For students: We hope this two-page guide will help sharpen your reading skills and deepen your understanding of this issue’s articles.
For teachers: We encourage reproduction and adaptation of these ideas, freely and without further permission from Saudi Aramco World, by teachers at any level, whether working in a classroom or through home study.
— THE EDITORS
This issue’s “Classroom Guide” is organized around one theme: Culture. The Visual Analysis section is embedded within the Class Activities.
What is culture?
Anthropologists define culture as the values, beliefs, traditions and meanings that are shared by a group of people. American culture, for example, is characterized by the value placed on individual expression, a belief in self-improvement, traditional holidays like Thanksgiving and the meanings Americans associate with all of these. That’s only a partial list, of course, but you get the idea.
We all live within one or more cultures. Arab–Americans, for example, live in the United States, and so participate in American culture. At the same time, they are also part of and/or descended from Arab cultures. That might mean they use the Arabic language, eat certain foods from Arab lands and participate in specific religious practices.
Not all cultures are as large as the examples you’ve just read about. People can also be part of smaller cultures. Schools, for example, tend to have their own cultures that include many of the same components as larger cultures. Your school probably has its own specialized language. “We’re on A block this week” might be perfectly clear to you, but baffling to a visitor.
Think about your school’s culture. What values are emphasized? What traditions do you have? What do certain behaviors or events mean at your school? How are they the same or different from other schools? Work with a group on this. Make a chart with four columns. Label them: Values, Traditions/Behaviors, Language and Meanings. Fill in the chart with elements from your school’s culture. Compare your chart with another group’s. Then step back and define culture based on what you’ve done in this exercise. With that definition in hand, move forward to this issue of Saudi Aramco World.
What makes the arts a valuable part of culture?
Arts are one important part of culture. Through a group’s arts, you can learn a lot about that group. Read “Fresh Gulf Currents.” Lisa Ball-Lechgar says that the work of Arab artists can provide something that outsiders’ views of Arab life cannot. Underline in the article what that is. Then turn to “One Book at a Time.” In it, Michel Moushabeck, founder of Interlink Publishing, says that literature (among other arts) provides “a doorway to a country’s soul…. It will give you insight into the way of life, the customs and traditions of the society.” Write that quote on the board or chart paper so you can refer to it as you work on these activities.
How do cultures spread, mix and influence each other?
Cultures, like people, can move from one part of the world to another. Let’s look again at the example of your school. A new principal might bring to your school elements of the culture at his or her last school. Maybe the new principal spends a lot of time in classrooms, or greets students at the door every morning, neither of which the previous principal did. Of course, the new principal’s traditions and values wouldn’t completely take over those that are already in place at your school. More likely, parts of one school’s culture would blend with the other’s.
It’s the same way with larger cultures, as “One Book at a Time” suggests. Interlink publishes books in English about Middle Eastern and other world cultures. By doing so, the company is acting like the new school principal, bringing one culture into another. Think about the spread of your culture: Imagine you are starting your own publishing company with the aim of spreading your culture to others. Start with Moushabeck’s vision of what people must do to learn about other cultures. Now list the four categories of books Interlink publishes to meet those needs. With a group or as a class, come up with a list of books, or ideas for books, that you would publish about your culture in each category. For example, what kind of food would you include in a cookbook from your culture? (For an example of food as an element of culture, read “Tagine Dreams.”) Remember that your culture might be regional (American Southern cooking has specialties that differ from New England’s), ethnic (such as Italian–American, African– American), age-specific (teen books are often distinct from adult or children’s books) and so on.
Now try it from the other direction. What elements of other cultures are part of your life? For example, you might not be Italian– American, but still eat a lot of Italian-style food. Or you might live in the Middle East, but speak English, a language that’s not native to your culture. Use the same four categories you used for your book list, and list as many examples as you can of how other cultures are part of your experience. Then mark on a map the places where these cultural elements came from. Discuss how and why they might have made their way to your part of the world. For example, did immigrants bring them? Trade? War? When do you think they became part of your culture? Why do you think so?
How are Arab artists blending traditions and modernity?
Cultures evolve as they blend with other cultures. And the cultures that blend might come from different times, as well as from different places. Much of this issue of Saudi Aramco World focuses on the blending of cultural traditions with more modern expressions. Consider “Fresh Gulf Currents,” which profiles numerous artists whose work blends the traditional with the modern, and reports on numerous galleries where their work is exhibited.
As you read, look for and highlight places where this central theme —the blending of traditional and modern—is mentioned. In which instances are traditional and modern expressed in the media (such as painting and digital photography in the same work of art)? In which instances are they expressed in the subject matter (such as portraits of Saudi women dressed to display both heritage and profession)?
Now take a look at the art itself. On page 12, look at the photograph by Manal Al Dowayan, but don’t read the caption yet. Divide the class into pairs. Have one person in the pair describe the photograph. What do you notice about it visually? For example, where is the image placed in the frame? What do you notice about color, light and shadow? Have the listener add thoughts on the subject. Then think about the theme of the article, the blending of traditional and modern. Discuss what you see that is traditional in the photo and what is more modern. Write a caption for the photograph. Then compare your caption with the caption in the magazine. Have you “read” the photograph the same way that Saudi Aramco World’s editors have “read” it? (Notice that the artist herself would be happy for you to disagree with the caption!)
Now take a look at a different example of artwork. Look at the work of Ali Hassan on page 8. Do you like it? If so, what do you like about it? Be specific (e.g., “I like the way it looks like there are people dancing”). If you don’t like it, what is it about the work that you don’t like? Again, be specific. As you did with Manal Al Dowayan’s photograph, write a caption for this piece. Then read the caption in the magazine. Are you surprised by the ideas behind the art?
The 2008 calendar in this issue also focuses on the blending of traditional and modern. Read the text that accompanies the calendar. What do you think it means to say that the design featured in the calendar is “at once oriental and confidently contemporary”? Divide the class into groups. Assign each group one of the images in the calendar. Have each group prepare a presentation about its image. In your presentation, explain the traditional elements of the design, and describe how the design is also modern. (To find out about some of the visual elements of Islamic art, see Saudi Aramco World’s September/October 1989 and March/April 1997 issues.)
What institutions facilitate the creation and spread of culture?
Culture can seem abstract, and you’ve been looking at some pretty heady ideas—what constitutes culture and how cultures spread. But there are much more basic factors involved, as you have read in “Fresh Gulf Currents,” “Tagine Dreams” and “One Book at a Time.” Think about the institutions that make the creation and spread of culture possible: For example, Interlink is a business—one that publishes books. You’ve read about how its founders had to struggle with the nuts and bolts of building a business, from unloading and storing books to making enough money to pay the bills. Read the three articles and make a list of as many things as you can that are all the very down-to-earth requirements for the creation and spread of culture. Do these mundane requirements make it easier for you to think about how cultures spread? (Think about the situation in reverse: Would their absence stop the creation and spread of culture?) Governments frequently give financial support or incentives to artists. Why would a country’s government think doing so is worthwhile? As a class, debate whether or not governments should fund the arts, or for what goals they might do so.
How can we write about the mixing of cultures?
This issue’s writers have all had to find ways to write about the mixing of cultures. Go back through the articles and highlight some of their descriptions. One of my favorites is a metaphor in “Tagine Dreams.” The article describes how chef Farid Zadi “layers” spices when he cooks. He adds different spices at different stages of cooking. “The result,” the article says, “is rich and fragrant but harmonious, with no one ingredient dominating.” Come up with your own way of describing what you’ve learned about the mixing of cultures. To get you going, think about different “mixings” you’re familiar with. Maybe it’s different flowers in your garden, or different colors in different rooms of your house, or different clothing styles you wear all at once. Use your description as the basis for a short summary of what you’ve read in this issue’s magazine about the mixing of cultures.
||Julie Weiss is an education consultant based in Lowell, Massachusetts. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies. Her company, Unlimited Horizons, develops social-studies, media-literacy and English as a Second Language curricula and produces textbook materials.