‘The Middle East’.
The first thoughts that came to mind were words like ‘Islam’, ‘chaos’, ‘belly-dancing’. It sounded complex. It sounded exciting. It sounded like the kind of enrichment I would look forward to every Monday morning.
There were a number of particularly memorable activities that took place through the year, one of which was the belly-dancing lesson. The dance teacher did more dancing than talking (which was a plus point) since she danced fantastically; it was safe to say that we were all awed by her gracefulness and poise. Everyone had a chance to attempt some moves, and even a routine of sorts, to cool Arabian music (note the distinction, ‘Arabic’ is a noun referring to the language, while ‘Arabian’ is the adjective).
Arabic lessons were a regular part of the curriculum for the programme, about once or twice every term. These lessons were peppered with stories about the teacher’s adventures in the Middle East, and how the Arabs would be amazed at his ability to speak Arabic. For most of us, these stories livened up the lesson, since it could get dreary repeating Arabic phrases again and again. Yet it was all in good fun and at least exposed us to the language. Elements of culture are often found reflected in the language of the nation or region. How is one supposed to appreciate the culture of the Middle East if we are unable to appreciate the language? Arabic lessons were definitely part of the more appealing and stimulating sessions held throughout the programme.
Not to say that the other sessions were boring or very disappointing – the talks by the various speakers dealt with highly pertinent topics for the Middle East today. I remember distinctly the talk on Political Islam. It was rich in content, providing us with in-depth background information on the Middle East, on how much of the region was ruled by the Caliphate before being dismantled sometime after a few hundred years of Golden Age (then again, I could be wrong about the timespan). The information has proved useful for both General Paper essay questions on politics, as well as the International History syllabus on religious fundamentalism. A lot of content is offered, and speakers try to give a good overview of the topic.
What I personally found unsatisfactory about the talks was how they were broad overviews, and did not focus on specific issues such as the role of religion in the various Arab states, be it in politics or in the society. Where religion was mentioned, they only discussed the role of Islam, ignoring the conflicts that have arose due to the presence of Jewish and Christian communities.
Furthermore, the meaty bits of information were only covered during the question-and-answer session held after the talk. Sometimes, the overviews covered information that we already knew, and it would be easy to tune out, especially if the speaker that day was merely reading off the slides.
In retrospect, I admit I was not the most proactive student. I did my regular reading up each week on the topic for the next, but I never did ask questions even if I had them. It was the same students each week that contributed to the question-and-answer segment at the end of each talk. It probably is the same few students who have an innate thirst for learning, who already have a burning interest for the Middle East. And I believe they came away each week, achieving their aims, having their questions answered, and gaining a few bits of knowledge that might come in useful for their General Paper. I simply was not one of those students. I went for the programme because I expected to be engaged, and not to engage.
Thing is, the Raffles Middle East Programme is not for students who wish to be engaged by the speakers. The talks are generally comprehensive in nature, and similar to the usual academic lectures, the speakers do not care if you pay attention. In the end, you have to take ownership over your own learning. How much you are willing to give, determines how much you take away from the programme.
Ultimately, the Raffles Middle East Programme welcomes students who already have deep interests in the Middle East, and who are willing to find out more on their own, to take charge of their own learning and be proactive about achieving their learning aims. The rewards it offers come only with diligence and a willingness to think critically and challenge the speaker with provocative questions. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone, because the programme is not for the timid or the lazy.