Colorado class lifts the veil on the Middle East
Washington - What do Aladdin, Hanan Ashrawi and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis have in common?
All three are part of a curriculum taught in some US classrooms about diversity in the Middle East — alongside Mother Teresa, Queen Noor and professional boxer Laila Ali, daughter of boxing champion Muhammad Ali. The classroom lesson is titled Who Wears a Veil? and it aims to break down stereotypes and generalisations.
While both Kennedy and Mother Teresa are depicted in a veil, they are not Muslim. Ali is Muslim but does not wear a veil. Queen Noor reigned over a predominantly Muslim country and does not veil. Hanan Ashrawi is an Arab political leader and a Christian.
Such courses are taught only in a handful of schools amid a political atmosphere in the United States that is growing more incendiary, with rising instances of Islamophobia and hate-mongering towards minorities.
A county in the state of Virginia shut down all of its schools for a day in December 2015 after a teacher triggered a backlash from parents when she assigned her students to write the shahada using Arabic calligraphy (the teacher’s similar assignments with Chinese calligraphy had gone unnoticed). In the same week, schools in Los Angeles and New York debated whether to shut down due to similar controversies.
Fortunately for Betsey Coleman, a 42-year teaching veteran currently at Colorado Academy, a private, co-educational K-12 school in Denver, her generally progressive community has embraced teachings of diversity on the Middle East.
Coleman talked about how she tries to paint a picture of a region that many Americans fear and misunderstand. She has designed extensive curricula on teaching diversity in the Middle East and has won numerous awards for her work. She has also travelled extensively in the Middle East at her own expense.
Asked what motivates her commitment to a region that sparks more controversy than constructive debate, she said: “I think my attitude comes from being the ‘other.’ My mother was a self-hating Jew. My father accepted everyone. We spent years on Nantucket Island when it was totally anti-Semitic. Then I married a Protestant Christian. And our daughter is probably Catholic. She’s adopted from China.”
Despite the open-mindedness of her school community, where she teaches an interdisciplinary high school course about coming-of-age in the Middle East, she jokes that she still finds herself guarding her identity.
“I was born Jewish but I tell kids that I’m a secular humanist. And they ask what’s the difference between that and an atheist, and I say: ‘Well, your parents like that term better.’” She was referring to controversies that arise in schools when religious Christian parents are upset at secularist themes.
The teaching material for Coleman’s students is anything but bashful, however, when it comes to introducing young minds to Middle Eastern cultures and people, including those who not too long ago were deemed by some as “nonexistent”, such as the Palestinians.
Among the books she teaches her teenage students is Ibtisam Barakat’s award-winning memoir of a Palestinian girl, Tasting the Sky.
Coleman teaches her students about the concept of “normalisation” between Palestinians and Israelis and explains why she is not engaged in such a process. “I tell them that my work is not about balancing peace or equalising things because power resides with one group and not the other,” she said.
Her wide-ranging classes explore the arts — students learn about Persian miniatures and draw some of their own — and Coleman dissects entertainment that depicts the Middle East to shed light on stereotypes and racism.
For example, the 1992 Academy Award-winning animated film Aladdin opened with an egregiously racist song including the following lyrics:
Oh I come from a land / from a faraway place, /
where the caravan camels roam. / Where they cut off your ear /
if they don’t like your face. / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.
Disney ultimately changed the song due to the controversy. The New York Times ran an editorial titled It’s Racist, but hey, it’s Disney, and almost two decades later Time magazine referred to the song as one of the Top 10 Disney Controversies.
Coleman’s students examine the revised production for remaining stereotypes about Arabs, whether in lyrics, music, or character portrayal.
Coleman has ideas about reaching out to her counterparts in the Arab world to help them teach their students about how Americans are also portrayed in stereotypes. For example, she would like to see Arab students introduced to the acclaimed novel The House on Mango Street, by Mexican-American Sandra Cisneros. “Also, some African- American literature and some prep school stuff, it would be perfect. I’m getting excited about this now and I’m going to do it,” she said.