Some L.A. Unified teachers recently finished a weekend workshop about one of the key issues of our time: Islam and the Arab world.
Coffee cups in hand at eight in the morning, teachers stepped out of the ninth floor elevators at the teachers’ union building on Wilshire Boulevard. High school teacher Alexa Darrin signed up to earn a salary point toward a raise – and because she’s intrigued with the topic. "I just think it’s really relevant right now, and so, I don’t know much, I guess, about Islam and that part of the world," she said.
Social studies teacher Jim McDaniels knows quite a bit about the Arab World. He teaches inquisitive seventh graders about the clash between the Christian and Muslim worlds during the Crusades. "They ask me about Mohammed and his life, they ask about the different books of Islam. They ask me, ‘Is it true that Mohammed was visited by the angel Gabriel?’ They ask me all these questions; I don’t quite know how to answer them. I answer them as a teacher who’s read a lot of books," McDaniels said, but not as someone who can explain the nuances of the culture and history.
The L.A. chapter of the nearly century-old pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation organizes the annual teachers’ workshop on the Arab world. In two eight-hour classes, teachers learned about women in Islam, the nation of Libya and music.
The first session was an icebreaker and a lesson about what most participants didn’t know. Organizers grouped teachers into fours and handed everyone a sheet of paper with a map of the Middle East with the names of the countries blacked out. Yes – a geography pop quiz.
"I have no idea. I don’t know anything about the Middle East, at all. This map is very weird to me," said middle school teacher Nora Zaragoza as her colleagues picked up the slack. The big country’s Saudi Arabia, one said. The one to the left of the canal is Egypt, another added. They were clueless about a few.
Shakeel Syed wasn’t surprised. The Muslim from India, who immigrated to this country 25 years ago, helped organize the workshop. "I have great empathy for these teachers because they are not being given adequate time by the state to educate themselves about what they are teaching," he said.
That’s compounded by a near-cultural vacuum in many neighborhoods. Many students grow up in homogenous, Latino immigrant neighborhoods, such as the Pico Union area, where Mohammed Choudhry teaches, a very different area from that of his alma mater, Fairfax High School.
Choudhry said he’s often the first Muslim his students have ever met. That’s probably why some have yelled “terrorist” at him in the corridors.
"Do I lash out and get really angry, no. They’re a product of what they’ve been exposed to, you know. And frankly, what they’ve been exposed to is a lot of ignorant things," Choudhry said.
The organizers of this teacher professional development workshop said they want to replace myths and fallacies about the Arab world and Islam with objective information about the region’s religion, culture and geopolitics. They want these teachers to spread what they’ve learned to others.
"For Israel on May 15, they celebrate their independence and their declaration of statehood," said Tony Litwinko during his lecture about refugees in the Arab World. "For Palestinians, they don’t celebrate but they memorialize what is called 'al-Nakba,' or 'the disaster.'"
For some teachers this is new, eye-opening information. For others, like high school English teacher Melissa Mazzei, it’s one side of a complicated story. "I’m not the only one in there that thinks the presentation is biased," Mazzei told class organizers outside the class during a break.
Jordan Elgrably, a supporter of the teacher workshop, works for the Levantine Cultural Center. "She says she’s Jewish so she feels she has to defend her side of the story. It is always a question of competing narratives," he said.
Earlier this year a Gallup Poll indicated that 43 percent of Americans feel some prejudice toward Muslims. Organizers of this teacher workshop said they’re not spreading propaganda – they’re challenging the widespread absence of information about Muslims and the Arab world.