English Literature and Arab Students

By Al Maleh, Layla | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

English Literature and Arab Students


Al Maleh, Layla, Academic Exchange Quarterly


Abstract

Teachers of English literature in non-Western environments may find it more challenging to bring their students to an appreciation of English literature, which offers social, moral, and cultural values different from their own. This paper depicts the experience of teaching English literature in the Arab/Moslem world and recommends that, to avoid alienating students, literature should be taught amorally and encourage free interpretation.

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   The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How
   different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and
   on mine. I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of
   spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be
   for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words.
   My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his
   language

   James Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Teaching English literature in a non-Western environment may entail more than the usual task of interpreting a text in the light of current critical methodology, or helping students acquire analytical skills which enable them acquire an appreciation of literary works. The teacher of English literature in a cultural milieu that holds sets of values and codes of morality different from its Western counterpart finds the teaching mission both taxing and challenging. On the one hand, he/she needs to construe the text by positioning it within the cultural and social setting that originally produced it, on the other, he/she needs to relate the students to the assigned work by creating a certain degree of referentiality within their mental and emotional constructs so as to liaise them to it and trigger identification and empathy.

This, naturally, touches on the major issue of how to address the act of reading. Should not reading be viewed as an act leading to a comprehension of a certain text, hence to a cognitive end? Or should the reader/learner primarily seek an ethical use of that text? The present paper wishes to explore, through examples chosen from personal teaching experiences, the relationship between cognitive and ethical knowledge of texts taught to Arab learners of English literature. More specifically, it hopes to highlight the need to train students to read the 'foreign' text cross-culturally by trying to bestride the cultural divide, and traverse moral controversy.

The task is not an easy one. My personal experience as both a teacher and formerly a student of English literature in the Arab World testifies to this. Regardless of my academic status, the problem of striding worlds and bridging cultural divides seemed always to be both thorny and pressing, in my younger years, I was aware of differences that existed between the culture I belonged to and the one I was in the process of acquiring, To my simplistic mind then, I had imagined the chasm to be merely of geography and perhaps of some social habits: of trying to imagine in my mind's eye why T.S. Eliot wrote that April was the cruelest of months or that winter had "kept us warm"; or why Shakespeare wished to compare his sweetheart to a summer's day when 'my' summer was unpleasantly hot and disagreeably enfeebling of the senses. Coming from a closely knit family and a warm and affable social background with strong community ties, I also found it hard to understand Eliot's description of the self being locked up in its own prison, each "Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison / Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours / Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus."

Slowly but surely, I began to parrot remarks on alienation and estrangement engendered by readings not of Eliot, who seemed to appeal to us Muslim Arabs (for his respect of the past, of tradition, and his call for a return to faith) but by other western authors and thinkers such as Colin Wilson, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, and Franz Kafka. …

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