Art Lessons

Students and teachers at Syria’s public arts academies say their programmes need to be overhauled.

Imad Habbab, fourth year student at the Damascus Faculty of Fine Arts - Photos by Fadi Hamwi

Imad Habbab, fourth year student at the Damascus Faculty of Fine Arts – Photos by Fadi al-Hamwi

Walking around the University of Damascus’s faculty of fine arts is like entering a rundown labyrinth. Sculptures, paintings and odd-looking metal objects are scattered everywhere. Peeling paint adorns the walls and cigarette butts cover the dusty stairs of the four-storey building. The haphazard physical appearance of the school reflects a similar situation in the curriculum.

Inadequate curriculum

Students and teachers interviewed by Syria Today criticised the curriculum of the three public universities arts programmes, noting their omission of contemporary arts, under-qualified staff and an overly general, rigid and one-size-fits-all programme.

“As the Syrian saying goes ‘a rose from every garden’, this is how the curriculum is. It erratically teaches students a little of everything without giving any depth to any of the subjects,” Zavien Youssef, a lecturer of painting at the faculty, said.

Youssef as well as many students suggested that each teacher should set up a workshop and students should be allowed to choose classes where they could practice several, individual art forms for four or five months.

The curriculum also fails to cover contemporary art. Students like Imad Habbab, who is in his fourth year, said they regret that their curriculum includes modern art history (art between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries) but none of the contemporary arts like new media arts. Although there is a new media artist teaching at the faculty of fine arts, she is restricted to teaching only what is in the curriculum, Habbab said.

“The earliest part of modern art history that we studied at the university is almost 100 years old. That is ridiculously old,” Habbab said. “The problem is that most teachers are old-fashioned artists and they know nothing about contemporary arts. This is why I don’t think it will be taught in the university any time soon.”

photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Under-qualified staff

Yamen Youssef, a sculptor and master’s student at the University of Damascus, argued that many professors are less qualified than they were when he was a student five years ago.

“During my time, many of the professors were well-known Syrian artists and art historians,” Youssef said.

According to Alaa Abu Shahin, an art teacher at University of Aleppo, the opening of private art universities during the last five years or so is the reason behind the lower quality of art professors in public universities. As a result, some teachers are forced to teach subjects for which they lack specialisation.

“Private universities attracted most of the big names,” Abu Shahin said. “It’s because they offer better salaries and jobs.”

Students also complained that the faculty does not provide the needed supplies for academic art studies – nude models, for example. Instead, students paint the likeness of the same two fully-dressed men and one female model during their four years of studies.

“We once had a veiled model,” Youssef, the sculptor, said. “How am I supposed to learn to sculpt muscles if I don’t have a nude model to copy? How could it be that today we only get to study artistic anatomy in theory while students in this very same faculty had nude models back in the ‘60s?”

To solve this problem, students said they paint each other, use human sculptures as subjects or pay to hire nude models.

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Rigid system

The faculty of fine arts functions under the Ministry of Education. So it follows a similar system as other faculties, which, in Youssef the sculptor’s opinion, is incompatible with fine arts. During the first year, for example, students have to study painting, sculpture, etching and graphic and fashion design. They can then specialise only in one area, but are selected for this specialty based on their marks in all courses. Fashion design requires the highest marks.

Also similarly to other universities functioning under the Ministry of Education, the faculty of fine arts has specific working hours. Because the buildings close at 2pm, students have little time to work on projects.

“In other universities where people have specific classes, it makes sense to have specific working hours, but when it comes to fine arts that simply doesn’t work,” Youssef said. “In the higher institute of music and theatre, students are free to use the studios to practice their music at any time during the day. It should be the same with fine arts.”

Despite the shortcomings of the University of Damascus’s fine arts’ programme, Abu Shahin said it is superior to the other two public fine art faculties in Aleppo and Suweida. He said the Aleppo faculty suffers from a shortage of professors, equipment and libraries. He argued that one of the main reasons for the shortage in staff is that none of the Syrian artists and academic professors – including those who originally come from Aleppo – want to teach in Aleppo, because it is too far from the capital and the country’s only developed art market. As a result, young teachers are overburdened.

“I am not an academic professor. I’m a recent graduate so I should only teach second-year students, yet I teach students in the second, third and fourth years,” Abu Shahin said. “At least in Damascus they have a larger number of teachers and academic professors. They visits museums and have gypsum sculptures to replace nude models. But in Aleppo we don’t even have that.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine. Download a pdf veriosn here.

Bridge of Time

The French mandate period left a lasting impression on Syria’s systems.

The Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, built in 1927 by the French construction company Fougerolle.

The Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, built in 1927 by the French construction company Fougerolle.

The highs and lows of the French mandate in Syria are immediately visible to any first-time visitor to Damascus.

The impressive, French-built National Museum – a first stop for any newcomer – highlights the period’s positive impact. Conversely, the domed roof of Souk Hamidiyeh was left punctured with its iconic bullet holes during the 1925 air raid combating a civilian revolt. The French response to the Syrian uprising killed 5,000 citizens and made Damascus, according to US professor and Middle East expert Michael Provence, the site of a dark legacy: the home of “the first civilian carpet bombing campaign ever”.

In addition to these and other visible vestiges of the period between 1920 and 1946 when France administered Syria through a mandate from the League of Nations, numerous intangible fingerprints touch Syrian education, law and culture.

More than 65 years since the French left Syria and the country became an independent Arab republic, the French legacy remains.

French-built apartment blocks in Damascus (top); buildings in Aleppo that were built either in the Late Ottoman period – when architecture began to be influenced by Italian and to a lesser-degree French styles – or during the French mandate (middle, bottom) photos by Adel Samara and Claire Duffett

French-built apartment blocks in Damascus (top); buildings in Aleppo that were built either in the Late Ottoman period – when architecture began to be influenced by Italian and to a lesser-degree French styles – or during the French mandate (middle, bottom) photos by Adel Samara and Claire Duffett

Educational impact

Every spring, secondary school students throughout Syria agonise over the Baccalauréat graduation examination that will determine their qualifications for attending university. During this time, newspapers print numerous stories about students committing suicide because of test anxiety.

Although after independence, the Syrian educational system was nationalised and the curriculum adapted from French into Arabic, certain trademark characteristics of education implemented by the French during the 1920s remain – most obviously the Baccalauréat.

“It remains a huge rite of passage – rightly or wrongly – that can define your entire future,” said Nadya Sbaiti, a professor of Modern Middle East at Smith College in the US. “That’s directly related to the French mandate for sure.”

Under the mandate, the Baccalauréat was implemented and eventually became the demanding ordeal that it remains today, after the French discovered that too many young Syrians were passing the test, Sbaiti explained. In order to reserve government and specialised professions – particularly medicine, law and finance – for French residents of Syria, the examination was made more difficult.

“The whole point was to prevent Syrians from going into these professions,” she said.

Today, the Baccalauréat has evolved, but it remains a high-profile filter that determines who can obtain an affordable education – with thousands more young people finishing secondary school annually than there are spots available at public universities.

Likewise, the French school in Damascus still provides lucky individuals with additional opportunities. While nationalised in 1967, it is an expensive, private-tuition institution to which only the most well-connected Syrian students have access.

“It’s definitely part of the elite culture,” said Randi Deguilhem, a France-based professor at the Institute for Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds. Wealthy Syrians and children of diplomats attend the school, she said, which is “a clear sign of socioeconomic status. It’s not just the knowledge [learned there] itself, it opens the door to economic opportunities.”

Villa Rose, a mansion in Aleppo built during the French mandate

Villa Rose, a mansion in Aleppo built during the French mandate

Legal tradition
Syria’s legal system – its foundations and some of its high-profile hallmarks – remain rooted in the country’s French background. Syrian law is derived from legislative statutes that follow the French civil law system.

French law first arrived in Syria long before the mandate period. In 1858, the Ottomans, who occupied Syria for 400 years through 1918, replaced its sharia-based legal system throughout its empire – as part of a push towards westernisation –with a criminal law system modelled on France’s, Farouk al-Basha, professor of law emeritus at the University of Damascus, explained.

Later, during the mandate, Syria also adopted France’s civil, commercial and administrative legal systems. While the changes made Syrian law clearer – going from complex sharia to straightforward statutes – according to Basha, a number of oft-criticised laws are derived from the French.

For instance, women under sharia had full citizenship. Only under the French were they stripped of full citizenship rights, Elizabeth Thompson, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and chair of the workshop on Muslim societies, explained. Women became subjects of their husbands and fathers and lost the ability to pass down Syrian nationality to their children. The latter is a restriction that persists until today in Syria, but was dismissed by the French in 1965.

Furthermore, the law granting lenient sentences for ‘honour killings’ – when men murder their female relatives over alleged sexual impropriety – can be attributed to the French system, despite the phenomenon often being attributed to conservative, eastern beliefs and assumed to be part of sharia. France delineated a now-defunct law in its 1810 criminal code which refers to ‘crimes of passion’, absolving men of responsibility for murdering a female relative if he catches her in the act of adultery. Basha explained that, in contrast, sharia stipulates that four sheiks must simultaneously catch a woman in the act of adultery – a virtually impossible scenario.

The Syrian government also learned a few extra-judicial habits from the French, argued US professor Provence. Syria’s long-standing emergency law, which suspends the constitutional rights of certain individuals, is in part modeled on the permanent presence of marshal law under the French mandate, he argued.

“The big vestige of the French mandate are the intelligence services and marshal law,” he said. “The Syrian government learned disregard for [some aspects of] the rule of law from the French.”

Thompson, the associate professor of history, agreed that various governments in the region learned disregard for citizens’ rights from their former administrators, saying: “Nation-building during occupation is profoundly anti-democratic.”

Cultural heritage
More than education and law, French culture is perhaps the most visible – and positive – mandate legacy in Syria today. Throughout March, the embassy of France and other French-speaking countries hosted the Days of Francophonie: a series of films, lectures, exhibitions and concerts. The French Cultural Centre in Damascus and the French Institute for the Near East are two of the most active cultural centres in the region, said Eric Chevallier, French ambassador to Syria.

“More than events, we have long-term relationships on various key issues,” he added, including academic exchanges with more than 3,000 students and a project for the Louvre in Paris to help upgrade the Syrian National Museum.

In academia, a number of Syria’s most prominent thinkers learned from philosophies that originated in France, Ghassan al-Sayed, vice dean of the Higher Language Institute at the University of Damascus, said.

For instance, the French literary schools of existentialism, deconstructionism, and idealism all influenced numerous high-profile Syrian writers, including the poet Adonis, the deconstructionist Kamal Abu Deeb and the Christian existentialist George Salim.

“All the Syrian thinkers studied in French universities in Syria during the mandate,” Sayed said. During the post-independence 1950s and 1960s, they traveled frequently between Damascus and Paris, and eventually established Syrian-flavoured versions of French philosophies, Sayed said.

For instance, existentialism argues that man is free to make his own choices and must therefore be committed to those choices, he said. The Syrian existentialists – noting the importance of community in their country – extended this idea, arguing that the philosophy includes an inherent choice to be committed to one’s fellow citizens.

He explained: “They took the French concepts and adapted them, in order to acknowledge the Syrian reality.”

This article was written by Claire Duffett in Syria Today magazine. I helped reporting about French influence on Syria’s legal system.

The Chance to Learn

Authorities are working to increase oversight of drought victims to ensure that children attend school. Challenges, however, persist.

Drought victims in Syria - photo by Adel Samara

Drought victims in Syria - photo by Adel Samara

Upon arrival at Sa’sa camp, set up by drought victims 50 kilometres south-west of Damascus, children ran from their tents, greeting outsiders with shouts of joy. They are used to posing for cameras and are well-accustomed to media exposure.

Away from the crowd of giggling children stood a 13-year-old girl with striking green eyes and tense features. Dalila al-Hamad said she was no longer interested in curious journalists. She had other concerns. School was in session, and for the fifth year in a row, she was not attending.

“I want to go to school and make friends,” Dalila said. Instead of studying, her parents instructed her to go and work on a farm, picking vegetables and carrying stones for a salary of SYP 250 (USD 5.43) per day.

Dalila’s parents would send her and her siblings to school if their poverty did not demand otherwise, her brother, Abd al-Razzak al-Hamad, said.

“We are a family of 10,” the 22-year-old Abd al-Razzak said. “Luckily, I managed to finish high school but my brothers and sisters couldn’t. Like all the other adults in the camp, my parents know how important it is for the children to study and get a diploma but they also know that unless the children work, we’ll all die of hunger.”

Loopholes in the Education Law

Education in Syria is mandatory through sixth grade and, if children leave school, officials are tasked with looking for them and returning them to the classroom. Parents who take their children out of school face penalties and even jail.

However, as the number of drought-affected families and immigrants increase, tracking the dropout of school children is becoming unfeasible. Loopholes in the law, bad planning and lack of awareness left hundreds of children out of schools in 2010.

As many as 60,000 drought-affected families have migrated from the Jazeera area to camps throughout Syria, according to a 2009 UNICEF report. Most families left their land in 2008 as a result of several consecutive years of drought.

According to Mohammad al-Masri, director of primary education at the Ministry of Education, the ministry’s branches in the Jazeera region of north-east Syria are responsible for tracking down children from drought-afflicted areas who have moved to Damascus and not the branches located in the capital.

“When the Hassakeh branch, for example, finds that children have dropped out, it is responsible for searching for them and then writing to other branches to take action,” Masri explained. If found, the children are enrolled in an intensive study programme in regular public schools, he said.

Divided families

Drought-induced poverty also breaks up family structures, another barrier to ensuring that children affected by drought are educated. Migrations make it difficult for the government to track the location of children and ensure that they are being schooled.

Aida al-Ali and her husband, who live in Sa’sa, own a 20-hectare farm back home in Hassakeh in the north-east. They abandoned it two years ago when it became too dry to grow crops. Because she has no means to support her children in the camp, last year she sent her two children, aged four and five, back to Hassakeh to live with their grandparents. Now, she struggles to feed her newborn baby.

“I want my children to go to school because I don’t want them to suffer the way I do,” Ali said. “The worst of all is that they are growing up away from me. I cry every day and pray for the rain to come and the diesel prices to go down so I can go back to my farm in Hassakeh and to my children.”

Educational barriers

Children living in camps who are able to attend school also struggle. Because they are displaced, the children have difficulties understanding their teacher’s dialect, Mohammad Ali al-Jadaan, an 11-year-old who moved with his family from Deir ez-Zor in the north-east to Sa’sa last year, said. Furthermore, school does not replace work. After they finish studying and on weekends and holidays, the children must work in the fields.

“I clear weeds with my brothers after school,” Jadaan said.

As he held his three-year-old brother on his hip, Jadaan explained proudly that his high grades at school earned him first place in his class. Yet when asked about his classmates, the bright-eyed boy’s face took on a look of concern.

“They don’t like me and they keep mocking me because I come from Deir ez-Zor and I live in a camp,” he said.

In addition to the language difficulties and an unwelcoming atmosphere, the living conditions in the camp cause health problems which prevent the children from attending class regularly.

“The tents are so thin that in winter children have flu every other day,” Abd al-Razzak al-Hamad said. As the only camp resident who can read and write, he said he is responsible for bringing the children to the hospital.

Aid Programmes

Attempts are being made to improve the lives of people impacted by drought.

On January 18, Tamer al-Hijeh, minister for local administration, put together a special group tasked with investigating the reasons behind the mass migration by drought victims and making field visits to camps and to the areas affected.

The Syrian government is also organising a special aid programme that provides food and water to farmers in the governorates of Hassakeh, Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Qamishle.

Once families migrate, however, they are no longer eligible for aid. Press officers at the Ministry of Agriculture said the purpose of this stipulation is to dissuade people from leaving their lands permanently and settling down elsewhere. With no official body responsible for those who are affected by the drought, Syria Today could not obtain official comment on this issue.

Even though aid is provided in Hassakeh, Abd al-Razzak al-Hamad’s said that life in the camp is better for his family.

“Back in Hassakeh, we only had running water every five days so we had to buy 25 litres of water from tankers for SYP 250 (USD 5.43). We didn’t have sanitation facilities either and we couldn’t find work and we had so many bills to pay,” he said. “At least here all the family members can work and we can manage.”

The constant demand to make ends meet, however, leaves children with little hope for an education that will provide them with future opportunities.

“Even though children who leave school for more than five years can still enrol in an intensive educational programme until age 18, it’s seldom the case that children who leave school return,” a teacher at a public school in Damascus said. “Once children enter the workforce, there’s no way back to school.”

A modified version of this article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Ready or Not (Syria’s new school curriculum)

The new curriculum has arrived in Syrian schools. Some are equipped to handle it while others are struggling to adapt.

Photos by Carole al-Farah

Students at Jameel Sultan school in Rukn el-Din, one of four public schools where the new curriculum was piloted last year.

With its beautifully-decorated, sunny classrooms, movable furniture and equipment for conducting science experiments, attending Sate’a al-Husari public school is the dream of every Syrian student. Located in the centre of Damascus, it is one of the four rehabilitated schools in which Syria’s new curriculum was piloted last year.

Starting this academic year, new curricula were introduced to all public schools in the first, second, third, fourth, seventh and 10th grades. This is the first time since the 1970s that the primary and secondary school curricula have been changed in Syria. Modern and interactive, the new programme seeks to introduce computers and internet to Syrian classes for the first time.

However, insufficient training and equipment in Syrian schools have led many to criticise the ambitious new plans as unrealistic and unachievable.

Moving forward

The Ministry of Education composed the new curriculum by taking into consideration the psychological, intellectual, and behavioural needs of students, Abdul Hakim al-Hamad, the ministry’s manager of curriculum and supervision, said.

While the old curriculum was based on rote learning and spoon-feeding information to students, the new curriculum is based on active learning techniques, such as group work and interactive theatre. New books focus on team-based research activities and self-learning. This makes the new curriculum “not only easier to learn but also more fun,” Samar Sukkar, headmistress of Sate’a al-Husari, said, proudly showing off a magazine designed by her students.

Wafa’a el-Khen, a biology teacher said her job is now easier because she can download short educational videos, extra-curricular worksheets and handouts from the internet on his classroom computer.

Students at Sate’a al-Husari seemed equally excited about the new curriculum which they described as “easy” and “appealing”. Seventh grader Rasis said the interactive teaching methods make it easier to concentrate during class.

“With the new curriculum I have more chances to participate in class,” Rasis said. “I also find working in groups more engaging than working individually.”

Frustrated teachers

While teachers and students at the few rehabilitated schools applauded the new curriculum as “wonderful”, those at the country’s other, old-style schools said it was “hard” and “time consuming”.

Students at Saqer Quraish public school in Raqqa.

For example, while working in groups might seem like a great idea in a school equipped with light, movable chairs and desks, it is “hard to implement” when all you have are lines of “heavy schools desks,” said Marina haj-Mohammad, a mathematics teacher who used to teach at Nazir al-Hafez school in Zamalka. Haj-Mohammad now gives private classes to children who cannot cope with the new curriculum.

“Classes are only 45 minutes long. It’s impossible to have time to form groups and teach the class in such a short period,” haj-Mohammad said. “To do that, we need classes to be at least one-and-a-half hours long.”

Securing the necessary equipment is a challenge, in part because the government is not providing any but is rather relying on charities, such as the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), to donate it piecemeal. According to Mayada Salama, public relations coordinator at the DRC, her organisation has donated new computers to all Syrian schools, but only 31 out of Syria’s 24,000 schools have received mobile furniture from DRC. Reaching the rest of the schools will take more than five years, she said.

Large class sizes are an additional obstacle. With 40 and sometimes even 60 students studying in one class, working in groups is impossible. To save time, haj-Mohammad said teachers in her school only ask the children to work in groups when an inspector visits.

The Ministry of Education disputes the argument that implementing the new curriculum is difficult. Its curriculum manager Hamad argued that official statistics show that the average number of students in classrooms is close to international standards. According to Hamad, only 4 percent of classrooms have more than 40 students, while 96 percent of classrooms have fewer than 40 students.

“There should be no difficulty in applying the new curriculum,” he said. “The more students are in the classroom, the more interactivity and participation we will have. This encourages creativity.”

High technology illiteracy among Syrian teachers hinders the implementation of the new curriculum as well. Training on the new equipment was not included in the five-day course conducted by the Ministry of Education to instruct teachers on the new curriculum.

“Old teachers don’t know how to use modern equipment. This makes it hard for them to teach with the new methods,” haj-Mohammad said.

DRC’s Salama does not believe there is any real impediment for teachers to adopt the new curriculum other than inflexibility by some who are resistant to change.

“The content of the new curriculum is the same as the old one. What has changed is the method of teaching it,” she said. “But some older teachers want to keep on teaching the same way they have been doing for the last 30 years. They don’t want to make any effort to learn the new methods.”

Parental opposition

Many families are concerned by the changes to the curriculum. Parents said they worry about their children’s health now that there are more books to carry.

“This curriculum is designed for well-equipped, European-style schools in which students have their own drawers at school to keep their books. We don’t have that,” Um Muhammad, a parent from rural Qudssia, said. “With the new curriculum, my children now have to carry three books for each class. Their bags are too heavy and I am worried it will damage their bodies.”

Parents also complain that the new curriculum is even more demanding on students than the old one. This is making it difficult for teachers to finish the curriculum in time and putting pressure on teachers, students and families.

“My son’s teacher failed to finish teaching the curriculum by the end of the semester. Now parents like me are forced to pay for private classes,” Um Muhammad complained. “But it is too expensive. My elder daughter is helping him with his studies. I don’t know anyone in our neighbourhood who can afford a private teacher.”

To cope with the curriculum, the ministry is planning to makes classes longer. It has also started to teach the curriculum via television and has organised talk shows with teachers and representatives from the Ministry of Education to answer parents’ inquiries.

Every evening, Um Muhammad nervously follows the TV programmes that Syria’s educational public channel broadcasts to introduce the new curriculum.

“In one episode, an official from the education sector said we should be patient because ‘it will take five years to upgrade the infrastructure for the new curriculum to be properly implemented’,” she said. “Why did he decide to sacrifice my children? Why didn’t they wait until Syria has the infrastructure and then implement their new curriculum?”

Syria Today used only first names for students and parents who wished to remain anonymous.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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