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Volume 54, Number 6November/December 2003

In This Issue

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Reader's Guide

By Julie Weiss

This one-page guide offers activities and discussion topics that will help sharpen your reading skills and deepen your understanding of this issue’s articles and images. We encourage reproduction and adaptation of these ideas, freely and without further permission from Saudi Aramco World, by teachers from late elementary school through early university courses, whether they are working in a classroom or through home study.


Class Activities

Theme: Culture
Anthropologists define culture as the beliefs, values, traditions and meanings shared by a group of people. For example, the us Independence Day holiday on July 4 means much the same thing to all people who live in the US and is therefore a part of their culture, but people in Mauritania, Egypt and other countries do not share that culture. Similarly, Muslims in those countries share the culture of Ramadan with Muslims in the us, but if you are not a Muslim, Ramadan probably doesn’t mean much to you: You don’t share that culture. Thus we all live within cultures that we co-create with other people. Usually it’s easiest to think of “big” cultures—“Islamic” culture, “American” culture and so on—but culture can also refer to something small: a family’s culture, a high school’s culture or a soccer team’s culture. The following activities are grouped around three questions about culture: How is culture expressed? How is it spread? How does it change? But first, go to a dictionary to see how “culture” is defined there. You’ll find many definitions. As a class, decide which ones make the most sense to you and why. How many cultures can you name that you are part of?

Cultural Expression
How do people express what is important (their values), what they believe, and the history (the stories and traditions) that comprise their culture?

You’re probably most familiar with the term “cultural expression” as it relates to art in museums. But paintings, sculptures and photographs aren’t the only forms cultural expression can take. This month’s magazine has many examples of culture: hijri and Gregorian calendars, language, documents and television. As a class, brainstorm from your reading of the articles as many examples of culture as you can. Refer to your definition(s) to guide you. Have a class volunteer write the examples on chart paper.

What do cultural expressions or “artifacts” say or reveal about the people of the culture they come from?

Sometimes it’s pretty simple: If your cable company carries 10 news channels, you can say with some certainty that people who subscribe to that company’s cable service want to know what’s happening in the world. Other times, however, it’s more complicated.

Take the example of language. Perhaps the easiest way to grasp how language expresses culture is to look at how language has changed over time. With a partner, come up with a list of 20 words or terms that you know are relatively recent additions to the English language. For example, “cell” used to refer to a biological unit that has a membrane and a nucleus, but now it more commonly refers to a type of telephone. “Spam” used to refer to a meat product that came in a can, but now it refers to unwanted e-mail. (“E-mail” itself is a term that didn’t even exist 15 years ago.) When you’ve got your list, write a sentence or two explaining what the words say about what’s important to the people who use them.

Now let ’s look at some cultural artifacts from this issue’s articles. Fill in the table below with your ideas about what the cultural expressions on the left reveal about the cultures that created them. On the right, list any parallels in your cultures—family, peer group or country—that come to mind. Add any terms that you came up with in the exercise in the first paragraph of this section.

Cultural Artifacts What they reveal
about their culture
Parallels among
your cultures
Visual arts
(“Patterns 2004”)
Television shows
(“Prime-Time Ramadan”)
(“Patterns 2004”)
(“Mauritania’s Manuscripts”)
Handwritten books
(“Mauritania’s Manuscripts”)

Do cultural artifacts, such as television shows, reflect a group’s culture, or do they shape it? Or both?

“Prime-Time Ramadan” says that sometimes the government uses Egypt’s televised musalsalat to direct public opinion. What about TV shows you watch? How well, or how badly, do they reflect your life? How much, or how little, do they shape your wishes and your beliefs? Choose a TV show you know. (For this exercise, don’t use a “reality” show.) Watch one episode and, as you watch, write down the things you see and hear that are similar to your own experiences. For example, the characters on the show might use language you use. Also write down what you see and hear that differs from your own experiences.

Afterwards, mark any of those differences that might be shaping your own wishes. Do you want to lose 10 pounds? Start working out? Buy a particular product because what you see on TV doesn’t reflect your actual experiences—but makes you wish that it did? Finally, write a letter to the head of the TV network that airs the show you watched. In it, praise the show for three ways it accurately reflected your life, and criticize it for three ways it seemed unrealistic.

Cultural Migration
People move. As they do, they bring with them their values, beliefs and traditions. Then people who don ’t share them see them, and perhaps adopt some of them for themselves. This is how cultures influence each other, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly. Long ago, traders and explorers spread their cultures as they traveled. In modern society, cultures now migrate via television, the Internet and international business, often without actual physical movement taking place.

Divide the class into four groups and assign each group one of the following articles: “Mauritania’s Manuscripts,” “Prime-Time Ramadan,” “Pattern in Islamic Arts” or “Patterns of Moon, Patterns of Sun.” With your group, identify what each piece suggests about cultural migration. Use these questions to guide you.

  • How did manuscripts get to Mauritania? Where did manuscripts go when they left Mauritania? What effects did the movement have? Is the culture that produced the manuscripts still there? Name four people in the article who are trying to prevent the disappearance of that culture.

  • How has satellite TV spread Arab culture? Does it spread it to everyone in Egypt? Describe the differences between the culture spread by Egypt’s local channels compared to the culture spread by satellite channels.

  • How did the spread of Islam influence Islamic art? How might Islamic art be different if Islam had remained in one locale?

  • How did migration affect the establishment of the hijri and Gregorian calendars?

Closer to home, identify one way your daily life is influenced by another culture. Maybe it’s someone else’s music you hear, or maybe it’s a style of clothes you wear, food you like or certain words you have heard and now use. How do you feel about being influenced by another culture? Look at recent immigrants from other countries who are bringing their culture to your area. How are they affecting what is happening? What would be different if this weren’t happening?

Cultural Change
“‘You can’t think of Ramadan without thinking of the television serials,’ says Hassan Hamed, chairman of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union.” That’s a statement of dramatic cultural change: For more than 1000 years before TV was invented, Muslims observed Ramadan. Now, for some people in Egypt at least, television is an important part of the holy month: They value it—it’s part of the culture.

Using “Prime-Time Ramadan” as a model, think about how TV and movies and music affect the way you celebrate holidays. Does your family watch football on Thanksgiving? (What did people do on Thanksgiving before there was football on TV?) Do they sing certain songs, listen to certain music or watch a certain movie at holiday time? Choose your favorite holiday, and take the point of view of someone who was your age 100 years ago. Write a letter from that person to you about how he or she celebrated that holiday. Have your person-in-the-past challenge you to explain why your celebration of the festivity makes any more sense than his or hers.

Analyzing Visual Images

We spend a lot of our time looking at visual images—on television and computer screens, in newspapers and magazines, in art galleries and on billboards. Most of us enjoy them without thinking too much about them. It’s a good idea, though, to be able to look at visual images with a critical eye: How was this image made? What is its creator trying to communicate? Why? What draws you in? How? What do you get from it?

The human eye and brain look for patterns. It’s part of our cognition—how we know what we know. In the article “Patterns in Islamic Arts,” arabesque, geometry, calligraphy and color are described as four major elements of Islamic pattern. Do all patterns in Islamic art need all four elements? Applying what you have learned in the previous section, if cultural artifacts reveal information about the people who create them, what might the patterns used in Islamic art reveal about the beliefs of Muslims? Then study the patterns in one of the six photographs that are part of the calendar.

Using the caption as a guide, describe in as much detail as you can the pattern you see: What shapes does it include? What colors? How often does the pattern repeat? Are there smaller patterns within the larger pattern? If so, describe them, too. Then draw or trace part of the pattern. Finally, write a poem whose pattern of words reflects your sense of the visual pattern you see.

Where do you see patterns in your daily life? Find three examples. Try looking around you right now. Look at magazines, clothes or floor tiles. Analyze the patterns the same way you analyzed the patterns in the calendar. What do you like and dislike about the patterns you have found? Based on your answer, create a pattern of your own that can fill up a whole page. Remember to pay attention to shapes and colors, as well as to what will comprise a complete pattern. How often will your pattern repeat?

Abstract or realistic?
The patterns in Islamic art are “abstract.” In other words, they don’t try to create the illusion of things you can see or touch. Why is Islamic art abstract? What values does this visual style express? Are there parts of some patterns in the calendar that are realistic? See if you can find one. What about patterns in nature? Are they abstract? Name as many as you can. (Hint: snowflakes, the veins in a leaf, and so on.)

Close-up or panoramic?
So far you’ve looked at the images in the calendar as examples of Islamic art. What about looking at them as photographs of examples of Islamic art? In other words, rather than looking at them as expressions of Islamic culture, look at them as photos in a magazine that a photographer took and an editor selected. Probably the first thing you’ll notice when you think about it this way is that each photograph presents just a small part of a much larger work of art. You might call it a representative fragment—a part of something that is used to represent the whole thing. Imagine a different selection of photographs in the calendar—one that shows not just a fragment, but the whole thing: the entire cover of the Qur’an; the whole door; the whole zillij wall and so on. What would be the benefits of using such photographs instead? The drawbacks? Why do you think the photos are presented as they are?

Julie Weiss Julie Weiss is an education consultant based in Eliot, Maine. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies and develops curricula and assessments in social studies, media literacy and English as a Second Language.