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October 2009 Teacher Workshop

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Teacher Workshop Program Sponsored by AAEF and Bilateral US Arab Chamber of Commerce

Saturday October 17th, 2009

Thirty Houston area teachers attended the Teacher Workshop hosted by the Arab Educational Foundation and the Bilateral US-Arab Chamber of Commerce. Conducting the workshop was Audrey Shabbas, founder and executive director of AWAIR: Arab World and Islamic Resources and School Services (http://www.awaironline.org).

 






















     Participants found themselves enthralled for the entire day - moving from one significant subject to another, with ample time for questions and comments, and gaining much needed new understandings.

     Billed as “Content and Strategies for Understanding the Arab World”, the day began with a discussion of terminology that often the media does little to assist in our understanding. - “Arab World”, “Middle East”, “Arab”, “Turk”, “Muslim” - how to unravel the mystery and make sense of these terms?

     Shabbas began by reminding her audience that in ancient times the present Arab World was the cradle of civilization where history and technology began and where Judaism, Christianity and Islam took form. During the Middle Ages the region was part of the vast Arab/Islamic Civilization which extended from Spain to China. Today, after centuries of colonial rule and impoverishment, the area is again a significant cultural, economic and political force in world affairs, with its more than 350 million people sharing a common heritage with the West.

     Perhaps most helpful, Shabbas explained, was for teachers and students to think of the present Middle East as composed of four major groups of people, who define themselves as:  Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Israelis (making the nice acronym of a girl’same “PATI”). Each of these groups is distinguished by the language they speak: Persian

(or Farsi), Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew. With a common language comes a common shared set of cultural values, unique folktales, literature, and for each - a unique history.  We can event delineate a unique world view to each of these groups - how they see themselves, their neighbors in the region, the rest of the world.

     But back to the Middle East. Each of these groups - Persians, Arabs, Turks, Israelis can be associated with particular countries which students can identify on a map. Of course people who speak a particular language do not always fit within neat, tight boundaries of a country - particularly when these very people were not consulted in the formation of these boundaries. This is often a continued source of conflict between nation states with defined boundaries - and between national states whose boundaries have long been undefined as well. And of course within each of these countries there are often significant numbers of other languages spoken - significant numbers of people who view themselves by language, as Armenian, or Berber, or Kurd, or Aramaic-speaking.

     And while most Persians, Arabs and Turks are Muslims, there are Christians and Jews who also consider themselves to be Persians or Arabs or Turks. It is interesting and helpful for students to think of characteristics which overlap these groups, as well as those characteristics which are unique to each group.

     Certainly eye-opening for the group was the fact that people identify themselves and their “group” by their shared language and not by their religion. . . and certainly not by divisions within religious identification as is Sunni and Shiite. The Zogby polling group, it was noted, recently sent out teams to test this premise in several Arab countries.  They did find that in some cased the first response “I am an Arab” was indeed being replaced. . . but by “I am a Syrian” or “I am an Egyptian” . . . while religious affiliation was still further down on the list of terms individuals used to describe themselves. 

     Still, the focus of the day was on the linguistic/cultural group, the Arabs, who in addition to being the largest in terms of geographic area (Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east; Syria and Iraq in the north to Sudan and Somalia in the south), are also by far the largest in terms of population: there are approximately 5 million Israelis, 66 million Persians, 77 million Turks, and 352 million Arabs.

     After this most helpful introduction to the cultural geography of the Middle East and our emphasis squarely on the Arab World within the larger “Middle East” region, we could now look at this largest linguistic/cultural group. Topics such as Folktales, Literature, Cuisine, Music, Art, and History were all touched upon. And bringing us back to the subject of “Arabs” was a hands-on activity that dealt with the Arabic language - “Arabic Proverbs.” In this activity, participants were asked to work in groups and come up with “near equivalents” for such Arabic proverbs as:

“Need brings way.”

“Too many cooks burn the food.”

“Repetitive visits cause boredom.”

“Love is blind.”

“God helps his subjects so long as they help one another.”

“Don’t cut the tree that shades you.”

“He who brands others should be stoic when branded himself.”

“Who works achieves and he who sows reaps.”

“If you see a lion’s teeth, don’t mistake it for a smile.”

     Differences too can be instructive, as in “God helps his subjects so long as they help one another,” which is different from "God
helps those who help themselves."

     The afternoon session brought attention to Al-Andalus (Arab/Islamic Spain) with Shabbas making the point that this was a period where under Muslim rule, Christians, Jews and Muslims moved beyond tolerance to a place where they actually took in one another’s cultures. And to cap the day, participants were invited to imagine a grand Medieval Banquet in the Alhambra Palace (Shabbas’s most requested curriculum work), where they took the part of guests invited to the event from across the eastern hemisphere. Guests included: St. Francis of Assisi, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Hildegard of Bingem - representing the Latin Christian world, Queen Amina, Mansa Musa, and Queen Hawa came from West Africa, Queen Zubeida, Al-Khwarizmi, Ali Al-Dimasqi came from the Baghdad and Damascus, Queen Arwa from Yemen, while Amr Khusro and Razia Sultana made their way from the Indian subcontinent, and Sultana Khadija sailed from the Maldives. From further away came Princess Sorghaghtani, the Nestorian Mongol mother of Kublai Khan.  Perhaps along her way, she met the Ming Dynasty Empress Ma or the Admiral of the Chinese fleet, Muhammad Zheng He? And somewhere on route they might have crossed paths with Lady Murasaki from the court of the Empress Akiko of Japan. The teacher participants role-played all of these personalities and more.

     It was the Arab/Islamic Civilization that controlled the trade routes of the time - by land and sea - making such an exchange possible. And it was the attitudes of that civilization - whether you were in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Timbuktu, or Granada (the site of our “Banquet in the Alhambra”) - that engendered far more than simply tolerance, but taking joy in one another’s shared values across cultures and one another’s differences!

     By the day’s end, teacher participants  comments included:

“Fantastic, eye opening, challenging and thought provoking!”

“This program was a fantastic introduction to the Arab contributions to civilization and will absolutely help me bring material back to my class.”

“What a wonderful learning experience! Ms. Shabbas is great. Thank you too for breakfast and lunch.”

“The four themes of geography were prominently covered and it was all quite informative. I have learned some things here today that I will treasure.”

“Great ideas for how to incorporate this new knowledge into classroom lessons."

“An important aspect was the positive energy that radiates from the exposure to Arabic culture.”

“Audrey Shabbas presented excellent information. I have been to a previous workshop but this offered new material and more primary sources. Thank you for bringing her!”

“The information presented was exceptional!!  Ms. Shabbas is a testament to the fact that our knowledge in Middle Eastern studies is so limited and not a focus in today’s school curriculum. However, her program in this short time proves that the information is invaluable.”