"Technology" and "God." Those were words that used to pop out at me over and over again in the compositions written by my Egyptian students in the late 1970s.
And those words, I learned, reflected the dichotomy in Middle Eastern attitudes toward the West: the envy of America's military and entertainment industries on the one hand; and, on the other, a deep distrust of anything that threatened to tear at the roots of my students' monotheistic -- and mostly Islamic -- culture.
These were the spontaneous thoughts of students at the American University in Cairo -- ones they shared as freely with their Egyptian teachers as with me, an American. Every time I think back to those classes, where students openly grappled with their concern about how much Western influence their culture could absorb, the more certain I become that education is perhaps our greatest export, just as the students who flock to this country each year are among our most valuable imports. Yes, we probably need to monitor our student visa programs more closely, as some members of Congress have recently argued, but I'm convinced that among the most important things we can do as we recover from the shock of the terrorist attacks is to keep our doors open to foreign students and to bolster our educational systems overseas.
I speak from experience -- and not always happy experience. I've been part of international educational exchange programs for almost half a century, first as a student, later as a teacher and now as coordinator of the Visiting Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program for Southern California. And I understand the challenges. Eighteen years ago last week, I experienced my own Sept. 11 when my husband, Malcolm, then president of the American University of Beirut, was assassinated. He was shot just outside his office by two unidentified gunmen. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for his death.
The Sept. 11 attacks brought back all too clearly the feelings of numbness and disbelief my family and I experienced then. But I was also overcome with feelings of frustration. "Why hasn't our country learned to open its eyes to the world around us?" I cried out to the walls of my house as I listened to the reports of the attacks. The perception of America's arrogance, its oil greed and its favoritism toward Israel already existed in 1984. Why haven't we done more to put forth the best that America has to offer -- our democratic ideals, our liberty and tolerance, our optimism and, above all, our commitment to education for all? These are the reasons people want to immigrate to this country.
Of course sinister, fanatical people were behind the attacks on our country, just as they were behind Malcolm's death, but what are they feeding off of -- where is the wellspring of their support? And what can we do to quell it?
The answers are not easy. But one of the ways we can build greater understanding among nations is by exposing individuals to foreign ideas. That concept was recognized after World War II by Sen. J. William Fulbright, the Arkansas Democrat whose 1946 legislation launched the academic and cultural exchange program I now work for. "Mankind's capacity for decent behavior seems to vary directly with our perception of others as individual humans with human motives and feelings," wrote Fulbright, who died in 1995. "Whereas our capacity for barbarism seems related to our perception of an adversary in abstract terms."
I discovered the dynamism of international education for myself in 1954 when I arrived at the American University of Beirut on my junior year abroad. Even as a 20-year-old, impressed by the campus setting, with its cypress and jacaranda trees above the Mediterranean, I recognized the continuing importance of the ideals on which missionaries and scholars had founded the American University almost a century before -- the value of open intellectual discourse and tolerance. And I began to recognize their personal impact on me. The success of the university's larger endeavor could be measured by the fact that at the signing of the United Nations Charter in 1945, 19 former students were delegates; the success of its educational mission lay not only in the excitement I experienced in becoming immersed in a new culture, but in the process of coming to think more reflectively about my own.
It was there that I met Malcolm, then a budding scholar of the Middle East, and began a life that has been almost continuously involved in educational exchange as the two of us shuttled with our four children between our home in California and sabbaticals in Lebanon, Egypt, France, Tunisia and England. At UCLA, along with his American students, Malcolm taught graduate students from the Arab world and Israel, hoping always that a way would be found for Palestinian-Israeli peace, always believing that the key to greater understanding might eventually emerge from the sorts of open discussion he fostered in his classes.
I don't mean to sound overly idealistic. For someone who teaches in the Middle East, politics is never far outside the classroom door. That came home to me in 1982, when Malcolm became president of the American University of Beirut. We were betting on an end to the seven-year civil war with the frantic shuttle diplomacy, the resulting transfer of the Palestine Liberation Organization's headquarters from Beirut to Tunis and the Reagan administration's aid to Lebanon. We thought we could make a difference. But Lebanon's problems could not be solved so neatly in the world that we had just begun to call the global village.
Teaching English at the American University in Cairo after Malcolm's death, I began a regular practice of inviting American students studying there to visit my classes for an exchange of ideas with my Egyptian students. The questions became predictable. "Why do American parents push their children out of the house at age 18?" one Egyptian student asked. Another followed up, "Why don't Americans believe in God?" The American students wondered in turn, "Why do Egyptian kids live at home until they marry?" "Why do women have so little freedom?" I'm not sure that either group ever got a satisfactory answer to those questions, or whether it was even possible to do so. But whenever students came away talking about how difficult it was to explain one's own culture, how rooted we all are in our own backgrounds, I believed the class had been successful. I hoped they would always carry that experience with them.
It is experience that we try to offer the hundred or so foreign professors, graduate students and high school teachers who come to work at universities and public schools from Santa Barbara to San Diego on Fulbright grants; and it is that experience we hope the Americans who go overseas will gain. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the challenges are all the greater. Some Americans naturally worry about the presence of foreigners in our midst, particularly those from the Middle East.
A case in point was the arrival at the end of September of a Yemeni historian of Islamic art and architecture, Mohammed al-Arwosi, who was coming to work in UCLA's Center for Near East Studies. Would he make it through the airports safely, I wondered when I heard he was coming. How would a Yemeni find an apartment to rent only a few weeks after our country had been attacked by Arabs?
I invited him to stay at my house while he was becoming acclimated. The first day, I learned, Mohammed walked into town to buy a phone card to call his family in Yemen. "Did anyone ask you where you were from?" I queried. "Oh yes," he replied with a twinkle in his eye, "but I told them I was from Tahiti!" That weekend Mohammed went to church with me, where he was a great hit with the Episcopalian parishioners. "I like to worship God in all different ways," Mohammed told them. "Islam is a tolerant faith." We later found him a room in the apartment of a 95-year-old widower -- and I watched the two of them adjust to each other's habits.
Mohammed will go back to Yemen this month to visit his family and then return in the spring to lecture around the United States. "I have a completely different idea of the United States than before I came," he told me a few days ago. There's more to this country, he knows, than our technology; he's experienced a different way to worship God.
Like Mohammed, many of the young men and women who profit from these academic and cultural exchanges talk about how the experience changed them. "Basically Malcolm believed that one person can make a difference," I remember telling reporters after he died. That's where the value of these international exchange programs lies.
Ann Kerr, who coordinates the Visiting Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program in southern California, lectures frequently on the Middle East. She is the author of "Come with Me From Lebanon: An American Family Odyssey" (Syracuse).
With permission by The Washington Post Company
Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2002
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