As Northern Michigan University students in Hagar Eltarabishy’s classes learn about Arab culture and literature, some are challenging their preconceived, media-influenced notions about the Middle East. Others have expressed surprise at how easily they can relate to universal themes expressed by foreign writers and filmmakers because they transcend societal, political or religious differences. Eltarabishy is a Fulbright alumna from Egypt’s Ain Shams University. She is spending the fall semester at NMU on a teaching fellowship through the College of Arts and Sciences.
“My first aim is to decompose the Arab identity, which is about much more than religion and war,” she said. “I want to share with students the humane side—what they don’t see in the news—through personal stories from the Arab perspective. On the first day, I asked students how they developed their impressions of the Middle East. All agreed it was from the media or someone who has known a person from there. Some students had never heard of the Arab Spring (a wave of revolutionary protests that began nearly four years ago). I blame not only Western media, but ours as well, for too much attention on negativities.”
Eltarabishy encourages students to share their thoughts about each week’s topic via a class blog. She said reviews of their feedback convince her she is on the right track. One student wrote, “I think it’s an amazing thing that people from anywhere around the world can connect through literature and relate to each other, even if their lives look vastly different. The experiences we all have may not be the same, but the lessons we learn through those stories and the happiness and sorrows we feel can all be shared.”
Another student found a video relevant to her organic chemistry class: “This past week we did a steam distillation extraction of an essential oil from a spice. I have used this technique several times before, and it amazes me that I did not think twice about where the process came from. I was able to perform that experiment because of an invention from the Arab world. I use the scientific method almost every day and I had no idea that it first came from Al Haytham, a scientist from the Arab world. I was in awe of how much the Arab world has contributed to science.”
Eltarabishy is working on her dissertation at Ain Shams University. There is no irony in her cross-culture subject: contemporary American theater. She combined both interests in her NMU class when she shared a work by American playwright Naomi Wallace titled The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East. Eltarabishy recently joined NMU English department colleagues on a trip to Chicago to see a production of Shakespeare’s not-so-contemporary King Lear.
Michael Broadway, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the teaching fellowship adds to campus diversity. "This was a wonderful opportunity to establish a dialogue between Hagar and NMU students and faculty that may help to refute some of the American stereotypes associated with the Middle East and its people.”
Through her previous Fulbright opportunity, Eltarabishy spent the 2011-12 academic year at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. She assisted with Arabic conversation classes, tutoring and weekly activity sessions.