Introducing Uncertainty while Teaching Literature in the Middle East – 2007

Risse, M. “What to do After You Have the Right Answer: Introducing Uncertainty while Teaching Literature in the Middle East.” 2007 Conference of the National Association of Humanities Education, San Francisco. February, 2007.

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)


Teaching literature at a small college in the Middle East is a perpetual balancing act – how much to argue, how much to accept. My students come from a culture which stresses consensus opinions, so they bring culturally-supported moral and ethical convictions to Western texts. This leads to few uncertainties about literary interpretations.

My students, almost all of whom are the first in their family to go to college, are struggling not just with a foreign language, but foreign concepts about religion, politics and family structures. The most difficult aspect for me is that the teaching method most used in high school is memorization; the idea that there might be more than one explanation of a poem, or that the students might come up with their own ideas is new to them, sometimes threatening. I get a fair amount of “Tell me what I must know for the test” which I also heard when I taught in the States but here it has a different kind of urgency – they seldom have been asked to formulate their own opinion in a educational setting and it is frightening.

When I do get them to express their opinions, the discussion quickly slips into a cultural chasm. For example, Tennyson’s classic “Ulysses” is impenetrable both in terms of theme (an old man leaving his wife, son and home?) and references (have to explain the Trojan War). While reading Wuthering Heights, my students didn’t understand how Mr. Earnshaw could simply take Heathcliff – children without parents go to uncles or older siblings. It is inconceivable that if a mother and father both died, the extended family would not take the children in.

Then the undergraduates were not content with Catherine’s behavior. They understood that Heathcliff was “too low” for her to marry, and were well-acquainted with the concept of having to marry someone for the family’s sake but the students did not like that she loved Heathcliff but was marrying someone else. The men especially were clear about their displeasure.

Ok, what should happen, I asked. Simple. Catherine should go to Edgar Linton, ask him for money (which, in Omani terms, he had to give her because he loved her), she would give the money to Heathcliff so he could go away to become a gentleman. When he came back with money, he would repay Edgar, then marry Catherine.

And that is the moment when it all becomes problematic for me. Should I try to explain why this solution, perfectly in keeping with their culture, would not work in England? Should I compliment them on their ability to find the perfect answer? What am I trying to do here?

When one class read The Important of Being Ernest, I asked the students to write a page of dialog – using the same characters with the same personalities and circumstances – but set in Oman. A sample of what I received:

    • Algernon has spent the money he was supposed to buy furniture with and now his father will be angry. So he asks Jack to help him. Jack goes to the furniture store and buys Algy some nice furniture.
    • Jack offers Algy a bribe to leave the house, then bribes Merriman, the butler, to say that Algy/ Ernest was never there.
    • Cecily wants to go shopping but Miss Prism says that Jack would forbid it. So she stays home.

Do I celebrate their ability to make Jack, Algy and Cecily, those most English of scoundrels, Omani? Am I happy that they managed to translate Oscar Wilde into their own culture or do I prod them to re-produce Wilde’s world view? Should I try to rework religious and societal views of alcoholism (Reading Dickens is challenging because as soon as a character takes a glass of wine – he or she is categorized as a bad person. I am always tempted to skip the whole fight and explain that “sack, ” “Madeira,” and “stout” are kinds of fruit juice.) Do I take on the culture’s insistence on filial obligation and self-sacrifice? What constitutes a dialogue with fiction?

Teaching Western literature in the Middle East is an endless succession of these kinds of questions. My students suggested that at the end of Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, Chris Baldry should take Margaret Allington as his second wife. And if Kitty doesn’t like sharing her husband, she asks him for a divorce and goes back to her father. After all, her child is dead so there is no problem. She is still pretty; she can remarry.

It is refreshing to teach students who are so clear about how the world should be. I’ve never heard a student say “Whatever,” or “I don’t care.” They have the world perfectly divided: good people and bad people (those who drink, don’t obey their father, women who “go with men”) is it my job as a professor to try to shake that order? Given that you can’t deliver content divorced from theory, should I try to be an agent for cultural change? Should I pick texts for their familiarity or their strangeness? Can I justify cutting some Gulliver’s Travels to add Fanny Burney because the scene in which she turns down her poor, hapless suitor will entertain my women students, some of whom have been in the same sort of position.

When I, the only American professor at the college, was given the “Politics and Language” class to teach, I went running for the safety of Shakespeare, Henry V and Julius Caesar, with a little Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth Cady Statton and Susan B. Anthony. Women got the vote at the same time as men here so suffrage speeches are not controversial. Am I supposed to be controversial?

Teaching George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” my students instantly saw that Orwell in Burma equaled Americans in Iraq, although the Iraqis fought (as Orwell seems to say the “natives” should) instead of spitting. A few tried to bring up Saddam Hussein (still alive at the time) but that was one line I will not cross. When we got to Louise Erdrich’s “The Red Convertible,” about an American soldier who goes to fight in a foreign/ Asian country and loses his soul, my students knew and trusted me a little more and we did a delicate linguistic dance about the evils of imperialism, especially if it is attempted political imperialism. What happens to Henry (the brother who went to Vietnam, returns shattered and kills himself at the end of story)? Why does it happen? What is Lyman, the narrator, implying? What is Erdrich implying about power?

Part of the reason I am in Oman is to help translate America to the Middle East, and the small part of the Middle East that I know, to Americans. But in that process of explaining, I am continually faced with a solid wall of Omani culture expectations. All those classics of freshman debate classes: gays in the military, euthanasia, abortion, etc. are all decided by every person in the class in the same exact way (at least in public). There are very few parts of the culture which are simply traditional and not religious/ traditional.

In the States we have Thanksgiving, Halloween, Monday Night Football, casual Fridays, American Idol, Desperate Housewives, Howard Stern, Leno, Letterman, hating the Yankees, Oprah, Martha: many conversation topics that have no connection to any particular religion, geographic region or even politics.

Domna Stanton, in her Introduction to the latest Profession, the MLA journal, says,

we have become conscious of the imperial problem of speaking for others, no matter how well-intentioned we are, and we have tried to find alternatives-modes of identification and affiliation with others that require constant negotiation, a fundamental openness to revision, above all, a critical self-consciousness… We need to fashion a more collaborative vision of intellectuals working together across divides to effect social change in these inhuman times (9).

Working “with others” in the literature classroom requires a lot of patience, careful deliberation in picking battles and a sense of humor. I believe that reading literature, discussing the different cultures from which the literature arose, and the different ways to interpret characters and actions, will help my students when they leave university, find jobs and begin to navigate the different cultures that will arrive in their shops, streets and beaches, asking for a cold Diet Coke and wanting to know where the camel rides are.