A beautiful poem for the beginning of Ramadan

“Red Brocade,” Naomi Shihab Nye

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.

Conference presentation: Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms

Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms, Dr. Marielle Risse

English Scholars Beyond Borders International Conference, Dec. 4, 2021

Outline of ‘Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms’

1 – Introduction

2 – Choosing texts

3 – Teaching strategies

4 – Short lessons

5 – Assignments

6 – Examples: “July” by John Clare and Philoketes by Sophocles

Introduction

The title of this conference is crossing borders and that is a good metaphor for discussing literature and language teaching because it’s easy for a language teacher to cross the border between disciplines and become a literature teacher. Language teachers read books, poems and dramas and understand the concepts of genre, narrator, metaphor, connotations, etc.

But for a literature teacher to cross the border in the opposite direction and become language teacher is much more difficult. I can tell you from first-hand experience that a literature teacher in a language classroom is a miserable and lost creature.

I studied German and French at university so I am well acquainted with the grammar of those two languages, but in English – explaining the difference between when to use the present simple and present continuous? Rules for doubling consonants when making a present participle? Forming nouns off of verbs by adding ‘y’? Conditional clauses? When I have to teach a grammar class and explain ‘count’ vs. ‘non-count’ nouns or the present perfect or when to use ‘for instance’ instead of ‘for example’ – painful!

But I need to do some language teaching in all my literature class. When I walked into my first Middle Eastern literature classroom at the American University of Sharjah more than 20 years ago, I had students from 15 countries with varying levels of English. I had to blend some language information into my discussion of texts so I made a series of changes in my teaching.

In this presentation I want to explain how I teach literature differently with English major students than with literature majors, concentrating on four main areas: choosing texts, teaching strategies, short lessons and assignments.

Choosing texts

I have several publications on how to choose appropriate texts for literature classes and my main point is that it is vital to pick a text that students can connect to in some way as they are already fighting language and sometimes cultural difficulties and differences.

Dickens has written many classics, but his diction is difficult and the recurrent theme of a child cast out from the family, in novels such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, create hurdles for understanding and appreciation.  

Whereas, my students have really enjoyed Beowulf’s and Sir Gawain’s lessons about protecting one’s leader and staying loyal to one’s family.

For Shakespeare, I choose the accessible plays such as Much Ado about Nothing, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry V with selections from King Lear and Macbeth. Not Julius Caesar or Merchant of Venice.

As 99% of my students are female, for other dramas, I often pick ones with interesting heroines caught between conflicting duties such as:

  • Alcestis, Euripides
  • Deanira, Sophocles
  • Antigone, Sophocles
  • The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
  • Lady Windemere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde
  • Arms and the Man, Shaw
  • Quality Street, J.M. Barrie
  • Our Town, Thornton Wilder
  • Princess Sunshine, Tawfiq Al Hakim

In terms of fiction, I use Jane Austen, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier to spark class discussion.

Teaching strategies – using scaffolding to create a strong foundation

reading aloud – every class, every student reads to improve pronunciation and enunciation

  • poem – one line
  • fiction – one sentence
  • drama – one character’s words

comparing narrative structures

For example, I give students the first page of an autobiography from an Omani writer and from an English writer and ask them to work in groups to figure out what is similar and what is different. English writers usually have exact dates, list full names of family members, give specific place names etc., while local writers give more general impressions. This leads to a discussion of how cultures tell stories and give opinions differently

comparisons with Arabic

  • using the evocative O = ya
  • starting sentences with verb, often used in Arabic but in English = command or question

Short lessons

word attack/ word meanings

  • homonyms – prey / pray – bear / bare
  • teach prefix/ suffix/ root – Latin and Greek – like: auto-bio-graphy

explicit grammar

e’en – ‘Tis – apostrophe for missing letter

explicit teaching of archaic speech

  • thou, thee, thy, thine
  • ye, yon, yonder, yore
  • -th ending for verbs like thinketh

explicit metaphor teaching

  • color metaphors – I’m blue, he’s yellow, I’m green
  • animals – monkey, positive and negative
  • objects – the moon (positive in Arab cultures, negative in North America/ Europe)

Assignments

recitation

helps with pronunciation, enunciation and emotion

acting

helps students use the language in a natural way

with so many essays on the internet, make assignments which check for understanding and are personal

  • compare character to someone you know
  • have a conversation with a character
  • explain the drama or novel with a friend, your mom, your husband and write a short paper explaining what you agree and disagree on – my mom thought…

supporting opinions with proof/ evidence to help get ready for IELTS and standardized English exams

‘Some people’ or ‘everyone’ vs. I think Alcestis made the right choice because I think…

Two examples

1 -teaching grammar, vocabulary and literary terminology through poetry

“July” by John Clare

Loud is the Summer’s busy song,

The smallest breeze can find a tongue,

While insects of each tiny size

Grow teasing with their melodies,

Till noon burns with its blistering breath

Around, and day lies still as death

The cricket on its bank is dumb;

The very flies forget to hum;

And, save the wagon rocking round,

The landscape sleeps without a sound.

The breeze is stopped, the lazy bough

Hath not a leaf that danceth now;

  • topic students can relate to – hot weather, sleeping in the middle of the day
  • metaphors and simile – Summer’s busy song, day lies still as death
  • alliterations – sleeps without a sound
  • expand vocabulary – breeze, tiny, melodies
  • double meanings – bank and dumb 
  • grammar – hath, danceth

2 – picking an interesting text so that students want to read and discuss

Philoketes by Sophocles        

This drama is based on one of the stories from the siege of Troy. On the way to Troy, the soldier Philoketes is hurt and his wound does not heal, so he is left on a desert island by Odysseus. After ten years of fighting against Troy, Odysseus is told that the Greeks will never win Troy without Philoketes and his magic bow so Odysseus goes back to the island,

Odysseus tries to play a trick, he stays hidden and tells a young soldier, Neoptolemus, to find Philoketes, become friends with him, and then convince Philoketes to allow Neoptolemus to hold the bow – then Neoptolemus will run to the boat with the bow and they will sail away, leaving Philoketes stranded.

The play works well because:

1) a lot of suspense – Will Odysseus’ trick work? it seems to, but at the last minute, Neoptolemus tells Philoketes the truth

2) themes of forgiveness and trust – Should Philoketes forgive Odysseus for leaving him on the island for 10 years? Should he trust that Odysseus will bring him back to his country?

3) connection to Omani society – The dilemma is solved when Hercules appears and tells Philoketes to get on the boat, that he will be safe. This highlights the importance of mediators, a very important part of Omani cultures; when two people are at an impasse, they should look for someone older/ wiser to both give advice and guarantee correct behavior.

(photo by S. B.)

Related publications

Risse, M. “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts,” in Advancing English Language Education. Wafa Zoghbor and Thomaï Alexiou, eds.. Dubai: Zayed University Press, 2020. 221-223.

Risse, M. “Ok Kilito, I Won’t Speak Your Language: Reflections after Reading Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language,” in Octo-Emanations. Carter Kaplan, ed. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2020: 233-236.

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

 Risse, M. and Miriam Al Sabbah. “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. “Writing Prompts to Facilitate Creativity and Interesting Texts,” Proceedings of the 15th Oman International ELT Conferences. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2016: 46-52.

Risse, M. “Selecting the Right Literary Texts for Middle Eastern Students: Challenges and Reactions,” in Focusing on EFL Reading: Theory and Practice. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2014: 165-188.

Risse, M.  “Frosty Cliffs, Frosty Aunt and Sandy Beaches: Teaching Aurora Leigh in Oman,” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 43.4, 2013: 123-145.

Risse, M. “Who Are You Calling ‘Coddled’?: ‘Cloistered Virtue’ and Choosing Literary Texts in a Middle Eastern University,” Pedagogy 13.3, 2013: 415-427.

Risse, M. “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, 2012: 302-314.

Risse, M.  “Using Local Voices in Literature Classrooms,” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Gulf Perspectives 9.1, 2012. http://lthe.zu.ac.ae/index.php/lthehome/article/view/71

Risse, M.  “John Clare Looks Good in a Dishdash: Linking John Clare to Middle Eastern Poetry,” John Clare Society Journal 30, 2011: 53-63.

Risse, M. “An Open Letter to Alice Walker,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Feb. 20, 2009: B11. http://chronicle.texterity.com/chronicle/20090220b/?pg=11#pg11

New essay: ‘Zhe is for Bijan’ on the Arabic alphabet website

New essay: ‘Zhe is for Bijan’ on the Arabic alphabet website

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/zhe/

http://alifbatourguide.com/

excerpt of ‘Zhe is for Bijan’

Zhe is the third of the four Persian letters that have been added to deal with sounds you won’t hear in Arabic. The sound of Zhe is the S of “measure,” the J of French (jupe, jour, bijou, jus), or the common mispronunciation of the hard J in “Beijing.” It is for indigenous Persian words still in use after the arrival of the Arabic alphabet, a glimpse of an earlier language. Today it also allows for proper transcriptions of words borrowed from European languages. Zhânvieh (through French) for January, Zhâpon for Japan. Dehkhoda’s massive Loghat-nâmeh, the OED of Persian, includes Zhen for Genoa, Zhâmâ’îk for Jamaica, Zhakobît for Jacobite. The last example may be a key to his political affinities.

The letter J is used for Zhe words in contemporary Turkish, though there aren’t many of them. There is less than a page of J words in Redhouse’s 1,292-page dictionary, most of them loans from French. Nine of them are on loan from Persian.

Household Words

Before Zhe was devised, you would just use Ze (Arabic Za’) and assume the reader would recognize the word from context, spoken but not visible on the page. And then sometimes pronunciation of Zh words would adjust to what the Arabic alphabet was able to express. Zhang, “rust,” became zang. Zhang still exists, with the same meaning, but you won’t see it often. If you look up zhang in a Persian/Persian dictionary the definition is likely to be zang.

Sometimes a Zhe word will evoke the substantial, resonant or sublime, as with the word zharf, “deep, profound.”  It’s a respected Zhe word, the only Zhe entry in A.K.S. Lambton’s shorter Persian Vocabulary. And sometimes a Zhe word will send us back to the heroic world of pre-Islamic chivalry, as in Ferdowsi, like zhubin, a spear.’ More frequently, though, the Zhe words which persisted over the evolution of New Persian, the ones that slipped through the 28-letter Arabic mesh, are the words closest to home, the intimate ones: household words, words for the ordinary, humble and non-heroic. Often you have to dig through those dictionaries which include the obscure and forgotten to find them. Zhakfar means patient, meek, mild. Zhakâreh is quarrelsome, squabbling. Zhan means deformed. (A cultured Iranian friend has never heard of the last three. It’s a good thing we have dictionaries.) Zhulideh, definitely still in use, is to be disheveled, tousled, scattered in the wind. Zhendeh, also a linguistic survivor, means old, worn out, frayed, or a patched garment. Imperfect things can be a source of praise too. Hair which is zhulideh is a source of fascination. Patches or patched clothes can be the clothes of someone who has taken a vow of poverty, a mystic. Zhendeh is a positive image, as you can see in a couplet of Hafez:

Chandân bemân ke kharqeh-ye azraq konad qabûl
bakht-e javân-at az falak-e pir-e zhendeh-push

[Stay as you are (or perhaps “be patient . . .”) until the sky’s patched blue (azraq) coat grants to you, though you are young, a spiritual elder’s patched robe (zhendeh).]

Bibliographies on topics connected to Dhofar, Oman

(photo by S. B.)

Bibliography of the Modern South Arabian languages, compiled by Janet Watson and Miranda Morris, updated October 2021

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/345983960_Bibliography_of_the_Modern_South_Arabian_languages_Compiled_by_Janet_Watson_and_Miranda_Morris

Bibliographies I have compiled

Houseways

Pre-historical and Historical Houseways in the Dhofar Region: Selected References

Foodways

Updated bibliography from my research on Foodways in Southern Oman

Selected Bibliography: Animals, Birds and Fish in Southern Oman

What I’ve Been Reading: Food, Cooking, Cuisine, Culture, Anthropology, & History

General

Bibliography of Works Consulted for Research on Dhofar, Oman

Annotated Bibliography of Texts Pertaining to the Dhofar Region of Oman

Short bibliography of books about Dhofar in Arabic

Teaching Literature

Selected Bibliography: Primary and Secondary Texts for Literature Teachers on the Arabian Peninsula

Foodways – other avenues of research

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

The good news is my book, Foodways in Southern Oman (Routledge), is now officially published. The bad news is, as every author knows, I keep finding topics I should have mentioned. Just today I happened upon: Of Dishes and Discourse: Classical Arabic Literary Representations of Food by Geert Jan van Gelder – what a great-sounding book! I will try to find a copy and read it.

I know there is a whole sub-genre in Arabic literature of personified ‘fights’ between different type of foods (munazara) for example “The Delectable War between Mutton and the Refreshments of the Market Place” featuring King Mutton and King Honey (or Clive Holes’ work “The Dispute of Coffee and Tea: A Debate Poem from the Gulf,” in Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Language and Literature, ed. J.R. Smart, 1996, 302-315). But I did not include a discussion of these as they seemed a little too far from my topic, as did poems about being a host/ guest such as Abu al Hakam Al Maghribi’s “A Domestic Disaster” which is too ribald to teach but is a good match with Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper.” Perhaps at some point I can look more closely at this type of writing.

I have also realized that I was never able to find government documents about the number of animals (cows, camels, goats) in Dhofar – that was on my to-do list, but got lost in the shuffle of work and dealing with corona. I also wanted to go to a fish market and meat market and write a lot more about cuts of meat/ types of seafood in terms of prices, how they are prepared and sold but the markets didn’t re-open until after the books was sent to press.

Another topic I want to reflect about more is cultural issues relating to TIME and PLACE of eating, i.e. [pre-corona] my surprise that many of my students do not eat or drink anything before coming to class while they are surprised to see me eating lunch at my desk (“Why don’t you have lunch at home? How can you eat in your office?” they wonder.) Or the surprise of me drinking or eating while walking, something that is not done here. Another difference is my habit of making a cup of coffee last over an hour, while most Dhofaris will finish their drink quickly. A small cup of tea is usually gone in three sips, while I nurse mine until it is cold.

Lastly, I wanted to do interviews with Dhofaris who made/ sold food on Instagram, at festivals and small stores. I have heard of one Dhofari man who opened his own restaurant where he not only supervised, but cooked. However, between the public and private mourning for Sultan Qaboos and the on-set of corona, spring 2020 was not the time to ask strangers to help with my research. I hope 2021 affords more chances to write, research, think and discuss about foodways!

y - meat rice and fruit

Foodways and Literature – Animal Poems

As I was looking for food poems last week, I realized how many animal poems I have taught and have written out a partial list below.

One starting place is the Mu’allaqa, most of which have many vivid descriptions of desert animals, for example in Imru al-Qays “Halt, friends” and Labid’s “The campsites at Mina.” Another group of early poems which feature animals are by the sa’alik poets; no one who has read Shanfara’s Lamiyyat (“Sons of my mother”) can forget the wolf metaphors.

“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Adrienne Rich

“Bear,” Valerie Worth

“Butterflies,” Fawziyya Abu Khalid

“Cat, Valerie Harper

“The Crocodile,” Lewis Carroll

“The Darkling Thrush,” Thomas Hardy

“Darwin’s Finches,” Deborah Digges

“December Snow,” May Sarton

“The Dromedary,” Archibald Young Campbell

“The Eagle,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“The Face of the Horse,” Nikolai Alekseevich Zabolotsky

“The Gazelle Calf,” D. H. Lawrence

“The Goat Paths,” James Stephens

“The Horses of the Sea,” Christina Rossetti

“How To See Deer,” Philip Booth

“The Last Wolf,” Mary Tall Mountain

“Minnows,” Valerie Worth

“A Night with a Wolf,” Bayard Taylor

“Not Swans,” Susan Ludvigson

“The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn,” Andrew Marvell

“Pangur Ban,” unknown, Irish

“The Plaint of the Camel,” Charles Edward Carryl

“The Poet and the Moth,” Ahmad Qandeel

“The Raven,”  E.A.  Poe

“The Seal’s Lullaby,” Rudyard Kipling

“Sister Cat,” Frances Mayes

“Snake,” Emily Dickinson

“Snake,” Valerie Worth

“The Terrapin,” Wendell Berry

“To a Skylark,” Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Turtle Came to See Me,” Margarita Engle

“Upon a Snail,” John Bunyan

“The Vixan,” John Clare

“The War God’s Horse,” unknown, from the Navajo

“The White Stallion,” Abu I-Salt Umayyah

and many poems by Mary Oliver including “Ravens,” “Swans of the River Ayr,” “Turtle” and “White Heron”

More of her poems can be found at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver

Short stories: “Pepsi” by Mohammad Al Murr, “A White Heron” and “A Dunnet Shepherdess” by Sarah Orne Jewett and all the Jungle Book stories by Rudyard Kipling

Foodways and Literature – Food Stories and Poems

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

I teach literature classes but my most recent book is on foodways, which might seem like two dissimilar topics but food is omnipresent in poems, stories and dramas so my students and I often have conversations that include foodways, literature and cultural differences. Explaining a reference to Persephone in a poem led to my telling the story of Demeter/ Ceres, which led to a conversation about cereals.

Sometimes I focus simply to the vocabulary aspect: explicating “civil as an orange/ and something of that jealous complexion” in Much Ado about Nothing or “cucumber sandwiches”  and “sugar tongs” in The Importance of Being Earnest. But occasionally food takes center stage as with the fishing with a sword scene in Tawfiq Al Hakim’s Princess Sunshine when the question of ‘who makes dinner’ helps carry the theme of the play. Another food-centered example is the dual breakfast scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. On our first run-through, it’s simply a confusing jumble of random statements. But when we have read it a few times and then ‘perform’ it with one student per character, the beauty (and sadness) of that section shine through. Students often remark, “it’s like that at my home.”

Some stories show cultural similarities, such as Laura bringing food to the widow in Mansfield’s “Garden Party,” but they can also show differences. Unlike in Oman, only Laura visits the house (not with her mother and older sister) and she only stays a brief time.

Another Mansfield story “The Doll’s House” uses food to give insights into the social standing of the schoolgirls – having a sandwich with meat shows wealth while a jam sandwich wrapped in newspaper points to poverty. Similarly, the social niceties observed in the dining room at the beginning of Room with a View preview the theme of the novel. Who sits at which table reveals the hierarchies which Lucy will eventually break.

Food issues can even be the comic element of a story as with Elizabeth Gaskell’s magnificent Cranford with its details of manage your cook, take care of your cow and why you should eat your orange in your room (so you can roll it under your bed to check if anyone is hiding there and then slurp the orange sections in private).

Food essays are also wonderful for sparking good student writing. “Jam” and “A Thing Shared” from The Gastronomical Me  by M. F. K. Fisher, “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” by Alice Walker are great example texts to help students see how to write about their own food experiences.

As for poems about food, we have to start with

“Talk,” Gökhan Tok

You never hear it

but at breakfast the sweetest talk

is between the jam and the honey.

and Naomi Shihab Nye’s wonderful “Arabic Coffee,” “My Father and the Fig Tree,” “Sifter,” “The Traveling Onion” and “The Tray.” For more, please see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/naomi-shihab-nye and https://poets.org/poet/naomi-shihab-nye

Other poems include:

  • “After Apple-Picking,” Robert Frost
  • “The Angler,” Thomas Buchanan Read
  • “The Bean-Stalk,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • “Blackberry-Picking,” Seamus Heaney
  • “Coolness of the Melons,” Matsuo Basho
  • “Cynddylan on a Tractor,” R.S. Thomas
  • “The [Date] Palm Tree,” Adnan Mohsin
  • “The Fisherman,” Goethe
  • “From Blossoms,” Li-Young Lee
  • “I Return to the Place I was Born,” T’ao Yuan Ming
  • “Love Poem With Toast,” Miller Williams
  • “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost
  • “The Solitary Reaper,” William Wordsworth
  • “Sorry I Spilled It,” Shel Silverstein
  • “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” Marge Piercy

A few food-oriented short stories include: “A Dash of Light” by Ibrahim Aslan, “I Saw the Date Palms” by Radwa Ashour, “A Cup of Tea” by  Katherine Mansfield and “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, as well as several by Mohammed al Murr including “A Late Dinner,” “The Night’s Catch,” “Look After Yourself” and my favorite: “Dinner by Candlelight.”

y - morning coffee

I am pleased to announce that my chapter “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts” has been published

Risse, Marielle. 2020. “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts.” Advancing English Language Education,  Wafa Zoghbor and Thomaï Alexiou (eds.). Dubai: Zayed University Press. 221-223.

“Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts” – This chapter focuses on a technique which increases students’ participation, creativity and analytical ability in literature and language classrooms. By teaching two texts in English 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 chapter 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 pass on their insights to students.

Click to access AELE_Book_ALLT_ZU_Web_V02.pdf