Academic journal article Social Education

Teaching about the Middle East: Challenges and Resource

Academic journal article Social Education

Teaching about the Middle East: Challenges and Resource

Article excerpt

Barbara Petzen began working as a part-time outreach coordinator at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) a week before September 11, 2001. She was finishing her dissertation in Middle Eastern studies, specializing in the Ottoman Empire and Arab history, and thought it would be a good job to have while she completed her Ph.D. Needless to say, within days her job became "an entirely different thing." Her part-time job had become full-time and she was busy trying to figure out how to provide teachers with the tools they would need to learn and teach about the Middle East and Islam.

The challenge for teachers today is how to teach about the Middle East in a political and emotional environment that is extremely tense. How can educators convey the complexities of both historical and current events? Where can they find unbiased information? How can we teach our students to be critical analysts without being labeled or perceived as "unpatriotic"?

Petzen is all too familiar with this dilemma. Her office is flooded with requests for her to visit classrooms and lead professional development workshops for teachers and administrators. "Most teachers feel unsure about how to present things," she observes. "There are not just two sides--there are multiple perspectives. Even though we want students to ask a broad range of questions, everyone dreads getting that question that they feel unable to answer. And how do we encourage students to be sensitive and respectful when dealing with differences of opinions? How do we tackle our own prejudices?" To further complicate matters, teaching about Islam has already proven controversial, and many teachers fear unfavorable reactions from parents.

Resources

To fully develop new resources or supplement the existing curriculum, teachers need to use a combination of sources. Some of the best books or articles may be published by small presses or are not readily known or available. Textbooks and other mainstream resources tend to be oversimplified or flawed. Subheen Razzaqui, who holds a bachelor's degree in Middle Eastern history, and teaches modern European history at Newton North High School in Massachusetts, is determined to find material that is accurate and culturally sensitive. As an American Muslim herself, she feels that many books have a very superficial understanding of the Middle East and scanty information about the Ottoman Empire. "There's a lot of material out there, but it's not necessarily correct" she says. For instance, Razzaqui notes, "Although Modern Worm History is a good textbook overall, (1) it's not particularly good in its coverage of Middle Eastern and South Asian women. It tends to focus on the weird and exotic." Razzaqui often has to use college-level material with her students, such as William Cleveland's History of the Modern Middle East. (2)

Harvard's CMES has been busy developing a variety of resources for teachers, including lists of recommended articles, books, etc. Petzen concurs that it is hard to find comprehensive sources, particularly for middle and high school students, and must supplement such materials with higher-level reading. In addition to Audrey Shabbas's A Medieval Banquet at the Alhambra Palace curriculum and The Arab Worm Notebook, edited by Shabbas, she recommends Deborah Gerner's Understanding the Contemporary Middle East and Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples. (3) (See page 48 for a list of resources on women in the Middle East.)

Petzen also encourages the use of literature and film. Documentary films help students understand, see, and hear facts through interviews and images. In the film Promises by Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg, and Carlos Bolado, life in a Palestinian refugee camp, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, and neighborhoods in Jerusalem are explored through the eyes of seven children. The feature film Children of Heaven, directed by Majid Majidi, provides a delightful look at ordinary life in Iran. …

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