly categorized.

In the span of a month, Alexandria has already taught me so many things. How to accept the generosity of strangers. How to embrace spontaneity and find beauty in unpredictability. How to smile abundantly. How to make the most of a blank slate.

This city has also challenged me. It has challenged me to take on a new role, to meet a steep learning curve, to handle transitions with grace, to accept ambiguity. I still have room to grow, and this experience has more to teach me.

We go looking for things, and find something completely different. Opening to new experiences invites moments to receive deeper insight and understanding. I can’t wait for what the rest of this year has in store.