Colorado class lifts the veil on the Middle East

Sunday 21/08/2016
Betsey Coleman in the Moroccan Sahara

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.