Egyptian Linguist and U.N. Activist Teaches with Song
Though she officially retired many years ago, Sohair Soukkary is always working. She commutes from her apartment near the United Nations headquarters, where Soukkary works as a representative for the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, and teaches Arabic at The New School, Baruch and LaGuardia High School.
Sohair Soukkary knows language classes can be difficult for students as they stumble through unfamiliar pronunciations, grammar and vocabulary, but has added another element to the mix — singing. Though it sounds like a timid student’s worst nightmare, she discovered that it works like magic.
In addition to her unorthodox methods of teaching, Soukkary is an author and active grandmother. She also is extremely passionate about her home country of Egypt. During her time at the U.N. as the deputy chief of the language department, she met many important Egyptian political figures that are currently players in today’s new Egyptian government.
She is friends with both Nabil Elaraby, who was recently chosen as Egypt’s new foreign minister and whom Soukkary descrbes as a very intelligent and “levelheaded man,” as well as Amr Moussa, who recently began his campaign for the presidency. The elections will be held sometime this summer and Soukkary is confident that Moussa has a strong chance of winning. Moussa is a former foreign minister known for his criticisms of the United States and Israel and was removed from his position by Mubarak in 2001 when a pop song called “I Hate Israel and I Love Amr Moussa” became popular.
While studying linguistics at Georgetown in the early 1970s, Soukkary was also teaching Arabic at the university. Soukkary first came up with the idea for singing as a teaching tool when a professor told a story of a young boy who had damaged the right side of his brain in a car accident and could not speak. Incredibly, he could remember the lyrics to songs and learned to speak again through music.
Interested in engaging the right side of the brain, Soukkary wrote songs that incorporated her lesson plans and set them to old Egyptian tunes. Her lesson plans originally took three months to teach. While singing, students learned in less than a month.
The unique technique eventually became Soukkary’s thesis for her linguistics degree. In 1996, after working for years at the U.N. and having children, Soukkary returned to the project. On one of her annual trips to Egypt, where she splits her time between Cairo and Alexandria, she formed an orchestra with opera singers and recorded songs for her first instructional language book. In all, she has authored five books.
Currently studying law in Egypt, Soukkary said that when she visits in the summer for her exams she is increasingly horrified at the poverty she sees. “The young generation decided that they are not going to accept oppression,” she said. “I have great admiration for their courage.”
While at The New School for the past two semesters, Soukkary paid close attention to the protests raging in her country. Excited by the protesters ingenuity, Soukkary taught her students current protest songs as well as the significance of the messages. One such song used multiple Arabic ways of saying “Go!” or “Pack up and go!” to Mubarak, effectively a chant and a grammar lesson.
Soukkary has a book coming out this month on the English language for non-Arabic speakers and is working on a book about the positive effects of music on young children. She said music has benefited her three sons, who are all doctors, intellectually and thinks it is important for parents to be aware of those benefits. She is sure her grandchildren will benefit as well and gives them the gift of music lessons when they are old enough. “I have exercised my research on the poor souls,” she quipped.