Teaching Arab History and Culture at Northeast High School

This semester, I have had the privilege of teaching a weekly class on Arab history and culture to 10th graders at NEHS. Since this is such an expansive and diverse topic, and since we have relatively few class meetings to cover so much ground, Al-Bustan’s Executive Director and I discussed a novel approach. In the fourteenth century, a highly learned Moroccan cleric and judge named Ibn Battuta set out from his home in Tangiers towards Mecca. He intended this journey as a pilgrimage to the holiest city of Islam. But his travels did not end there. For over twenty-nine years, he traveled all across the Arab-speaking world and beyond. From North Africa, to the Middle East, to the Byzantine Empire, to the West coast of Africa, to India, the Maldives, and even China. When he returned to Tangier in 1354, upon the request of the Sultan of Morocco, Ibn Battuta dictated an account of his journeys to Ibn Juzayy, a scholar he had met in Granada.  The full title of the manuscript is “Tuhfat Al-Nuzzar fi Ghara’ib Al-Amsar wa ‘Aja’ib Al-Asfar,” translated in English is “A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling,” – shortened to simply “The Rihla,” or “The Journey.”

A map of Ibn Battuta’s journeys

We decided that the life of this extraordinary traveler provided an excellent jumping-off point for understanding the diverse lands and cultures that he visited. Each week, we learn about the history and culture of one of the locales along his journey. Obviously, this must be a truncated “crash course” – but I emphasize the importance of getting a base of knowledge as a starting point for learning about a region and its people. This brings us to the second goal of the class – to open students’ eyes to current events occurring in the Arab World today. Each week, students must read and bring to class an article concerning events in the Arab World. We have practiced summarizing what we learn, connecting it with what we have learned in class, and probing deeper by asking thoughtful questions. This style of content delivery, based on geography, current events, and one man’s incredible biography, has sparked many students’ curiosities. Kids are very interested to learn the stories behind the headlines that they read, and several have emailed me questions outside of class, asking for places where they can learn more about, for example, the decolonization of Algeria and Egypt. Or, “what other parts of the world have had their borders altered by outside powers? What happened there?”

The Bay of Tangier – Ibn Battuta’s childhood home.

For a final project, students will choose from among the cities that Ibn Battuta visited, and craft an oral presentation and accompanying Powerpoint in which they describe their own future trip. In the same vein as my weekly presentations on each country, students’ projects must include information about specific locations they would like to visit, the historical and cultural significance of those locations, and how this information contextualizes events in that part of the world. I am very excited to see what students come up with next!


Transcending Time, Space, and Music: the Revitalization of Memories through the Music of Romani-Balkan Clarinet Virtuoso, Hüsnü Şenlendirici

Years ago, when I was only the naive age of ten, my uncle Hakan handed me a cassette tape upon returning from Turkey. I knew little about the band, Laço Tayfa, and even less about Turkish music at the time; as I was familiar with only the older traditional tunes emanating from my father’s desktop on Saturday mornings. They were, coincidentally, very peculiar and nomadic to my younger ears, so I had meager expectations for the cassette. Listening to it once on the ride home I was unimpressed and unmoved, forgetting the tape in the car – never to be seen again, or so I thought. 
Album cover with Senlendirici
seated in the middle

Six years later, at the ripe age of sixteen, now fluent in Turkish popular culture, I stumbled upon the same cassette tape during Eid preparations and it struck a new chord. Hüsnü Şenlendirici’s face popped out at me on the elegant cover; the enchanting gaze of the musicians and the striking name of the band caught my attention. Hurriedly I searched the house for a cassette player. Luckily my parents were conservative with their property, and I quickly found several “boom boxes” in the closet and proceeded to insert and hit “play”. The house became warm with Anatolian strings and a Romani-Balkan breeze. How had I missed this?

Looking back, I realize over those six years I had morphed into a new being with a pocket full of life experiences and memories. The instruments came alive to reenact the six years that had escaped from me. The oud took me back to my trips to Turkey where I steered tractors perched on my grandfather’s lap in the golden wheat fields of the plateau; the qanun and bass took me back to my middle school years in north Jersey and the many family meals bustling with commotion and excitement; and the clarinet took me back to a certain summer where I met my first love at the local mosque. In unison, these instruments allowed me to transcend time and relive my cherished memories. Still today, it is my favorite album to play on our morning rounds to relatives’ homes on Eid: my father in his olive-green suit captaining our vessel  and my pearly mother lighting the way and stopping momentarily to head the swaying waves of our screaming and laughter from the rear.
From that renaissance onwards, I continue to listen to and enjoy Hüsnü and friends’ music. It is with them that I discovered the beauty of interpretation in music. The lack of words and traditional rhythm (sometimes jazzing out), furnished the very orchard of creativity within me so that I could pick from it the fruit of my emotions. These tunes have lifted me up when I was down and humbled me when the world was too much to bear. As if the ghost of my many yesterdays had sat me down for a cup of tea and a story, I was reminded of my past, present, and future in the same instant and assured everything would be alright. I was only to wait, and maybe listen once more.
I lose patience as I wait for Hüsnü to step on the Penn campus and present again the secrets of my past and share with me the glory of the moment and all the moments they call to.
My humble gratitude,
Eza Koch
UPenn, Class of 2014