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!

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