Arab Culture Through Literature and Film

Elisheva Cohen saw a problem: Offerings for high school students eager to learn more about Arab culture were severely lacking.

Cohen, outreach coordinator for the Middle East Studies Center at Portland State, decided to fix that. The Arab Culture through Literature and Film project, created in part by Cohen, is a curriculum aimed at the high school level that uses media to expose students to authentic Arab voices.

The curriculum is broken into five units: Introduction to the Arabic World, Religious Expression, Language and Ethnicity, Gender Roles, and Daily Life: Kinship, Marriage, and Family. Cohen said that while the program is meant to be taught as a set, it is also designed so the units can be taught independently. The material is free to use; there is no license attached to it, and permission was obtained from various copyright holders so the curriculum could be distributed freely.

Cohen said the idea for the curriculum came out of a film-oriented “Introduction to Arab Culture” class she taught the year prior at Lincoln High School. Students were interested and engaged in the subject, but Cohen was dismayed at the lack of materials available. She soon started designing her own curriculum, found funding in the form of grants, and the project grew from there.
“Broadly, there is a need in this country for students to understand Arab culture,” said Cohen. “It’s not something that very many people know about, and what people are learning is predominantly from the media.”

Cohen said she wanted to focus on authentic Arab voices when she was choosing what film and literature to include.

“These are not books written by Americans about the Middle East. It’s not an American journalist talking about what they saw in Iraq,” said Cohen. “It’s actual Egyptian or Iraqi peoples talking about their own experiences.”

Cohen said films can also offer a visual glimpse into other cultures and their diversity.

“Often times when people think about the Arab world, they think about desert and camels,” said Cohen. “But these films really give visual portrayals of big cities, small villages, mountains and snow.

“You see different people. You see women with veils. You see women without veils. You see men in jeans. It really shows the visual diversity of the region.”
Cohen said that now that the hard work of actually crafting the curriculum is over, she is now primarily working on presenting it at academic conferences and getting it distributed at a national level.

Ruth McDonough, co-author and secondary school teacher of Arabic, said the literature and films in the curriculum were chosen to highlight specific aspects of the five units.
Films in the curriculum include Mascarades, in which a brash young man concocts an imaginary suitor for his narcoleptic sister, and Ajami, which recounts five tales of daily life in a mixed community of Muslims and Christians in Tel Aviv.

McDonough said that while the number of Arabic-centered programs is increasing in high schools across the U.S., there is still a long way to go.

“Although some resources from the Arab world are available for high school classrooms, the Arab world is not a regional designation that is widely recognized or understood,” said McDonough.
McDonough said she hopes the curriculum will make film and literature from the Arab world accessible to secondary school teachers.

The curriculum was funded in part by the Qatar Foundation International, a nonprofit that focuses on dispensing grants and promoting programs that further the cause of cultural exposure through education.

Helene Theros, the communications manager for QFI, said that the organization aims to link learning activities to what they believe to be the major challenges of today, such as access to education and cross-cultural dialogue.

“The Arab Culture through Literature and Film curriculum connects U.S. high school students with the cultures and peoples of the Arab world in an engaging way, not through a traditional textbook, but by exploring authentic texts and films,” said Theros.

Theros said QFI has noticed that K-12 level students have become increasingly interested in learning about Arab culture in the past several years.

“Students are seeing that learning about Arab culture opens up many opportunities in business, communication and education,” said Theros.

Theros said the Arab Culture through Literature and Film curriculum offers students the opportunity to go beyond what may be covered in a traditional classroom setting.

The curriculum has been awarded QFI’s Curriculum Development grant. The Curriculum Development grant awards money to curricula that promotes the teaching of Arabic language and culture in U.S. public and public charter schools.