California Teachers Spend 5 Weeks in Egypt
by Garay Menicucci
"Before this trip I knew I was in for change, and the revelation has been in how much and in how many areas of my thinking. My ideas of Islam have become clearer and my questions easier to form. My teaching will benefit from the ancient history experienced on this journey – a firsthand look into the pharaonic past. But most of all my view of the Egyptians has changed as a people who have struggled against invaders throughout history and today are a dignified, generous people despite the social problems that remain to be solved. Whether it has been my struggle to learn some Arabic or my wandering through the khan amidst the struggle of people to survive or the reverent sounds from a mosque, all of Egypt has welcomed me. This profound experience will forever be mine." This is how one teacher assessed her five weeks in Egypt.
For the second year running, the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducted an intensive K-12 teacher training seminar in Egypt, from June 19 through July 24. The 2004 seminar was made possible by a Fulbright Hays Group Projects grant from the US Department of Education. Twenty-eight teachers from all over California participated along with five UCSB faculty members. The goal of the seminar was to build Middle East Studies curriculum at all grade levels and the preliminary results have been dramatic.
The innovation of the seminar was to combine academic discussions of Arabic language, Egyptology, Egyptian religious traditions, history, politics, art, culture, film, social studies, and women and gender issues with site visits to the places talked about in the seminar sessions. UCSB Egyptologist Stuart Smith led the teachers on personalized tours of archaeological sites in Luxor, Aswan, Saqara, Giza and Alexandria, while Religious Studies Professor Juan Campo did the same for al-Azhar Mosque and the churches and synagogue in Coptic Cairo. Professor Nancy Gallagher offered the teachers a historical framework for understanding contemporary social and political developments. Each class day began with elementary instruction in Arabic language led by UCSB lecturer Magda Campo who is herself native Egyptian.
One of the goals of the seminar was to allow as many Egyptians as possible to address the group on educational issues in their own voices, and it was the numerous contacts with Egyptian educational experts and ordinary people that had the greatest impact. The hope was that seminar participants would forge their own ongoing exchanges and curriculum development projects with the Egyptians they met. The California teachers were the first foreigners to visit a village school run by the Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development in Hagaza some 100 km outside of Luxor. Dozens of students, teachers, and villagers turned out to meet the Americans in an emotional outpouring of welcome and discussions about educational development and spreading literacy in rural Egypt.
The group also visited two USAID-funded school projects in villages in the Beni Suweif area of Upper Egypt (south of Cairo) run by the Egyptian branch of CARE International. For some years this area has been closed to foreigners, but CARE facilitated the day-long visit where the people of two entire villages prepared the welcome with generous hospitality.
Another seminar highlight was a private visit to a restored sibil (public well) complex near Bab Zuwayla in medieval Cairo, organized by New York University History Professor Khalid Fahmy. The upper floors of the sibil housed Egypt's first secular elementary school which began during the reign of Muhammad Ali in the 19th century. Dr. Fahmy worked on the archival materials relating to the restoration, and the California teachers were the first visitors to the site which will soon open as a museum.
The seminar included an array of meetings with educational NGO representatives and visits to their projects. Two projects in Cairo that had special meaning for the teachers were the al-Jeel Center for Exploited Children directed by Dr. Ahmed Abdullah, which cares for street children and children forced to work, and the workshops of the Association for the Protection of the Environment which trains women in families of mostly Coptic garbage collectors to manufacture handicrafts such as rugs and paper products from recycled waste materials. Dr. Hoda Elsadda, co-founder of the Women and Memory Forum, addressed the teachers on her organization’s initiatives on producing gender-sensitive children’s books. Heba Raouf from the Islamic NGO Islam-on-Line met with the group to talk about common stereotypes of Muslims and how to breach cultural differences between people of different religions. Hossam Baghat, one of the founders of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, discussed the human rights situation in Egypt. The seminar also included meetings with documentary filmmakers Tamer Ezzat and Viola Shafik and screenings of their most recent films.
At the last session of the seminar in Egypt, many of the teachers spoke emotionally of their experiences as life-altering. As one of them summed up the experience for the group, "My life has been changed. My outlook on world events has changed. My love for the people in Egypt is tremendous. I feel that I will be able to relate better to my Arab students from now on. The trip has taught me so much about acceptance, love, tolerance, sharing, patience, compassion and respect for all cultures. I feel that I am a better teacher, a more understanding human being, and a more tolerant person because of this trip."