Culturally Comfortable English

A new version of a popular English language textbook series designed to better suit Muslim students has received a mixed response among Syria’s teaching community.

Rim Talas, an English language teacher at a private language school in Damascus, has been using Oxford University Press’s (OUP) New Headway textbook series since 2004 to teach her students.

Recently, she switched to the new New Headway Plus edition, a version specially printed for Middle Eastern students. She had heard the new textbook was only slightly different from the international edition, but during the lesson she realised that while the changes were subtle, they gave the series a significantly different character.

While in the international edition, Adam and Beatrice meet in a bar for a drink, in the Middle East version they order coffee at a café. In a similar vein, in the New Headway book Andy and Carl discuss Paul and Mary’s whirlwind love affair; in New Headway Plus they chat about the striking appearance of Toronto’s CN tower.

“I was baffled by the amendments,” Talas said. “Syrian private schools are starting to introduce English language textbooks from abroad to teach their students to be open and now we get special versions for the Middle East. It’s ridiculous.”

Teacher input

The changes date back to 2006, when OUP released the first book in the New Headway Plus series for elementary level. Since then, two more editions have been released for pre-intermediate and intermediate learners. In May, a new edition for upper-intermediate students was released.

Judith King, publishing manager of the Headway Group, said the books had been amended to ensure all students in the Middle East feel comfortable using them.

“Teachers take a central role in developing our resources,” King said. “There were many teachers who wanted to use New Headway but who were not completely comfortable with some aspects of the course that they felt might be offensive to their students’ cultural norms. Therefore, we decided to create a ‘culturally comfortable’ version of New Headway for the Middle East called New Headway Plus.”

To accommodate a Middle Eastern audience, OUP replaced all references and photos of pork, alcohol and pubs with non-alcoholic drinks, halal food and other venues such as cafés, coffee houses and restaurants. Some of the artwork and photographs were also altered or replaced to avoid showing dogs, low-cut dresses, shorts and swimwear.

Texts dealing with issues the publisher considered contrary to Islamic cultural norms were replaced: a text on lotteries, with its implications of gambling, was deemed unsuitable for the Middle Eastern classroom, while a unit on dating and summer romances, as well as all texts referring to friendship between men and women, were dropped.

“This topic [dating] does not address the reality of most students in the Middle East, although some may find it interesting,” King said.

The number of songs used in the classroom was also reduced to one per level. According to King, the use of songs in the classroom does not have the same appeal for students in the Middle East as for their European counterparts. Consequently, OUP replaced many of the songs with poems or other types of text.

Not all changes were made with a view to soothing cultural sensitivities; OUP editors also added Middle Eastern cultural references, such as Arab names and historical elements to both the international and Middle East books in a bid to make them more global.

“When we analysed the countries mentioned in the international version, it was clear that the course could benefit from the inclusion of many other countries,” King said. “We made sure that Middle Eastern countries were among those added, so that this region was represented in the international arena.”

Varying opinions

Maher Abu al-Thahab, OUP’s agent and exclusive distributor in Syria, said he had suggested some of the changes made in the new version after the company approached him for feedback on the series.

“I suggested some of these amendments together with OUP’s agent in Egypt,” Thahab, who also serves as head of the Fateh Islamic Institute in Damascus, said. “We are conservative countries. Many of the Islamic institutes refused to buy the New Headway series because it featured photos of girls in low-cut dresses.”

Among teachers, reactions to the updated textbooks are mixed.

Islamic school teachers such as Huda Yasin are enthusiastic. “I found the changes very positive and respectful of the feelings of Muslims,” Yasin said. “I teach in an Islamic institute, so clearly cohabitation and love affairs are not the kind of topics that I want to teach my teenage students about. This idea is completely unacceptable in our society.”

Others are not convinced there is a need for a special Middle Eastern version of an English language text book. Critics say the alterations cater to the needs of a handful of Islamic institutes in Syria which by no means represent the majority of the country’s educational organisations.

“Studying English isn’t only about learning the language, but also about becoming familiar with another culture,” Hawwa Mamduh ‘Elico, an observant teacher who has been teaching staff at the State Planning Commission for the past four years, said. “I don’t agree with the idea of altering photos and subjects just because they don’t suit us. We should get to know British culture as it is.”

‘Elico found replacing photos and texts featuring dogs particularly strange. “According to Islamic teachings, one shouldn’t touch a dog because it is unclean, but that doesn’t mean you can’t even talk about dogs or look at photos of them. Dropping dogs from New Headway Plus’s curriculum allows further misrepresentation of Islam at a time when it is already the object of accusation and is linked to fundamentalism and terrorism.”

Talas shares ‘Elico’s worries. She believes such alterations reinforce the stereotype of Middle Eastern countries as closed and fundamentalist.

“Islam is not about hating dogs, separating women and men and marriages without love,” she said. “There are lottery ticket sellers all over Damascus and the bars and cafés are busy with couples having drinks and uncovered women and men socialising. You can’t lump all Syrians together, let alone a huge region like the Middle East.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

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