Building (diplomatic) bridges by teaching literature
Updated on 07 August 2022
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.