Fujairah Collage

Fujairah Collage
Some distinctive landmarks in Fujairah

Monday, December 13, 2010

‘The Night Journey: Understanding Our Arab Students’ by Stephen Roney

The November 2010 edition of TESOL Arabia Perspectives, included this feature article by Stephen Roney entitled, ‘The Night Journey: Understanding our Arab Students.’

Arab Image
Roney discusses the issue of cultural metaphors and suggests that the Arab identity revolves around the image of the journey.

While he concludes by hammering out some of the ramifications of this metaphor for English language teachers, there are many valuable insights to be gained by people who are working in other occupations in the Arabian region.

Thanks are expressed to TESOL Arabia and to the author, Stephen Roney, for permission to reprint this article.

About the Author
Stephen Roney holds assorted degrees from Queen's, Syracuse, and Ryerson universities, is a past president of the Editors' Association of Canada, and currently teaches at College of the North Atlantic—Qatar, where he also serves as CALL chair. His ruling metaphor is “Survival.”

Nations and cultures are held together not by common language, history, or beliefs, but by common metaphors. Know the metaphor, and you have a fundamental understanding of the culture. Know it not, and misunderstandings occur. Each of the English-speaking nations has a central metaphor for civil society. The equivalent metaphor for Arab society is the journey. This has immediate ramifications for EFL/ESL.

Conceptual Metaphors
The encounter of two or more cultures is really what the TESL profession is about. Differing language is our focus, but all aspects of the encounter are present: it is the main thing that happens daily in every ESL class. This paper proposes one fruitful approach. This is the idea of shared conceptual metaphors, most familiar to the field of Applied Linguistics from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book, Metaphors We Live By. “Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence,” they write, “we found that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature.” What do they mean by “metaphor?” “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 4).

National and Cultural Metaphors
The idea that cultures are held together by common metaphors is not new either. It was always known by writers and artists; perhaps also literary critics. Margaret Atwood writes in her 1972 book Survival, “Every country or culture has a single unifying and informing symbol at its core…. The symbol, … —be it word, phrase, idea, image, or all of these—functions like a system of beliefs ... which holds the country together and helps the people in it to co-operate for common ends” (Atwood, 1972).

Atwood then enumerates national symbols for three English-speaking nations. For Britain, it is “The Island.” America's unifying image is “The Frontier.” For Canada, the equivalent theme, Atwood says, is “Survival.”

The Arab World
What is the equivalent metaphor for the Arab world? I submit that it is “The Journey:” the caravan over the desert, the dhow over the sea. Arab culture has always been especially concerned with transportation: cars, camels, horses, are still the most prized possessions; an independent country seems almost a reason for a national airline. Community solidarity among national groups within the broader culture is usually formed historically through some shared journey, such as the Qawasim two centuries ago into Ras al Khaimah, and the Bani Yas two centuries ago to Abu Dhabi. Likewise, when Morocco sought to establish its claim to the former Spanish Sahara, they did so by lining up along the border, men, women, and children—and walking in.

The essential Arab self-image is still the bedouin, even if most Arabs now live in larger cities. Travel books are about the earliest genre of Arabic prose; a large proportion of Arabian heroes have been great explorers: Ibn Battuta, Antar, Hasan al-Wazan, Shahabuddin Ibn Majid—and, of course, in literature, perhaps the earliest Arab hero of all, Sinbad.

The Arab Conception of The Journey
The motif of the voyage, granted, is familiar to Englishmen as well—as a fellow trading nation. But there is a difference. An English hero braves the sea as needed to reach his island destination. Yet Sinbad, the Arab hero, after his first voyage, was rich enough to never need sail again—much less to face the terrible dangers of his journeys. Yet he returns to sea, seven times. Why?

Sinbad explains: “...very soon I grew tired of such an idle life ....” After the second voyage: “...as I was still in the prime of life, it pleased me better to be up and doing.” After the fourth voyage: “I soon wearied of [the quiet life's] pleasures, and longed for change and adventure” (Lang, 1918).

For an Englishman, the voyage is a means to an end. For an Arab, the voyage is the end.

The Arabian Nights as a whole is also a kind of metaphoric journey, and one in which the destination is never reached: Whenever Scheherazade’s narrative ends, she loses her head. So no story ever really comes to its conclusion; that is the central character of the narrative.

The Journey in Islam
Even time itself, to an Arab, is a journey. The Arab and Muslim calendar, uniquely, starts with an expedition. Years are given “After Hijra,” from the exodus of Muhammed and Abu Bakr from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD. Islam’s birth is dated to this event.

“According to Islam,” an article in the Gulf Times explains, “Hijrah is of two kinds: literal...and metaphorical, which means the abandonment of sins” (al-Uthaimeen, 2009). Being on a journey is, therefore, symbolically, a deeply moral act.

Every Muslim, therefore, is obliged to take such a journey—the Hajj or Umrah—as a religious imperative. Pilgrimage is in other religions; but only Islam requires it. Nor is the Hajj just one journey to a fixed destination: It is journeys within journeys, even one in which one must literally run between the hills of Safa and Marwa. The spiritual significance is neither Safa, nor Marwa—it is the running in between.

The Journey in Arab Thought
Is this idea of journeying as a moral act arbitrary? Metaphors, if they work, are never arbitrary. Ibn Khaldun, the great 14th century Arab social scientist, makes a compelling case that it is not. His theory of human history—the world's first, according to Arnold Toynbee (Irwin, 1997)—is as a cyclical movement, with cohesive bands from the wilderness settling, growing decadent, then being replaced by a fresh wave from desert or steppe.

Settling, therefore, was the beginning of moral decline; nomadism was and is a source of virtue and energy.

“Sedentary life constitutes the last stage of civilization and the point where it begins to decay. It also constitutes the last stage of evil and of remoteness from goodness” (Ibn Khaldun, p. 94). “Superiority comes to nations through enterprise and courage. The more firmly rooted in desert habits and the wilder a group is, the closer it comes to achieving superiority over others” (p. 107).

There are traces of the moral superiority of nomadism in the Hebrew Bible—it is what distinguishes the Hebrews from the Egyptians and Canaanites. In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain, the villain, is a settled farmer; Abel is a nomadic herdsman. The issue is clouded, in the Bible, by the fact that Cain becomes a wandering fugitive later. In the Hadith, his punishment is the opposite: He is prevented from moving. “His leg was joined to his thigh, and his face was turned forever towards the sun...” (Ibn Kathir, 1999, p. 52).

And where was Adam while this was happening? According to Islam, he was on a pilgrimage (Ibn Kathir, p. 49).

What Are the Implications for the English Class?
Good news: all this implies that language is, for Arabs, important. Language, after all, shares many of the features of a journey. It is conceptually a journey between speaker and spoken to, understanding and intent, concept and object, beginning and end of a narrative. Like a journey, it is intensely temporal. Time is the medium through which language, written or spoken, is transmitted.

The Arabs, more than most groups, define themselves by their shared language. Every Arab, and every Muslim, must study a second language, classical Arabic, as a religious duty. This linguistic study was once the entire object of a formal education in Arabian countries. Meaningfully, the fact that the Qur'an was written in Arabic is considered part of its essence—one cannot meaningfully read it in translation.

Language, in sum, obviously matters; hence so does English class. This importance of language, however, often causes intercultural misunderstanding—for language is not held in nearly the same high regard in the English-speaking world.

Consider the example of Mohamed Saeed al-Sahaf, Iraqi Information Minister under Saddam Hussein. In the dying days of the Second Gulf War (as Americans call it), he gathered the international press on the roof of his Information Ministry to tell them that there were no American soldiers anywhere near Baghdad, that they had all been barbequed in their tanks at the border. The massed cameras and microphones meanwhile showed the battle raging within eyesight.

Americans thought this clownish; it earned him the nickname “Comical Ali.”

Yet, the Arab perspective was different. Obviously, he was not trying to lie—otherwise, why would he hold the conference on the rooftop, making the truth visible? It was a deliberate act of defiance. His action was heroic, whether one agreed with Saddam or not. Among the Arabs traditionally, “the perfect warrior was also the famous poet” (Siddiqui, 1960, p. 4). Al-Sahaf was performing the traditional role of the tribal poet, inspiring the troops and dispiriting the enemy. The Prophet himself employed such a poet at court (Lewis, 1995, p. 256).

It is said that, after the war, al-Sahaf turned himself in to the occupation authorities, only to discover that they were not even looking for him. To Arabs, his words were important weapons of war. To Americans, they were meaningless.

Our task, accordingly, as language teachers, is simple. Our students are eager to learn, and to learn language. If it is not simple in practice, this may be because, missing metaphors, we end up working at cross purposes.

One hears certain common complaints, among “native speakers” teaching EFL in the Gulf. What follows is a discussion of some of these common complaints.

Arab Students Will Not Read
More generally, their reading and writing lag behind their speaking.

In Arab culture, spoken language is more valued than written. The spoken word is more temporal, more like a journey; once a passage is written, the destination is already present. It is possible, after all, to turn the page and read ahead, or even, if we are truly diabolical, to read it backwards.

Consider the history of the printing press. It was invented, in the Far East, specifically to print the Sutras, the Buddhist canon. When Gutenberg independently invented movable type, what was the first book printed? The Bible.

Yet Arabs, and Muslims, did not embrace this new invention. Printing was forbidden in the Ottoman Empire by decree in 1485 (Lewis, 1995, p. 268). Printing in Arabic characters was finally permitted in the early 18th century—but only on non-religious subjects (Lewis, p. 269). The last thing in the world they would have thought to do with it was to print the Qur'an.

For Arabs, the written letter killeth; but the spoken word giveth life. The Qur'an is meant to be recited, not silently read.

Poetry, accordingly, is valued more highly here than in the West. When Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, died, he was buried with state honours. By comparison, how many of us could name the current US or Canadian poet laureate?

Of the arts more generally, it is the kinetic that most interests Arab culture, not the visual. It is poetry or dance, not painting or sculpture. Architecture might seem to be an exception—until you realize that the way one experiences a building is by journeying through it.

Yes, Arab students are less inclined to read. But we must ask ourselves, responsibly: Is their need to read and write as great as we suppose it is? Or are we imposing our own cultural values? We should also remember to convey important information orally when possible. Furthermore, we are probably missing out monumentally if we are not using poetry in the classroom.

The Students Will Not Go Along with the Lesson Plan
We are drilled, in our TESL training, to prepare a detailed plan for every lesson. Those teaching in the Middle East then often find, often in horror, that the students argue against it in class, and try to turn the lesson in some new direction. Class discipline then becomes an issue.

This is bargaining. It too can be understood from the journey motif: the actual exchange— in the market; the decision—the class direction— is the destination. To fix it all in advance is to overlook the journey. Bargaining together builds social cohesion. Attempt to prevent this bargaining from happening, and you are forcing and imposing social discord. No surprise if the class then becomes hard to handle.

In al-Isra wa al-Miraj, Mohammed travels to Heaven itself, and speaks to Allah. And, desirable as it might seem, he does not stay with Allah in paradise. He leaves and returns three times, each time bargaining to reduce the number of daily prayers Allah requires. Allah consents.

Now let us consider, with some humility: If bargaining is proper with God himself, surely it is also proper, and properly respectful, with us?

And if God himself is ready to concede a point, so should we.

Why shouldn't we encourage and prolong such bargaining whenever possible as legitimate real-world practice in English, with intrinsic motivation?

They Come to Class Late; They Do Not Bring their Books or Pens
If, for the Arabs, it is the departure, not the arrival, that matters, tardiness will naturally seem a lesser issue than to us “native speakers.” If they set out at a reasonable time with a reasonable intent, shouldn't that be enough? Hence, the “excuse,” as we call it, should be decisive. How can anyone predict what will happen on a journey? How can one promise to arrive anywhere at a given time?

Remember too that, given the ethical dimension of the journey, the traveller stands automatically in a position of moral authority over the one already in class. They are the good guys in the situation, not the miscreant. Remember the famous Arab obligation of hospitality to a traveller. The late-arriving student has a right to expect our help; all the more so if they have had a difficult journey. Should we complain about their being late, and not bringing their pen? Properly, it is our duty to supply all the traveller's wants for up to three days. Lending them a pen for an hour is a small matter.

Some argue that it is necessary to teach our students punctuality: “They will need it when they enter the workforce. You can't arrive late to an office job.”

But will they be working in American offices, or Emirati offices? And how many, living in the Gulf, can truthfully claim that they always find locally-staffed offices opening promptly at the stated time? This becomes, in other words, a case of imposing our own culture.

Why not simply to leave it up to the Arab students, as responsible adults, to decide for themselves when they need to be in class? The punishment, if they choose wrongly, is intrinsic: lower marks on the test. Alternatively, we might exploit the technology we have to post all materials online, including lectures. Students could then make up lost time at leisure.

As to the issue of missing books or pens, it should also be fairly easy to keep needed texts and materials in a cabinet in each classroom, ready when needed.

They Cheat; They Will Not Do Their Own Work
This is another example of the Arab imperative of hospitality to one in need. If your neighbor needs help on the path, it is immoral not to help him; all the more so if the juncture is critical, as with an exam. When we ban this, even when we must, we put our students in a moral quandary.

In ordinary classes, therefore, it seems best that we not ban it. After all, we spend half our time trying to encourage “group work.” Why spend the other half trying to prevent it?

For exams, this is not possible; but much can be done in designing testing situations to make the problem moot. Technology allows us, for example, with little effort, to give each student a different test, using question banks and computer randomization. Spoken tests can easily be taken individually.

They Will Not Sit Still
Teachers complain that their Arab students get up, even walk around, during classes; they seem to need frequent bathroom breaks.

Those from an island culture tend to see the classroom as an island of order rising above the outside world, and any movement to and from as chaos. Arabs will roughly invert those two values. A classroom's stillness is something akin to death.

Do we really need to sit still to learn? No—much research suggests exactly the opposite, that we think and learn better with out bodies engaged. For millennia, Jewish students have bobbed back and forth as they read the Torah, probably for this reason.

We spend much time in our TESL training on arranging our classroom in specific ways; it might be best in the Gulf to let students fall where they may. Controlling their movements adds an unnecessary extra burden that distracts from learning.

Conclusion without Conclusion
This essay is, necessarily, only a brief introduction to our subject. The dominion of the metaphor, as Lakoff and Johnson (1980) point out, spans most of human thought. The implications here for our classrooms are vaster than can be covered within the present word count; even if we push the limits a bit.

Perhaps, for the present, therefore, simply raising awareness is enough. For the rest, it is well to remember that for Arabs, learning itself is a journey: Muhammed urged Muslims to “seek knowledge, even unto China.”

The important thing, for this as all journeys, is not to have already reached our conclusion, but to all be on that journey together.

Atwood, M. (1972). Survival: A thematic guide to Canadian literature. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Ibn Kathir. (1999). Stories of the prophets. (M. Al-Ahmad, Trans.) Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah.
Ibn Khaldun. (2005). The Muqaddimah. (Franz Rosenthal, Trans.) Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Irwin, Robert. (1997). Toynbee and Ibn Khaldun. Middle Eastern Studies 33:3, pp. 461-479.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lang, A. (Trans.) (1918). The Arabian nights entertainment. London: Longmans, Green & Company.
Lewis, B. (1995). The Middle East. London: Orion.
Siddiqui. M. (1960). Life of Mohammed. Berkeley: Islamic Publications.
al-Uthaimeen, Shk. M. (2009, January 2). The Hijrah of Allah's messenger. Gulf Times, A1.
Yates, F. (1966). The art of memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Image: A 13th century book illustration produced in Baghdad by al-Wasiti showing a group of pilgrims on a Hajj. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia).

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