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Demystifying the Middle East in the Classroom through Literature and Film

RoundTable V-4, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

RoundTable Description
This roundtable assembles university and college educators who use a variety of materials (literature, film, ethnographies, comic books, podcasts, and news stories) to demystify the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in undergraduate classrooms where many students have no personal familiarity with the subject. Often students approach the course with little or stereotypical impressions of the region, which include terrorist and religious radical tropes, no understanding of Palestine and Israel, and/or Disneyfied or Orientalist imagery. Depending on the level of the course, it can be difficult to break down stereotypes and engage students who are taking the course as part of a major requirement or as an unknown elective. This roundtable seeks to give educators the tools to approach the MENA in an engaging way through a diversity of materials (i.e. graphic novels and comic books about and from authors in the region, using young adult literature and fantasy novels to engage with culture, films that speak to the everyday struggles of the region, ethnographies and podcasts with the voices of people from the region, and using current events to engage students in global discussions). Our discussion looks at accessibility of materials to different kinds of learners (mixed mediums of visual and audio), in addition to text-based approaches, and how students can connect the MENA region to their global and digital lives. The goal of this roundtable is to share pedagogies and strategies that will allow students who are unfamiliar with the MENA region to explore culture, history, and social issues within the region in engaging and accessible ways. Each of our roundtable participants will discuss their experiences teaching about the MENA in a variety of disciplines (English, History, Gender Studies, Anthropology), the pedagogical basis for the way their utilize their different materials and successes that can be employed in other classrooms. This roundtable provides scholars and educators of the MENA region a unique opportunity to find new materials and approaches for their classrooms whether they teach students who are unfamiliar, need new ideas for an established course, or might help spark a new direction for future, more advanced courses.
Media Arts
  • As an anthropologist, the main thrust of my teaching about the Middle East is a critical awareness of the politics of representation and the legacies of area studies. I teach in a small liberal arts college where the students are predominantly white. My upper-level Middle East course is based on six full-length ethnographies, one graphic novel as well as fictional films and documentaries. Ethnographies are excellent platforms to demystify the region and to tackle Orientalist representations. Their unique focus on specific individuals and social issues helps to reveal the complexities and the heterogeneity of social groups. By immersing themselves in full-length texts, students unlearn homogeneous, essentialist and caricatured representations of Middle Eastern populations. The films and documentaries that accompany the ethnographies further this, by leading students to find commonalities between their own lives and those they read about, whether it be Moroccan youth organizing a hip-hop festival or young Iranians’ struggles with mental health. I also strategically begin and end the semester with books that challenge rigid and essentialist understandings of areas. We start the semester with an ethnography on Turkey, whose liminal position allows for more porous and fluid imaginaries. Likewise, when we read about Oman, we analyze connections between the Arabian peninsula and East Africa. In recent years I have been concluding the course with a discussion of Eastern European women working in Turkey, which introduces students to contemporary and historical connections between Europe and the Middle East, while juxtaposing postsocialist experiences with post-étatist policies. In a similar vein, reading about Dubai introduces students to a specific cultural reality, while allowing them to explore neoliberalism’s impact on all our lives. Full-length ethnographies also help to reflect on the politics of knowledge production. As we conclude each ethnography, we address the textual aspects of books and the connections between their form and the content. Talking about the author’s voice, their writing style, intended audience as well as the ease or difficulty of their language encourages students to reflect on authorial choices. Reading a graphic novel builds on these previous discussions by bridging the written word with images, inspiring thoughtful discussions on how visuality can tackle essentialist representations by humanizing the individuals depicted in the narrative. As we do with the ethnographies, we pay attention to power differentials and how authors represent themselves alongside others. Addressing positionality and reflexivity as part of representing others strengthens the demystifying process.
  • In December 2021 and 2022, "Perspectives on History," the American Historical Association's newsmagazine, published features exploring fiction and science fiction/fantasy and their relationship to history. The "Perspectives" editorial staff wrote, "Science fiction and fantasy provide their adherents with imagined histories of future or alternate worlds. These stories are shaped by the present circumstances of their composition, among them the real histories of this world." As a historian and voracious SFF reader, I have thought about different ways of combining my two interests in the classroom. For many students, they take history classes after becoming interested in a topic, time period, or geography after seeing a movie, reading a book, or playing a video game that sparked their curiosity. In Fall 2022, I am teaching "History & Fantasy Literature '' that will use contemporary texts to help students learn about and explore Islamicate/Middle Eastern History. The main books are Melissa Bashardoust's "Girl, Serpent, Thorn'' (Flatiron 2020), S.A. Chakraborty's "The City of Brass” (Harper Voyager 2016)", and P. Djèlí Clark's "The Haunting of Tram Car 015" (Tordotcom 2019). In addition to these works, they will also be paired with primary sources in translation, visual culture, and material objects. For example, when students read "Girl, Serpent, Thorn," they will also read excerpts from the Shahnameh, where Bashardoust drew her inspiration and explore illustrated manuscript pages available through online exhibitions and digital library collections. "The Haunting of Tram Car 015," set in a steampunk Cairo where colonialism never occurred, involves Egyptian women's fight for suffrage but a decade prior to the establishment of the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923. As a result, they'll also read excerpts from Huda Sharawi's memoir "Harem Years'' to see how Clark uses speculative history, as well as fantastical elements, to comment on the past and present. Many students at my university do not often come into the classroom with considerable prior knowledge about Islam or the Middle East. Through this blend of contemporary works of fiction and primary sources, they will develop an understanding of important themes of geography, religious diversity, gender and sexuality, imperialism/colonialism/nationalism, culture, and more. They will also gain skills for close reading of primary and secondary sources, historical analysis and writing, and public speaking. During the roundtable, I will and can discuss how/why I picked these 3 core texts, different assignments, and my approach to entangling history and fantasy.
  • One of the innovative teaching methods is to provide a rigorous academic foundation to continue the advanced study of world languages, culture, and literature, in a social justice context. This paper presents a potential course plan offering innovative strategies to teach social justice events through literature and films, particularly modern Arabic Cinema and literature. The paper provides informed and comprehensive perspectives essential to cross-culture analysis within local, national, and international contexts in Arab studies. These components align with CUNY's mission to educate for social justice. This course provides a practical application of a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of Arabs culture to foster transcultural skills, where social justice awareness is demonstrated. The course is offered as part of the minor in Middle Eastern Studies, and it is designed for students who wish to combine an interest in the Middle East with majors such as History, Anthropology, or Sociology. Students are expected to independently develop written papers and oral presentations and use a combination of ideas to evaluate and analyze information. This course aims to trace the themes of social justice in Arabic literature and films and to explore the multiculturalism and intersectionality in the different Arab-spoken countries. This interdisciplinary course allows students to explore the history and culture, and politics of the Arab world as presented in Arabs literature and Cinema. This course looks at the intersection between Arabic Literature and films as two modes of reflecting and producing culture and exploring the political and social backgrounds of Arabs. It enables students to develop a critical understanding of historical events by analyzing social justice themes in selected literary works. The course also seeks to analyze Arab societies from the postcolonial perspective, answering some questions that are applied to Arab communities in the post-colonialism era and the reforming of the new modern middle east. The offered course matches the world culture and Global issues because teaching Arabic literature and Cinema demonstrates global communication interaction. This course examines justice-related issues from the perspectives of gender, culture, and social classes in Arabs countries as they are represented in literature and films. In addition, it focuses on topics such as understanding moral rights such as human rights, labor rights, and freedom of speech in the modern Arab world. This paper also suggests some practical assignments that help students analyze and gain familiarity with social justice terms, topics, and values.
  • Reading is always a challenge in the social science and humanities classrooms. Students are usually overwhelmed or mystified by the type of academic writing and articles and typically do not complete readings for the classes. In my classes focusing on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), I use podcasts, comic books, films, and current news to get students to “buy into” the classes before engaging them with harder readings. In my courses for the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and American University in Cairo, I introduce students to anthropology and ethnographic works starting with the graphic novel Lissa (Hamdy & Nye 2017). This follows a friendship between American and Egyptian girls as they grow up and how they interpret and encounter different events in their lives. This book leads to other great conversations that are in the news like organ donation, the anniversary of the Arab Uprisings, and ever-present theme of gender roles. I continue the course with other accessible materials like podcasts from the region like Ahky ya Masr’s “Drink Tea the Egyptian Way” examining local slices of life, “Not Just my Hijab” by Kerning cultures who focus on individual’s relationship with religion, and films like Amreeka (2009) that help bridge the gap of understanding migration, Palestine, and post-9/11 America. These courses were also planned around the Qatar 2022 World Cup as part of a discussion of Orientalism, economics, and politics in the region. In this roundtable, I will discuss and give examples the value of multimodal materials available to fellow educators, how to draw thematic parallels, and why these materials help de-mystify the MENA region for students.