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Volume 49, Number 1January/February 1998

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A New Generation in the Middle East

Written by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

Lubna is 15 years old and lives in Kuwait. She is a sophomore at a private high school where the classes are taught in English. Her father and mother, who work in banking and at Kuwait University respectively, feel strongly that she should also have a formal background in Arabic, the language of her heritage and her Islamic faith, so Lubna spends Fridays at home being tutored by a local teacher. Like middle-class Western teenagers, Lubna wears T-shirts, jeans and Dr. Martens; she has her own room and her own stereo in her parents' spacious house, where she listens not only to Fayrouz—still a beloved singer in the Arab world—but also to gen-x rockers No Doubt. She hopes to go on to the American University in Beirut, but she also thinks about studying in England or the United States.

Omar is 14; he lives in Cairo. His father died several years ago. Last year Omar had to drop out of his neighborhood public school and go to work to help support his family: his mother, his 16-year-old brother Gamal and four younger siblings. Fortunately, Gamal was already working in a small, privately owned factory, and the owner hired Omar on as well. Omar is proud to be contributing to the family income, he says, but he regrets having to leave school, since that means he will not be able to rise much beyond his present unskilled job. Most attractive jobs in Egypt these days—especially in the private sector, but in the public sector as well—require at least a high-school diploma. Omar wears jeans and T-shirts, too, but he shares a tiny room with his older brother and two of the younger children. Television is the family recreation, and Omar loves westerns, as well as pop-music programs both from the West and from the Arab world.

Nadia also lives in Cairo. She's 11, and she attends a private elementary school in well-heeled Zamalek, across the Nile from the city center. Both her parents work full-time: Her mother is a journalist and her father is in advertising. Thus Nadia and her eight-year-old sister Hala are escorted to and from school by the family nanny. On Fridays Nadia often goes to the Gezira Sporting Club, one of the city's oldest clubs, where she plays, swims and meets her friends. She, too, watches television, especially the Cairo-produced family-style soap operas popular in Egypt and beyond.

Abdul Hamid is 16 and lives in Morocco's capital, Rabat. The son of parents who are both lawyers, he is enrolled in a public school, but he receives special tutoring in mathematics. This tutoring, his parents hope, will help him score well on the national exams that determine whether or not Abdul Hamid will go on to a university. His goal is to go to medical school like his older brother Yehia, but competition for those places is keen. Abdul Hamid, too, prefers to dress in jeans and T-shirts, and he is proud of his new Nike shoes, which he received as a birthday present. On weekends he often helps his father, who has started an extensive organic garden in the family's country house just outside Rabat.

Driss, a friend of Abdul Hamid's from school, also wants to go to medical school, but his family cannot afford tutoring. Driss is the sixth of eight children, and lives with his mother and seven siblings in a small two-room apartment. His father is a "guest worker" in France and regularly sends money home, but Driss and his older brother still have to work part-time to help make ends meet. Abdul Hamid shares his tutoring notes with Driss. "He's smarter than I am," Abdul Hamid confides. Driss works hard and believes he might do well enough on the exams to get into medical school, or at least into the engineering school in Rabat. Those are realistic hopes: For students who place high on the exams, tuition is free, and the government guarantees their education. Driss's parents, who grew up when free public education was just beginning to reach every Moroccan citizen, are both illiterate; they are proud of their son's efforts, and do their best to support him.

Lubna, Omar, Nadia, Abdul Hamid and Driss are members of a new generation in the Middle East, and are very different from the children romanticized by both Western and Middle Eastern writers in the past. That small figure, photographed in a nomadic or rural landscape, so isolated from—and foreign to—the greater world the writers themselves inhabited, is gone. To begin with, more than half of all children in the Middle East today live in cities, not in the country or, rarer still, in desert oases. This shift from predominantly rural to predominantly urban life has taken place in just over 30 years.

The new generation is growing not only in age, but also in numbers and in interconnectedness. Demographers point out that half of the Arab world's total population today is under the age of 15. These young people are growing up in a world of wider horizons and shorter distances than their parents', thanks in no small part to the communications revolution. Lubna, in Kuwait, and Omar, in Cairo—despite the differences between their social and economic positions—watch many of the same television programs and listen to the same commercial messages offering designer jeans and jogging shoes, stereos and sports equipment.

This is a generation with high material expectations and occupational ambitions. Children in this generation see themselves as citizens of modern nation-states, and take for granted the right to free education, something that, in some of their countries, was once limited to the elite. This raising of hopes is dramatic: Driss would have been unable to think of medical school in Morocco 20 years ago, and at that time Omar's regret over leaving school would have been less, since he would have known that other choices were simply not available.

Lubna, Omar, Nadia, Abdul Hamid and Driss also are part of societies where traditional class systems are changing. A real middle class has emerged, recruited on the basis of merit and economic interest rather than lineage, and is playing an important role in social and business life. But in this middle class, it is increasingly common to find both parents working full-time, and so children end up spending time at home alone, another great change from the past. As women increasingly work outside the home and women's roles in the family are gradually renegotiated—a bit more here and a bit less there—this, too, affects children by changing the traditional family unit and the relationships within it. National leaders and opinion-makers have recently organized, both privately and publicly, to improve the lives of children across the region. An early pioneer in these efforts is Dr. Hasan Al-Ibrahim, who founded and continues to direct the Kuwait Society for the Advancement of Arab Children. In 1986, the situation of children across the Arab world was the subject of the first Conference on Arab Childhood and Development, held in Tunis, and jointly organized by the League of Arab States and the United Nations. Growing from an initiative of Prince Talal ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Sa'ud of Saudi Arabia, this conference led to the organization of the Arab Council for Childhood and Development, a voluntary, non-governmental organization which, according to its founders, aims "to upgrade the standard of the Arab child, seeks to develop his personality, to improve his abilities, thus paving the way for him to become, in the future, an active member of his society, and to contribute to the civilization of his nation."

A child is a gift from God." This saying, common throughout the Middle East for thousands of years, expresses a basic belief of Muslims, Christians and Jews of the area. Not only are children much desired and loved, their arrival has traditionally been regarded as a cultural statement of great importance: In many circles, an adult is not considered mature or a full-fledged member of society until he or she marries and has children. Children affirm a man's virility and a woman's fertility and become a living symbol that the family unit will continue, a link between the past and the present.

The vast differences between past and present throughout the Middle East make that linking role a difficult one, points out Dr. Mohammed Shoufani of Morocco's Ministry of Education office in Marrakech. "Children are the most important and the most complicated people in our society today, pulled as they are between two worlds.... At a time when old absolutes are crumbling and old values are disregarded, ...young people...are endangered because they are, in terms of values at least, at sea."

Indeed, the future of the Middle East will be determined by the choices that young people like Lubna, Omar, Driss, Abdul Hamid, Hala and Nadia make, for they are the adults of the 21st century, being formed and shaped today in a world vastly different from that of their parents and grandparents.

Dr. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea is professor of English and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author, co-author or editor of nine books, including Women and the Family in the Middle East and Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak as well as The Arab World: Forty Years of Change. Children in the Muslim Middle East, an edited volume, was published in 1995 by the University of Texas Press.

This article appeared on pages 24-31 of the January/February 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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