Los Angeles Sensei

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

New Blog for Atlanta Presentation

Visit the new blog dedicated to the presentation called "Unclenching Our Fists: Making the Middle East Relevant to Students" by clicking here.

image from theinsider.com

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Saudi Arabia Experience Helps Educator Earn Teacher of the Year Award

I am honored to share the news that I have been awarded the California Council for the Social Studies 2009 Teacher of the Year Award, Middle Level!

Upon being nominated by my peers, I submitted a hefty portfolio which included several examples from this blog that highlighted the teacher and student participation in my once in a lifetime journey to the Middle East. Using technology to communicate with my students and colleagues was a powerful experience that I hope to continue using throughout the remainder of my career as a teacher.

This fall I will be presenting at the NCSS National Conference with my session entitled "Unclenching Our Fists: Making the Middle East Accessible to Today's Young Learners". Once my presentation is complete, I will post it to this blog.

Thanks again for all your visits and comments. The mission keeping the window of understanding between the US and the Middle East open is today's great challenge, one I am dedicated to fulfilling.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Americans in Riyadh

Riyadh is at hand...and it is not what we thought it would be. The constant appearance of modern skyscrapers, malls, and jazzy automobiles juxtaposed with men and women dressed in traditional clothing defies a label. Each day in Saudi Arabia is forcing us to face our own ethnocentrism and stereotypes we carry within.

The Shurah Council, KSA's Representative Body of Government

As part of our tour, we were given a behind the scenes tour of this council, which acts much like parliament or congress. It consists of 150 members composed of professors, businessmen, and members of elite society. If citizens have a concern about government, they approach their local council representative. Visiting the Shurah council piques our interest as Westerners because of the frank answers from our hosts.

Shurah Council Dialogue
No question we asked went unanswered. This conversation could have lasted hours, but instead, we were moved to our next appointment with Prince Faisal, head of the Oil Ministry.
What role do you foresee of women in government? "Women are being trained to assume future roles in goverment."
Is U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestine conflict a problem or a solution? "It is a complication."

Does Saudi Arabia want to experiment with democracy? "What does democracy mean? If it means participating in society and decision making process, people do this through Shura council." This comment made me think about our low voting rate, and how the people we select for government reflect the votes of the minority, not majority of U.S. citizens.

What has been the effect of the U.S. war on Iraq? "It has destroyed that country from A to Z. and created more terrorists against us and you."

The Prince of Oil
Prince Faisal was a very affable person who was also very open with our questions. At times, it seemed lie our accomplished group of educators were BBC reporters! I continue to be impressed with the caliber of my colleagues, and the diplomatic way in which they phrased their answers.

Ms. Infante Meets Royalty

Faisal acknowledge that petroleum as a fossil fuel will not last forever. For this reason, Saudi Arabia is researching other industries such as solar energy, gas, mining, and fertilizer industries. Economic Development zones are being created throughout the country to offer citizens more jobs, especially to prepare for the disproportionate number of youths who will need to enter the workforce.

Finally, Prince Faisal had an interesting opinion about womens rights. He said women should have all of the same rights as men. "Oil changed everything at such a high speed that the culture could not keep up. We must find a way to progress while maintaining the culture."
It is interesting to note how most of the leaders of the ministries are members of the royal family.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Adventures on the Red Sea

Jet skiing with Bob from New Jersey

Do you know how in the Bible it says Moses parted the Red Sea? Well, the Red Sea is the western border of Saudi Arabia, and it is on this coast that the city of Jeddah is located. We were able to spend some time relaxing at Fal Resort on the Red Sea coast.

The group enjoyed jet skiing, powerboat rides, snorkeling, and scuba diving. The water was incredibly blue and the weather was perfect.

Since it was our last day in Jeddah, we said farewell to our hosts. I was especially sad to say goodbye to Abdullah, because of how open and frank he was in handling the blunt questions I asked about Islam and Saudi Arabia. Thanks Abdullah, for your hospitality!
The generosity of our hosts knows no bounds. At the beginning of lunch I mentioned that I wish I had bought a King Abdullah pin, and by the end of lunch, everyone in the group received one. At every location we receive some kind of commemorative gift, and many in our group will have to buy an extra suitcase to take home everything.

We were a little apprehensive to fly to Riyadh, our next stop, because without fail, everyone said it is one of the most conservative cities in the country. We are expected to wear our abayas at all times, and cover our hair in public. We'll see how it goes!

The City of Jeddah

Jeddah Historical District

Being in Jeddah is the closest we will get to the Holy City of Mecca. At the Jeddah Historical District we visited homes that were between 300 to 1000 years old. The architecture and building materials were so different in that buildings were constructed out of coral interlaced with wood.

Our tour guide was a very energetic man with a great personality. He explained that the city of Jeddah is buying old historical buildings, renovating them, then renting them to low income and middle income families. During "boom" times, he said, the country is infused with money because of the rise of the price of oil. "How much are you paying now?" he asked, and he could not keep a straight face asking the Americans this question. We laughed too.

Building in Old Jeddah

Within the district were shopping kiosks, much like swap meets, but here they are called souks. Shopping in them was so much fun! They sold everything you could possible need. Some of my purchases:

Kohl powder for eyeliner
Children’s abaya
Men’s outfit
Silver jewelery

Our guide, Abdullah, helped bargain for us, but I was really impressed with my colleague Bill who learned Arabic in the last 6 months while listening to language tapes. He bargained better than the native men! Our day at the souk ended with a cup of coffee in the Western style mall, and it was fascinating to see how everything shut down for the noon type prayer. He call to prayer is a man singing verses from the Ko’ran, in a haunting melodic way. This call is broadcast through the P.A. system and on thousands of bullhorns and speakers throughout the city. There are mosques everywhere, including in the middle of the souk.

Muslims pray 5 times a day, and they must pray in the direction of Mecca. Everywhere we have gone, there are stickers with a picture of the Kaaba (the structure in the center of Mecca that everyone prays to) and a directional arrow. People wash all parts of their bodies exposed to the air, and then pray on their prayer rug. The shops close for a couple of hours at this time, and people go home to have lunch.

The night ended with another phenomenal dinner and cultural event. The delegation was entertained with traditional music and dancing, and of course, coffee and dates.

Dates served a million different ways

The director of our program, Mike, who is really cool

Friday, November 30, 2007

Disabled Childrens Association

This visit occurred the day before yesterday so I'm trying to catch up!

This center is a special education center that takes care of disabled youth. We met some of the students who of course, were adorable. The teachers at the school had many questions for us on the issues of mainstreaming, medication, and strategies.
Hajj Rituals

One remarkable thing we noticed was how quiet and peaceful the students were. I asked if they took drugs like Ritalin, and was told that this was not the way behavior problems were addressed in the school. "The children spend lots of time with their family and watch little TV. they are low-income so they do not have money to buy sweets or video games". Culture must have an impact, because students were not running, jumping, being rude to each other or the teachers.

These were students with not just physical disabilities, but social ones as well. One particular girl, Faye, was so beautiful. She is unable to walk and has ADD, but she was precious! She reminded me of my daughter, who I miss very much.

Beautiful Faye

The room decorations were so interesting, and I recognized a lot of typical teacher boards, but Saudi style. Seeing the Bratz on the wall, albeit more conservatively dressed, was hilarious. Overall, it was a great visit.

Bratz in the Middle East
Our bus is escorted by a security detail

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Freedom of the Press in Saudi Arabia?

Teachers on the Red Carpet

Editors of the Saudi Gazette
There are no laws that protect the freedom of the press in Saudi Arabia. So when newspapers try to publish stories about controversial issues, editors must walk a fine line. Today we met with editors of the Saudi Gazette, an English language publication that focuses on issues in the Arabian peninsula.

A Tour of Facilities/Printing Press

We discovered that this publication was the first to break the news about the woman who was raped and then punished with lashings and jail for being alone with a stranger in the first place. When the editor was asked if he was really free to report what he wanted, he emphatically said yes. "No one is standing over me telling me what to report," said Essam Al-Ghalib, Editor of the Gazette. He decried the Western media for giving that story massive amounts of attention and reinforcing the image of the human rights abusing, terrorist breeding ground portrayal that has become indelible in the minds of many. BTW, Essam was raised in the U.S. and went to college in California.

A Panel Discussion and Arabian Coffee

The issue of how Saudi Arabia is portrayed in the media hinges on the events of September 11th. Saudis feel they have had to pay the price as a nation for the actions of terrorists, who they condemn vehemently. They feel that the media has created a frenzy around their culture and customs and have tried to blame the entire culture and religion for the actions a few fanatics. Just as in America, the media pounces on negative stories and neglects to mention the numerous positive stories that occur each day. This is similar to what happens in the neighborhood where I teach: South Central Los Angeles. Every time there is a shooting, a high speed chase, or other such thing, the media is all over it. But those of us who work there see numerous stories of accomplishment and citizenship that never make the news.

Even Mission Statements Tied to Islam

As a history teacher, I urge my students not to stereotype and judge. Just as we cannot say all Americans are terrorists because of the actions of Eric Rudolph and Timothy McVeigh, neither can we say that Islam is a religion of war. At the same time, the teachers have stepped up their questioning of practices we feel contradict their repeated assertions that they are making progress. One teacher asked why in the Sharia court, the testimony of 4 women was equal to that of 1 man. The response from a female was that it was in the Ko'ran and that his teachings are "perfect. We do not question the teachings of our religion." It is explained that because women are more emotional and hassled due to their responsibilities raising children, they are not as reasoned as their male counterparts. Looking directly into the eyes of this woman, I asked if she really believed this, and she said yes!

Coffee and Dates Served At All Times

It has been hard for me to accept this way of thinking. All other aspects that we have encountered can be explained culturally, such as the wearing of abayas, the separation of the sexes, and even the multiple wives. But to say that men and women are equal in this society (because both men and women in government jobs get paid equal salaries) is in direct contradiction to the value of men vs. women in the Sharia court.

Yes, This Ice Structure Says Saudi Aramco

The day was redeemed, however, when we were hosted for dinner at a palatial building by Amr Kashoggi. This frank and plain-speaking gentleman was blunt in his assessment of Saudi culture: "There are some things that are wrong in this society and must be changed. Women should have the right to drive. We must prepare a future for our youth, or we will have a youth-quake", a term he used to describe the scenario of a nation where 60% of people are under the age of 20. In a rapidly changing world, the conservative, older society must adapt to changes and offer the youth a viable future, or society will fragment, he believes.

Women will definitely be a part of that equation.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Questions From Students

We have not visited markets or grocery stores, but the main snack food that we see are dates. Dates can be prepared in a million different ways, and they are served with coffees. They are like a cross between raisins and prunes. We have them in the U.S. but they are not as big as the ones here. It is said they used to be a favorite snack of the Prophet Muhammad.


They have lots of fast food here, although I have yet to try it. Their famous burger is called the McArabia, served at McDonalds

What is the most fun thing they do to entertain themselves including the children??
Children play with toys, ride bikes, skate, and generally do a lot of the same things as westerners. The difference I see is that they seem a lot more innocent. The girls are not trying to look sexy at age 12. The boys, and even men, hold hands in public and no one thinks they are gay. Children go to the park, swim, and play video games. I will ask the guides if they have a favorite game or toy.

Are the childen ever together meaning boys and girls??
Children are in mixed classrooms up until 3d grade and then they are seperated. If they are family members they can be in the same room. Otherwise, when they go to dinner, they must use the "family section". Women and girls cannot go to the boy's side and vice-versa.

Are the showers the same as L.A??
Yes, at least the ones I have used. What is sometimes different is the toilet. In other countries, people sometimes use the "squat" toilet that is on the floor. I'll try to take a picture of one.

Good question. I'll ask today. Update: The answer is no, people in Saudi Arabia rarely get permanent tattoos as it is against their religion.

It is washable! Mine looks real nice, but it will only last 3 weeks.

Good job LIZ, give your new group 10 points.

We Ate What We Thought Was the Main Course...

and then the main course came" were the words of one of our stuffed colleagues as we entered the third hour of our dinner meal. Yes friends, stick a fork in me 'cause I'm done.

Only Muslims can visit Mecca (Makkah) but I did see the sign!

So seriously, I'm going to have to buy a new abaya, because I've eaten so much that it won't fit much longer.

Tonight we visited Anqawi House, a modern home built using traditional Muslim architecture. To say that it was breathtaking is an understatement. This multi-level home had an indoor pool and jacuzzi, exquisite wood and tile work, two planetarium-like domes, and detail upon detail of geometric artwork. It is interesting to note that Saudis live in extended families with parents and grandparents frequently living under the same roof as their children. Our host for this visit was Mrs. Sami Mohsen Angawi, a renown architect. BTW, this family can trace their direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammed.

After the visit we proceeded to another humongous dinner. There was just no way I could eat another bite, so I sat at the table trying to stay awake and drank 3 cups of coffee. Now, at midnight, I can't sleep:(
Rick and I pretending to be courting

However, dinner proved to provide another fascinating conversation with our hosts. On the topic of multiple wives: Yes, it is allowed in the Muslim religion, but it is not common. It is done for the purpose of having more children and providing security to the woman. Instead of having affairs, the man legitimizes his union with the woman. When asked if a woman could have multiple husbands, the response was no, because then the father could not be positively identified (DNA?)...also, the male has a stronger, ahem, drive. The gentleman I spoke to grimaced when asked if he wanted a second wife, and said having one was hard enough.

Our male hosts entertained us with the many different ways to style their gutra and igal. They even have names for the styles such as the Cobra. It can be compared to how Western men wear baseball caps and cowboy hats in different angles and tilts. Notice in the picture below the two cell phones on the table. All of our hosts have cell phones, Blackberries, etc. Don't let the robes fool you...

Abdullah, who doesn't want a second wife
Asking tough questions without imposing Western judgements has proven to be difficult. For example, one of our tour guides frequently referred to the women in our groups as girls. Now this is a cosmopolitan man who has lived all over the world, including several years in the U.S. He quickly stopped doing so when it was pointed out that this was considered patronizing in our culture, but even some women in the group disagreed and said they didn't mind being called girls. He said in Saudi culture, it is considered a compliment, and the Saudi women in the group agreed. "Girl" has a different connotation in Saudi Arabia than in the U.S. Does this mean they are wrong and we are right?

Devaluing Arab women for wearing abayas should not be the goal of our visit. Understanding why the women wear them, and reporting their words straight from the source is our initial goal. Continuing the dialogue between our two worlds is the next step. Achieving mutual respect and understanding would be ideal. Will this happen any time soon? Teachers, what do you think? Thanks Mr. Von Matt for your feedback. We will definitely talk when I get back;)

Leaving the Compound

Jeddah Women Have Style

Now, we are no longer living in the confined, idealistic world of the Saudi Aramco compound. We are traveling as foreigners through Saudi Arabia, getting a more authentic experience of the country and the culture.

Driving Through Jeddah

Many of us in the group feel we have finally cracked the shell of this Arabian nation. A visit to Effat College was invigorating and insightful as both Americans and Saudis held a frank discussion on misconceptions held by both countries. This college was the brainchild of Queen Effat, wife of King Al Faisal who back in the 50's had the vision to one day have higher education opportunities available for women. Over the years the school went from being an elementary school to a college.

Imagine the surprise to walk into this college and be greeted by many women of different races and nationalities, including a blonde woman who graduated from Yale. It seems like when you leave the United States, you meet so many other Americans who have chosen to live different lives, different than those on the mainland. Who is to say this is a lesser choice?

After going through the obligatory question and answer period, there was a breakthrough when we asked how Saudi Arabia would modernize and still keep its customs and traditions. Maha Al-Juffali Ghandour, Director of the Help Center (a special education program) responded clearly: "There is no contradictioin between being Muslim and being open-minded." However, the women on the panel pointed out that there is a big difference between Islamic law and Saudi law. Islamic law has existed for 1400 years and has been interpreted in different ways by different countries. It is the Saudis who have passed laws such as the wearing of the abayas, but in other Muslim countries such as Lebanon, women DO NOT wear abayas.

Nevertheless, the younger women, who have known no other way of life than to wear abayas in public and being forbidden to drive, defended their country's customs: "There is an advantage and disadvantage to everything in life. Hot weather makes us uncomfortable, but we don’t have to focus on physical appearance or men gawking at us on the street. We can focus on inner development, not appearance. "

When the issue of driving came up, we heard similar responses such as "we don't care if we are not allowed to drive. That is what we have a driver for." In fact, one expat American woman boldly said "I dread the day the government will allow me to drive because then I will be forced to make trips to the market, fight with traffic and congestion, etc." Robert from New York asked what the choices would be for Saudi women of lesser resources, and it was acknowledged that they did not have the luxury of the driver, but public transportation was available for them. Our discussion today broke new ground for increased dialogue between our cultures. The tour of the school got cancelled because neither side wanted to stop talking. Many business cards were exchanged and there is a strong desire to continue the communication with each other.

Being greeted at the IMC

Our next visit was to the International Medical Center, a private hospital in Jeddah. It is a new hospital with a beutiful building that incorprates all facets of Islamic art and beliefs into its practice. In fact, the architecture includes structures that resemble a fancy writing instrument as a reminder that "everything is written" and we must all answer to a higher authority: God. There are beautiful scriptures from the koran written on windows and in installations that remind the patients that they are not alone. There is a mosque on the first floor of the hospital, and sure enough, at noon, the call to prayer sounded. Many people made their way down to the mosque and began praying.

Mosque at IMC

This medical center has collaborated closely with America and has many Americans on their Board of Directors. It continues to amaze me just how much of a connection, an alliance, we have with this country. Americans have been engaged in business relationships (and private relationships too, with all the expats here!) for almost 100 years. Almost everyone we speak to knows English and speaks it well. In fact, at this hospital there were not just Americans, but British, Phillipine, Indian and Malaysian doctors and nurses.

Lunch at Byblos was so gooood...but I was still full from all the feasting from yesterday! This restaurant is Lebanes and we had a fantastic discussion with Noha Makarem, Principal os Global International School. She kept us so engaged with her views of Saudi culture as a Lebanese immigrant.

Even though we only have a two hour break before we visit Anqawi House and go shopping, I cannot help but blog and share with others what a positive learning experience this coninues to be. Every teacher should experience something like this on a regular basis throughout their careers. There are not enough words to express the appreciation we feel to our benefactors that made this learning experience possible.

Congratulatioins to Liz Jacobo who correctly stated that the price of oil currently hovers around $100. Five points to her new period 4 group. You can also earn points for posting comments and questions to the Blog, but hurry, because I only have 6 days left in this country!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Diversity in the Kingdom

Americans in Saudi Arabia
Americans have been living in Saudi since its inception as a nation in the 1930’s. On of the reasons that adapting to a lifestyle decidedly different than our own is the construction of international schools. Currently there are 8 international schools serving students from grades k-9. There are almost 1800 students from over 50 nationalities in these schools. Their teachers are predominantly Americans (who by the way get paid between 80-95 k) with masters and doctorate degrees.

Students take traditional subjects based on U.S. State standards. A committee chooses which state has the best standards in each area, and then uses them to design the scope and sequence, exams, and instruction. They know that for high school, most likely they will be going to boarding school (like Hogwarts!) so there are up to 40 visits by boarding schools who come to Aramco to offer their services.

When these kids go on field trips, they usually leave the country and go to Kenya, Zululand, Switzerland, Italy and Madagascar. They don’t really travel within the Kingdom due to security reasons. In other words, Americans might be a target for disgruntled folks who might want to cause them harm.

For being 5000 miles away, life at Dharan Third Street Middle School on the Aramco Compound is remarkably similar to many schools in the U.S. The kids have rules they must follow, they take academic and elective classes, they visit the library, and play sports. Most students speak both Arabic and English, and some speak up to 4 and 5 languages. They sent a message of friendship to L.A. Academy students and would like to correspond with you, so get ready to be pen pals!

Sumua Al Amal School for Special Education
Although talking to American middle schoolers was a treat, the highlight of my day was visiting the Sumua Al Amal School for Special Education. This school was the product of the tireless work of the Principal, who constructed the first comprehensive Special Education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He explained that he was “gifted” with the birth of a special needs boy 18 years ago, but could find no one to help him get care for his child. So he decided to use his influence as an Aramco employee to build a school that serves children with many handicaps, from birth to death. We met several children who we fell in love with, because they were so innocent in their joy. These kids receive physical therapy, speech therapy, family counseling services, and financial aid if needed.

As always, the issue of the abayas came up because the school is divided into female/male sections. The teachers and staff in the female side were in a panic when they thought the men were about to enter because they were not covered up. So they rushed to but on their abayas and hijabs and most also wore the veil that covers their face.
It was the teachers' first time wearing the abayas, and I was not very comfortable. The hijab kept falling off, and I had to remember to lift it up when climbing stairs. It was very hot in one of the schools, and I was starting to feel dizzy. Perhaps, if I was used to wearing one since birth, it would not be hard to get used to. Saudi women definitely do not seem to mind it.

We have left the city of Dhahran and are now in the western coastal city of Jeddah. It reminds me of Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, etc. During the flight, we were required to wear the abaya (which helped out this time due to the cold!) Even the flight attendants wore a hijab, but not an abaya. The monitor that showed the flight map also had an interesting screen…it showed in which direction Mecca was, so that people could face the correct way during their prayers. I’ll tell you, the Muslims I have met in Saudi don’t just talk about their religion; they LIVE their religion.

As a student told me today: PEACE in the MIDDLE EAST!