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Building (diplomatic) bridges by teaching literature

Published on 22 May 2018
Updated on 05 April 2024

Many teachers use global literature to teach cultural and moral sensitivity and a global understanding of peace and wars. Yet the use of Arab and Jewish literature by teachers in the formation of attitudes is still vague.

Noddings (2005, p. 132) reminds us that ‘In schooling, perhaps much depends on how teachers use literature. Certainly, if the teacher’s attention is only on technique, figures of speech, the identification of great writers and the titles of their books, and the names of chief characters, students are not likely to delve deeply into moral questions.’

In reality, most Arabic and Jewish teachers avoid debating cultural questions or cut short discussions of them. Therefore, if we want to inspire students to use critical thinking skills when it comes to fostering a cultural understanding of each other, we have to allow a full discussion of cultural issues from both sides and plan our lessons with cultural questions in mind.

For instance, the novels of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz (Palace Walk, 1956; Palace of Desire, 1957, and Sugar Street, 1957) tell us much about the culture of Egyptians in Cairo starting from World War I until the revolution on 23 June 1952. They also invite discussion about the status of Egyptian women and the life of an Egyptian family in that period.

There are many novels that can help students to feel what people have gone through as a result of discrimination. A good example is Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and First Papers (1964) which portray anti-Semitism.

When teachers choose a novel as the basis of discussions of cultural, racial, gender, or religious differences, they should spend some time putting together a list of additional reading on those issues. Students can then be asked to report, individually or in groups, on this supplementary reading, thus enhancing the experience for everyone.

If literature is to be effective in shaping moral and social attitudes, it has to affect students, to make them feel something. And it is those feelings that lead to active discussions and reflections. Teachers could also give very brief directions as student start to read: How would you feel if you were in the position of one or other of the main characters in a Naguib Mahfouz or a Laura Z. Hobson novel’? What would you do if you were forced to behave this way? Why? If your feelings or decisions are different from those of the characters, what do you think accounts for the difference? Analysis and discussion should then continue on the basis of the students’ interests and involvement.

Discussing Arabic and Jewish literature in our education system may end hatred, mistrust, and conflict, raise awareness our of similarities, and negate that sense of superiority that describes our past, our present, and may be our future! I believe that teaching and discussing literature could build a cultural bridge towards a mutual understanding between Arabs and Jews in the MENA region. However, this will not be reached in Arab and Israeli schools if our teachers do not know how to tackle these sensitive cultural issues with their students.

Dr Atef Ahmed is a freelancer educational consultant based in Cairo, Egypt. He has more than 25 years experience in the field of teaching, national education reform, civic education, and youth development. Dr Ahmed is a Diplo alumni and attended the Internet Governance in the MENA Region course in 2016.

9 replies
  1. Biljana
    Biljana says:

    The author of “How I Became a
    The author of “How I Became a North Korean”, Krys Lee, is interviewed by BBC’s Cultural Frontiers in the link below, and offers thought-provoking insights on how literature helps us see beyond the brand (whether it be Nation, political party, religion or other), and connect directly to the individual’s story:
    “Literature helps people understand each other; create a dialogue… what literature does is remind us that beneath the identity, beneath the nationality, is a human being.” (09.21 mins).
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswp60 (starts 2 minutes in)

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Thank you for your comment.
    Thank you for your comment. You have opened to me many windows and gates through your great suggestions. I really like your points (1) & (5) . Deep respect,

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    You have your project title
    You have your project title right there: “How to read the other.” Let’s try to itemise some action points. I strongly believe that AI and robotics will free up a lot of time for other pursuits in the decades to come, so it is a good idea to start nudging people towards constructive projects now and get a momentum going!

    1. Diplomatic Academies could introduce mandatory world-literature courses.
    2. DiploFoundation could develop its own online courses. It could also develop thematically or regionally driven reading packages for institutions who want to teach their own courses, tailored to different age groups. We could get in touch with Ann Morgan and involve her!
    3. Diplo could then host a platform for these courses and resources.
    4. “Story ambassadors” could run workshops.
    5. And we could develop story-telling skills as well as reading skills through similar action points. This would lead us into a discussion of other media, such as film.

    Many world classics are available to us through films, and the likelihood is that films will continue to draw more crowds than books. So there is an additional discussion to be had about the relative merits of each medium and how to make the most of them both. I look forward to further action points!

  4. Atef Ahmed
    Atef Ahmed says:

    Knowing how to read
    Thanks dear colleagues for your insightful and terrific comments.
    What happens after our education in Arab schools comes to an end? I think we don’t study literature enough. A few people read but the majority listen and watch only. The question is: how can we make reading literature of others a bridge among cultures and peoples? Unluckily, Oour schools and current education failed to build that bridge. Therefore, I have a question regarding that: how can we make reading literature of Arab and Jews a human habit for all peoples around the world? Reading is very essential and the key to learning in our schools. But how can our students learn and respect the other, when they don’t know how to read correctly. I totally believe that reading and analyzing literature of others by using a logical way in Arab and Israeli schools means simply we invest in our students’ intellectual well-being. It also means that we invest to keep a permanent peaceful world. The secret here is knowing how to read the other!

  5. Biljana Scott
    Biljana Scott says:

    I would like to recommend “A
    I would like to recommend “A Year of Reading the World.” This is an inspiring project by a young English woman, Ann Morgan, to spend a year reading her way round all the countries of the world! To do so, she had to get through 4 novels (or short-story collections) a week and blog about them. You can read the result online (The List: https://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/thelist/), now also available as a book, and hear her give a TED talk on her project.

    Like Atef and Dragana, Morgan believes in “the enormous potential of storytelling to connect us across political, social, religious and geographical divides.” In her section “Postcards from my bookshelf” she responds to requests from readers by sharing relevant books. Here is a taster:

    “my first book goes to a person from a profession that is vital for stories to cross borders: a translator. I have chosen Laimpresionista, who translates prose and poetry from Spanish, English and occasionally French into Greek, to represent this group. She told me:
    I think I would go for a nice thick novel of a Turkish, Syrian or Egyptian writer. I live on a greek island and during these past two or three years, our life has been changing rapidly. War refugees keep arriving in Greece on a daily basis and I feel I should somehow get to know them a bit better. I don’t mean to get political or anything but my daily contact with people from Pakistan or Syria or Afghanistan sometimes makes me think that the only thing I know about my new neighbours is the capital city of their country and, maybe, part of their cuisine.”

  6. Dragana Markovski
    Dragana Markovski says:

    Unfortunately, in many school
    Unfortunately, in many school systems, once past the first few grades in elementary education, literature is taught and studied exactly the way Dr Ahmed described. Teachers concentrate on form, style, figures of speech, epochs and history disregarding or having too little time to discuss the moral of a story. Although all the above is very important to understand and contextualize the creation of a literary work, the very essence of it (storytelling) is often being missed. Storytelling, regardless of its form (literature, theater, film, audio or video narrative presentations, formal or informal), has always been a means of knowledge and values transfer and preservation.

    In a way, we can look at the storytelling as a human evolutionary mechanism for adaptation on all levels of culture and civilization development. Lessons learned from the experiences of previous generations are essential for repeating the same mistakes less often (at least) and for understanding the cause and effect of the actions we take and choices we make both as individuals and nations.

    Learning about the “other(s)” – understanding their challenges, values, languages, traditions, norms, and ways of living, that we can almost instinctively relate to no matter how different they may be from ours because they are so universally human, not only can bridge the pits and ditches between conflicted sides, but it can also stop a wave of dehumanizing the other and making it a “justified” casualty.

    Storytelling is immanent to all the cultures and societies, and in our globalized world in which being exposed (voluntarily or not) to other cultures is unavoidable, the availability of literature created by authors from all over the globe has become greater than ever. So is the necessity to understand the “other”. We only need to cherish and cultivate the culture of reading literature as well as the spirit of curiosity.

  7. Atef Ahmed
    Atef Ahmed says:

    Teaching Literature for mutual understanding
    Thanks Biljana Scott,
    I really enjoyed your precious comments. I believe that studying Arab and Jewish literature in our schools should be essential part of Arab and Israeli policies to strengthen mutual understanding between two peoples. Studying ethical literature from both sides can help all of us to understand the other. Arab and Jewish literature are powerful tools to build this kind of urgent understanding, the idea here of studying both Jewish and Arab literature in schools is not to impose opinions on certain issues related to the bloody conflict between two sides but to share unique and similar culture of Arabs and Israelis. From my point of view, we should only read the voices of real Arab and Jews characters, not the voices of Arab and Israeli governments and politicians. This approach in studying both Jewish and Arab literature in our schools could pave the way to mutual understanding, cooperation and peace later.
    Thanks Biljana, I really learned a lot from your comment.

  8. Biljana Scott
    Biljana Scott says:

    Judas by Amos Oz
    The novel Judas by Amos Oz complements your reading recommendations in support of furthering Arab-Israeli understanding! Oz invites us to reconsider Judas’ betrayal of Christ not as treachery but as an act of love and true faith. He also demonstrates that there are many different and often conflicting voices that constitute what it is to be “Jewish,” questioning the alienating “superiority” you so rightly associate with last-word narratives.

    Above all, Oz fields an ethical question, one that engages both hearts and minds and makes us grow, by asking “what is it to be a traitor?” This question applies as much to the biblical Judas as it does to the protagonists of the novel, not least the historical figure of Shealtiel Abravanel. Significantly, it is also addressed at the author himself who, like Abravanel, has been accused of treachery by his own people for advocating a two-state solution, whereas he himself might argue that his choices as driven by love of country and faith in others. Is treachery therefore a convenient label for those “others” whose views we disagree with and would rather annihilate than engage with? Possible answers, as with all good literature, are not thrust upon us but nudged towards us: it is in the gaps and pregnant silences that we grow into engaged interlocutors.

  9. Biljana Scott
    Biljana Scott says:

    Hearts and minds
    I agree thrice over! First of all, literature nudges us into greater emotional awareness and ethical sensitivity. This invitation to personal growth by engaging both heart and mind is considered by many to be at the core of what we call “high culture.”

    Second, as you argue, we stand to grow and gain insight by reading each other’s literature – insight both into our own culture and into the culture of others, where “others” may well be a different generation, gender, religion or other identity group in our own overarching culture.

    Third, the sensitive teaching of literature is key to better intercultural understanding for the very reasons you suggest: identification or “fellow-feeling.” By identifying with fictional characters we dissolve the barrier between ourselves and others, and in so doing, we come to recognise both that we are not so alone or unique, and also that the choices made by other players (whether fictional characters, historical figure or indeed countries), are not nearly as easy or inevitable at the moment of decision as their subsequent histories may suggest. Look at Brexit! Or look at Judas!

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