Middle Eastern Religions, Politics, Literature Highlight Anchorage Outreach Program

Middle Eastern Religions, Politics, Literature Highlight Anchorage Outreach Program

West High School seniors in Anchorage, Alaska, attired in traditional Middle Eastern women's dress as part of an exercise in cross-cultural perceptions.

Outreach directors from major U.S. universities introduce Anchorage high school teachers and students to the Middle East during MESA meeting in Alaska.

Over the course of ten days in November, outreach directors from Middle East National Resource Centers at UCLA, UC Berkeley, Harvard University, and the University of Texas at Austin undertook a host of activities designed to inform and educate precollegiate teachers, students and members of the public in Anchorage, Alaska, about the history, culture, and contemporary events that have shaped the Middle East and its evolving relations with the United States. Held in conjunction with the 37th annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the multifaceted program attracted thousands of people. Activities included a full-day workshop for secondary school instructors, talks and demonstrations in local high schools, discussions in bookstores and places of worships, and presentations of Middle Eastern music, dance, and cinema.
More than 60 individuals attended Middle East 101: Tools for K-12 Teachers, an accredited workshop for educators held on the University of Alaska campus on November 8. Sharon Araji from the University of Alaska (UA), Anchorage, Sociology Department introduced the program, which featured talks on the historical context of contemporary Middle Eastern issues by Jon Mandaville from Portland State University, the current Middle East crisis by Michael Hudson from Georgetown University, and dispelling myths about women in the Middle East by Fatma Müge Göçek from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

In another forum on November 7, Christopher Rose from the University of Texas spoke to a group of UA students and faculty on Islam in world cultures.

Jonathan Friedlander and Larry Michalak, from UCLA and UC Berkeley respectively, offered comparative perspectives on Middle Eastern religions in the Middle East and in the United States. Audrey Shabbas from the Arab World and Islamic Resources Center demonstrated a classroom activity centered on creating an Egyptian tent wall. Participants were treated to the poetry of Rumi, founder of the Mawlawi Sufi order, read by John Doyle; a dance performance by Jennifer Haynes-Clark; and a taste of Middle Eastern cuisine.

Teachers expressed their appreciation in their evaluations of the workshop: "An incredible experience overall," wrote one participant. Others concurred: "I enjoyed the variety of topics and the quality of the speakers -- thank you for bringing us Far Northerners such a wonderful intellectual exposure." "Dispelling the idea of a uniform Middle East or a unified 'Islamic' viewpoint was an important accomplishment," said another teacher. "Please make this an annual event" was the general sentiment.

Rose, Friedlander, Michalak, and Barbara Petzen from Harvard spoke to some 200 students at Polaris K-12, Service, and West High Schools. The topics of discussion ranged from United States policy in the Middle East and the practice of veiling to languages, holidays, and cross-cultural perceptions of the Middle East and the U.S. Authority and civil society, violence and the media, values, gender, and sports all came into the mix.

"You're messing with my stereotypes about the Middle East," acknowledged a Service High School senior. Fiona Rose Worcester, a West High School senior who is enrolled in an advanced placement U.S. government course, observed that, "While it's true that Americans often stereotype people of the Middle East, it would be unfair to say that Americans aren't frequently stereotyped by Middle Easterners. We are a diverse group of people, and to look at one trend is to lose sight of the big picture." Richie Goldstein, a senior faculty member at West High School and a principal organizer of the Middle East education and awareness program, summed it up this way: "The best part of the classroom visit was the interaction between the scholars and the students. Despite this being fairly new information for many of the kids, they responded well because they understand the growing importance of the Middle East in their lives."

The dialogue on the U.S. and the Middle East expanded in academic and cultural exchanges involving members of the community who attended other events in the program. An inquisitive group of citizens came to the Title Wave Bookstore to hear Michalak and Friedlander share their insights on current books dealing with the Middle East and Middle Eastern Americans, ranging from the "Clash of Civilizations" discourse to Arab-American and Iranian-American novels and poetry. Friedlander read and discussed selections from the works of early Arab-American writers Khalil Gibran and Mikhail Naimy, contemporary Arab-American writers Greg Orfalea, Khaled Mattawa, Laila Halaby, and Naomi Shihab Nye, and Iranian-American writers Tara Bahrampour and Abbas Milani.

Michalak and Friedlander also served as commentators on two documentaries on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, Promises and Crossing the Line. Petzen and Michalak spearheaded discussions on the Abrahamic religions at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore and St. Mary's Episcopal Church, respectively. Lastly, Michalak offered commentary on the Tunisian film Satin Rouge after it screened at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

A broad range of cultural activities was integral to the success of the program. Egyptian-American artist and educator Karim Nagi Mohammed from the New England Conservatory of Music demonstrated a variety of Middle Eastern musical instruments and styles and taught the gathered enthusiasts to dance the debke. The program was enriched by the contributions of scholar and human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Palestinian-American author Ibtisam Barakat, and photographer and educator Keren Friedman who exhibited and spoke about her images of Tunisian Jews from the island of Djerba.
On the academic side, a MESA panel on The Arctic and the Middle East: Comparisons and Contrasts made connections between the two regions with papers on "Arctic and Desert Places in the Imagination of European Tourists," "Traditional and Modern Mental Health Interventions among Indigenous Peoples: Alaska Natives and Negev Bedouins," "The Bedouin and the Saami: Nomadic Pastoralism in Contrasting Ecological Niches," and "Colonialism and Global Stratification: Parallels and Ties that Bind Alaska and the Middle East."

"We got greater public participation in several of our scheduled events than I expected," said Richie Goldstein. "I was especially gratified by the very large turnout at the several Abraham salons. These were events in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews came together to discuss the place of Abraham, the patriarch common to all three religions."

"This program of events was a clear demonstration of the successful outcomes that can emerge from a community of partners working together," concluded Sharon Araji, who was another principal force behind the endeavor. "In these times of world violence, much of it happening in the Middle East, everyone agreed that reliable information about this part of the world was worthwhile and beneficial to our community. We appreciate all the MESA and MEOC members who helped make these events the success they were."

The Middle East Outreach Council likewise extended its appreciation to the Alaska Humanities Forum, the University of Alaska, the Anchorage School District, the Anchorage World Affairs Council, and Alaskans for Peace and Justice for making our visit so fruitful and memorable.

Published: Wednesday, December 17, 2003