New essays about the Arabic Alphabet: Ba and Ta (by Michael Beard)

(illustration  by Houman Mortazavi)

Ba: http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/ba/

Peh: http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/peh/

Ta: http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/ta/

excerpt from “Ta is for Dragoman”

Ta is for the Arabic verb T-M-M tamma, to be complete. (Tamma, “it’s over.”) One verbal noun is the word tammâm, completion, perfection, the end, a word which readers of the first edition of FitzGerald’s Rubai‘yât of ‘Umar Khayyâm (1859) will see at the bottom of the page under the last poem, where he adds, without translation, “Tamám shud,” the Persian term for “It’s over,” “it’s complete,” “that’s all she wrote,” “finito,” “finis,” “khalâṣ,” “the end,” “ta ta.”

If we’re in this for the shape of the letters we should be ready for disappointment. Except for the dots, it’s just another saucer shape like Ba or Pa. Ta and Ba do not, however, come from the same ancestor. Ta (like the following letter, Tha) was, in an early Nabataean form, two vertical lines, one of which bends to touch the other, something like our lower-case “h.” In successive shapes it gets simpler and simpler, loses its visual identity, gives in to peer pressure, and assimilates to the shape of Ba, with nothing to distinguish it but the dots.

The two dots float side by side above the plate shape (or above the lip at the beginning of a word, or the little notch in the middle of one). In its terminal form two dots above the curved horizontal line seem a little like two eyes hovering over a narrow, wan smile. It would make a good emoticon.

Ta is one of the commonest prefixes in Arabic, and a common suffix as well, an alphabetical handyman who is likely to show up in any part of the word. At the end of a past tense verb (actually verb tenses in Arabic are complicated, but leave that to the experts), Ta can designate the first person. The same suffix can signal that the agent of a past-tense verb is feminine (object or person). In a present tense verb (present being, again, an approximate term) Ta at the beginning can mean it’s a second-person “you” who performs the action. The same prefix attached to a third-person verb signals feminine agent. For other reasons, independent of tense, it can show up in the middle of a word with no warning for the uninitiated reader.

Hard Worker

The new student of Arabic is greeted early on with a list of variations around the three consonants. The stem D-R-S, “to write,” in default form is darasa, “he studied” or “learned.” Double the middle consonant (i.e. darrasa) and we have the second form, “he caused to learn,” or “he taught.” Lengthen the first vowel, and it’s dârasa, “to study.” (There are seven other potential forms that I know of, not our subject.) That second form, darrasa, has a verbal noun with a Ta prefix, tadrîs, “learning,” “instruction.”

Arabic dictionaries are alphabetized by verbal stem, so Ta often just gets in the way. You see the word tadrîs and you may want to look it up: you won’t find it under Ta, but under Dâl, for D-R-S. Pick up a passage of Arabic and we see Ta words everywhere on the page, but most of them are prefixes. Actual Ta words take up only thirteen pages (out of 1301) of the Hans Wehr Arabic dictionary. It’s different in Persian or Turkish dictionaries, where the Arabic verbal nouns are heard as separate loan words and listed under Tay, so that all those Ta prefixes look like separate words, and the Ta entries in Persian or Turkish dictionaries go on for a while.

Tatmîm, “completion,” comes from a Ta verb, T-M-M. Taḥqiq, “research,” comes from a stem Ḥ-Q-Q, “to be correct.” (The noun Haqq, “truth,” is a family member.) The stem which gives us the Arabic numeral “one,” W-Ḥ-D, as a number is wâḥid. Tawḥîd means “unity,” but in a religious sense “belief in the oneness of God,” “profession of faith,” one of the five pillars of Islam.

ta-chapter-head

Teaching Paired Literary Texts

Abstract

This essay focuses on a technique which increases students’ participation, creativity and analytical ability in literature and language classrooms. By teaching two texts together, one from a Western and one from a Middle Eastern culture, students can compare and contrast a familiar text to one that has new settings, themes, people and opinions. This analysis allows students to see how characters, leitmotifs and points of view can be both similar and different across cultures, and in turn improves students’ reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking abilities. As some teachers might be hesitant to use literature in a language classroom or be unfamiliar with texts from a different culture, this essay gives several specific examples, in addition to explaining how to teach paired texts. When teachers overcome the fear of working with new texts, they can expand their students’ knowledge.  

Introduction

This paper is designed to give practical advice about creating or augmenting syllabi for English language, English literature and literature in translation classes. It is for both teachers of English language and English literature in the Middle East because teaching literature, especially poetry, is a way for students to expand their vocabulary in a more fun, less regimented manner than textbook materials. Reading literature can also help introduce students to cultural differences in the use of metaphors. For example, when American people say, “I’m blue,” this means they are feeling sad. If students are not exposed to authentic, natural texts in the target language, they will miss the meaning of cultural idioms. This essay is also useful for teachers who want to use texts by Arab or Persian authors for World Literature or Literature in Translation classes.

Thus, the purpose of the paper is dual fold:  to assist teachers who are familiar with literature by Middle Eastern writers by giving ideas in English literature, as well as suggestions about Middle Eastern literature for teachers who are more familiar with English literature.

My method is to explain the use of “pairing” texts, meaning to find an English text  and a Middle Eastern text  which have similar themes, characters and/ or setting so that the students will have a text in their own culture to compare to a text in the target culture. When students have one familiar text as a basis, it is easier to make the jump to reading in and about a foreign culture. To give examples of this technique, tables are included with texts from different genres.

The basis of my strategy comes from 14 years of teaching on the Arabian Peninsula. This extensive experience has shown me that to get students interested in learning, it is important to choose literature which is both accessible and relevant. An accessible text will fit the learner’s language ability. A relevant text will have characters, settings, and/ or situations that are familiar to the learners. A text with these criteria allows the teacher to keep the students’ attention while working through the vocabulary and grammar as a text that is utterly foreign to students in terms of style and language will be difficult or impossible to teach.

This paper will begin with an explanation of how to choose Arabic and English poems that complement each other with several examples. Then there will be a discussion of pairing short stories and dramas. Lastly, there will be a description of how to teach paired texts.

Finding Useful Poems

For an English teacher, the first step of pairing poems is to look for classic English poems which have some aspect such as setting or characters which students can relate to. For example, I teach in the town of Salalah, Oman which is surrounded by tree-covered mountains where different types of animals graze. I often use Marlow’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” because as the students read the poem, they find vocabulary that they can use to describe their surroundings such as: “valley,” “rocks,” “shepherds,” and “flocks of sheep.” The poem has other nouns which have an Omani context such as “roses,” which are grown on Jebel Akhdar. Below are four of the stanzas with relevant vocabulary in bold:

Come live with me and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove

That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,

Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

 

And we will sit upon the rocks,

Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,

By shallow rivers to whose falls

Melodious birds sing madrigals.

 

And I will make thee beds of roses

And a thousand fragrant posies,

A cap of flowers, and a kirtle

Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

 

A gown made of the finest wool

Which from our pretty lambs we pull;

Fair lined slippers for the cold,

With buckles of the purest gold

By focusing on the how the narrator’s words are connected to the students’ daily life in the context of Oman, I hope to motivate them try to understand and retain the new vocabulary. For example, in the above poem I can explain that “falls” is used here as a noun, not a verb, then give a local example of the “falls” in the town of Hasik. “Buckle” can be explained by discussing the belt that holds the traditional Omani dagger, the khanjar.

Similarly, Lord Bryon’s “She Walks in Beauty” is another famous English poem that is easy to teach in the Middle East because it is about a woman with dark hair and dark eyes, like most of my students. Many English poems celebrate a woman with blue eyes and blond hair, so it’s nice for my female students to have a text that describes someone like themselves. This similarity gives students a foundation of understanding when working through metaphors such as “she walks in beauty,” “tender light/ Which heaven to gaudy day denies” and “raven tress” which are in bold in part of the poem below.

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

Pairing Poems

After a teacher has found a few poems, the second step is to link those  texts with Middle Eastern texts. This means finding a poem from the other culture which has a similar setting, theme or plot. The first poem, from their own culture, will be easy for students to understand; the similar poem in a foreign culture will allow students to smoothly cross cultural boundaries. Further, with two similar poems, students can move from merely understanding to the higher order tasks of compare/ contrast and analysis.

For example, in Herrick’s canonical poem “Corinna’s Going A-Maying” the narrator is calling to a woman to join him in enjoying the beauties of nature. There are several commands in the first two stanzas as noted in bold below:

GET up, get up for shame, the blooming morn
Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.
       See how Aurora throws her fair
Fresh-quilted colours through the air :
Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see
The dew bespangling herb and tree.
Each flower has wept and bow’d toward the east
Above an hour since : yet you not dress’d ;
Nay ! not so much as out of bed?
When all the birds have matins said
And sung their thankful hymns, ’tis sin,
Nay, profanation to keep in,
Whereas a thousand virgins on this day
Spring, sooner than the lark, to fetch in May.

Rise and put on your foliage, and be seen
To come forth, like the spring-time, fresh and green,
       And sweet as Flora. Take no care
For jewels for your gown or hair :
Fear not ; the leaves will strew
Gems in abundance upon you :

Besides, the childhood of the day has kept,
Against you come, some orient pearls unwept ;
Come and receive them while the light
Hangs on the dew-locks of the night :
       And Titan on the eastern hill
Retires himself, or else stands still

These lines are direct requests from the narrator to a woman and are similar to the narrator in Ahmed Nedîm’s “Take Yourself to the Rose-Garden,” specifically the lines in bold below:

Take yourself to the rose-garden, it’s the season of our wandering

 Oh swaying cypress, give back the ruined spring its reign

 Pour down your dark curls, let your cheek be dressed in sable

 Oh swaying cypress, give back the ruined spring its reign

 

 Come rose-mouthed one, your nightingales are calling

 Come to the garden, that we might forget the rose has gone

 Come, before the meadow is ravaged by winter

 Oh swaying cypress, give back the ruined spring its reign

Another example is the famous English poet John Clare, who wrote many poems about natural landscapes which pair well with Middle Eastern poems. His poems “June,” “July” and “Summer” are descriptions of hot days, linking heat and death instead of, for example, heat and love. Connecting heat and death is normal to Omani students who live through months of temperature in the 40s and descriptions of heat are common in Arab literature so there are a plethora of choices to pair with Clare’s poem. Some examples are Ahmed Muhammad Al Khalifa’s poem “The Deserted Valley” which begins with the lines “I came to it when the valley flowers were withered”  and Abdalla Muhammad Jabr’s amusing poem “The Bursting out of Summer,” in which the second stanza begins “Tell the heat to spare me/ until another day.” Ibrahim Al-Hadrani’s poem “The Fountain” is another similar poem; it begins: “My love, we passed by this fountain once, / when our love was flowing freely, / we came back to it when the grass / was dry.”

An example of longer, more intricate poems which could be paired are “The Rider” by Qasim Haddad and “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. They are both entertaining poems which depict the life of brigands in the Gulf and England in previous time periods. “Welcome rider, highwayman,” says the Bedouin narrator of Haddad’s poem to the robber. The narrator agrees to share his fire, clothes and horses, but warns the rider that justice, in the form of caravans which “Come for you.” Similarly, the robber in Noyes’ poem faces justice in a thrilling narrative.

Since most of my students are female, I like to use poems by women such as “Sojourn Forever,” “Free Harbor” and “You Alone” by Suad al-Mubarak al-Sabah together with “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti. “Sojourn Forever” and “A Birthday” both have the metaphor of a woman in love being “on a throne”, while “Free Harbor” and “A Birthday” use metaphors of ships to show the happiness of shared love: “Your ships alone have the right to sail in my blood” trills the narrator of “Free Harbor”; “My heart is like a rainbow shell/ That paddles in a halcyon sea” echoes the narrator of “A Birthday”.

Below please find Table 1 which gives further suggestions for pairing poems.

Table 1: Poetry Suggestions

Theme Poems by Western poets Poems by Middle Eastern poets

(in English)

Middle Eastern Poets
 

Sea

Seafever, Masefield; The Sea View, Smith John Masefield, Charlotte Smith A Sailor’s Memoirs Muhammad al-Fayiz
Love A Birthday Christina Rossetti Sojourn Forever;

You Alone;

Free Harbor

Suad al-Mubarak al-Sabah
Butterflies Fawziyya Abu Khalid
Unsuccessful love When We Two Parted Lord Bryon Love’s Wounds Abdullah al Faysal
Death Some Clouds Steve Kowit Clouds Sulaiman al-Fulayyih
Death of a child On My First Daughter, Jonson; For My Daughter, Ignatow Ben Jonson, David Ignatow Death in Life Ahmad Qandeel
Brigades The Highwayman Alfred Noyes The Rider Qasim Haddad
Depression Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples Percy Bysshe Shelley The Lost Mirage and The Deserted Valley Ahmad Muhammad Al Khalifa
Lullaby Wind of the Western Sea Alfred, Lord Tennyson ask students to write/ translate lullabies from their own culture
Patriotism Patriotism 1. Innominatus Sir Walter Scott A Page from a Bedouin Notebook Muhammad Al Thuhaiti
Motherhood For My Mother May Sarton A Pearl

 

Fawziyya Abu Khalid
Muse Muse Not Muse Rosanna Warren The Poet and the Moth Ahmad Qandeel
Summer/ heat July, Summer, June John Clare The Deserted Valley Ahmed Muhammad Al Khalifa
The Bursting out of Summer Abdalla Muhammad Jabr
The Fountain Ibrahim Al-Hadrani

Finding Useful Short Stories

Before discussing pairing short stories, I would like to highlight three stories which Omani students have reacted positively to. The texts all center on a younger and an older female character navigating the realistic life changes of growing up, making choices about preserving family history and growing older. These themes are familiar and important to many female students’ lives.

The first text is “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid, a very short story made up of series of commands from a mother to a daughter. It takes a bit of time to unpack, but when students finally understand the set-up, they are amused, especially when they were asked to write their own version, using the commands and advice they heard as a young child.

The second is “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker which is about a simple country woman whose two daughters, one who lives with her and one who has moved to the big city, fight over a family heirloom quilt. The city daughter wants to preserve the quilt by hanging it on a wall, arguing that the other daughter would simply ‘use’ the quilt and thus wear it out. The mother finally decides to let the daughter who lives with her keep the quilt. The students could relate to the issue of preserving or using family artifacts, writing about the Omani khanjar (dagger), mandos (wooden chest), gold necklaces, and dresses that were their own family’s treasures.

The third text is “Going to Shrewsbury” by Sarah Orne Jewett, about an old woman moving from the simple house she has lived in all her life to the big city to live with nieces. The narrator meets Mrs. Peet on the train as she is going to the city; the older woman is worried about her unexpected and unwanted move. This text starts all kinds of class conversations about care of elderly relatives, specifically those who wish to preserve a more traditional life vs. younger generations who advocate for city living and modern amenities. The story ends happily, with Mrs. Peet making a successful adjustment and becoming the beloved ‘pet’ of the nieces.

All three of these stories have the same quality: the situation of the characters is similar to the situation of female college students in the Middle East. Although the texts are set in a foreign culture and written in a foreign language, Omani students can easily relate to a young girl who listens to her mother’s commands, a woman who wonders how best to preserve cultural artifacts and how to take care of an older relative who can no longer live alone.

Pairing Short Stories

In choosing short stories to pair, one of the easiest ways is to find two stories with a twist ending. For example, teachers could use a well-known English “surprise” short story such as “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant or anything by O. Henry with the Emirati author Mohammed al Murr’s “The Wink of the Mona Lisa.” In these kinds of texts, students want to read to find out what happens at the end and are rewarded with an unexpected ending. In “The Necklace” a woman borrows and then loses a rich friend’s diamond necklace. She forces herself and her husband into poverty in paying for a replacement. When she has finally paid for the piece of jewelry after years of hard work, she discovers that the necklace was made of fake diamonds and her hard work had no purpose.

In “The Wink of the Mona Lisa” a boy at his sister’s wedding party falls in love with one of his sister’s friends because she winks at him; he (as traditional) sends his mother and sisters to meet her and her family; his mother begs him to pick another girl with closer ties to his family but he insists on his choice. The students enjoyed condemning the shameless woman for such blatant behavior as winking at a strange man, until the last paragraph of the story when the happy protagonist, wedded to the ‘wanton’ woman, finally confesses to his wife after the birth of their first child, that is was her wink that stole his heart. Startled, she thinks back to the night of her friend’s wedding, the new contact lens that hurt her eyes, and decides not to tell her husband that she never even noticed him that evening.

A sadder Middle Eastern “surprise” short story is “The Persian Carpet” by Hanan Shaykh in which a girl realizes her adored mother gave a carpet to her lover but blamed a poor man in the neighborhood. There are many stories which fit into this category and the teacher can stop the reading part way through the text and ask students what they think will happen. After students have finished both texts, they can compare and contrast how the authors built by the suspense and misdirected the reader’s attention.

Another way to pick two similar texts is to try to match the protagonist’s feelings or the general atmosphere of the texts, instead of the characters or plot. For example, the dissipated, world-weary view expressed in “Another Evening at the Club” by Alifa Rifaat is a good companion-piece to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” or his short story “Babylon Revisited.”  Similarly, “Love and Rain” by Muhammad Alwan about a boy’s failed attempt to impress a female classmate is the Arabic equal to James Joyce’s “Araby.”

A third way to pick two texts to teach together is to find an English short story and a Middle Eastern short story which have a similar metaphor. In Muhammad Al Murr’s two short story collections in English, Dubai Tales (2008) and The Wink of the Mona Lisa (1998) there are many descriptions of the dissolution of the traditional family life with the coming of oil wealth in the Emirates. One recurrent theme is that of cars, how the apparent motion of being in a vehicle is actually representative of a life that is stuck. For example, “In Transit,” is told from the perspective of a woman who becomes close friends with her female driving instructor, Laila. The emphasis is not on the narrator’s desire to learn how to drive (freedom as positive) but on her friendship with Leila who is “free,” i.e. without a family, but lonely and unable to sustain friendships (freedom as negative). Laila’s life is “in transit” – teaching women to drive but never at rest herself.

In Al Murr’s works, cars have a positive appearance but become traps, for example in the story “Road Accidents” in which a husband and wife are unhappily stuck in a car and “Pleasures of the Night” in which a man picks up a woman who he thinks is a prostitute but turns out to be mentally-impaired. This negative type of car imagery is used by other Gulf Arab writers, such as Abd al-Hameed Ahmad’s story “Khlalah SEL,” and can be taught in conjunction with Western writers who use the same kind of metaphor such as Louise Erdrich.

In Erdrich’s short story “The Red Convertible” the narrator’s brother, Henry, haunted by his life as a soldier in Vietnam, painstakingly restores his beloved car. The narrator, Lyman, and his brother had many adventures in his red convertible before Henry’s deployment but when Henry returns, he lives in a stupor. Lyman, in an attempt to bring his brother back to life, wrecks the car. Henry fixes it, but then kills himself. Lyman rolls the car into the river in which Henry has drowned himself. On the surface Al Murr’s stories and Erdrich’s story may appear to be very different, but the core metaphor is similar. Cars are usually a positive symbol of freedom and movement, but in these stories cars represent how characters are trapped in difficult circumstances.

Below please find Table 2 which gives further suggestions for pairing short stories.

Table 2 – Short Stories Suggestions

Theme Stories by Western writers Western Writers  Stories by Middle Eastern writers

(in English)

Middle Eastern writers
Car/ Freedom The Red Convertible Louise Erdrich

 

In Transit and Road Accidents, Al Murr; Khlalah SEL, Ahmad Mohammed Al Murr; Abd al-Hameed Ahmad
Surprise ending The Necklace, de Maupassant;

O. Henry stories, e.g. Love Medicine

Guy de Maupassant; O. Henry The Wink of the Mona Lisa, al Murr; Mohammed Al Murr; Hanan Shaykh
Dreaming of a better life The Secret Life of Walter Mitty James Thurber The Staircase, Sayyar (A) and The Discontented, Abouzeid (A) Ali Sayyar, Leila Abouzeid
Importance of nature The White Heron Sarah Orne Jewett I Saw the Date Palms (A) Radwa Ashour
Nature/ memory The Worn Path Eudora Welty The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid Tayeb Salih
Love Mr. and Mrs. Dove Katherine Mansfield Dancing by the Light of the Moon (LMA) Salih Saeed Ba Amer
Childhood love Araby James Joyce Love and Rain Muhammad Alwan
World weariness The Great Gatsby or Babylon Revisited F. Scott Fitzgerald Another Evening at the Club Alifa Rifaat
Time shifts The Swimmer John Cheever Half a Day Naguib Mafouz

Finding and Pairing Dramas

There are fewer plays in the Arab literary tradition than poems or stories. One way to find dramas for classroom use is to teach a play which is set in the Middle East, such as Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights. The language is not difficult, which makes the text accessible to English language learners, and some scenes have familiar Middle Eastern characters and scenarios, such as the vast wealth implied by a “wedding guest in all her jewels” (59). One of the advantages of the play is that several scenes teach morals, for example the plot of “The Forgotten Melody” was seen by students as both enjoyable and didactic, i.e. an amusing story with realistic underpinnings. After discussing the “Prince and the Tortoise,” several Omani students gave examples of how, when a man married a woman his father did not approve of, the daughter-in-law overcame her father-in-law’s disapproval with careful attention to him when he was sick.

A second way to find dramas to teach together is to find Middle Eastern authors who have reimaged Western stories. For example, The Arab Oedipus (Carlson 2005) collects four versions of the canonical Greek story written by Arab authors. Any of these four dramas could be taught in tandem with variations of the legend of Oedipus by Greek authors such as Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Euripides or Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus.

One drama from this book which is especially interesting is The Comedy of Oedipus by Ali Salim, a wonderful reimaging of the Oedipus story. In Salim’s version, Oedipus does not actually kill the Sphinx, but as the action happens out of sight of the citizens and the Sphinx disappears, he is celebrated for his achievement. Through most of the play, he wonders how he can tell the citizens, who hasten to buy “Oedipus Killed the Beast” action figures, that he never actually killed the Beast. At the end of the play, the Beast reappears and the citizens expect Oedipus to repeat his magic. When students read Sophocles’ and Salim’s versions of Oedipus, they can compare and contrast how the two authors approach this myth.

A third way to pair dramas is to find two texts with a similar theme, even if the settings and time periods are different. Plays, Prefaces and Postscripts of Tawfiq Al-Hakim (1981) has several thought-provoking plays. One that students have really enjoyed is Princess Sunshine because the drama has a serious theme which is leavened with many jokes. The play starts with Sunshine insisting that she choose her own husband. The man she chooses, Moonlight, takes her out of the castle with her disguised as a man. He teaches her how to work for herself, making dinner and living simply. They then catch two thieves and force them to return the stolen money to a Prince. At the end Moonlight leaves Sunshine to marry the “Prince” and continue to reform her country, as Moonlight continues on his way to teach other people his ideals of living simply and honestly.

Princess Sunshine’s theme of a woman deciding who she should marry and how she should live her life is similar to several plays such as Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare, Quality Street by J.M. Barrie (especially with the aspect of disguise) Lady Windemere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde and Arms and the Man by G. B. Shaw. Further, the pull between love and country (as Sunshine and Moonlight fall in love, but he convinces her to stay and spend her life helping her country) make it a great companion to, for example, Sophocles’ Antigone.

In addition to light-hearted plays, Al Hakim also wrote serious pieces, for example, the drama Death Song. This drama is about a man who returns to his village to discover that his mother expects him to carry out a revenge murder. He refuses, and his mother then has another man kill her own son. The theme of whether or not to revenge an insult is similar to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This gives students a chance to discuss and analyze the author’s and their own opinions about the necessity and righteousness of vengeance.

Below please find Table 3 which lists these suggestions for pairing dramas.

Table 3 – Drama Suggestions

Theme Plays by Western Writers Western Writers Plays by Middle Eastern Writers

(in English)

Middle Eastern Writers
Revenge Hamlet Shakespeare Death Song Tawfiq al Hakim
Female protagonist – duty to country Antigone Sophocles Princess Sunshine Tawfiq al Hakim
Female protagonist – making decisions about her own life Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare Princess Sunshine Tawfiq al Hakim
Quality Street J.M. Barrie
Lady Windemere’s Fan Oscar Wilde
Arms and the Man G. B. Shaw
The role of fate Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus Sophocles The Comedy of Oedipus Ali Salim

 

Teaching Paired Texts

Once a teacher has found two accessible and relevant texts, the method of teaching depends on the kind of class. If it is a language class, teachers will concentrate on vocabulary and grammar; in literature classes, teachers will use literary terms such as “narrator,” “setting,” “characters,” and “plot.” When comparing the two texts, the teacher will help the students see what is similar and what is different. This analysis can then be used as the basis for compare/ contrast essays depending on the level of students. Teachers might also divide the class in two and give one text to one half and the other text to the other half. Each group of students can study their text, then explain it to the other group. Then they can work together to figure out what the similarities and differences are.

Because poems are the shortest and easiest to read, pairing poems is more suitable for lower level classes or classes which are only one hour. Working with short stories should be reserved for students who are at the beginning intermediate level; the class time will usually take 2 or 3 hours. Comparing dramas should only be done with higher level language students and the class time will be more than 10 hours to read, understand and compare the two texts.

The benefits of teaching paired texts are numerous. Students can increase their vocabulary in a more interesting way than simply memorizing lists of words. If the teacher has found poems, stories and dramas which have a connection to the students’ world, then they will be more engaged in reading and understanding. Further, having two texts to work with means student will have a chance to use higher order thinking skills such as comparing and analyzing.

Conclusion

Teachers who choose accessible (at the student’s level) and relevant (of interest to students) texts will discover that students will be more engaged and interested in reading. Students feel more comfortable reading texts which are familiar to them, but teachers also need to expand students’ horizons with information from different settings and cultures. An easy way to accomplish this is to use one familiar text from the student’s own culture, and one from a new culture. Sometimes teachers do not have information about texts in different cultures, so this paper has given specific examples in the three genres of poems, stories and dramas. This paper is in no way definitive guide to all texts that can be used as there are endless possible combinations of texts, but this paper illustrates ways in which teachers can choose similar texts. The list of references is divided by genre and includes all the texts mentioned in this paper, as well as further suggestions to help inspire teachers to discover new texts on their own.

 

References

Examples of Middle Eastern Authors: Poetry – single author

Elmusa, S. (2008). Flawed landscape: Poems 1987-2008. Northampton, MA: Interlink.

Kahf, M. (2003). E-mails from Scheherazade. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Kabbani, N., trans. (1999). Arabian love poems. (B. K. Franieh and C. R. Brown, Trans.). London: Lynne Rienner.

Mersal, I. (2008). These are not oranges, my love. Riverdale, NY: Sheep Meadow Press.

Nye, N. S. (2002). 19 varieties of gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. New York: Greenwillow.

Williams, D. (1993). Traveling mercies. Cambridge, MA: Alice James Books.

Examples of Middle Eastern Authors: Poetry – anthologies

Charara, H. (Ed.). (2008). Inclined to speak: An anthology of contemporary Arab-American poetry. Fayetteville, AK: The University of Arkansas Press.

Fadiman, C., J. Major, and K. Washburn. (Eds.) (2000). World poetry: An Anthology of verse from antiquity to our time. New York: W.W. Norton.

Farrin, R.. (2011). Abundance from the desert: Classical arabic poetry. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Hammond, Marlé. (2014). Arabic poems: A bilingual edition. New York: Knopf Everyman’s Library.

Handal, N. (Ed.). (2001). The poetry of Arab women: A contemporary anthology. New York: Interlink.

Nye, N.S. (Ed.). (1996). This same sky: A collection of poems from around the world. New York: Aladdin.

Sells, M. (Trans.). (1989). Desert tracings: Six classic arabian odes by Alqama, Shanfara, Labid, Antara, Al-Asha and Dhu al-Rumma. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Examples of Middle Eastern Authors: Fiction

Al‑Murr, M. (1998). “The wink of the Mona Lisa” and other stories from the Gulf. (J. Briggs, Trans.). Dubai: United Arab Emirates: Motivate Publishing.

Al-Murr, M. (2008). Dubai tales. (P. Clark and J. Briggs, Trans.). Dubai: Motivate Publishing.

Husni, R. and Newman, D. (Eds.) (2008). Modern arabic short stories: A bilingual reader. London: Saqi.

Johnson-Davies, D. (Ed.). (2006). The anchor book of modern Arabic fiction. New York: Anchor Books/ Random House.

Johnson-Davies, D. (1994). Arabic short stories. Berkeley: University of CA Press.

Kaldas, P. and Mattawa, K. (Eds.). (2009). Dinarzad’s children: An anthology of contemporary Arab American fiction. Fayetteville, AK: The University of Arkansas Press.

Kamal, M. (1999). Juha: Last of the errant knights. (J. Briggs, Trans.). Dubai: Motivate Publishing.

Lyons, M., Trans. (2014). Tales of the marvelous and mews of the strange. London: Penguin.

Examples of Middle Eastern Authors: Anthologies of Poetry and Fiction

Allen, R. (1998). The Arabic literary heritage: The development of its genres and criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Akash, M. and Mattawa, K. (Eds.). (1999). Post-Gibran: The anthology of new Arab-American writing. Klagenfurt, Austria: Kitab. Published in USA in Jusoor, 11 & 12, distributed by Syracuse University Press.

Bushrui, S. and James M. (2105). Desert songs of the night: 1500 Years of arabic literature. London: Saqi.

Jayyusi. S. K. (Ed.). (1988). The literature of modern Arabia: An anthology. London: Kegan Paul International.

Irwin, R. (2002). Night and horses and the desert: An anthology of classical arabic literature. New York: Anchor.

van Gelder, Geert Jan. (2013). Classical arabic literature: A library of arabic literature anthology. New York: New York University Press.

Dramas

Al-Hakim, T. (1981). Plays, prefaces and postscripts of Tawfiq Al-Hakim, Volume One. (W. M. Hutchins, Trans.). Washington D.C.: Three Continents Press.

Carlson, M. (Ed.). (2005). The Arab Oedipus: Four plays. New York: Martin E. Segal Theater Center Publications.

Zimmerman, M. (2005). The Arabian nights: A Play. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Additional Suggestions

Risse, M. (2019, October 7). “Teaching Literature on the Arabian Peninsula,” Anthropology News website. http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2019/10/07/teaching-literature-on-the-arabian-peninsula/

Risse, M. and Miriam Al Sabbah. (2017). “Don’t Be Afraid of the Novel: Austen for ESL Students,” Proceedings of the 16th Oman International ELT Conference. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2017, 28-35.

Risse, M. (2016). “Writing prompts to facilitate creativity and interesting texts,” Proceeding of the Oman 15th International ELT Conferences. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 46-52.

Risse, M. (2014). “Selecting the right literary texts for Middle Eastern students: Challenges and reactions,” in Focusing on EFL Reading: Theory and Practice. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Sultan Qaboos University Press, 165-188.

Risse, M. (2012). “Do you know a Creon?: Making literature relevant in an Omani university,” in Literature Teaching in EFL/ESL: New Perspectives. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 302-314.

 

 

Differences/ Hierarchies

I have no fear of bugs and love camping because of the time I spent in the Caribbean as a child. The geography of Salalah also reminds me of the Caribbean island I knew because Dhofar, uniquely on the Arabian Peninsula, has a summer monsoon season (called Khareef, the Arabic word for ‘autumn’) which brings in 3 months of rain/ drizzle. Salalah has farms with coconut, papayas, mangos, bananas and limes. Many houses have gardens with bougainvillea, hibiscus, and oleander like houses in the Caribbean.

But beyond the physical remnants of the island, there is a psychological and intellectual level. Steve Caton’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Film’s Anthropology (1999) struck a deep chord with me in terms of how the “theme of the outsider, of the individual who does not feel comfortable in his or her own society” from the film resonated in his own life and in the lives of many anthropologists (145).

When I read Abu-Lughod’s question from “Writing Against Culture,” “Does difference always smuggle in hierarchy?” (1991 146), my answer is ‘not if you don’t want it to.’ I disagree with the cliché that anything that makes a difference makes a division.

Abu Lughod states that it is part of “anthropological discourse to enforce separations that inevitably carry a sense of hierarchy” (1991 138). Further, “self is always a construction, never a natural or found entity… the process of creating a self through opposition to an other always entrails the violence of repressing or ignoring other forms of difference” (140). In a later article she argues that “a difference between self and other will always be hierarchical because the self is sensed as primary, self-formed, active and complex, if not positive. At the very least, the self is always the interpreter and the other the interpreted.” (2008 13). Or put another way, “Can we think of a difference without putting it against a norm?” (Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen 1999 29).

I think we can. I think people can code a norm as a norm for only ourselves and recognize that it is/ should not/ must not be the norm for anyone else, hence a norm without prescriptive power.

Given my background, I don’t believe that the hierarchy is an essential part of discussing cultures. I loved our island and cordially hated Columbia, the town I grew up in, but even as a child I couldn’t say that one ‘culture’ was better or worse than another – they were merely different. I have spent almost sixteen years living overseas in four different counties and have lived in seven different American states, I can’t rank any of those cultures into any kind of hierarchy.

When I hit a cultural aspect that’s difficult for me – the question is ‘why is this hard to deal with?’ The fact that you have to pay for garbage to be taken away in Vermont was annoying because I didn’t have extra cash. The fact that you don’t in North Dakota doesn’t make one state better or worse – it simply means to you have to think about all sort of factors such as cost of land, location of land-fill sites, tax burdens, ground water supplies, price of gas, cost of maintaining garbage trucks, etc. People may, or may not, always be partial to their own culture, but refusing to say, “My culture is best” is an intellectual choice. It’s impossible to say that a grilled cheese sandwich at noon is a better lunch than rice and mutton at 2pm.

Except for physical harm, most constructs that are deemed “better” simply need to be picked apart and analyzed for how that construct fits into larger issues. For example, Dhofari families with small children are often restaurants at 10pm. This is soemtimes  viewed by expats as bad child-rearing. But strict and early bedtimes in America, for example, are linked into to a host of other physical and mental cultural features.

Children have an early bedtime in America because there is a cultural understanding that children and adults live on separate time schedules and do different activities. In the States it is common for children to eat different things at different times than adults. Children often have their own room, so they can be put to sleep separately from adult sleeping spaces. Parents may often not have seen each other since the morning and might welcome an hour or two of peace and quiet to watch TV or talk.

In Dhofar, children and adults live in the same rhythm, for example, eating the same food at the same. In Salalah, adults who work and school-age children get up early, but for others it’s normal to rise at 9 or 10 am. Omanis eat lunch at home, so there is two to three hours space for parents to talk in the middle of the day. Everyone takes a nap after lunch so people are refreshed for staying up late. Thus, families with children are often seen eating in restaurants, shopping or picnicking at ten or eleven at night.

 

Aunt Alice

My Aunt Alice passed away a few weeks ago. She was my mother’s older sister and lived in Wisconsin her whole life. She married a farmer, Bob, and raised six children on a farm. When I was in middle school I spent part of two summers living with her family and my grandparents, who lived a few miles away. She had the calm kindness of a woman who made her life looking after her family and her neighbors.

My aunt was the kind of woman who would pitch in to help and bring a casserole to those in need, which might not sound like much until you are the person in need and then Aunt Alice would be exactly who you would want to see. I never saw her deliberately mean to any person. She gardened, she read, she cherished her family and friends.

When my students say “America” they think of New York City. When I think of America, I think of driving a rental car from Madison or Minneapolis to northern Wisconsin to visit my aunt, my grandparents and the “Wisconsin cousins.” The road would start in the tangle of city streets and gradually the buildings would thin out and there would only be sky and gentle rolling hills, cows in pasture and rows of corn in summer and snow-covered fields with tree lines in winter. Small towns full of people growing the food that everyone eats, taking care of the cows which produce the milk that everyone drinks. Areas referred to by coastal people as “the flyover zone.” One trip was, by chance, on July 5th and flags fluttered from the infrequent farm houses and shops. That’s “my” America.

Part of the reason I can live here is because my life in Salalah reminds me of the life I saw in northern Wisconsin and Grand Forks, ND:  men and women who are quietly competent, who don’t need to make a big deal of what they know. In photos, her children and grand-children always stand with a little space between them, as if to show “we’re here together but not encroaching.” “We are glad to be together” the photos seem to say, but no need to make a fuss about it.

I visited Wisconsin infrequently after I graduated from UW-Madison and then I have lived overseas for 14 years. But I always sent Aunt Alice postcards – happy to think of her reading my notes in her kitchen and, later, in the assisted living home where she lived. She always wrote long Christmas cards, full of family news and what she was reading.

Aunt Alice lived a quiet life without fame or glory. She is one of the few people I know who are assured to be in heaven. If she isn’t there, then it’s not the sort of heaven for me. I can just picture here in line to talk to St. Peter with a “Well now, hello, isn’t this nice?” and chatting away with gentle small-talk with everyone else in line. And I can see her walking through the Pearly Gates and immediately inquiring if there is anything to be done, checking out celestial gardens, perhaps circling quietly around to find a favorite author, peeping though clouds to check on her family. She was an anchor for me and I am sorry she is gone.

 

My Job

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

 

It’s possible for someone to be your mentor without every meeting them. Over ten years ago, when I started to do anthropology research, I found articles and books by Lila Abu Lughod and realized that she set the standard I wanted to emulate. Now a professor at Columbia University, she did research among the Awlad’ Ali tribe in Egypt for years, writing numerous articles and books which make the women come alive as complex, thinking, reasoning beings.

When I first read her work, I had a profound sense of relief – HERE was someone, finally, writing about Arab, Muslim, tribal women who were not passive, oppressed cardboard figures but real women who experienced emotions, trying to create a good life for themselves and their families. The women in her work are like the women I know here.

Her Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (1993/ 2008) is brilliant: section after section of real people talking about real life. One part that stands out for me is her writing about an older married man talking with his first wife, and later private conversations with each one about the changes in their lives when he married again. Abu Lughod lets the couple speak; she shows the short- and long-term effects and costs of multiple marriages on all the people involved and how the effects change over time. It is a nuanced, heart-breaking discussion of polygamy, how different people think different things are important at different times and she shows the cost to the husband. This section, and all her work, stand in contrast to so much lazy, sloppy, overheated and stereotypical writing about Muslim and Arab people who have never spent significant time in the area.

So I was stunned when I went to a conference and another woman on my panel made a dismissive remark about her – how could an Arab, Muslim woman disparage Abu Lughod, who has dedicated her life to understanding and helping others understand the lives of Arab, Muslim women? I talked to the woman for a while, trying to get to the root of her anger. She explained that she felt Abu Lughod was being used by traditionalists to show that Arab, Muslim women are happy and they have all their freedoms (i.e. there is no need for change and/ or reform in terms of women’s lives and choices).

I countered, as I can’t address how traditionalists/ conservationist are using Abu Lughod’s work, that she has spent her life articulating the lives of Arab, Muslim women. But therein lay another problem. The young academic felt that Abu Lughod had positioned her work towards non-Muslims, non-Arabs rather than working for increasing women’s freedoms in the Arab world.

I couldn’t think of a way to argue back because the statement which came to mind [“It’s not the responsibility of all women to fight the fight you are most interested in”] sounded too curt, so we agreed to disagree.

At the same conference, another Muslim, Arab woman took issue with a statement I made that it’s not my duty to make my students “modern.” I was speaking about trying to find texts that fit within the conservative worldview of the area where I teach; the woman suggested that I put modern novels (about social change) on my syllabus even if I don’t discuss them in class. I responded that it wasn’t my job to teach works with aspects (alcohol, adultery, etc.) that were not acceptable in the local culture. She countered that it was my job to open my students to new/ modern/ open ways to thinking. I laughed and said that as an American Christian, some students and some of their parents are already nervous that I might try to push a political or social agenda in my teaching and “It’s not my responsibility to change my students.” That conversation also ended in a strained silence.

As I wrote in an earlier essay, the image that comes to mind is the velvet rope blocking off the entrance to a room in a museum. The tour guide slips under the rope and shows off the treasures of the room, explaining their history and importance while the tourists stay outside, looking in. Against the colleagues who believe that Westerners should ‘liberate’ the students, I believe my job is to show that there are different ways to live and different ways to believe. The presentation should be honest but neither cheerleading (we do it better!) nor insulting. The tourist/ student should learn about different cultures but not feel pressured to adopt the manners and customs depicted, in the same way that I see Omani culture but am not able to enter fully as I am not Muslim or Arab. If the tourist/ student wants to change, that is a personal choice, not the responsibility of the tour guide.

When I worked at MIT, I went to a lecture by Noam Chomsky. During the question period, another person in the audience asked what could he (we) do about the persecution of the Falun Gong in China. Chomsky said, “Nothing.”  He continued by explaining that we weren’t there. A person can only work honestly and effectively in the place where they are.

The two Arab women I met at the conference had ideas and strategies that were effective from them where they are, but they would not work for me where I am, or for Abu-Lughod where she is. She specifically addresses these issues in a recent article [“The Cross-publics of Ethnography: The Case of ‘the Muslimwoman’,” American Ethnologist Nov. 2016].

Time and time again in her writing Abu Lughod argues that:

others live as we perceive ourselves living – not as automatons programmed according to ‘cultural rules’ or acting out social roles, but as people going through life wondering what they should do, making mistakes, being opinionated, vacillating, trying to make themselves look good, enduring tragic personal losses, enjoying others, and finding moments of laughter (Writing Women’s Worlds 27)

My students and the people I write about in my research are people who live valid lives and make valid choices – it is not my job to change them. It is my job to listen carefully and speak honestly. In teaching, I should find interesting, relevant texts and give assignments that allow students to express their own opinions and improve their language skills. In my research, I should observe as accurately as possible, ask questions and write only after reflection and double-checking. That’s my job.

Living Expat – Dressing, Covering, Swimming, and Mutual Respect

In all my twelve years of living here and two years of living in the United Arab Emirates, I have never been harassed, insulted, frightened, much less attacked, by any Omani or Emeriti for being American or a Christian. Devout Muslim friends, neighbors and colleagues wish me “Merry Christmas” and I say, “Thank you.” I wish them “Eid Mubarak” and “Ramdan Kareem” and they say, “Thank you.”

Likewise, I have never been made to feel different or foreign or wrong because I was wearing clothes which were normal in my culture. Because I choose to live and work here, I do make the small adjustment of wearing clothes that cover my knees and shoulders when teaching, but I wear the same clothes I wear when I’m in the States: JJill, Fresh Produce, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, and April Cornell.

When I visit Omani friends at home, I wear what they are wearing out of respect. It is a simple adaptation like taking off my shoes before I walk into a friend’s house, learning to eat with my hands, shooing my cats out of the living room if a friend who is allergic comes to visit or not eating ice cream sundaes in front of a friend who is dieting.

In Omani houses, I wear an abayah (the long loose black cloak that women wear on the Arabian Peninsula) with a black headscarf or a dhobe (the long, loose, patterned cotton dress local women wear) with a lossi (a matching, light cotton headscarf). At first it was a little difficult to maneuver surrounded by almost 4 yards of fabric, but I learned how to gather up some of the extra while walking up stairs and to arrange my lossi to stay neatly in place, something akin to learning to French-braid my hair in middle school.

During Ramadan, I also wore a headscarf during the day out of respect for the culture and I was interested to see how it would feel psychologically to cover. In Oman, unlike some Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, abayahs and headscarves are not required by law for daily life. Most women wear them because of personal beliefs and/ or traditions.

Some abayahs are very loose and plain black, some are black with colored decorations, some are colored (often navy blue or beige) and some are worn like an open cloak showing the jeans or skirts worn underneath. Some women wear tightly wrapped, plain black scarves, others wear colored scarves or have the scarf resting on their shoulders. Some women have suggested non-Muslim women should wear headscarves as a show of solidarity. I don’t agree with that, as not all Muslim women believe it is necessary to cover their hair.

The first time walking into the mall with a colored headscarf was tough – I felt self-conscious and hypocritical. I am in the mall usually once a week, reading at my café or shopping, and to walk in with a headscarf made me feel like I was playing a game.

When the Omani men in my research group saw me wearing a headscarf for the first time, they would smile, nod, make a quick comment and then ignore the issue; no one ever pressed me to wear a black sheila (headscarf) or abayah. It probably took me six or seven times wearing the headscarf in public until I became comfortable with it; then the only issues were finding scarves which co-ordinated with my clothes and were the right fabric weight, not too heavy or stiff.

My big insight about wearing a headscarf is that it gives you something to do. Standing in the grocery store trying to decide which spaghetti sauce to buy, I reach up, tighten, adjust, and smooth it down. Fussing with the scarf became a habit, a micro-control fidget, like men straightening their tie or shooting their cuffs. It’s a little uncomfortable when it’s hot and humid outside, but very helpful when I’m in a room with the AC on full blast. It’s another 2 minutes of getting ready time as I pull out my tiered hanger with 15 scarves and try to figure out which one looks best with my outfit.

When Ramadan ended, I went back to uncovered hair during the day but I still wear scarves when I see my Omani female friends at home. The result was I put a piece of fabric on my head and it was sometimes a little hot but that’s about it. I did not feel more religious, or less religious, or any particular change. I am a Methodist by baptism and by my own choice when I was in my 20s. Neither my religious devotion nor personal beliefs are diminished or altered by having a piece of fabric on my head. I didn’t feel closer to God – I didn’t feel farther away from God. I don’t believe God enjoins me to judge other people by what they have on their head or their body.

Most Sunday and Tuesday nights I go swimming with 60 or so Arab, Muslim women wearing burqinis. I first learned to swim in a public pool with a Red Cross instructor and over my 50 years I have swum in the Wilde Lake village center pool in Columbia MD, the Old Red Gym at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of North Dakota pool when it was negative 10 outside, Canadian lakes, MIT, the Atlantic Ocean at Ocean City, and Tacoma, WA.

The women who swim at my pool now are just like the women I have swum with at all those other places, only they are wearing a bit more clothing. They are in swimming pants or leggings with short or long-sleeved tops as is consistent with the conservative culture, but no one has ever told me that I have to wear what they wear. I am a life-long feminist but I don’t believe my feminism allows me to dictate someone else’s feminism. The women at the pool and my Omani women friends (college-educated, multi-lingual, who work and have traveled/ lived abroad) don’t feel comfortable exposing their body to other women, much less men. Who am I to argue that with them?

When I go swimming, I get lots of smiles, waves, friendly glances and “hellos” from women I don’t know. In almost a year of twice weekly visits to the pool I have never received a harsh word, much less a lecture, on my bright blue Land’s End swimsuit. We all exercise mutual respect for different customs and religions while we exercise our bodies. And then we will go home happy.

The Beauty of Beau Geste

My first semester in Oman I didn’t read anything except texts for classes. I simply couldn’t get ahead of class preparations as there was so much to learn, process, translate and understand. When I lived in Boston I always had a book to read on the T (metro) so I started to carry Gulliver’s Travels with me when I left the house in Salalah. I finished it piece-meal: working through it while waiting at the phone or electric company, standing in line to pay a bill or at the grocery store or waiting for meetings to start.

Gradually, as I settled, I started back in on fiction only to find, somewhat to my horror, that there was a reverse correlation to what I was teaching. In Boston, I belonged to two book clubs at the Boston Athenaeum: Arcadia, Pale Fire, Invisible Cities, Passage to India, Trollope, Lolita, Racine’s Phaedra, Flaubert’s Parrot, The Movie-goer, etc.

Two different long-distance friends and I set up mini-book clubs; we would read the same book then make a phone-call date to thrash it out: The Forsyth Saga, Anna Karenina, Tristram Shandy, Herodotus, Brothers Karamazov, Reservation Blues, Tuchman, Tolkien, Wharton, various Greek and Latin dramas. On my own, I read all of Proust, most of Stendhal, Flaubert’s letters, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the first part of Autonomy of Melancholy. There were a few mysteries mixed in (Ian Rankin, Charles Todd, Barry Maitland and Julia Spencer-Fleming) and some Robertson Davies, but I reading mainly hard-core.

Then came Oman. The first non-class text I managed was Island of Sheep by John Buchan. Talk about a come-down. And worse: I really liked it. Restful. I remembered what I had tried to long suppress, that when I was teaching in the Emirates, I read all sorts of that type of late 1800s, early 1900s adventure books. Wordsworth Classics publishes “classics” for $3 each and living in Sharjah I read my way through most of Kipling, Beau Geste, H. Ridder Haggard, Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Last of the Mohicans, Prisoner of Zenda, Hound of the Baskervilles. Feeling guilty, I read the Post-Colonial Reader and Candide to make up for novelistic slumming. I tried to up-grade to C.S. Forester and The Three Musketeers but my heart was with Ivanhoe, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Lady Audley’s Secret.

In Boston, when I wasn’t teaching, I needed the intellectual challenge of good writing, but in Oman, teaching the “greats,” I drifted back into literary la-la land. After Island of Sheep, it was on to Greenmantle, The Children of New Forest, and Louisa May Alcott . I dabbled with a few travel writers (J. Maarten Troost, Chris Stewart, George Courtauld, and the always marvelous Mark Salzman) but my heart went back to the fluff: Beverly Nichols! The Green Archer! The Black Arrow! Swallows and Amazons! The Coral Island!

I have read almost every canonical book in English literature (Middlemarch is still out there), representative works from all stages of American, French and German literature, a sprinkling of translated works written in Spanish, Scandinavian langauges, and Russian. I am working my way through classical and modern literature written by Arab writers. Every semester I read several hundred pages of English and Arabic poetry and short stories looking for texts to teach, but after a nice dose of Persuasion, I sneak off with Gerald Durrell.

One summer, in the time before Kindles, I ran out of books a few weeks before the end of the semester. I couldn’t get out of town to the capital to restock and found nothing at the small English language bookstore in town but Clive Cussler. So I jumped, making it through three Cusslers and then several Douglas Preston/ Lincoln Child books.

Most modern literature leaves me cold. Everyone is suppressed and unable to be themselves. How damaging it all is. And everyone has a miserable childhood. Sigh. Of course you have a miserable childhood. That is the point. Either your childhood is miserable, or you think it is wonderful and realize later it was horrible, or it truly was wonderful but you later become miserable because nothing is as nice as your childhood. All three choices result in desolation; let’s not dwell on that.

And all these serious novels about people who lost themselves. Well really, how does one do that? You are there – there you are. How can you get lost? Modern novels always seem to be set in living rooms, airports, cafes, bars and uninteresting offices, grey carpeting, anguish, but no one is actually doing anything. Give me a sword-fight, tundra, cannons, water-falls, honor, wolf packs, revenge, frantic horse rides across the moors, palm trees, a leaky boat, pirates, tigers, someone mysterious and threatening in the hedgerows, snipers, tea thermoses, terror, floods, breaking the square, hip flasks. Let’s get to the 2-seater running out of fuel over the desert, let’s get to the polar bear attack.