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Volume 53, Number 1January/February 2002

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"I'm a living example of how off-base stereotypes can be. I always tell my audiences, 'I want to let you step with me to the inside, to see what a Muslim worldview looks like and feels like, so you can bring it back to your students.'"

Taking The Mystery Out of the Middle East

Written by Ellen Mansoor Collier
Photographed by Janice Rubin

At the beginning of the day, Audrey Parks Shabbas often tells her audience that she is both a Muslim and a Mayflower descendant who has lived nearly all her life in the United States. "I'm a living example of how off-base stereotypes can be," she says. "I always tell them, 'I want to let you step with me to the inside, to see what a Muslim worldview looks like and feels like, so you can bring it back to your students.'"

As founder and president of AWAIR (Arab World and Islamic Resources and School Services), Shabbas sees her goal as the elimination of prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. "Anything less would be unacceptable to our American ideals of equality and justice," she says. Her path to that goal is through education, by increasing teachers' awareness and knowledge of Islam and Middle Eastern cultures. Since 1992, she has been the primary leader of the Middle East Policy Council's national program of workshops.

"Audrey speaks in a familiar voice about an unfamiliar world," comments Linda Wuest, executive director of the Houston World Affairs Council, which in December sponsored one of Shabbas's 50-odd workshops scheduled for this school year.

It was in the mid-1970's, when she was teaching seventh-grade social studies, that Shabbas became frustrated with both the inaccuracy and scarcity of teaching materials on Islam. Setting off on her own, in 1978 she published The Arab World: A Handbook for Teachers, the foundation of today's Arab World Studies Notebook.

Soon afterward, she began to offer one-day workshops to other educators. Rather than focus on current events, she placed the Middle East in historical context by concentrating on the contributions of Muslims to world civilization. "I believe teachers—not politicians or the press—are the vanguard of change in our society," she says. "For example, in schools you find a much more inclusive sense of 'we' than you do in most media. In schools it's not so much 'us' and 'them,' it's more like, 'look at how these people handle this; what can we learn from them?' Americans are searchers, and among teachers there's also a desire to serve the rising numbers of students and families who are Muslims."

During their six hours with Shabbas, says Michael Fahy, director of the University of Michigan's Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, "teachers come to realize that the western and Arab worlds are not the polar opposites they may appear, but indeed draw from many of the same historical, religious, scientific, technological and cultural sources."

Shabbas's schedule has been full for nearly two decades now. Although most of her workshops are in the United States, she's traveled as far as Geneva and Bahrain. She customizes the presentations to fit her audiences, which range from elementary to university teachers, from teachers of English as a second language to the staffs of museums and Islamic centers. But mostly, she works with middle-school and high-school teachers.

"She translates very difficult concepts into understandable language," says Linda Adams, director of the Outreach Program at University of Utah's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, who attended a 1998 workshop. "Many teachers are astounded by how little they knew about this region and how much is ignored by western textbooks." Thanks to the workshop training, Adams adds that "after September 11, our teachers were prepared to handle the barrage of questions and racist remarks about Muslims. The impact this one person has had on changing people's perceptions of the Arab world is inspiring."

In 1992, the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), a non-profit educational organization, joined forces with Shabbas to develop and fully fund a workshop program, and over the past 10 years has sponsored some 250 of her workshops in coordination with school districts, boards of education and academic organizations.

"Audrey's background, her easy rapport with teachers and her deep understanding of the Arab world make her an ideal instructor," says MEPC executive director Richard Wilson. "She's made a tremendous impact on schools nationwide, speaking in 160 cities in 42 states. Demand is so great that we hope to increase our workshops to 60 a year."

In her workshops, Shabbas covers a lot of ground, from Persia to Muslim Spain to Palestine and Indonesia, the country with the largest population of Muslims. Drawing on an overhead transparency, she uses the acronym "PATIO"—Persians, Arabs, Turks, Israelis and "Others"—to describe the ethnic makeup of Middle Eastern people "as they define themselves: by language." As she points out, "not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arab," and only 18 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims reside in the 22 Arab countries. In one of her most memorable classroom exercises, Shabbas hands out a checklist of religious quotations and asks teachers to identify which are from the Torah, which from the Bible and which from the Qur'an. After the teachers assign each quotation to one holy book or another, Shabbas announces the unexpected fact: All the quotations are from the Qur'an.

Shabbas also points teachers toward tools that will help them go farther in their own classrooms. Topping the list is the Arab World Studies Notebook, a 540-page, loose-leaf compendium, edited and co-authored by Shabbas, and printed by MEPC. It features articles from diverse sources on culture, history, politics, food and religion. It also includes 50 lesson plans. Over the years, the Notebook has been distributed to more than 10,000 teachers, most of whom share the resource with others. If each notebook teaches 250 students a year over 10 years, Shabbas points out, "then you've reached 25 million students."

"It's a treasure trove," says Beverly Mack, associate professor of African and Islamic studies at the University of Kansas. "Such education can help make the world a better place. It lays out Islam's profound influence on the progressive development of the world and replaces myths about Islam's constraints with truths about its support of equity and mercy for all."

Missouri world history teacher Chris Kelley, who traveled to the Middle East in the 1980's and later took a workshop, says that his students "especially enjoy studying the Middle East, since they were clueless about that part of the world. When we studied comparative religions, they were surprised to learn that the Muslim and Christian faiths actually share many of the same beliefs and values. It's a total epiphany."

One of Shabbas's most complex lesson plans, and a popular one from seventh grade to high school, is her "Medieval Banquet in the Alhambra Palace," in which the participants role-play a banquet in 14th-century Islamic Spain. Created partly in response to the need for more interdisciplinary, experiential studies, the banquet allows students to step into "the world's first multicultural society" of Muslims, Christians and Jews. Students help stage the banquet, recreating costumes, settings, entertainment and food. They play the parts of key historical characters—such as doctor Ibn Rushd and author/librarian Fatima of Cordoba—as well as contemporary "guests" from outside Muslim Spain.

"The banquet provides a perfect doorway," says social studies teacher Aloise Miller, who has organized banquets with her Long Beach, California junior-high classes. "We decorated the windows with Islamic verses to depict a beautiful Moorish palace. My classes were amazed to learn that the Muslim world was so progressive by the eighth century—and so advanced in trade, art, science, architecture, law and medicine, especially compared to medieval Europe. It was a complete revelation for students to discover that Islamic culture made such a deep impact on the Christian crusaders and that it helped bring about the Renaissance in Europe."

Despite the years of rave reviews, Shabbas admits that, since September 11, she is doing more explaining than ever: Her workshops are as much dialogue as lecture, she says, and it's clear she doesn't shy away from tough questions. The September 11 perpetrators she refers to as "so-called Muslims." She stresses that "Islam says you always choose life. According to Islam, the true heroes of September 11 are the people who tried to save lives—firefighters, police officers and rescue workers.

"The beauty of Islam is all in the Qur'an," she says, drawing a clear distinction between what was revealed by God through the Prophet Muhammad and practices that are the result of cultural interpretation of the Message. "It's important to separate culture and religion, and dig deeper. And what's exciting is that more and more, I find teachers doing that on their own, so my time with them is both deeper and broader."

For example, she explains, "In the Qur'an, God has no gender, nor does the Qur'an consider women inferior or subservient to men. Indeed, Islam is deeply committed to social justice and knowledge for understanding. As the Prophet Muhammad said, 'It is the duty of every Muslim man and woman to seek education.'" In fact, she stresses, the Qur'an helped liberate women by allowing them extensive legal and marital rights.

As a girl growing up in the ethnically diverse, low-income neighborhood of Richmond in the San Francisco Bay area, Shabbas was raised mainly by her mother, who supported four children on her secretary's salary. "My mother instilled in me a strong sense of social justice," she recalls. Her favorite seventh-grade teacher, a Mr. Smith, introduced her to the Middle East, and her interest found encouragement under one Mr. Wilde, who taught a high-school class on the non-western world. Shabbas participated in a Model United Nations, then a new program, where she represented Iraq. She excelled in debate and student government, and became president of the Future Teachers of America.

At the University of California at Berkeley, she majored in international relations and political science, with a concentration in Middle East studies and a minor in Near East languages. Though a native, she became president of the International Students Association her freshman year. "It was in college I witnessed the discrimination my Arab friends suffered—and still face—because of their ethnicity and religion," Shabbas recalls. "My friends were often turned away from hotels because they looked Middle Eastern."

In the 1970's Shabbas began teaching middle-school social studies, and found her curricula rife with negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, as well as factual errors. Frustrated in her efforts to find better materials, she produced The Arab World: A Handbook for Teachers in 1978 and, in the same year, formed Arab World Consultants with two friends. As word of their services spread, so did demand, and they worked for more than a decade without pay, advising on curricula and helping teachers with lesson plans. Shabbas knew what the educators needed: interesting learning materials to capture students' attention. The Handbook evolved into The Arab World Studies Notebook in 1982.

In 1990, she founded AWAIR, and "finally," she says, "after 20 years of doing them for free," the workshops became self-supporting, funded by grants, donations and contributions from corporations, among them Saudi Aramco. When the 1991 Gulf War sparked a wave of interest in the Middle East, requests for the workshops came from all over the world. The following year, the MEPC took her programs under its wing.

It was in this time that she herself became a Muslim, through a deeper reading of the Qur'an. "When I read it with my heart and not just my head, I knew I was a Muslim," she says.

Today, Shabbas says, she notices her audiences express more tolerance and acceptance toward Muslims than they did even a decade ago. "I've seen tremendous changes in teachers' attitudes, mostly due to an increasingly multicultural student body and a growing awareness of the close relationship that we in America have with the Muslim countries of the Middle East," she says. She also notes that classes today spend far longer on Islam and the Middle East: A decade ago, she says, "it would have been three or four days, and now it's three or four weeks, maybe six. This is a huge change. And I think the workshops have helped."

After September 11, she says, AWAIR received "numerous phone calls that only offered love and support. It was truly heartwarming to hear strangers expressing all those values America holds dear: respect for diversity and compassion for all God's people. I really think people are ready for a deeper understanding of Islam. Americans are a very spiritual culture, and a very experiential culture, so there is a hunger for meaning and for knowing from the inside. At the same time you have teachers asking, more than ever, 'How do I make my class work for all of us?'—and that 'us' increasingly includes Muslims and non-Muslims, together."

At 59, Shabbas is still full of optimism and confidence. She'll be a teacher's teacher, she says, "until my energy runs out."

Ellen Mansoor Collier is a Houston-based writer and editor. Her byline has appeared in Biography, Family Circle, Cosmopolitan and other leading national magazines.

Janice Rubin has exhibited and published her photographs widely. A specialist in intercultural affairs, she lives in Houston.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the January/February 2002 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 2002 images.