“For your generation, the Middle East has always been background music,” Professor of History and Faculty Affiliate in Leadership Studies and Religion Magnus Bernhardsson, who specializes in Middle Eastern history and culture says.
Our generation grew up learning of the Middle East through its conflicts: First it was the home of our nation’s enemies in a post-9/11 world; then, the Arab Spring showed us a region aspiring toward Democratic rule and now the recent upheaval with ISIS has created a portrayal of a land of refugees and terrorists. With each story, American (mis)conceptions of the Middle East have grown stronger.
“The Modern Middle East” is an interdisciplinary course taught by Bernhardsson that aims to correct these misconceptions. Bernhardsson explained, “I want to raise awareness and understand the region on its own terms. I want you to be educated citizens.” His course studies the Middle East’s history and culture, Western views of it and its citizens’ views of the West to help students understand both the region and the forces that distort our understanding of it. Bernhardsson believes that personal experience with the Middle East is instrumental to gaining a strong understanding of the region and its culture. To achieve this, his course connects his students with Egyptian students in an American Studies course at the American University in Cairo through three video-conference lectures, the first of which was on Sept. 21.
Bernhardsson began using these cross-cultural interactions as a teaching tool 15 years ago, while he was an assistant professor at Hofstra. There, he began a pen pal system between his students and students at the American University of Beirut, which was followed by a class where his students used a wiki to co-write papers with students from Tel Aviv University in Israel. In the early 2000s, video started to become a much more viable option, and his students began interacting face-to-face with a classroom across the globe.
Bernhardsson has seen many changes over the past decade as the Middle East has evolved and tested its relationship with the Western world. In its society, the veil has all but disappeared, and Egyptian nationalism has seen a meteoric rise after the Arab Spring. He also remarked, “Egyptian students had never been so positive about America,” comparing the videoconference on Sept. 21 to those of years past. The Egyptian students said that they saw America as a place with a variety of different origins, backgrounds and opinions, where “people have a greater sense of individuality” and are encouraged to adopt a “unique identity.”
Students in the class also shared Bernhardsson’s surprise about some aspects of Middle Eastern culture or everyday life in Egypt. Students at the College and Egyptian students alike approach their courses with incredibly diverse views about the other world. Jon Ball ’17 is an Arabic and political economy double major who has already had a few immersive experiences with the Arabic language and Middle Eastern culture, yet he says that the class is still connecting him with much more potent perspectives on the Middle East and American perceptions of it. “That’s what’s cool about group activities,” Ball said. “We get to share our knowledge. I think everyone is very positive – plus [Bernhardsson] is great on the podium.” Between the videoconferences, a class blog where students ask and answer questions about their perceptions of Middle Eastern culture and Bernhardsson’s focus on problems with perceptions alongside the history, students on both sides are challenged to confront their beliefs about their world and the lives of students across the globe throughout their studies.
Bernhardsson also combats misconceptions and ignored issues in his academic work; his current project, a book called History be Dammed, covers the often-unreported loss of Middle Eastern cultural sites to dam building and hydroelectric projects. Despite the troubles plaguing the Middle East and American perceptions of the region, for Bernhardsson, the future remains bright. “As time goes on, more and more people will have had more exposure to the Middle East,” he said, believing that this exposure will result in his future students having more realistic preconceptions and interest in the region. Above all else, Bernhardsson said, “I’m hoping that this will create more willingness to learn and more understanding with my students.”