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Volume 45, Number 3May/June 1994

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A Banquet for the Teacher

Written by Aileen Vincent-Barwood
Photographed by Janice Rubin

The speaker drew-warm applause. "Best workshop I've ever attended…," glowed the evaluation forms. "Fabulous materials!.."A wealth, of information...."

"An eye-opener!" added one member of the audience. "My bias and lack of knowledge came to light today." Another promised, "I intend to add some units on Muslim Spain to my Spanish-language classes."

The comments described a workshop for teachers conducted by educator Audrey Shabbas, executive director and founder of AWAIR, Arab World And Islamic Resources and School Services.

One of hundreds she has given nationwide in the last 30 years, the workshop sought to correct misconceptions about Islam and the Arab world, dispel stereotypes about the people of the region, provide sources for accurate classroom materials and offer curriculum aids and ideas. Over the years the workshops have attracted teachers, administrators, librarians, anthropologists, educational consultants, politicians, publishers, United Nations officials and educators from abroad; recently, most have been conducted in a joint program with the Middle East Policy Council.

In the cafeteria-auditorium of Fayetteville/Manlius High School in Manlius, New York, 33 teachers from around the state, two school principals, a writer, a school counselor, an education consultant, an anthropologist and two physicians gathered on a Saturday morning in October. They had come to learn more about Islamic and Arab culture, history, geography and language; they left with notebooks full of new teaching strategies and ideas for curriculum development, and they left without a great many common misconceptions about Islam and the Arab world.

Shabbas, a consummate teacher—vivacious, inspired and pleasantly informal—opened the workshop. "What I'm bringing you today," she said in a clear, firm voice, "is not meant to impose a curriculum that tells you to do this on day one and teach that on day six. Instead, I want to give you insights and strategies and resources that you will develop into your own classroom tools.

"How many of you are teaching about the Middle East right now?" she asked. About two-thirds of the participants raised their hands. "Then one of the questions you must hear frequently is: 'Who lives in the Middle East?' Right?" They nodded. "Well, today I want to give you an alternate way of looking at the Middle East that might prove useful in answering that question." During the Cold War, Shabbas said, Western nations tended to view the Middle East in terms of "good guys" versus "bad guys."

"Far better," she said, "to look at a region in terms of who lives there, and we will define the 'who' in terms of the language they speak." She showed the group a map of the Middle East and handed out a chart that listed the four major peoples of the region, their languages, countries and populations. She diagrammed how the Arab world as a geographical region fits into the larger Middle East, then added the far greater dimension of the Muslim world, seen as a community of faith rather than a geographical region, to her sketch.

It is a misconception, she noted, to think as many Westerners do, that Muslim is synonymous with Arab. "The former is a religious term, the latter cultural and linguistic. In fact, although Islam began in the Arab heartland, in what is now Saudi Arabia, most Muslims today are not Arabs."

Nor do most Muslims live in the Middle East. The largest number in any one country—145 million—live in Indonesia. "And there are," she said, "90 million in Pakistan, and another 90 million in India." Six million Muslims live in the United States, she said, making Islam the second largest religion in the us, after Christianity. In all, there are one billion Muslims worldwide.

"Do all Moslems pray to a god called Allah?" asked one woman, "and believe in Mohammad?"

"Before we go any further," Shabbas said, "let's talk about some terms and spellings that lead to wrong assumptions. Much of what is taught in our schools about Islam, Allah and the Prophet Muhammad—even some of the transliterations of Arabic spellings and pronunciations—is incorrect, and some is actually offensive to Muslims."

She wrote on the board.

"For example, the word is Muslim, not Moslem. Allah is the Arabic word for God, not the name of a god called "Allah"; Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews use the same word for God. The name of the Prophet is transliterated Muhammad. It is the Qur'an , not the Koran; Makkah , not Mecca; and jihad does not mean 'war' but 'struggle,' usually implying a personal or inner struggle. Some textbooks now on the market have adopted these corrections."

People in the West, she said, generally fail to recognize Islam as part of the tradition of revealed religions that began with the prophet Abraham and continued through a line of prophets that includes Moses and Jesus. Muslims believe Muhammad to be the last of the great prophets in this tradition. Shabbas spoke of the similarities and differences marking the three great monotheistic religions born in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. To understand their similarities, the class was given a worksheet with 11 quotations, and asked to indicate whether the Old Testament, the New Testament or the Qur'an was the source of each one. The examples included:

We said: O Adam! Dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden, and eat of the bountiful things therein as ye will; but approach not this tree, or ye run into harm and transgression.

O Children of Israel! Call to mind the special favor I bestowed upon you, and that I preferred you to all others.

Behold! The angels said: "O Mary! God hath chosen thee and purified theechosen thee above the women of all nations."

We sent inspiration to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms.

To everyone's surprise, all of the quotations were from the Qur'an.

Before long, it was time for lunch. An Arab feast catered by owner-chef Mike Ghabarou of La Cuisine, a Lebanese restaurant in nearby Syracuse, had been spread out at the rear of the room. The fragrance of hummus, baba ghannuj, kibbeh and tabbouleh  enticed people away from their books—but not away from the absorbing discussions and questions, which went on throughout the meal:

"What does the Qur'an say about Adam and Eve?"

"What is the difference between Sunnis and Shiites?"

"What is the shari'ah?"

Earlier that morning, before the session began, Shabbas had explained how the workshops developed. She had become interested in teaching years before, while studying political science and international relations at the University of California at Berkeley. She was fascinated by the Arab world, began to concentrate her studies on the Middle East, studied Arabic and eventually became a social-studies teacher.

She married an Arab-American, and her personal interest in the region continued to grow. Long interested in anthropology and archeology, she found she wanted to know more about the region's history, the greatness of its past, and its 200 million inhabitants, who share a common heritage with the West. Audrey Shabbas set out to inform herself.

Over the next few years, she found that Western writings about the region were plagued with omissions, inaccuracies and misrepresentations, often the result of lack of research or first-hand knowledge. Not only were the Middle East and its peoples negatively portrayed in school textbooks from elementary to university level, but maps, dictionaries, encyclopedias, general reference works and the American news media were all liable to distort the realities of the Middle East, Shabbas found. She began developing curricula for herself and her teaching colleagues.

In the mid-70's, Shabbas reviewed social-studies textbooks being considered for use in the California public schools. In response to what she and other reviewers found, The Arab World: A Handbook for Teachers was published in 1978. In that same year, Shabbas formed an educational consulting firm with two other educators, Carol El-Shaieb and Ahlam Nabulsi, and the three developed unique multi-media materials for elementary and junior-high classrooms. The materials garnered high praise from teachers and others who used them.

Out of these efforts grew The Arab World Notebook, of which Shabbas was principal author and co-editor with Dr. Ayad Al-Qazzaz, professor of sociology at California State University, Sacramento. The 460-page loose-leaf production, now before the workshop participants, contained a wealth of information on Islam and the Arab world, including facts on education, family, food, language, literature, folktales, music, archeology, the colonial legacy, Arab Christians, Arab women, oil, and the Palestine question, along with profiles and maps of the 22 countries of the Arab world.

The book also contained information about resources, video and slide sources, addresses, sample worksheets for students and—perhaps most important—a series of question-and-answer sheets to help teachers and students critically analyze what might be "loaded" language or biased commentary in textbooks and other educational material. Ever the teacher, Shabbas told workshop participants she was most proud of the fact that the book's lesson plans are used as examples by several universities in their education departments' "methods" courses.

In 1990, Shabbas founded AWAIR. The organization, whose Berkeley office is run by three full-time and three part-time staff members, attempts on a limited budget to provide film, video, teaching materials and resource information to anyone wanting them. AWAIR also operates a databank on curriculum resources and teaching materials. The non-profit group is funded by grants, tax-deductible private donations and contributions from organizations, including churches, peace-education and Middle East groups, and corporations—Saudi Aramco among them. AWAIR's advisory board includes members of the Arab-American and American Muslim communities, as well as academics and teaching professionals in various disciplines.

A final luncheon course of Arab desserts— baqlawah , kunafah and bourma—was consumed with delight. Then, one appetite sated, the teachers returned to their lessons to satisfy another.

Shabbas, drawing on personal knowledge, began speaking about the importance of the family in Arab culture, and common misconceptions about the role of Muslim women in that culture. "First of all," she said, "Arab and Muslim women are not, as some writers like to picture them, veiled, uneducated, oppressed or kept out of sight, nor do the majority of them share a husband with three other wives. The authors of such statements—and there are many, unfortunately—don't know Muslim women, Muslim history or Muslim customs and culture."

Such flawed and misleading generalizations, she maintained, ignored the fact that Muslim countries are lands of contrasts. Just as in the West, there are rich people and poor, traditional and Westernized, educated and uneducated. Islam does not advocate the subjugation of women or their relegation to a secondary role. The Qur'an, she noted, addresses "Muslims"—without distinction of gender.

In fact, well in advance of women's emancipation in Europe, the coming of Islam made revolutionary changes in the lives of women in sixth-century Arabia. Islam gave women the right to use their own names after marriage, to write their own conditions in marriage contracts, to own and sell property, to enter independently into contracts or sue others in court. Polygamy was always an exception rather than the rule.

Many of the workshop's participants wanted to know about the shari'ah, the law governing Muslims. Again, Shabbas said, this had been misunderstood in the West. The shari'ah  was not one law, but a series of laws, open to interpretation but informed always by religious faith. She listed its sources on the chalkboard:

The Qur'an: God's word as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. We may find an explicit answer to our questions here. If not, we look to ...

Hadith (Sunna): The collected, authenticated teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. If we find no specific answer here, we look to...

Qiyas : Analogies as a way of applying the teachings of the Qur'an and the Hadith to the present problem. And we look to...

Ijma' : This is the consensus of the religious scholars of the community, and can change from one time or place to another, as the community's ideas and its leaders change. Thus we have the details of the shari'ah  interpreted differently in different Muslim countries.

AWAIR's newest curriculum is called A Medieval Banquet in the Alhambra Palace, a "how-to" project intended to bring Muslim history to life for eighth- to 10th-graders. Students in all types of courses—art, shop, domestic arts, mathematics, English and Spanish classes—cooperate to learn about Islam in the Middle Ages. By producing music, stories, games, calligraphy, clothing, murals and food, and by role-playing at the banquet itself, they are able to explore Arab /Islamic civilization at its height—"a time," said Shabbas, "when there was no conflict among science, art and religion; a time when Arabic was the lingua franca of this great civilization, and families throughout the empire sent their sons and daughters to the great Muslim universities in Cairo, Timbuktu and Cordoba."

By staging a medieval banquet, students learn how Arab Spain interacted with the rest of Europe and with the Middle East and Africa. They play the roles of guests from all over the eastern hemisphere, including such historical figures as Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Khaldun, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Maimonides, Eleanor of Aquitaine, queens Arwa of Yemen and Amina of Zaria and queen-consort Zubeida of Baghdad, and geographers Ibn Battuta, al-Idrisi and Hassan al-Wazzan.

"Perhaps for the first time, students will understand that it was Islamic civilization that linked these disparate people," said Shabbas. Students long remember this "re-thinking" of history, she added, as they attend the banquet in the dress, say, of the Muslim physician-philosopher Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna), or of the event's hostess, the Andalusian princess and poet Walladah bint al-Mustakfi. "They are not passively watching or reading: They are actively involved in the learning process," Shabbas said passionately, "and will therefore be affected in a way they will remember all their lives."

In a concluding class exercise that day, Shabbas spoke of the 800 years of Muslim Spain, of its great art, literature, music and science; of its hundreds of public libraries—70 in Granada alone—of the many original and translated works they contained, and of the extensive body of scientific knowledge and research Muslim scholars had amassed there (See Aramco World, May-June 1992, January-February 1993).

Shabbas then distributed miniature paper "books" representing the works of medieval Muslim philosophers, writers, calligraphers, poets and scientists. Each participant was asked to read out the book title and its author, and tell a bit about the subject. Having done so, they then placed their "books" on a copper tray. When she had collected them all, Shabbas began reading aloud from the book In the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, by Tariq Ali, about the burning of the contents of those fabulous libraries on December 1, 1499, by order of the head of the Spanish Inquisition.

In a dramatic conclusion, she then set a match to the "books" on the tray. Shocked, the participants watched this symbolic book-burning in silence: 800 years of accumulated learning went up in flames. For most of the participants, the workshop that day was a revelation. "My education, and my view of the Middle East, has always been from a Western point of view," commented Jeff Walters, who teaches l0th-grade global studies in New Hartford, New York. "As a social studies teacher, I really needed to know this."

Aileen Vincent-Barwood, former Middle East correspondent, newspaper editor and author, free-lances from upstate New York.

What Makes Audery Run
Written by Aileen Vincent-Barwood

"Why do I do this?"

Audrey Shabbas laughs, shakes her head and, in a rare moment of relaxation between one workshop and the next, ponders the question. "I do it because I'm a wife, a mother and a teacher. And I care very much about the next generation."

Shabbas is an ebullient woman, full of quick energy and good humor, proud to be the wife of Iraqi-American sociologist Baba Shabbas, director of a mental-health program for abused children in Berkeley, California, where the couple lives. She describes her husband as "a nurturing, loving man who has devoted his life to America's 'throw-away' children." She is also mother of three second-generation Arab-Americans—son Laith, 14, and daughters Sharifa, 23, and Jenan, 24, all strong supporters of their mother's work.

As a former social-studies teacher, Shabbas is an ardent believer that teachers are a country's "vanguard of change."

"It's not politicians, philosophers, writers or the media who bring about change," she says. "It's teachers. If you give away 10,000 copies of a book, you've reached 10,000 people. But if you give the same book to 10,000 teachers, who each share it with just two other teachers, in a five-year period you've reached 25 million future leaders of this country."

Teachers and educators nationwide have conferred honors on Shabbas, named her twice to Who's Who in American Education, asked her advice and flocked to her workshops. In 1993 alone, she was invited to give workshops to 35 to 60 participants each in Texas, California, Arkansas, Utah, Oregon, Missouri, Kentucky, New York and Maryland. "My teachers and I came," said one high school principal, because "we felt bombarded with skewed points of view on Islam and the Middle East, and we wanted to correct our ideas and inform ourselves on other points of view."

"This makes me feel that I'm making a difference," Shabbas says. "By helping Americans transcend stereotypes of Islam and the Arab world, I'm adding to better global understanding and perhaps even to a world of peace and justice." The Middle East is once again a significant cultural, economic and political force, she points out; as such, it merits serious study in all American schools and universities.

"Unfortunately, much still needs to be done to make the portrayal of Islam and the Arab world in American textbooks more accurate," Shabbas adds, noting that while some textbooks have been revised and more undoubtedly will be, teachers bear the primary responsibility for providing accurate, current and suitable learning materials.

"AWAIR's workshops," she says, "and publications such as The Arab World Notebook, The Arabs: Activities for the Elementary School Level and A Medieval Banquet in the Alhambra Palace are meant to inform teachers, school administrators, publishers, parents and others who are concerned about quality education for our children." The National Geographic Society, National Public Radio, and the BBC World Service have all called teachers' attention to AWAIR'S expertise and materials.

Two honors, Shabbas particularly cherishes: One is her selection in 1990 to represent Arab-Americans and American Muslims on an eight-person national task force to draw up the Equity and Multi-Ethnic Educational Guidelines for the United States. The other honor is the 1992 Janet Lee Stevens Award from the University of Pennsylvania for contributions to Arab-American understanding.

Asked about the future, Shabbas quickly sketches three of AWAIR's major projects: A four-week summer institute on Islam to be held at Dar al-Islam in Abiquiu, New Mexico (See Aramco World, May-June 1988), partly funded by a federal-government grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities; a new work on the same subject as The Arab World Notebook, funded by a grant from the U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce; and a trip to the conference of the Near East/South Asia Council of Overseas Schools in Sri Lanka, where she and staffer Sophia Husain will give presentations to administrators of American and other English-language schools in those areas. "They teach the sons and daughters of diplomats, Foreign Service personnel and executives of transnational corporations, but many do a poor job of teaching about the very countries and cultures they're living in. AWAIR's job will be to help correct that."

Then she looks at her watch, picks up her suitcase, looks hurriedly through her pocketbook for the airline ticket to her next destination, and says, "As for the future, you can say that doors are opening to us without our even knocking, and that our only obstacle is funding the staff we need to meet the demand for our services. And—oh, yes—I hope to do this for the rest of my professional life. Or at least as long as I can talk—and for a teacher, that's a long time!"

This article appeared on pages 14-19 of the May/June 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1994 images.